Sunday, October 02, 2016


What a poor do. Six months of blogging inactivity shames me into this token summary - a full season of small triumphs, disasters and downright mediocrity bookended by a pair of modest scribblings that could scarce do it justice. Note to self: must try harder.

In truth, I probably wouldn't be writing this now, sat as I am at the kitchen table with a bottle of ale to hand, were it not for the gentle prodding of a friend with whom I fished recently. Tankred Rinder of the excellent German website Forelle und Asche was over this way with his friend Veit for a week of fishing in the north of England and in the weeks leading up to the trip, Rob Denson and I had agreed to meet up and make up a pair of boats on Malham Tarn. In truth it was a long overdue meeting, following several years of correspondence and phone calls and it was great to finally meet face to face and spend a day afloat discussing our love of the wild places and such.
Tankred has been very supportive of my writing over the years and whilst bobbing along gently in an easterly direction, he tactfully suggested that I should maybe get my arse into gear and update the blog. Fair 'nuff.

So what of my season? Well in a few words, it went like this: missed the first bit, got better, petered out, fished some interesting places, seemed to consistently miss the hatches and hit challenging conditions. Every year throws up its own memorable moments and 2016 has been no different so far, although I'd be lying if I told you that most of those memorable moments involved the capture of exceptional fish. There will be other seasons though, and moments to come when all the variables coincide and throw up that few minutes of fishing we dream about. When all is said and done, isn't that thought all we really need?

It's strange what sticks in your head. If I grasp at a handful of moments from the last nine months, a weirdly diverse cluster of memories surface. Could I call them defining moments? Well possibly although not all include the sort of success we generally hanker after. I think of the February day I spent belly deep in the barrelling waters of the upper Tweed, searching for large grayling in a high and just about fishable river. Large rivers are a challenging prospect at the best of times and even up beyond Peebles the Tweed is a serious proposition. For the visiting angler, unfamiliar with the fine detail of fish location on any particular beat, such outings generally rely on some intuition and rather a lot of luck. On that occasion I didn't make a particularly good fist of things and struggled like mad to find any fish at all, my nymphing technique becoming more and more ragged as the day wore on. I made brief contact with two grayling - obviously quite large - and that was it. Both twisted off in the heavy current after a few seconds of characteristic writhing.

Surveying a likely looking pool.

Something about the Tweed got under my skin that day. Knowledge of the river's potential and the certainty that given better conditions it could yield some memorable fish; the sheer scale of the valley and beauty of the surrounding area; a certain atmosphere, difficult to articulate but nevertheless tangible, typical of places which have deep rooted fly fishing traditions. I blanked, but was captivated and will surely return.

Spring brought a period of long working hours and snatched sessions at the waterside before I was able to escape for a couple of days up to Lochaber with my friend Stuart Minnikin. We had plans to tackle the formidable Lochs Arkaig and Lochy with the aim of hooking one of the ferox trout for which (along with nearby Shiel), these vast bodies of water have become notorious. Spurred on by the accounts of Stan Headley and Colin Riach, we took the services of Achnacarry Estate Warden Mark Hirst and his fine boat, and set about the task of tracking down these large and aggressive predators. This type of fly fishing has limited appeal for many; days spent covering large areas of bleak and windswept lochs with a team of large wets and little to go on but grim persistence and an odd reassuring word from your boatman....well it can be hard to keep focus when the only thing coming to your flies is a string of typically dark little bandies. A spray at the surface, rattle of the rod tip and another small trout comes bouncing in to the boat - good fun, but it doesn't take too many hours before you question whether you will ever contact something more substantial.

I had my moment right enough, at 7:30pm on our final day. Already some way beyond the 'going through the motions' threshold but still hopeful due to a nice softening of the light as the shadows started to lengthen, I pulled my point fly into something which felt more akin to a brick wall than the regulation skerrits I had been catching all day. A strange few seconds passed during which the unseen fish coasted slowly around the bow of the boat and the magnitude of what I had just hooked sunk in, before I adjusted myself to the task at hand and spent the following 15 minutes playing a game of cat and mouse with a trout which would in all likelihood give me an anxiety attack if only I could catch sight of it for the first time. A quarter of an hour is a long time to sit in a boat mulling over all the different ways in which an angler can lose a fish, but luck was on my side on this occasion and the huge ferox slipped over the rim of the net to become the biggest wild trout I have ever landed. She was a hen fish of 12lb 2oz and it will be a long time before I see her likes again.

Some trips are destined to be special. If I tell you that the day before Stuart had landed an even bigger beast, and that mine was only really a postscript to an already memorable few days, then it gives you some idea of the degree to which we dropped lucky. Unfortunately for me, the rest of the season struggled to reach such heights. It was if all my big fish chips had been cashed in one mad flush.

A brace of fish for 27lb 2oz! (RH photo courtesy of S. Minnikin)


The summer months brought a return to my usual haunts, but also a smattering of off the radar venues as I went exploring some of the less well documented bits of water around my native north west. I saw written somewhere recently that the brown trout is this country's most ubiquitous and widespread freshwater fish - something which I'd never really thought about properly before (if you'd asked me a few months ago I would probably have guessed at it being roach or chub or something); but when you think about that for a minute, it does make sense as our wild brown trout can be found in every nook and cranny of nearly every type of water we have, with the possible exception of lowland ponds. Nevertheless my scratting about off the beaten track yielded some nice surprises, including a day spent prospecting along a Pennine Beck which owing to its underlying geology, just ceased to exist in places before re-emerging in others, fully formed, a trout-filled delight.

Another venue, a hidden gem of a reservoir, yielded sport on a couple of occasions with trout of surprising quality up to 1lb 12oz - a good fish for this type of water. I witnessed something I hadn't seen on a wild upland water before: scores of trout porpoising at the surface in a most leisurely fashion amidst a thick hatch of midge. It was like spring on my local rainbow trout, but with small, dark brownies instead.

On the main rivers I found sport to be a little patchy, although that is most likely a product of not being on the water on consecutive days as much as anything else. I'm always mindful that even fishing as regularly as once a week, it's quite easy to build a tally of visits which coincide with less than ideal conditions or just simply miss the hatch events of that week. I had a lot of misses this year and only a few where a brief window of opportunity opened and I was able to fish dry amongst more than just an odd rising fish. One memorable July evening on the upper Eden I had diligently worked a number of pools with the nymph and returned a handful of average sized trout and grayling. There was no meat on the water and nothing fishy breaking the surface. I pottered about in the undergrowth for a while, turning butterbur and sycamore leaves, looking for signs of adult Blue-winged Olive spinners which might later end up on the surface; I looked up into the air around the tall trees and hawthorns....nothing. Fly fishers come to recognise such evenings as 'dead', having a heavy, flat feeling to the atmosphere and I've lost count of the number of such occasions in July and early August when I've left the river as good as empty handed, having waited until darkness for sport which I had felt all along just wouldn't materialise.

By 10:20pm I had worked my way to the top limit and broken my rod down with weary resignation. Wading back through the long grass of the meadows I came upon the pool which marks my departure from the river and across the fields back to the road. I heard it before I saw it - the gentle sipping of trout at the surface. Switching off my head torch and allowing a few second for my eyes to adjust to the silvered light over the open pool, I was treated to the sort of sight we often dream about but so rarely witness: dozens of fish, literally dozens, hard on the feed, each only a couple of feet apart and spread across the full width of the river for as far downstream as I could see. I could tell from the frequency of each rise and by the characteristic vee-shaped nebbing, that the fish were taking spent BWO spinners from the surface. Where these little blighters had been hiding for the rest of the evening, I had no idea.....and why hadn't I seen the plumes of them swarming slowly upstream over the water which so often precedes a fall such as this? Such unanswered questions are what make us return time and again in search of fly fishing enlightenment.

