Cod Beck

Sowerby Angling Society controls about 4 and half miles of the Cod Beck downstream of Thirsk.  To tell us more John Aston, author of two fishing books and regular columnist for Trout and Salmon, has kindly penned a few words.


By John Aston, July 2012

There are many becks in North Yorkshire, and most of them are upland streams – rocky, shallow, infertile and populated by lots of small trout.  The Cod Beck doesn’t conform to the stereotype, except for its first few miles as it tumbles down from Osmotherley to the vale below.  Because most of the beck is a shining example of an endangered habitat in England – the lowland trout stream.  This isn’t the typical north country stream, not the sort of place you would fish a team of spider patterns through a rocky pool or where you would pitch a Czech nymph into a peat stained run.  The Cod Beck angler is far more likely to be fishing a pheasant tail nymph or an Adam’s dry fly upstream, because the beck has far more in common with the type of water you would find in the Cotswolds or even the Welsh Borders than the hard as nails trout streams of the high Pennines.

The beck is a major tributary of the River Swale, joining it near Topcliffe, famed for its big chub and barbel.  The Swale is reputedly England’s fastest flowing river, rising in the Pennines above the village of Keld and joining the River Ure after flowing west, and then south for over 70 miles.  The Cod Beck may flow into a Dales river, but it is born on the North York Moors and for much of its 23 mile course runs through farmland in the Vale of Mowbray.  Bradley’s Yorkshire Anglers’ Guide said “Codbeck (sic) is a very good angling stream; holding some large trout and being fishable from source to mouth.  Thirsk is the best centre”.  That was true in 1894 and it is still true now.

Sowerby Angling Society’s waters start in the town of Thirsk itself and run due south for a distance of about three miles.  At one point the beck is crossed by the busy A19 and our downstream limit is punctuated by the bridge carrying the East Coast main line.  But the beck doesn’t allow modern life to spoil its character, because even in Thirsk itself kingfishers and dippers are common, and otters are regularly spotted by disbelieving tourists following the James Herriot pilgrimage.  The beck has some fast water, narrow gravelly runs which are well oxygenated and garlanded by ranunculus weed but more typically its pools are stately, flowing silently between overgrown banks.  Some stretches are relatively open, with swathes of wild flowers in the springtime (and the less welcome Himalayan balsam in summer) whereas other parts of the beck run through green tunnels of alder and willow where the banks are covered in sweet-smelling wild garlic in the spring months.

The beck is rarely more than five yards wide, often half that and most of the pools are easily negotiable in chest waders.  Not all though – there are some much deeper pools which are almost impossible to fish well.  The banks are steep, as  the beck runs 6-10 feet below the level of the fields – but the current is gentle and the wading much easier – and safer – than in a rocky spate river.

So what about the fish?  The beck isn’t short of them, and has a sustainable population of wild brown trout which historically have been supplemented by some stock fish.  We hope to make the beck entirely self-sustaining, so as to preserve the strain of  wild fish we have and this objective is a work in progress in 2012.  It is not a beck for purists, because not only are there good numbers of grayling, there are also shoals of dace and chub, the latter running to 3 lbs and more and a worthy adversary on a light fly rod.  The grayling average 8-10 ozs and run to well over 1 lb but the trout are the real stars of the show.  Pound plus fish are not uncommon, two pounders are by no means unknown and my personal best fish was a couple of ounces shy of 3 lbs.  Not to be sneezed at, even on a £200 per day chalk stream, let alone a forgotten North Yorkshire beck.

Barbel are occasionally seen, as are perch, pike, eels and, in the early spring, spawning lamprey are a common sight.  We even have the odd migratory fish, because they are returning to Yorkshire in numbers for the first time since the Industrial Revolution.  A salmon was found a few years ago during a winter fishing match on a club stretch of the beck downstream of our water  and I even managed to catch a small sea trout during the 2008 season.

The beck’s insect life is good and we carry out regular invertebrate sampling to monitor the water’s health.  There are regular hatches of upwing flies from early spring; mayfly usually hatch in late May or early June and some years can be seen in huge numbers.  Again not quite what is normally expected from a northern stream.  We have a small, and diminishing population, of native white clawed crayfish; they are hugely outnumbered, sadly, by the invasive signal crayfish which are a common and very unwelcome sight on our waters.  The fish and otters certainly love to eat them but their effect on invertebrate life, and fry survival continues to be a concern for the Club.

A few words now about how to fish the beck, starting with tackle.  Chest waders are almost essential – you can fish some pools with thigh or waist waders but I guarantee it will only be a matter of time before you get wet.  Very wet, in fact.  Rods can be as short as six feet and should be no more than eight feet and have line ratings of three or four ideally.  You can get away with a two or three weight (except on a windy day) but a four is about right for most situations you are likely to encounter.  It is all floating line fishing and is invariably upstream work; it isn’t compulsory but because fishing downstream involves spooking most of the fish you want to catch an upstream approach is far better.  And beware making a bow wave as you wade – it is guaranteed to put down every fish in the pool!  Leaders should be as long as you can manage within reason; whilst eight feet is adequate, you will probably present a fly much better with a ten foot or even 12 foot leader if you can manage it – some hook ups on vegetation are inevitable regardless of the leader length – or at least they are for me …  Fluorocarbon or copolymer leaders are usually employed, typically in the 0.13 – 0.15 mm range (three to four pounds breaking strain in most brands, a little more in the expensive ones).  Like most fly fisherman I carry far too many patterns of fly and if I am brutally honest you only really need the following patterns to catch fish on the beck for 99% of the time.  Dry flies – Klinkhamers, Adams and CDC Olives 14-18; small gnats 18-20 and mayflies 8-10.  Nymphs – mayfly nymphs 10‑12, pheasant tail and GRHE nymphs (especially goldhead) 14-18 and shrimp patterns 12-14.  If you like chub fishing on a hot summer day then hoppers (10-12) can be very effective, as are woolly bugger lures (8-10).

Don’t burden yourself with too much gear as a morning on the beck will see you cover at least half a mile of water and possibly more.  Take a net large enough for a big fish and if you want us to believe how heavy your big trout was, take a spring balance and weigh the fish in the net.  We release 90% or more of our fish, and we use barbless or squeezed barb hooks only.  Fish welfare is very important to all members of SAS because we are custodians of a fragile and very important environment.

Don’t expect to spot fish as you would on a chalk stream, except when they are rising.  The beck usually carries a fair amount of colour and whilst you may encounter a shoal of chub and dace swimming past your waders, you need to rely on watercraft alone most of the time to work out where the fish are lying and what they are taking.  Keep on the move, don’t always assume that the little rise under the branch of the far bank is from a small fish – big beck fish are smart and love to lie in such places.  They fight dirty though – hook a big trout and it will be into alder roots before you know it.  On a good day you will catch a dozen trout, perhaps more.  And even on a bad day I guarantee that you will enjoy the peace and beauty of the beck – it is not spectacular like some spate rivers nor does it have the ethereal beauty of a chalk stream but what it does have is a subtle beauty and charm all of its own.

John Aston July 2012


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