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Into the deep

Fly fishing isn’t just the preserve of rural waterways – we cast off in the heart of Sheffield, where nature is finding its way back to the city


Woman and man standing by Audi Q2

A small fish splashes out of the water in a rainbow of colour, sending fine droplets sparkling through the air. It is scooped up in a net before being trapped by strong hands that gently remove a hook from its mouth. Up close, the intricate design of its body is spellbinding. Blue and silver scales armour its body and a large scarlet-tipped dorsal fin protrudes from its back. Turns out this is a signature mark of the species.

‘It’s a grayling,’ confirms freshwater ecologist Dr Paul Gaskell of the Wild Trout Trust before releasing the fish back into the river. ‘These creatures, also called ladies of the stream, are particularly sensitive to dirty water. Their presence here shows just how the quality of the water has improved. It’s hard to believe they are thriving at the heart of one of England’s industrial bastions.’

Indeed, rather than being in some idyllic country brook, Paul is standing waist-deep in the River Don, Sheffield’s main watercourse. Today he is demonstrating the benefits of Japanese Tenkara fly fishing to Jess England, a young fishing enthusiast. A few feet away is a busy bridge where a crowd of onlookers has gathered. It’s definitely not your average fishing expedition.

Man and woman fishing in Sheffield

Box of fishing bait

Man fishing in Sheffield

‘Urban fishing is now a growing trend thanks to efforts to reduce water pollution,’ explains Paul later as we drive to another fishing spot in an Audi Q2 Edition #1. ‘In Sheffield we have seen a big change since the 1980s. Industrial activities have diminished and the Victorian sewerage systems have been improved, but there is still much more to be done.’

Gradually people are waking up to the importance of water in urban areas and the diversity of the wildlife. Previously as cities developed, rivers were forced underground and constrained in culverts, tunnels and drains. Sheffield is spearheading a global movement called daylighting that seeks to open up buried waterways. It has led to a number of successful projects, including the creation of the Porter Brook Pocket Park in Sheffield.

‘This park provides people with a lovely green space to enjoy in a part of the city where there weren’t any before,’ adds Paul, who was heavily involved in the project. ‘Its clever amphitheatre design also helps the city be more prepared to cope with heavy rainfall and flooding than before because the water has somewhere to expand without flowing into the street or into buildings.’

Caught fish

Woman fishing

Man and woman with Audi umbrella

Paul believes that urban fishing plays an important part in the daylighting movement and explains that the more people become attached to the rivers and see the benefits they can offer, the more they will want to defend them. That’s why he is keen for the younger generations, such as 19-year-old Jess, to get involved.

Jess is already an accomplished fly fisher: she has been fishing with her father since she was a child on wild rivers in Scotland but this is her first experience in town. As a young woman she is a minority in the sport but believes that negative stereotypes of the sport are standing in the way of it becoming more popular.

‘Fly fishing is seen as an old man’s sport but it’s really not,’ she explains, sheltering from a shower of rain under an Audi umbrella. ‘It can be quite extreme at times. You wade out into the water and you are constantly moving, casting the rod forwards and back. It’s also much more accessible to people in town than it used to be. If you want to have a go for free, Orvis the fishing rod makers do demonstrations at their shops or you can go to big events such as the London Fly Fishing Fair. Just be warned: once you have started it’s pretty hard to stop!’ Words by John Silcox. Photographs by Tom Cockram.


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