Colliford Lake Revisited

I travel a lot, though quite rarely to more exotic flyfishing destinations. A recent trip back to England had me packing the shortest 4 piece rod I own, along with 2 reels, my small ‘favourites’ box of flies, some tippet, floatant, and line cutters. It’s amazing what you can get it all down to when you have to meet the Eurotunnel luggage restrictions; the bureaucratic choke point for all luggage.

Once in England I got the official duties over with and organised a day ticket at Colliford Lake, a brown trout fishery on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. The moor is a scrubby bit of countryside frequented by ramblers; a landscape of marshes, peat bogs, gorse and heather, with granite tors; the tallest of which is called Brown Willy. I loved visiting and fishing this spot when I was much younger (and that name is still hilarious).

For Daphne du Maurier fans, the lake is a short drive from the late 18th century Jamaica Inn where du Maurier’s fictional character Jem lived his murderous life as a Cornish wrecker and smuggler. The inn is still there, along with the Smugglers Museum, a popular tourist attraction. Also close by is Dozmary Pool, true home of the Lady of the Lake and final resting place of King Arthur’s sword Excalibur – according to local legend. Nestled between the two is Colliford Lake, the water supply for the nearby town of Bodmin, population 15,000.

Colliford Lake

The Colliford Lake trout fishery is managed by the South West Lakes Trust, an independent charity set up to protect special places. It cares for over 40 inland waters in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset. Fourteen of these are trout fisheries, making up a significant regional tourist attraction The Trust has proven to be an excellent management model that produces great results.

Colliford is a very wild and appealing-looking piece of water.

Colliford has a surface area of 3.6 km2 with a shoreline of around 15 km. It has great character and a mix of habitats from shallow water flats, to deeper drop-offs, plenty of bays and inlets, and a dam wall. When I fished, it was late summer and the water level was about 55%, a bit lower than usual for the time of year. The shoreline was mostly sand, shale, and gravel and the low lake level meant it was some distance from the grassy banks. I didn’t need to wade to get to the fish or to avoid the shrubbery – which might be an issue in some places on a full lake. The bag limit is four fish and the minimum size limit is 7 inches! (I’m pleased to say the three trout I landed that day were all legal size!)

I chose the western bank to take advantage of the brisk north-westerly wind shearing along the shoreline and as I set up my rod I was quietly surrounded by curious and beautiful skewbald Bodmin Moor ponies. Hiding behind them, I felt they were a good camouflage for these very cautious moor lake fish. It wasn’t warm but I was comfortable with three layers, and on the two occasions when it decided to rain, I was dry again within half an hour. My advice to myself next time would be to carry a lightweight rain jacket. No doubt the volunteer rescue teams often called out to collect lost ramblers who climb Brown Willy in the wrong clothes, would give me the same advice.

The wild moor ponies are quite used to people.

The flies recommended by the Trust website for the lake are gold ribbed Hare’s Ear nymphs, sedge (caddis) patterns, Soldier Palmer, Hoppers and Bibios. Ignoring the website, I immediately tied on a small Black Woolly Bugger and put out a few casts into the shallow margins, carefully working in an arc, mixing up my retrieves, and putting extra care into fishing the drop and the hang. I watched the water for any sign of a fish and after nearly an hour I changed my single fly to a pair of size 16 midges (one black, one red) to match the size of those I had seen coming off the water. I also dropped my tippet from 3X to 4X.

I changed the retrieve to fishing mostly static drops with a slow figure-eight retrieve, watching the kinks in the line for any sign of a take. After another half an hour and a run up the bank to shelter from a deluge against a stone hedge, I changed flies again – this time to a Claret Carrot with a Scintilla Stick Caddis on the dropper. The day warmed up and I got into a rhythm. I was confident with these flies and really felt the water would liven up as the day progressed.

My first break for some water and half a Cornish pasty I’d rescued the night before, gave me the chance to really study the water from a little way up the bank. That’s when I spotted the first rise of the day. Well, more a leap really; a brownie that came at least a foot out of the water, followed by a suitably noisy belly flop. The crumbs were brushed off quickly and I got back on station, putting out a cast right into the zone. Next cast, a nice tap, the first definite enquiry of the day. Another two or three casts walking slowly along the bank, another tap, and then finally, a hook up with a magic aerial display, some nice runs, and finally into the net.

Fishing a water I hadn’t visited for nearly 40 years, at that moment I was back there, all those years ago. Nothing had changed at all – other than what I would have seen in a mirror, and old Taff running along the bank towards me with his big extendable net, puffing away on his pipe, and complaining about his gout. Snapping back to the present, I admired my nice little brown and the thought occurred that its markings were unusual; vaguely like a mackerel. When released it, it quickly disappeared against the myriad shapes of the shale-covered lakebed. Another example of the natural variation of brown trout markings in a species that’s amongst the most genetically-diverse in the world.

The unsual markings of Colliford brownies are a perfect match for the motley shale bottom.

This section of lakeshore was only 100 metres long, but it curved out towards a small headland and the prevailing wind obviously pushed debris and trout food in this direction. I quickly caught another smaller fish near a submerged log, and a third 25 metres further along – two to the stick caddis, one to the Carrot. By this stage, the shallows had warmed to around 16 degrees, and there were a few midge and caddis about. Later, I’d conclude this shore was the best I saw all day. But meanwhile, I was on a mission to get to the dam wall. An hour later, my lift arrived on time and I said goodbye to a great bit of water and probably for the last time. I headed to the Jamaica Inn for a late afternoon tea.

Bigwell Fishery

A few days later, I was recounting my great day on Colliford to my brother Rob when he announced he’d “like to have a bash”. Wonderful, I thought, recounting the three or four occasions in our lives when he’d made similar requests, and then attempted to demolish thousands of dollars’ worth of fly rod. After a bit of research I thought the safest bet was a trip to a private lake fishery. Mainly based on proximity, I chose Bigwell Fishery at Redbrook, near Monmouth in South Wales. When we got there, I had a déjà vu moment as I walked into the cabin and saw our host sitting behind the counter. “Can we get a couple of bacon and egg sandwiches please”, I asked. “Sure”, he said, “brown sauce with that”? I’d had a flash back to a visit more than a decade ago when we’d been offered a bacon and egg sandwich when we dodged into the cabin to escape some inclement weather.

A fellow angler trying not to overexert himself on Bigwell.

The fishing was great fun. Rob surprised me with his casting. Obviously, some of my haranguing on our previous attempts had stuck, and after a short refresher he could comfortably throw 10 metres of line, occasionally straightening the leader. Rob promptly got the jump on me with an early fish, and headed in for lunch in the lead. But after lunch, I spotted a few mayfly and soon surged ahead with a crafty fly change to a Shaving Brush; before I thought guiltily that I should also change his fly. The fish were big, several of them more than 5 lbs. They fought well and were at times so visible I was able to gauge their reaction to every fly change. Static fished flies accounted for every landed fish; those I hooked on stripped flies all broke me off. It wasn’t particularly challenging, but it was, I must admit, a lot of fun.

The moral of the story is always pack a travel rod, and your favourites box will cover most bases – or buying a couple of local flies will get you good intel.

South West Lakes Trust. A day ticket online for about $30 will allow you to fish Colliford and other Trust waters.

Bigwell Fishery. A day ticket for $40 (with lots of catch rule variations) can be purchased from the onsite cabin. Bookings by phone: 01600 772904 or email: info@bigwellflyfishery.co.uk