Urban fly fishing has been something of a craze in the UK recently, in large part thanks to Theo Pike’s book "Trout in Dirty Places". Of course, it wouldn’t be possible if British rivers were not the cleanest they have been in decades, if not centuries. Trout and grayling have returned to many city centres across the country and there is a pleasing incongruity about this. You just do not expect to see or find salmonids amongst litter and waste and human design. In the case of the River Don in the centre of Sheffield, I discovered that trout and grayling are present in very healthy numbers. It was here that I experienced my first taste of urban fly fishing, walled in by pre-industrial brick and post-industrial modern glass, a Holiday Inn and busy road bridges. The sounds of general human commotion were never far away but momentarily forgotten when watching olives and caddis lift from the water or when a trout or grayling would take the fly.
I came across a delightful quote in George Orwell’s 1937 book "The Road to Wigan Pier". Clearly, Orwell was no fan of Sheffield! It does provide an insight into the sights, sounds and squalor of industrial Sheffield, the "Steel City", including a brief mention of a city centre river.
"But even Wigan is beautiful compared with Sheffield. Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World: its inhabitants, who want it to be pre-eminent in everything, very likely do make that claim for it. It has a population of half a million and it contains fewer decent buildings than the average East Anglian village of five hundred. And the stench! If at rare moments you stop smelling sulphur it is because you have begun smelling gas. Even the shallow river that runs through the town is-usually bright yellow with some chemical or other. Once I halted in the street and counted the factory chimneys I could see; there were thirty-three of them, but there would have been far more if the air had not been obscured by smoke. One scene especially lingers in my mind. A frightful patch of waste ground (somehow, up there, a patch of waste ground attains a squalor that would be impossible even in London) trampled bare of grass and littered with newspapers and old saucepans. To the right an isolated row of gaunt four-roomed houses, dark red, blackened by smoke. To the left an interminable vista of factory chimneys, chimney beyond chimney, fading away into a dim blackish haze. Behind me a railway embankment made of the slag from furnaces. In front, across the patch of waste ground, a cubical building of red and yellow brick, with the sign ‘Thomas Grocock, Haulage Contractor’."
Today, you couldn’t imagine a more different picture of the river (and the city) from that described by Orwell. I was immediately surprised by the water’s clarity. The only evidence I could see of an industrial past were two large mill stones wedged in the river bed and, in places, ochre from mining activities. I was even more surprised to see fish rising! Despite being canalised the presence of large boulders mid stream, wild flowers, ubiquitous bank side nettles and a small island lent the river a hint of a natural feel.
Thanks to a Monnow Rivers Association auction lot win, I was accompanied and guided by Dr Paul Gaskell, Sheffield resident and Wild Trout Trust employee. Paul is a very knowledgeable angler and it’s fair to say I learnt a great deal on my visit. Paul is also a tenkara fanatic and I was really interested to see this method in action. The presentational advantages of tenkara were very quickly apparent.
We entered the river at 10.30am to grey skies and a few drops of rain. Fortunately the rain held off for the day but I noticed a few storm drains discharging surface water into the river. One or two fish were rising and my second cast with a small black klinkhamer brought a good sized grayling to the surface and to the net. A delivery truck driver nonchalantly watched the action from the top of the brick embankment. A jogger ran past without a sideways glance. Otherwise life in the city carried on as normal.
Fish continued to rise sporadically and when the klinkhamer failed to elicit further interest I changed patterns to one of Paul’s self tied olive emergers. The change in pattern soon worked and I brought a couple more grayling and a broad shouldered trout of about 13 inches to Paul’s circular tenkara net. The fish, and the trout in particular, had clearly been feeding well suggesting the Don has a healthy invertebrate menu on offer. Every now and again a passer-by would shout out “have you caught anything?” or “can you eat fish from this river?” One gentleman with a thick Yorkshire accent said “when I was a boy there was nowt in here.” He watched as I tempted two trout to take a small bead headed pheasant tail nymph from a delightfully “trouty” looking run.
In the afternoon we moved to a small peaty tributary of the Don, no more than a 10 minute drive from the city centre. A small stream shrouded by trees and within a ravine, the sounds of traffic and people were soon forgotten. Even here, away from the city centre, we came across the signs of an industrial past - an artificial pond above the river, previously used to power a mill. A few splashy rises signalled the presence of mayfly and I soon hooked a dark coloured, peat-stained trout of about 9 inches on one of Paul’s mayfly patterns. Paul caught a perch, his first from this stream. I realised rather wistfully that these were probably the last mayfly I will see this year. We fished up the small stream until 4.30pm again learning a lot from Paul who was happy to show me a few tricks. I landed another trout on an olive paradun pattern and lost two which took the nymph, before we called it a day.
I normally go fishing to get away from the city and human commotion so I didn’t really know what to expect. I was in truth pleasantly surprised by my urban fishing experience. It’s great to see these once abused rivers now clean enough to sustain trout again.