Suffice to say I managed a few fish that evening. The fall lasted for about twenty minutes more and all of my half dozen or so fish were hooked and landed in complete darkness, leaving me grinning ear to ear as I tramped back to the car. I wondered what it would be like to witness such intense activity in broad daylight. How many fish would I have returned then?

Such a small fly to incite such a feeding frenzy.....

And so to the dying days of the season and a couple of days afloat on Malham Tarn. September has been kind to me up there and I've been lucky to have days which will live with me into my dotage. I've also had some rather anti-climactic experiences. My penultimate visit mid-month was such an occasion and I laboured all day without so much as an offer. If you count a handful of small perch and a single cigar sized trout as success then maybe I could have claimed not to have blanked. But I don't. I hoped for better a couple of week later when our two friends from Koln were to join us for the day. I know Tankred and Veit had already enjoyed a fine week of fishing up to that point, but still, it's always nice for one of your special places to behave and show your guests what it can do.

On the day we certainly didn't see the tarn at its best, but a handful of trout were caught including a number of sub 1lbers which given a reputed growth rate of 250% the national average, can only bode well for the future. That's if the stink of cormorants we saw up there last month doesn't do too much damage over winter. Rob nailed a clonker first cast, Veit unfortunately succumbed to the curse of the first time visitor, I toiled away for the morning only to have a better afternoon with several fish to about 3lb, and Tankred went away happy with a couple of fine fish for his not inconsiderable efforts.

This late in the season you can happily fish away until dusk, and as the wind died and the horizon blushed, I switched to a pair of dries in the hope of rising one last fish. It wasn't to be; Malham trout are not readily tempted to the surface at the best of times. It was however, a lovely way to end the season; and in a year memorable not so much for the fishing itself, but for the friends with whom I was lucky enough to spend so much time, it was somehow fitting that we should sign off having made two new ones.

That rarest of beasts - the 'edge of darkness fishing selfie'

North Country Angler passed its tenth anniversary this June and back in the summer I had intended to write a post about what this means to me and the things that have happened as a result of its modest, but slowly increasing popularity. As with most of my plans at the moment it fell by the wayside, but now is the opportunity to thank everyone who has dropped by and offered support and encouragement over the years. I've been asked plenty of times recently if I have packed it in altogether, so infrequent have my posts become; and whilst I accept that the nature of a blog means it must be updated regularly to avoid the descent into oblivion, never once has that thought entered my head. Like I said at the top of this page: must try harder!

I hope you all had an enjoyable trout season, and to those who intend to grayling fish through the winter months, I'll maybe see you by the river sometime.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Rolling the dice.

One evening last week I took a ride down the back lanes on my bike and although I could feel the last of winter's chill, blackbirds were busy nipping in and out of the hedgerows and the smell of cowshit spread over the pastures filled the still air and it felt like spring had just about arrived. When I diverted down the canal towpath for a couple of miles and saw a crowd of lapwings come wheeling up into the sky from behind a stand of poplars, I knew it for sure and although the trout season is already a fortnight old around these parts, my thoughts turned in earnest to the catching of them for the first time since last September.

I have a habit of comparing the progress of the season to the years which preceded it; and so I recalled my first outing of 2015 spent afloat on Coniston Hall Lake with Stu Llewellyn on a day of dead calm and heavy fog. The two springs before started slowly, particularly 2013 when winter clung on bitterly until late in April and although I caught fish, they were were thin and malnourished; but 2012 brought memories of fishing in a T-shirt during the second week of March for trout which had already been hard on the feed for weeks. We never really know what hand we are going to be dealt until the time arrives - a fact which I find endearing. The unpredictability of our climate can be a great frustration at times but I wouldn't have it any other way. Besides, ask any keen angler and they will regale you with stories of how they had red letter days in seemingly hopeless conditions...or fell flat on their faces when all seemed set for a bonanza. The thing which keeps us going is hope far more than any certainty - the possibles and dreams, successes and occasional kickings. Our changing seasons have a huge part to play in that.

If my first outing of last season was spent reclining in the sun with my feet resting on the gunnels of a rowboat, then this year was very different. I might well have sensed gathering vernal momentum whilst out on my bike midweek, but come Saturday the story was somewhat different, a three week period of quiet weather broken by a fast approaching Atlantic front. I had no choice, family commitments dictating I had to act or miss out; so I headed out to our club water on the Ribble and met up with Stuart for a day of battling the forecast gales and lashing rain, both of us harbouring the sole intention of catching a first trout of the new season.

We just about got away with it. By choosing a relatively steep-banked and wooded beat, we avoided the worst of a wind which gusted at 20-30mph all day; and although conditions were far from good, the rain did us a favour and held off until late in the afternoon. So where it had looked like borderline madness to even consider leaving the house in the morning, there were times when it was almost pleasant to be down there with the clear water, wagtails and blooming primroses. And olives, for there was a decent hatch too. The Ribble hereabouts is a cracking early river: by mid February I have usually caught grayling on the dry fly and by the time the trout season starts, intense flushes of Large Dark Olives can usually be relied upon if you know where to look. Five minutes after arriving at a likely spot, Stuart had already broken his duck with a bright little trout which took the foam dun amidst a trickle of naturals - and this at only 11:30am.

If this early action promised much for the rest of the day then we were to be disappointed. An hour or so later, the hatch was in full swing with skittering duns everywhere, windblown across the ruffled pools and gathering in foamed back eddies in such number it felt surprising that so few fish seemed prepared to rise. In all likelihood they were put off by the speed with which the flies were gripped by the breeze and away - although I can recall a number of occasions when trout were prepared to chase down such targets, and an actively skating dun imitation reaped rewards, this wasn't to be one of them: save for a handful of almost reluctant risers the fish stayed down as the incongruously large number of olives popped out to be sent careering off across the waves.

We could have concentrated on nymphing - later events suggested this would have been a wise move - but somehow it feels right to catch one's first trout of the season on the surface doesn't it? So we persevered for a while for little reward (another small fish for Stuart). My timing proved poor and I missed a couple before resorting miserably to the duo for a time and the capture of a nice grayling, which barely two weeks after it would have been very welcome, felt like a let-down.

Baetis rhodani just about clear of its shuck....

.....and the foam dun, a brilliantly successful imitation

There's been a lot of talk of flood damage lately. A friend who fishes the upper Eden reports mass substrate movement, siltation and filling in of once productive pools. Coupled with the amount of gravel lying on the bank rather than where it should be and poor early hatches reported in some places, well it's easy to become discouraged and there is a good chance that some reaches will suffer for a while. However I've heard more extreme views, some anglers claiming this season is as good as a dead loss as fish 'will have got washed out to sea', along with catastrophic damage to spawning beds and every insect in the river lying dead and shrivelled in the fields. I can't help but think this is uneccessarily alarmist and we should be looking for all the positive signs (such as our good recent Ribble hatches), rather than coming over all negative when kick samples show up a slight drop in some invert groups against usual expectations. After all, as Stuart reminded me this weekend, our rivers have survived for millenia, and no doubt far more devastating floods than those we have witnessed this winter. Granted there might be a short term decline while nature recovers, but our perspective is dangerously narrow these days. We so readily underestimate natural forces of nature and climate to both create and destroy, preferring instead to attribute everything from short term global temperature trends to flooding and drought to man's own negligent hand. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting for one moment that we shouldn't be vigilant in our care and management of the environment, but as Mike Scott once sang only the mountains live forever, only the Earth endures. It will do so long after we are just so much fossilised rock. Maybe we should all just chill out a bit. 

