fishing (local haunts)

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The season is now open on all rivers. Today I kicked off my own fishing year by wandering down to a local small stream for a few lazy hours. Over the past 24 hours or so we’ve had a bit of rain, so I was expecting there to be a good bit of water pushing through. Indeed the river was a bit coloured, but not overly high. The pale brown tinge emphasised the early season feel, complementing the blustery breeze and fleeting sunshine.

I saw 5 upwinged flies in 4 hours of pottering about. Not exactly a bonanza hatch, but a warming reminder that the time is fast coming where dry flies may be used without irony.

I started off with a tungsten-beadhead nondescript nymph. I lost it first cast in the branches above my head. The lovely orange indicator/float I intended to use for take detection immediately pinged off and sailed away downstream as I hopelessly jiggered the rod trying to free the nymph. The distinct feeling of the season passing early comment on my dubious methods passed over along with darkening clouds and a stiffening wind.

I decided to replace the beadhead job with a more castable nymph, and second cast a pretty little brownie gobbled it up. Such quick success, sometimes a good omen, but generally not.

First cast after returning the trout and another encounter with an overhanging branch. Another attempted jiggle of the line and another pinged indicator. I made a mental note to head up the hill later on to stock up on sheep’s wool, these modern mini-football indicators just don’t stay on fine tippet very well.

For the rest of the day I opted for the comedy dry fly routine, and fished a wee dirty duster. This felt much better balanced on my light line setup, and I finally started to remember how the whole casting thing was supposed to work. Moments later and a single rise spotted. First cast truly dreadful, an over-gunned, under-slacked cockup job. Second cast and a rise and take, hooked for a few moments then lost. Would have been slightly larger than the first, but nothing remarkable. No worries, there aren’t that many remarkable fish in this bit of river anyway. At least I’ve never come across any.

I gave up about 4pm, opting for a relaxing evening of watching clouds (see next post). Luckily, we’ve got lots of them around here, and plenty big ones at that.

It’s funny how things creep up on you. My last strong memories of fishing were back in April and May, with the season getting into full swing. Large olives and March Browns on the water, clear spring sunshine, and all the season ahead.

Somehow most of the middle part of the year seems to have gone begging, sucked away into the vortex of new job life and ‘other commitments’. It was thus with some excitement that I planned an evening down at a favourite summer haunt last night.

This time of year and this river always speak to me one acronym loud and clear, BWO. I arrived hoping there would be a blue-winged olive spinner fall, and over the next two hours I got as much and more.

The air was abuzz with life. Male BWO spinners danced up and down in columns and sputtered into my polaroid glasses as I crossed the first field. As I crouched by the waters edge, there were thick swarms of gnats rolling up and down over the riffly pools in that curious, pulsating manner. Every few moments a silver sedge torpedoed into my jacket. Pale wateries were on the wing, as well as a host of terrestrials. A summer river in full life, surely one of angling’s greatest treats.

I set up with a longish leader and a size 16 F-fly, fairly typical fare for such conditions. A few small trout quickly got quite excited by this offering, but it still felt like I was somewhat overgunning things. So I dropped back, first to a little BWO sherry spinner, and finally to a size 22 nondescript greyish spinner thingy, at which point I started to get much more confident rises. Little sups, often impossible to see amid the rolling water.

Moonrise.

I’ve said it before in these pages (as I’m quite sure have many others before me) that fishing like this on summer evenings has a feel much more like upstream nymphing than the dry fly fishing of spring. It’s a hilariously frustrating task trying to track a size 22 greyish fly as it tumbles over greyish seams topped with hundreds of size 22 greyish bubbles. Intuition, I think they call it.

By half 8 it was getting distinctly darkish, and within 40 minutes the moon was the main light source. I slowly fished on up through knee deep seams and runs, getting the occasional sup, or at least imagining so.

