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......