It is midsummer and a heatwave and dead low water conditions are upon us. I've been out the last two Thursdays and enjoyed sport at opposite ends of the spectrum: most recently, an evening in which so little happened to suggest there was any life in the river, that I may as well have stayed at home and watched the cricket highlights from Lords. But the previous week, well that was another beast altogether, the fabric of flyfishers' dreams....for the blue-winged olive spinners fell, and fell in numbers the like of which I haven't seen for quite a few years.
On that occasion I enjoyed superb sport with wild trout to over 2lb in weight. It was a sight to behold when I came upon the tail of a long tree-lined pool, to find perhaps two dozen fish hard on the feed on the flats ahead of me. Their casual, hoovering rise-forms caused a mental light bulb to flicker on and I quickly looked down to see the surface carpeted with spent female olives, in such density that a single swipe of the hand through the surface film resulted in so many of the poor blighters sticking to my skin. Needless to say, a bonanza looked very much on the cards.
I had forgotten though, in the couple of years since I last landed upon even a moderate spinner fall, that such episodes tend to end up far from the trout-fest one initially anticipates. I've had a few truly humiliating experiences with B-WO spinners and although more recent encounters suggested I was at last getting on top of the situation, I admit it was with a touch of trepidation that I crept forward from the pool tail, crippled spinner pattern at the ready, about to do battle with trout which were filling their bellies at leisure.
As it turned out, I had a smashing evening, though not without some difficulties. The first fish I covered took first cast - a stoater of just over 2lb - and I settled into a comfortable sense of false security at once. However, after thrashing away madly and failing with the next half dozen or so, I realised that I needed to step back and think about what I was doing......and after taking stock and introducing a more measured approach, I got some rhythm going and went on to return a pleasing number of fish to 2lb 2oz. As the trusty Canon remained where I left it on the bank, I had to settle for cameraphone photos on that particular evening - always a sure sign the fishing has been good!
One fish I caught - a regulation 12 incher - took the fly quite deep and was hooked badly and bleeding. I had no choice but to knock it on the head and take it home. Below is a photo taken when I had emptied the contents of its engorged stomach into a bowl of water.....
With such an abundance of food on the surface, it's little surprise that the fish can be difficult to fool!
A while later I was musing over my experiences in spinner falls - the mistakes I have made and the things which seemed to work out ok. I thought it might be worth recounting some of them here, in the hope it might help anyone who like me, has ever suffered that gut-wrenching feeling of failure while all around, the trout go completely nuts! So, some points worth considering - first, the problems:
1. Easy pickings.
A heavy spinner fall isn't like a normal hatch in that the fish don't receive prior notice of the impending feast. In fact, it's the observant angler who perhaps gets first inkling that something might be about to occur, when large plumes of egg-laden female B-WOs can be seen drifting upstream, well above the water. Even earlier on, the game might be given away by the male flies swarming around vegetation and under tree canopies, suggesting there might a bit of Ephemerid hanky-panky going on. Like groups of lads hanging round the ladies toilets on a Saturday night in Yates'.
So, unlike with a hatch, there is no precursor - no ascending nymphs, no emerging duns, nothing. One minute the food isn't there, the next minute.....BOOM!.......the surface is covered and the dinner bell peals loudly. The trout greet this gift from heaven appropriately and embark upon a feeding frenzy. Except maybe frenzy isn't exactly the word for it........
Once she lands on the surface, a prostrate ovipositing spinner is going nowhere (unlike an emerging or emerged dun). The trout know this and fin about at leisure, mopping up the bounty with absolutely no urgency whatsoever. Food is everywhere, so there is no need to remain on station as such - what often happens is that the fish just mooch about the flats, snouts to the surface, sucking the flies in almost like they were krill to a whale. So problem number one it that of getting the fish to select your fly from the thousands of naturals on the water. It's not like the fish is on station and intercepting every fly which passes on the foam line conveyor belt above....so where to put the fly to give it a chance of getting taken?
2. Window of vision.
During a thick spinner fall, the feeding trout will be moving very high in the water - almost with their dorsal fins proud at times. There often isn't a riseform as such, just a series of nudges, continuously, as the fish hoover up the food on offer, setting themselves so that the merest upward tilt is all that is required to break the surface film. This positioning, with eyeline so close to the surface, affords the trout only an extremely narrow field of vision......which is a benefit to the angler, and a curse at the same time.
Benefit: it means that we can get ridiculously close to the fish - a happy situation which is often compounded by the fading light in which spinner falls so often occur. So presentation and drag-free drifts shouldn't be an issue, and we should be able to work steadily up a pool, returning fish at leisure before targeting the next. In theory.
Curse: this narrow field of vision means that the fish only see the morsels which are directly in front and to the immediate sides. The number of spinners on the water is such that the fish have no need to 'sit back' and target them.....just hold that super-shallow position and open the gob - job done. Of course, this means that they won't see the fly unless it is literally plonked on their noses...and how to do that when they are quartering about a bit? Tricky..........
3. Failing light.
Taking the above into account, it stands to reason that a good deal of accuracy can be required, and given the completely prostrate nature of the spent fly, a very close attention to avoidance of micro drag. Both of these are difficult to manage in the failing light so commonly associated with B-WO spinner falls and it's very easy to get drawn into a game of thrashing the water madly in increasing frustration as a fish rising every second or two repeatedly refuses our offerings, and we just haven't got the night vision to see why.
