some History of Fishing on the River Otter.
With extracts from:
Augustus Grimble ‘The Salmon Rivers of England and Wales’
and Anne Voss Bark (Ed) ‘West Country Fly Fishing’
In the early 1800’s the river had a good head of salmon and the first two miles of the river, which were then fully tidal, were heavily netted for salmon. Above the estuary many landowners had fish traps, the first being at Otterton Weir. To limit the depredation, a Board of Conservators was formed in 1863 and shortly after a Mr Buckland was able to report that “all obstacles to the ascent of salmon have now been removed and the river Otter has been, during close time, full of salmon, which has not been known before for forty years”.
It proved however to be a short period of grace for the salmon. Only a few years later, a Mr Walpole visited the river and wrote: “This river was at one time strictly preserved, and a capital trout river. This fish runs to a large size, and salmon remain for such a short time in the Otter that less attention was paid to them than might have been, owing to fine-quality trout. Unfortunately a few years ago some of the landowners withdrew from the Association which was protecting the river; since then it has been terribly poached, and the pools which were once full of fish are almost depopulated….it is lamentable to see a river of such considerable spawning capabilities so neglected as the Otter”. By this time the Board of Conservators had ceased to exist and attempts to make the Otter what it had once been, an excellent salmon river, were abandoned.
Many riparian owners at the time welcomed this, saying: “we trust it never will be one, for it is one of the best trout streams in the West of England”.
In 1886 the Hon Mark Rolle, owner of the river from Budleigh Salterton to Ottery St Mary (the part still owned by his descendants within the Clinton Devon Estates), agreed to abandon his fishing weir and trap at Otterton and in 1888, in a typically philanthropic gesture, he opened the whole bottom 10 miles of the river to the public.
In ‘South Country Rivers’ by George Dewar, published in 1898, the Otter is described as one of the earliest and best Devonshire waters. The author went on to say that: “Trout are plentiful in this excellent fly-fishing stream. They average about ½ lb and sometimes run up to chalk-stream size, one indeed being killed in 1896 weighing no less than 5 ½ lbs. Fly-fishing is the method of angling on the Otter, and the favourite patterns include the blue uprights, hareflax (olive and red), red upright, yellow and olive duns, and partridge quill. The Otter, which flows through a nice country of meadows and woods, is a clear and generally rapid stream containing beside its trout some salmon-peel and eels”
In 1914 the trout season ran from 1st February to 31st August and a trout licence cost 1 shilling (about £4 today).
In the 1920’s the fishing rights on the Rolle Estates (now Clinton Devon Estates) on the lower river were rented by a Dr Charles Buller who was resident at Syon House in East Budleigh. He also held the shooting rights between Otterton and Exmouth, and employed 3 gamekeepers/water bailiffs.
After visiting the Otter in the 1930’s, Stephen Gwynn wrote in ‘River to River’ (publ; 1937): “The Otter ranks amongst the best of English trout streams, though it holds no large fish and anything over a pound there is a prize”. He described the river at Harpford as having clear banks and easy fishing, whilst the village itself appeared to him to be: “the very climax of all that is attractive in Devon”. He was unable to fish the river during his visit because: “East Devon has strong feelings about the Sabbath”.
In the 1950’s Wilson Stephens wrote about a trip to fish the ‘unknown’ parts of the Otter upstream of Fenny Bridges where “there is no road” and the inhabitants “believed in guarding their peace and keeping their eyes open”. Fishing the brook-like upper reaches he sought to prove the friends wrong who had told him “no decent trout rose west of Weymouth”. Apart the interest of seeing a polecat on the river bank, his catches over the first two days did little to cheer him up or prove them wrong.
But on the third day he cast a pheasant-tail into the lowest of a series of rise-rings in a little run. After a foot or two it dimpled under and the reel screamed as he tightened into a big fish, his small rod hooped nearly in a circle. Helped by the farmer he netted “what proved to be 4 lb 14 oz of noble brown trout, then and still my biggest ever from a stream, seemingly in the prime of life”.
He and the farmer retired to the local inn with the fish, where it lay in state on the bar and “the evening’s drinking cost the regulars less than usual, and me more”.
Wilson Stephens never cast another fly on the upper Otter, nor indeed the lower Otter. As he said “To have done so would have been an anti-climax”.
In the early 1950’s a Colonel Pynes (possibly: Pepys), helped by his chauffeur Charles Heard, landed what may be the river’s record salmon of 25 ½ lbs at Otterton Weir.
In 1969 the River Otter Association (predecessor of the River Otter Fisheries Association) was founded in Honiton under the Chairmanship of Mr A Luxton. The purposes of the River Otter Association were:
“The protection and preservation of the rights and interests of riparian owners, farmers, fishermen and those concerned to maintain the natural beauty of the Otter Valley”
During its time the River Otter Association did tremendous work to help look after the river and its fish stocks, including contributing to all major studies/regulations impacting on the Otter, removing barriers to migration, and running a salmon hatchery programme. The work of many generations of ROA volunteers was unrewarded other than by the value they left behind them, but in one notable instance the most active of Association Secretaries, Alan Knights, was awarded the MBE for his efforts.