Sunday, September 15, 2013
Gnats on the Flats.
The first autumn storm of the year is upon us as I write, but yesterday was a back end day of such quiet beauty that even had I not enjoyed good sport with the Cumbrian Eden’s trout and grayling, it would still have been a joy to be out. There were parts of the day that felt almost springlike, such was the vigourous freshness in the air. Only the absence of birdsong, the flattened and lank bankside grasses and wildflower seedheads belied the fact that the best of the year isn’t just around the corner, but passed long ago. Then, as if to remind me of that fact, a northerly breeze would gust up for a few minutes, bringing raw chill and the unmistakably damp, almost metallic scent of the approaching Atlantic weather front.
I love such autumn days, although they are always tinged with sadness for the passing trout season. At this time of year a day of slow sport can trigger all sorts of dark and depressing thoughts about the forthcoming winter months, but when - as was the case yesterday - the trout are on the fin and the grayling begin to show in numbers, it can seem like the very best time of year to be fishing a north country spate river.
Despite a sudden cooling of the air this week, I had high hopes of seeing some dry fly sport. The recent black gnat festival (friends fishing upstream reported almost non-stop surface action to swamped Diptera, for two weeks solid), appears to be coming to an end, but even so I still expected to see a few fish rising in the calmer parts of the river. This did indeed prove to be the case, although it was nearly midday before sufficient number of the black flies were clustering the current seams and tempting a few fish up on the flats.
This was tricky business indeed: late season trout and grayling can be fussy customers at best, and coupled with the fact that they had been feeding on a conveyor belt of gnats for days on end, they were totally disinclined to move even inches to one side to intercept either natural or imitation. I got the impression that although the dinner party was over, they were still lounging around, idly picking at the peanut bowl and cheese board. Anything which didn't properly resemble the real thing was flatly refused, whether drifted right over their snouts or not. I immediately had to reassess my initial choice of fly tied on a #16 hook, or face inevitable frustration.
Extending my leader from 14' to 16' and tying on a #20 Terry's Speck allowed me to present a tiny nondescript black pattern, well down in the surface film - and with plenty of tippet between leader taper and fly, a better chance of a drift unaffected by micro drag. The adjustments did the trick and several nice trout and grayling were fooled on difficult flat water: a satisfying conclusion. Large trout were however difficult to come by and the biggest of the day went no more than a pound and a half. The grayling were of a better stamp and several nudged the two pound mark. A #20 fly might seem very small for such decent sized specimens, but as long as the hook point is offset slightly from the line of the shank (an exercise I carry out while the fly is still viced, by gently pressing on the shank sideways), then hooking ratio works out just fine. The fly can be seen in the scissors of the fish below - small irons have a happy habit of bedding in nice and firmly.
As the afternoon wore on, I very much hoped that the sporadic gnat feeding would develop into something more substantial; but in the event, it did the opposite and tailed off. I had found rising fish on the tails of two pools only, which was disappointing - especially as I hadn't had the opportunity to cast at anything particularly large. Nevertheless, I was far from done. An increasing number of Baetids had begun to stream out of the pool head riffles, to the extent that a decent little hatch was developing. I trapped a few and found a mixture of late season Large Dark Olives (Baetis rhodani), Pale Wateries (Baetis fuscatus) and Small Dark Olives (Baetis scambus), the latter two only discernible in the males, with the former having lemon yellow eyes, the latter red-brown.
The fish were not tempted to rise to either emerger, nor the quickly airborne duns, but I felt certain that with so much activity, and with the river feeling so lively and fresh, surely there mush be some sub-surface hawking going on at least? I put up a brace of nymphs and resolved to find out.
What followed was my busiest spell of the day. In the space of a few minutes, three grayling around the 2lb mark had been returned; and then, the best and worst moment of the day. A cast alongside a submerged boulder brought a sharp jab to the leader and suddenly a very large and very upset brown trout was head-shaking its way downstream. I talked to the fish, asking it not to drop off, not to do anything stupid, for here was the best fish of my somewhat mediocre season - a cock brownie of around three and a half pounds and the sort of fish I have wanted to put a dry fly over all summer, but never quite had the chance. The fact that he was hooked blind on the nymph didn't matter - I badly wanted him in the net.
Of course, it didn't happen; you've already guess that. As the early, fraught stages of the fight were safely negotiated and the fish began the heavy nodding-about-under-the-rod-tip business, it seemed like with everything under control, all that was required was to be patient......and then the hook pulled, just like that. For a couple of seconds I behaved in a way no fly fisher should ever be seen to behave.
The loss of that fish stalked me like a black cloud for the rest of the afternoon and my concentration went to crap. I noodled out a few more trout and then late on after I had decided to pack up, found a handful of fish rising near the car park and returned a last couple after reverting to the dry fly once more. But it was all half-hearted stuff and despite the fact that with a dozen trout and eight grayling under my belt, I had enjoyed a fairly absorbing and fruitful session, I couldn't help but ponder upon how much better that big lad would have made it..........there is nothing I hate more than losing a big fish.
Now, as I write, I am feeling more philosophical and more inclined to take comfort from the fact that such trout exist at all in the rivers I fish. Maybe our paths will cross next season? Maybe, if the winter is a kind one, he will be a four pound fish sometime during the summer? On reflection, I think that one of the great things about angling is that the unknown propels us constantly forward. Each season leaves so many unanswered questions and unsolved problems, and for those of us who do little in the way of serious fishing through the winter months, a chance to ponder and formulate plans for next time around.
Still, that split second moment of disbelieving agony aside, it had been a day of great beauty – by turns quiet and still, the river all silver light and trailing vegetation; then the probing of winter’s bony fingers and a sad acknowledgement that the good times are so very nearly over once more. As I crested the Orton Scar road on my drive home and watched the low sunlight slanting long shadows across the pastures of the upper Lune valley and Howgill Fells, it felt like the end of trouting to me. Already my thoughts have turned to grayling and how I might squeeze one or two last sessions out of my fly fishing year.
I'll leave you with this passage from one of my favourite angling writers Laurence Catlow. I hope you all enjoyed a fine trout season!
"Tuesday 29 September
I fished the Eden from Scandal Dub this afternoon, starting in September sunshine of such windless and radiant serenity that it unsettled me. It was as if the light of paradise were shining on the earth, as though perfection had somehow strayed into this world of clouded vision. It was too beautiful and I was relieved when the glory faded, when a thin cover of cloud crept over the sky, when the light softened and the air turned damp and seemed once more like the air of the world that I know."