Sunday, 4 October 2015

Small Game Safari - three weight fly rod fun

To start off with it wasn't a conscious decision. But when I thumb through my fly fishing diary I am suprised to see which rod I have reached for the most - it's been my three weight. The light approach started I think, as a lighthearted diversion from the long haul of trophy perch hunting and hurling humongous pike streamers around. 

I've had the most fun when smaller specimens have been my quarry. And the light approach has thrown up a few surprise encounters too. So I thought I would share a few 'photos and thoughts from the album.
Off the top..
a lovely little chub taken on a Harry Potter tied up for me by fishing pal Ben Blood. Some challenging casts to get a dead drift through the overhanging willow and plenty of missed takes too. The chublets often like to drown their dinner with a splashy rise before turning on it and taking properly. 

and off the bottom
a little bar of summer gold, taken on a grub imitation cast to the tell tale feeding bubbles of this beautiful crucian carp. I guess you could call this sight fishing once removed.. takes were detected by watching for movement of the fly line. This approach worked well for tench too.

close encounters of the toothy kind
This fish was really  unexpected. Lowering a tiny jig fly into the water by my feet I was hoping to pick up a perch from the undercut river bank. The fly immediately snagged in what  I thought was a sunken branch. I hoisted the rod up and was shocked to see this 6lb pike rising like a submarine with my fly hooked neatly in its scissors! My little Redington 3 weight handled the ensuing lunges and runs with jaunty aplomb and the beast was soon tamed.

Quick reflexes were needed to bring the ide to hand. Hits were fast and aggressive to small streamers quickly stripped. Some nice roach jostled for position amongst the ide too. This fish, a scale perfect specimen, is the nicest roach I've caught for a while - by any method.
So the species list for my little 3 weight reads: perch, roach, rudd, pike, ide, crucian carp, tench and chub, as well as the more traditional quarry of wild brown trout. Not a bad start but plenty of room for more species to be added! All have been challenging in their own way and all have been great fun on  light tackle. I am certainly looking forward to my next three weight adventure!




Sunday, 27 September 2015

Love letter from a pike

Love letter from a pike

I am the shadow that swims beneath 

I am a ghost that never was
I am the chill of winter dawn

I am pike

I am a spear that roars for blood

all fin and fang and dark desire
You are the glitter in my eye 

the merest tremble and you are mine

I am pike

Friday, 18 September 2015


I have made a discovery. I am, when it comes down to it a bit of a snob. I made this discovery today when I ventured forth to a nearby metropolis for a bit of 'brownlining'. 

This is not some deviant and beastly act you understand - brownlining is in fact a rather prosaic alternative for 'urban fishing' which I understand is fast becoming all the rage. Another monica for this is 'street fishing' which leads me to think about 'street food' and 'street fashion' and I wonder if it's possible to cast properly wearing a pair of drop crotch and holding a kebab. I digress. Let's keep it real.

It all starts when a friend shows me a photo of very good fish he has caught from a stream running through the centre of an urban park. It fires up my imagination and having an early finish from work today, I decide to give it a go myself.

Following his directions I park behind Tesco and tackle-up on the street. A man in a long rain coat is standing on the corner waiting for something. I can feel his eyes scrutinizing me as I  put on my polaroids, hook my fly in the keeper ring and clip my net to my belt. In fact I feel a bit of a freak as I make my way along the street to the river. This isn't helped by the fact that the park is accessed through a children's play area. 

But I find the little river and it is rather sweet and looks very 'perchy'. I flick a short cast out and start to enjoy the sun dappled ripple of the water as the distinctive aroma of dog shit reaches my nostrils. On inspection there is indeed rather a lot of dog shit along the bank. Yes siree, biblical proportions. Now I know what a stripping basket is really for.

Never mind, what did you expect? No takes so I move along to the next fishable swim. A few more flicks out, tie on a new fly to replace the one now adorning the Tesco trolley that creates such an interesting riffle, try a new spot..
Happy enough though until after ten minutes or so a voice calls from the far bank "what is you?" A rhetorical question I assume but his hoody companion replies for me never the less. "It's a fish-er-man"  then he adds helpfully - "let's snap his rod". But like the fish in this river I fail to rise to the bait and the brace of hoodies soon get bored and drift off down stream. 

