Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Hard Stuff


Already we are halfway through the trout fishing season and to date my opportunities to fish have been limited by other, more important stuff (if such stuff really exists). There have been a few highlights though, each of them characterised by a common theme: that of difficulty, challenge and endeavour in the face of adversity. Not for me the simple pleasures of catching 'easy' fish in straightforward circumstances, not this time I'm afraid. It isn't as though I planned it that way, it just sort of happened; and now, with the turn of the summer rapidly approaching and more civilised evenings on my local rivers beckoning, I look back on the past months and consider how things managed to become a little 'hardcore' for a while.

Recent events have culminated in some serious graft - the sort of fishing day that many anglers wouldn't even countenance, where potential rewards are there right enough, but the expenditure of effort required means the swing between success and failure sits right on a knife edge. But even well before that, right back when the spring hatches began, the signs were there - foreshadowing a period where I seemed destined to go about my flyfishing business the hard way.

At that point of course, eyes were firmly focussed on the normal daytime regime of early season upwing emergence - Large Dark Olives and March Browns, later to be followed by the spring Grannom caddis bonanza. Except a bizarre sequence of events managed to keep me from the river at the right time (11am-3pm), for several consecutive weeks and the only opportunities I got to kick my trout season off came late on in the day when I broke for the river after teatime, more from desperation to wet a line more than anything else. It doesn't take a seasoned angler to work out that such enterprises are doomed to failure - well if not failure then mediocrity at best - and I was therefore pleased to at least be snurdling out a handful of fish to the nymphs on each occasion I turned up 'after the Lord Mayor's show'. Successful tactics through late March and into April consisted largely of presenting a pair of tiny nymphs well upstream into shallow water, using the Sunray WCN line as a French leader substitute (a line that has proved its worth for me now, instigating a slight reassessment of my dismissal of such ultra thin nymphing lines based on initial trials with the Rio 'Euro Nymph').

The main feeding event may have long since been over but a stealthy approach in low, clear conditions, revealed that a handful of decent fish would usually remain on station and willing to eat. Still, it was hardly ideal, and as we edged toward the end of April I couldn't help but feel that my season was yet to get going, hamstrung as I was by the time constraints imposed upon my angling.



Then May saw a sea change in my approach as I turned my attentions largely to the pursuit of stillwater trout for the first time in a number of years. For sure it would have been easier to stick with the familiar comforts and rhythms of my local spate rivers, but it's been bothering me for a while now, this sense that I've nearly lost touch altogether with the desolate beauty of wild stillwaters. Rightly or wrongly I've always had a yearning to become equally proficient in techniques for both running and standing water, but time has always proved the obstacle and I end up concentrating largely on one or the other (and in recent years, the rivers have usually won), for whole seasons at a time. This is no good really as I've found I quickly get out of practice if neglecting any particular method, and my technique becomes even more ragged than usual. Nonetheless, for a man with family and work commitments, this is how it must be and I accept that. So for 2015 I envisage that a strong emphasis on stillwater will continue to inform my flyfishing approach.

If a few early season sessions on the river got me going in the trout stakes, it wasn't long before I turned attention elsewhere and after a smashing spring day with Stu Llewellyn on the delightful Coniston Hall Lake, May beckoned and with it the usual cold easterly airstreams.....and the start of the Malham Tarn season. Regular visitors here will probably know - or have deduced - that this is one of my favourite venues. It isn't a popular place, being as it is, perceived to be extremely 'difficult' by the fly fishing fellowship. Despite the tremendous rewards that can be had there, still it remains gloriously underfished, and probably always will. I pondered this earlier this week and discussed with a couple of friends what is meant when people say a water is 'challenging' or 'hard'. You see to me, challenging fishing is that which places tough technical demands on the angler - for example the need to place a fly in a tiny gap between branches in a 15mph downstream blow, or stalking down a large wild trout feeding in the accelerating water of a glassy pool tail.

There is nothing technical about the catching of trout from Malham Tarn and I would argue that the mechanics of it ranks very much at the more basic end of the stillwater flyfishing scale. For sure there are a number of idiosyncrasies which place it apart from what most anglers would expect of a wild upland lake, and in that sense it undoubtedly sends a lot of first time visitors packing, tail firmly between their legs after their normally reliable approach fails to deliver. But anglers who end up captivated by the place and by putting in the hours eventually come to know something of its moods, invariably end up catching quite consistently there. Granted there is therefore a learning curve that all the regular anglers on Malham have been through which now enables them to come away with their own stories of huge brown trout brought to the boat.....but does that make it a 'hard' venue? I'm not convinced.



