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.