a year of trout & grayling on fixed line fly

 

Planning new adventures for 2018, I’m remembering the blessings of the last season now passed. A time of learning across nine of our english rivers, searching for wild trout and grayling with a fixed line fly. The visits, crammed in between work/life commitments, while all too brief, were both challenging and rewarding in equal measure.

Good times, fishing with friends old and new and taking on fresh challenges. Above all, looking back over the last year, I see the diverse wealth of fishing available to us across our small island home – I travelled from southern lowland chalk streams to  the tiny moorland systems of the southwest, from the freestone rivers of the Welsh borders to the northern upland streams and back again, to the legendary Wandle in London. I even caught fish in some of them! 

But I have touched on just the surface – there is so much more to discover for anyone up for making the effort.  

They wash away the trying times – a lost rod, a  broken rod, endless road miles, the wet and the cold and the fish-less days –  so it’s good to pause, reflect and enjoy again these golden times. Photographs are so wonderful in helping us remember, here are some of my favourites from last year – I hope you enjoy them too.  

Fishing the tiny wild streams of Bodmin Moor, Cornwall (Summer 2017)

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there is nowhere more magical perhaps, than the little trout streams of Bodmin Moor
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a pattern that works well for me in the shady woodland   – soft hen hackle bead head in size 16
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cosmic camo,  Bodmin trout are among the prettiest of fish
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perfection in miniature – a land of tiny fish, tiny streams, tight cover, short rods and light tippets

The River Arrow, Welsh borders (Summer 2017)

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a broken rod, a lost lunker and three more fish failing to stick – a rainy day on the Arrow

The Derbyshire Wye (Autumn 2017)

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chasing the Wye Holy Trinity of grayling, brown trout and naturalised rainbow trout (photo by Geoff Hadley)
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Sakasa kebari Dr Ishigaki style
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beautiful wild Wye brownie
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Good buddy Geoff Hadley and a fine “Bakewell Tart”
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Wye at Bakewell, just before losing a good rainbow at the net
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first trout on a new rod

River Derwent ( Autumn 2017)

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Autumn grayling from the junction pool on the Derwent
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pale sakasa kebari worked well for grayling rising in the current seam
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a nice little grayling released
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Glen Pointon took this photo and kept me laughing and catching

River Dove (Winter 2017)

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the well trodden Izaak Walton beat on the Upper Dove (photo by Paul Williams)
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lovely Dove grayling on fixed line nymph (photo by Andy Buckley)
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the boys fished French leader, I stuck with fixed line nymphing – catching fewer but bigger fish (photo by Andy Buckley)
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tough conditions but good laughs with Andy Buckley and Paul Williams ..
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.. and no one could fault the service
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in between hail, rain, sleet and snow – a rainbow (photo by Andy Buckley)
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a fine (out of season) Dove brownie gave me a good run around but was safely returned (photo by Andy Buckley)

Trout in the City – River Wandle (Spring 2016)

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Wandle trout.. surely the spookiest fish on the planet.. the upstream dry fly was invented here (photo by Paul Williams)
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my first and most memorable trout on fixed line fly – from a river once so polluted it caught fire.. but nature given half a chance.. (photo by Paul Williams)
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Winter grayling on fixed line nymph

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Hard times and humour go together hand in glove. It’s part of the English condition I think, laughing in the face of adversity. Sometimes it’s the only thing holding you up. Good job today then that I’m in jovial company.  Hard times and humour. The one is the seasoning of the other.

Speaking of seasoning,  we are sitting in driving wind and icy rain enjoying a spicy chicken risotto cooked up from the field kitchen by pro guide Andy Buckley. He’s pulled off what feels a bit like silver service in the middle of the Battle for the Somme, and I have to say I’m impressed. The tangy warmth is firing up my central heating again, a welcome respite from wading the cold-so-cold water of the River Dove. I wish I had longer to savour the meal but my plate is filling up with rain water. Such is the pursuit of winter grayling.

The fishing this trip is as hard as nails. Back-wind to yesterday: we are fishing unguided, exploring the Izaak Walton beat of the upper Dove. Here the river tumbles through a limestone gorge carved out by glaciers millennia ago. My buddy Paul Williams forensically fishes the water with short line euro nymph tactics, I’m experimenting with a fixed line version, searching the water with a team of weighted hackle and shrimp patterns. So between us we have some bases covered, having set off earlier with great expectations. Just as well then that we hadn’t read the entry for yesterday in the hotel catch return – “there were eighteen of us and we caught owt!”

