Sunday, 14 July 2013

Fly Tying Bug Finally Bites

I've owned a cheap fly tying vice and beginner's box of materials for several years now without ever developing any interest in fly tying. Initially I tied up a few basic patterns for practice but they looked too silly to ever make it into my fly box. The bug didn't bite and and my fly tying box has been hidden away in a box in a cupboard ever since. A large part of my apathy I think was down to the wide range of cheap and reasonably tied flies available online. Every pattern a beginner small stream fisherman could need, and it is not a long list, is available at the click of a button and usually for little more than about 50p a fly. Now with more fishing experience under my belt I have become more discerning in my fly purchases and requirements. I increasingly think how I would have tied a fly differently, perhaps with one less turn of the hackle or a shorter tail. Fulling Mill's "tactical series" of flies are quite simply exquisitely tied and perfectly suited to the type of fishing I do but, at over £1.50 a fly, bulk orders can be expensive. It got me thinking about my vice and the materials sitting unused in the cupboard. The materials I have are predominantly bright in colour and largely useless so on a recent evening I took the plunge for the second time and made a small purchase of materials on the internet. I figured I would aim to become proficient in tying nymphs before progressing to dry flies just because they seem a little easier to tie.

Buying materials individually for the first time is something of a minefield. It's at times like this that one can become saddened by the demise of the traditional fly shop and the personal touch. In the end I settled on Daiichi 1560 hooks, a bag of hare's mask dubbing, more cock pheasant tails than I will surely ever need, fine copper wire, brass and tungsten beads and UTC Mirage tinsel to add a bit of flash when needed. I figured this would do me nicely for tying up some pheasant tail nymphs, gold-ribbed hares' ears and my favourite nymph pattern, the Mary pheasant tail.

In the week I tied up two #14 Mary pheasant tails to put to use this Saturday on a Welsh stream. The second nymph was a considerable improvement on the first and only this one looked good enough, just, to make it into my fly box. Fishing in glorious 30 degree heat this Saturday, it was always going to be a day for dredging a nymph through the deeper, cooler pools at some stage. When I arrived at a suitable pool I tied on my creation with some reservation, wondering if I was wasting my time. A couple of casts later my fly was good enough to deceive this little titch of a trout.

Sure, tiny trout in an unfished stream may not be the most fastidious fish but I was pretty elated to achieve what I guess is something of a milestone for every fly tyer. More so when the fly went on to fool another three trout on a day when the fishing was tough due to the hot weather and low water. I have immortalised the fly with a photo for posterity. Bear in mind the photo was taken after the event so it looks a little beat up. Scruffy flies seem to work best so it may yet have more work to do next time.

Now that I'm confident I'm not wasting my time I'm looking forward to tying up a few more flies and trying my hand with the # 16 and 18 hooks. I'm especially looking forward to having some control over the fly patterns I fish which brings with it a measure of study and innovation. A new dimension, absent until now, has been added to my fly fishing passion.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

River Don and tributary, Sheffield, South Yorkshire

Urban fly fishing has been something of a craze in the UK recently, in large part thanks to Theo Pike’s book "Trout in Dirty Places". Of course, it wouldn’t be possible if British rivers were not the cleanest they have been in decades, if not centuries. Trout and grayling have returned to many city centres across the country and there is a pleasing incongruity about this. You just do not expect to see or find salmonids amongst litter and waste and human design. In the case of the River Don in the centre of Sheffield, I discovered that trout and grayling are present in very healthy numbers.  It was here that I experienced my first taste of urban fly fishing, walled in by pre-industrial brick and post-industrial modern glass, a Holiday Inn and busy road bridges. The sounds of general human commotion were never far away but momentarily forgotten when watching olives and caddis lift from the water or when a trout or grayling would take the fly.

I came across a delightful quote in George Orwell’s 1937 book "The Road to Wigan Pier". Clearly, Orwell was no fan of Sheffield! It does provide an insight into the sights, sounds and squalor of industrial Sheffield, the "Steel City", including a brief mention of a city centre river.