What I think is more evident is that in this modern age of convenience, most anglers just cannot be bothered with any fishing which involves more than the bare minimum of effort. Malham exemplifies this in that it is a bit remote and involves a long-ish drive for most people; the fishing isn't exactly cheap as it necessarily involves boat hire in addition to the fishing permit; it's high on the moors, exposed and the weather can be crap; some boat handling skills are required to get the best out of it, and unless you own an electric outboard, a stiff day of rowing is in store; the boat houses are both downhill and it's quite a lug of your gear back up at the end of the day; and last but not least, the head of fish in the tarn is not exactly prolific. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard someone say something along the lines of:

 "why go to the effort of fishing Malham when I can pay the same to fish a smaller stocked fishery and catch a shedload of rainbows?"

Fair point I suppose, but it's not comparing apples with apples is it? To paraphrase Bob Wyatt, there is a difference between wining, dining and getting to know a beautiful lady over a period of weeks...and just hiring a hooker for the night. Some might disagree, but I think that's a pretty good analogy.

Whichever way, people will always be wired up differently and I suppose our love for places like Malham Tarn puts my friends and I at the 'eccentric' end of the flyfishing scale - the end where a little masochism begins to creep into what we do. Lee Evans and I were putting the world to rights on the banks of the Cumbrian Eden recently and both came to the conclusion that like it or not, we - and anglers like us - are undeniably nerds and probably always have been, despite managing to function ok in society and giving off the general impression we are pretty 'normal'. I can live with that.

Opening day on the Tarn was typically bracing: a bitterly cold northerly gusted over Tarn House and pushed us onto the Trenhouse Pastures generating an atmosphere which more resembled the backend of winter than the onset of spring proper. It was the usual little band of regulars and as such there were no complaints to be heard about the weather, just a grim resolve to remain out there and catch some trout. And catch trout we did. Stuart Minnikin and I got off to a great start as we located - thanks to the giveaway hawking of swallows and martins - a localised hatch of midge, and capitalised on the very first drift with a couple of decent fish to my end of the boat, and a fine specimen of 4lb 6oz to Stuart's. After productive early drifts, it's always easy to think that a similar catch rate can be maintained throughout the day up there, but as is usually the case, sport day ebbed and flowed in the Malham manner. We did manage a few more fish though - notably another cracker for Stuart - and by the end of the session were cold, windburnt and satisfied with the way things had gone. Had it been hard? Well maybe in some ways....but then again, such fishing is all about setting one's expectation levels appropriately, and an evaluation of the potential reward gained versus the effort expended in obtaining it. Malham trout are such beautifully stunning creatures that for me it's a no-brainer - I'll endure as many fishless hours as are required to meet with the next one. The only 'hard' thing about it is maintaining levels of concentration during the long periods of inactivity.



Whether you regard places like Malham as being challenging or not, what was to follow was one of the most demanding weeks of my angling life. On an early morning in June, Stuart and I reconvened at my house to load the car and strike north into Scotland the wilds of Sutherland. This was a much anticipated trip which had been preceded by much planning and a wet fly tying frenzy the like of which hadn't been seen at Eastham Towers for a number of years. We had a cottage booked at Inchnadamph and the plan was to use it as a base to explore the lochs of Assynt, mixing the fishing up between boat days on the larger waters and long yomps into the hills in search of anonymous puddles believed to hold an odd large trout.

The story of the week could be given a whole blog post in itself, and maybe sometime soon it will be. However, I have already prattled on too long here, so I'll keep things brief and say that although we didn't catch many trout over the pound mark, we caught a lot of them and certainly worked hard for our successes. All week the weather felt more akin to January (we both mused how we had felt warmer while standing waste deep in freezing water whilst grayling fishing), with the wind blowing from the north west and recent rains rendering the going extremely boggy underfoot. We fished famous lochs like Fionn, Assynt and Sionascaig and we hiked for up to 12 miles at a time into the remotest parts of the area; onto bleak, tick-infested moors, and into spectacular mountain corries in search of trout both large and small. We subsisted on camping food and loch water, got wet feet, sore sholders and tired legs and every day returned exhausted to the cottage in the small hours, only to get up early the next morning and do it all again.

Was it worth it? I think so. It was the kind of experience money just cannot buy - an opportunity to lose ourselves for a few days in a wilderness the like of which you wouldn't have thought could exist on this crowded island of ours. It was a long, challenging week and if you are type of angler who measures success purely by the number and size of fish caught, then you could be forgiven for wondering why the hell we bothered at all. But it was a trip which will live long in my memory for a variety of reasons -  a drop of the hard stuff which sent me back home feeling knackered, but cleansed of the stresses and worries which dogged me for so many of the preceding weeks. Our wild places, and the fish we find there, are a precious resource and a constant source of comfort to me; it would be a sad day indeed if ever I were to forsake that, purely for the convenience of catching stocked fish from easily accessible waters.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

The boundaries of flyfishing?



