Malham Tarn


After writing numerous articles on places to fish in Yorkshire it starts to get difficult thinking of new and innovative opening sentences to keep readers ‘enthralled’ and draw them in. I had begrudgingly admitted defeat and was about to fall-back on my trusty “I’ve been meaning to fish (insert location) for many years but never quite got round to it until now” opening salvo when I realised I’d actually wet a line at Malham before.

So, dear reader, allow me to draw you further into this article with a tale of sex, booze and criminal behaviour. Okay, slight exaggeration. Many years ago I visited Malham with a girlfriend, we walked up to the cove then over to the Tarn and I tried to impress her by showing her the intricacies of flyfishing. It was a blazing hot day and there was no sign of any fish so after an hour we got bored and went back down into Malham village for a pint. In the pub I picked up a leaflet on Malham Tarn and felt more than a little guilty when I discovered it most certainly wasn’t free fishing, and that bank fishing was strictly off limits. Ooops. My bad, as they say.

10 years later I returned, older, wiser and on the right side of the law with my good friend Stu and local fishing guru Steve Rhodes. Steve may be familiar to some of you, he is an Orvis endorsed flyfishing guide and director of the popular Go Fly Fishing UK guiding service. We knew that Malham was a tough nut to crack and were glad to have a guide with Steve’s skills, knowledge and experience in our boat.

About as far removed from rainbow trout ‘put and takes’ as you can imagine, the tarn is perched 1,240 feet above sea level and is a legacy of the last ice age. Well, actually, it’s origins lay in the 400 million year old impervious silurian slate and marl deposits that form its ‘floor’ and stop all the water leaking out. It’s not particularly deep, averaging 2.4 metres with a maximum depth of 4.4 metres, but it’s a fairly large sheet of water at 150 acres and is one of only 8 upland alkaline lakes in Europe. The area’s designation as an SSSI reflects its abundance of flora and fauna which includes rare alpine plants, various wading birds, white claw crayfish, 71 recorded species of caddis fly, molluscs, perch and brown trout.

Today, conditions were so-so. There was a bit of a wave but evidently not quite enough (the tarn fishes best when there’s a good chop) and it was quite cool with occasional showers. Sheltering in one of the nicest boathouses I’ve seen in a long while, I followed Steve’s advice to put up a 10ft #7 rod and tied on 3 wet flies using 8lb nylon to form a leader of 15 feet, ensuring I had a nice bushy fly on the bob. Today we were going to receive a master-class in the traditional loch-style method which he assured us was the most consistently successful approach he’d found for Malham. Steve knows this place better than most, he’s fished it ever since he was a boy when his dad used to take him out on the tarn and has learnt the hard way which methods work best so it pays to listen to what he has to say.

No petrol engines are allowed but our electric outboard did a surprisingly good job of propelling a boat containing 3 anglers and an ISO container’s worth of food and tackle along at a reasonable rate of knots. As we trundled along Steve was careful to ensure our expectations were realistic for the day ahead – this is a very hard water to fish and takes are few and far between – but kept our enthusiasm alive with tales of what we could expect if we were lucky enough to hook into a fish.

These wild brown trout average about 2 ½ – 3lb which is something special by anyone’s standards but much bigger specimens have been caught. Upon reaching the top end the drogue went out and our crash course in loch style fishing began in earnest with Steve giving us a demo. I knew that this method involved fishing a short line but I was shocked to see exactly how short a length of flyline you have outside the tip – little more than a rod length. When I came to try it myself I struggled with this concept a great deal, I was fishing a length of line that usually indicates I’m at the end of fishing my cast and ready to lift off! Instead I was concentrating very hard on sweeping the rod back at a constant pace and dibbling the bob fly in the surface at all times to create that all important disturbance.

Eventually I found my rhythm and ‘dibble…sweep…roll’ became my mantra as I watched the enticing wake caused by the bob fly and hoped against hope that a swivel-eyed lunatic brown would nail it. Our drift brought us down alongside an eroded heather topped bank which had a distinctly Scottish feel to it and we were advised to drop our flies close in, real close in. After a couple of minutes a depth charge was suddenly detonated where my bob fly was and I felt a good old tug on my line. My heart stopped, everything went tight, I felt the adrenaline release, closely followed by a horrific sinking feeling as the line went as limp as cooked spaghetti and a hushed silence fell upon our boat. The atmosphere was broken by the sound of a salty knife being twisted as Steve informed me that I’d just lost a “big fish”. My only consolation was that all flies were still attached to leader so a) I’d not left one in the fish’s mouth and b) I’d not lost a potential fish of a lifetime to a poor knot. No, it was simply bad luck. Ah well, if it wasn’t for bad luck I wouldn’t have no luck at all. Then it started raining, as if to confirm the Gods continued displeasure with me.

I was still cursing my luck as we neared the end of our soggy drift along this bank when Stu signalled to us that he was into a fish. Suppressing my boiling jealousy I watched as his rod hooped over into something very, very solid and Steve immediately gave Stu explicit instructions that he must let the fish run if it wants to. Meanwhile I struggled to get my DSLR ready inside my bag to try and avoid the pouring rain but this seemed to be just as difficult as playing a Malham brownie.