"But even Wigan is beautiful compared with Sheffield. Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World: its inhabitants, who want it to be pre-eminent in everything, very likely do make that claim for it. It has a population of half a million and it contains fewer decent buildings than the average East Anglian village of five hundred. And the stench! If at rare moments you stop smelling sulphur it is because you have begun smelling gas. Even the shallow river that runs through the town is-usually bright yellow with some chemical or other. Once I halted in the street and counted the factory chimneys I could see; there were thirty-three of them, but there would have been far more if the air had not been obscured by smoke. One scene especially lingers in my mind. A frightful patch of waste ground (somehow, up there, a patch of waste ground attains a squalor that would be impossible even in London) trampled bare of grass and littered with newspapers and old saucepans. To the right an isolated row of gaunt four-roomed houses, dark red, blackened by smoke. To the left an interminable vista of factory chimneys, chimney beyond chimney, fading away into a dim blackish haze. Behind me a railway embankment made of the slag from furnaces. In front, across the patch of waste ground, a cubical building of red and yellow brick, with the sign ‘Thomas Grocock, Haulage Contractor’." 

Today, you couldn’t imagine a more different picture of the river (and the city) from that described by Orwell. I was immediately surprised by the water’s clarity. The only evidence I could see of an industrial past were two large mill stones wedged in the river bed and, in places, ochre from mining activities. I was even more surprised to see fish rising! Despite being canalised the presence of large boulders mid stream, wild flowers, ubiquitous bank side nettles and a small island lent the river a hint of a natural feel.

Thanks to a Monnow Rivers Association auction lot win, I was accompanied and guided by Dr Paul Gaskell, Sheffield resident and Wild Trout Trust employee. Paul is a very knowledgeable angler and it’s fair to say I learnt a great deal on my visit. Paul is also a tenkara fanatic and I was really interested to see this method in action. The presentational advantages of tenkara were very quickly apparent.

We entered the river at 10.30am to grey skies and a few drops of rain. Fortunately the rain held off for the day but I noticed a few storm drains discharging surface water into the river. One or two fish were rising and my second cast with a small black klinkhamer brought a good sized grayling to the surface and to the net. A delivery truck driver nonchalantly watched the action from the top of the brick embankment. A jogger ran past without a sideways glance. Otherwise life in the city carried on as normal.

Fish continued to rise sporadically and when the klinkhamer failed to elicit further interest I changed patterns to one of Paul’s self tied olive emergers. The change in pattern soon worked and I brought a couple more grayling and a broad shouldered trout of about 13 inches to Paul’s circular tenkara net. The fish, and the trout in particular, had clearly been feeding well suggesting the Don has a healthy invertebrate menu on offer. Every now and again a passer-by would shout out “have you caught anything?” or “can you eat fish from this river?” One gentleman with a thick Yorkshire accent said “when I was a boy there was nowt in here.” He watched as I tempted two trout to take a small bead headed pheasant tail nymph from a delightfully “trouty” looking run.

In the afternoon we moved to a small peaty tributary of the Don, no more than a 10 minute drive from the city centre. A small stream shrouded by trees and within a ravine, the sounds of traffic and people were soon forgotten. Even here, away from the city centre, we came across the signs of an industrial past - an artificial pond above the river, previously used to power a mill. A few splashy rises signalled the presence of mayfly and I soon hooked a dark coloured, peat-stained trout of about 9 inches on one of Paul’s mayfly patterns. Paul caught a perch, his first from this stream. I realised rather wistfully that these were probably the last mayfly I will see this year. We fished up the small stream until 4.30pm again learning a lot from Paul who was happy to show me a few tricks. I landed another trout on an olive paradun pattern and lost two which took the nymph, before we called it a day.

I normally go fishing to get away from the city and human commotion so I didn’t really know what to expect. I was in truth pleasantly surprised by my urban fishing experience. It’s great to see these once abused rivers now clean enough to sustain trout again.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

The River Swift, Warwickshire

A few weeks ago I came across an impassioned plea for help on a fishing forum. What drew my attention to the post was mention of the River Swift in Warwickshire which I had previously identified as one of the closest trout streams to Birmingham, where I live. Thirty miles due east from Brum, in the heart of the generally troutless West Midlands region, the river had piqued my interest. On offer was a day fishing the Swift in return for a bit of advice and hopefully helping a fly fishing beginner - Oliver - catch a fish. 