It's a question I've been mulling over these last few weeks. It feels to me like the flyfishing world is currently awash with innovative new methods and gear, bringing with them a good dollop of debate as to what does and doesn't constitute 'proper' flyfishing. The use of buoyant indicators (suspension devices if you prefer), seems to be a hot topic on the forums and social networking sites at present, as does use of Tenkara, Euro style nymphing lines and a particularly effective fly pattern which is shall we say, not exactly easy on the eye.
Keen as I am to keep pace with the times, I've tried them all. Well, buoyant indicators I tried a long time ago, back when I first attempted to nymph fish on rivers. I soon jettisoned them in favour of learning the more rewarding practice of straight line nymphing....but then again, I'm still not averse to suspending a nymph below a dry fly when conditions dictate. Does that make me a hypocrite? Yes I suppose it does.

A handful of grayling fishing sessions have allowed me to test the worthiness of all the above techniques and in the process I have come to realise that the boundaries of what we consider sporting flyfishing practice are blurred, often entirely self imposed and difficult to explain or justify to fellow anglers without sounding cantankerous and snobbish. And in that sense, maybe we shouldn't regard our sport as being about boundaries at all, but just about what gives an angler most pleasure, so long as they are operating fairly and within whatever rules are imposed upon them externally?

Looking back over recent sessions, if there is one common thread running through them all it is that each time I made some deviation or other from what I have come to rely upon as normal flyfishing practice. This wasn't a deliberate undertaking, it just kind of worked out that way. I'll recount some of them here:

The Fly pattern from Hell.
Have you heard about the Squirmy Wormy? I'd be surprised if not as it's been the subject of considerable debate for the last twelve months or so. It's basically a super-elastic tacky rubber worm type material that you lash to a hook (with some difficulty I might add), before chucking it into the water and waiting for a fish to assault it violently. There are two schools of thought on this pattern which run along these lines:

School a - it's a worm imitation, therefore by using one in certain conditions I will be imitating the natural available foodsource. It's also exceptionally effective and I will catch a shedload of fish - bring it on, let's go fishing!
School b - if you think I'm putting one of those things anywhere near my leader, you're bloody joking....I don't want to go to flyfishing hell!

I resisted for some time; bought some of the material, yes, just to have a look at what the fuss was about you understand. But after tying a couple and feeling appalled by the sight of them lurking in my nymph box, I refused to countenance the idea of actually fishing one for a good few weeks thereafter. Eventually circumstance conspired against me and when faced one day with a big brown mucky looking river, my resolve wilted and I bypassed my normal go-to pattern in such conditions (the Hyde SJ worm variant), and reached instead for the ultra-visible and considerably more mobile Squirmy. Regrettably the results were amazing, as grayling after grayling absolutely leathered the pattern in its position on the top dropper, an occurrence later reinforced by subsequent trials on various other rivers. I wasn't surprised, I'd heard the stories.....but somehow vaguely hoped the pattern would fail so I could just say to folk "What, Squirmies? Yeah they don't work for me. I prefer a more subtle approach." But it didn't and I couldn't.




So what did I learn from this episode? Well I learned that the Squirmy Wormy is an unusually effective pattern for grayling, in coloured water, but also sometimes - God have mercy on me - in clearer water too. I also learned that if I'm catching large fish regularly, my appreciation of aesthetics suddenly loses a bit of its edge and I'm inclined to say things like "Well, it's all about angler enjoyment....and I'm not breaking any rules now am I?" Is using a worm pattern of any description a valid form of fly fishing? Is a SJ worm acceptable where a Squirmy is not? How is it I can use a Hyde SJ variant with a clear conscience yet struggle to contain a sense of embarrassment bordering on revulsion when tying on a squirmy? I need the spring olive hatches to start and take my mind off this problem, otherwise a session with the therapist beckons.

When is a flyline not a flyline?
If there is one significant way in which river fishing has changed in the last five years, it's in the field of flylines, or rather the jettisoning of them. So widespread now are the French/Spanish/leader to hand techniques that some anglers seem to have more or less given up on fly lines altogether. I'm not one of them - whilst I admit that a French leader does spend an awful lot of time on my reel when a day of nymphing beckons, I also admit that I often spend such days hankering after the fly line and the chance to extend a proper fly cast in the traditional sense (well 'proper' in a broad sense - an expert fly caster I am certainly not!)

What then of this new breed of ultra thin nymphing lines which have appeared on the market in the last year or so? At first glance they appear to be a compromise - a convenient workaround for competition anglers restricted by rules which state that the leader must be no longer than twice the length of the angler's rod. Of course, most purpose-built Euro style nymph leaders are considerably longer than that so for the comp lads it was a case of sticking with fly line as the delivering medium; they found themselves faced with the difficulty of how to hold line off the water and have resultant control over their flies at greater distance.

