You can see some of the pictures for this blog in a slideshow. (Click)

Monday, 17 April 2017

First outing

"Fish are still weighed and measured the old way, in pounds and ounces, probably because, not having ten fingers, they don't use the metric system. But then, they don't have feet either do they?" *

I'm becoming a fine weather fisherman. Is my enthusiasm on the wane? Perhaps I'm just getting older. Certainly, now I'm in my late 60s, I feel the cold more. My hands cramp up when I'm cold and I find a whole day out on the water in winter completely exhausting.

I used to finish up the coarse season with a few piking sessions. Often standing around in the cold using dead bait or flinging a spinner out on a short rod. Ice would form in the rod rings, preventing the line from running through. I have also used some big hefty flies to catch pike, but I think they work better when the water is warmer and the fish are more active. Anyway, I haven't been pike fishing at all in the last few years.

I used to make it an annual ritual to treat myself to a special day's fishing on my birthday which is in mid March. In Scotland this meant salmon fishing on the Tay or the Spey. My mission was to catch a giant, fresh-run, silver "springer", which I did once, except it was smaller than many of the trout that I catch now and it wasn't on a fly. On those occasions I was full of anticipation, despite falling snow and roaring floods. I wonder if I would have the stamina now but I know that, if I was invited, I would still definitely go! Unlike the old days, I would stop for lunch in the ghillie's hut of pop into a hotel for a pint instead of flogging the water to death all day.

The memory of snow settling on my rod and line takes me back to a March day in the early 60s when I took a school-friend out to Hythe Pier where we fished for flounders in a bit of a blizzard. I think I caught one, but it wasn't the fish that made it memorable, it was watching the snow build up all the way down the line to the water below, the weight of it curving the rod over the rail of the pier.

In recent years, my March outings have taken me fly-fishing on the local reservoirs. As the winters get shorter, the fishing season gets longer, and spring often comes early down here in Cambridgeshire where snow is a rare sight. In some years the blossom is out and the chiff chaffs are singing, but sometimes the weather in March can be miserable.

A cold, easterly wind is a big off-putter for me. I live very close to Grafham Water, so I do most of my fishing there. I'm often tempted to try somewhere different, but that would mean more of my precious time in the car and less time at the water. First thing, I look up at the sky to see if the clouds are moving, then I watch the trees and boot up the computer to check the forecast. If it all looks good, it's a fishing day!

The trouble with Grafham is that it is on top of a hill. A light breeze down in my sheltered garden can become a Force 6 up at the reservoir where the waves may even have white-caps. The wind churns up the shallows into a silty soup that the trout avoid. I drive around and check for a sheltered, fishable spot before buying a ticket.

This year I missed my birthday week because of work and the weather, but I got my chance at the end of the month when we had a mild and sunny spring day.

Following up on a tip from the warden I decided to make a few casts from the harbour arm before moving on to somewhere more scenic. Apparently there was a school of perch-fry in the harbour that were being hunted by some big trout. I saw no evidence of the fry but the trout were certainly there. My first cast was short and more or less a casual effort to work out some line and wet the slinky, mink-hair fly that I had on the end. The second cast was long and I made a serious attempt to make the fly work properly so that it sank low and gave an enticingly life-like wiggle. I felt a couple of short bumps on the line and then a solid, heart stopping yank. The fish stayed deep and ran around the harbour. When I eventually saw it, it was a beautiful brown trout of around 3 pounds. (Fish are still weighted and measured imperially, probably because, not having ten fingers, they don't use the metric system. But then, they don't have feet either do they?)

I never left the harbour that day and I caught about a dozen fish. The brownies were all about the same size and quality, almost all caught inside the harbour. Casting outside the bay brought in some rainbows at about four pounds. After catching the first few fish rather too easily, I switched to a lighter rod using small nymphs on a floating line. It didn't make any difference; the fish just kept coming.

After a couple of hours of solitude, I was joined by a young lad who kept on talking to me. He was very active, moving about and swishing a high density sinking line with great energy so that it made a whistling noise. I found it all quite irritating, even more so when his catch rate was twice mine. Then he phoned his friends to come and join in.

