I stand midstream in thigh deep water which glows peat amber from recent rains. Twenty yards ahead, the river dances down a steep gravel race into the head of the pool I now fish; and thirty yards behind, it slips silently like liquid glass over a sill of shelving sandstone and into the rapids at the head of the pool downstream. The water in front of me is flecked with foam and decelerating, its myriad surface flow patterns smoothing into the steady, slow flowing stuff which forms the main body of the pool. This is the point I have chosen to start - the lively, seamy 'transition' water which in the absence of rising fish, demands to be nymphed.
With a pair of small bead headed bugs, I work briskly upstream, pitching the flies on a couple of rod lengths of line into the lingy currents ahead, searching every square yard of water, eyes on the fly line tip, tracking its downstream progress as line hand gathers and rod is simultaneously raised. This is the sort of water where a fish could come at any second and I'm primed, concentrating hard, making small alterations to the angle and length of each cast so that the nymphs have the opportunity to fish right through the water column, both dead drifted and subtly led on a tighter line to afford a slight upward, accelerating movement.
For a few minutes the flies remain untouched, until a cast into the lee of a submerged boulder and the line tip stabs forward and the rod is lifted. I fully expect to feel the kick of a surprised fish, but my cast must have been slightly too long as the point fly comes back to me shrouded in moss.
A few casts later, another line twitch - somehow too aggressive to be a good fish - results in an immature trout tumbling through the currents, which thankfully escapes without the need for me to unhook. I'm approaching the head of the pool now, and my casts begin to follow the crease at the edge of the main current, the line shortened and the flies very much led. Just as it seems I might be running out of water, the line takes a slight drag to the right: slight, but to an angler who has spent the previous ten minutes tuned in to the unfettered movements of the red thread-whipped tip loop, obvious enough to warrant investigation. This time, I am not disappointed as the leader fizzes downstream past me and with the few yards of loosely coiled line stripped from my left hand, nearly 18 inches of angry wild trout leaps clear of the water before charging across the strong current towards submerged tree roots on the far bank. This is what I came for - the sort of experience which makes fly fishing for wild trout and grayling on our spate rivers so rewarding......and in that instant I am absorbed, oblivious to the world at large and held captive in a moment which is all too brief, but that I wish could extend indefinitely.
Am I a bit odd? Maybe it's because I'm from the uncultured north. Or maybe because, being born and raised on the lowland, agricultural Fylde plains, I served my childhood angling apprenticeship pursuing mainly coarse fish.
Ask any fly fisher what they consider to be the pinnacle of fly fishing delight and I'll put my mortgage on them coming over all emotional and waxing lyrical about the joys of the dry fly. It's a fact that the majority of fishers place the dry fly at the top of the fishing ladder, both aesthetically and technically. And if that dry fly is perfectly presented to a sighted, feeding fish, then so much the better - the very apex of the sport we love so much. So why do I find myself constantly drawn to the sub surface methods of catching fish? It's not that I don't enjoy fishing dry - quite the opposite. To arrive at the river to see the spreading rings of surface feeding fish in a favourite pool is a special thing and I will string up my rod and tie on my tapered leader with trembling hands just the same. But so many anglers, in the absence of rising fish (and lets face it, that scenario is an increasingly common one in this day and age), turn to the spiders or nymphs very much as a last resort and do so with an air of regret and disappointment which suggests they would rather be fishing than otherwise.....but only just.
Yes, it's nice to fish the dry fly. In some ways it's easier; the problem of fish location is instantly solved and the question of what the trout are feeding on can often be clearly ascertained. But there is nothing particularly complicated about the upstream nymph and as a general searching method it's hard to beat. I think I am drawn to the anticipation of the unknown - the fact that the take could come at any moment and that when it does, the result could be a small fish or parr......or it could be the trout or grayling of a lifetime. There is also a certain satisfaction to be derived when as sometimes happens, one becomes well and truly tuned in to the subtler aspects of the method and suddenly minute, barely perceptible irregularities of the fly line tip's downstream progress are correctly read and the angler is able to lift the rod with absolute certainty that the kick of a hooked fish will be felt.
The reading of the water and river bed and the ability to assess where fish will likely be found in certain water heights, are skills best learned through sub surface methods; and the yearning to understand what happens below the surface - how my flies behave and how the fish react to them - means that this is one angler who will never be too disappointed to arrive at the river and find not a rising fish in sight.
So I guess I won't be receiving any invites to fish the chalkstreams anytime soon!