I met Oliver at Rugby train station and we drove to the stream. Since making our arrangements Oliver had managed to induce a large mayfly gorging trout to take his dry fly before seeing his line part and the fish disappear. So close to landing his first trout on the dry fly Oliver was keen to return to the scene to have another go. We parked at a tiny hamlet of houses hidden behind an industrial estate and walked down to the river. Along the walk we passed a puddle in the gravel road littered with spent mayfly spinners.

The Swift is a lowland stream with a predominantly clay bottom. At first blush it looked nothing like a trout stream, slow moving and in some places almost still. The river could not have been given a more misleading name! There was no sign of any rises at the spot where Oliver had hooked the large fish, and no reaction to prospective dry fly or nymph, so we walked back to the car and drove upstream to the club's waters near the church topped hill village of Churchover. We only had a few hours to fish the river because Oliver had another engagement later in the day, and my heart stopped a little when I saw here too another slow, meandering, reed choked stretch of the river that looked perfect for coarse fish but not trout. We walked upstream a little way, seeing no fish but being followed by a herd of curious cows on the opposite bank. The pressure was firmly on to find Oliver a fish!

With just under an hour to go we drove to the top section of the club's waters, near the busy A5 road. We pulled over into a lay-by to peer over the bridge crossing the Swift and were encouraged by the sight of mayfly, although noted no sign of fish. Oliver mentioned that this section of the A5 is built on an old Roman road from Kent in the south-east, through London to Wroxeter near modern day Shrewsbury. Nearby to the Swift is High Cross, the meeting point of the two main Roman roads which connected the four corners of Britannia. I love the little bits of history that are sometimes part and parcel of fly fishing in Britain.

It was soon pretty evident that this top section of the river is vastly different to the stretches below. The flow is faster and there is gravel on the riverbed testament to the work put in by the club to transform this marginal trout water. Flowering ranunculus added to the aesthetic trouty charm. With mayfly emerging in small numbers I felt optimistic of finally seeing a trout show itself.

Walking downstream it was Oliver who spotted a rise in a deep pool in a bend of the river. Excitedly we got into position at the tail of the pool but faced straight into the teeth of a strong wind which proved difficult for Oliver to cast into (as it would any for any beginner). I offered to cast the line for Oliver and as I took his rod a trout rose at the very tail of the pool, no more than a few yards in front of us. I stealthily clambered down the bank and into the water below the pool where I could make a cast to the fish. I flicked the mayfly pattern forward and watched as a trout duly emerged from under the weed hugging the left bank and purposefully moved two feet to take the fly. Hooked close in the fish was soon subdued and Oliver helped me to net the fish from the bank with a telescopic net. A good number of brown trout are stocked annually into the river, and this must be the most handsome stocked trout I have yet caught. At about 10 inches it was stocked too young to have worn down its fins in a concrete hatchery sluice. My joy was tinged with a little disappointment that it was not Oliver who did it, as we only had about 20 minutes left. With me back up on the bank we moved a few feet forward to cast further up in the pool where one or two fish continued to rise. With no lull in the wind I cast again and handed the rod to Oliver. Within a second a trout engulfed the fly and the moment came to be - Oliver's first trout from a river and on a dry fly too! The first of many I'm sure. Well done!       

A picture of happiness!

Saturday, 1 June 2013

The River Gwash, Rutland

The East Midlands of England would not by any stretch of the imagination be considered a region with an abundance of trout streams. For international readers, the East Midlands comprises of the counties of Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire, Rutland, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. There is of course the wonderful trout fishing in the Derbyshire Peaks on the very western edge of the region, but what I have in mind is the flat, low lying expanse of land to the east of the peaks where rivers of the kind preferred by trout are rare.  Instead, most of the fly fishing opportunities are focused on a cluster of large man-made reservoirs such as Rutland Water, Grafham, Pitsford, Ravensthorpe, Eye Brook and, by all accounts, they offer excellent fishing if stillwater fishing is your cup of tea. There are only a handful of trout streams, most if not all locked away in the hands of private owners or fishing clubs with long waiting lists. It is not the easiest place to gain access to river trout fishing.

