A Guide to Lake District Tarn Fishing

Our guest blogger this month is passionate Cumbrian angler and artist Scott Winstanley, who has a wealth of fantastic tips and reflections on exploring and fishing the Lake District Tarns.

“The word ‘tarn’ comes from the Norse word tjorn meaning a small lake or pond.  It’s a term used quite extensively in Northern England and refers not only to the high corrie lakes of the Cumbrian Mountains but also to small waters found nestled in the green lowland hills. The information in this guide relates to the former, to those wild upland waters where an adventurous angler can enjoy solitude and a fishing experience quite unlike anything else found in England.

So what fish can you catch in the Lake District Tarns? Well, the mystery is half the fun, but the waters of the wild hills are home to species including trout, pike, perch, minnows, vendace, schelley, char and eel, (who knows what else? There are even rumours of crucian carp!). Of all the species of fish that swim in the waters of the Cumbrian Hills, however, it is the brown trout that is most abundant and widespread and offers the visiting angler the most realistic opportunity of sport.

If it is large specimen trout that you hanker after, you might want to stop now and turn back. If, on the other hand, you can find pleasure in small yet hard fighting trout, pretty as jewels and with a heritage as old as the mountains in which they swim, then dig out your hiking boots!

Finding Waters

Before heading into the hills it is important to first plan your angling adventure and the most obvious starting point is selecting a water to fish. You will need an Ordinance Survey ‘Explorer’ Map (orange cover), OL 4, 5, 6 and 7 cover The Lake District National Park. You’re looking for those little blue splodges which lie in mountainous areas. Most will be named on the map as either ‘something tarn’ or ‘something water’. Some will carry a little fish logo, which does confirm the presence of fish but those without the logo should not be ignored either. Your water should be on ‘public access land’ which will appear shaded a certain colour, so do study the key on the map for further clarification.

Not all mountain waters contain fish, it’s fair to say. Some are too shallow and freeze solid in winter or dry up in summer, so choose one which has some size, a 12th of a 1 km square on your map is a good minimum. The depth of a tarn can be guessed at by the tightness of the surrounding contours, a water lying on a flat plateau will be shallow whereas a water nestled in a steep corrie will have some considerable depth. An inflow or outflow will give a good indication of spawning potential and suggests a fish population.

Tarns for Fishing, near Grasmere & Rothay Garden Hotel…

The following hill tarns are all within a short to mid distance walk of Grasmere village and the hotel. All offer free fishing in the Lake District- but by “free” you still need an EA Fishing License, obtained from most post offices or online. Here are four ideal lakes for a walk with a fishing rod:

Easedale Tarn: (roughly 3.5 km West of hotel, taking path off Easedale Road): Roughly 25 acres. This is a pretty and fascinating tarn to try fly fishing. Lots of minnows and plenty of perch and trout that no doubt feed well on them. However, there are also rumours of crucian carp!

Stickle Tarn: (another 2km West of Easedale Tarn, following the same path) 20 acres approx. Lots of rocky shoreline and features to try. Typical trout in the 6-8” bracket to keep the footloose angler happy, but sometimes bigger.

Alcock Tarn: (about 1.2 miles East of the hotel, from the path off Swan Lane): 2 acres approx.. Mainly small but very pretty trout in this pint-sized but very pretty lake. Try a team of small, bushy loch style patterns for fly fishing.

Grisedale Tarn (roughly 4km North of the hotel): 29 acres approx. Another pretty water, with space to roam. Plenty of small trout and the chance of one rather bigger if you can find them.

Methods, Tackle & Best Fly Patterns

As you will be primarily targeting trout, fly fishing is the preferred method. A rod of between 9 and 10 feet in length will suffice for the distance that you will need to cast and a line weight of between 5 and 7 will help cut through the very likely wind.

Dry fly fishing can provide exciting sport and although not a traditional method in Cumbria and indeed The North it can be very effective. Black has proved to be favourable colour of fly for wild waters and some of the best fly patterns for tarn fishing include the F-Fly, CDC sedge, Black Gnat, Griffiths Gnat, Hawthorn, Black Hopper and Coch-y-bonddu. The larger flies, the sedges, hoppers, hawthorns, can be fished up to size 12 and work well in a chop drawing the trout to the surface. A slow retrieve, your fly cutting across the ripples, will often induce fast, slashing takes which are easily missed. The F-fly and gnats can be fished in sizes as small as 20, working best when the trout are rising on a calm, flat surface. On most waters a lack of wind spells disaster but a calm tarn isn’t always a bad thing;

I once camped at a tarn and, having not bothered to check the weather forecast before setting off, found myself in heavy rainfall and confined to my tent for close to 17 hours. I spent the time reading and sleeping and woke to silence, the incessant rain had finally stopped drumming on the roof of the tent. Peering round the tent flap to a murky dawn I set my bleary eyes upon a tarn so flat it resembled a sheet of polished steel. As my eyes started to focus I noticed that the surface was covered with rings; the rain had not stopped after all but, just as  I began to crawl back into the tent, I realised that I’d felt no rain drops on my head. Taking another look at the tarn it soon became clear that the rings weren’t being created by raindrops at all but by trout rising to an incredible hatch of midges. Grabbing my ready strung rod which leant against the tent I danced to the water’s edge and proceeded to lose myself in a dream of eager trout. I lost count of the fish I caught but would guess I had at least 50 and was glad to give it a rest when hunger got the better of me and I returned to the tent for breakfast. 

There are other flies which are worth carrying in your box. A selection of loch style wet flies along with some weighted nymphs can produce a fish when they refuse to come to the surface and some small generic fry patterns will increase your chances of tempting a perch or a cannibalistic trout.