With the hatch failing, we turned to nymphs. Not fished tenkara style, or off a French leader, or dedicated nymph line; just old fashioned upstream nymphing using the tip of the fly line to dedect takes. Modern writings and social media would have you believe that such heavy handed methods are all but obsolete these days when such presentational advantages can be gained from the aforementioned. But of course this is rubbish. Make no mistake, I'm a massive fan of what these methods bring us, but sometimes it's reassuring to know that what we used to do, how we used to fish......well we caught then as well didn't we? In the difficult conditions of Easter Saturday, upstream nymphing felt like exactly the right tactic - longish casts, line laid on the surface out of grasp of the wind, dead-drifting a single or pair of small patterns through likely scoops and dubs. The tenkara rods stayed stowed in our backpacks as we took advantage of fish still willing to move to sub surface patterns where earlier thay had shown indifference to the hatch. With tapered leaders still attached and 'proper casting' used, it felt less like winter grayling fishing and more like what we had come for: the first act of a long summer of glorious trouting.

We were rewarded for some hard searching in the end. On the upper beat, in long skinny reaches of pocket water, we found occasional trout in short scoops, their mere existence a testament to the resilience of nature. Without the safety of any deeper pools of note for hundreds of yards in either direction, these fish will have likely seen out the entire winter holed up within their little strongholds, sheltering under boulders, tree roots, undercut banks, before emerging once more to feed - the apex predator holding station for the summer. Stu found the first one - a lovely golden fish of 1lb 12oz - before I finally got my season off the mark and landed a slightly bigger, and much darker looking beast from an inconsequential little channel in the bedrock. And that was pretty much that: a handful of hard-won fish from a low, clear river in blustery conditions felt like a decent enough result, and as the rain finally set in at the intensity which had been forecast for much of the day, we were reminded that just to be out there and enjoying ourselves at all was a decent enough result too. We rolled the dice and dropped lucky; but the best of the year awaits.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Top Flies of 2015 - Pimped-up Snipe & Purple

How reassuring that a fly dating back to the 19th Century should prove to be one of my little revelations of 2015, the introduction of a tiny smear of synthetic fibres resulting in something very interesting indeed. Not that it would be the first time I've meddled with a traditional spider pattern. In moments of boredom I have in the past committed all sorts of heinous crimes against the principles of our flytying forebears, the jumbled results of which used to occupy a compartment of my spider box which was seldom opened except in moments of desperation and/or clouded judgement. Time wasted stripping hooks with a razor blade has taught me one thing: if an embellishment is to be made to such a classic, then it must be a subtle one if the resultant variant is to be fished with anything like seriousness.

So after a glut of failed experiments, I always played a straight bat where my spiders are concerned, and tied them pretty much as the textbooks dictate....up until a couple of years ago when Paul Procter converted me to his Waterhen Bloa variant, the 'Pearly Butt'. That fly was - and still is - a revelation, to the point where I seldom tie my waterhens 'neat' anymore. To look into a box of Pearly Butt Bloas and see tiny glints of yellow olive irridescence winking out from the tangle of gunmetal, is to appreciate that a couple of turns of tinsel can lift an already deadly pattern to a whole new level.

I took inspiration from Paul a while later and after being amazed at the weird lilac-green fire emitted from certain shades of Hends Microflash dubbing, took a punt one afternoon and tied a batch of Dark Purple Snipes with a tiny dab of the aforesaid dubbed in behind the hackle. I kind of liked the result and gave the 'pimped-up' snipes a couple of run outs in the weeks that followed. The results were surprising. Fished upstream on a tenkara leader, I caught late season grayling straightaway. If paired with another fly, the flashy number always seemed to be the one to score, be it at point or dropper position. One afternoon I conducted an experiment and fished a team of three down and across: a pair of traditional snipes with the new version occupying the traditionally 'troublesome' middle dropper between them. You can guess where this is headed eh? An hour later I'd seen enough and my confidence in that tiny speck of flash was reinforced.........

Since then, I have - much as the case with Paul's waterhen variant - more or less eschewed the old school pattern altogether. Whether over time that proves to be an error of judgement, who knows; but for the time being it feels like a good call. Give this one a swim and see if you find the same.

4. Pimped-up Snipe & Purple

Hook: spider hook of choice #14-18
Thread: purple silk
Thorax: tiny wisp of Microflash #18
Hackle: snipe over covert

This might be a good juncture to mention the forthcoming Wild Trout Trust auction which takes place from 4th March this year. As always, there will be some excellent lots available and I cannot think of a better conservation body to support for anyone who cares about wild trout and their environment. Our club - the Yorkshire Fly Fishers' Club - will be donating a couple of days fishing on otherwise private beats of fine northern game rivers; and I have donated a box of spiders, the two patterns above featuring along with some other more conventional tyings (and an oddball one of my own favourites). If you like the look of the flies below, please do have a bid for this great cause!

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Top Flies of 2015 - Deerhair Daddy

I spent most of the first half of 2015 eagerly anticipating a weeklong jaunt up into the wilds of Sutherland - call it an early 40th birthday present from an ever generous wife - and the weeks which preceded this adventure were spent accumulating all sorts of camping and fishing related stuff, and tying flies. Lots of flies. After a few seasons of neglecting stillwater trout somewhat, my boxes of suitable patterns had come to look a little neglected - more gap than fly, and an awful lot of that crushed and flattened hackle look which even a blast over the steaming kettle failed to reverse satisfactorily. Besides, I had all sorts of plans for tyings which would drive those stupidly ravenous educated and wily loch bandies mad; so I embarked upon a concerted attempt to fill my sorry boxes with a decent selection of wets and dries.

This sort of thing doesn't come easy to me. It requires a wholesale leap of faith from the usual form/profile/attitude paradigm of river fly dressing and a step into the altogether less prescriptive realms of colour blends, transmitted light and mobility. It is a task for a more creative mind than mine, and when I look at the output of exponents such as Rob Denson it leaves me feeling deflated that I will never have the ability to produce work of such a standard. Nevertheless I cracked on and with practice began to turn out flies which I felt were of at least an acceptable standard. I knew at the time that the vast majority would remain more or less unfished; trips like these usually result in a good deal of experimentation, but only handful of favourite patterns - perhaps even a single team - being fished religiously every day after proving successful early on. And so it was: muddled Kate McLaren and Peter Ross variants, Arthur MacDonald's 'Wee Westie'.....and this - a regulation deerhair daddy. Little else was required other than Mayfly patterns when treated to a big mixed hatch of danica and vulgata one day on Loch Awe.

This Daddy was rarely off my cast; either fished singly or as half of a dry fly pair, or at the top of a pulled wet fly team, it drew lively little trout from nearly everywhere we fished. Not that any special powers can be attributed to it of course - any suitable concoction would have found similar favour among the hoards - but of all the patterns I relied upon that week, I enjoyed fishing this one most. I love how specific fishing memories sometimes become tattoed on the mind and come to define one's recollection of the wider experience: midway through one day drifting Fionn Loch we pitched alongside a bed of bankside rushes and enjoyed a few minutes of sport where bronzed trout rose from inches of water to slash at our flies. The day had warmed and the light was good, and the Daddy looked perfect on the water, and with the backdrop of Scotland's oldest, most iconic landscape and Suilven standing guard over it, as it had seven years earlier when I last drifted this shore; at that moment all was particularly well with the world.

3. Deerhair Daddy

Hook: Kamasan B160 #10
Thread: UTC70 olive
Rib: flat gold tinsel
Body: blend of brassy and golden olive seals fur
Legs: dyed picric pheasant tail, twice knotted
Wing: light roe deer, 'smuddled'

Friday, January 01, 2016

Top flies of 2015 - the Fruit Salad Nymph

Pink and orange: two colours that should never really be seen together, unless on a tasteless 1970s kaftan, or the wrapper of my favourite chewy sweets back from when I was a kid. Or as the by-product of a bored fly-tyer's winter experiments. I incorporated just this combination into a nymph tied with no specific purpose a little over a year ago and shoved a couple in the fly box without any real conviction they would ever see the light of day again. That it proved to be one of my most successful flies of the year goes some way to showing that you should never discount anything in fly fishing, and at the same time generated some interesting discussion with mates about the stock we put in colours in our flies and what actually are the key triggers which induce a fish to eat our imitations.