One such river is the Gwash in Rutland, which was dammed to create Rutland Water reservoir in the 70s, the largest reservoir in England by surface area. Rutland Water is a very popular fly fishing venue with rainbow and brown trout stocked in their thousands each year. The outflow from the reservoir is through an underground pipe so there is no chance of any grown-on fish of 10lbs or more escaping into the Gwash! Fishing for wild brown trout is downstream of the reservoir in what is effectively a tailwater fishery before the Gwash spills into the larger River Welland. Much of the fishing is in the hands of a fishing club but a couple of miles are held privately by Andrew Flitcroft, editor of Trout & Salmon magazine. I snapped up a rare opportunity to fish this private section with Andrew through the Wild Trout Trust’s annual auction. Interestingly, I recalled reading the name Gwash in an online snippet at the time I fished the River Wye in Derbyshire last year. The Gwash was named as one of eleven rivers in Britain with a spawning population of rainbow trout in E. Barton Worthington’s 1941 survey of rainbow trout in Britain (commissioned due to concerns that rainbow trout were ousting brown trout in British rivers). It would seem that any population of self-sustaining rainbow trout in the Gwash, if ever one existed, has long since disappeared. Perhaps swallowed up by the construction of the reservoir?

Andrew is down-to-earth and clearly very passionate about fly fishing, and I enjoyed his company. He was an obliging host and a skilful fly fisherman to boot. Whilst enjoying a pretty authentic American diner breakfast Andrew mentioned that his section of the river is divided into an easier beat downstream, with generally smaller fish, and a more difficult beat upstream, guessed it... generally larger fish. We headed for the upstream section first. Parking near to the river, it became clear that the temperature forecast of less than 10 degrees was hopelessly wrong. With relatively clear skies it promised to be a beautiful, warm day with good prospects for a decent hatch. The river was hidden by a sinuous slip of green vegetation at the basin of the shallow valley. The fields on the near bank were recently ploughed between the hedgerows whilst the fields on the far bank were awash in the yellow of blooming rapeseed. I was immediately struck by the blissful absence of any man made sound, interrupted intermittently by low flying light aircraft and an audible bird scare device in a nearby field.

The Gwash is a small river with a gentle flow. Andrew commented that the river was showing a little more colour than usual, but it was still clear enough to spot fish easily enough. We carefully walked upriver, looking for signs of fish and places where a cast could be made to them. Eventually we came across a feeding fish holding position in a place where I could enter the water downstream and cast to it. I quietly slipped down the nettle covered bank and into the silty bank ooze. Wading in the stream caused blooms of watery dust to billow downstream. The level of silt is a by product of the reservoir upstream - the volume of the outflow is regulated and the lack of flooding means that the river is not flushed clean as nature intended. This upstream section has not yet been worked on by Andrew and his syndicate members, but later I would see the good work done to combat the silt in the downstream beat. At that moment in time however my concentration was squarely focused on the trout rising in front of me. My first and second cast saw my 7x tippet coiling like a tightly wound spring around my leader without spooking the fish, so I changed it to 6x and waited a while for the fish to rise again. When it did I cast again, this time the leader unfurled properly and delicately landed on the water, and the trout obliged by sipping in the small olive CDC pattern. It proved to be a good fish of about 12 inches, beautifully marked and wild.  

As the day started to heat up mayflies started to emerge and with their appearance the fish noticeably became a little less cautious. As did I when I waded a little too carelessly in the silt next to the river. I became stuck and a little apprehensive when I realised that I was slowly sinking. I threw my rod, backpack and chestpack on to the bank and tried to dig myself out to no avail. Andrew, who had wandered off to spot fish, came to my assistance when he realised I had been gone awhile but couldn’t pull me out either. I had visions of Andrew having to call a local farmer to bring a tractor to drag me out and the ensuing embarrassment. Eventually I was able to free my right leg from the mire and use it to dig a funnel for river water to flood in and dilute the ooze ensnaring my trapped left leg. My left leg finally loosened and became free and Andrew pulled me out whilst I grabbed a handful of nettles – anything – with my free hand to pull myself up the bank. Muddied, out of breath but free, we both laughed with some relief at my recent predicament.

