Millions of years of geological events have forged Cumbria’s intriguing landscape into what we enjoy today. Great Ice Age glaciers sculpted a wild and varied land, leaving behind rugged valleys, a clutch of pristine natural lakes and a criss-cross of rivers spilling into the sea.

Our unspoilt fells are bejewelled with a rash of tarns too. Be it steep-sided fells plunging into the seemingly barren depths of a lake, or a lively, wee mountain stream bubbling with life, nearly all contain indigenous, wild brown trout which attracts both locals and visitors from around the world.

Cumbria has traditionally been regarded as something of a retreat for the game fisher. A place where anglers find themselves in a wild landscape, pitting their wits against nature, where working a team of flies skilfully across water tops has dominated other fishing methods for centuries and rightly so. The sight of a good trout striking your fly as it rides the ripples of a pristine stream is among the most treasured of angling experiences.

Great British Life: Casting upstream to a rising fishCasting upstream to a rising fish (Image: Paul Procter)

Some readers will be familiar with the gentle art of fly fishing, however, I’ll wager most may have only seen it at a distance or perhaps in films like Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It.

In a nutshell the concept of fly fishing is to tempt fish (mainly trout) using an artificial fly that imitates natural insects.

I’m sure readers are familiar with flies like daddy long legs, and trout are extremely fond of them. Fashioned on a hook, using fur and feather, said fly is virtually weightless and meant to fool the trout into eating. The skill then lies in casting the fly using a fly line on a lithe and flexible rod. Those lucky enough to have glimpsed a fly fisher waist deep in one of Cumbria’s lakes or rivers will surely agree that fly casting can be poetry in motion when practised by a deft hand.

Great British Life: Flies are designed to copy natural insects, like this imitation (left) and a mayfly (right)Flies are designed to copy natural insects, like this imitation (left) and a mayfly (right) (Image: Paul Procter)

Cumbrian born and bred, I count myself fortunate to live and reside in our wonderful county. My love affair with fishing began at the tender age of five, with a jamjar and pond dipping net. At eight years old I graduated to a spinning rod, bought from Woolies.

Togged up in wellies and shorts, my initial visits to local ponds and Ulverston canal ended in failure. Self-taught, moments of magic cropped up from time to time, but early success remained elusive. Hailing from farming stock, my family lacked any fishing lineage. It wasn’t until I turned 12 that my parents finally caved into my constant pestering for a fly rod.

Back then, information wasn’t found at your fingertips in digital format. For this mischievous schoolboy, those early days were very more touchy-feely, learning-by-doing when it came to casting.

Great British Life: Paul's catch reflects the calibre of trout in Cumbrian riversPaul's catch reflects the calibre of trout in Cumbrian rivers (Image: Paul Procter)

Eventually the local library brought guidance in the form of Sidney Spencer’s book Salmon & Sea Trout in Wild Places. Blessed one balmy evening on Coniston Water, my first trout were caught on fly – I was ‘hooked’.

Something of an epiphany, that experience would shape my adult life. Today I’m lucky to write about my passion in various angling publications, work with prominent fly fishing companies, represent fishing conservation organisations and host groups of anglers to far flung corners of our globe. Such travels also make me well qualified to wax lyrical about our Cumbrian waters, where I teach fly casting and guide throughout the region.

I’m fiercely proud of what we have to offer the visiting angler. Most are simply overwhelmed by both the scenery and relaxed way of life hereabouts. Part of my role when guiding is to visit pubs and restaurants where my guests can sip a pint of local ale whilst sampling our home-grown specialties. Most of my clients return regularly from as far afield as America, Canada, Europe and New Zealand, as much a testament to Cumbria’s natural beauty as to local folk.

Great British Life: Sightings of otter are becoming more common, even during daylightSightings of otter are becoming more common, even during daylight (Image: Paul Procter)

Angling is certainly about catching fish, but the fly rod is also a wand that deeply connects its holder to nature. In the undisturbed Cumbrian countryside, we can expect privileged glimpses of otters, ospreys, kingfishers, deer, red squirrels and hares.

Otters thrive here and it’s not unusual to catch sight of them, particularly in spring when adults are busy providing for their cubs. One of my fondest memories involved a female otter teaching her cubs to hunt along the margins of the Cumbrian Kent one lovely June afternoon. Such encounters regularly enrich our days on the water.

There’s no better place to learn the delicate art of fly fishing. We’re blessed with numerous lakes and tarn, many offering free fishing with an Environment Agency (EA) licence. Places like Haweswater, Ullswater, Coniston and Bassenthwaite Lake all have public access areas. Of course, private land should always be observed as should those waters controlled by angling clubs throughout our region. A quick surf on the internet will set you straight.

Great British Life: Often shrouded in mist, most Cumbrian hill tarns hold troutOften shrouded in mist, most Cumbrian hill tarns hold trout (Image: Paul Procter)

Many tarns nestle on common land and are accessible by footpaths. A pair of hiking boots and a haversack can lead you to remote places where you may find yourself alone amidst the bracken clad fells. One spot is a trail at the south end of Haweswater that leads you to Small Tarn and the larger Blea Tarn. Fishing in these more secluded spots for native trout can be enjoyed away from crowds.

Amidst the desolate slopes of Cumbria’s towering fells, tiny fingers of water spring through peaty soil and heather roots. Converging, these infant becks reach towards valley floors. Feeding both lakes and many tarns, before journeying towards our coastline the now larger rivers and streams are Cumbria’s lifeblood.

