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.


Peter said...

Hi Matt
A very interesting and thought provoking piece. I read Glen's short blog on his 'glow-in-the-dark' sedge and have been hoping he would follow it up as he said he would, but I haven't spotted it as yet. Quite the innovator is our Glen. I concur on the use of the longer leader in low conditions although for my smaller streams I find using a furled leader between line and tippet is better suited to confined spaces. Thanks as always for taking the time to compose this write up. kind regards

Matthew Eastham said...

Thanks Peter. Yes I agree about leader length on smaller streams. I've tried to like furled leaders, but they aren't the best solution on my usual haunts. I have found them to be really useful though on tight little becks and urban streams where the water often carries a touch of colour. A friend tied me a few (he ties a fine leader), and although they don't get used that often, I always have them with me!
Thanks for the comment.

Archaeologyknits said...

You do know that they make glow in the dark sewing thread and yarn? You can just use those and you will not need all the powder etc. unfortunately, you will need to by them as craft supplies at a craft store or one line.

becks and brown trout. said...

Interesting post Matt , I have been varnishing the heads of Sea trout flies with Luminous ladies nail varnish for a few years. Im convinced it has helped with my meagre catch returns...