Unperturbed I fish on but remain fishless. I'm a bit put off my stroke to be honest. Not by the earlier attentions of my adoring audience I don't think. It's more the Yamaha 2 stroke dirt bike pulling donuts behind me. Never mind, there are some interesting spots on that far bank and with the arrival of a second motocrosser it's getting a little crowded just here.

So I make my merry way to the small foot bridge down stream to cross over the river. My good friends the hoodies are standing like trolls on the bridge. "Look it's the fish-er-man let's snap his rod" just loudly enough that I can hear. I stride towards them, at them, trying to appear relaxed but I feel my grip tighten on the net handle. Their earlier confidence evaporates and they move aside. They are kids really but they are friends with the bike riders  and I know how these things work so I don't hang around too long. 

I try a few marks on the far bank but I'm just going through the motions. On this side of the river the park is effectively a narrow corridor of grass between high hedges. A mugger's paradise. Somewhere behind the hedge a mother is screaming at her child. I decide to call short my visit but don't think I should cross back over the bridge again. That would be pushing my luck. 

So I carry on in a long loop through the park looking for a crossing point upstream to get back to the car. The hedges crowd in ever tighter as I traverse what is evidently the town dog toilet. Then joy of joys I glimpse civilisation and high street traffic. Before I leave the park I break down my tackle and stow it all out of sight bundled in my jacket to look as civilian as possible. 

As I leave the park I see the reassuring sight of a young father sitting on a bench with his toddler. But as I approach he becomes agitated and is fumbling to release the brakes on his baby buggy. As he scoops his daughter up I see that the mature, smartly dressed and very drunk woman sitting next to him has just vomited copiously onto his shoes. It is 4pm.        



Friday, 28 August 2015

Counting Parr

I am not an insomniac but I am writing this at 3am. Lousy night, picked up a bug here in Cornwall and stomach cramps are making sleep impossible. So for future reference I thought I would jot down a few observations from yesterdays mini-session on the River Fowey..    

These are:

1) it is possible to be outwitted by a creature with a brain no larger than a pea

2) pound for pound, the pursuit of wild brown trout with a fly rod is probably slightly more expensive than say owning a race horse or perhaps taking up motor racing as a hobby ... just saying

3) it's not always a good idea to unhook a fish with one hand while holding an iphone in the other

4) if you snatch your iphone back from the river quick enough no water actually gets in and it will still apparently function normally afterwards 

5) the downside of 4) is that you will most likely drop and lose your fish in the ensuing confusion  - on balance it's probably better to keep a working phone than a fish as after all you can't telephone the breakdown services with a fish when you discover that your car wont start after the long walk back

Apologies if my observations seem a little sardonic, it's probably just my mood..

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

A most memorable perch from the Taunton & Bridgewater Canal

Not that it's quite my biggest perch ever, but for all the best reasons it will swim bold and bright in my memory for many seasons to come...

In my career I have on occasion worked alongside the odd tv celebrity and it always feels slightly surreal meeting someone with a well known media persona. Their face may be familiar to you, the dulcet tones of their voice may be instantly recognisable. You may believe you have something in common and would get on like a house on fire. You might even feel, on some level, as if you actually know them (which is of course ridiculous).

And so it is as I travel down to Somerset to join Dominic Garnett's 'Fly for Coarse' summer fly fest. Perhaps not quite a household name (yet) but Dominic is a  respected angling writer, broadcaster, guide and innovator here in the UK and certainly a familiar personality in our fishy media. I've read and gained inspiration from his books and articles and followed his blogs with interest. 

As I pull into the car park and meeting place for the event I can't help but feel a just little daunted to be fishing in such an accomplished presence. What if I have one of those days of botched casts, flies in the back of the head and infernal tangles? What if I prove to be the only angler in the party capable of producing a blank? What if, in short, I make a bit of a tit of myself? I needn't worry as Dominic is one of those generous souls that instantly allows one to feel at ease, while his obvious angling talents reassure me that we are all in for a good day.  