There's a lot to be said for wading out as deep as you can go, with your back to the bank so no-one can talk to you. But I realised that this lad's enthusiasm was what I used to have and his friends were perfectly pleasant really.

As Greta Garbo said, "I just vont to be alone." I think that's why I prefer to find a stretch of bank to myself, even if it means giving the hot-spots a miss.

Before anyone starts calling me a fish-monger, I should point out that all the fish were returned carefully. These fish-bonanza of days don't happen that often and I see them as a reward for all my fishless and freezing opening days of seasons past.

* But they do have soles and 'eels. And they have fingers; fish fingers!

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Ducks and Drakes

It is 1957. Two young boys are playing barefooted among the river stones. After three hours they show no sign of being bored. They have built dams and lagoons and constructed highways for Dinky cars and now they are playing the game that their father calls "Ducks and Drakes," although they mostly call it "skiffing".
Jim and Alex Stevenson, circa 1957 
They are brothers. The older one has the advantage of strength, but the younger one has more finesse. He spends more time looking for just the right stone. It has to be flat on both sides and it has to sit warmly in the palm of his hand. By now they have played for so long that most of the flat stones that were on the shore are in the middle of the river where they shine on the flat, smooth, dark slab of stream-bed like coins in a wishing well. The remaining stones on the bank are less than perfect; too big, too small, too spherical or only flat on one side.

The jumble of river rocks on the bank changes with every flood but there is always a little beach at this spot. The strong current is funneled through a solid limestone chute that the river has carved out of the bed-rock. The main flow is near the far bank while the near-side is calm as a mill pond. In fact, the current is reversed along the beach, drifting up-river to rejoin the rapids that drop into the chute.  When the river is in full spate there is a whirpool here that audibly swirls, sucks and gurgles above the rushing white-noise of water and the strange submarine bonks and bumps of boulders on the move.

Fast water like that can transport rocks, gravel and sand, but as soon as it loses it's energy it drops its burden; the heaviest stones first, then the grit and pebbles and finally fine grains of sand. The sand lies nearest the water and the rocks get bigger as you ascend the beach, placed there during the heaviest of floods. The best skiffing stones lie in a strand line, above the sand and below the boulders, but now they are all gone, so the boys keep looking between the bigger rocks where they find a few more to send skipping over the water.

The brothers are both expert skiffers, having spent countless summer afternoons playing this game that members of their family have played here, in the same spot, for almost a century. They bend low and launch their missiles at a shallow trajectory so that they hit the surface flat and fast, like a seaplane landing at high speed and bouncing back into the air.

Boys like these two have probably been skiffing, skimming or skipping stones since the Stone Age. It may be the World's oldest sport, a precursor of cricket and baseball from the times before we invented the wheel or filled a pig's bladder with air to make a ball. Now there is an official world record for the game.*

The young one curls his index finger round the outside of his stone to send it in a flat spin so that, even though his brother's stones go further, he always makes his jump more times. Because of the spin, his stones travel in an arc, not a straight line. With each skip, forward momentum decreases, the spin takes over and the curve becomes tighter. That curving arc of splashes, getting closer and closer together is a thing of absolute beauty and mystery to behold, like a shooting star.

The science of it, both the skip and the arc, has been studied by physicists and the mathematics involved in describing it may even have made possible our space-age efforts to land a man on the moon or put a robot on a comet.

As for those two boys, who knows what their future holds? What forces will shape the arc of their trajectory?

*The Guinness Book of Records reports that the record was achieved on September 6, 2013 in Pennsylvania by Kurt "Mountain Man" Steiner, age 48. The record stands at 88 skips.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Wild trout; the third way. Part one.

My brother Alex and I try to get together once a year for a camping and fishing trip in the Yorkshire Dales.

Our small campsite has a beck running by it, so we can brew up and watch the trout at the same time. Millions of insects hatch from the water on a summer's evening and many settle on the alders, rowans, birches and oaks that line the bank.  The flies attract a lot of birds including flycatchers and redstarts, while swifts, swallows and martins swoop along the valley to catch the bigger caddis and mayflies. Grey wagtails, sandpipers and dippers bob on the beck-stones as they search for insects in the water. It's pretty idyllic - except for the midges.