When I did begin shooting, I saw through the viewfinder a mask of nervous tension and barely contained excitement across Stu’s face as he played the as yet unseen fish. Several heart-stopping minutes passed before Steve was finally able to slip a net under a big slab of fish which immediately became Stu’s best ever wild brown trout.

I took as many pictures as I dare in the incessant rain before deciding enough was enough, no fish was worth writing off £500 of camera and we watched Steve gently coax this 2½Ib beauty back to strength in the water until it swam off. Much shaking of hands and congratulating took place and I was genuinely happy for him but at the same time felt slightly bitter knowing I’d blown what was probably my only chance of the day. Knowing I had to write an article on this day out, I automatically began to run through the content in my head and saw the inevitable “It’s not about catching fish, it’s about enjoying the beautiful scenery blah blah” sentence rearing its ugly head again. Watching other people catch fish sure builds up an appetite (even if it does stick in your craw) and we lasted another 30 minutes fishing the end of our drift before retiring to the boathouse for sandwiches and banter with Steve who shared some more of his extensive knowledge with us and also told us about the Grayling Society he is chairman of. Dark horse!

Post tiffin we motored (or rather, we whirred) back up to the far end of the tarn and set up for another drift. I settled back into my ‘dibble sweep roll’, concentrating on fighting the urge to cast to the horizon , and with a renewed enthusiasm felt sure I at least had a chance of connecting with something. The weather had also perked up enough for me to take some more photos without worrying about ending up with a waterlogged camera, and generally added to the air of optimism. Eventually our drift brought us back to the same bank where I’d lost my fish earlier and here I felt more optimistic than anywhere else. With good reason it seems because as we drifted down toward the end of this bank a solid tug signalled I had been given another chance to land one of these beautiful fish.

Non anglers would struggle to comprehend how one feels hooking into a fish in these circumstances, where you’re likely to be connected to a personal best and also more than likely to lose it again! Perhaps a good analogy would be the excitement, anxiety and pressure felt before taking a penalty kick?! I tried to keep the line tight and the pressure on but also heeded Steve’s advice to let the fish run if it wanted to whilst at the same time gathering slack line back onto my reel. The runs were short but brutal as the fish seemed more intent on circling the boat…perhaps he could sense my clumsiness afloat as I waltzed around tangled in fishing paraphernalia trying to keep my balance. Once or twice he came in close and tried to seek safety under the boat and on these occasions I had to pull hard to stop this happening. 8Lb leader suddenly felt a bit inadequate!

My arm began to ache and I had a slight tremble in my legs as we neared the point where netting was a serious possibility, nerves and excitement were getting the better of me, I really did not want to blow this at the last minute. I needn’t have worried, Steve knows exactly what he’s doing. He held off until he felt the fish was ready, net poised in the water then as I drew it in a bit closer he enveloped my trophy fish and swung it into our boat. Result! My relief was clear. I had just played and landed my biggest ever wild brown trout. A trout whose tail belonged on an Athena poster ( you know the sort, ‘Orca at Play’ or some such nonsense) with fins to match. Steve removed my fly from its mouth and carefully cradled a good 3lb of solid muscle in his hands whilst I fired up my camera. Pictures taken, the brownie was gently nursed back to strength in the water and released when it felt ready to swim off under its own steam. This flurry of activity proved to be our last day, a final drift along the boathouse shore produced nothing but I didn’t care in the slightest, we’d done what we came to do. All on-board felt it was time to go now – we’d beaten the odds using Steve’s expert tuition in conjunction with a healthy dose of good luck and now it was time for a celebratory pint.

Malham Tarn really is a difficult place to fish, especially if you’re the kinda guy like me who needs frequent ‘action’ to keep interest up, but the rewards more than make up for this. It’s quite simple really, if you want the chance of catching a perfect specimen of a brown trout in fantastic surroundings then you need to go to Malham Tarn, and if you want to maximise your chances of catching then hire Steve Rhodes of as your guide for the day. Oh and bring your Environment Agency rod licence because without it you will not be fishing on Malham.

Guided Fly Fishing on Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales

Go Fly Fishing UK provide guided days, fly fishing tuition and short breaks based in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales in the north of England.

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6 thoughts on “Malham Tarn

  1. Pete Ure

    Great that you achieved a goal. I had a similar experience in Orkeny last year.I knew that there was big brown trout in the loch I was fishing. The first day of hard slog came to nothing,not even a touch.The second day I hit into a very big fish but lost the battle after a couple of miinutes. The fish I lost gave me the will to go back the next day and slog it out agiain.. It payed off. On the last cast of the day I landed a 5LB brownie.No doubt the fish you lost on Malham gave you the same dogged determination to put things right and catch one because you know they are there.It gave me a good deal of pleasure to read about your day fishing on Malham and I hope to fish the said water soon.

  2. andy wren

    Truly a magical place,have heard rumours over the years so finallly got me a day with Rob Denson ,wet windy with white horses.
    Fabulous amount of fly life,I had a near 3lb fish on a leggy kate muddler a fair number of nips and swirls and a similar fish lost nearly at the net.
    Will be back again !

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