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......

Sunday, March 08, 2015

The boundaries of flyfishing?

It's a question I've been mulling over these last few weeks. It feels to me like the flyfishing world is currently awash with innovative new methods and gear, bringing with them a good dollop of debate as to what does and doesn't constitute 'proper' flyfishing. The use of buoyant indicators (suspension devices if you prefer), seems to be a hot topic on the forums and social networking sites at present, as does use of Tenkara, Euro style nymphing lines and a particularly effective fly pattern which is shall we say, not exactly easy on the eye.
Keen as I am to keep pace with the times, I've tried them all. Well, buoyant indicators I tried a long time ago, back when I first attempted to nymph fish on rivers. I soon jettisoned them in favour of learning the more rewarding practice of straight line nymphing....but then again, I'm still not averse to suspending a nymph below a dry fly when conditions dictate. Does that make me a hypocrite? Yes I suppose it does.

A handful of grayling fishing sessions have allowed me to test the worthiness of all the above techniques and in the process I have come to realise that the boundaries of what we consider sporting flyfishing practice are blurred, often entirely self imposed and difficult to explain or justify to fellow anglers without sounding cantankerous and snobbish. And in that sense, maybe we shouldn't regard our sport as being about boundaries at all, but just about what gives an angler most pleasure, so long as they are operating fairly and within whatever rules are imposed upon them externally?

Looking back over recent sessions, if there is one common thread running through them all it is that each time I made some deviation or other from what I have come to rely upon as normal flyfishing practice. This wasn't a deliberate undertaking, it just kind of worked out that way. I'll recount some of them here:

The Fly pattern from Hell.
Have you heard about the Squirmy Wormy? I'd be surprised if not as it's been the subject of considerable debate for the last twelve months or so. It's basically a super-elastic tacky rubber worm type material that you lash to a hook (with some difficulty I might add), before chucking it into the water and waiting for a fish to assault it violently. There are two schools of thought on this pattern which run along these lines:

School a - it's a worm imitation, therefore by using one in certain conditions I will be imitating the natural available foodsource. It's also exceptionally effective and I will catch a shedload of fish - bring it on, let's go fishing!
School b - if you think I'm putting one of those things anywhere near my leader, you're bloody joking....I don't want to go to flyfishing hell!

I resisted for some time; bought some of the material, yes, just to have a look at what the fuss was about you understand. But after tying a couple and feeling appalled by the sight of them lurking in my nymph box, I refused to countenance the idea of actually fishing one for a good few weeks thereafter. Eventually circumstance conspired against me and when faced one day with a big brown mucky looking river, my resolve wilted and I bypassed my normal go-to pattern in such conditions (the Hyde SJ worm variant), and reached instead for the ultra-visible and considerably more mobile Squirmy. Regrettably the results were amazing, as grayling after grayling absolutely leathered the pattern in its position on the top dropper, an occurrence later reinforced by subsequent trials on various other rivers. I wasn't surprised, I'd heard the stories.....but somehow vaguely hoped the pattern would fail so I could just say to folk "What, Squirmies? Yeah they don't work for me. I prefer a more subtle approach." But it didn't and I couldn't.

So what did I learn from this episode? Well I learned that the Squirmy Wormy is an unusually effective pattern for grayling, in coloured water, but also sometimes - God have mercy on me - in clearer water too. I also learned that if I'm catching large fish regularly, my appreciation of aesthetics suddenly loses a bit of its edge and I'm inclined to say things like "Well, it's all about angler enjoyment....and I'm not breaking any rules now am I?" Is using a worm pattern of any description a valid form of fly fishing? Is a SJ worm acceptable where a Squirmy is not? How is it I can use a Hyde SJ variant with a clear conscience yet struggle to contain a sense of embarrassment bordering on revulsion when tying on a squirmy? I need the spring olive hatches to start and take my mind off this problem, otherwise a session with the therapist beckons.