I would say that the insect life is positively "prolific" but our fellow campers; English, Dutch, French and German; have other descriptions. You don't have to be a linguist to understand expletives. To most people the flies are "a bloody nuisance".

Alex working upstream.
The trout in the beck are small, but there are a few larger fish in pools downstream. They confidently sip flies, deep under the cover of low branches, fallen trees or beneath waterfalls. The best chance of a fish for us is to go all the way downstream to where our beck flows into the main river.

It's a bit of a walk; too far to go in waders, so we carry them with us through the village and across the fields to the river-bank. Leaving our shoes amid the wild garlic we ford the river and carefully approach the junction pool which is just below us.

The pool is deep and black, but it has shallow rapids at the head and a long shallow glide at the tail. We sit high on the bank, well back from the water, to look for fish. The beck falls over stones into the deepest part of the pool, right opposite us, but it's more of a drip than a trickle and it hardly ruffles the surface of the pool. All the same, there are fish there, making little dimples in the surface. If you hadn't fished here before, you would think that they were minnows or maybe infant trout, but it's impossible to tell how big a fish is unless one shows its tail.

The pool may look black, but the water is really very clear and there is no breeze. Stealth will be required and we will need to use fine tippets and small flies. But which flies?

Stealth and patience!
Watching through binoculars, I can pick out some iron-blue duns and a few caddis flies but the fish are not chasing them. In fact they are not really rising, just sipping in tiny creatures from the surface film; flies that I cannot see. Midges perhaps? My brother thinks they may be greenflies that are falling from the alders above, so we tie on little green and grey flies. It takes me ten minutes to thread the line through the tiny up-turned eye of the hook, by which time my brother is already fishing.

Alex has a prefered way to fish for wild trout. He looks for a fish that is consistently rising in the same place and he stalks it from downstream. Once he is close enough, he pays out some line and makes a few practice casts, well short of the fish so as not to spook it. These fish are most often in a tricky spot, under trees, close to the far bank. They are usually confident fish, having been holding the same spot for days. As long as you are careful, you can cast at the same fish for hours trying different flies until you get a result, or until you give up.

Every fly in the box, and no fish!
That first method is exactly what we both did, except that there were no fish that were consistently rising in the same spot. If I covered a rise, the fish would disappear, only to pop up somewhere else. We tried a dozen flies including emergers, nymphs and wet flies, all with the same result. We needed a change of plan.

The second method is to start at the tail of the pool, casting up and across in an attempt to find fish that are not fixated on the mystery fly. We covered the whole pool, taking a step upstream after every cast. There were fish in the shallows on our side of the pool too, but we only found them when they shot off into the depths as we approached.

Today, the last resort will be to walk back to the village pub where we can gaze at the stuffed trout on the walls and plan for the next day.

By chucking-out time we will have hatched a cunning scheme.
To be continued.....

Wild trout; the third way. Part two.

The Upper Eden valley.
Like the river, our ideas for another day on the same stretch of water have dried up. We might just get a fish or two by pure luck, but it's no fun to be mechanically thrashing the water all day. You lose confidence in your own skills and judgement and end up worn out.

By chucking-out time at the pub we have hatched a cunning plan. We will try another river that might have more water in it. A river that has a catchment to the west of the Pennine watershed might do better than our eastern one. Who knows?

The river we choose is the Eden that rises near the Moorcock Inn and the Garsdale Head station on the Settle to Carlisle line. It and flows down through Appleby, Penrith and Carlisle to the Solway Firth. It's not much more than a beck until well below Kirby Stephen where it reputedly holds grayling and the odd salmon, as well as trout.

Warcop bridge.
Result: one salmon par and a minnow.
Our campsite is shrouded in cloud and it is raining almost continuously but, as soon as we leave Yorkshire, the sun comes out. That happens a lot. In that respect Yorkshire is like Wales. (The similarity ends there: definitely.)

