It’s a London Thing
In 2019 I elected to fish as close to my South East London home as possible as a pregnant wife and a two year old meant that long drives to rivers and the coast every week were out. I assumed that in the short term my catch returns would be small as experimentation and trial and error were the order of the day. What transpired was in fact my most memorable year of fly fishing to date. That year showed me a slice of what the capital has to offer the open minded and motivated fly angler…… and unlike a lot of trout fishing in the UK it can be had for very little or no cost!
What’s species can be caught
If you’re a die hard salmonid-only fly angler who solely wants to catch wild fish then your only hope is the Wandle; more specifically the half mile of fishable water that has a high enough concentration to make targeting the wild browns that exist there viable. If you broaden it out to stocked trout then there are three stillwaters within London’s metropolitan borders (Hayes Trout Farm in South London, Walthamstow Fisheries in the East and Syon Park to the West). The Thames does get an annual sea trout and salmon run although the numbers are so low that it would be a waste of time to specifically target them. Nevertheless captures of both species are occasionally recorded by bait and lure anglers, and from surprising places like the old shipping docks in Canary Wharf in the east of the city!
For those reading this outside of the UK, here, freshwater fish are divided into two categories, game and coarse fish. The former includes all fish in the salmon family bar the grayling which is technically a coarse. The latter encompasses various fish families such as catfish, cyprinids, perciforms (perch and ruffe) and pike. Salmonids (grayling excluded) spawn during the winter and unless they’re stocked in stillwaters then fishing is prohibited for wild fish throughout that season. Coarse fish spawn during the spring/early summer months. Fishing is prohibited on rivers between March 15th and June 15th, however on canals and many stillwaters there is no ‘close’ season.
The main coarse species found in London are roach, rudd, carp, bream, perch and pike with the addition of barbel, dace and chub in rivers. In isolated locations there are zander (a relative of the walleye for our American cousins) and wels catfish. In London you’re never too far from somewhere containing at least some of these species, many of which often grow to very respectable sizes. The fishing is cheap or free and local proximity means after work or short sessions are possible for those on limited time or who like to fish as often as possible.
Factors to think about when scouting venues
With very few fly anglers regularly fishing outside of the well trodden venues such as the Wandle a frontier mentality is required to boldly go where very few other fly anglers have gone before! Cue curious looks from bait anglers, water with the clarity of pea soup and frustration after journeying to a potential new spot only to find that there is no space for casting!
So the name of the game is to keep an open mind, be unafraid and motivated to try/look at new venues and go with high hopes but low expectations. Nevertheless, the rewards are there to be had as hopefully the next few paragraphs and images will demonstrate!
This type of water body represents the most frequently encountered in London. Fishing rights for those that permit angling will either be under a club or a local authority (either free or a cheap ticket). The main challenges are finding locations with clear water and ample and safe casting space.
Last year I decided to recce a deep dock in East London during an afternoon carp session. I was aware that it had a good head of carp and was hoping that on this hot day they would be visible in the upper layers. This was important as it has depths in excess of 25ft. After doing a couple of laps of the dock I spotted some dark shapes in the shallowest part – which appeared to be an old boat ramp. I cast out a white fly, which slowly sank into the murky green water. I noticed a fish move towards the fly and bolt a split second later – somehow it had almost hooked itself without me tightening the line. The fish (below) was a lovely dark scaley mirror probably around 18lbs in weight.
Only north of the river does London have a true canal network which includes the Regent’s and Grand Union canals. To this we can add the River Lea Navigation as its form and usage mirror a canal’s. Much of the canal system has clear water, although duckweed blooms occasionally overrun some sections. The main challenges here are foot and cycle traffic (having to be mindful when casting), lack of casting space and uneven spread of fish populations. From personal experience it is perch which represent the most bountiful species to target and after wasting several weeks of my life attempting to target larger ones I’d recommend scaling down ambitions. Good reliable sport can be had catching ‘wasps’.
Pike are also to be found but from personal experience productive spots are often limited to a handful of small areas where the planets align (underwater/bankside structure and adequate casting space). The first pike I landed on the fly was from a small area of the Regent’s Canal in Mile End, East London. This area featured a large reedbed and a slight widening of the canal channel. I landed three fish in total over some ten sessions during winter of 2014 – all from that one small area and after fishing a couple of miles of canal through East London.
To fish the canals and River Lea Navigation from Tottenham Lock to the Thames a Waterways Wonderer Permit must be purchased from the Canal and Rivers Trust for £20.
Rivers, Streams and Brooks
Between 2017 and 2019 I was employed by a waterways conservation charity that focused primarily on river restoration. My job took me to various small streams across London so whilst I didn’t fish them I was able to see the fishing opportunities that many presented. The city has a fair number of such small streams with dace and chub being the main targets. For example the Salmon’s Brook runs through NE London and where I spotted reasonably large chub in a particularly grotty section of river next to Churchfield Recreation Ground in Enfield. The Wandle has a sister chalkstream in South West London where I have also spotted large chub and which author and conservationist Theo Pike wrote about his experiences fishing as published on his website
Moving SE there is another chalkstream called the River Cray which contains roach, perch, chub and dace and used to have brown trout before human settlement, water abstraction and pollution extirpated them. Interestingly while attending a Riverfly Monitoring training programme with the London Zoological Society we found several mayfly nymphs showing that the river is in good health, although low flows were still an issue.
Heading north west to Brunel University’s campus through which the River Pinn flows, roach, chub and a lone perch were spotted as I was heading in to use the laboratory facilities for work. And during my tenure at the charity I visited another small river called the Colne, once again located in the north west of the city. Here I spotted shoals of various coarse species.
I couldn’t end this blog without briefly mentioning saltwater fly fishing. The Thames does have saltwater species such as bass and mullet with the latter found well upstream in some of the tidal sections of tributaries. Although the water in the main river is heavily coloured there are locations where clearer water can be found, in fact some lure anglers catch bass in some of the docks connected to the river. Regarding mullet my one and only success of sorts was caught on a fly rod back in 2015, although I resorted to cheating by chumming with bread.
For those on a budget or who can’t always travel tens of miles, or who simply want to fish as much as possible London has a lot to offer. So why not investigate what’s possible in your local area, as they say nothing ventured nothing gained!