Cortland and Rio attempted to overcome this with the release of dedicated 'Euro-nymph' lines. Ostensibly normal plastic coated flylines, but much lighter and narrower in diameter, these lines could still be cast on the modern long, light fly rods, but could also be held off the water with far less sag than a normal line. This is fine in theory of course, and a useful compromise for those on the competition circuit....but how realistic is this 'holy grail' of zero line sag, really? A conversation with Oliver Edwards confirmed something I guess I already knew, but had largely overlooked - fundamental physics renders the whole premise a bit of a red herring. I hope Oliver won't mind me paraphrasing here, but put basically the angler's aim here is to eliminate as far as possible 'pull-in' forces which act to draw the terminal tackle off line and hence from a true drag-free drift line. In order to achieve this at any distance, we strive for a high rod tip, maximum line off the water, direct as possible contact with the flies. But there is an important consideration to be made regarding the pull-in force: in order to minimise the effect, the mass of the flies and line friction sub surface must at least equal that of the suspended section of line.....and in practice, that tends to mean fishing an extremely heavily weighted team of flies to hold up their end of the equation. Otherwise, whether we choose to see it or not, we really are fooling ourselves if we hink our flies are behaving as we wish and not being dragged off the dead drift line constantly.


So where do the low diameter fly lines come into this? I tried the Rio version on a couple of occasions and eventually came away unimpressed. For sure it was an improvement on conventional flyline in that the pull-in reaction was noticeably reduced......but it was still very much evident, more so when wind interfered and started blowing the suspended catenary curve all over the shop; and because my pair of nymphs were of considerably lower mass than that of the line, the result was plain: limited control, reduced to almost no control at distance greater than about 8yds. Very much a compromise then, and to a non-competition fishing plodger like me, not worth the hassle. I have since ordered one of the much lauded Sunray versions and look forward to making a comparison with the Rio. I don't hold out much hope that any such line could ever out-perform a long copolymer leader in the application for which they are both intended, but I stand to be corrected. For my money, the only surefire way of achieving the ultimate drag-free drift (and yes I accept that this need not always be so desirable), is to sort out the ratio between cast distance:rod length:line mass. In short, reducing the pull-in effect of the catenary curve. Which brings me nicely to.......

Tenkara - love it or hate it?
There cannot be a more divisive subject in the flyfishing world at present. The subject of Tenkara seems to be greeted with equal parts derision and borderline evangelical devotion, with precious little ground in between. I resisted for so long - up until last autumn to be exact - but have since had cause to reassess my initial scepticism, even if I remain far from convinced of its merit as a mainstream UK fly fishing approach.
In truth it was a stroke of luck which led to me trying the method at all. I had the great fortune of winning a tenkara rod in a photo competition - and a jolly good one at that. Brian Smith at Tenkara Centre UK kindly furnished me with one of their Hayase rods (which a friend had assured me was one of the nicest rods he had tried), and all of a sudden I was up and running. A few days later I crudely lashed a length of #4 fluorocarbon to the end, tied on some tippet and a tiny dry fly, and cast to some small rising grayling on the upper River Hodder. Despite managing to convert a few offers, my initial efforts were comical and Paul, my fishing partner for the day, was rightly amused; but straightaway I had a sense that there was huge potential waiting to be unlocked. I was intrigued and set about finding out more, courtesy in the main, of this excellent DVD and the generous advice of its creator, Dr Paul Gaskell.


Subsequent attempts have reinforced that feeling. I have used the tenkara set-up to catch grayling from my local River Ribble on a handful of occasions, using both double nymph and more recently, a pair of spiders cast to sporadically rising fish. In all cases the presentation has been incredible, the combination of long rod, plus long level leader rendering the aforementioned pull-in forces so diminished as to be negligible. It is also simple, inexpensive and  bloody good fun; a fellow club member who has been a lot quicker to embrace Tenkara, referred to 'laugh-out loud' moments. I now understand exactly what he means and this season, the Hayase will accompany me to a great many places where I feel it might just unlock a few more piscatorial doors which have hitherto remained unopened.

Of course, it is not without limitation. Most antagonists point to the very obvious fact that with the line being tethered to the tip of the rod, there is no facility to yield line should a larger than expected fish take hold. Is it really acceptable to subject the quarry to the real possibility that a hook might be left in its jaw as result of a line break? I don't think so and for that reason I firmly believe - despite what more fervent advocates might counter-argue - that this is a method for waters where smaller fish only are to be expected. One afternoon on the Ribble saw me accidentally hook a trout of maybe 16 inches. There was never any doubt that I would land the fish, but the whole palaver seemed a little at odds to the simple elegance of the preceding events as I handlined the fish to the net, before discovering that it was still way too green and thrashing about at my knees, had to let go again for it to tire some more. For me it was an unacceptably long fight time and I was left in no doubt that whilst with practice and a better technique on my part, 2lb plus fish surely could be landed on Tenkara gear, the rigmarole involved is neither dignified, nor entirely fair on the fish.

But is it fly fishing? I think so. For delicacy and subtlety it beats our western methods into a cocked hat. It is also unconventional to our eyes, involving a very long rod, fixed line and no reel. Twelve months ago I wouldn't even have entertained it....but then I probably wouldn't have tied a Squirmy Worm to a hook then either.