A female peregrine falcon darts across the road in pursuit of a kestrel. I follow her in tight focus with the Howgill Fells a bluish blur in the background.

We soon drop into Kirby Stephen to get our first glimpse of the river. It is a disappointment. The drought is just as bad over here in the west and the water is even more clear than yesterday. You could wade most of it in wellies. Doubtful about the possibilities, we decide not to buy a ticket until we have had a good look at our options.

Driving downstream, we stop at every bridge, hoping to see a bit more water and maybe some rising fish. The most promising spot seems to be at the bottom of the Association's water at Warcop, where there is a bridge and a deep pool, so we drive back to Kirby and pay our £15.

Red squirrel at Warcop.
Below Warcop bridge we get a few takes and I catch a minnow. Alex catches a salmon parr so I figure he is ahead. At least our nymphs are working, so we carry on steadily upstream through shrunken pools and rapids. The rock is a rusty brown colour here, producing long, flat glides with few stones. That's not good for flylife, but I'm hoping for a grayling anyway.

The banks are very steep, the footpath being 10 or 12 feet above the river. There are tufts of grass and other flotsam lodged in the trees, well above my head, evidence that the last flood level must have been 18 to 20 feet above the current level. At that height the road and most of the bridge would have been under water. It's hard to imagine that now.

The high banks make casting tricky and I keep snagging my fly up on knapweeds and thistles. In frustration I give my rod a sharp tug and it snaps. I have a couple of spare rods with me, but this is my favourite; an old split cane rod that was a gift from a friend. It has snapped just above the brass ferule that attaches the tip piece. It will be easy to repair, but the rod will lose two inches. Meanwhile I have a long walk back to our car.

A red squirrel is running along the parapet of the bridge. It glows orange in the sunlight and its bushy tail looks almost white. I always have my camera along but, by the time I have it ready, the squirrel is up a tree looking down at me. I have a photo, but my mind will always remember the sight of him bounding across the bridge, haloed in bright sunlight.

By the time I rejoin my brother I am ready to call it a day but, in true Yorkshire style, he says that we have paid for a day's fishing and, by Gum, we are not done yet. We agree to brew up, take a break and then drive back through Kirby Stephen, ignoring the river until we break out on to the moors above Nateby.

The top beat.
There is a spot where the shrunken river runs close to the road but then bends away; a perfect place to park up and go exploring. We set off upstream but the valley is funneling a strong wind against us. My tiny American brook rod simply doesn't have the power to turn the line over and make a gentle presentation upwind and I send the first fish we see off in a panic. At the head of the run, he turns in the shallows, revealing a long back and a spade of a tail. That fish must weigh nearly two pounds. The metric system isn't yet in use up here; we drink pints - not litres, and we measure our fish in inches and pounds. But however you measure it, that's a big trout for a moorland beck.

We press on, in the hope that the wind will decrease when we get into the wooded gorge ahead of us. Sure enough, we escape the wind, but the gorge becomes very tight and we have to ignore some spots because we can't access them. I settle into the role of ghillie and photographer, following my brother's progress from the bracken slopes above while he works all the likely spots. There really isn't room for two anglers on the same stretch unless you take turns.

The broad landscape is made up of majestic, sweeping fells, cut across by a valley that was created by glaciers. Alex says that he thinks the last glacier went up the valley, not down it. He points to a mound that is shaped like a tadpole with it's head facing down the valley, "That's called a dragon's tail. It shows which way the ice was travelling." The big scene is overlaid with all sorts of glacial features such as drumlins, eskers and erratics. Where the thin topsoil has eroded away on steep slopes, road cuttings and the river bank, rather than bedrock we see masses of small rocks, slabs and scree material. It's all glacial debris and it's still on the move. All those stones that line the river
edge are made by glaciers and transported by rivers. They end up in the form of drystone walls, barns, chapels, churches, family homes and manor houses. Many of them arrive at the coast where they form pebbles and grains of sand on the shore.

