In truth, I probably wouldn't be writing this now, sat as I am at the kitchen table with a bottle of ale to hand, were it not for the gentle prodding of a friend with whom I fished recently. Tankred Rinder of the excellent German website Forelle und Asche was over this way with his friend Veit for a week of fishing in the north of England and in the weeks leading up to the trip, Rob Denson and I had agreed to meet up and make up a pair of boats on Malham Tarn. In truth it was a long overdue meeting, following several years of correspondence and phone calls and it was great to finally meet face to face and spend a day afloat discussing our love of the wild places and such.
Tankred has been very supportive of my writing over the years and whilst bobbing along gently in an easterly direction, he tactfully suggested that I should maybe get my arse into gear and update the blog. Fair 'nuff.
So what of my season? Well in a few words, it went like this: missed the first bit, got better, petered out, fished some interesting places, seemed to consistently miss the hatches and hit challenging conditions. Every year throws up its own memorable moments and 2016 has been no different so far, although I'd be lying if I told you that most of those memorable moments involved the capture of exceptional fish. There will be other seasons though, and moments to come when all the variables coincide and throw up that few minutes of fishing we dream about. When all is said and done, isn't that thought all we really need?
It's strange what sticks in your head. If I grasp at a handful of moments from the last nine months, a weirdly diverse cluster of memories surface. Could I call them defining moments? Well possibly although not all include the sort of success we generally hanker after. I think of the February day I spent belly deep in the barrelling waters of the upper Tweed, searching for large grayling in a high and just about fishable river. Large rivers are a challenging prospect at the best of times and even up beyond Peebles the Tweed is a serious proposition. For the visiting angler, unfamiliar with the fine detail of fish location on any particular beat, such outings generally rely on some intuition and rather a lot of luck. On that occasion I didn't make a particularly good fist of things and struggled like mad to find any fish at all, my nymphing technique becoming more and more ragged as the day wore on. I made brief contact with two grayling - obviously quite large - and that was it. Both twisted off in the heavy current after a few seconds of characteristic writhing.
Surveying a likely looking pool.
Something about the Tweed got under my skin that day. Knowledge of the river's potential and the certainty that given better conditions it could yield some memorable fish; the sheer scale of the valley and beauty of the surrounding area; a certain atmosphere, difficult to articulate but nevertheless tangible, typical of places which have deep rooted fly fishing traditions. I blanked, but was captivated and will surely return.
Spring brought a period of long working hours and snatched sessions at the waterside before I was able to escape for a couple of days up to Lochaber with my friend Stuart Minnikin. We had plans to tackle the formidable Lochs Arkaig and Lochy with the aim of hooking one of the ferox trout for which (along with nearby Shiel), these vast bodies of water have become notorious. Spurred on by the accounts of Stan Headley and Colin Riach, we took the services of Achnacarry Estate Warden Mark Hirst and his fine boat, and set about the task of tracking down these large and aggressive predators. This type of fly fishing has limited appeal for many; days spent covering large areas of bleak and windswept lochs with a team of large wets and little to go on but grim persistence and an odd reassuring word from your boatman....well it can be hard to keep focus when the only thing coming to your flies is a string of typically dark little bandies. A spray at the surface, rattle of the rod tip and another small trout comes bouncing in to the boat - good fun, but it doesn't take too many hours before you question whether you will ever contact something more substantial.
I had my moment right enough, at 7:30pm on our final day. Already some way beyond the 'going through the motions' threshold but still hopeful due to a nice softening of the light as the shadows started to lengthen, I pulled my point fly into something which felt more akin to a brick wall than the regulation skerrits I had been catching all day. A strange few seconds passed during which the unseen fish coasted slowly around the bow of the boat and the magnitude of what I had just hooked sunk in, before I adjusted myself to the task at hand and spent the following 15 minutes playing a game of cat and mouse with a trout which would in all likelihood give me an anxiety attack if only I could catch sight of it for the first time. A quarter of an hour is a long time to sit in a boat mulling over all the different ways in which an angler can lose a fish, but luck was on my side on this occasion and the huge ferox slipped over the rim of the net to become the biggest wild trout I have ever landed. She was a hen fish of 12lb 2oz and it will be a long time before I see her likes again.
Some trips are destined to be special. If I tell you that the day before Stuart had landed an even bigger beast, and that mine was only really a postscript to an already memorable few days, then it gives you some idea of the degree to which we dropped lucky. Unfortunately for me, the rest of the season struggled to reach such heights. It was if all my big fish chips had been cashed in one mad flush.
A brace of fish for 27lb 2oz! (RH photo courtesy of S. Minnikin)
The summer months brought a return to my usual haunts, but also a smattering of off the radar venues as I went exploring some of the less well documented bits of water around my native north west. I saw written somewhere recently that the brown trout is this country's most ubiquitous and widespread freshwater fish - something which I'd never really thought about properly before (if you'd asked me a few months ago I would probably have guessed at it being roach or chub or something); but when you think about that for a minute, it does make sense as our wild brown trout can be found in every nook and cranny of nearly every type of water we have, with the possible exception of lowland ponds. Nevertheless my scratting about off the beaten track yielded some nice surprises, including a day spent prospecting along a Pennine Beck which owing to its underlying geology, just ceased to exist in places before re-emerging in others, fully formed, a trout-filled delight.