In truth, I haven't made life very easy for myself by setting my stall out early on. I had blithely stated that I was only really interested in catching big perch on the first day of the event. And as my fellow anglers begin catching some lovely rudd and roach my vision of big perch seems to fade slightly. 

Very welcome then when Dominic sights a good sized perch in the middle track of the canal. The water is absolutely gin clear and I don't want to risk spooking the fish by 'lining' it. A cautious cast is flicked out with the streamer falling perhaps a dozen feet short. With the perch cruising I feel that I have only one good chance to show the fly. I hope that the plop and a few twitches will be enough to pull the fish over and close the distance. My ploy works but we hadn't spotted its three shoal mates and now four good perch are approaching my streamer with ill intent! 

The biggest perch shoulders its way to the front of the pod which is now closing on my streamer in a wedge formation. In the crystal water this is visual fishing at its finest and the scene seems to play out in slow motion. I hold my breath and tweak and pause the fly to try to induce that final take. I think I can hear my heart beating. Still several feet off, the big perch makes a sudden bucket-mouthed rush, all flaring gills and gaping jaws. A solid connection is signaled by a heavy thumping and thrashing and Dominic grabs the landing net. "I'm going to bully him straight in!" exclaim I, anxious to complete the transaction, and maybe twenty seconds later Dominic is sliding the net under the fabulous beastie.

Numbers aren't really important, but on the other hand it is always nice to catch a notable fish. For this water, at an ounce over two pounds my perch is a good specimen and a real battle-scarred old bruiser. I feel privileged to have witnessed these magnificent predators hunting at such close quarters. But most of all I have enjoyed catching by team work and chuffed to have produced a good fish for the 'Fly for Coarse' event. It's not often that the opportunity comes along to stalk and sight-fish for perch. To do so with a fly rod is for me about as exciting as fishing gets!   



Sunday, 19 July 2015

The particle physics of bait-fly fishing

As fly fishers we talk a lot about 'matching the hatch' as we try offer fly patterns to our quarry similar to the food items the fish happen to be feeding on.

But what if our target fish are coarse species that have become accustomed to the various particle baits (maggots, hemp, pellets etc) that get thrown at them at commercial fisheries and club venues across the land? 

I thought it would be fun to fashion some Calliphora larva flies (that's 'maggot' to you and I ) to match the hatch and target some of the fish swimming in these waters.   

holy trinity
Discovering a lovely little low-key commercial fishery on my doorstep offering a nicely balanced coarse lake, I hatched a plan to tackle the water with my fly rod. Knowing that the only large carp the lake contains are of the 'grass' variety the venue is ignored by the bivvy and buzzer brigade but holds an interesting variety of other species including crucian carp, perch, ide, roach, tench and chub. Wouldn't it be fun to turn up and see how many of these could be captured with fly tackle during my visit? For me the holy trinity for my fly rod would be to land an ide, crucian and the seemingly 'impossible' tench all in one session.  

tactical thinking - working the margins
At the end of the average session at your local commercial fishery it's not unusual for left- over bait to be thrown into the water margins, particularly perishable baits like maggots. Fish, especially  bottom feeders like tench and carp  soon get wise and cruise the margins hoovering up these free offerings after the anglers have gone home. My thinking was to arrive early and hunt the margins looking for tell tale feeding bubbles and cast to these areas. If I found feeding fish I would 'hold' them in location by spraying in a few handfuls of real maggots around my fly. 

my approach for deep feeders 
My rig for the crucian and tench was very simple. The size 14 Calliphora would go on the end of a level 6ft length of 6lb fluoro as point fly. A floating foam beetle would serve as an early indicator of subtle takes and also allow the leader to hang nearer to the vertical. This would improve bite detection as a sagging line takes longer to transmit any movement to the fly line. To avoid tangles the beetle was not tied as a dropper but instead attached direct to the leader with a blood knot, the super-long tag end then having the point fly tied on. The length from point to sight fly was 5ft and then a further 1ft to the 3 weight floating fly line. This reflected the water depth at this location. 