_________________


So where does all that leave me? Well, as I mentioned earlier, so much of our flyfishing is dictated by our own internal sense of aesthetics and where we choose to draw the line. Not only that, but more importantly we fish in a manner which brings us pleasure - surely that is the ultimate aim regardless of how 'proper' our chosen method might be. I have been guilty of snobbery and of pooh-poohing such choices, but faced with similar dilemmas myself this winter, have been forced to confront the flimsiness of the whole premise of flyfishing boundaries. The more I analyse it, the deeper I sink into a mire of uncertainty of my own devising......which is daft. It's all too easy to become stuck in one's ways and dismissive of that which brings enjoyment other more flexible anglers; but on the other hand I firmly believe that one of the things which makes our branch of the sport so great is our capacity as flyfishers to exercise restraint in what we do, along with an appreciation of tradition and aesthetic values over the bare mechanics of hauling in fish - which is where things like Squirmy Wormies and fishing the bung begin to ask pressing questions of our flyfishing world view. It is an interesting subject and one I will be giving more thought to over the coming months. In the meantime, spring awaits and with it a return to the reassuringly blameless pastime of casting a dry fly to rising trout. What a bloody relief!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Winter of Content


Winter plods slowly on bringing the 2015 trout season ever nearer, although that particular watershed still feels a good way off right now. This is the time of year when my flyfishing customarily goes into semi-hibernation and I concentrate instead on the indoor pursuits of re-stocking fly boxes, cleaning lines and building leaders. In some ways the break can do a man some good. After all, there has to be a time to get the fishing bag tidied up - retrieve all the discarded chocolate bar wrappers and birdsnested tippet from its mouldering depths and restore some sort of order to the chaos which built up over the course of the previous year. I enjoy such tasks, but as soon as they are accomplished, I feel the draw of water again and the ensuing wait for days to lengthen feels almost unbearable. Winter does not suit me well.

A year ago, I managed to stem such feelings of frustration and misery by returning to grayling fishing with an enthusiasm I hadn't felt for the previous half dozen winters. What precipitated this sudden change in heart is difficult to pin down, but it surely helped that I fished in places known to hold zillions of the little blighters. Several outings were made, lots of grayling were caught, and the second half of winter eased by so much quicker as a result.

So perhaps it's no surprise that when the 2014 trout season came to a close and I assured my good lady that my angling activities would be 'toned right down' for the winter, my thoughts turned to grayling once more, making a liar out of me straightaway. I embarked on a concerted tying spree of technicolor shrimps and jig nymphs, joined an eight man grayling syndicate on a sought-after river in the Scottish Borders, and so completed the full circle journey back to what I left behind in the late noughties:long hours of searching big pools in cold weather for elusive shoals of winter grayling. I've loved every minute of it! The syndicate water has produced grayling fishing of quality I am unused to, with fish over 2lbs commonplace and the real possibility of something a whole lot bigger. When a day in December yielded close to twenty fish with four of them weighing between 2lb 2oz and 2lb 8oz, I started to question why I had ever become such a reluctant winter angler in the first place. The real treat however has been the quality and strength of the fish. I have never tussled with fish so strong as Borders grayling, ever. Whether the somewhat laminar flow over smooth gravel works to their advantage as they hold station with dorsal fin raised against the current, or they are just stronger than our soft southern versions, I don't know. What is fact is that a big one hooked in water of good depth and speed is almost immovable for long anxious minutes, no matter how much sidestrain is applied. It's heart-stopping stuff, exciting and at the same time tortuous  - the grayling bug has bitten once more and for now, I cannot get enough of it.


A particularly memorable outing came at the turn of the year when Stuart and I had a weekend jaunt in search of fishable water when most of the country was swimming. As is so often the case when you have a trip planned at this time of year, the weather conspired to throw a big wet spanner in the works. I recall a couple of years ago almost to the day, plans to head to the south coast and fish the Frome for its uncommonly large grayling. You may recall the state of the weather in the south of England around that time......well when a day or two beforehand, I logged on to a local webcam overlooking the river, I couldn't see any dry land at all save for the very tops of a line of willow trees which I took to be lining the 'bank' of the river. At such times the prospect of ever fishing the dry fly again feels very unlikely indeed.

That the rains were scheduled to arrive the very afternoon before we set off for the Borders came as no surprise to Stuart and I, and we deferred for a day in the hope of somewhere dropping into at least half-fishable ply. As it happened, nowhere really did and we ended up taking a punt and driving north anyway, spurred on by desperation as much as anything else, and with a venue in mind which might just have avoided the worst of the floods. Not that I was too bothered: up until recently, the domestic demands which come with a tired wife and pair of toddlers had made such overnight trips difficult to justify and for me the prospect of a full two days fishing in the company of a good friend was enough in itself. Grateful just for the opportunity, I resolved to happily toss tungsten into a mucky brown torrent if needs be, and any fish would be treated as a welcome surprise! 