Tracing my own learning curve back over the years tells a story of an angler who first tried to tie any fly which would catch a fish, followed by a desire to more closely copy the insects upon which trout and grayling subsist, before giving that enterprise up as a waste of energy and reverting to a bare bones 'profile and presentation' ethos much championed by the likes of Bob Wyatt. In other words, after ridding myself of the erroneous belief that correct fly choice is paramount at all times, I happily spudged along for a few seasons using a handful of patterns which I believed - and still do - would catch any trout anywhere, provided I put them in the right place with the right presentation. It's a maxim I still adhere to and I firmly believe that these wild creatures we pursue which possess a brain the size of a pea....well put something which looks and behaves like food in front of them and they aren't going to refuse it are they. In that sense you could view tying for spate river nymph fishing as purely a function of achiveing correct profile and size and density to fish at the required depth, such that when a broadly, say heptagenid-shaped object flits past in brisk water, Mr Trout is compelled to shimmy sideways within his 'territory radius' and intercept.

All well and good. However the problem is that my obsession with the above theory doesn't help explain how bright colours in sub surface flies can apparently give a pattern a real edge in certain conditions. Maybe a touch of colour helps the fly get noticed a fraction quicker as it tumbles past, but for the life of me I cannot envisage a trout or grayling moving any great distance to take a nymph, purely because of some irresistible attraction to a brightly coloured tag; sure, if it is in the right zone then it's probably going to be eaten - even if it's drab and nondescript right? Where the hell this leaves me is anyone's guess and there isn't going to be a definitive answer anytime soon. The reality is probably - as with most ponderables in nature - a coalescence of several subtle variables which add up to a whole that we ignorant humans lack the perception to understand. Plus angler confidence. Plus - to paraphrase Paul Gaskell - our innate tendency to prove things to ourselves by reinforcement of positive outcomes rather than discounting by negative outcomes.

Anyway, I'm waffling. Irrespective of whether this nymph is so effective because of its nymphy profile or the colour combination in the tail, I suppose all we really need to know is that it is effective. In fact on its day and in certain conditions, it has proved unbelievably deadly for me - hence its inclusion in this series. What I can tell you is that it fishes well in smaller sizes, does particularly well in low water conditions fished French leader or Tenkara style, seems to give of its best when the water is clear and although it works for grayling, trout seem to particularly like it. A lot!

2. Fruit Salad Nymph

Hook: small jig hook - I use Hends 120s in #16 and 18
Bead: slotted to suit - pink gold used here
Thread: Griffiths sheer 14/0
Tail: two strands each of Glo brite floss #1 and #7
Rib: fine black wire
Body: dark hare mask
Collar hackle: CDC, wound
Thorax: Spectra #335

Top flies of 2015 - the DSS

Customary as it is to look back and review one's fly fishing season, I have been reflecting of late upon what has been a steady but unspectacular 2015. Actually I might be doing a disservice there, because although the sport in terms of fish caught has been a little undewhelming at times, it has been one of the most enjoyable seasons I can remember. Increasingly, as I get older and supposedly wiser, fishing for me is more about the experience - the places, the friends, the knowledge gained and shared - than what was once an almost rabid desire to catch more and bigger fish than before. Those of you who are older than me will no doubt take this opportunity to roll your eyes and mutter about the naivety of youth and so on. Well please welcome me to the fold. I turned 40 last month, thus entering the second half of my lifetime and will no doubt need to purchase a wading stick soon.

I will spare you the navel gazing review of my season and instead pinch an idea. Back in early 2014, Stuart Minnikin ran a series of blog posts on his top performing fly patterns of the previous year (this link will put you in the right ballpark). I greatly enjoyed this at the time - it's always cool to have a look into another angler's flybox and see which patterns they rate, and why. I struggle to find time to maintain this blog these days, but even so I notice that it's a while since I discussed fly patterns in any depth so maybe now would be a good time to borrow Stuart's format and post half a dozen of the past year's favourites.

It didn't take me too long to pick which six, despite the fact that several very productive little numbers have failed to make the cut. I went for the flies which proved to have something a bit extra and as a result spent most time on my cast in 2015; if a handful of equally deadly patterns - such as Craigies Killer, Arthur's Wee Westie, lilac shrimp etc - have been left unmentioned, then it's not because of any failing on their part but just that, like inviting guests to a wedding, I had to draw a line somewhere.

So here goes. What I can tell you about the following series of flies is that in accordance with my own strict set of guidelines, they are all robust, dead quick and easy to tie, and catch fish reliably. In no particular order........


1. DDS

Naming flies is not one of my strong points. I always feel a little awkward about it - as if by naming a fly I am somehow claiming sole ownership when in fact all I have created is a variant of a formula tried and tested many times before. So any names tend to be functional and descriptive, just a means of identifying each pattern for my own benefit. This one is a great example: you'll notice that the genetic makeup of this excellent little dry follows the now ubiquitous 'CDC dun' template, and there can't be many river fishers up and down the country who haven't carried something similar for a least the last ten years. My own version has always used Masterclass dubbing for the body and proved as successful as any other, although I tended to reserve it for fishing in smaller sizes on quiet glides later in the season when dry fly fishing becomes a bit more testing. I have never been a fan of this template for early season fishing though, purely because I find it a bit too much of a faff for fishing brief spring olive hatches in popply water, when after a long winter lay-off I want to concentrate on catching all those rising trout rather than a CDC maintenance regime (if anyone is interested, a discussion is offered in this edition of Eat Sleep Fish).

So this little variant came about as my attempt to address that issue and give a bit more beef to the deadly CDC dun forumla. I added in a tiny pinch of deerhair to the wing and dubbed a body of snowshoe hare - two more materials noted for their buoyancy, and the 'inspiration' behind my utilitarian label (DDS = Deer/Duck/Snowshoe). Granted, there is a compromise in that some delicacy is lost when compared to say a stripped quill body, but as the intention was to use this in more broken water during spring large dark olive, iron blue and olive upright hatches, it didn't unduly concern me that the fly carried a bit more bulk.

In testing, the DDS proved itself many times over in the first half of the 2015 season and pleasingly, the additonal structural support given by the deer hair and snowshoe does indeed extend the period over which the fly can be fished without having to reach for the bottle brush and Frog's Fanny. More time fishing and less time primping - what's not to like!

Hook: any lightweight dry fly hook in 14-16 range. I like Hends BL404
Thread: Griffiths 14/0 sheer
Tail: Coq de Lyon, or any suitable cock fibres
Body: fine underfur from the foot of a snowshoe hare
Wing: a few coastal deer hair tips, plus a single CDC feather tip

It's worth mentioning that the CDC can also be substituted for a few of the coarser 'guard hairs' from the snowshoe foot, which makes for an even easier to maintain fly, if a little more on the bulky side. I suppose I'd have to call that one something like the DSMS (Deer/Snowshoe/More Snowshoe).

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Catching up...and spreading some Sunray love.

It has come around to that miserable time again - that time when suddenly, in a matter of hours, the season turns and leaves us quietly contemplating the highs and lows of our trout fishing recently passed. It happens every autumn, usually toward the rear end of October, and always takes me by surprise even though I can feel it coming a handful of days before. Where a week ago - enjoying the atmosphere of glorious autumnal stillness - I was telling anyone willing to listen what a fabulous part of the year this is, now I find myself cooped up in the house as the rain beats against the conservatory roof and mushy leaf litter builds against the garage wall. I bloody hate this time of year, I complained to my wife this morning.

Grayling fishing awaits of course, and for that I am thankful. There is something comforting about the drawing in of the nights and fishing restricted once more to sociable hours, to afternoon outings brief enough to mitigate against the worst of the cold. Yes I'll look forward to winter proper, but for the time being this inbetweeny stuff is just tedious.

