May 2008

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Last week I really got into a fishing groove for the first time this season. A full day down at one of my usual spots proved to be very difficult, as did the next at another big-fish river. The bright sun and suddenly scorching weather seems to have left the fish thinking they’re all in Barbados, and don’t need to worry about olives and my flies any more.

On Thursday I managed to sneak a few hours at one of my oldest haunts, a place where one glorious May afternoon saw the capture of my largest brownie. It’s also a place not far from where the Spring Submariner lived last year, and my thoughts were of running into one of his relatives. I parked the car and walked close to the pool, stringing up the slightly stiffer 4 weight rod in place of my usual 3 weight matchstick.

Upon arriving, however, I experienced one of those strange, uncontrollable magnetic attractions to walk, walk.. I walked past some really nice water, all the while thinking “that looks nice, I’ll just get in down at the next pool..”. But I kept walking and musing and ho-huming in the bright 11am sunshine. No fish seemed to be showing, and something about the next run drew my attention.

I finally arrived at the run, glorious and full of small seams, rolling boulder-rounded water and a final silky flat. Straight away there was a rise in a seam near the head of the pool. I waited for several minutes, creeping up to the bank edge on hands and knees and peering in to the lightly Jura-stained water. Another fish rose in another seam. Hairs stood up on my neck for the first time this season: finally some trout at the surface, feeding and making me smile. I wondered why the fish in this pool were back from Barbados. Looking around it became pretty obvious, as the sun flitted down from behind a huge wall of trees: shade! The whole pool was bathed in shadow, creating that wonderful kind of crisp spring light that tells of warmer days to come, but reminds you of the cooler days not long past. Perhaps it was just the sheer intensity of the May sun that had caused all the problems on the other rivers, and the real secret was to hunt shade first, and then trout.

A few olives and the odd brook dun were coming off, though I felt that I was actually at the tail end of the morning rise. I should have spent less time in the village shop getting my ham salad baguette made up and more time making like my father’s wind and down to the river. As I glanced downstream I spotted another couple of rises in the rolling water of the mid-run. They looked like better fish, but I opted to try for the wee rise in the head of the run and purposefully tied on a deer hair emerger in a scruffy size 14. After a bit of wonky casting in the stiffening south-easterly he rose nicely to my fly, and a quick tussle later he was in the net and sparkling in that shadow-light.

I waded back to the near bank and started to skulk very slowly down the edge of the river. I felt a little naughty as this kind of wading seems to be universally heralded as the ultimate in fish-spooking, but again that magnetic draw made it hard to concentrate on anything other than the twinkling river surface. Then there was one of those rises that really makes the hair on the back of your neck wake up. Fins and tails wafted in the surface as the fish sipped emegers. In my experience only the better fish ever rise like this, so I immediately got out of the river and took a huge detour downstream by a potato field and slipped in at the head of the next pool.

Wading slowly across to be well under the shade of the trees I saw another couple of rises, which suggested at least three good fish in the run. It was one of those slightly confusing situations where you aren’t sure if there’s one fish or ten, and you’re afraid to wade any further in case you spook any of them. It’s also difficult to judge where to cast, so in the end I spent a long time waiting up to my waist in the water until something rose just a couple of rod lengths away. I speedily covered the rise (DHE no. 14 again..) and had an instant, swirling take. I struck and he bolted off across the river, jumping clear of the water and twisting between rocks. At first I thought he was foul-hooked as he really made a meal of things, jigging around and dancing merrily. He eventually slid over my net and looked truly fantastic in the last moments of the morning. He wasn’t a real leviathan at 16″, but after a long winter without any grayling or trout, El Beautio was like a shark and really made my day.

I quickly phoned my dad to break the news. He was fishing for carp, bream and roach down in Cambridgeshire with my uncle, and it turned out he’d had a great morning too. Nine fish including a nice bream against my uncle’s blank. Bizarre really, as my uncle is a fine fisherman and often helps my dad get set up at the start of a day. I munched away on my (rather superb) baguette, followed by a delicious slice of tiffin, and eyed the pool for further action.

Nothing much seemed to be happening. Perhaps the capture of El Beautio had spooked the pool, but I actually think I was lucky to catch the tail end of the hatch and rise. After half an hour of pondering, a couple of splashy rises suggested things might be happening again. I crept back into the river from under the trees and assumed position in the lee of a particularly large branch.

A fish rose in the water ahead of me, right in the middle of the river. After neither my DHE nor DHS turned up any interest, I started to get confused. I tried a small dirty duster but that didn’t work either. When my usual absolute-winner-super-duper-never-fail CDC dry didn’t produce I got desperate. The fish kept rising occasionally, but my staple dries seemed to be useless. I dug around in my box of lesser-used flies and my gaze was quickly attracted by an old badger-hackled red tag. As I moistened the knot I became oddly confident that the fish was actually munching terrestrial bugs, and so the old fly might in fact be a perfect choice. Second cast down and the fish aggressively took the fly. Despite his slightly disappointing size, it was a pretty satisfying conclusion to the days events and I headed off back upstream and towards home.

