Sunday, 21 October 2018

Scratchin' the Itch(en)

This is Grayling Alley says Paul Williams. Feck, he's right. Shapes are finning around at the bottom of the deep run in front of us. Lots of shapes. Some of them are quite big. Grayling. It's what we've been searching for.

Paul seems to be spotting the fish first, before I do, maybe it's something to do with his lofty elevation giving him a different angle of view. Or perhaps it's the crap polaroids I'm wearing to replace the good ones that broke. Paul's haul today is prodigious, a big guy with a big catch rate. From now on I'm considering calling him 'Edgar' or 'Dyson'. He just seems to Hoover fish up as he tracks along the river with his euro nymph. Decent grayling, tiny grayling, salmon par, out of season brownies - they're all the same to Paul. 
Fish, he says, pointing to a weed frond swaying in the flow at the tail of the run. That's just a weed frond swaying in the flow, I'm saying, as a dark silhouette detaches itself in front and then drifts sideways and downstream. 'Look at the tail on that mofo!'..  often when they drift down stream it's because they're mildly spooked and I'm wondering if we've been rumbled. The water is absolutely gin clear and the river low, blamed, by a fly fisher I met here earlier, on over-abstraction. Partly true probably, but also because of the arid summer with little rain to replenish the chalkstream aquifers. This run is still a deep scour in the bed though and one of our best chances for a better fish from such nervous water.

We're fishing the Itchen Navigation, a braid of the River Itchen. 'Improved' in the 1700's to form a canal network linking Winchester with Southampton docks, the route fell into disuse by 1869. Today, like much of the Itchen system and other southern chalkstreams, it's frequently stocked with brown trout to meet the demands of visiting fly fishers. Stockies are really not my thing, especially in rivers, which is why I take long journeys north or into the westcountry for wild river trout fishing. But come autumn, the wild grayling potential here, less than two hours down the road, is just too good to ignore. 

So here we are today and I'm hoping to scratch the newly developed grayling itch that has snuck up on me unexpectedly. I've caught a few in the Derbyshire Derwent and Cornwall's River Inny and it would be nice to add the Itchen to my novice list. Perch aside, I don't see myself as a fly rod specimen hunter, but with grayling I can appreciate the attraction, and certainly this morning I'm hoping to improve on my own modest personal best. More than that, I'm looking to break a run of mediocre fortune in my fishing that's been hounding me of late, and so perhaps a good fish from this spot matters a little more than it should. 

Paul generously stands back to give me first crack, but despite his expert demonstration of its efficacy today, I'm resisting the euro nymph approach. For the slightly eccentric and highly objective reasons I wrote about in my last blog (nymphing in three dimensions) I'm sticking with a short rod and single nymph. Eccentric but not stupid and I'm very happy to accept a choice from the beautifully tied tungsten beadheads he kindly offers. A blue-ish beaded ptn style fly on a 14 jig seems like it will do the business. I climb over the wobbly fence, keep low and creep into position just behind the great raft of watercress growing along the river margin. So far so good, the fish seem unconcerned and I figure that a low side cast with the 8ft rod will avoid the risk of flashing over their heads. 

But here it all starts to go wrong. The adrenalin, I think, of being over good fish makes me snatch the cast and I hook the bankside on the back cast. I can hear low chuckling sounds from up on the bank behind me while I creep along and free the snagged hook. Then somehow the fly line falls back down through the rod rings. Fuck. Patiently I unpick the muddle and try to calm my nerves, but I'm still rushing a little too much and this time the leader connection, still inside the tip ring snags on the next cast. It's a right bugger's muddle now. Whole new tippet, re-tie the fly and by now the chuckles behind me have escalated to down right piss-taking. 'It'll be trout season again soon!' 'Fuck off'. It's a low point but I force my self to breath and slow right down, telling myself that while I've been faffing about like a rank amateur at least the pool has been rested. I also remind my self that I can actually fish. 