Not only do they allow Atlantic salmon and sea trout safe passage to their spawning grounds in tiny headwaters, but they are also home to a resident population of brown trout and the much rarer grayling.

Great British Life: Grayling are a good indicator of clean waterGrayling are a good indicator of clean water (Image: Paul Procter)

Streamline and graceful, grayling is a species considered a litmus test of clean water. Unable to process toxins as readily as other fish, they’re the first to suffer where pollutants rear their ugly head.

I’ve tangled with brown trout for most of my life, but I still marvel at their resilience. A relic of the Ice Age they can be found clinging on at their habitat extremes. Perhaps most remarkably is a population that still exists in Red Tarn at an altitude of 2,200 feet.

Nestling in the shadow of Helvellyn this tarn is often subjected to all four seasons in one day. That it can be frozen over for days and even weeks in winter illustrates how hardy brown trout really are. Granted you won’t find a glass case specimen here, but these trout are free-rising and eager to pounce on your fly. Armed with suitable footwear and a picnic, I’d struggle to think of a better day out.

Great British Life: Decorated from head to tail with spots, Paul considers Cumbrian wild brown trout as the prettiest in the countryDecorated from head to tail with spots, Paul considers Cumbrian wild brown trout as the prettiest in the country (Image: Paul Procter)

High Dam is more pedestrian in terms of a hike, and despite being popular with walkers it’s well worth a visit. Situated in part pine forest and part moorland it possesses an indescribable beauty. All of ten acres, those starting out on their fly fishing journey will find it both intimate and appealing. Dark in their livery due to peaty water the resident trout are ravenous here and it’s a rare day not to find trout dimpling at the surface.

Whether it’s trout and grayling in rivers, or the likes of roach and rudd found in our lakes, most fish species rely on aquatic invertebrates for nourishment.

Bugs like freshwater shrimps, cased caddis and even crayfish constitute an important part of their diet. These are hidden beneath the surface and out of view, often their importance is easily overlooked. Along with other insects they form the very fabric of existence for all life forms along the water’s edge, not least dippers, kingfishers and, of course, otters, which are especially fond of crayfish.

Great British Life: Dwelling on the lake or stream bed, freshwater shrimps are an important part of the trout's diet in CumbriaDwelling on the lake or stream bed, freshwater shrimps are an important part of the trout's diet in Cumbria (Image: Paul Procter)

Wild trout fishing is very much at a premium today. However, many rivers and stillwaters across the country rely on stocked, farmed fish to lure anglers. Fortunately, Cumbrian waters remain a stronghold for wild fish and, being partial, some of the most beautiful trout.

The Lake District is a valuable, yet fragile environment. Sadly though, our waterways are under constant threat. Some months ago Panorama aired The Water Pollution Coverup on BBC1, an eye-opening documentary about damage to our waterways. Sewage overflow and leaking events in places like our beloved Windermere and Cunsey Beck were featured.

Protecting the beauty and nature of Cumbria and the Lake District is not just important to the fisherman, but also to those taking to our lakes and tarns with oars and paddles, as well as wild swimmers. It’s vital then to preserve the treasures our abundant waters hold.

Great British Life: Organisations like the South Cumbria Rivers Trust carry out vital surveys on our rivers, using electro-fishing methodsOrganisations like the South Cumbria Rivers Trust carry out vital surveys on our rivers, using electro-fishing methods (Image: Paul Procter)

While water creatures big and small may lie below the surface and out of sight, they are the primordial fundament of our ecosystem. Remaining vigilant and working to protect our waterways is crucial to maintaining the bountiful beauty we have here at our fingertips.

Thankfully organisations like South Cumbria Rivers Trust and Wildfish Conservation monitor the health of our rivers and continually challenge water companies, other polluters and the Government to keep our waters clean. They have helped grow awareness around this most precious part of our environment and supporting their work is critical.

Importantly, the trend these past years has encouraged most anglers to return wild trout and salmon rather than take them for the table. This has led to a growth in stock and the size of fish.

The latter is certainly another reason why anglers from around the world enjoy fishing here. After all, if we relentlessly kill fish there would be few left for the next generation.

Many commercial stillwaters that offer day tickets regularly stock trout for the taking. This would be my preference before taking a wild warrior from our waters.

Great British Life: Cumbria's becks offer total escapism Cumbria's becks offer total escapism (Image: Paul Procter)

It will be news to no one that fly fishing is something of a loner’s pastime. There’s a meditative calm and quiet to casting in a river surrounded by all of nature’s glory. You’d be surprised how many anglers seek solitude in the icy cold water that tumbles over mossy boulders, home to trout as wild as their surroundings. As flighty as any royal stag, these trout fill us with an overwhelming sense of achievement when our attempts to deceive them succeed. 

It is these people who return time and again to Cumbria in search of our beautiful native trout.

Fisher-folk are well cared for and welcomed throughout the Lakes. Establishments like the Tufton Arm in Appleby specialise in offering anglers fishing breaks.

As a guide, I often recommend various hotels, inns, guesthouses and even campsites to my clients. They have taken joy from their warm welcome, the beauty of our exceptional landscape and the majesty of the fish that inhabit our waterways, happily returning to one of the most rich, natural wonders of these British Isles.

For those of us who are lucky enough to call Cumbria home, well, it really is our oyster or, in my case, perhaps a beautiful wild brown trout.