Very soon it was all business again as we spied a good fish feeding next to our bank just a little way upstream. We watched it feed for a little while and I enjoyed adopting the patient and visual approach to fishing that Andrew employed. I changed patterns to a mayfly, slipped into the water – after Andrew assured me that the bottom was hard – and crept into position. I overcooked the first two casts and was too wide to the left with the third. Andrew suggested that I hold off for a few minutes to see if the fish was spooked or still feeding. Within a few minutes, the fish rose again and I breathed a sigh of relief. My fourth cast was perfect and confidently swallowed by the trout. I lifted my rod and could immediately tell by the bend that it was a good fish. Andrew helped me to net it, a good fish of about 14 inches, with bold vermilion spots on its flanks. Another trout had been rising a little way upstream and a further cast saw this fish come to the net too. Again, this fish was a good size for the size of the stream, about 12 or 13 inches. Andrew later enticed a similar sized fish from the upper limit of the beat to conclude a successful “morning session” (it was closer to 3.30pm when we checked the time).

We drove down to the lower beat and it was immediately evident the work that has been put in to the river to make the trout habitat better and improve the fishing – tree clearance, narrowing the river channel, creating bends, the insertion of groynes. The fish did prove to be a little smaller, but no less fun to catch and I managed to tempt another seven trout to take the dry fly. In the low evening sun it was sometimes possible to see into the water and observe the fishes’ reaction to the dry fly, which must be one of the most exciting moments of dry fly fishing.

It was a real privilege to have fished this private river and I will savour the experience for some time to come. 

Monday, 20 May 2013

Splendorous Spring

Spring has definitely arrived if you go by fishing in shirtsleeves to rising fish. Last Saturday was just such a day, resplendent in sunshine, the greenery of new tree leaves and bank side stinging nettles, wild flowers, bird song, inquisitive lambs and bounding, nervous squirrels. The riverside has finally come to life.

Four trout in succession were tempted to take a size 18 nymph drifted past the tree roots centre left of the image

River X was in fine fettle as it always seems to be, running clear whilst other rivers seen through the train window were brown and murky after recent rains. Trout were active and willing to rise to the dry fly - what a joy it was after so long to take a trout on a dry fly! I caught somewhere in the region of 25 fish, all brown trout but for a lone grayling. A pair of trout measured 14" and I will be hard pressed to match them for quality in the season ahead.

A lovely 12" fish taken on the dry fly

Laszlo was surprised by a rather wild looking rainbow trout, his first. Initially at a loss to explain its presence in the river I have since learned that there is a stocked trout pool about 5 miles upriver which is fed by a small tributary. This rainbow must have escaped. Whatever the case, it is a fine looking rainbow trout.

The evening walk home

Sunday, 12 May 2013

The River Dee, North Wales

After our abortive visit to the Welsh Dee in February this year Laszlo and I promised to return when the weather improved. The weather has been relatively stable over the past 2 weeks and we took a chance yesterday, driving the 80 or so miles north west of Birmingham to Llangollen. Our start was held up a little because I couldn't find my rain jacket. In the end it was a good thing I found it, as we met up with a spell of rain sweeping in from the Atlantic.

The Dee oozes a special charm and it’s difficult to describe the beauty of the Dee valley, especially in the green wash of spring. Arriving at Berwyn, just east of Llangollen, we were treated to the sight of the impressive working steam train pulling in to the station on its short tourist journey along the course of the river. Throughout the day we would regularly hear its whistle. The valley to the east of Llangollen was clear and sunny and, whilst the river seemed to have a little tinge of colour to it, it was at a perfect level for fly fishing.
The Dee where the little Abersilio brook joins it

We purchased day tickets from Watkins & Williams hardware store and decided to fish the upper section of the 10 miles of river offered by the Llangollen-Maelor Angling Club. We crossed the river, watching kayakers and white water rafters setting off for the rapids downstream, and parked at the small hamlet of Abersilio. The left bank is the outer bank of a bend in the river and therefore the current here is swift and the river deep. We hadn't given much thought to which bank to fish from, thinking that we would be able to wade across the river if required. How wrong we were! Attempting to ford the river would be near suicide. The Dee is a large and powerful river with a smooth bedrock bottom that offered as much purchase to the studs on my wading boots as flip flops have on ice. I later crafted a makeshift wading stick from a tree branch and this helped to some extent. Our bank was forested and casting difficult but I flicked in my team of nymphs and immediately caught a little trout of about 7 inches on the heavier copper wrapped dropper. I turned to Laszlo and we agreed that the signs looked good for a rewarding day’s fishing. 