In other news, I found out during proceedings that it is in fact possible to cast a size 6 long shank woolly bugger on a stiffish 4 weight rod, even if you look like an Olympic javelin thrower doing it. Watch this space..

It was tough going today. This year it seems winter has frog-leaped spring right into summer. It was well into the 20s by early afternoon, with a few frothy clouds and almost unbroken sunshine. It was only a few weeks ago that I was up Stob Ghabhar with ice axe and crampons. Crazy stuff.

The day was spent on my favourite bit of water. On Tuesday I had nicked down to check it out, more a gentle ‘hello again’ than anything, and it was very quiet. Today it was also quiet. A couple of olive uprights flitted around (ok, medium olives…), both newly hatched and spinners, but the trout were very reluctant to go anywhere near the surface. The few I did tempt were all dropped off (bar one) which added to a frustrating day. My pal Alistair witnessed first hand two of my failures, which was obviously damaging to my already-shrunken ego.

It really was a bit strange today. Plenty of trees still in their spindly winter state, but baking sunshine at the same time along with a river that looked six months early in flow and weed growth. As Alistair asked on more than one occasion: where is spring?

Even Alex didn’t do very well. This means only the one two-pounder and a smattering of smaller stuff. Holy shit does that man fish hard… which brings me onto the main purpose of this blether: the dry-dropper method.

Last season I (somewhat begrudgingly) had a proper go at fishing a nymph suspended from the hook bend of a bushy dry fly. It turned out to be a great success, and I caught loads of grayling and quite a few nice trout. I certainly caught fish in situations I would never have caught them before with my preferred single dry fly. Examples include blind fishing through riffles with little obvious surface activity, and blind fishing through deep, fast runs.

Alistair “sell-out” Stewie tries to flog some dodgy tippet material

Neither Alistair nor myself like this method of fishing very much. Casting is at best ungamely (particularly with bead heads), and within a short while I find myself yearning for the simple control of a single dry. It’s a method which isn’t really nymphing, and isn’t really dry fly fishing, and many would argue that this is precisely why it is so good. Who am I to disagree? I might have tried once, before that is, I spent any length of time fishing with Alex. He fishes this method, as far as I can tell, almost exclusively and catches astoundingly well. He is a genuine fish machine.

This evening I got to thinking about the method, and some of the other methods for nymph fishing, and came to the horrible conclusion that for sub-surface fly fishing there really isn’t a more effective way to fish. In certain situations, like a heavy hatch or in the middle of winter, there might be other more suitable techniques. But I really struggled to avoid the thought that for the absolute best bang-for-your-buck there isn’t anything to touch the dry-dropper style.

Alistair carefully stalks blue sky

I mean this as a general statement that covers a sort of ‘average’ of all fishing situations. Approach any river at a random time and this technique just seems to have the perfect combination of user-friendliness and reliability.

Earlier this week I got round to having a go at true upstream wet fly fishing with a couple of simple spiders. This style really appeals to me, but it certainly isn’t easy. I fished quite hard and didn’t touch anything but weed. At the end of the day I tried a dry-dropper setup and immediately caught a fish. The dry just bobbed slightly and I was in. What more can an angler ask for in a method? I still think there is mileage in getting good with the upstream wets, but at times it’s difficult to stop myself from the thought that I may as well stick a dry-dropper on and have done with it.

In this photo my good pal has managed to lift up a large chunk of metal and carefully place it on top of my leader, paralysing my ability to catch fish

Again today I spent a good hour watching the water for rises, with nothing showing at all. I then tackled up a little tungsten-headed hare’s ear under a deer hair sedge and on the third cast hooked a trout on the nymph. The take was easy to spot: the dry dived under the water, I struck and he was on. Certainly a hell of a lot easier than the kind of dumbfounded confusion I feel when fishing upstream wets.

One of my fishing pals is a superb upstream nymph fisherman. I remember fishing hard through a nice grayling pool one winter day without a single fish. He came in after both my brother and I had tried the pool twice each, and immediately caught a lovely fish. We were all fishing heavy nymphs, but he was a long way ahead of us in terms of really fishing the water.

Perhaps I just need to force myself to fish upstream wets and nymphs whenever I would otherwise fish a dry-dropper. The aforementioned pal said it was only a matter of practice to get good at spotting takes, so perhaps the whole escapade just requires a bit of patience. As with so many things in fishing it’s just a matter of taste. At the moment I think I’m rejecting the dry-dropper thing out of mild arrogance as well as the aesthetic issues. But in the end it will be interesting to see if I can persevere, or if the lure of actually catching fish proves too much.