Urban fishing is a new frontier – and where better than Wales where fly fishing on the post industrial rivers is simply phenomenal. Read on to find out more about fishing on the River Taff…..

Fly fishing the Taff (Image: Tim Hughes)

Like many South Wales Rivers the Taff used to run black with coal and industrial waste.  The stretch at Merthyr Tydfil was once one of the most polluted rivers in Europe, with numerous ironworks disgorging effluent continuously into the river; in later years this was followed by coal waste and industrial effluent, not to mention untreated sewage. Fish and invertebrate life was pretty much non-existent, hanging on only in the headwater streams.

Today things have radically changed, with the Taff being a productive game fishing river from source to mouth. Over time industry moved on, the mines shut and new regulations cleaned up the river. Trout are now widespread, with the middle and lower reaches also having Grayling that were introduced around 15 years ago; here you will find them in huge abundance along with some large trout and occasional salmon.

The upper river and some tributaries remain the preserve of trout only, and it is on the Merthyr Tydfil Angling club stretch that some of the best fishing can be found. The club has 14 miles of river, including two rural tributaries, the Taff Fechan and Taff Fawr that wind their way through the scenic wooded gorges of the Southern Brecon Beacons.

These rivers meet at Merthyr, forming the main Taff. From here to Quakers yard this part of the river regularly produces wild trout averaging well over a pound, with many specimens ranging up to 3lb or even more. It’s certainly one of the best trout rivers in Wales in terms of average size and quality of fish, but it wasn’t always this way, even in recent history.

For one thing, once the water quality improved when the mines and factories closed, the Merthyr Tydfil Angling Association carried out regular stockings of farmed brown trout – in fact in excess of 3000 table sized fish per year were stocked into a 10 mile stretch of club water. This resulted in the wild fish population being unable to compete for food, prime living space and spawning ground.

As well direct competition, the vast numbers of easily caught stockies also encouraged the ‘fish monger’ element and helped encourage poachers, who were indiscriminate as to what they took, year round, from the river. To top it off regular ‘catch and kill’ competitions were being held by the club on the river. So what chance did any wild fish have of growing to maturity, let alone specimen size?

10 years ago I lived half a mile from MTAA angling water, but had to drive down river to find good fishing.  The wild fish were small and stunted, seldom getting above 10 inches and the stockies were not much of a challenge or nice to look at. It was disappointing, because the upper Taff had so much potential as a river fishery.

Eventually, things changed. The stocking program was wound down for various reasons, firstly financial, then due to stock supply issues and then forced implementation of triploid stocking. After 2013’s 1600 fish, only a few hundred fish went in each year, and the program was finally discontinued last year. A radical change in the native trout population had been happening in the mean time. Wild trout begin to flourish and grow large, filling the void left by the stockies.  Specimen wild trout started appearing in the catches a few years ago and it has been improving steadily year on year.  In fact the upper Taff has now become a ‘trophy fishery’ with some of the best fishing in the region.

Per mile of water the upper Taff doesn’t have vast stocks of fish (like the nearby River Ebbw for example) however the balance is just right with a good mixture of small, large and specimen fish to be found. Almost every pool has a decent trout in it, and these fish can often be seen rising to abundant hatches of upwing flies. Wild fish of between 16 and 20 inches are commonplace, with larger to be found.

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Upper River Taff trout are a good average size

Last season for me was incredible, with numerous quality fish gracing my net in the same stretch of river that 10 years previously had produced poor fishing.  Many of them were captured on the dry fly. I wasn’t the only one, with local anglers consistently capturing wild trout to nearly 4lb, right until the end of the season. There are bigger fish to be sure, I have seen them.

On the subject of fish food, The Taff has some wonderful fly life. Starting in March there are strong hatches of large dark olives and March browns, followed by the brook dun, which is an abundant and long lasting hatch on the Taff. Stonefly, olive uprights, various caddis, yellow may and grannon also appear in the spring months. In the summer the upper Taff still has great hatches of blue winged olive, making for fantastic evening spinner sport.

Fly life on the Taff is great – check out the brook dun!

Thanks to its origins over a band of limestone the Taff has an alkaline PH of 8.3. So sub-surface the river stones literally crawl with shrimp, snails and nymphs of all kinds. There are also horse leeches, bull heads and shoals of minnows that provide yet more food for the fat, well conditioned trout.

Despite it’s urban catchment, ironically the water quality in the river is actually better than most rivers found deep in the Welsh countryside. Although there are acres of concrete, roads, houses and retail parks there are no farms spreading slurry, or sheep dip and agricultural waste being washed into the river. Yes, there are pollution problems, mainly fly tipping, untreated sewage and road oil, however these have a far lesser effect on river invertebrate and fish life than agricultural runoff.

