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!


phuill said...

This is definitely the new era of piscitorial debate. Great article.

Denise Ashton said...

Well said, Matt, I agree 100%. It is very noticeable to me that all the innovation and boundary pushing in fly fishing seems to take place 'up north'. I live 'down south' amongst the most famous and expensive of the Hampshire chalk streams, and the backward looking, Halford and Skues driven rules seem to stifle any innovation at all. It's enough to make want to move!

Archaeologyknits said...

My suggestion on Tenkara, don't tire the fish out. Net them when they still have energy. You have at least 100lbs on them, and if they are close enough to the net to reach you can handle them. It means you can release them much easier and in better health.

Andy said...

Very eloquently put . Have tried and use French leaders even have a tenkara rod and agree with your comments there, but squirmy worms? not sure Im ready for that. Perhaps the next tough day and mucky river might just persuade me to try one.


david stocker said...

Interesting stuff Matt. Here's a thought; the short line techniques that have gained in popularity involve much more wading than traditional styles. Indeed you could maybe say that 'stealth wading' is the new 'long casting'. Could these vogue techniques piss off those anglers who want to get in the water as little as possible? And then there's maybe even the issue of ecological damage caused by more frequent wading by greater numbers of anglers.

Paul Gaskell said...

As mentioned elsewhere, great post Matt. Also, in response to David (Stocker), it may be of interest that long-line tenkara is superb for fishing "over land" and a good way of avoiding wading. An example in this clip which should start at 7-minutes 07 seconds in at the right point:

Peter said...

Hi Matt
an excellent article which will open up plenty of debate and give food for thought to many of your followers no doubt. To me its all a matter of personal preference. While not blind to the fact that like all things fishing as well as life continues to evolve, but there are many aspects of modern day life that I would rather do without thank you. Perhaps its an age thing for me [who knows],but I have spent a lifetime developing a reasonable casting arm on large rivers and small streams and on perfecting my upstream nymphing skill and wading too. I tie my flies to represent what I see on the water and beneath it and am quite happy with the results. I doubt I'd have sufficient capital if I were to try and buy those things which we find in magazines and the like, all designed to turn our head and let loose our wallets. Unlike many, I believe I have reached my "comfort zone" and without regret.I am a content angler.

Dave Wilson said...

I believe it is a nature phase to explore and experiment, and by doing so, you become a better angler. I did my own experiments (nearly a decade ago) with plastic grub-worms which were difficult yo keep attached and very effective! It is my daughters goto, and my wife prefers the french leader either with a small dry or nymph, which we learnt when on the Wharfe. In the end, I do not believe we should get caught up online types or techniques, but be more focus on treating the river and fishery with respect. It is not about if the fly is plastic (daughter), or french nymph (wife) or sing on a light DH trout rod (me) a muddler, but that we treat our world well.

Well written!

Unknown said...

Great article. I agree with all of it.

Anonymous said...

Squirmy worms close the circle, the difference between modern nymphing and what we once called upstream worming has vanished. I say this as a observation rather than a criticism. ( I loved worming) TK

Matthew Eastham said...

Thanks all for your comments which spur me on to keep going with this humble enterprise! This post has received a touch more interest than usual, maybe because it addresses some points of debate in the flyfishing world. all I can say is it's a good job I didn't post the original unedited piece which dealt with my own thoughts and inconsistencies on the matter of fishing 'duo' and 'trio' methods. Now that would have really mashed your heads!

David Johnstone said...

At the end of the day as long as its within the rules just fish the way you want, whatever makes you happy. Set boundaries for yourself if that is what you want to do, or use all methods.
I fish for my own pleasure, not others.

david stocker said...

Here's a set up for you; a squirmy worm on the point, a blob on a dropper above it, the pair fished under a bung, delivered on a Tenkara set-up. Fly fishing or not?

Matthew Eastham said...

Ey up Dave, that sounds like the Next Big Thing! I've not forgotten about that stuff by the way, just been dead busy with work. I'll try to get over soon, but if you get interest from anyone else in the meantime, by all means let them have it instead.

idleriver said...

how did you make such a need job of that worm..?

idleriver said...

how on earth do you tie that worm to make it so neat..?

Dave Wilson said...

Try a reply again - I since done was looking at the worm, and though simple, this is a very good tie

david stocker said...

happy to hang onto the stuff Matt. Might you be interested in this?

Regular Rod said...

Splendid blogpost! Makes us all think.

The new innovations can lead to fly fishing being even more effective than it already is (which is saying something as fly fishing is eminently suitable for most species anyway). Anything that lets us extend the use fly fishing techniques, in preference to other methods, has to be a good thing for fly fishers and fly fishing. So long as we all adhere to the rules of wheresoever we are fishing there can be no harm in using these methods and flies. In some places they will not be within the rules so naturally will not be used, when in Rome etc.

Those worm things should be brilliant in high summer, quietly cast from a punt to shoals of Rudd feeding on anchored bread slices, as per Bernard Venables' Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing...


Dennis Nowland said...

yes its good. If nothing else it stops me fretting over not being able to get hold of chadwick's 477

Gavin said...

Yeah I'd have to agree! The amount of new gear and technology that is available is really changing the game, I still like to go out and do it the old fashioned way at times as well though! Great article!

Sander Bruijne said...

Very well put indeed. Stuff to tnink about......on how one wants to experience fly fishing individually. Discussions on what is proper fly fishing and what isn' t have been going on since Halford vs Skues and probably before.

To me it seems good practice to change fly patterns and incorporate more mobile materials. Nobody seems to object against using CDC or Marabou in nymph patterns instead of - for instance - partridge fibers. It does make a pattern more mobile and appear more lively, thus more effective. Along those lines of reasoning a squirmy worm is just a very well improved San Juan Worm ( a pattern that hasn't been debated as far as I know).

My personal point of view is that when I walk up to a stream and I meet someone who just finished fishing and with a very happy smile proclaims he/she has had a wonderfull morning fly fishing and caught a nice brace of Trout while having a spinning rod in hand rigged with nylon, a bubble float and a fly or two, than at that moment this is a fellow fly fisher to me. Allthough I choose to use a flyine and cast with it, the actual fly line outside the tip top and in the air, I respect the choises of others. All this as long as it is within the regulation on said stream.