I have a few things to keep me occupied - a couple of writing projects, fly stocks to begin replenishing, a stupidly long tenkara rod to learn how to cast (all fifteen feet of it), and an approaching birthday which really shouldn't be a big deal, but for some reason folks seem to think otherwise. This winter will see me take reluctant steps into the world of fly tying demonstration and I have been 'booked' (can you believe that!), for a couple of events, the first of which is an open day in two weeks time at Stuart and Vicky Hooley's  Fly Only shop in Shelley. Worryingly I'll be in esteemed company and can only hope they will find a quiet corner to tuck me away in so I can tie squirmy wormies undisturbed. If you see a guy trying not to be noticed whilst tying flies in the exact opposite to textbook manner, it will more than likely be me.

Recent fishing has been characterised by inconsistency and a tendency to experiment for the sake of it. I have spent much of the trout season's back end with either tenkara rod in hand, or when fishing 'normal' style, with one of a pair of innovative lines strung through the rings which are both far removed from that which we have become accustomed to. Tom Bell's Sunray products are very interesting indeed and are fast gaining a cult following which threatens to expand into widespread acceptance some time very soon. And with good reason - Tom's lines push the boundaries of what is possible with conventional western rod and line approach and certainly offer something worth exploring for those anglers willing to keep an open mind. I have tried two profiles and I'll describe them both briefly here:

World Championship Nymph

I was sceptical at first. Early in the year I had tried the Rio Comp nymph and equivalent Cortland lines and came away unimpressed - lacking both the subtlety of French Leader method and the 'oomph' to deliver flies in the traditional manner, they represented a compromise and little more. I found it hard to see how Sunray's 'WCN' would perform any better. However it turns out I wasn't really comparing apples with apples - whereas the former have tapers built in and are basically just ultra light fly lines, the WCN is an extremely thin, level running line - so let's straightaway dismiss any notion of being able to cast this line in the conventional sense as there just isn't sufficient mass there to make it a viable option when any sort of distance is required. This is (as the name cunningly suggests), a nymphing line which functions best at short range - Czech and French style ranges - where 'casting' is made possible by the momentum of the weighted flies more than any tangible loading of the rod.

You might then question the need for this line - how can it offer any advantage over a leader only setup? I struggled with this question myself on the first couple of outings, wanting to warm to it but being thwarted by cold logic. Even now several months later, my honest conclusion is that it doesn't really offer a significant advantage at all. But that's not the point - it's a different beast and not designed as a FL substitute. What I will say is that it is an absolute joy to use and when I think now about the number of times I've come away from the river with and ear-to-ear grin on my face after using the WCN, then that for me makes it a worthwhile addition to my armoury. After that first couple of sessions I stopped trying to analyse the line and what it could and couldn't do better than other products, and just gave myself over to enjoying the way it handles and fishes. It has since become one of my favourite bits of kit.

In practice the WCN behaves not all that differently to a French leader and certainly if you are au fait with this branch of fly fishing, then you will quickly get the hang of how this line fishes. However, there are a couple of noticeable differences - ones which I like very much: Firstly, the line is extremely light and supple - much more so than an equivalent mono construction - and this is manifestly obvious when you see how offers register so positively, the tip darting forward so agressively that the take can often be felt under the rod hand fingertips milliseconds after the visual indication - the fish appear to feel so little resistance that they hang on to the nymph confidently.

 A pleasing by product of this - and one which actually becomes a necessity if anything of a wind picks up - is that the line can be 'laid-on' the surface with little fear of compromising presentation; in fact I would argue that this is where the WCN excels: rather than fishing very short and holding the full curve clear of the surface - and let's face it you can do that equally well, or better, with a leader only setup - this line works brilliantly at a slightly greater range with a few feet on the water acting as an anchor point to counteract any breeze. In this sense it offers a kind of bridge between modern Euro nymph tactics (God I hate that term!), and good old fashioned upstream nymphing. The latter was the very first method I ever learned to fish on running water and I have rued the fact many times in recent years that modern methods have rendered it all but obsolete. The fact that Tom's line allows me to make a return - albeit a greatly refined return - to this cornerstone of north country river fishing, makes me a happy man indeed. For that reason alone I have no hesitation in recommending the WCN line to you - it's a smashing bit of kit.

Rob Marsden giving the WCN line a go on the Eden recently.

A couple of points worth noting:
1. The line is expensive - at £60 for what is ostensibly just a fine running line, one might be forgiven for baulking at the price. Take comfort then from the fact that you will be participating in the evolution of something special. Tom is on a drive to continuously improve his products and is keen to listen to angler feedback in hope of bettering what is already out there. I reckon it's worth supporting businesses like this and would sooner splash out some hard-earned to be involved in such a project, than lining the pockets of the folks at Rio et al. And be assured that this is not just the off-cut from the arse-end of a #1 WF floater - there is some magic going on which I'm not yet able to put my finger on.
2. Further to above, and considering the relatively short range you will be fishing this line, it's perfectly feasible to cut it in two or even three pieces and save some for later. Durability does appear to be good (mine is as good as new after about a dozen full sessions), so by boxing clever your initial outlay could see you through a good few seasons.
3. Bear in mind some thought needs to be given to how you set up the business end of the line as it is too fine to work with the braided loop/plastic sleeve method favoured by many, and exposing the core and whipping a loop won't work either. If you want to go with some sort of braid connector (I use a 4 inch length of fluo orange stuff which doubles up as a sighter - see photo above), then it will need to be secured to the tip of the line using thread whipping and varnish - which is a bit more DIY than some anglers are willing to commit to.

Jeremy Lucas Presentation Line

Released a few months ago, this line is a different beast to the WCN. It is very thin - ultra thin I suppose you'd call it - but carries a line rating and WF taper which allows it to be properly cast like a 'normal' fly line. How this is achieved I have no idea and I doubt Tom is going to divulge his secrets anytime soon! In my simple little mind the equation must go like this: decreasing diameter of line, but maintaining just enough mass to load the appropriately rated rod must mean that density of the construction material is increased.....which would tend to make the thing want to sink, would it not? Well I can confirm that it does float, it does cast (not as easily as a conventional line, but perfectly well at regulation river range), and it is exceptionally thin.

The foregoing makes for an interesting line indeed, but  - and I'll qualify this by admitting I have only used it a couple of times so far - to date I'm less convinced of its merits. That's not to say it isn't useful, quite the opposite: it makes a very good nymphing and 'duo' line (although greater mass means it isn't as agile as the WCN or leader only methods), and yes it makes a passable dry fly line too, although I would like a few more tries of it in this application before making my mind up. But it is a compromise - a great option to give a little of the best of all worlds when you expect to be facing a variety of different scenarios in one day and can't be bothered with changing lines to suit, but it woudn't be my first choice for nymphing, and at the moment I'm struggling to see a quantum leap advantage in dry fly scenarios. The line definitely warrants further investigation though and I'll be giving it a fair crack of the whip next season. Jeremy Lucas, who for so long promoted the benefits of the 'leader to hand' method reckons this line has rendered the former obsolete - that is some endorsement and not one to be ignored easily.

The line is finished in understated grey and as with the WCN, some thought needs to go into making the leader connection, owing to the fine diameter of the tip. I arrived at a workable solution by using the smallest size of Moser Minicon, substituting the plastic sleeve with a short thread whip to secure the braid to the fly line.


I mentioned earlier that my late season had been inconsistent, and so it has. That's not to say it was bad as such, just a bit unpredictable. Some superb dry fly sport on the Eden and mysterious arrival of larger than average trout and grayling on our bit of the Ribble, was punctuated by a couple of slow sessions and a general lack of water in my local rivers. My planned trips up to the hilltarns never quite seemed to come off and a last visit to Malham Tarn yielded an 'almost-blank'. Trips out guiding auction lot winners Rob, Gordon and Daran on our Yorkshire Fly Fishers' Club waters, met with brassy sunshine and a river well off its gauge on each occasion - not the ideal scenario when introducing guests to water you've spent the previous weeks hyping up. A day out with Stuart Minnikin saw us struggle against a slowly rising and colouring river following heavy rain at the watershed, and then on a return visit with Paul Procter a couple of weeks later I managed to take a full body dunking when I slipped in off the bank - a demonstration of stealth that left this country's foremost stalker of big trout looking somewhat nonplussed!

