What's a man to do when overnight rain blows his local rivers and puts the mockers on a planned evening session? It's a question I gave some serious thought in my dinner hour at work a couple of weeks ago. Back in 2012 - you may recall that hideously wet summer - it was a question I seemed to spend half my life cogitating over. River up, river dropping ba.......no wait, river up again! It felt at times that year as if a higher power was having a laugh at my expense, week after week, after miserable week.
Not that I expect this summer to turn out to be the same. How could it be? Nevertheless, that memory pricked me again last week as I studied the hydrographs of my local rivers and found them to be rising at exactly the time I was able to escape and go fishing. Hopeful phone calls to the north, east and south each confirmed my fears: high and muddy rivers, no sport here my lad, better go stockie bashing. And that is probably what I would have done, had I not recalled a conversation from just a week earlier with my boat partner as we yawed about on the squallbeaten expanse of Malham Tarn.
Phil has become a dedicated small stream man over the last few years. You know the sort of thing; five foot rod rated for a #2 line, scrambling about in the undergrowth, harassing little wild trout, an acolyte of the Jon Beer School of Fly Fishing. I never meant to be dismissive, but it's just not something that ever appealed to me. My thoughts could be pretty well summed up by this entry, written back in 2011:
You might detect at the end of that post, that I was mellowing slightly to the small stream fishing concept, and although I haven't since made a habit out of visiting the really little headwaters, recent times have seen occasionally interesting returns to some of the North's smaller tributaries. Let's just say I'm a touch more receptive to the idea these days. So when Phil bent my ear about an unfished little brook he knows which holds a load of small brown trout (and a few much bigger ones), it got stored in the memory bank as one for a rainy day.
Of course that rainy day came just a few days later. With my neck of the woods given a good soaking, only the smallest of branches remained fishable....so an earlier than expected opportunity presented itself to test my friend's hypothesis (the hypothesis being that once I got into it, the small stream fly fishing scene would have me addicted in no time). So the evening found me standing shin deep in the slightly turbid water of a delightful, but tiny, wooded brook, 7 footer in hand and gnats droning around my head.
The next hour or so proved very 'enlightening' indeed. A couple of casts in, I had my brace of nymphs stuck in a tree. Soon afterwards the same happened again and I reverted to a single fly set-up and shortened my leader from 9' to 7'. Then I lost two bugs in quick succession on sunken alder roots. Then I slipped on my arse down a mucky bank and ended up nearly over my waders in a sludgy back eddy of leaf litter and silt. It was a trying passage of events and given that the tiny pools into which I so incompetently attempted to deliver my flies were only a matter of two to three casts long, I was seriously wondering if I could be bothered to continue.
The turning point came when I dug out an old furled leader given to me a friend a few years ago. I'd never got on with it in the past, finding the turnover too aggressive and direct on the wide open pools of larger spate rivers, but in this application it felt like it should fit the bill....so on it went, and suddenly the world looked a better place. I was able to flick and pitch my flies - both nymph and dry - into the tightest of spots under branches and tree roots, thus squeezing out a couple of extra casts from each little holding spot. Trout soon followed; small dark things with red tails and adipose, and a white leading edge to the anal fin. They averaged about 8 inches long, so I suppose I'm at this point obliged to point out they were small but perfectly formed ......but you know what? They were!
When I was a young lad, my parents gave me a copy of the old Observer's Book of Freshwater Fishes. which I pored over for hours, wondering if one day I might be lucky enough to catch some of the many different species of the fish rendered in rudimentary watercolour therein. I always remember the section on trout because it depicted several variants of the Salmo trutta all of which could be caught in the British Isles. I was fascinated by this, and in many ways still am to this day. One which always stuck in my head was a plate showing a particularly dark, green fish with red spots. The title was 'Trout from forest stream', and it was that peculiar looking beast which for some reason ended up lodged in my brain as what a brown trout should look like.
Of course, 30 years on, not one of the trout I have ever caught looked even superficially like that weirdly painted example. Until Friday. Although all the fish I caught - some two dozen of them - were undoubtedly very different looking creatures from what I am used to, a couple that I noodled out of particularly shady overgrown corners were the darkest, greenest, bonniest little trout I have ever seen. They were the 'Trout from forest stream' and they swept me back to my childhood in an unexpected instant; I could almost smell the pages of my old Observer's book. Those two little trout alone made the outing worthwhile and gave me a timely reminder that the true joy of our sport so often lies not in the red letter days, or the hero captures, but in the small things.
The fishing continued to be entertaining that evening and I ended up hitting on a method of actively tweaking a single nymph back through the pools. These wild little fish seemed to appreciate a bit of 'darty' movement and set about savaging the nymph whenever it passed by. Sure enough a few were taken on dries when I found odd fish rising to black gnats, but the majority came rushing out of tree roots in pursuit of my WHM nymph. By the end of the evening, the sorry state of the successful pattern told a story of bushwacking and piscine harassment - a satisfactory conclusion all round.
So, a small stream convert then? Well not quite; but then again I did find myself peering over the parapet of a bridge overlooking another tiny brook last night, wondering if it would be worth exploration with a short rod and sense of adventure.......
In the couple of weeks since, things have been a little quiet for me on the fishing front. A fine day spent on the Eden being the only recent outing I can report. On that occasion, plenty of trout were returned to both nymphs and small, black dries and when I left the river at 8pm, I did so only because I was dog tired and ready for a rest, more than any perceptible slowing of the sport. The next few weeks usually provide the highlights of my fishing year, and with a number of outings planned, I hope that proves to be the case once more.
Most of my remaining spare time has been spent tying flies. Inspired by the thoughtful and practical tying of a friend, I set about putting together a set of nymphs on jig hooks. Very much the fashion these days, are jig nymphs; but I confess that they are not something I've used a lot of in the past. They do have a nice profile though, and fishing as they do, upside-down, prove less susceptible to snagging. I decided to add in another very fashionable material of the moment - stripped peacock quill - and ended up with a set of patterns which I felt looked quite useful. My next batch will be tied more in the manner of Stuart's originals - a little more understated, using Hends body quill for a nice translucent abdomen.
A nod must go at this point, to a chap called Joel Barrow and his excellent online shop Tungsten Beads Plus who is fast becoming recognised as one of the very best UK fly tying suppliers around. The jig hooks and beads used in the above patterns came from Joel, as has much of my tying gear recently. The quality and value of his product is superb, and his service, the best I have received. It's worth noting that the white beads and tungsten jig backs used in a couple of very successful recent patterns (WHM nymph and Craigie's Killer), are both available from Joel. I can recommend both fly pattern and supplier.