Clark Colman enjoys a short but memorable visit to one of his favourite Cumbrian hill tarns, Small Water, and meets a true Lakeland angling legend along the way.
“Difficult of access and often disappointing” was how the Where To Fish guide for 1961-2 wrote of Small Water, an 11-acre tarn above Mardale in what Lakeland guidebook writer Alfred Wainwright called “the Far Eastern Fells”. I’m sure the contributor to this veteran publication had his reasons for such condemnation but as my line pulled tight halfway through the retrieve, and the rod bent against the dash of a wild mountain brown trout, I couldn’t have disagreed more.
A Flying Visit
Regardless of the plump, lively fish that had snatched my fly, the dramatic scenery and atmosphere around Small Water was enough to render disappointment an impossibility. As to the difficulty of reaching the tarn, which lies at an altitude of just under 1,500 feet, I’m sure that by the time we’d returned to the cars, my companion for this short but memorable session had developed at least a degree of sympathy for the view expressed in my old book.
This was the second time in two days that I’d dragged TFF editor Andy Taylor into the high Cumbrian hills. With the memory of yesterday’s exertions still fresh in his mind and legs, Andy will be the first to admit that he was in no hurry to set out on yet another steep climb!
With plenty of trout and pictures already secured, along with changeable weather conditions and lengthy drives home looming, the plan we’d hatched over breakfast was simple. We’d drive up from our Kendal base to the Mardale Head car park and try some mountain stream fishing, while waiting for a sustained break in the weather that might give us a chance of the cover shot we were still after. If it came, we’d immediately strike out for Small Water before the clouds and rain descended again. If not, we’d carry on up the beck that runs down from the tarn into Haweswater for a little while longer before calling it a day.
A Familiar Face
As our Land Rovers picked their way through the driving rain, I wasn’t even sure whether we’d make it out of the car park. Still, we weren’t the only ones braving the wet weather and narrow, twisting roads in the hope of some sport to the fly. Another angler was already tackling up in a small lay-by near the Haweswater Hotel – no doubt intent on fooling a few of the better than average wild brownies that share their home in Mardale’s dramatic, moody reservoir with the occasional silvery schelly.
Tarn expert Terry Cousin shares his many years of knowledge of the Lake District waters
Taking your eyes off the road here can be risky even on a fine day, so I allowed myself only the merest glance to the left as I passed by, with Andy following close behind. There was something about the elderly chap’s face and attire – what little I saw of it – that seemed familiar, though at the time I was more concerned with road safety and reaching our destination than trying to remember where I’d seen him before!
Few vehicles had beaten us to Mardale Head that morning, and we were in two minds whether to applaud or pity the handful of hardy walkers setting off up the track into the fells. Even in the worst of weather conditions this rugged corner of Lakeland still has its charms, and with the rain still falling, Andy and I were perfectly content to sit in the front of his Freelander and put the game angling world to right, while watching white streaks of water streaming down the surrounding hillside ghylls, and dark clouds stalking over Harter Fell, High Street and the Nan Bield Pass. I thought of the other flyfisher we’d seen, and hoped that he too was taking shelter from the elements in the warm of his little white car.
Braving It On The Beck
Just as we were starting to contemplate heading for home, the rain eased off into a faint drizzle and an optimistic hint of blue sky appeared overhead.
“It’s now or never!” announced Andy, so we sprang from the car, grabbed our gear and headed off across a slippery wooden footbridge towards Mardale Beck – a boisterous, gin-clear watercourse of boulders, pockets and miniature falls below the nearby confluence of Blea Water and Small Water becks.
The many becks also offer some superb sport and are well worth a cast between fishing the tarns.
Such high-gradient upland streams are seldom if ever, fished today, with few now containing those four-to-the-pound pan fillers that once delighted anglers of yesteryear. While I already knew for a fact that there were still one or two trout to be had in Mardale Beck, the racing currents and low temperature (even in May these hill streams can still be icy to the touch) meant that however hungry they might be, tempting one wouldn’t be anything less than challenging.
After a few minutes’ worth of pocket picking with a fixed-line duo setup, the bushy Retirer Sedge on the dropper disappeared as it drifted below a bankside boulder. I’m sure many of us have experienced what followed, and there are few things more humbling to a fly angler than four or five inches of startled wild brownie hurtling through the air towards you on the strike!