I'll sign off with a handful of photos from the recent weeks, and a promise not to leave it so long before the next post. I hope you all had a fine trout season and wish you luck should you go in search of winter grayling.

Stu fishes an overgrown limestone beck

Typical summer trout off the Eden

Griffiths Gnats and Terry's Specks - proper end of season fare!

And preparations for winter grayling - the 'Fruit Salad' nymph

Contemplating the passing of another trout season

All the best,

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Extreme solutions to extreme problems

Ne'er a more pitiful trickle did I ever see than the upper River Eden on a couple of recent visits. The public may well be wingeing about what a cold and unpleasant year of weather we have had so far, but there's no escaping the fact that the spring and summer period around this neck of the woods has been incredibly dry and whilst it might not constitute a drought in most people's eyes, a drought it most certainly is. For the second year running I've seen the upper reaches drop to a full five inches below normal summer level  - to a state so critically lacking that we must be thankful the dry conditions haven't been accompanied by a proper heatwave.
Similar conditions played out for a period last summer, but with daytime air temperatures in the high twenties, I came to the river on one particular evening and found that the fish I returned fought only weakly and took some time to recover upon release. I felt uneasy at that and left well alone until rains came and freshened things up. I have yet to encounter such so far this season, but I'm on guard make no mistake, and if rain is not forthcoming in the next week or two and the water temperature rises, I'm pretty sure the river will reach a state where not only is it barely worth fishing, but the act of catching will be barely ethical in itself.

That brown trout and grayling continue to thrive in such adverse environment seems hard to comprehend, but of course they do. Like all of Mother Nature's creations, fish are built to withstand surprising extremes within their habitat and whilst they might not occupy the parts of the river in which we would usually expect to find them and behave in the manner we would expect them to, they are still present, still willing to feed, and still in good nick. Like the invertebrates upon which they subsist, they work out a different survival strategy to suit the prevailing conditions.

If we are to continue to catch them, our strategies must adapt too. Certainly from the experiences I've had, and talking to a handful of friends, some pretty specific approaches have been necessary in keeping touch with the fish. 

A couple of years ago I put together some thoughts on the various considerations of tackling trout in very low water conditions (you can find it here). The handful of principles described there have stood me in good stead and continue to do so, but one in particular really does come to the fore when the river drops onto its bones - that of leader length. My friend Richard Tong recently described a couple of tricky sessions on the Eden where he had needed to extend his leader to as long as 17' to get the presentation (with if memory serves, an extremely small single nymph pattern) he needed without spooking his target trout. That sums it up for me - doing what needs to be done to get the required presentation. There is a lot of heated discussion takes place over leader construction and length these days, particularly since we have so many different options available to us, and the modern trend for longer rods lending itself to carrying a longer leader than would hitherto have been considered the norm.

The argument in favour - and it is a persuasive one - is that in tricky conditions the longest tapered leader that can be satisfactorily managed  by the angler in question and in the prevailing conditions, offers the following benefits:
i) it distances the important bit - the fly - from the tip of the fly line. Needless to say the importance of this varies depending on the type of water being fished (faster, broken water will always be more forgiving than flat, slow stuff), and water colour etc; but we are talking about the toughest low water conditions here and in such circumstances I subscribe firmly to the 'accumulation of small gains' theory. It might sound more hassle than it's worth to extend your leader from say 14' to 16', but if it buys you that large, skittish fish which would have been so easy to spook, then the decision is the right one (obviously there is a balance to be struck here: it's easy to confuse 'optimum' leader length with 'maximum' leader length and you need to rely on your own experience to tell you at what threshold your presentation tips from being as good as it can be to actually suffering because you're using too long a leader for the circumstances).
ii) it gives a better chance of defeating micro-drag. Since writing that blog post two years ago, I've tried to pay very close attention to the notorious, dreaded micro drag. To be honest, the dry summers we have had recently have afforded ample opportunity to get to know this horrible phenomenon and I have now come to believe that this is truly where the long leader earns its corn. The rivers I fish are all about foam lanes (I suspect most are), those beautiful conveyor belts of trout food; and if feeding fish are to be found rising to surface insects, it will usually be in or immediately adjacent to such channels. When the water levels are 'good' then these lanes tend to be reasonably wide and of a decent, even pace; but when levels drop low and the power of the current diminishes, then so the foam lanes become narrow - often ridiculously so - and in losing momentum, begin to meander around in sinuous convolutions - 'peedling currents' I call them.
Previously 'easy' pools can now become a nightmare of tiny seams and extremely subtle differences of surface speed, which at first glance just looks like fairly straightforward, even-paced water. I have found this to my cost so many times now, particularly in the low evening light when it becomes all the more difficult to track the drift of the artificial against the true drift of immediately adjacent debris or foam flecks. The longer leader tips the balance hugely in one's favour now, in that an extended, gentle taper is easier to throw some slack into, and supple enough to fold into the drag of counter-currents for that vital couple of seconds longer. As above though, an optimum length has to be arrived at so as not to compromise accuracy - another vital requirement when targeting fish rising in the most diminished of foam lanes.

Richard's success with his seventeen footer might have demonstrated the more extreme end of the scale (although ask him and he will tell you an interesting story of a mate using one in excess of 20'), and in most cases, I find 14-16' provides the required performance, particularly when coupled with a long rod, holding as much line off the surface as possible. However the principle remains: that day Richard snurdled out some belting fish at a time when no other anglers saw it even worth venturing forth - a great example of adapting technique to suit exceptional circumstances.

Of course, a similar approach can be made for low water sub surface work when the invertebrate drift - or lack of - keeps the fish down amongst the stones. Modern French leader type tactics were designed for such trying situations, and in faster stretches, Tenkara makes a damned good fist of it too. As with much of last season, a lot of my time has been spent so far this summer pitching small nymphs into skinny water at the pool heads, in the absence of anything much more constructive to do. It is absorbing stuff, and a delight to find sizeable trout lying in water which would barely get one's shins wet when waded through. The constant low water situation has resulted in many fish shoehorning up into the very busiest, most oxygenated habitat which remains and it's often possible to catch several fish within close proximity of each other, all apparently jockeying for position in some of the skinniest streams imaginable. A single, lightly weighted olive nymph has proved hard to beat in such circumstances and nearly always accounts for a good number of fish while waiting for the evening rise.

And so to a second marginal tactic which has made a great difference to my low water success rate recently - the night time dry fly. If there's one complaint to be heard from local anglers at the moment, it concerns the perceived lack of dry fly sport on our rivers. There is no doubt that - particularly where the Cumbrian Eden is concerned - we have had a couple of lean seasons where top of the water sport has been decidedly patchy. I've heard loads of opinions on this, ranging from resigned acceptance of the ways of the natural world, through a perceived lack of invertebrates, or even fish....right the way to some suggestions that the river is just about knackered! It would be lovely to have the answers, and although I've heard a few theories (and have a couple of my own), I won't bore you by discussing them here.

One thing is for certain though: there is a hell of a lot of surface feeding activity going on in full darkness, as several late nights have demonstrated recently. Maybe it was ever so and it's just that I've only begun to latch onto the fact over the last couple of years; then again I've long been a fan of fishing well into the summer darkness and only recently have I noticed proper, bona fide mass emergences occurring at around the time sport would normally drop off and I'd be heading back to the car. Chinwagging with friends has revealed a similar story, most notably two separate reports I received from sea trout fishers who have found themselves in the middle of a mass Blue-winged olive emergence in the wee hours of the morning. My own experiences have been less extreme and I've been stripped out of the waders by midnight, but having experienced a short burst of crazy activity as soon as the light had fully gone.