This time it plays out in text book fashion. No false cast,  just a low, slow, lazy side cast that the Superfine does so well. The leader unrolls and lands softly upstream, the nymph in just the right position to sink down to the feeding plane by the time it reaches the fish. I track the fly back towards me, and see the line pause out of the corner of my eye, but it's the fish I'm watching and I'm already lifting against its solid resistance as I see the silver flash of its flank turning on my fly. Don't ever be told that grayling don't fight. A good fish will test you and they know how to use the flow. My fish bolts downstream along the water cress and turns broadside to the current, twisting and rolling to shed the hook.                                          
I can see that this my biggest grayling so far, and as the rod plunges and bucks I'm just hoping the hook doesn't pull or that the fine 0.1mm tippet doesn't snag and part in the watercress, but the Superfine soaks up all of the action. I put some pressure on to get the fish's head up and then it's all done with nice and quickly. In the net, such a lovely fish, 14 inches and strong. 

The trials of the last couple of weeks are washed away by the last few minutes and as I watch my fish swim strongly away my spirits are restored. Now, in the Derbyshire Wye I've seen some really big grayling.. 


Monday, 8 October 2018

the intrepid flyfisher: Nymphing in Three Dimensions

the intrepid flyfisher: Nymphing in Three Dimensions: "You just like being weird"   a friend told me not long ago. True, if something's fashionable my instinct is to run in the o...

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Nymphing in Three Dimensions

"You just like being weird" a friend told me not long ago. True, if something's fashionable my instinct is to run in the opposite direction and look for an alternative approach. Not weird, just a little non-conformist maybe, but what's this got to do with fishing?

Well, take euro nymphing. I admire its wizards. I admire the skill involved, the highly refined tackle and the flies and the end results. Now, I know this is heresy, but I just don't like doing it. I've tried, I really have, but I just don't get on with it. It makes me feel like I've been stuck in a track and constrained to fishing in just two dimensions. For me it doesn't have the fluidity I love in fly fishing. 

This all comes home to me today. I've had the good fortune to be invited to fish the Derbyshire Derwent with fishing buddy Geoff Hadley and this morning we're hoping for some end of season brownies (although secretly, I'll happily swap them for some Derwent grayling). Geoff is a pretty dab hand with the euro nymph approach and is soon into the fish - grayling, a little wild rainbow and some lovely wild brownies. Meanwhile, though 'seemingly' copying his approach, I can't win as much as a take. To the point now that it's starting to become embarrassing. I learned years ago that the difference between a blank and a red letter day can sometimes be the most subtle of changes in presentation, which is why I persist with this rig, ringing the changes with point fly & dropper, with different drifts, small lifts, big lifts, no lifts.. etc, etc etc. Still no contact and meanwhile Geoff's tally continues to grow..

So, damn it, I'm going to revert to type - using deceptively simple methods that can be used in a myriad of ways according to instinct (or whim?). Off comes the indicator/leader and team of heavy flies. Onto the Superfine Carbon 8ft 4wt goes the same set up I'm using for dry fly - a 6ft  Luke Bannister furled presentation leader (un-ginked) plus six foot of 0.127mm nylon tippet. I tie on a beaded nymph but it'll be the work of seconds if I want to change up and tie on a dry.

No team of flies now, no infernal dropper tangles, no worries that a trailing fly might get caught in structure if a good fish runs. And no need to lob casts. With one nymph I don't need to worry about keeping loops wide open either. With a slightly elliptical stroke the bead won't hit the rod and loops can be quite tight, so I can drop the nymph (more or less) where I want.

Now I'm happy. I can fish a dynamic nymph in three dimensions. Dead upstream I can let the fly tick along the gravel back down to me, lifting the fly or not and watching the line for pauses, twitches or slides. Up and across the nymph fishes midwater and as it passes me and comes around on the swing it rises in the water column and, if I let it, comes right up to the surface and skates across in an arc. Now the fly can be left to hang, or fed downstream with a fall and a rise with each pause. At the end I can pulse the fly tenkara style or retrieve it back in a variety of patterns. 