The Fishing

The river is an engaging mix of urban and semi-rural fishing, with some of the biggest fish to be found slap bang in Merthyr Tydfil itself. I’ve always thought ‘town stretches’ produce a lot more fish because of the lack of predators such as cormorants and otters, as well as maybe being a thermal refuge over the cold winter months. They certainly throw up some of the best fishing opportunities; as long as you can handle the urban environment.

Urban fly fishing in Merthyr Tydfil (Image: Tim Hughes)

For more tranquil fishing, head down stream or fish upstream on the Taff Fechan. The stretch at Quakers yard through to Aberfan is quite rural, with plenty of decent fish to be found, if the urban environment is not your thing.

Today I have brought Airflo’s Tim Hughes with me, to sample some of the fishing and hopefully find one of the Taff ‘giants’ willing to rise to a dry fly. Tim mainly fishes on the Usk, where the trout are more plentiful but generally smaller in average size. The Taff trout in my opinion are better quality, and are perhaps a little more discerning, maybe due to the outrageous abundance of food available to them here, allowing them the luxury of being more selective. Tim hasn’t had a decent Taff trout in his fishing career, so I am hoping we can find a few willing to play ball.

For a true taste of ‘urban’ fly fishing I have taken Tim to the Merthyr town stretch. We are starting off at the back of a large retail complex, where there are some nice pools and runs, with the intention of working up into the town. We are here in mid May, a prime time. The fishing was slow last month, due to the awful snow and rain we were subjected to in March, and only now has the river properly woken up. As an upper Taff virgin, this is some tough but enjoyable bit of fishing for Tim to get into.

We walk our way down a narrow path and cut into the river. The bank side growth of thick brambles and Japanese knotweed is just starting grow up. Waders can easily get shredded here, so I’m wearing a set of the Airflo Super-Tuff, a great ‘industrial’ strength PVC bootfoot wader that almost functions as a suit of armour. Much of the wading here is tough, but these have studs built into them, which are essential for dealing with the rocky and often slippery bottom.

We work our way up, fishing nymphs in some likely runs and pools, avoiding the shopping trolleys, BMX bikes and even a wheelchair that has been thrown into the river. Everywhere we fish we find a mix of old industry and modern urban, including walls and stonework from the old iron working days, as well as graffiti on the bridges that span the river. It’s kind of cool.

It’s a cool and breezy morning and nothing is showing on the surface. After bumping a few fish we decide to move up into the town and wait it out for a hatch. En-route, we meet local angler Neil Ashman, who is fishing some nice pocket water with a French leader. Tim looses a good fish, which appears to have been a rainbow – they are present in the upper Taff in small numbers, escapees due to the reservoirs in the headwaters.

We reach a long flat pool and stand and watch the water for a while.  Brook duns begin to hatch, first a trickle and then in big numbers. Olives are in the mix too. The wind is very strong now, so it’s limiting the surface activity. Despite this we spot a few rises, so rig up with the dry fly gear.

Tim covers a rise and gets a take. The fish goes berserk in the shallow water, really putting up a good account of itself. Tim finally gets him in the net, a chunky golden fish of 2lb plus. About the average stamp of fish in this part of the river, a cracker anywhere. Another fish shows, and Tim covers the spot repeatedly while we watch. The fish comes up, and almost in slow motion takes the split wing CDC brook dun, then wallows angrily, breaking the leader like cotton in the process. How big was this one? 3 to 4lb maybe.

Tim into a fish in Merthyr Town center!!

We move up under a busy town bridge, picking up a couple of fish as we go. Casting tight to a concrete wall, where a brook enters the river through a culvert, I get a surprise take in a few inches of water to a jingler. It’s a nice pound plus fish, healthy and butter gold, that I play whilst buses rumble past. Our time is limited today, but It’s been a great couple of hours on the water, which I hope has given Tim the urban angling bug. We head off, and on the way back to the car spot some real heavyweights finning in some of the pools, some of them true giants.

The moral of the story is you don’t need to stock a river. Let nature take its course and things will come right. It’s certainly turned out well on the Taff – long may it continue.

Fishing on the upper Taff is controlled by Merthyr Tydfil Angling Association.

Contact: Tony Rees Email: 

Day tickets are also available online via the Wye and Usk Foundation’s Fishing Passport website.

Article Words: Ceri Thomas Images: Tim Hughes

Article originally featured in Issue one of Today’s Fly Fisher Magazine.

Wild fish in the middle of town