In the end, we had rather a fine time of it. Yes the river was high and dirty and the fishing restricted to marginal soft spots, but sometimes approaching an unfamiliar water with an unbiased pair of eyes can reap rewards and we managed to find surprising sport on a beat which was all but abandoned by the local anglers. Coincidentally a couple of friends were the only other lads out and having fished the place before, Peter and Ken were generous enough to show us around and point out the places that should produce....or at least would produce when the river was a foot lower! 

The fishing was out of necessity uncomplicated - good old fashioned Czech nymphing with a team of three weighted nymphs led through under the rod tip. Quickly I realised how little I have used this method in recent years; in fact I found the downstream progression which is customary when Czech nymphing, completely alien at first, so long have I spent fishing purely upstream. It's strange how you get into habits; these days, even when fishing short I always move upstream and have my flies out of the water as soon as they are level with my position. I've probably missed a trick in all honesty, and when my first fish came at that point in the drift known well to all regular Czech nymphers - downstream of square, just as the flies begin to sweep away from the riverbed - it was like a long dormant lightbulb suddenly switched on in my brain! Yes I have neglected pure Czech nymphing I admit, and that is an oversight I aim to correct.

That first fish was a belter - 2lb 6oz and fit as a gundog - and it set the tone for the weekend. The grayling were prepared to feed and although location proved difficult, the ones we caught were of a good stamp, with a sprinkling of very impressive specimens amongst them. Stuart shows off one such below (his own photo - a great self timer job with the camera!):

 
Day one rewarded us with 15 fish up to 2lb 10oz. It was more than I could ever have hoped for.

The following morning dawned bright and cold and with the river falling, but considerably cleared, a challenging session was on the cards. We had formulated a plan over beer the night before, which involved getting off the beaten track and away from the other anglers we expected to be present, given that the river was just about coming into decent ply. How successful our strategy proved to be is open to interpretation - we covered nearly eight miles on foot and found precious little worth fishing in the prevailing conditions. Total time spent with flies in the water probably amounted to little over half an hour between us as we trudged the 4 miles or so downstream and back. However, time spent exploring new water is never wasted and we had seen enough the previous day to persuade us that a return visit would be very much worthwhile. That we can now discount certain areas will make future tactics easier to decide.

It was a low key day from a fishing point of view. Ironically though, it provided me with one very memorable moment. Midway through the morning we came upon a roily pool which didn't really feel like good grayling habitat, but had that look about it which suggested that while there might not be numbers of fish present, it might just be home to an odd 'soler'. We decided to quickly fish it through, and shortly after came a strange moment. A couple of minutes down the run and separated by maybe 20 yds, we both simultaneously felt that a fish was on the cards. Whether there was something about the atmosphere, quality of light, or just the way our flies were fishing, we both agreed afterwards that just for a moment, something had felt very right. It was during one such drift that I looked at my leader, muttered something under my breath along the lines of 'they're going through nicely', before the indicator ticked upwards and I lifted into the biggest grayling I've ever seen. Not that I saw it right away of course. In fact it was a good five minutes of typical stalemate before Stuart caught a glimpse beneath the surface and announced "that's huge!" Cue sweaty palms and thoughts of the 50 different ways in which you can lose a big fish...... 

In the net, it looked like a different species of fish altogether, than the grayling I'm used to catching: broad shouldered, deep, and with a sheen of turquoise along its flanks and dorsal fin that was just stunning. I've always suspected that a true 3lb grayling must be a hell of a sight, but never really expected to catch one. Social media these days would have you believe that they are ten-a-penny, but are they really? For sure there are rivers which are very capable of producing such specimens, but how many of the fish you see claimed as '3lb plus' are actually weighed? I've have had enough around the 2lb 8oz mark to know that a grayling of that calibre feels like a very big one indeed, and understand how easy it is to get carried away if a set of scales isn't close at hand. 

 
  
That was me done for the day; I honestly wasn't bothered if I had another offer all afternoon. Which is just as well because apart from one skerrit, I didn't!

The long drive home was spent reflecting upon what had been a fine weekend and making plans for future trips. There is something undeniably satisfying about taking a road trip to fish new water, using fairly specialised methods at a tough time of year, in unfavourable conditions....and managing to eke out some success. When that success is shared and comes as a result of combined effort and teamwork, well I don't think it gets much better than that. It has so far been a winter of content. 
 

 photos 3 and 4 courtesy of Stuart Minnikin.


Sunday, November 09, 2014

Homage


A friend of mine died at the end of this summer. I hadn't known Gary Hyde for even a year, yet such was the nature of the man that we had quickly become friends and when he finally lost his long battle against illness, I felt the loss greatly. Fellow anglers who had known Gary for a lot longer than I, were universally devastated; at once, I was reminded of the sense of community there exists within flyfishing circles as social networking sites became crowded with tributes to the man and condolences to his family.