And what I love about this old school single nymph approach is that I can link all of these presentations together in one drift to find where the fish are responding in the water column without the need for a team of flies. Now too, I can get the fly into tighter spots under the far bank cover than I could with the euro nymph. 

For me this kind of fishing is more self expressive and lets me interpret the water as I want. And when you are happy you are often fishing more effectively too and so it is today. It's not the easiest of conditions but I'm soon into the fish now - some nice grayling, four, five six, seven and for me they are definitely responding to a more dynamically presented fly.

I can tell that the fish are on the fin and coming up in the water to hit the fly, as the takes come just as the nymph rises on the start of the downstream swing. Geoff tipped me the wink earlier that orange hot spots are working well here lately and his sound advice pays off as another grayling makes an emphatic strike at the orange bead head I'm fishing. I'm interested to learn why the hot spot is so effective and some later research back at home throws up some fascinating insights.. more of this in a later blog. 

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Dry Flies for Winter Pike

You never stop learning.
Very recently I learned that pike will take surface poppers in the depths of winter. This astonishing fact is, I'm sure, well known to other more expert pike fly anglers. But it's hot news for me. And because I seldom fish for pike over the summer months, this opens up a whole load of new and interesting possibilities. Like Colin the zombie wood mouse for example. Born from a Friday night rush of blood to the head, some hen cape, balsa Avon float bodies, a suede boot lace, a scrap of felt and copious superglue, there is some method in this madness I swear.  

Colin's cartoon looks are more Gruffalo than Disney, but I've deliberately exaggerated some key trigger points - big zombie eyes, long trailing legs with big feet and contrasting colours with some hot pink in his ears. I've learned that the surface wake the popper makes is a big magnet but some attempt at match-the-hatch realism comes in handy if you need to pause your retrieve to tempt the take. Colin aims to represent the tiny wood mice that live along the wooded stretches of my local stream, and with a 4/0 sting in his tail his mission is to avenge the lost members of his real-life clan by providing some catch & release action this winter.

My fascination with the potential of creature-based surface poppers starts by accident on a pike fly foray with my son Will. I've been promising for a while that we would go try catch a pike together, and with three pike in front of us today in gin clear water, our chances seem promising. But fast forward two hours and every streamer in my fly box is wet and frustration and the bitter cold are beginning to bite. At first we were getting plenty of follows but these prove mere curiosity, with the pike happy to follow the streamer all the way in and have a good look, only to  turn away in the end with a contemptuous tail flick. Soon enough this situation degenerates further still - the pike (now bored) have become sullen and sink to remain motionless near the stream bed. On pulling an old and trusted streamer pattern past the jaws of the best fish, she actually turns 180 degrees and sits with her back to us - a cold shoulder indeed.

By now I have very nearly run out of tricks, having tried every pattern and retrieve style conceivable. Frustrating and worse, I feel disappointed for Will, who is by now ready to go home. But as we turn away from water I remember an untested and home bred creation still nesting in a dark corner of my old canvas bag. In the light of day my coot chick popper looks kinda crazy but Will thinks it worth a go.    

So I tie it on and lob it out to the far bank. Not sure if this is really fly fishing anymore but my Frankenstein creation actually looks pretty convincing as I strip it back in short bursts, creating a nice v-wake - just like a little coot chick hurriedly making its way across the stream. Within a yard or so the effect on the once torpid pike in the pool is electric - three pike are instantly on the fin and competing to hunt down the fly. The biggest gets there first and turns to engulf its fluffy form and Will yells with excitement. We land a lovely double - a good fish for this stream. There is nothing so warming and reviving as angling success and I'm so happy Will has got to witness first hand this little tableau of nature - a predatory behaviour that must play out for real in rivers and ponds across the land during spring and early summer.

