Saturday, June 15, 2013

Low water tactics

After a spell of some weeks without significant rainfall, our rivers have dropped low. A quick look at the gauge station pages of the Environment Agency website is all that is required to see that the levels have flatlined, our spate streams' vital signs diminished to a trickle over weed clad stones.

Not that I'm complaining. I love fishing summer rivers when they are dead low. Of course the going can be challenging, with the need for stealthy approach work and presentation coming into particularly sharp focus; but there is no better time to smoke out a big trout in my experience. Low water conditions have a habit of concentrating feeding fish into smaller areas, making location somewhat easier than might otherwise be the case. We might see single large fish rising regularly on the very tails of the pools; or in some situations, I've found numerous quality trout in the opposite direction nosing tight up into the sinuous water at the very neck end. I'm always amazed at how large brown trout will take up feeding lies in water which looks far too shallow and exposed to offer safety to a nervous wild creature. But they do....and somehow, when the rivers drop to below normal summer level, the phenomenon becomes even more apparent.

Fish feeding in such circumstances offer the north country fly fisher one of the greatest challenges in our sport I reckon. To approach a big wild trout sipping flies nervously from the surface film in mere inches of water, requires considerable patience, stealth and control of nerves. Great technique helps too (Goddammit!), and while some talented individuals  have that level of skill to fall back on, most of us need to rely a little more on luck. But doing what we can to put the odds in our favour, such fish need not necessarily be out of reach. Below are a few hints and tips I've gleaned over the years, which I hope you find useful. They've helped this decidedly average thrasher to put a few nice fish on the bank, so might be worth recounting:

1. Getting close enough - the importance of stealth
It's a frustrating fact that much of the time, the biggest trout station themselves in positions that are not easily approachable to the angler. It would be great to find the fish feeding in brisk water, waist deep, easily accessible from below, going at it hammer and tongs to a hatch of large upwings. But apart from odd occasions early season, this is rarely the case and the sitting duck we long for is more often than not skittish and ready to bolt off upstream in a huge bow wave the moment we step on a twig. Well maybe not step on a twig, but you get the idea.

It is, however, amazing how close we can get to our quarry if we approach quietly. And that to my mind is the key to unlocking the puzzle. If we can get close enough then our chances of an acceptable presentation are greatly increased and the balance tips ever so slightly in our favour. How close is close enough will vary between different scenarios and really, it's only experience that can tell you how far you can 'push the envelope' before the target fish gets fed up and buggers off. Once you've been shown the door a few times, you tend to get a feel for the optimum distance to which you can creep up to a fish without sounding alarm bells....and it can be surprisingly close. A fish lying in shallow water has a quite limited window of vision compared to one lying deeper and it's a happy paradox that given a low profile and any obstruction at all - boulder, bush, or even a flitch of submerged ranunculus - it is sometimes possible to get within a couple of rod lengths of fish rising in less than a foot of water.
But it does require a slow approach. The 'slower and lower' the better. The way I look at it is this: if the fish we have marked is a two pounder, possibly some way larger, then it's worth investing a bit of time into catching that fish; and if that means spending half an hour or more getting into a casting position, then so be it. The fish must not have any reason to become suspicious, so the approach is made from well back and if wading can be avoided then all well and good. If wading is required - and it often is on my rivers - then it should be done in a crouching position and movements must be extremely slow and measured, with considerable effort put into avoiding disturbance waves radiating out across the pool (the time can be spent by watching the rising fish all the time to see if there is a rhythm to its feeding, or if it is quartering between two or more different locations). I always aim to be either knelt down on the river bed or sat down on a submerged boulder by the time I'm ready to cast  - so that my profile is as low as possible.

Bob Milne, kneeling, presents a nice low profile here.

2. Casting position
It's important to give thought to casting position. In fact I maybe should have started with this, because in reality we need to have some idea of where we intend to cast from before we even set out to approach the fish. Casting position can vary greatly and is not as simple as the old chalkstream maxim of '45 degrees behind and across from' the target. Indeed, when the water drops really low on a spate river, the small matter of drag comes becomes an order of magnitude more significant and minute foam lanes and counter lanes may need to be studied for clues as to where best to cast from. Sometimes, what looks to be a straightforward drift proves to be the opposite and anything other than a cast directly up the correct lane attracts micro drag in an instant. In such scenarios, a slack line cast is needed.....or maybe a cast from directly behind the fish, where great care is needed not to land the fly too far upstream, thus showing the fish the thicker section of your tapered leader - a recipe for disaster.