There’s a wonderful calm in fishing the dusk session at this time of year. The night descends, the air cools sharply, the water tugs ever so slightly heavier at your ankles. Fishing a very short line now, maybe 2 yards of fly line out the tip, trying to impart a bit of extra flick to push the leader out. Spot a sup, cast over it, a bit too far right, try again, it’s short, and again, that’s just about right…. “    “   …. that’s the sound of a ‘sup’ by the way. Jerk the rod upright in mild surprise, missed another one, move on a yard, try again…

There’s this mesmerising rhythm, which I think is ever intensified by the diminishing light level which has a kind of focusing effect, like slowly turning the barrel of a camera lens and seeing things more clearly. With each passing minute, each drop in the available light, you have to concentrate that bit harder, so you are more entranced, and another minute passes, and the earth continues on its arc away from light, and I continue on my arc towards it.

As in all fishing it’s the lines and seams, the drop-offs and edges, that are most interesting. I think that holds especially true for the line between day and night, and nowhere can that be more clearly felt than passing a few hours in the company of a summer evening on the river.

It’s almost a month since I’ve been on a river or loch. And with the hit and (mostly) miss season I’ve been having on most of my usual beats I decided on Sunday that it was time to explore a bit. An important lesson I’ve learned over the past few seasons, however, is that to explore does not necessarily mean to travel far.

So it was with some excitement that a fishing pal and I stalked through woods and across fallow fields towards a hidden stream which slid quietly through the undergrowth. We arrived to find the water running slightly high and with a beautiful Ardbeg tinge. After the barren month of June all this recent rain suddenly felt rather welcome.

We tackled up under a tunnel of overhanging trees. Upstream the late afternoon light crept through the layers of canopy and twinkled all over the streamy runs and pools. The feeling of anticipation on such days is tangibly electric. I wasn’t expecting anything big, indeed that was not the point at all. It was something else, much less describable, to do with the combination of yellow light, yellow bellies and the perpetual flow of clear water.

I flited about between fishing a small dry terrestrial and putting up a similarly small nymphal offering. Hope prevailed (as it seems to when on a river) and on went the dry. Some poor wading, poor casting and generally shocking rivercraft soon put paid to the first few pools. By the time a large, slow bend pool was reached however, I’d come down a few sizes to a no. 22 nondescript grey spinner and was once again feeling optimistic.

After several further failed attempts I finally managed to concoct the right combination of airy cast, steady feet and luck, and the first yellow-belly came scrapping back towards me. A couple more followed before we moved upstream as the sun dropped lower and coolness started to fold itself around the valley.

I switched to a wee brown-wire nymph, but our dutiful comrade stuck to his guns with a dirty duster and was rewarded with a pool of multiple rising trout. A couple of LDRs followed before finally his first brownie of the season came to hand, followed in quick succession by a brace more.

Twenty minutes later and the fish were still sipping at some indeterminable surface offerings, but a mutual decision was made to draw things to a close and go in search of a mucherious goodfoodus (pizza). This we achieved with not even a hint of a long distance release.

A quiet evening yesterday, a couple of half pounders on the nymph and one lunker spooked. Otherwise I think we need rain, the river was extremely low, certainly little chance of sea trout running. Very easy to spook the better brownies as well. There were a good number of blue-winged olives out though, promising frustration and possibly joy in the coming weeks.

As a fly angler I’ve come to feel pretty comfortable with trout. So whilst I still have a long way to go down that bumbling road towards trout nirvana, I do now have some idea about their typical habits and ways of eating (or not eating) my flies. If they’re surface feeding, in particular, things can sometimes be so beautifully obvious. Floating dark olive duns trickling down river runs, trout slurping at the surface, and me flailing a carbon stick with a bit of duck’s arse attached to it.

shroom

Regular readers of this blog, however, will know about my minor obsession with grayling. A couple of years back I had a period of concentrated winter grayling fishing where I tried hard to become a competent nymph fisherman. I wanted so dearly to understand the subtleties of fishing nymphs to the silver grayling that I know inhabit many waters close to where I live. I did have some success, particularly when a good pal showed me exactly where to fish. But I was left with the nagging feeling that to reach the same level of comfort I’d attained with spring trout would take much more effort.

tree

Graying spend most of their time close to the bottom of rivers, feeding off the bugs that crawl around down there. This is something I’ve read many times, and have also grown to accept as largely true for many of the rivers I fish here in Scotland. I have caught grayling on dry flies, but never to the same size or with the same consistency as I’ve had on nymphs. This makes it sound like I’ve had consistency with nymphs. Relative consistency, relative.