To prove to myself this is no fluke capture I follow up with another visit a few weeks later. This time there is a fair chop on the water from the high winds, but I can see the shape of a much larger pike tracking my fly. It's truly heart stopping when the water begins to bulge behind the popper as she closes in, but this time, despite a mad last rush with gaping jaws, she misses altogether and turns away empty-mouthed. She comes in for a second hit and this time connects, but by now the coot popper is right under my feet. The hook twangs looses after a few wild head shakes and  I'm rumbled. So I move on, consoling myself with some casts to other pools. 

The surface is too choppy now to make out shapes beneath so I'm startled by a great slashing rise and an emerald green and yellow head slicing inches past my popper. Again another missed target but this time there is no second attempt. It feels something akin, I reflect, to rising trout with sedges and probably the closest you can get to pike on a dry fly. 

Highly recommended. And next time (if this snow ever stops) I'll bring Colin the zombie woodmouse along for a swim.



Thursday, 22 February 2018

Mojo Bass Fly - a grassroots review

- you've just got to love an advertising tagline like that. Not that the St Croix Rod Company, maker of best rods on earth is any stranger to hyperbole. But it isn't their advertising hype that attracted me to import another of their fly rods over to dear old blighty. Actually, I have a very niche requirement and it just so happens they are making a rod that might fit the bill very nicely. 

Enter the St Croix Mojo bass fly rod range. St Croix are little known this side of the Atlantic, certainly in comparison to say Orvis, Loomis and Sage, or even Temple Fork Outfitters. But St Croix are actually the largest North American rod company manufacturing stateside (the Mojo bass is made in their purpose built facility in Mexico). I've already fished the St Croix Legend Elite 5 weight, and I'm very impressed with that rod - so I feel I'm in safe enough hands to take a punt on the Mojo bass 7' 11" 8 weight, sight unseen.

I've been looking for a short fly rod for light predator work for a while - by light I mean relatively small flies (5" and much less) cast with finesse at short to medium range and also jigged along the near margins of small rivers, drains and canals. I'm thinking pike, perch, zander and chub, with an occasional foray into carp and tench territory. 

A few American rod makers are putting out fly rod models designated as bass tournament legal, being less than 8' in length. Now I'm not fishing for warm water bass, but I can see a lot of similarities  with this fishing style - throwing smaller lures, surface poppers, creature baits and jig flies accurately into tight cover - but for me the quarry is small river pike, perch and chub. So now at last there is some choice in shorter rods in 8 and 9 weight class.

So why go short when the traditional predator fly rod length is 9'?
Well, if I'm fishing open wind swept lakes for pike I would still opt for a 9' 9 or 10 weight and big 6/0 streamers. But an awful lot of my predator fishing is on small, intimate waters with smaller flies. A lot of the flies I use for pike, perch and chub on these waters are bass bug size - right in this rods sweet spot.

The shorter rod is definitely more accurate for precisely placed casts into far bank structure, and despite being an 8 weight it's wonderfully light in the hand, with a very low swing weight. So much so that it feels more like my 4 weight to heft than my 9 weight rod. I can cast this all day without fatigue. The shorter length is also handy for low side casts under the tree canopies that conceal some of my favourite spots. This is a great length too for canal fishing - particularly when fish are tight to the near bank and can only be winkled out with a precisely controlled jig fly - a method that has won me many of my best canal perch. I like too the short, almost abbreviated  cork handle which is capped both ends with dense EVA. Feels built to last. The handle length lets me place my index finger of my rod hand on the blank - UL lure style, which is great for feeling those little plucks transmitting down the rod. 

Where this rod really sings for me though is casting size 1, 3" streamers from near in and up to around 60' - more than far enough for my purposes. Reading through U.S reviews I've teamed the rod up with a WFF8 Orvis Hydros Bass line. No need to upline this rod, the stated rating seems right on the money to me. The Hydros line is less aggressively tapered than I'm expecting, in fact I'd go as far as to say that with this rod it's more of a carrying line than a shooting line - unlike say a Rio OutBound Short. I'm happy about this though as it suits my casting style better and the wide range of flies I plan to use with this rod (foam beatles up to coot chick poppers). 

