Brownlining, Alistair Stewart calls it; more commonly known as urban flyfishing, and something that until very recently I had absolutely no experience of whatsoever. There are several reasons why this should be so, but prime amongst them has to be the fact that my fly fishing ideal never really incorporated towering vacant buildings and riverbanks strewn with industrial detritus.
Despite my misgivings though, it hasn't escaped my notice that the urban trout and grayling scene has taken off somewhat in recent years as a number of once knackered rivers have risen from the ashes of gross pollution through better legislation, the decline of manufacturing, and the Wild Trout Trust's 'Trout in the Town' programme, helping and inspiring all manner of local restorations groups such as S.P.R.I.T.E and The Wandle Trust.
It doesn't take too much digging around the internet forums and blogosphere to see that an increasing number of clued-up flyfishers are taking to the centres of our towns and cities and finding surprising sport where once there was nothing but exploitation and neglect. Theo Pike's respected book Trout in Dirty Places epitomises this culture shift perfectly - a whole volume devoted to finding game fish in fifty of our once most polluted arteries. I bought a copy recently and the reading of it sealed a deal for me, the embryonic form of which had already been brokered back in late December by a certain Mr Gary Hyde, when we met to discuss angling possibilities in the West Yorkshire area.
We had fished that day, for maybe an hour at most. We caught nothing. The river was high, brown and bordering on unapproachable. I kept snagging bogroll on my point fly, nearly fell in twice as my ankle turned between blocks of broken rubble, and later when I got home, my waders smelled funny. My initial impressions of brownlining? Well, I was underwhelmed.....but also strangely intrigued. Gary's enthusiasm and quiet confidence was infectious. "That pool holds a lot of fish," he would say; "expect maybe two dozen fish from that stretch in lower water." I believed him and I wanted to find out more. A return visit was quickly arranged.
I have spent most of the last three weeks thinking about that little river, and others like it too. I'm a terrible creature of habit and although each winter I hatch all sorts of plans to broaden my angling horizons, I all too readily slip back into the comfort zone as the new season approaches and with an air of inevitability, show up on cue at all the usual haunts. I value the insight that time invested on a certain bit of river brings and gain comfort from my successes, brought about by observation and effort over an extended period of time. Of course the other way of looking at it could be to accuse me of being a 'play-it-safer', of lacking imagination, or worse still (but probably true), of being bone idle. I acknowledge all of these things and draw satisfaction and dissatisfaction from them by turns. I have decided: this season will be the one when I broaden my angling horizons just a little and fish a few of those places I've been promising to myself for a number of years now.
I met with Gary again this week and was once again bowled over by his generosity of spirit as he chauffeured me around his patch, dropping flies into my palm with alarming regularity before offering me in to the likely spots. I hope I get the chance to return the favour later this year.
The river on this occasion was an altogether more viable prospect. Still swollen with floodwater, still carrying colour, but considerably less of both than on the previous occasion; almost straightaway, we were into fish. And if the earlier reading of Theo Pike's book had sealed the deal for me, the grayling we caught underpinned the whole thing. They were superb specimens, fat from warm floodwater feeding and of a size averaging somewhere between 12 and 14 inches. I was astounded - every time I lifted into a fish, I looked up at my surroundings, taking in the smokestained masonry, the shattered glass and drone of nearby traffic. It was surreal, like sifting through a trash heap and bringing up diamonds. I watched my indicator as I led it down the very edge of the stream, within inches of the bank, watched it nudge time after time. The fish were lined up in the quiet places out of the main torrent, and although the river was still big and difficult to fish, it was plainly obvious to me that in better conditions, here was a water with simply massive potential.
Of course, there are anglers who are already well aware of this fact. As is usually the case, I have arrived at the party a little later than is considered fashionable. I had a vague idea of what was going on beforehand but still, it was a real revelation for me and I stood for a minute after every fish, looking around and quietly shaking my head in disbelief.
As if to finally persuade me I had dropped into some weird parallel dimension, I paused a moment to consider the flies I was using. I had relied upon Gary's beautifully tied creations of course - it's never wise to ignore the advice of an experienced local angler - although I had swapped and changed about a bit with some of my own tried and trusted grayling bugs. None of the latter had tempted a fish, whilst Gary's suggested brace of UV pink shrimp and San Juan Worm accounted for all but one of the grayling (and unseasonable trout) I caught. Only recently a few of us were discussing how effective pink is for grayling and I stuck my head above the parapet and stated that on the rivers I fish, it isn't actually all that deadly. Looking at my fly box, I realised how heavily I rely upon drab nymph patterns with maybe only a touch of sparkle or colour here and there....and yet here I was catching on stuff which looked like the by-product of some strange genetic experiment! It only served to reinforce the sense that I've led far too sheltered a flyfishing existence over recent years, and added to that incomparable feeling of having discovered something new and so very exiting.
Thanks are due then, to Gary Hyde and Theo Pike who between them have escorted me into the heart of a flyfishing darkness. My pith helmet is donned; let the exploration begin!
Gary Hyde is a respected West Yorkshire angling guide and altogether smashing bloke. He can be contacted through his website:
West Yorkshire Fly Fishing Services