Places to fish before you die Driffield Beck – by Dave Southall

I first became aware of the fabulous fishing on the Driffield Beck in the mid 1960s thanks to the writings of Charlie Derrick, Roy Shaw and Reg Righyni. Sadly, being a poverty stricken teenager, access to the waters of this hallowed northern chalk stream was out of my league. In those days grayling were treated by many as vermin and the beck held so many that large numbers were removed and transferred to the nearby Driffield Canal, a place I fished regularly whilst studying at York University. I would often stand on the bridge over the beck at Wansford (20 yards from the canal) and watched trout, grayling and ducks fight for the scraps of my sandwich, and I desperately longed to have access to the becks prolific waters. It was not until 2006 that I was finally able to fish my dream water. At first I only managed an occasional visit as a guest of kind members of the West Beck Preservation Society, but a couple of years later I had the good fortune to become a member and soon after I was asked to ghilly on the day ticket waters of the Mulberry Whin Beats a mile or so upstream.
Whilst the river is nowhere near as good as it was in the 1960s, particularly in its lower beats, due to abstraction, diffuse pollution and a serious cormorant problem, it is still an impressive stream with some huge grayling and brown trout. Fortunately the Mulberry Whin beats (just over 1 mile of river, once the preserve of Driffield Anglers Club members) are now available on day ticket. Furthermore this area suffers a bit less from cormorant predation than the lower beats and so still holds a decent head of trout and grayling. Although the river here is stocked with modest sized brown trout (around the 13 mark) it holds some big wild (or grown on) trout, some over 4 pounds. However it is the truly wild grayling that fascinate me. Last summer I saw two fish lying deep on one of the bends (favoured grayling spots): I estimated the smaller to be about 1lb 4oz and the bigger one to be touching 3lb. I caught the smaller one which turned out to weigh 2lb 2oz, so what did the big one weigh?
Whilst the brown trout are predictable, hiding away till some food source becomes vulnerable when they become active the grayling are a law unto them selves and can be extremely frustrating. Some days they are spookier than the most timid trout and other days you can virtually stand on top of them. On many days theyll just hover there in full view showing no interest at all in even the most enticingly twitched nymph or shrimp, but find them in feeding mood and a good catch with 2lb plus fish is assured for the skillful angler.
It is not just the size of Driffield Becks fish which appeals but the fact that in reasonable light conditions they can be clearly seen. However, the fish can see the angler equally well and a slow, stealthy approach is needed if the quarry is not to be spooked. Much can be learned by watching the fishs response to your offering. If your presentation is less than perfect you can clearly see the fishs rejection response. A really bad presentation may elicit either no response at all or the fish may flee, whilst a near perfect presentation may result in the fish moving to the fly but turning away at the last moment. A day on a chalk stream can significantly improve the presentational skills and stealthy approach of those who only fish spate rivers.
So how might anglers unfamiliar with chalk streams tackle the Driffield Beck? Personally I like long rods (10 or 11), light lines (2 or 3 weight) and long leaders (14 to 18 including tippet). However the beck is very open and wind can be a problem so many anglers may prefer a 4 weight or even 5 weight set up and slightly shorter leader/tippet combinations. A long handled net is essential to reach over the profuse bankside vegetation (this fishery is not over-manicured) and polaroid glasses are an essential.
As for flies, I find the brown trout usually respond better to dry flies than nymphs or shrimps. One key exception is when the trout are rising vigorously to what I call invisibles during the day in mid summer. This is usually a response to a hatch of tiny Agapetus sedges. The adults do not hatch out at the river surface: the pupae swim to the bank, crawl up emergent vegetation where the 5mm long adults emerge. At such times a size 20 unweighted gold ribbed hares ear nymph or Stuart Crofts Agapetus Pupa imitation twitched gently across the surface will catch whilst a dead drifted dry fly will be studiously ignored. Early in the trout season one can expect Midges, Black Gnats, Hawthorn Flies, a few Crane Flies/Daddies and maybe a sprinkling of the first Olives. Once summer arrives Midges will still be important as will Daddies, plus assorted Sedges and (in years when there is a reasonable amount of water) Pale Wateries and assorted Olives (including BWOs).
The bigger grayling rarely rise to dry flies. Their main food source is the abundant Gammarus population (up to 8000 per metre squared!!!). Whilst I am a believer that presentation is 90% of the game, the grayling can at times be very fussy about the size and type of fly that they want. Ive taken them on everything from a size 26 Black Bead-head Buzzer to a size 10 long-shank Peeping Caddis. Generally I use Orange Shrimps, only changing my fly if Im sure it has been presented properly but has still been rejected.
The fishery is run by farmers Brian and Andrew Dixon, who also offer accommodation, breakfasts and lavish lunchtime hampers. The trout season runs from the 1st April till the end of September and the grayling season from the 16th June till the end of February. Advanced booking is necessary, but fortunately even the heaviest rain does not usually colour up the water.
Visitors will find many other attractions in the area including the stunning scenery of Hockneys Yorkshire Woldscapes, the sea cliffs of Bempton and Flamborough with their sea-bird colonies, York and its numerous attractions and the nearby North Yorkshire Moors.

  1. I have fished that “Dixon” stretch of the Driffield Beck since c1963. Your analysis is excellent especially re grayling. The best trout time is 10am – 2pm – always have a late lunch. A good dry trout fly to try is a John Storey – quite large. It was a better fishery with cattle grazing up to and indeed into the river.

  2. I live in Lincolnshire and would love to fish grayling great description.Thanks. The Great Eau here is another chalk stream had a stretch to myself at “Withern Mill” Alford. Lovely little river.

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