With this rod/line combo you really can land a fairly big streamer very softly, which is useful in the little rivers I like to fish where quarry can be easily spooked by a splashy dumping of fly line. The taper of the Hydros line is chartreuse, which is both hi-viz but close enough to being weed coloured that, providing it lands softly, doesn't seem to bother the fish. The running line is orange but there's rarely more than a few yards of this outside my tip ring..  

Through January and February I've not had as much time with this rod on the bank as I would like, mostly down to poor weather conditions.  So far I've tested it with 4/0 five inch streamers and poppers down to tiny size 4 fry patterns, taking 3 pike and losing a large double who spat out my coot chick popper when she discovered balsa and marabou isn't as tasty as the real thing. It did give a me brief chance though to feel a good strong fish on the rod, and I felt quite happy with how it coped.  A canal schoolie zander and hand-sized perch came my way too, and I discovered that there is enough sensitivity in the blank not to feel too overgunned on smaller fish.

Build quality is good, fit and finish cool and understated. The blank is a lovely deep purple and the bottom two stripper guides are black anodized and lined. The machined double uplocking reel seat which at first seemed slim to me, is actually very secure. The rod comes in just two sections which I prefer on shorter rods as there is only one joint to worry about, and the double keeper ring is a welcome feature. The rod comes in a cloth bag and has a 5 year warranty. 

All in all an exciting little rod with good carbon and some nice character in the casting action - surprising finesse in fact. Particularly recommended for those of us who like to stray off the beaten track and try something a little different with our fly fishing. 

Mine cost about £180 landed and came from pecheur.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Carnival of Death

'It's bleak. The fish I mean - they're bleak.' 
Dom Garnett's right in both senses. The cold sucking mud hasn't been improved by a marinade of spattering rain, but this is the Somerset Levels and wet by definition. Anyway we're not here for pastoral charm, though this landscape does have a certain quality of atmosphere that's perversely appealing. We've been drawn here by the sometimes hectic pike action, hoping for a few nice fish this morning on the fly. Perch are in our minds too.   

We arrive at dawn with high expectations which seem rightly justified as the surface erupts here and boils there, silver baitfish scattering like ball bearings across the surface. Thousands upon thousands of them - tiny bleak - their biomass we can only guess at, but it must be prodigious. And the predators know it - this feeding frenzy is positively Jurassic, a pike Carnival of Death says Dom. I feel like I'm inside a BBC nature documentary.

We are trying to work out which hits are from pike and which might be from perch. Right under the near bank in front of me, a bait ball of bleak explodes as a yard long pike scythes through the shoal, turning this way and that to swallow as many tiny victims as possible. I wonder what it must be like to end up with your mates, all intact but waiting to be slowly digested within a pike's belly. And like Jonah and the whale, I wonder if any get lucky enough to make the return journey.

A pattern begins to emerge from the chaos of the shattered surface. The attacks come in waves - brief, intense and across multiple locations - some in mid channel, some closer to the banks, followed by several minutes of calm before the next predatory raid. I imagine the baitfish beneath the surface being given time to recover and regroup before a new attack is launched. Sometimes the surface erupts with tiny bodies in several patches at once. I visualise a shoal of perch hunting co-operatively to herd the bleak into ever tighter bait balls before lunging in. Sure enough, I glimpse the back of a perch as it rolls to take fish from the surface - corralled under the far bank. 

We are flinging our smallest and most realistic streamers into the fray but between us we just can't win a take. It's a strange experience - confidence inspiring to be on feeding fish, but at the same time the failure to connect is demoralising. I take some heart from the knowledge that even Dom is having an equally tough time, but to be honest I would much rather see him catch.

