Streams of your Dreams

Appeared in January 2007 'Fly Fishing & Fly Tying' Magazine

If, like me, you started fishing as a small child on a little river catching tiny trout then the Passport Scheme water of the Wye & Usk Foundation will be a form of heaven. That’s not saying that the trout in its streams are all small; some are and some decidedly are not, but they are all wild and wonderful to behold.

There is something indescribably lovely about spending a day fishing the small tributaries that flow into the Wye. These streams can cast a spell on you. Part of the magic is the sheer beauty of the scenery: the Wye Valley is surely one of the most attractive parts of our island. Another ingredient is the intimacy of the surroundings. The brooks are on a human scale; 4 or at most 5 strides and you have crossed most of them, no need for Herculean feats of casting or wading here. These rivers flow through glorious woodland and lush pasture that presses hard up against the water. The streams keep their secrets from the casual visitor. The final element is a sense of stepping outside of time. Admittedly this last particular is reserved for those who began their fishing lives many years ago on rivers of a similar size. As you work your way upstream, the years slip away. The countryside looks the same now as it did when you were a child: bluebell woods and ancient hedgerows, old stone-built bridges and slate roofed barns. Memories can come flooding back of trout caught long ago. Even without conscious memory you may find yourself surrounded by an aura of happy contentment as you subliminally revisit a past stream of your dreams. To fish these tributaries of the Wye is to enter a timeless and bewitching world.

In case you think fishing these streams are just for reminiscing old codgers, nothing could be further from the truth. If you have never fished small rivers, normally pursue rainbows on reservoirs or usually wield a mighty salmon stick, the Passport waters of the Wye have something to offer. At its most basic they present a new challenge, a change and a chance to catch wild trout. More spiritually they offer sanctuary and peace in an ever more frenetic world.

The Passport Scheme has been running for 3 years. It is a major part of the Wye and Usk Foundation’s efforts to restore these two wonderful rivers. Behind the Scheme lies a great deal of work that has gone on for over a decade. Since 2002 that work has been known as the pHish project. The natty name represents the part of the project concerned with fighting the affects of acid rain and lowered pH. On the Upper Wye where acidification has been a serious problem, the spreading of lime has helped increase the pH. The insect life is returning to the streams and along with the increased food come the fish.

The key has been the effort to improve the tributaries. Riverside trees have been selectively removed to let in more light and so promote the productivity of the water. The banks have been fenced to protect them from grazing animals and allow bankside vegetation to grow. Freed from trampling hooves the stream has recut its riverbed and become deeper. There has been another advantage. The animals no longer enter the river to drink. This has stopped the clouds of sediment that used to clog the gravel of the spawning beds. In 2004 the Wild Trout Trust presented the Foundation with its Conservation Award, Professional Category, for the pHish project.

The result of the pHish project and its predecessors is better habitat and more food for fish. All these efforts have created wonderful fisheries where brown trout thrive. Whilst all the waters have wild trout and juvenile salmon, some streams have other fish species in addition. There is the chance to catch grayling on the Upper Wye, the Irfon, Ithon and lower Cammarch, and chub are to be found in several of the streams.

Each year the Foundation has offered more water and in 2006 there are over 100 kms available: -- more than enough to keep even the most demanding fly fisherman entertained and engaged. The streams that flow into the upper Wye are quite varied and it would be wrong to assume that they all fish the same way. Moreover they change their character through the season. The Irfon and Ithon are the biggest tributaries of the upper Wye and respectable rivers in their own rights. The Cammarch and Edw are more intimate and in places overgrown. Both rivers have sections that gently meander through meadows, whilst elsewhere they provide more challenging beats composed of riffles and pools under overhanging alders. The Clettwr is a series of small waterfalls and deep pools, for the most part set in a dramatic gorge. It’s perhaps more suited to mountain goats than fishermen, but if you think you might have some caprine chromosomes in your genes then it’s great fun.

So what do you need to fish in this Lilliputian paradise? The scheme operates by means of vouchers, each valued at £2.50. You can buy booklets of 5 or 10 vouchers. Each beat requires a number of vouchers, typically 3 or 4. Once you have your booklet you have the freedom to pick when and where you wish to fish. Before starting to fish you simply fill in the requisite number of vouchers and ‘post’ into a ‘letterbox’ (a few stretches have a slightly different procedure). Good maps of the beats, that show the locations of the boxes, are in the Passport Scheme brochure (see the box at the end of article to find out how to get your brochure). Each section has a place to park and a parked car acts a deterrent to other anglers which ensures that once you start fishing you will have your piece of fishing heaven to yourself. (Most beats are best fished by one or two anglers). Part of the magic of this kind of fishing comes from the fact that it is easy to go the whole day without seeing another soul, a rare privilege in an increasingly crowded world.