Reasons for this might be discussed at length, but could it be that the prolonged drought conditions have started to induce an alternative hatch regime in some of the caddis and Ephemerid species? Expert angler-entomologist Stuart Crofts asserts that invertebrates are much more flexible and willing to adapt in their emergence strategies than we have been prepared to recognise (put simply, they choose the most suitable 'escape route' to allow greatest chance of survival). Given the topsy-turvy nature of our weather patterns in recent years, it wouldn't at all surprise me if at least part of the answer to our grievances lay in that little pearl of wisdom.

So, how to catch trout on the dry fly in total darkness? Enter one of the queerer flyfishing tactics you are likely to come across, courtesy of the innovative Staffordshire based flyfisher Glen Pointon. We had a few chats about this last summer and I know Glen was playing about with the idea back then with encouraging results. I confess to a late arrival at the party and only really got around to conducting my own trials a couple of months ago - but the findings have been startling.

Up until that point I had done what most other anglers do when faced with rising fish in light so poor that the dry fly can no longer be seen: presenting on a short, more or less fixed line and repeatedly covering the fish, lifting each time it rises in the rough vicinity until a connection is made (trout feeding at the surface in the dark are surprisingly tolerant of repeated casting). It works - remarkably well in fact, once you've got tuned in to the range at which the fly is fishing and a weird kind of sixth sense begins to tell you pretty accurately where it sits at any point in the drift - but it could only ever be a poor second best to seeing the artificial and knowing for certain when it has been eaten.

Glen's solution to this is to make his dry flies literally glow in the dark! I know it sounds mad, but with some care it can be made to work. The basic principle is to mix a pinch of fluorescent powder into some kind of setting medium (varnish or UV cure resin) and apply to the dressing. Once in a night time fishing situation, a quick blast with a UV torch illuminates the fly like a tiny drop of fairground phosphorescence and its progress downstream can be accurately tracked before it winks out of sight when taken by a trout. This really has to be experienced to be believed and the first time it happened to me, I stood there in the middle of the river laughing to myself as a weighty fish shot off downstream in complete darkness - truly one of the most surreal flyfishing experiences I have ever had. The potential this development opens up to the dedicated dry fly fisherman is incredible - the opportunity could genuinely be there for the summertime brown trout angler to adopt 'sea trout hours' and benefit from the huge night time hatches which are undoubtedly occurring.

A note about fly design though: a bit of thought needs to go into this and Glen, I and one or two others have been beavering away for a while now to come up with our own variations which allow a compromise between bulk (necessary for application of the UV resin and subsequent buoyancy), and a desirably slim profile, particularly where imitation of BWO spinners is concerned. There is no simple solution to this: add weight to a small, sparsely dressed pattern and it quickly unbalances, or even sinks. Initial attempts to adapt my favourite spinner imitation, the CPS by varnishing the poly yarn wing post, ended in abject failure. Developing the same by adding a small foam thorax affected the profile to an extent that it wasn't really a proper spinner at all anymore. At the time of writing I have settled on a small balloon caddis as an acceptable compromise - after all, a lot of the night time surface activity is to various emergent caddis species - and for the time being it has proved effective enough, even when pitched at fish feeding on BWO spinners or duns. The photo below shows three of my flies in a before, during and after UV torch sequence:

The presentation of these flies has proved to be fairly straightforward: adopting the aforementioned short line approach works perfectly, except the delivery need not be quite as scatterdash given that the fly and its position relative to the target riser can now be located easily. Happily, trout rising in full darkness are rarely too fussy: we can get extremely close to the target and fish a short line, thus micro drag now becomes much less of an issue,  and the long leader required earlier can be substituted for a more conventional 10-12'  - bloody good job really! 

It's rare that something in fly fishing takes me by surprise these days, but Glen's glow in the dark fly experiment has really proved a game-changer, and coupled with the above observations on low water tactics, should allow the adventurous angler to maintain consistent sport in the face of seemingly hopeless prospects. There is a real argument to say that with the techniques now at our disposal, we should be spending less time moaning about lack of 'normal' dry fly sport and more time getting to grips with the adverse conditions that our changing climate continues to impose. Don't get me wrong, this sort of thing isn't for everyone - I would love to see daylong rises of trout and grayling on the back of a nicely fining down spate, but with fishing time at a premium as ever, my rods would be gathering cobwebs if I didn't get out there and have a bash.....and if there is one consolation to be taken, it's that there is never a greater opportunity to learn than when fishing your river in difficult conditions.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Hard Stuff

Already we are halfway through the trout fishing season and to date my opportunities to fish have been limited by other, more important stuff (if such stuff really exists). There have been a few highlights though, each of them characterised by a common theme: that of difficulty, challenge and endeavour in the face of adversity. Not for me the simple pleasures of catching 'easy' fish in straightforward circumstances, not this time I'm afraid. It isn't as though I planned it that way, it just sort of happened; and now, with the turn of the summer rapidly approaching and more civilised evenings on my local rivers beckoning, I look back on the past months and consider how things managed to become a little 'hardcore' for a while.

Recent events have culminated in some serious graft - the sort of fishing day that many anglers wouldn't even countenance, where potential rewards are there right enough, but the expenditure of effort required means the swing between success and failure sits right on a knife edge. But even well before that, right back when the spring hatches began, the signs were there - foreshadowing a period where I seemed destined to go about my flyfishing business the hard way.

At that point of course, eyes were firmly focussed on the normal daytime regime of early season upwing emergence - Large Dark Olives and March Browns, later to be followed by the spring Grannom caddis bonanza. Except a bizarre sequence of events managed to keep me from the river at the right time (11am-3pm), for several consecutive weeks and the only opportunities I got to kick my trout season off came late on in the day when I broke for the river after teatime, more from desperation to wet a line more than anything else. It doesn't take a seasoned angler to work out that such enterprises are doomed to failure - well if not failure then mediocrity at best - and I was therefore pleased to at least be snurdling out a handful of fish to the nymphs on each occasion I turned up 'after the Lord Mayor's show'. Successful tactics through late March and into April consisted largely of presenting a pair of tiny nymphs well upstream into shallow water, using the Sunray WCN line as a French leader substitute (a line that has proved its worth for me now, instigating a slight reassessment of my dismissal of such ultra thin nymphing lines based on initial trials with the Rio 'Euro Nymph').

The main feeding event may have long since been over but a stealthy approach in low, clear conditions, revealed that a handful of decent fish would usually remain on station and willing to eat. Still, it was hardly ideal, and as we edged toward the end of April I couldn't help but feel that my season was yet to get going, hamstrung as I was by the time constraints imposed upon my angling.

Then May saw a sea change in my approach as I turned my attentions largely to the pursuit of stillwater trout for the first time in a number of years. For sure it would have been easier to stick with the familiar comforts and rhythms of my local spate rivers, but it's been bothering me for a while now, this sense that I've nearly lost touch altogether with the desolate beauty of wild stillwaters. Rightly or wrongly I've always had a yearning to become equally proficient in techniques for both running and standing water, but time has always proved the obstacle and I end up concentrating largely on one or the other (and in recent years, the rivers have usually won), for whole seasons at a time. This is no good really as I've found I quickly get out of practice if neglecting any particular method, and my technique becomes even more ragged than usual. Nonetheless, for a man with family and work commitments, this is how it must be and I accept that. So for 2015 I envisage that a strong emphasis on stillwater will continue to inform my flyfishing approach.