When is a flyline not a flyline?
If there is one significant way in which river fishing has changed in the last five years, it's in the field of flylines, or rather the jettisoning of them. So widespread now are the French/Spanish/leader to hand techniques that some anglers seem to have more or less given up on fly lines altogether. I'm not one of them - whilst I admit that a French leader does spend an awful lot of time on my reel when a day of nymphing beckons, I also admit that I often spend such days hankering after the fly line and the chance to extend a proper fly cast in the traditional sense (well 'proper' in a broad sense - an expert fly caster I am certainly not!)

What then of this new breed of ultra thin nymphing lines which have appeared on the market in the last year or so? At first glance they appear to be a compromise - a convenient workaround for competition anglers restricted by rules which state that the leader must be no longer than twice the length of the angler's rod. Of course, most purpose-built Euro style nymph leaders are considerably longer than that so for the comp lads it was a case of sticking with fly line as the delivering medium; they found themselves faced with the difficulty of how to hold line off the water and have resultant control over their flies at greater distance.

Cortland and Rio attempted to overcome this with the release of dedicated 'Euro-nymph' lines. Ostensibly normal plastic coated flylines, but much lighter and narrower in diameter, these lines could still be cast on the modern long, light fly rods, but could also be held off the water with far less sag than a normal line. This is fine in theory of course, and a useful compromise for those on the competition circuit....but how realistic is this 'holy grail' of zero line sag, really? A conversation with Oliver Edwards confirmed something I guess I already knew, but had largely overlooked - fundamental physics renders the whole premise a bit of a red herring. I hope Oliver won't mind me paraphrasing here, but put basically the angler's aim here is to eliminate as far as possible 'pull-in' forces which act to draw the terminal tackle off line and hence from a true drag-free drift line. In order to achieve this at any distance, we strive for a high rod tip, maximum line off the water, direct as possible contact with the flies. But there is an important consideration to be made regarding the pull-in force: in order to minimise the effect, the mass of the flies and line friction sub surface must at least equal that of the suspended section of line.....and in practice, that tends to mean fishing an extremely heavily weighted team of flies to hold up their end of the equation. Otherwise, whether we choose to see it or not, we really are fooling ourselves if we hink our flies are behaving as we wish and not being dragged off the dead drift line constantly.

So where do the low diameter fly lines come into this? I tried the Rio version on a couple of occasions and eventually came away unimpressed. For sure it was an improvement on conventional flyline in that the pull-in reaction was noticeably reduced......but it was still very much evident, more so when wind interfered and started blowing the suspended catenary curve all over the shop; and because my pair of nymphs were of considerably lower mass than that of the line, the result was plain: limited control, reduced to almost no control at distance greater than about 8yds. Very much a compromise then, and to a non-competition fishing plodger like me, not worth the hassle. I have since ordered one of the much lauded Sunray versions and look forward to making a comparison with the Rio. I don't hold out much hope that any such line could ever out-perform a long copolymer leader in the application for which they are both intended, but I stand to be corrected. For my money, the only surefire way of achieving the ultimate drag-free drift (and yes I accept that this need not always be so desirable), is to sort out the ratio between cast distance:rod length:line mass. In short, reducing the pull-in effect of the catenary curve. Which brings me nicely to.......

Tenkara - love it or hate it?
There cannot be a more divisive subject in the flyfishing world at present. The subject of Tenkara seems to be greeted with equal parts derision and borderline evangelical devotion, with precious little ground in between. I resisted for so long - up until last autumn to be exact - but have since had cause to reassess my initial scepticism, even if I remain far from convinced of its merit as a mainstream UK fly fishing approach.
In truth it was a stroke of luck which led to me trying the method at all. I had the great fortune of winning a tenkara rod in a photo competition - and a jolly good one at that. Brian Smith at Tenkara Centre UK kindly furnished me with one of their Hayase rods (which a friend had assured me was one of the nicest rods he had tried), and all of a sudden I was up and running. A few days later I crudely lashed a length of #4 fluorocarbon to the end, tied on some tippet and a tiny dry fly, and cast to some small rising grayling on the upper River Hodder. Despite managing to convert a few offers, my initial efforts were comical and Paul, my fishing partner for the day, was rightly amused; but straightaway I had a sense that there was huge potential waiting to be unlocked. I was intrigued and set about finding out more, courtesy in the main, of this excellent DVD and the generous advice of its creator, Dr Paul Gaskell.