A dust shot was pinched on to the tippet 3 inches behind the point fly to help it get down quickly through the small silver fish and to aid presentation: the line could be tweaked occasionally to make the maggot fly waft about near the lake bed to get noticed by feeding tench and crucians.

mission impossible
I arrived early and found myself alone at the lake. I circled the water and found an attractive spot that had clearly been fished frequently judging by the polished ground of the bank side. A small weed free channel ran parallel to the bank 10ft out or so and tench feeding bubbles were fizzing away like champagne in the early sunshine. A few handfuls of live maggots were thrown along the channel to hold the fish and get them feeding with confidence. Then my fly was cast. Takes when they came were very subtle and easily missed, registering as a slight skating of the foam beetle across the surface film, as the tench sucked in then blew out the fly. Eventually though a fish stuck and a lovely little 'impossible' tench came to hand, followed quickly by another with a third shedding the hook on the way to the net. 

crazy crucians
'Crazy' because all bait fishermen know that trying to hit bites from these finnicky feeders can drive a man insane. But buoyed up with confidence from my early success with tench, I reasoned that the factors making this swim attractive to tench would also prove so for this most beautiful of carp species. So I continued to loose feed live maggots in the hope that the crucian would put in an appearance. My confidence grew as I witnessed some tiny bubbles that could just be betraying the presence of this dainty feeder. I cast to them as softly as I could and held my breath. Sensitivity in bite detection is essential to catching crucian carp and here I felt my fly rig really scored and sure enough, after holding my breath until I felt dizzy, the line slid away a few inches and paused then slid away some more. (I had learned with the tench that a strip set was better than trying to lift into the fish and if the take was missed the fly could be left in the hope of a second chance.) So after a brisk strip set I found myself connected to a stunning, scale-perfect bar of crucian gold.  

the ides have it
By this time some gatecrashers had arrived, attracted by the bait I had been spraying out. A number of ide had moved in, making aggressive slashing rushes at the maggots as they hit the surface. I removed the shot from my tippet and changed the point fly to a double maggot version (much slower sinking as the rubber grubs are slightly buoyant).  Before casting I threw in some more handfuls of bait and the surface really began to boil as the fish competed for these free offerings. I discovered that the key to success was to deliver the cast as soon as possible after the bait had hit the water. Where the crucian were tentative and subtle the ide were aggressive to the point of recklessness, but could also eject the fly in a split second.They also seemed very tackle savvy if the cast was less than perfect. Connecting with takes took lightening reflexes and not being fully in possession of these I converted perhaps only 25% of takes at first. But as I got my eye in then some lovely ide came to hand and what a superb sporting fish this is, hard fighting, challenging and good looking.

I'll be back
For a hair-brain scheme dreamed up at my kitchen table the bait-fly fusion succeeded far better than I could have hoped for, with all three of my target species caught along with some nice roach and perch too. It has proved a versatile and fun method capable of taking bottom feeders and top water fish. I will be taking the approach to a known big tench water soon (perhaps with a sweetcorn imitation?) and I will definitely be holding a rematch with those ide..     

tight lines! 


 photography by Ellabella West Beale

Friday, 20 March 2015

Chalkstream Pike on the Fly

I am sitting by a tranquil chalkstream.  Later she meanders through clay farmland but here her emerald pools are placid and deep. This water is rich and clear and the electric flash of a kingfisher scatters some tiny roach as I string up my eight weight. Not the usual tackle for water such as this but I am here with a challenging quarry in mind. Today my interest lays in the pike that hunt in this little river.  

Gothic drama
Charles Rangeley-Wilson is right. There is something wonderfully Gothic about catching pike with a fly rod. For me the intimate atmosphere of the chalk stream heightens this sense of drama. The fish here are not generally huge - a ten pounder is a good fish and a twenty a rare monster.. but in this little river the fish seem to take on a scale of their own. And the rare  opportunity to sight fish
for pike is just too good to miss. However, during my early visits here I had soon discovered that if I was to be successful I would need to learn some new tricks..