We fish on but remain fish-less. But as blanks go this one is of the highest quality. Driving home through driving rain I replay the day's thought-movie and reflect: good memories are often made with good friends and so it is. To have caught a fish today would have changed the meaning of the day. I like this day just as it is, with mysteries unsolved, and I feel privileged and inspired to have been so close for a while to nature's wild, beating and yet untouchable heart.       

Saturday, 23 December 2017

the follow of the pike

It is hard, with a low winter sun, to track the feathers as they twitch and glide back over the deep pool. I'm holding my breath, eyes straining for any movement beneath the reflections of the willow trees - muddy stripes on the jade surface. I'm sure there is a pike here.

I've searched this cold river for hours, dropping a streamer into any likely spot. My fingers are numb and I'm scolding myself for leaving those stripping guards. They seemed an extravagant purchase back at the Orvis store. The grainy fly line and cold water conspire to make tiny stripping-cuts in my fingers. No gloves for pike fishing though. For the primal trip it has to be hand to jaw.  

In these deep winter days distant seems the  memory of summer surface poppers and surging bow wave takes. It's so easy now, after these take-less hours, to fall into a mechanical way of fishing. Cast, retrieve, repeat. The cycle speeds up, the mind wanders, opportunities are missed. It can sometimes happen now that a savage take catches you out. Often in such moments I forget to strip-set the hook and the rod twangs straight again, leaving me with nothing but collywobbles and a melancholy wondering of what could have been. And there is that  certain frisson of angling for a species that can actually mess you up. Pay them respect and most pike are docile enough in the net. But now and again along comes a fish that fixes you with an eye of pure bedevilment. "Oh please bring those soft hands close, for so big am I and so very hungry." Safe catch and return, for both pike and for angler is a craft to be learned and not taken lightly.

I play a trick on myself t0 keep in the zone, imagining a pike detaching from cover and approaching my streamer with ill intent. No more dogmatically stripping the fly back, now I pause and twitch and dart the feathers to entice a strike from my imaginary pike. 

When I first cast into a really pikey looking lair anticipation is high and nerves can be stretched. Sometimes the fly is hit violently the very instant it splashes down. How can a fish lay motionless, unseen and silent yet ready to explode in a nanosecond, nailing the fly in  one take? 

More often there is no immediate sign. When the water is deep and the pike are likely holding near the river bed, that's when I imagine a following pike. No, I'm not imagining, I'm willing a pike to manifest. And, I've found, if you will really hard then sometimes you can conjure up a spectral shape behind your fly. At first this may seem like a trick of the light or the misreading of some reflection. But pike can materialise in mid-water as if gathered of the very atoms of their surroundings. If you stare very hard now the loosely defined shape of a fish may resolve. And when your ghost fish actually follows your fly it is as if a shadow has crossed the spectral plane to become fin and flesh and tooth and bone. Something visible and definite and real you can connect to

Your task now is to induce that final rush and predatory strike, and remember to strip-set your hook. Invariably there is but one chance. Usually (but not always), a pike that follows but doesn't take will probably not take on your second, third or tenth retrieve either (though they may well be content enough to follow from their own idle curiosity or need for entertainment). So I try to judge the mood of the pike as it follows. Aggressive fish may dash and hammer a fly that speeds away from them, for fear of missing a meal. 

Sometimes an uncooperative fish can be provoked to strike seemingly out of irritation at a gaudily dressed and arrogant interloper (your lovingly crafted tinsel confection you have named 'pike teaser' or some other confidence inspiring appellation). Sometimes I feel as if my most colourful streamer is like some flamboyant and suicidal transvestite sashaying down the middle of death row. The cell doors are open and a cry of "come and get me girls" is ringing out.

But there are many times when a more sombre pattern scores, when my instinct is to match the hatch with baitfish colours and just a little flash. Now, more pensive pike may tip to examine a motionless fly and take their time before opening those jaws and sipping in. 

But their are no real rules to catching pike on the fly. At least if there are they are made up solely by the pike who constantly change them and seldom share more than the briefest of glimpses.