If a few early season sessions on the river got me going in the trout stakes, it wasn't long before I turned attention elsewhere and after a smashing spring day with Stu Llewellyn on the delightful Coniston Hall Lake, May beckoned and with it the usual cold easterly airstreams.....and the start of the Malham Tarn season. Regular visitors here will probably know - or have deduced - that this is one of my favourite venues. It isn't a popular place, being as it is, perceived to be extremely 'difficult' by the fly fishing fellowship. Despite the tremendous rewards that can be had there, still it remains gloriously underfished, and probably always will. I pondered this earlier this week and discussed with a couple of friends what is meant when people say a water is 'challenging' or 'hard'. You see to me, challenging fishing is that which places tough technical demands on the angler - for example the need to place a fly in a tiny gap between branches in a 15mph downstream blow, or stalking down a large wild trout feeding in the accelerating water of a glassy pool tail.

There is nothing technical about the catching of trout from Malham Tarn and I would argue that the mechanics of it ranks very much at the more basic end of the stillwater flyfishing scale. For sure there are a number of idiosyncrasies which place it apart from what most anglers would expect of a wild upland lake, and in that sense it undoubtedly sends a lot of first time visitors packing, tail firmly between their legs after their normally reliable approach fails to deliver. But anglers who end up captivated by the place and by putting in the hours eventually come to know something of its moods, invariably end up catching quite consistently there. Granted there is therefore a learning curve that all the regular anglers on Malham have been through which now enables them to come away with their own stories of huge brown trout brought to the boat.....but does that make it a 'hard' venue? I'm not convinced.

What I think is more evident is that in this modern age of convenience, most anglers just cannot be bothered with any fishing which involves more than the bare minimum of effort. Malham exemplifies this in that it is a bit remote and involves a long-ish drive for most people; the fishing isn't exactly cheap as it necessarily involves boat hire in addition to the fishing permit; it's high on the moors, exposed and the weather can be crap; some boat handling skills are required to get the best out of it, and unless you own an electric outboard, a stiff day of rowing is in store; the boat houses are both downhill and it's quite a lug of your gear back up at the end of the day; and last but not least, the head of fish in the tarn is not exactly prolific. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard someone say something along the lines of:

 "why go to the effort of fishing Malham when I can pay the same to fish a smaller stocked fishery and catch a shedload of rainbows?"

Fair point I suppose, but it's not comparing apples with apples is it? To paraphrase Bob Wyatt, there is a difference between wining, dining and getting to know a beautiful lady over a period of weeks...and just hiring a hooker for the night. Some might disagree, but I think that's a pretty good analogy.

Whichever way, people will always be wired up differently and I suppose our love for places like Malham Tarn puts my friends and I at the 'eccentric' end of the flyfishing scale - the end where a little masochism begins to creep into what we do. Lee Evans and I were putting the world to rights on the banks of the Cumbrian Eden recently and both came to the conclusion that like it or not, we - and anglers like us - are undeniably nerds and probably always have been, despite managing to function ok in society and giving off the general impression we are pretty 'normal'. I can live with that.

Opening day on the Tarn was typically bracing: a bitterly cold northerly gusted over Tarn House and pushed us onto the Trenhouse Pastures generating an atmosphere which more resembled the backend of winter than the onset of spring proper. It was the usual little band of regulars and as such there were no complaints to be heard about the weather, just a grim resolve to remain out there and catch some trout. And catch trout we did. Stuart Minnikin and I got off to a great start as we located - thanks to the giveaway hawking of swallows and martins - a localised hatch of midge, and capitalised on the very first drift with a couple of decent fish to my end of the boat, and a fine specimen of 4lb 6oz to Stuart's. After productive early drifts, it's always easy to think that a similar catch rate can be maintained throughout the day up there, but as is usually the case, sport day ebbed and flowed in the Malham manner. We did manage a few more fish though - notably another cracker for Stuart - and by the end of the session were cold, windburnt and satisfied with the way things had gone. Had it been hard? Well maybe in some ways....but then again, such fishing is all about setting one's expectation levels appropriately, and an evaluation of the potential reward gained versus the effort expended in obtaining it. Malham trout are such beautifully stunning creatures that for me it's a no-brainer - I'll endure as many fishless hours as are required to meet with the next one. The only 'hard' thing about it is maintaining levels of concentration during the long periods of inactivity.

Whether you regard places like Malham as being challenging or not, what was to follow was one of the most demanding weeks of my angling life. On an early morning in June, Stuart and I reconvened at my house to load the car and strike north into Scotland the wilds of Sutherland. This was a much anticipated trip which had been preceded by much planning and a wet fly tying frenzy the like of which hadn't been seen at Eastham Towers for a number of years. We had a cottage booked at Inchnadamph and the plan was to use it as a base to explore the lochs of Assynt, mixing the fishing up between boat days on the larger waters and long yomps into the hills in search of anonymous puddles believed to hold an odd large trout.

The story of the week could be given a whole blog post in itself, and maybe sometime soon it will be. However, I have already prattled on too long here, so I'll keep things brief and say that although we didn't catch many trout over the pound mark, we caught a lot of them and certainly worked hard for our successes. All week the weather felt more akin to January (we both mused how we had felt warmer while standing waste deep in freezing water whilst grayling fishing), with the wind blowing from the north west and recent rains rendering the going extremely boggy underfoot. We fished famous lochs like Fionn, Assynt and Sionascaig and we hiked for up to 12 miles at a time into the remotest parts of the area; onto bleak, tick-infested moors, and into spectacular mountain corries in search of trout both large and small. We subsisted on camping food and loch water, got wet feet, sore sholders and tired legs and every day returned exhausted to the cottage in the small hours, only to get up early the next morning and do it all again.

Was it worth it? I think so. It was the kind of experience money just cannot buy - an opportunity to lose ourselves for a few days in a wilderness the like of which you wouldn't have thought could exist on this crowded island of ours. It was a long, challenging week and if you are type of angler who measures success purely by the number and size of fish caught, then you could be forgiven for wondering why the hell we bothered at all. But it was a trip which will live long in my memory for a variety of reasons -  a drop of the hard stuff which sent me back home feeling knackered, but cleansed of the stresses and worries which dogged me for so many of the preceding weeks. Our wild places, and the fish we find there, are a precious resource and a constant source of comfort to me; it would be a sad day indeed if ever I were to forsake that, purely for the convenience of catching stocked fish from easily accessible waters.


A few days ago a session on Malham Tarn with my mate Rob Denson served to illustrate the points made above regarding the niche appeal of such challenging wild waters. Whilst tackling up we were joined by a pair of anglers who were fishing the tarn for the first time, although they seemed relatively sanguine about the prospect (usually you get newbies excitedly asking for all sorts of information on drifts, flies, tactics etc). They left the boathouse maybe 20 minutes after we had started our first drift and took up station directly behind us, perhaps reasoning we had inside knowledge on a particularly productive line....but within minutes had anchored, seemingly bow into the wind. A while later they embarked on another drift - a goodish one this time - but after a long row back upwind they pootled about under the lee shore for a few minutes before heading back into the boathouse at about 11:20am. An early lunch perhaps? Apparently not, as they didn't reappear! I don't suppose we will ever know for certain what instigated this curtailment, but with the weather as good as it was - even for those forced onto the oars - we can only presume that lack of action in that first two hours led to disenchantment. Tackling up we noticed that one of their rods was set up with a cat booby on the point - that probably speaks volumes about their expectation levels. Once again, Rob and I were alone, the full 150 acres to ourselves - and this on a summer Saturday in pretty damn favourable conditions. By the time they threw in the towel, we had had a single offer to the boat: Rob had hooked and landed a beautiful wild brown of exactly 5lb. I wonder whether the capture of such a fish would have meant anything to those two?
You might not believe me but I've seen it before. I well remember one August morning when a pair of tooled-up looking guys edged out of the west boathouse, anchored up about 100m out, fished for a brief period and then buggered off , lugging their gear - boat seats and all - back up the hill they had descended little over an hour earlier, having paid sixty quid (actually it might have been more like fifty back then), for the privilege. Sometimes I wonder if it's really us that are the unhinged ones......