So, a few difficulties to consider there then! I don't pretend to have the answers and would be interested to hear how more accomplished anglers set about the task. My own experience leads me to proffer the following suggestions as to how one might make a start. Take it with a pinch of salt though - I caught a lot of fish last Thursday; but equally, next time you see a flyfisher at dusk, standing amidst rising trout and staring up into the purple heavens and cursing loudly.......well, there's a fair chance it will be me!
1. Choice of pattern.
I reach for a pattern of my own devising in these situations. Well I say my own devising: a chat with fellow Eden regular Richard Tong recently revealed that he simultaneously arrived at an almost identical pattern himself....there's nowt new in fly fishing eh!
My mongrel effort doffs a deferential cap to US angler Kelly Galloup, creator of an unusual - and deadly - crippled spinner pattern which utilises a hook cranked sideways in the horizontal plane and a single strand of Z-Lon wing material off to the side so that the whole thing mimics those majority situation spinners which land, half crippled on their sides, abdomens contorted and twisted skyward.
I've always loved this concept, but not the tendency for the fly to propellor and 'twizzle' the tippet mid cast (must be the way I tie 'em!); nor the fact that they are, like a traditional 'spent wing' pattern, exceedingly difficult to track in semi-darkness.
So I compromised and kept the cranked abdomen, but added a white wing post (Richard's is fluoro yellow), and a paradun style hackle with the fore and aft clipped out of it so that it roughly mimics a pair of spent spinner forewings. The result (the CPS or 'crippled para-spinner') has proved absolutely deadly for me......and I can see the bloody thing until the light has gone altogether! Tied a touch bigger than the naturals, it does seem to get picked out consistently, provided it is dropped in the right place. My next blog post will be a 'step-by-step' of its tying sequence, for anyone interested in giving one a float.
2. Keep calm!
The sight of so many fish, so absorbed in eating their fill, is enough to reduce the avid flyfisher to a quivering mess. Cue sweaty palms, trembling fingers and numerous aborted attempts to tie on an appropriate pattern as the sun sinks below the horizon! But keep calm; the scattergun approach does NOT work, take it from me. A few moments spent studying the target fish will reveal if it is staying more or less put, moving about randomly, or embarking upon a little circuit before returning to the same spot. Key to this business is, as mentioned earlier, to put the fly mere inches in front of the trout's nose, and that means knowing where it will pop up next.......and at what interval (fish tend to rise with a definite rhythm in these circumstances and it pays to interpolate this when delivering the fly).
I personally find this difficult, and I can't put my finger on what exactly causes me to struggle one night, but succeed the next. I think it's probably something barely tangible, related to subtle aspects of angler timing and concentration.....in much the same way a cricketer hits a cover drive out the middle of the bat one day, but edges to slip on another. Sometimes we just get 'tuned in' don't we, and everything goes swimmingly. The best advise I can give is to take it slowly, observe closely and try to target the individual rising fish as precisely as possible. Failing that, running after and kicking the nearest sheep usually proves cathartic.
3. Perseverance pays.
If you've struck lucky and the fall is heavy, then the fish will probably be so absorbed in feeding that you can almost get to within a rod length and tap them on the back! Well maybe not, but they will certainly be tolerant of angler presence provided the usual caution is exercised.One thing I find, and was reminded of the other night, is that repeated 'refusals' are not necessarily what they appear. Often it's just a case that the fly has alighted in the wrong place, or at the wrong time, such as when the fish was mid-sip to a natural. Assuming the target hasn't been put down, then it pays to keep trying. Have confidence in the fly pattern, keep going and sooner or later there's a fair chance you'll drop the artificial in precisely the right place at precisely the right time - bingo!
4. Darkness - fixed line and catenary curve
With good reason I feel, Penrith angler Terry Cousin gets more than a few mentions in these pages, and here's another gem I gleaned from the wise owl a few years ago.
When the light goes to the point that the fly just cannot be seen anymore (but fish are still rising), a useful tactic is to fix one's cast length in much the same way as if deploying a French leader or other short line nymph methods. This serves the purpose of narrowing down the zone in which you are fishing - usually to a very short range - thus making it easier to identify when a fish has risen within your enforced range. With practice, it becomes possible to 'know' almost exactly where the fly is at any one time, as we get a feel for the maximum distance at which the fly first lands, and then the speed which it drifts downstream. Any rises in the immediate vicinity can be greeted with a lift, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.....the conversion rate improves with practice; again, a case of getting into ''the zone'.
It's also worth mentioning that when the light has gone altogether, if the leader is suitably long, the range suitably short and the rod tip held nice and high, it is often possible to detect takes by watching the curve or tip of the fly line (depending how much is extending beyond the rod tip), for subtle lifts as a fish sips the fly down. It's a bit like spider fishing, but with the dry fly....and in pitch black darkness! I'd definitely recommend giving this a go though - it does work a treat.
Those are my humble surmisings on the subject. The whole thing would probably be a bit easier if we encountered heavy spinner falls more regularly - after all, practice makes perfect so they say. My own experience has been rather different and I would say I witness a good fall maybe once a season at best, with a few false starts being more the norm. Last Thursday's episode was the first such I have dropped on in at least two seasons, and the unpredictable nature is highlighted by the fact that two nights ago, in apparently identical conditions, I saw not a single fly. Good luck to those of you who go out on these high summer nights in hope of these rare moments of magic.