This was my first catch from the chalkstream. She shot from under a moored boat at first light and hit my fly in mid-stream.
My 4/0 baitfish tied to imitate fingerling roach. 
Back at the start of 2014 I had set myself the challenge of catching a river pike on the fly, but the close season was fast approaching. Many rivers were still flooded out and not easily tackled so my chances that season were beginning to look slim. But time spent in
reconnaissance is seldom wasted and eventually I discovered this little gem of a water - a small stretch of chalkstream with a good head of pike. Being spring fed and acting as a feeder to a series of ponds this section of river isn't prone to flooding.. and being a rich nursery for spawning roach it is also a very attractive proposition for pike!

new tricks
So throughout January and February I enjoyed some fine sport with the pre-spawn pike of the river and learned some new tricks along the way.  I found the pike to be very territorial and came to
Weed raft and willow roots, perfect for pike.
recognise individual fish and their preferred ambush positions. It seemed that the smaller more aggressive pike would hold tight to structure in the margins and streak out to hammer my fly if I could put it close enough to them. With gin clear water a stealthy approach is needed and by keeping low and away from the edge I could avoid spooking these fish. I worked to perfect a side cast that would drop my streamer under the branches and tight to the weed rafts. I discovered that by overpowering the cast I could steer the fly into position through applying tension with my line hand as the loop unrolled. Now I could plop my fly into all kinds of little nooks on the far bank and a whole new and highly enjoyable dimension to my fishing began to open up.     
Another dawn capture, tempted from the bottom of a deep pool with a streamer bumped slowly along the stream bed.
I also found that the larger pike usually held deep. With sometimes limited options for concealment these bigger fish adopted a hunting strategy of hugging the stream bed and waiting for unsuspecting
prey to swim by. I found that a streamer fished extremely slowly and bumped along the bottom was more effective than stripping it back in mid water. Frequently these fish would follow right to the near bank and stop inches from my static fly, reluctant to strike. 

The lack of eyes proved to be no disadvantage whatsoever.
uncommon knowledge
Although contrary to     received wisdom, I intuitively felt that the streamers I was using were too big. When I started to use smaller designs with slimmer bodies I enjoyed more success with finicky followers. I began to tie with hackle feathers to create patterns with very soft mobile tails. These could be fished almost statically with just the tiniest pull on the fly line to make the tail pulse enticingly. Laying in the long grass I played cat and mouse with pike right under my rod tip, waiting for the take from fish so close I could almost reach out and touch them. It was a nervy game to see who would blink first. Sometimes the take never came, sometimes after several minutes of close inspection the pike would sip the fly in so gently that I wondered just how many takes occur undetected and out of sight.. but what followed was invariably explosive as all hell broke loose in the little stream.  

strange behaviour
After many attempts on my fly we finally met face to face. 
As I fished through the season I witnessed some interesting pike behaviour. As I had come to recognise certain individuals I started to notice different characteristics in behaviour from fish to fish. One pike was consistently aggressive in attacking my fly but often missed it in an explosive surface attack - I caught it only once. Another large pike would follow my fly with curiosity but never take. She would ward off the smaller jacks aggressively and prevent them from getting near my streamer but would never strike my fly. Several times I had large pike follow my streamer to the near bank and then sit inches away rhythmically flaring gills and snapping jaws but never striking. But the strangest thing I have experienced here happened when I was bringing my largest capture to the net. I had hooked her in a shady pool and knew instantly that she was a good fish. She held deep and it was some minutes before I could see her. As she materialised, to my surprise she was accompanied closely by another female, larger still. Her companion was twining sinuosely about her, so closely that for a second I couldn't tell which of the two fish I had hooked.

As I drew my pike nearer she melted from view and sank bank into the pool. I have my own theory to explain this behavior which is more emotional than scientific but I will leave you to draw your own conclusions..

Full circle
I have fished this little spot every month of the river season this past year and couldn't resist a last visit. As I make my first cast and watch my streamer slowly sink I reflect on my good fortune. I have caught some beautiful fish and have been privileged in having the opportunity to observe their behaviour at close quarters. My love and respect for this wonderful predator is all the deeper for it. 
I have learned a few things that have surprised me and witnessed events that I have no explanation for. And this is as it should be, because after all, this is the great mystery that is fly fishing for pike.