Subsequent attempts have reinforced that feeling. I have used the tenkara set-up to catch grayling from my local River Ribble on a handful of occasions, using both double nymph and more recently, a pair of spiders cast to sporadically rising fish. In all cases the presentation has been incredible, the combination of long rod, plus long level leader rendering the aforementioned pull-in forces so diminished as to be negligible. It is also simple, inexpensive and  bloody good fun; a fellow club member who has been a lot quicker to embrace Tenkara, referred to 'laugh-out loud' moments. I now understand exactly what he means and this season, the Hayase will accompany me to a great many places where I feel it might just unlock a few more piscatorial doors which have hitherto remained unopened.

Of course, it is not without limitation. Most antagonists point to the very obvious fact that with the line being tethered to the tip of the rod, there is no facility to yield line should a larger than expected fish take hold. Is it really acceptable to subject the quarry to the real possibility that a hook might be left in its jaw as result of a line break? I don't think so and for that reason I firmly believe - despite what more fervent advocates might counter-argue - that this is a method for waters where smaller fish only are to be expected. One afternoon on the Ribble saw me accidentally hook a trout of maybe 16 inches. There was never any doubt that I would land the fish, but the whole palaver seemed a little at odds to the simple elegance of the preceding events as I handlined the fish to the net, before discovering that it was still way too green and thrashing about at my knees, had to let go again for it to tire some more. For me it was an unacceptably long fight time and I was left in no doubt that whilst with practice and a better technique on my part, 2lb plus fish surely could be landed on Tenkara gear, the rigmarole involved is neither dignified, nor entirely fair on the fish.

But is it fly fishing? I think so. For delicacy and subtlety it beats our western methods into a cocked hat. It is also unconventional to our eyes, involving a very long rod, fixed line and no reel. Twelve months ago I wouldn't even have entertained it....but then I probably wouldn't have tied a Squirmy Worm to a hook then either.


So where does all that leave me? Well, as I mentioned earlier, so much of our flyfishing is dictated by our own internal sense of aesthetics and where we choose to draw the line. Not only that, but more importantly we fish in a manner which brings us pleasure - surely that is the ultimate aim regardless of how 'proper' our chosen method might be. I have been guilty of snobbery and of pooh-poohing such choices, but faced with similar dilemmas myself this winter, have been forced to confront the flimsiness of the whole premise of flyfishing boundaries. The more I analyse it, the deeper I sink into a mire of uncertainty of my own devising......which is daft. It's all too easy to become stuck in one's ways and dismissive of that which brings enjoyment other more flexible anglers; but on the other hand I firmly believe that one of the things which makes our branch of the sport so great is our capacity as flyfishers to exercise restraint in what we do, along with an appreciation of tradition and aesthetic values over the bare mechanics of hauling in fish - which is where things like Squirmy Wormies and fishing the bung begin to ask pressing questions of our flyfishing world view. It is an interesting subject and one I will be giving more thought to over the coming months. In the meantime, spring awaits and with it a return to the reassuringly blameless pastime of casting a dry fly to rising trout. What a bloody relief!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Winter of Content

Winter plods slowly on bringing the 2015 trout season ever nearer, although that particular watershed still feels a good way off right now. This is the time of year when my flyfishing customarily goes into semi-hibernation and I concentrate instead on the indoor pursuits of re-stocking fly boxes, cleaning lines and building leaders. In some ways the break can do a man some good. After all, there has to be a time to get the fishing bag tidied up - retrieve all the discarded chocolate bar wrappers and birdsnested tippet from its mouldering depths and restore some sort of order to the chaos which built up over the course of the previous year. I enjoy such tasks, but as soon as they are accomplished, I feel the draw of water again and the ensuing wait for days to lengthen feels almost unbearable. Winter does not suit me well.