The tackle is straight forward. Apart from the Irfon and Ithon, where an 8’6” or 9’ 4/5 weight might best suit, a rod around 7 foot for a 3 or 4 weight is ideal. Leaders are best kept short unless you are an expert caster. In fact even if you are, there’s typically no need for a leader longer than 9 foot and often 7 ft is a more suitable length. On these small streams you will rarely need to make long casts, but you will be called to roll cast, flick flies and generally try to sniggle your trout from their lairs. The fly life varies from stream to stream so it’s not possible to give general advice about fly patterns. Dry flies and weighted nymphs both have their place in your flybox. Several rivers, and the Lynfi Dulas in particular, have good mayfly hatches in May and June, so do take a few Ephemera patterns. (The staff of the Foundation office are very helpful and can guide you on such matters once you know which stream you wish to fish– see details at end of article.) However do bring lots of flies as, if you are like me, you will catch many more trees than trout. And if you have the same attitude as I have to fly tying and fishing you will want to stock your fly box with patterns that are straight forward to tie. That way there’s less likely to be tears and curses disturbing the tranquillity of the Welsh countryside. The hooks are better if they are barbless as some of the Passport beats are catch and release only. (An added advantage I have found from bitter and frequent experience is that barbless hooks are easier to extract from cow parsley, nettles, ash trees, oak tress and several thousand other forms of vegetation.) Tippet to match the hook size and plenty of it. I’m not sure it pays to fish too fine, as you risk losing more flies in the foliage and might not be able to stop that special fish as it races for its sanctuary under the tree roots. Waders are essential on most beats. In places thigh waders are all that is needed, but chest waders can be an advantage. Breathable waders reduce that clammy feeling in the heat of summer but do beware brambles and barbwire fences or yet more Anglo-Saxon obscenities are likely to spoil the serenity of your stream of dreams. More important than the height of the waders or their material is the nature of the sole. Some streams have gravel bottoms and are easy to wade, but many have slick rocks, and felt soles preferably with studs are important if you’re to keep dry.

The secret, if there is one, lies not in the tackle but in your approach. The key to these passport waters is slowness. You need to move at the speed of a glacier. The world is in miniature: the stream, the rod and the distance you cast. You will be close to your quarry and to do this without frightening the fish you really must take your time. Most fish will be hooked 10 to 15 feet away. For those more used to still waters this is the hardest discipline to learn. Move slowly upstream and stop frequently to savour the surroundings, watch for any sign of fish, check for likely lies, plan to make just a few casts to your targeted spots to avoid the chance of spooking other fish in the pool. Many of the beats are several kilometres long. That amount of water should take all day to fish. Anything that reduces the chance of spooking these wild fish will work to your advantage. No bright colours, bling, or shiny dangly things on fishing vests. Side casting and keeping low will reduce the chances of your quarry seeing a flash of shiny rod or flick of fly line. It is disheartening to see a decent fish streaking off upstream, but it will happen on occasion even with the best laid plan. Some casts will go astray, a few fish will see you and you will not see others, but don’t worry for there are plenty of fish in these newly improved streams and the next pool has its own population and its own unique challenges.

The fish in many of the tributaries are typical wild brownies, around the half pound mark. But don’t be fooled, there are bigger fish. Each year fish over 2 pounds are caught and that is a true monster in this miniature world. Fish around the one pound mark are to be expected in a days fishing. Each stream has its own character. Some like the Lynfi Dulas flow over sandstone, have alkaline water and are rich in food and full of fish. Others like the upper Cammarch travel over poorer Silurian mudstone and consequently have less food and fewer fish. But those fish are surprisingly big.

There is something for everyone on the Passport Waters. So if you want to enjoy fishing as it used to be, fishing as you remember it from years gone by, or you just want a new challenge and a break from boobies, buzzers and blobs then get a Passport to fly fishing heaven and try a few days on the Wye’s many streams of dreams.

I’ve focused on the tributaries of the Wye. What about the Usk, the Monnow and the Arrow? Well as you might have already guessed, with so much water, I’m still happily working my way around the Wye catchment. Maybe next year I’ll find time to fish those tempting Usk tributaries, but by then the Foundation may well have even more Wye catchment water !


After many years of decline, there is real reason for optimism for the future of the Wye and Usk. The tributaries that have received attention have improved dramatically. The Wye and Usk Foundation plans to offer more water next year and expand its work of restoring the catchment and preserving the fisheries. That should mean even more delightful waters to test your skills on, and more wild fish on which to practice your stealthy approach.

An article this length can only be an introduction to the Passport Scheme. You can learn more about the work of the Foundation and the great variety of water available by visiting their website . The first step to trying your hand on the Passport Water is to read the Foundations’ brochure, ‘The Wye and Usk Passport’. This lists all the beats and gives helpful advice on each. You can obtain a copy by emailing the Foundation at or phoning the office in Builth Wells 01982-551-520. I would encourage you to talk to the genuinely helpful people in the Foundation Office. They’re rightly proud of their work and their beautiful rivers and streams and they want you to catch fish and enjoy yourself.

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