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.
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!