A year ago, I managed to stem such feelings of frustration and misery by returning to grayling fishing with an enthusiasm I hadn't felt for the previous half dozen winters. What precipitated this sudden change in heart is difficult to pin down, but it surely helped that I fished in places known to hold zillions of the little blighters. Several outings were made, lots of grayling were caught, and the second half of winter eased by so much quicker as a result.

So perhaps it's no surprise that when the 2014 trout season came to a close and I assured my good lady that my angling activities would be 'toned right down' for the winter, my thoughts turned to grayling once more, making a liar out of me straightaway. I embarked on a concerted tying spree of technicolor shrimps and jig nymphs, joined an eight man grayling syndicate on a sought-after river in the Scottish Borders, and so completed the full circle journey back to what I left behind in the late noughties:long hours of searching big pools in cold weather for elusive shoals of winter grayling. I've loved every minute of it! The syndicate water has produced grayling fishing of quality I am unused to, with fish over 2lbs commonplace and the real possibility of something a whole lot bigger. When a day in December yielded close to twenty fish with four of them weighing between 2lb 2oz and 2lb 8oz, I started to question why I had ever become such a reluctant winter angler in the first place. The real treat however has been the quality and strength of the fish. I have never tussled with fish so strong as Borders grayling, ever. Whether the somewhat laminar flow over smooth gravel works to their advantage as they hold station with dorsal fin raised against the current, or they are just stronger than our soft southern versions, I don't know. What is fact is that a big one hooked in water of good depth and speed is almost immovable for long anxious minutes, no matter how much sidestrain is applied. It's heart-stopping stuff, exciting and at the same time tortuous  - the grayling bug has bitten once more and for now, I cannot get enough of it.

A particularly memorable outing came at the turn of the year when Stuart and I had a weekend jaunt in search of fishable water when most of the country was swimming. As is so often the case when you have a trip planned at this time of year, the weather conspired to throw a big wet spanner in the works. I recall a couple of years ago almost to the day, plans to head to the south coast and fish the Frome for its uncommonly large grayling. You may recall the state of the weather in the south of England around that time......well when a day or two beforehand, I logged on to a local webcam overlooking the river, I couldn't see any dry land at all save for the very tops of a line of willow trees which I took to be lining the 'bank' of the river. At such times the prospect of ever fishing the dry fly again feels very unlikely indeed.

That the rains were scheduled to arrive the very afternoon before we set off for the Borders came as no surprise to Stuart and I, and we deferred for a day in the hope of somewhere dropping into at least half-fishable ply. As it happened, nowhere really did and we ended up taking a punt and driving north anyway, spurred on by desperation as much as anything else, and with a venue in mind which might just have avoided the worst of the floods. Not that I was too bothered: up until recently, the domestic demands which come with a tired wife and pair of toddlers had made such overnight trips difficult to justify and for me the prospect of a full two days fishing in the company of a good friend was enough in itself. Grateful just for the opportunity, I resolved to happily toss tungsten into a mucky brown torrent if needs be, and any fish would be treated as a welcome surprise! 

In the end, we had rather a fine time of it. Yes the river was high and dirty and the fishing restricted to marginal soft spots, but sometimes approaching an unfamiliar water with an unbiased pair of eyes can reap rewards and we managed to find surprising sport on a beat which was all but abandoned by the local anglers. Coincidentally a couple of friends were the only other lads out and having fished the place before, Peter and Ken were generous enough to show us around and point out the places that should produce....or at least would produce when the river was a foot lower! 