Stalking trout in a puddle at the bottom of a gorge.
The little river Eden has cut itself through the piles of glacial rubble, right down to the solid rock beneath. It has worked on the exposed limestone beds creating quite a spectacular gorge, with waterfalls and strangely sculptured blocks. Where the water flows over flat slabs there are fist sized hollows where a stone has rolled around until it wore itself away. Then another stone has fallen in the hole and it too has spun like a coffee bean in a grinder. Stone after stone has done its job in creating these kettle holes.

When I was a student I used to spend hours sketching places like this. Turner would have loved it but I have no idea what he would have made of one feature that we saw.

At first I thought it was a large concrete pipe running down the centre of the river. Perhaps it was part of a hydro electric scheme? It went on, dead straight, for maybe a hundred yards before disappearing under the bank when the river took a curve. Again it was Alex who recognised it for what it undoubtedly was.

Imagine a bacon baguette with the filling sticking out beyond the bread. Now imagine it's made of rock and the vacon is a layer that is tougher than the ones on either side. Normally these layers are lie horizontally but this baguette has turned on its side with the bacon in the vertical position. Our little river is following a route that was made long before the glaciers. It's a fault line caused by volcanic action or a huge earthquake, all the result of the Pennines being pushed up when they were formed.

Wild trout: a good size for a mall water.
While I am photographing rocks and flowers, my brother is wearing himself out in the search for a trout.

"Here, you have a go with my rod."

There is flat, shallow pool ahead of me with a couple of dog-sized boulders in it that create a sort of gateway. I cast between them and retrieve line as it drifts back towards me, except it stops, then starts to move the other way. I almost forget to strike but instinct takes over and I raise the rod. The resistance is immediate and violent too. Alex shouts at me to keep up the tension as the hook has no barb. He wades into the water to net the fish, but it takes three attempts before we have it safe. It's no monster, but it seems huge in this tiny pool.

Catching that trout was a team effort, but what were we doing differently? We were still using method one; being stealthy and casting at any fish we saw. We also used method two, which was to cast at any bit of water that might hold a fish.  But we also used the third way, which is to say, we used a worm.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The Yorkshire Esk


Toffs fishing for Tuna.
The Yorkshire town of Whitby simply reeks of fish. It used to smell of whales too, but that's another story for another day.

Most visitors see the name Whitby and think "fish and chips" but then, they say the same about Scarborough and Bridlington. Yes, there's cod and haddock, but there are crabs and lobsters too.

In bygone days the herring was the "King of the Sea"; so plentiful that we thought the bonanza could never end, but it did. You can still get a proper kippered herring in the town, but the big shoals of herring have moved north and left us behind.

At the height of the herring boom, toffs used to come to Whitby to fish for huge tuna, just out there in the bay. The herring, the tuna and the toffs; all gone now.
The busy harbour.

One of the reasons for the ups and downs in the catch is overfishing but changes in temperature play their part. The North Sea is heating up 25 times faster than the global average and this is affecting everything that lives in the sea including fish and seabirds. If you chat to the leisure fishermen on the breakwater, they will tell you about the bass that never used to come this far north. The mackerel they are catching have largely replaced the herring.

 Throughout all the boom-and-bust times of the big trawlers, the seine netters and the drift netters; close inshore, under the cliffs and along the beach, right at our feet; there was another fishy story happening.
The mouth of the river Esk.

Salmon and migratory sea trout grow big in the sea, but they have to breed in freshwater rivers where there are gravel spawning beds and clean, rushing water that bubbles with life-giving oxygen. The little River Esk is not much more than a beck that rushes down from the North York Moors to enter the sea through the harbour at Whitby but it is a very productive salmon and sea-trout river.

Fishermen on the groyne.
After rain, the river can suddenly turn into a raging torrent, sending a surging plume of peaty fresh water out through the harbour into the sea where the waiting fish can smell it.  The weirs and waterfalls become passable and you can watch the salmon and trout jumping to get over them. But in July, there is no rain and the river has shrunk to a chain of still pools and puddles.  Salmon anglers say that the Esk "showing it's bones".