Another venue, a hidden gem of a reservoir, yielded sport on a couple of occasions with trout of surprising quality up to 1lb 12oz - a good fish for this type of water. I witnessed something I hadn't seen on a wild upland water before: scores of trout porpoising at the surface in a most leisurely fashion amidst a thick hatch of midge. It was like spring on my local rainbow trout, but with small, dark brownies instead.
On the main rivers I found sport to be a little patchy, although that is most likely a product of not being on the water on consecutive days as much as anything else. I'm always mindful that even fishing as regularly as once a week, it's quite easy to build a tally of visits which coincide with less than ideal conditions or just simply miss the hatch events of that week. I had a lot of misses this year and only a few where a brief window of opportunity opened and I was able to fish dry amongst more than just an odd rising fish. One memorable July evening on the upper Eden I had diligently worked a number of pools with the nymph and returned a handful of average sized trout and grayling. There was no meat on the water and nothing fishy breaking the surface. I pottered about in the undergrowth for a while, turning butterbur and sycamore leaves, looking for signs of adult Blue-winged Olive spinners which might later end up on the surface; I looked up into the air around the tall trees and hawthorns....nothing. Fly fishers come to recognise such evenings as 'dead', having a heavy, flat feeling to the atmosphere and I've lost count of the number of such occasions in July and early August when I've left the river as good as empty handed, having waited until darkness for sport which I had felt all along just wouldn't materialise.
By 10:20pm I had worked my way to the top limit and broken my rod down with weary resignation. Wading back through the long grass of the meadows I came upon the pool which marks my departure from the river and across the fields back to the road. I heard it before I saw it - the gentle sipping of trout at the surface. Switching off my head torch and allowing a few second for my eyes to adjust to the silvered light over the open pool, I was treated to the sort of sight we often dream about but so rarely witness: dozens of fish, literally dozens, hard on the feed, each only a couple of feet apart and spread across the full width of the river for as far downstream as I could see. I could tell from the frequency of each rise and by the characteristic vee-shaped nebbing, that the fish were taking spent BWO spinners from the surface. Where these little blighters had been hiding for the rest of the evening, I had no idea.....and why hadn't I seen the plumes of them swarming slowly upstream over the water which so often precedes a fall such as this? Such unanswered questions are what make us return time and again in search of fly fishing enlightenment.
Suffice to say I managed a few fish that evening. The fall lasted for about twenty minutes more and all of my half dozen or so fish were hooked and landed in complete darkness, leaving me grinning ear to ear as I tramped back to the car. I wondered what it would be like to witness such intense activity in broad daylight. How many fish would I have returned then?
Such a small fly to incite such a feeding frenzy.....
And so to the dying days of the season and a couple of days afloat on Malham Tarn. September has been kind to me up there and I've been lucky to have days which will live with me into my dotage. I've also had some rather anti-climactic experiences. My penultimate visit mid-month was such an occasion and I laboured all day without so much as an offer. If you count a handful of small perch and a single cigar sized trout as success then maybe I could have claimed not to have blanked. But I don't. I hoped for better a couple of week later when our two friends from Koln were to join us for the day. I know Tankred and Veit had already enjoyed a fine week of fishing up to that point, but still, it's always nice for one of your special places to behave and show your guests what it can do.
On the day we certainly didn't see the tarn at its best, but a handful of trout were caught including a number of sub 1lbers which given a reputed growth rate of 250% the national average, can only bode well for the future. That's if the stink of cormorants we saw up there last month doesn't do too much damage over winter. Rob nailed a clonker first cast, Veit unfortunately succumbed to the curse of the first time visitor, I toiled away for the morning only to have a better afternoon with several fish to about 3lb, and Tankred went away happy with a couple of fine fish for his not inconsiderable efforts.
This late in the season you can happily fish away until dusk, and as the wind died and the horizon blushed, I switched to a pair of dries in the hope of rising one last fish. It wasn't to be; Malham trout are not readily tempted to the surface at the best of times. It was however, a lovely way to end the season; and in a year memorable not so much for the fishing itself, but for the friends with whom I was lucky enough to spend so much time, it was somehow fitting that we should sign off having made two new ones.
That rarest of beasts - the 'edge of darkness fishing selfie'
North Country Angler passed its tenth anniversary this June and back in the summer I had intended to write a post about what this means to me and the things that have happened as a result of its modest, but slowly increasing popularity. As with most of my plans at the moment it fell by the wayside, but now is the opportunity to thank everyone who has dropped by and offered support and encouragement over the years. I've been asked plenty of times recently if I have packed it in altogether, so infrequent have my posts become; and whilst I accept that the nature of a blog means it must be updated regularly to avoid the descent into oblivion, never once has that thought entered my head. Like I said at the top of this page: must try harder!
I hope you all had an enjoyable trout season, and to those who intend to grayling fish through the winter months, I'll maybe see you by the river sometime.