The fishing was out of necessity uncomplicated - good old fashioned Czech nymphing with a team of three weighted nymphs led through under the rod tip. Quickly I realised how little I have used this method in recent years; in fact I found the downstream progression which is customary when Czech nymphing, completely alien at first, so long have I spent fishing purely upstream. It's strange how you get into habits; these days, even when fishing short I always move upstream and have my flies out of the water as soon as they are level with my position. I've probably missed a trick in all honesty, and when my first fish came at that point in the drift known well to all regular Czech nymphers - downstream of square, just as the flies begin to sweep away from the riverbed - it was like a long dormant lightbulb suddenly switched on in my brain! Yes I have neglected pure Czech nymphing I admit, and that is an oversight I aim to correct.

That first fish was a belter - 2lb 6oz and fit as a gundog - and it set the tone for the weekend. The grayling were prepared to feed and although location proved difficult, the ones we caught were of a good stamp, with a sprinkling of very impressive specimens amongst them. Stuart shows off one such below (his own photo - a great self timer job with the camera!):

Day one rewarded us with 15 fish up to 2lb 10oz. It was more than I could ever have hoped for.

The following morning dawned bright and cold and with the river falling, but considerably cleared, a challenging session was on the cards. We had formulated a plan over beer the night before, which involved getting off the beaten track and away from the other anglers we expected to be present, given that the river was just about coming into decent ply. How successful our strategy proved to be is open to interpretation - we covered nearly eight miles on foot and found precious little worth fishing in the prevailing conditions. Total time spent with flies in the water probably amounted to little over half an hour between us as we trudged the 4 miles or so downstream and back. However, time spent exploring new water is never wasted and we had seen enough the previous day to persuade us that a return visit would be very much worthwhile. That we can now discount certain areas will make future tactics easier to decide.

It was a low key day from a fishing point of view. Ironically though, it provided me with one very memorable moment. Midway through the morning we came upon a roily pool which didn't really feel like good grayling habitat, but had that look about it which suggested that while there might not be numbers of fish present, it might just be home to an odd 'soler'. We decided to quickly fish it through, and shortly after came a strange moment. A couple of minutes down the run and separated by maybe 20 yds, we both simultaneously felt that a fish was on the cards. Whether there was something about the atmosphere, quality of light, or just the way our flies were fishing, we both agreed afterwards that just for a moment, something had felt very right. It was during one such drift that I looked at my leader, muttered something under my breath along the lines of 'they're going through nicely', before the indicator ticked upwards and I lifted into the biggest grayling I've ever seen. Not that I saw it right away of course. In fact it was a good five minutes of typical stalemate before Stuart caught a glimpse beneath the surface and announced "that's huge!" Cue sweaty palms and thoughts of the 50 different ways in which you can lose a big fish...... 

In the net, it looked like a different species of fish altogether, than the grayling I'm used to catching: broad shouldered, deep, and with a sheen of turquoise along its flanks and dorsal fin that was just stunning. I've always suspected that a true 3lb grayling must be a hell of a sight, but never really expected to catch one. Social media these days would have you believe that they are ten-a-penny, but are they really? For sure there are rivers which are very capable of producing such specimens, but how many of the fish you see claimed as '3lb plus' are actually weighed? I've have had enough around the 2lb 8oz mark to know that a grayling of that calibre feels like a very big one indeed, and understand how easy it is to get carried away if a set of scales isn't close at hand. 

That was me done for the day; I honestly wasn't bothered if I had another offer all afternoon. Which is just as well because apart from one skerrit, I didn't!

The long drive home was spent reflecting upon what had been a fine weekend and making plans for future trips. There is something undeniably satisfying about taking a road trip to fish new water, using fairly specialised methods at a tough time of year, in unfavourable conditions....and managing to eke out some success. When that success is shared and comes as a result of combined effort and teamwork, well I don't think it gets much better than that. It has so far been a winter of content. 

 photos 3 and 4 courtesy of Stuart Minnikin.