In summer, it would be all too easy to wipe out the trout and salmon that join the queue to enter the river. After weeks with no rain, there can be hundreds of them close to the shore where they are fished for with nets. Thankfully the number, length of nets and the duration of the fishing is strictly controlled. Those who work the nets have to set them in the traditional way, with one end on the beach and the other just a hundred yards out, using a rowing boat. These are called "haaf nets." It's a method that came to us from the Vikings and the word "haaf" is Norse for a net set at sea. It's a skilled job, but also controversial.
Setting a haff net.

Leaving Whitby and the sea behind, I was keen to see the salmon pools on the river and I even had a rod along with me, just in case, but there was really no point. All the same, it was a lovely drive upstream, with the river, the road and the steam railway jammed into Esk Dale's narrow wooded valley. We stopped for lunch at the hotel in Egton Bridge.

On walking into a bar, the first thing to catch my eye is usually the row of hand pumps that dispense real ale. This time I was attracted to a stuffed salmon on one wall, and an incongruous American striped bass on the other; both huge.

The salmon was caught in 1963, close to the pub and it weighed 32 1/2 lbs. As with so many big fish, it was caught by a woman; and so too was the bass. It was caught in the USA by Rhoda Fishpool and weighed 33 lbs.

As you might imagine, I could not wait to get a look at the water and at least smell the fish!

Hardly a river at all.
The water looked fishy, but there wasn't much of it. Certainly not enough for even a medium sized salmon. As for the smell of fish; all I could smell was pig manure. Perhaps a farm upstream had hosed down its yard or a trailer, and the water had run off into the stream. This probably happens quite often and it's not too much of a problem when there is plenty of water in the river.

I crossed the Esk by stepping stones and noticed how a lot of work had been put into managing the river for fish. There was a fish pass up the mill-dam and angled baffles in the pool that would focus the current down the middle of the river making it more attractive for the fish and easier to work a fly. There was also a huge slab that formed a stance where an angler could work the pool without wading. All this was wasted with no water, but I could imagine it in September.

I would love to be on the Esk on the right day. It's such a small, intimate river, more like a beck or burn than the big Scottish rivers. I hope that enough people love it to preserve both the river and the fish that make that remarkable journey from the deep, cold ocean to the shallow warm streams that run so steeply off the moors.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Split cane; wet fly.

We stopped to look at the river on our way up-dale. I expected the worst because it had rained quite heavily, but what I saw looked promising. The river was low between its banks, with many exposed rocks along the edges. Even so, the water was the colour of Guinness complete with white foamy whirls, eddies and streaks. Standing waves marked the places where big underwater rocks blocked the flow and some quite big tree-branches floated past. I was not surprised to see that there were no fish rising anywhere, indicating that a dry fly fished on the surface would be a waste of time.

We were on a week's family holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. It wasn't a fishing trip but I packed a couple of rods, an old gas-mask bag with a reel, some flies and spools of nylon and a pair of waders. The waders took up a lot of space but I took them anyway.
We had rented an old stone cottage that was almost identical to my grandmother's house. It lay at the end of a single-track road, high on the hillside. between the hay fields and the moor above the river with views across to steep hillsides, netted with dry-stone wall and topped with purple moors. It felt incredibly remote compared to my home in Cambridgeshire. Instead of the constant hum of motorway traffic, I was kept awake by bleating sheep and distant grouse calls, "Go back, Go back". Amazingly we managed to get a delivery of groceries from Tesco's despite their nearest shop being in Bishop Aukland, 35 miles away along narrow Pennine roads.

In that moorland idyll, I was content to put off fishing for a few days and have some quality time with the family. The heather was in full bloom and the grouse hunting season was under way. We attended the local agricultural show, sampled the local food and visited as many pubs as possible. I was particularly keen to do a bit of birdwatching and we soon found that area around our cottage was unbeatable. Peregrines, ravens, buzzards and hawks flew over our heads and the moorland was full of pipits and linnets. The woods contained families of flycatchers and siskins and house martins were still using the nests in our eaves. Best of all, a visit to a famous gorge and waterfall produced dippers and grey wagtails; birds that I rarely see up close.