I had a small tribute of my own in mind and finally saw it through last month. I visited one of Gary's favourite rivers and spent a few hours in quiet reflection, wading the pools I know he loved to fish, and to which he so generously introduced me at the start of the year. Those familiar with these pages might recall the circumstances in which we met during late December 2013 and how, unprompted, Gary invited me over to fish with him on some of the urban rivers of his native West Yorkshire. One polite enquiry as to where might be a good place to start on the Ryburn and Halifax AS waters of the River Calder, and shortly after at Gary's absolute insistence, I found myself in the passenger seat of his car, receiving a comprehensive tour of the area's flyfishing potential. A few days later we were back again, this time actually fishing. Gary eagerly pressed example after example of his beautifully tied grayling flies into my hand at every opportunity, patterns which went on to have a profound effect upon my hitherto conservative tying style. The fishing itself was a revelation and I made a number of return visits to the area before the trout season opened and I turned my attention to more familiar ground elsewhere.

When at last the opportunity arose, I returned in October to find the river in an entirely unfamiliar state: running clear and low enough to reveal a mouthwatering sequence of riffles and pools. Of course I had forgotten; back in the early days of my acquaintance I came each time to the river in various states of spate and thus came to know it only as a mucky torrent from which grayling could be plucked from slack water eddies and boil holes. But here was a bright, clean proposition entirely unlike that which my limited experience had revealed, its gritstone bones so dark that only stonebound accumulations of autumn leaves on the riverbed betrayed what would otherwise have appeared unfathomable depths. Slowly, I worked my way up the pools with a brace of nymphs, a short line and a heavy heart.


The fishing was stupendously good - it always is on Gary's river. There are many more such examples up and down the country. That such vigorous veins of life can thrive in the face of such pressure is nothing short of a miracle and a credit to all involved in urban river restoration. These streams exist on a perpetual knife edge, the ever-present threat of complete wipeout at the hand of industrial pollution incidents looming with a sense of inevitability that is heartbreaking. It would be easy to feel pessimistic about the future, more so when weighed down by thoughts of mortality....yet by the time I climbed from the river, a good mile or so upstream, I couldn't fail to be buoyed by the absolute magnificence of the sport. In a little over three hours I had returned exactly 80 fish, mostly grayling but despite best endeavors to avoid them, a good number of ravenous trout among them. I don't deserve any credit for that impressive tally - the fishing was easy and a rank novice would have filled his boots similarly. It is the river which deserves the credit, along with all the people and organisations involved in its improvement.


There is another story to be told here - one for another time. It concerns the flies I used that day: patterns of my own devising both, but as you might have guessed, patterns very much in the style of my late friend. The two flies remained in their respective positions on the cast for the whole session and would you believe me if I said that all but a couple of trout took the point fly (a small gold-headed jig nymph), whilst nearly every single grayling ate the dropper? One day I'll tell you about that dropper fly I promise......

I felt blessed as I made the drive home. This last year has changed my outlook as an angler, for a number of reasons, all of them positive; and whilst it would be wrong to credit a single individual with that, there is little doubt that one particular 'phone conversation back in the dying embers of 2013 proved to be the catalyst for some wholesale changes to my outlook on certain aspects of river fishing and fly tying.

Gary Hyde was a fine man; one of the most generous, kind-hearted blokes I've ever had the pleasure to meet. No trouble was too great if it meant helping a fellow angler, experienced or novice - something that I witnessed at first hand on a number of occasions and which instilled in me a deep respect for the man, and a desire to become a better person myself as a result. It was standing room only at his funeral as fellow anglers packed in to pay their respects, some of whom traveled out to the river afterwards for a few reflective casts. I wasn't able to make it that day; I hope that these few paragraphs go some way to making amends.

Thanks for everything Gary. We all miss you fella.


Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Curtain Drawn.


That's it then: the 2014 trout season has passed and I return to this blog a full two months after last posting - what a sad state of affairs! It's not been from a lack of trying, I can tell you - all sorts of other stuff has got in the way, such as fishing (hurrah!), and when I have had some keyboard time, a few bits of writing published elsewhere. I guess that makes me a little unfaithful to these pages, and yes I do feel bad. The great thing about keeping a blog is that you write purely for fun and on your own terms. Someone once said that if you haven't got anything interesting to say, don't say it; that's a maxim that the blogger can steadfastly live by - certainly I find myself more and more these days with just nothing interesting to say. Then one day you might be in the mood to have a waffle and off you go.....out comes a blog post. Whether anyone reads it or finds it interesting or worthwhile is a secondary consideration - the main thing is that you enjoyed doing it in the first place.