sept-8

Recently I find myself most interested in grayling as the trout season is dying. This is partly due to seeing the remarkable success that some of my pals have had at such times. It’s also because I’ve noticed on quite a few occasions recently that there seems to be a distinct increase in the prevalence of grayling relative to trout at that time of the season, particularly on some of the waters I visit. I wonder if it’s a localised thing, or if it’s simply because I tend to fish nymphs and spiders more often as the levels of surface activity decline. Whatever the case, I enjoy spending a sunny September afternoon by the side of a favourite small stream, searching out the deeper pockets of water and hoping for the electric moment when yet another minor snag becomes a bristling bar of silver enthusiasm.

This year I decided to keenly concentrate my September efforts on a small section of a small stream I like to fish. I tried to visit as often as possible, hoping that with time I would develop a better understanding for the moods and architecture of my chosen retreat. I was also hoping that maybe, just maybe I’d get a glimpse at a more comfortable truce with the nervous twitch of a grayling’s tail.

sept-6

On one of my first visits to the river I arrived and set up a wee 8′ rod and a 3 weight line. I tied on a whopping monster of a dry fly, something like the lovechild of a chernobyl ant and a coch y bonddu. Let’s call it a Tammy’s Terror. I had the bizzare notion that if I couldn’t nymph the grayling out of their secret lies, I’d tempt them up for a gobble at the Terror. So enthused and convinced was I by this wonderful idea that I strode up to the nearest looking bend, planning to survey ‘my territory’ for the most opportune pools, and completely spooked three enormous grayling. The Terror, it seemed, had terrorised.

sheep

I caught one fish on that day, to a little peacock herl nymph. It almost stretched from the base of my hand, across the vast expanse of wrinkles and peaks that cover my palm, to the bottom of my fingers. Yes, on the same hand. It was a grayling though, and was caught fairly on a nymph. Five hours of fishing and only one (tiny) fish, but categorical success wasn’t on my mind. Nope, the only thing I could see when I closed my eyes that night was an action replay of three giant Terrorfied grayling making like hay in all directions.

There was only one thing for it, I had to phone that most interesting of gods, the grayling god. Unfortunately I don’t have his phone number any more, as apparently gods, even grayling ones, do sometimes migrate. So I emailed him instead (he is a he). Several long exchanges later and I was feeling ready for the second wave. Small, tungsten-beaded peacock herl nymphs were tied up, and the nearest sheep found itself plundered of some lovely fluffy white wool.

sept-5

I consider fishing for good-sized trout or grayling in a small stream to be amongst the loveliest of of the many lovely ways to spend a day. The only problem is that with enough anticipation, sweaty palms and enthusiastic optimism, any lovely activity can end up being a little disappointing. I thus tried hard to control my usual fantasies, aiming for a calculated, hunter-gatherer ethos. Hate the fish, hate the damn fish. Must. Kill. Fish. [Political aside: I love grayling too much to kill them, that is what is known in the Isle of Britain as a ‘joke’.]

I arrived at the place of Terror as a beautiful September morning gave way to a beautiful September afternoon. Clouds shuffled across the sky in a nice orderly fashion, occasionally thinning for long enough to allow some golden autumn sun to light up the river banks. I put up the 18′ leader that the grayling god had mentioned, including about 5′ of thin tippet. On the end went a peacock herl nymph, quickly followed 4′ above by a pinch of the stolen white fleece. I crept up.

sept-1

After watching trout parr dancing in a shallow flat pool for about half an hour, it was clear that the grayling, were they still around, would be in the deeper water upstream. I slid into the water, creating a rapidly traveling wave of parr that I was sure would spook anything this side of Glasgow. I crossed the river in three paces and climbed up the far side. Now on my stomach, I frog-crawled upstream, peering hard into the deeper seams. If only I could spot a fish, and know where to cast, it would have given me supreme confidence. After eying a particularly fish-like shape for ten minutes, I began to grow impatient. More minutes passed, and the debate in my head swung markedly towards the ‘lump of mud’ camp.

sept-11

The whole escapade seemed to be veering dangerously towards the tourist’s favourite sentence involving weather and ‘last week’. So I debunked downstream, sent off another shockwave of parr on re-entry, and started to creep slowly back up towards the run.