First fish of 2013!

We continued to move up the left bank and cast where possible through the trees. I was mesmerised by the swathes of blue, yellow and white coloured wild flowers which carpeted the forest floor. Eventually, having dawned upon us that crossing the river was impossible, we returned to the car and drove to the other side of the valley where there were fewer trees on the river bank and where the option of wading as least presented itself. By this time it had started to spit with rain with tremendous wind gusts from the west (blowing directly downstream).

Beautiful wild flowers beneath the trees

On the right bank my first cast yielded another trout, this one a little smaller than the first. Two casts later a much larger fish took the nymph and I saw it turn and reveal deep flanks. Unfortunately the fish threw the hook and left me ruing what might have been a pretty decent fish. I had hooked 3 fish in about 10 casts and the prospects were looking good. And then, it was almost as if someone had flicked a switch and the trout went off the boil. I had no joy for the rest of the day and Laszlo was unable to entice any fish either. There was some fly life coming off the water but we didn't see a single rise the entire day. Birds made sure not to miss out on the feast, swooping low over the water to nimbly catch the hapless morsels. Having consulted Lapsley’s and Bennett’s pocket guide today I'm pretty sure that I spotted a few iron blue duns. The authors suggest that iron blues often hatch on “cold, wet, blustery days”, a perfect description of yesterday.  We fished until about 6pm and then decided to call it a day.

Access to the right bank

The right bank of the Dee

It was great to finally open my season’s account with a fish in the net. The Dee is a bewitching river and I'm pretty sure I haven’t seen the last of it. In the meantime I am looking forward to an improvement in the weather over the coming weeks and the appearance of mayfly! 

Season Opening Curse Strikes Again!

I have sworn never again to fish for trout in March, the first month of the trout season in Wales and most parts of England. My opening season forays in the past 2 years – both in March – have been cold and unrewarded with even a sighting of a fish. It is almost, but not quite spring in March. There is little sign of fly life, the days are still short, the air and water cold, and the trees still bare. Still gripped by the icy vestiges of winter the trout tend to be correspondingly sullen. The travel and effort does not correspond with the lack of reward to my mind. So this year I planned my first trout fishing trip for the first weekend of April, perfectly timed to take up an invitation from Simon Evans to fish the Usk. Simon is blessed by living in trout country, on the banks of the Gavenny and within a stone’s throw of its confluence with the River Usk.

Of course, 2013 had seen snow in March and lingering cold conditions. By the first weekend of April it was difficult to see any evidence of spring.  In our email correspondence Simon had mentioned cold water temperatures of 3 degrees due to snow melt and hard frosts but I paid little heed and focused on positive - Simon’s expectations of a steady olive hatch from 1pm to 4pm.

Fortified by a hot cup of tea on arrival at Simon’s house, I met his friends Alex and Mark and we proceeded down to a private section of the Usk, which I recognised as the Crickhowell section from having fished it in May 2011. A large hatch of olives started to occur and we waited with baited breath for the first sign of a rise. Remarkably, none were seen and for several hours the trout completely ignored the sheer number of olives, the largest hatch I have witnessed. I was pleased to spot a couple of March Browns for the first time and encouraged when Simon told me they are making a comeback on the Usk after having been considered for many years to be locally extinct.  Simon’s family arrived for a picnic lunch on the banks of the river and I sipped a beer watching the olives drift by, unhindered by the fish.  Eventually we located a small number of fish rising to olives in a section of the river upstream. Alex, an accomplished sea trout fisherman but with little experience of fishing for trout,  had first dibs in the hotspot while I entered the water a little way downstream where a fish had risen on the far bank. I couldn’t entice the fish to rise again and, as quick as it had started, the rise had come to an end! Alex had managed to land a good trout, the only fish between the four of us all day.

It was a hard and frustrating day’s fishing, saved somewhat by the good company. The hills looking down on Abergavenny were covered in snow. At the conclusion of the day Simon mentioned that an old gentleman angler he knows swears never to fish when there is still snow on the hills. Through experience we learn. My season opening philosophy has been amended: no fishing in March and only when all the snow has melted from the hills!