Commissioned writing is a different beast altogether. Take a subject you love and love to write about and it should be easy to knock an article out to order yes? Well no, not for me anyway; bung a deadline in front of something and it instantly becomes A Task. Over the last eight or so years, my motivation for writing has been purely internal and I've become accustomed to brief blasts at the keyboard when the mood takes - a stream of consciousness which either turns out acceptably, or gets consigned to the virtual trashcan, with no great drama either way. Recently however I've had to pore over every word, tie and then re-tie sample flies, self edit down to a more concise wordcount, process and re-size photos and then start again when I realised I hadn't removed a sensor speck from the top right hand corner....that sort of thing. Suddenly, what would have been a half hour exercise in freestyling, has absorbed hours of your already busy life! Yes, my poor little blog has suffered. The least I can do is make amends with an obligatory end of season round-up.

Where to begin though? I've been uncommonly lucky this time around and done more than my fair share of fishing on waters both running and still. The Eden has been kind once more and after a period of averaging high numbers of sub-2lb fish per session, I at last managed to get my timing right and rock up when a few bigger fish were on the go. Visits from early August onwards threw up a few 3-4lb trout although I needed to fish well into darkness to find them feeding off the surface to blue-winged olive duns and emerging caddis.



I had a play with the G16's auto-timer in an attempt to get a few 'selfies'. There is some way to go before I can match the efforts of Paul Procter and Jeff Hatt admittedly!



Then later in the season I had a few trips out to my favourite wild stillwater where luckily a boat partner was generally on hand to obtain something like a decent photo:



Ironically though, after a season which has proved to be consistently productive, my most memorable outing of the back end was an occasion when I fell flat on my be-wadered arse and failed miserably to catch much more than a handful of skezwees. It was a day when I was required to catch to order - the first time in my life such a bizarre circumstance has arisen. I had my photographer friend Peter with me and the brief was simple - catch a couple of good fish for some action shots and a couple of nice shallow-depth-of-field trout portraits. So I took him to my 'banker stretch', a bit of river that I know well, where I am always confident of catching plenty of decent trout. It might not be the place to go for the very biggest fish, but I was pretty sure I could extract at least one 2lb-er for the camera. The day was fine, the river refreshed slightly by an all too rare thunderstorm a couple of days earlier, and with each pool hereabouts typically producing at least a brace of decent fish all summer, all I had to do was turn up and fish right? Nope, 'fraid not.

By the time I had fished through three pools with only a couple of parr to show, I was becoming concerned. I mucked about with my nymph patterns and plugged away, safe in the knowledge that the fish hadn't gone anywhere and that I would connect eventually.......except I never did. Just as writing for oneself comes easily at times, but a whole lot harder when working to a brief, so the angling side had proved to be uncompromising when all I bloody well needed needed was one decent (and by decent, I would have settled for pound class), fish.....trout, grayling or bugger it, even a chub! I could sense Peter's resolve draining by the minute; the increasingly bright conditions making even the routine capturing of 'fishless angler going through the motions' shots, a far from straightforward affair. Eventually I returned a couple of 8 inch grayling and then dropped a somewhat better fish down the side of a pool head rapid. It was, truth be told, some way off being a satisfactory performance. Yet it was truly a memorable outing.......mainly because I haven't been allowed to forget it!


The last roll of the dice came a few weeks later when I met up with my good friend Dave Smith for a day on the Eden, in glorious late September weather of warm air and soft sunlight. Fishing with Dave is always an absolute pleasure: a relaxing, contemplative occasion where fish tend to come as a happy byproduct rather than the result of any concerted effort. We chewed the fat, made plans for next season, fished dry in the pool tails (Dave), fished wet in the pool heads (me), relaxed with a picnic of some quality and bottles of pale ale, then resumed fishing into the autumnal gloaming with spirits high for the moment, but hearts heavy at the passing of another season. 
No big trout showed themselves that evening, but the hours that preceded had yielded a good many fish with Dave expertly picking off risers (and non-risers) to small black patterns, and yours truly occasionally chipping in with small Leon-style nymphs in the very thinnest of the drought-shrunken riffles.The river is in rude health and Dave returned a good number of fish of this calibre, which bodes well for the coming couple of seasons.


Plenty of grayling continued to show too, which is encouraging as they seem to have been a little scarce on the Eden of late. Dozens of 8-10 inch fish tell a story of successful spawning in spring 2013 and as the season closed it seemed that every pool held a pocket of them. If we get a proper hard winter this time and they are encouraged to shoal, it might herald a return to those days when eventual location could lead to a return of 20 or more or more fish without moving your feet.
I have heard complaints this year. I can understand why: those who prefer to fish dry fly have had a hard time of it through no fault of their own. What is indisputable though, is that the head of fish is there - one or two fellow anglers I know have enjoyed something approaching their best ever season on the river. Local expert Geoff Johnston's latest blog post pretty much sums things up for me - it feels like the end of the season has come too soon!

Dave continued to fish with trademark elegance into the last knockings while I pootled about with my camera. Never one to pass up the opportunity for a cliche, I stood mid-river and took a series of shots of the sun dipping slowly behind the bankside trees, drawing the curtain on another trout season. What a privilege to have fished in the places I have fished, with the people I have fished with!