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Spectacular scenery though and if you have to blank this is the place to do it. The revery is broken by Paul’s announcement that the felt sole of his wading boot is now mostly adrift. We slip and slide back up the muddy field to the van, Paul’s boot by now flapping like Coco the Clown’s. It’s nothing a trip to B&Q, some Gorilla Glue and a hair dryer can’t fix. Only thing now is the boot has a platform heel. So here it is merry Christmas. It feels like it’s made of concrete, Paul tells me. Pretty much a testament to his dedication and toughness that he fishes on for the rest of the expedition with nere a moan. Me, I’d be whinging still.

So day two, and all is resting on Andy putting us on fish. We are now on the middle reaches of the Dove, a stretch Andy knows intimately. I have every confidence we will have fish in front us – the challenge today is the weather. This morning there is  snow on the hills and on the roof of the van, and thick ice on the windscreen. This sudden plunging temperature and rising pressure doesn’t bode well for our chances I think, but I’m carried along by Andy’s optimism.

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But the weather Gods laugh in our faces as weather front after weather front crashes in. One moment wind and rain. Then blue sky and a vivid rainbow. Next sleet, then hail then calm again, followed by more icy rain. But we are here to fish and fish we shall and fish we shall have. Paul is first in with a juvenile grayling, small, but it’s  a fish and we’ve broken our collective duck and there’s sure to be others.

I’m interested to learn from Paul and Andy’s French leader tactics which can be deadly for tricky grayling. I’m looking to emulate their presentation with my fixed line rod. Andy has never guided tenkara and I’m pretty new to nymphing with a tenkara rod so this cross-over is interesting from both sides. Andy rigs me up with a set up he thinks will work well for this mark – a pink tungsten beaded point fly, with my pink weighted shrimp on a 5 inch dropper, about eight inches above the point fly. The overall tippet length matches the depth of the water I am fishing. Andy has tied a dropper ring to the end of the tippet first, which allows the dropper and point fly distances to be adjusted by swapping in a new length of fluoro to either fly.  Casting line is 12ft of green level nylon – normally too light for these windy conditions, but the weighted flies make this a null point.

French leader tactics are all about tuning your beads to the flow, with the aim of using just sufficient weight in the fly to tick and bounce the point fly  along the river bed. Holding my rod tip high and with the weight just right, the ticking can be felt through the metal  end cap of my rod handle, held in the palm of my hand.

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Copying the lads I flick my team up stream. At first, casting feels strange and unwieldy, but I discover a side cast technique that has some delicacy even with these clunky patterns. With a bit of practice I’m getting reasonable accuracy too. It’s trickier to describe than it is to do, but in simple terms the cast goes like this: I’m allowing the nymph rig to pass down stream and at the end of my drift a lift of the rod brings the flies to the surface. Using the water tension to load the rod, a low side cast flicks the flies up stream, and as the flies are passing in front of me I’m lifting my rod tip high. This means the flies travel under and in front of the rod tip. As they complete the upstream part of the cast they begin to swing as a pendulum. By lowering the rod tip, the flies can be placed down fairly softly and with no casting line touching the water.

All four parts of the cast are done in one fluid motion – lift – side cast – raise rod- lower rod.  It also has the benefit of keeping those heavy flies away from that expensive rod blank! Pretty good too when you have brush at your back. Once the flies are fishing up and across, I’m tracking the rig back, with the casting line leading downstream, trying to keep just enough tension to spot when the casting line slows or pauses. This could be a snag or it could be a take, so any change in the status of the tip of the casting line is met with a lift of the rod.

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It’s my turn next for a fish. The tip of the casting line, which is just brushing the surface, pauses and I lift and feel a soft weight. At first I think I’ve snagged another autumn leaf, but the cold numbed fish soon wakes up and kicks. A lovely little grayling to hand – not huge but now it’s game on and soon a better fish follows.

Paul’s into fish again, and is picking up a higher number of smaller fish. My hook ups are fewer but I’m lucky enough to pick up a bigger grayling. Looking back afterwards my conclusion is that our presentations and take detection are comparable in efficacy but Paul’s hook set with his western gear is more effective. I think the answer for me is to strike with more energy to convert those takes. Plenty of lifts were met with that soft weight that I took at the time to be a leaf or weedy snag, but in retrospect could well have been fish. Just such a take turned out in fact to be a fine out of season wild brownie which I took to be another stick –  until it woke up in the icy water and gave me a good old run around. Lessons learned for next time and I’m looking forward to studying Paul’s nymph tactics further to learn how I might cross these over into a fixed line approach.

