Thursday, March 15, 2018


Opening day of the 2018 trout fishing season and a first blog post in almost 18 months. It is also the last, a swansong of sorts as I admit defeat and undertake a clearing of the desk. It's been weighing heavily on my mind of late, this little blog of mine; and I've asked myself the question on numerous occasions: what is the point of its existence at all if the time cannot be found to maintain it? The fact that it hangs around in cyberspace, stagnant and ageing, doesn't sit too well with me and since my writing effort is increasingly being channelled into other projects, I have made my peace - now is the right time to lay it to rest. If the following seems self-indulgent then I apologise, but a blog is a personal thing and it is hard to talk about one without a degree of introspection.

A couple of weeks into the new year I met with Rob Marsden of The Yorkshire Gent website, for an interview which would form part of one of his excellent podcasts. We had a good long chat about fishing in general and the club of which I am a member, but also about how I came to write a blog in the first place - how it started as an online version of my own fishing diary before very slowly mutating into something a bit more ambitious. I felt almost guilty talking about it. North Country Angler is only a small thing  - a barely significant memoir concerning quite specialised aspects of a minor country sport - but it has been good to me. The last few years of my angling life have been rewarding in ways I could never have foreseen: I've met some terrific anglers, made dear friends and fished in some wonderful places; there has been the opportunity to have work published and to stand in front of like-minded individuals and waffle on about my love for the sport.

None of that is of any importance in the wider context of course. Fly fishing is just a part of my life, the greater part of which revolves around a busy full time job and a young family; but it matters to me, being as it is, a source of calm and release from the considerable pressures of modern living. The fact that this blog has in some ways led to enrichment of that facet of my life, is a blessing and I owe it more than to leave it here, slowly desiccating.

There is a strong argument to support the claim that any kind of blogging is a vanity, nothing more. Opinions are like arseholes, they say, and I wouldn't disagree. Social media of the modern day gives anyone so disposed, a vehicle by which to air their views, and in a sport where spread of knowledge is so often based upon the unsupported observations of individuals at a given point in time, it is not surprising to see false information repeatedly passed off as fact, a proportion of the readership then helping perpetuate the myth for some time thereafter. Expertising, John Gierach called it -  a dangerous trap waiting for those who feel they have a little knowledge to share.....and more importantly, harbour the belief that anyone else actually gives a shit.

At its most cynical, this manifests as brazen attempts to 'make a name' on Facebook and the like, repeatedly name-checking tackle suppliers in an attempt to get noticed and maybe benefit from some free gear. Or a cry of 'look at me and the fish I've caught!' and the resultant gratification of fawning comments from a few dozen followers inhabiting the same little microcosm. Really, it's just a modern day extension of bragging to mates in the pub, and harmless enough; but in the wider context, does anyone really care? At its busiest, this blog attracted something in the order of a couple hundred visitors per day, most often repeat visitors at that and if there's one thing I came to realise it's that flyfishing is not a particularly popular pastime, and decreasing in popularity all the time. If flyfishing is a niche within angling in general, then the pursuit of wild brown trout and grayling is a niche within that niche and harbouring any pretension to social media fame and fortune only demonstrates at best, a misguided lack of self awareness and at worst results in a worrying loss of respect for the welfare of our quarry - fish as mere commodities in the race for 'like' button presses.      

A vanity it may be, but of the blogs which have stood the test of time - and God knows there have been hundreds which just faded away before they got properly started - it seems to me that the writers just wanted to share their experiences about something they hold very dear; guys like Alistair Stewart and Jeff Hatt who exhibit not a trace of ego in their words, and portray so eloquently what it means to be an angler. Those were pretty much my own motivations in the end - perhaps a way of externalising the joy, euphoria, frustrations, disappointments; the sense of calm and detachment and of wonder I feel when escaping the real world for the one I inhabit in daydreams. Fishing is a largely solitary pastime, but one which can have a profound impact on a person. Perhaps it's a natural response to want to tell folk about it. Whether anyone out there is prepared to listen is irrelevant; we are evangelists for our own obsession, destined to shout the message from the rooftops whilst most 'normal' people look on in bemusement.

So I'll leave it there. Hopefully a dignified burial for a friend who has taken up far too much of my time these last 12 years. Thanks to everyone who dropped by and offered encouragement over the years.

See you around.

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.

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.