Fishing Etiquette & Alternative Methods

Although there are no strict rules for angling in the high tarns, a conscientious angler should consider the following unwritten etiquette;

Catch and release is a must and barbless hooks are encouraged. Fish stocks are precious.

Fly fishing is preferred but if your fly casting is a little rusty or indeed none existent then there are alternatives:

Flies can be fished with a standard spinning rod and fixed spool reel and can be cast with the aid of a bubble float.

Spinning is also a possibility but only the smallest ‘Mepps’ style spinners should be used and the treble hook should be replaced with a single barbless hook to avoid damaging the fish. You could also try jigs or LRF style fishing gear- but please stick to single barbless hooks for the sake of the fish.

Bait fishing is not a great idea for a number of reasons. Static baits (as opposed to a moving fly, spinner, etc.) will often be swallowed by a trout before a bite is registered, resulting in a deep hooking. Some tarns are delicate eco-systems in their own right and should not have foreign matter introduced. And finally, with bait there is the outside chance of catching one of the endangered schelley or vendace. They are both protected by law and most of the populations have been planted in the tarns to preserve the species, the tarn is their sanctuary and they should be left well alone.

A typically beautiful tarn trout; do release them all safely by using barbless flies or lures rather than bait.

Walking and safety tips:

When planning your tarn fishing session, weather forecasts can be useful but should not be relied upon. Weather in the hills can change in an instant, low cloud can soon engulf you reducing visibility to nil. An ability to read a map, use a compass and stay calm in a crisis is a must. Remember to tell someone where you are going and what time to expect you back.

Several thin layers of clothing helps to regulate body heat, they can be removed whilst hiking to stay cool and replaced at the lake when less energy is being spent and the breeze begins to feel colder.

A tarn trip will usually eat up the best part of a day so a 25 litre ‘daypack’ is useful for carrying essentials such as a meal, drink and a lightweight waterproof jacket and trousers.

The trail into the hills is steep and rugged and should be trod in stout, comfortable, preferably waterproof boots. I personally wear ‘high-end’ wellington boots which I find as comfortable as hiking boots, even if they have a little less support, as they do allow for a certain degree of wading once at the tarn.

Almost all tarns have a hiker’s trail passing close by (dotted line on your OS map) and this should be stuck to for safety and environmental reasons. Don’t be tempted to hike ‘as the crow flies’ as there is every chance of becoming ‘cragged’ (stuck on the fell-side), a common occurrence in both sheep and fell walkers!

It is likely that your chosen route into the hills will follow a tumbling, bubbling, crystal clear beck and it is for this reason that I personally string up my fly rod before setting off.

Below the trail where I sat, taking a minute to catch my breath, I looked down at a tiny trout sat in a pool no bigger than a bathtub. Upstream lay waterfalls, boulders, white water and plunge pools, downstream the watery staircase continued its descent towards a large lake below. I sat and scratched my head at this trout’s presence, wondered how it had ended up there in this seemingly unnavigable stream. The fish darted for cover as I rose to my feet, cast my shadow across the beck and continued my ascent to the tarn. A little upstream I came to a huge boulder, behind it in what I presumed had been its previous position, sat a deep crystal pool. Spurred on by what I’d seen earlier I strung up my fly rod and edged into position. The staircase like nature of the beck meant that the surface of the pool was level with my eye line as I stood with water running round my boots using the boulder as cover. A short cast placed my fly at the bubbling head of the pool and as it rode the bulging water a trout darted from below smashing violently into my artificial. I could hardly believe the scene I found myself in, it really was quite surreal; there I was sat in the blazing August sun quite literally perched on a mountain side holding a wild, lonely, pretty little trout.

(Above): Don’t ignore those pretty little becks! They will often have trout- if you’re as stealthy as Scott!

More About Me:

It’s been almost a decade since I first yomped into those hills to the trout in the sky. Over that time I’ve come to appreciate and love those waters and their inhabitants for what they. I like to catch large fish as much as anybody but there is something much more special about the tarn trout; size really does not matter. Over the years I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the amazing variations in appearance in these fish. Each little lake holds trout with their own quite distinct markings and colours and the diversity between the trout from different waters is really quite remarkable. I have been so enamoured by these little fish that last season I drew upon my artistic skills and began to document them and their appearances through the medium of watercolour.

It’s a ‘just for fun’ project but it has brought an increased spirituality to my mountain angling adventures. It has sharpened my awareness of the trout’s characteristics, made my observations more intense, I see things that I didn’t in the past and I feel a connection with my, our, ancestors; just as they painted their quarry on the walls of caves so now I reflect these trouts’ existence with my paintbrushes.”

*Be sure to visit Scott’s Facebook page, Scott Winstanley Art, where you can view more of his beautiful work!

Further Coarse & Fly Fishing in the Area:

The larger waters of the Lake District, such as Grasmere itself, can be trickier than the tarns if you simply want to get out catch fish. The trout, especially, can be hard to locate. The lake does have pike, however, with methods like drifting and trolling useful for searching out large areas successfully. There is also limited fly fishing on the River Rothay locally. Perhaps the best source for various day ticket fishing locally is the Windermere, Ambleside & District Angling Association: Click here to view their website.

Rothay Garden: The Perfect Hotel for Lake District Fishing Breaks

Situated right in the heart of some of the most beautiful walking and fishing territory in Cumbria, Rothay Garden Hotel makes an idyllic place to enjoy the wild splendour of the Lake District, along with wonderful food and accommodation. Furthermore, there are also plenty of things to do for non anglers and other family members, including a range of unique attractions and our superb Riverside Spa. See our main site and offers section for a range of tempting options.

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