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life & death in the mill-race

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It’s an interesting spot, the mill-race. At the surface it boils and bubbles like a witch’s cauldron, a little chaos of swirling vortices. Beneath, it’s a miniature reef of golden gravels and ancient masonry, home to a surprisingly diverse community of fish species.

I can see a shoal of roach, faint shapes against the light gravel in the center of the race. Chub hug against the side walls, their silhouettes darker and more muscular,  as tails flick and twitch, poised to be the first to intercept any items of food the flow may provide. Look closely and they are accompanied by the sinuous forms of barbel, golden and more difficult to resolve.

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But it’s the hunting tactics of a tightly knit tribe of perch that really catch my eye. They occupy the rocky ground at the tail of the race, sheltering from the current and laying in wait for any younger members of the roach clan who venture too close. Like hunting dogs shadowing the herd, they hang around on the fringes, always looking for stragglers. As I watch, the perch swiftly fan out to corral a stray juvenile, driving it up and against the side wall. The nearest perch darts in but narrowly misses its target. With nowhere to run to the tiny roach skips out of the water, flying back over the heads of the jostling perch, only to be swallowed whole by one of their shoal mates hanging back in reserve.

It’s a cycle I witness several times over the hour or so that I spend here today. The drama of little lives made and lost, nature red in tooth and claw. I love watching the fish in this river. It’s so absorbing. Sometimes I forget to cast to them.

But time is short and I’m here today to try for some of the roach and chub. I’m particularly hoping to connect with one of the bigger roach I know are resident here so I’m heartened when my first hook up is with a good-sized fish. It twists and turns in the flow and slips the hook, but I see that roach-flash in the low autumn sun  before it’s gone. At least I know my fly and presentation are working. A second roach quickly follows and this time comes safely to hand. A nice little fish with a characteristic silver-blue sheen of wild river roach.

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A few smaller, perch-snack-size roach follow, not the big fish I’m looking for, but welcome just the same. I don’t want to over pressure the shoal though and blow my chances for a goodly sized fish, so I switch for a while to concentrate on the chub holding station in the shadow of the side wall.

I love fishing here, partly for the quality of the fish but mostly for the unusual challenge it presents. I’ve seen baitfishers here, seldom successful, using heavy leads to anchor their baits in the powerful flow. It’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a monkey nut and these fish have seen it all.  The challenge is all one of offering a natural presentation and being able to detect subtle takes.

And this is where a fixed line fly excels. I’m using a 12ft tenkara rod and attached is 4m of an extremely light, green level nylon casting line with 6ft of 5X tippet. My fly is a home tied size 16 swept hackle with a small bead head – more for its flash than the tiny amount of weight it adds. I’m using down-welling currents to suck the sparse fly and light line down to the fish, rather than relying on a heavy weight that would make my fly behave unnaturally and hamper take detection.

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The tip of my green casting line is my indicator and I’m looking for any change in its movement that may signal a fish mouthing the fly. Easier said than done, as the fly travels up and down the mill-race, carried by a  myriad of opposing currents and swirls, even remain stationary at times as if in the eye of a tiny storm. The chub takes are easiest to detect, as they invariably move off with the fly, which shows as an acceleration of the line or a change in its direction. But seldom is any pluck felt so it’s easy to miss a take if concentration has lapsed. Today though I’m in the zone and into some nice chub fairly quickly. Strong fish, and to net them I have to be down the steps and into to river quickly at the tail of the race, laughing at myself all the way.

Harder are the roach, seldom turning on the fly, instead just mouthing, testing and ejecting, often with a seemingly imperceptible effect on the line. Often, the conscious me doesn’t  know why I’ve lifted, but I guess the sub-conscious me has received some subliminal trigger to do just that, and with a certainty that there will be a fish on the end of the line. So it is today and a heavier fish this time. I think it’s a roach, and a good one, and it thumps and dives doggedly and even does that bream trick of using its broad flank against the flow to stay determinedly put. I can use the flow too though and soon coax her out downstream where I can safely net her.

Such a pristine roach, fin perfect and silver-blue, a couple of pounds in weight, if weight can be held as a worthy measure. It’s a blessing to have briefly made her acquaintance and watch her powerfully fin away again, back to her rightful place – Queen of the mill-race.

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