I couldn’t help but beam with delight as I eased the size 16 barbless Copperhead Pheasant Tail Nymph from the corner of his mouth. His little spots were more orange than red, and they glowed like gemstones in the pale morning sunlight before the fish twisted out of my wetted hand and disappeared back into the tough, rough-and-tumble world from which, somehow, trout still manage to eke out an existence here.
Putting A Name To A Face
With dark clouds looming once again, Andy was keen to reach Small Water before it got too late, so I reluctantly forced myself away from the beck and prepared to move off. I had, however, left my waterproof map case in the car, so decided to jog back and recover it rather than risk my map getting soaked to pulp by any further rain.
In doing so, I discovered that the angler we’d encountered earlier had made his way down to the car park, and was now preparing to try his luck in the shallow, likely looking bay below it. He smiled warmly as I drew near, before asking where we were bound. When I explained that Small Water was our objective, as part of an assignment for a fly fishing magazine, he became even more interested.
“I know it well,” he said over a firm handshake. “My name’s Terry Cousin.”
It was then that I realised where I’d seen that wide-brimmed hat, spectacle cord and lean, outdoorsman’s face before. This was one of my all-time Lakeland angling heroes, whose newspaper articles and magazine contributions I’d read for years – but whom, until now, I’d seen only in photographs.
An all-round angler, vintage-tackle enthusiast, former River Eden bailiff, award-winning entomologist and conservationist, Terry’s also the veteran fishing columnist for the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald. His sage advice on all matters piscatorial, and dedicated work on the significance of river flies for anglers and running-water environments in general, have benefited many related organisations both locally and nationally – and in 2008 brought Terry Cousin a special award ‘in recognition of excellence and achievement’ from the Association of Rivers Trusts and the Salmon & Trout Association.
I was honoured when Terry agreed to appear with me in front of Andy’s camera. You’d struggle to better his knowledge of the fishing to be had on Cumbrian hill tarns, and with Small Water evidently one of his favourites, I could quite happily have stayed to reap the benefit of his wisdom on this and other venues all day.
However, with time running out for Andy and I, and the Haweswater trout awaiting Terry’s skilful attention, we said our goodbyes and parted company in the hope of meeting up again soon.
A Rewarding Climb
Whatever mood the Small Water brownies might be in, my day had already been well and truly enriched by a hill-stream fish and a true Lakeland angling legend. And there were, even more, delights to come when, after a steady climb up a well-defined track, we scrambled up the final, narrower section and caught our first glimpse of the tarn.
Surrounded by rocky, grassy slopes, and overshadowed by the dramatic Nan Bield Pass, its rippling and sun-dappled water was very welcome in photographic terms, and we soon had the potential cover shot we’d been hoping for. All we needed now was a trout or two; however, the cold water and bright, breezy conditions weren’t going to make this easy.
Cast-and-step tactics near the entrance of a feeder stream on the southwestern shoreline came up trumps for me. Ten minutes’ work with a 9ft 6in 6-wt rod, slow intermediate line, 16ft leader of 4lb fluorocarbon and two traditional wet flies spaced eight feet apart, produced a solid, lightning-fast tug from a plump, plucky fish with spots like a leopard. For once, it hadn’t preferred the size 14 Black and Peacock Spider on the point, instead opting for the flashier charms of a similarly sized Silver March Brown on the dropper.
Then it was my turn to go behind the lens as we negotiated our way round the rocky margins so that Andy could try his favoured area around another feeder on the shallower, shelving northeastern shore. His line, leader and flies had barely settled beyond the drop-off before our second, similarly sized, Small Water brownie was fighting for its freedom after pouncing on a black pearly Dabbler variant – also on the top dropper.
These heavily spotted fish are truly beautiful!
Our short but sweet second day in the Lake District mountains ended with a fairly quick descent back to the car park at Mardale Head – where, having caught two nice fish of his own on Haweswater, Terry Cousin was also packing up. Despite the aching legs, thumping heartbeat and dry throat he’d endured along the way, Andy had clearly been mesmerised by our hill stream and tarn adventures. As he bid goodbye to Terry and I, I’m sure that part of him wasn’t at all sure how easy it would be to return to stocked fisheries after the thrill and beauty of his first-ever tarn trout. I well remember having similar feelings over 20 years ago.
For my part, it had been good to revisit Small Water – if only for a little while. Every inch the classic Lakeland hill tarn, my experience had been rendered all the more memorable for meeting Terry Cousin, and I’ll certainly never forget his parting words to me before I too headed for home.
“I didn’t expect to meet another angler out here today,” said Terry after another good chat and a final handshake. “And I’ve certainly met a friend.” What more could I have asked for?