Fishing in the UK in December is not something most anglers give a second thought. But these people are missing out on a Cornish gem.
It felt decidedly odd to be packing the car with rods, reels and waders. It was December, the mercury barely above freezing, and most anglers across the UK had put thoughts of fresh-run salmon to the back of their minds. This, by all normal accounts, was the time for cartridge bags and shotguns; for last-minute Christmas shopping and too much mulled wine. But I still had the itch. Trips to Scotland through the summer and autumn months had proved less than fruitful – to put it lightly – and so on a quiet evening in November I scoured the internet for one last shot at the silver tourist.
Options were thin on the ground. But not without hope. The tonic to my wintery blues came in the way of a remote and beautiful corner of Cornwall: the River Camel. Winding a 25-mile course from the gentle uplands of Bodmin Moor into the Camel Estuary by the popular hub of Rock and Padstow, the system is one of the rare gems in the UK where the salmon fishing season runs into December – it closes on the 15th. A quick call was made to Rachel and Sam – the young, energetic couple at the helm of the family-run Butterwell Farm – and I was booked in, along with a willing friend who, despite being out of annual holiday, was more than happy to tell his boss he was bed-ridden with a sudden bout of man flu. (Disclaimer: if said boss is a Fieldsports reader, your employee is not the man in the images...)
Butterwell Farm has one mile of fishing on the lower Camel, a mile from the estuary, with 18 holding pools yielding a 10-year-average of 54 salmon and grilse and 111 sea trout. At its best when in spate, salmon generally show on the beat in July (although have been caught as early as May), and continue to come in off the tide through the rest of the season given the right conditions. Saying that, it’s not just the salmon that should hog the column inches here, as the night sea trout fishing is the stuff of legend. From June through to late September, decent numbers of sea trout can be expected, with a handful of double-figure behemoths hooked every year. Last season’s record was a fin-perfect 5-pounder, but there were whispers on the riverbank of a 12lb fish cripplingly lost at the net.
Pulling in beside the Kingfisher Cabin, we got our first glimpse of the river – the wooden new build is positioned on an isolated vantage point, just 30 metres from the water, with contemporary features and a log burner to warm the winter evenings. Although running extremely low, the draw of the Camel was as clear as the shallow glides visible from the balcony.
The river is no more than 20 metres wide throughout the Butterwell beat – in sections it shrinks to considerably less – with fast necks roiling into deep white-water pockets, smoothing out into transparent, gravel-bottomed flats. As we caught up with the owner, Sam, later that evening, he told us of quiet evenings sat spotting scores of fish as they cruised up through the thin channels. Stealth, especially in low water, is a necessary art on the Camel.
We whipped rod sections together in a hurry and marched to the head of the beat, high on the thought of hooking a fresh salmon in December – not a stale, red brute bearing an angry kype and saggy shoulders, but a genuine fresh-off-the-tide, muscle-strapped wild Atlantic salmon. Although numbers running the river had been well down through 2017, a couple of the pools screamed with optimism. Denby and Devil’s Elbow, in particular, looked like ideal holding spots – it was in the latter of these that the season’s biggest salmon, a 14 pounder, was caught and released. Better still, in 2008 a fish of 25lb was taken from this beat. (That is a huge fish, be it from the Tweed, Dee, Tyne or a diminutive river in a quaint Cornish valley.) Anticipation hung on every cast, and although in vain, I couldn’t help but let imagination run wild with how electrifying it would be to hook and play a fish of that size in such an intimate pool. Truth be told, it just felt great to be back on the water.
Moving towards the lower reaches of the beat, we bumped into one of the river’s old-timers, Mike Laughlin, who has been fishing this stretch for longer than he cared to remember. Of the many salmon and grilse he has taken from these pools over the years, the highlight was a 21lb salmon he caught in 2012. His face lit up as he recalled how the giant fish nearly broke both him and his rod as it tore from bank to bank with the power of a steam train. He was, admittedly, less confident today – he had seen the river throw its various mood swings and tantrums and was not getting a good feeling – but, like many anglers who return to the same water time and time again, just loved being there, fish or no fish. He had seen a few salmon moving and suggested we swing a fly through the Stump pool on Beat Two, before wishing us tight lines and heading upstream.
Further downstream the Camel enters classic beach and oak woodland – it would be a stunning setting for a pheasant drive – and bridges offer vantage points to spy fish below. Here, the flow squeezes through boulder necks no wider than eight feet, similar to the upper reaches of a Hebridean river – you can sense where the salmon and grilse would stack up when here in numbers, held effortlessly off the edge of the fast, well-oxygenated current.
Wooden platforms at the top of several pools allow for decent casting access, and delicate roll casts are required to cover the tails of the more enclosed sections. The fly worked beautifully through the likes of Otter Run and Imperial, with a few lively brownies throwing themselves at our patterns. The salmon, however, remained elusive. With the short winter’s day drawing in, we retired to the cabin; the silhouette of a grey heron sailed gracefully overhead and the distant echo of wildfowlers’ gunshots rung through the valley. Quite why people wait until summer to flock to the area is a mystery.
We awoke to the glorious tune of rain bouncing off the slate roof – it wasn’t enough to dramatically change the height of the river (typically, that arrived as we pulled away from Butterwell to drive home), but it brought renewed optimism. We headed straight to Beat Two, heeding Mike Laughlin’s advice. My companion Ed dropped into Slump, inching to the head of the pool on his knees to keep a low profile, while I continued downstream to Vixens.
These days, I am always cautious to be within earshot of the person I’m fishing with – such is the dire situation of salmon fishing in the UK, each fish caught is to be truly treasured and absorbed. Whether I am catching it or watching someone else experience that joy makes no difference – I just want to be there when that great moment occurs. Who knows how long we’ll still have the pleasure.
And just as well I did.
We’d barely been at it for five minutes when I heard frantic shouting above the sound of running water. I looked upstream to see Ed’s 10ft rod bent into a fish – Mike’s local hunch had been right. I threw my rod to the floor with rude urgency, tucked my camera under my arm and ran as if a kid chasing an ice cream van. I got to him just as the line went slack; a quick moment of manic elation came crashing back to reality. He’d seen the fish flash just beneath the surface – “fresh run, as silver as tin foil, around the 8lb mark. F**k.”
We continued through the morning, carefully working our way through the handsome bottom pools, ever hopeful that another winter fish would strike. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. But did it matter? Not at all. We were fishing for wild Atlantic salmon on a remote spate river, in a beautiful part of the country. And it was December. Bliss. Oh, and better still, the salmon season was opening on the Helmsdale in less than a month.
Much of the 40-acre estate is designated as An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and classified as a Site of Specific Scientific Interest, with otters and kingfishers sharing the river with the salmon and sea trout. Gregariously run by Sam and Rachel d’Avigdor-Hamilton, Butterwell is a great base from which to explore Cornwall, or, given that it shares a riverbank with Camel Valley vineyard, to try some award-winning English wine. In addition to Kingfisher Cabin, which sleeps two people, there are three other cottages to choose from, accommodating up to six people. Fishing prices range from £30–£40 per day, with four Rods available.