The landscape is particularly interesting at this spot. The river describes a slow, continuous bend, over a distance of about 30 yards. The right hand bank (looking upstream) seems to have collapsed on itself many times, leaving a strange pattern of ridges and islands. The Quiraing in miniature. It means that there are a couple of pronounced ‘grooves’ in the river channel, where the flow has been squeezed between bits of collapsed bank. If a grayling was going to be anywhere, surely one of those deeper runs would be the place.

Hearing the voice of the grayling god in my ears, I set myself up for a false-cast-free flick cast. A 10 yard loop of line hung in the current downstream, my rod pointing at it and the wee nymph pinched between the finger and thumb of my left hand. I slowly swung the rod upstream, quickening and quickening andthenagentleflick. As long as you let go of the nymph at the right time, this cast works remarkably well, and puts no fly line whatsoever above any upstream lying fish. On that first occasion the drifting breeze caught the line and dumped the whole lot too far to the left, in an area of dead water. Two or three times more the same ritual was repeated, with the same result. I finally plucked up the courage to really go for it, and was momentarily delighted to see the cast stretch out beautifully in front of me, and right over the deep run.

sept-2

I say momentarily, because the cast was too good. The nymph had been grabbed by one of the islands, and the whole cast lay tensioned out in front of me. A quick and precise application of tweakage, along with a not-so-quick-and-not-so-precise application of poor language and the nymph skipped free and plopped into the water. It was at this point that everything started to go slow. Non-fishers will think I’m trying to make this dramatic (I am), but it really does have some truth in it. Perhaps it was all the time-wasting that preceded, but as the cast twisted and drifted down the run I had enough time to remind myself to strike at anything.

The wool behaved perfectly as the current dictated, shifting left, then right as it entered the narrowest part of the channel. I instinctively raised the rod as it came close, ready for the next cast. Then suddenly, with the wool just a couple of metres upstream, it paused. Not a pull, not dive, just a short little think. I twitched the rod up, and within a fraction of a second a beautiful big grayling materialised from the run, gills flared, pectoral fins erect and dorsal at full mast. I have the most vidid image burned into my mind of that moment, when a tumbling stream turned into a tumbling stream containing a fighting grayling. I can see it now, appearing from the deep like a mini-zeppelin suddenly released from its stream bed cage.

sept-4

One of the funny things about small streams is that there’s only so much water in which to swim. The grayling first headed upstream, before thinking better of it and bolting downstream between my legs, and straight into a waiting net. Seconds from minding his own business above the safety of a gravel run, to being in some buffoon’s landing net. Needless to say, your writer was pretty chuffed.

Despite all my egging and building up, the grayling wasn’t even that big, certainly not by the standards of some that are caught in Scotland. 1.5lb dead on, and 14″. But for a stream that Jonathan Edwards could easily skip over, I think him remarkable nonetheless. Typical trout up in those parts are measured in small numbers of ounces, not pounds.

sept-10

It’s fascinating that certain fish are able to adapt to the available feeding and grow on so well compared to the more established species. The plentiful evidence of cased caddis and other nymphs seems to back this up. I’ve been told that the general feeding strategy of grayling is quite different to that of trout. Trout of less than a pound or two spend much of their time ‘drift feeding’, holding in the current and waiting to intercept passing nymphs. Grayling on the other hand are more proactive, and use their overhanging mouth to grub around and seek out nymphs on the bottom. I’ve seen this behaviour once or twice, and others I know have seen it much more often than that.

Back on the river I managed to winkle out another lovely grayling, almost a twin brother to the first, from a deep pocket further upstream. It’s a funny way of fishing really. Hours of false takes as the nymph snags on something, interspersed with occasional moments of pure excitement when the snag starts shaking and swimming around. Spring dry fly fishing it ain’t, but there is a strangely elusive charm to it all.

sept-9

I can’t help but feel that those September days have indeed helped me to get a bit further along the path to grayling comfort. I’m still a good way off being consistent, but I think that by fishing long leaders, small nymphs and by stalking slowing, I’ve improved my approach a lot. A quiet demon, however, is still waving the Terror in front of my polaroids.

Maybe. In Pink.

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