Quite often a cast from a position more or less square to the fish is useful. Fish lying in pool tails can succumb to this approach as we have a better opportunity to lay the leader into water travelling at the same pace, rather than the surefire drag-fest which results when casting into the accelerating flow from behind. It might sound counter-intuitive to approach the fish from a position where it feels like you will be easily seen but as explained above, when that fishes' window of vision is small, provided you keep low, there shouldn't be a problem.

Presenting from upstream is also a viable option and in some scenarios, may be about the only viable option. Earlier this week I watched a 3lb plus brownie rising confidently in a spot I had never seen a fish rise before, right on the very tail of a large pool. Not having ever put a fly into that piece of water before, I was unsure how best to tackle it, so went for a square-on position as described above. My first cast dragged horribly and the chance was gone. I hadn't realised it but the fish was lying in a sort of 'funnel' of water accelerating overhead and down both sides of it. With hindsight I accept that I should have tackled that particular beast from above - the only feasible option. When I subsequently tried a dummy run from upstream, the drift looked good - a mental note for next time.
Presenting from upstream can be testing. The approach needs to be made with even more stealth than usual and the method can be a bit of a one-hit wonder in that you tend to get one shot at your target before the advancing leader butt or flyline passes over its head and sends it scatty. But needs must!
The basic principle is to aerialise enough line to reach the fish, but on delivery, stop high and draw the rod tip back to dump the lot on the water a couple yards upstream. The rod tip can then be gradually lowered to allow the fly sufficient drag free drift down to the waiting fish. It's worth a try - I've lost count of the number of good fish this method has odged out of pool tails for me.

3. Rod and leader
I took my 8'6" #4 rod out with me the other night and it made me realise just how reliant I have become on longer rods for river dry fly presentation. My usual tool is a 3-weight at 10' long which coupled with a leader of 14-16', allows for really quite a long reach before any flyline touches the water. This helps tremendously when trying to beat drag on short upstream drifts. So used to this extra reach have I become, that I felt seriously hamstrung the other night and I'm certain that it cost me at least one good fish. My thinking is quite simplistic: for fish feeding in shallow water on a low summer river, it's surely beneficial to keep as much distance as possible between fly and flyline - so I go for as long a leader as can be comfortably be handled.....and a long rod helps with control of same.

4. Getting them to take.
So you're in position, the cast was made, the drift was good....the fish refused. What now? Quite often, if appropriate attention has been made to the above points, the first cast produces the required response. But then again, sometimes it doesn't! When the latter happens, then if the fish continues to feed, all well and good - try again. A change of fly might produce the required response. But avoid repeated 'scattergun' casting over the same fish, particularly if it has stopped rising. I find the best course of action is to dry the fly off and then sit and wait, holding the hook in one hand, ready to let go and cover the fish again once it starts rising confidently again. And that's the key, I reckon - give it plenty of time to get back on rhythm. There's no point keep covering a fish as soon as it tentatively smells the fresh air - it will soon spook altogether. Sometimes, it's best to go off for half an hour and try somewhere else to give the target a chance to regain confidence.
One thing I find when fishing evenings in summer, is that if you have a particularly tricky fish, it can pay to leave it alone and come back on the edge of darkness. There's every chance it will still be feeding, probably more intensely.....and trout often seem more forgiving of glitches in presentaion when the light starts to go.

The fish below (rubbish photo sorry), proved tricky on Friday night and after covering several times unsuccessfully, I had to leave well alone for over an hour after I rose it and missed. When I returned later, it took first pass.

5. Getting them out!
Hooking a big brown trout in shallow, boulder-strewn water is exciting. They tend to go absolutely nuts, either bombing about the pool randomly, making repeated leaps, or tearing off upstream leaving you with a singing reel. I wish I had some tips as to how to keep these fish hooked, but I honestly don't! There are many different ways of losing large fish and I've been guilty of them all. The best course of action appears to be to keep the rod as high as possible....and pray!

My conclusion to all this guff, is that there really is no need for the angler to complain too much about lack of water. Sure, our rivers need a regular flush through and the fishing on a 'fining down' fresh can be exceptional and is nearly always easier. But in my view, there is no better time to locate and stalk large wild brownies than during periods of low water; and the skills honed in such an undertaking can stand a flyfisher in very good stead. I recently had the privilege of watching two exceptionally good river anglers go about their work in such conditions and my conclusion was that however careful and quiet I thought I was, it's still not nearly enough. This stealth and economy of movement is, I'm certain, one of the primary keys to unlocking the problem of big river brown trout. And so the journey continues.........


Paul Procter Fly Fishing said...

Matt, brilliant, totally agree wi' every word. P

Doolz said...

Really smashing piece Matthew. Honestly don't know how you haven't got a regular spot in either T&S or FF&FT. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant as usual Matt, Very well explained as good as you would find anywhere.

Thanks Peter.