By mid-week the water had dropped and was beginning to clear. Looking off a bridge at dusk, I saw the surface dimpled with rising trout while midges swarmed around my head and bats flitted about. The next morning I was off down the fields before anyone was up. A pair of roe-deer stared at me as I fumbled for my camera and, just as I lifted it to my eye, they jumped the wall and were gone. I angled down-hill towards the river, arriving at last half a mile or so upstream of the cottage where there is a series of riffles and runs and a long pool in a bend.

My battered old cane rod was made for this kind of fishing and I carefully assembled it on the bank while the midges did their utmost to distract me. Despite the liberal use of Jungle Formula my face and neck were on fire and my glasses were steamed up by the time I had a fly tied to the line. I gave it a good tug and the blessed thing came untied again. I bit off the mangled nylon and tried again.

I had chosen a weighted nymph that I would describe as a variant of the traditional gold-ribbed hare's ear. These flies used to be (and sometimes still are) made literally from the hair that grows on the ear of a hare. The hair is dubbed with a needle into a loose scruffy wrap that will hold bubbles of air and held in place with windings of gold foil. This imitation of the sort of fly nymph that lives under stones and gets dislodged in floods would bounce along the bottom, and perhaps get snagged once in a while, but trout could be tempted to take it as it swung past or lifted up in front of them. Just to increase my chances of getting a fish, I tied on a  six inch dropper about 2 feet above the nymph and put a Greenwell's Glory nymph on that. This fly would be anchored by the heavy one below it but would bob along nearer the surface where it would be silhouetted against the sky.

I had a couple of hours to explore the river and work my way downstream back home. With wet flies you generally fish downstream, or straight across, if I had been dry fly fishing I would have worked upstream instead, coming at the fish from behind. The peaty water concealed me from the trout as long as I stayed out of the sunlight, so I could get quite close without having to wade. I had decided to abandon the chest waders at home and was wearing green wellies that I could both walk and fish in. That proved to be a good choice.

I could move rapidly downstream just fishing what I thought might be the hot-spots, or I could fish every inch. The spot where I had arrived was a boiling torrent of water that I decided was unfishable, just far too fast, but a hundred yards downstream it looked better. The river had not slowed down but I could tell from the rippled surface that the bed was regular with no big boulders and that the current was not channeled in one spot but was spread evenly across the stream.  This meant that I could start fishing by my feet and then slowly lengthen my cast to cover the middle and then the far bank. The only problem was that both banks were lined with alder trees.

If you have watched fly-fishermen you will have seen that the flies weigh nothing and that all of our effort goes into snaking the line out behind us then shooting it forwards to our target. You just can't do this with trees behind you. The answer is to roll the line upstream and flip it forwards without snagging the trees, or the bridge of your nose, or your hat. A soft rod (with the action spread along the entire rod) might do this but very slowly, and not if there is any wind. A stiffer rod has most of the action in the tip making the turn-over faster and letting you punch the line across the stream. The downside is that stiff rods can pull the hook out of a trout's mouth or snap the line. For this kind of fishing most people chose a short, light, soft actioned rod that will work under the trees at close range. Every rod is different, especially if it was made by hand from cane, possibly 70 years ago. Mine was meant for bigger things, but lost the top few inches in an accident. So it is still soft actioned, but stiffer than was intended. It roll-casts perfectly but lacks finesse when presenting a dry fly but this makes it ideal for wet fly fishing.

I slid down the bank and put my back against a tree while I worked out a few yards of line then flipped it straight out into the river. I fed it a bit of line to keep it running straight and deep and then took a second cast a bit further out and felt a tick in the line. Definitely a trout, because that's the only sizeable fish that can live in these conditions. I know from my childhood tiddler-catching that, lurking under stones, there will be bullheads and loaches and maybe lampreys but they will never take my flies. The only way to catch them is with a net or with deft hands.

And so I caught my first trout on the old rod. It was not a big one, but I pumped the air with success. took several photographs and smoked a precious cigar in celebration. The aromatic smoke also helped to keep the midges off for a few precious minutes, allowing me to savour the moment.

I fished downstream with confidence and caught six more fish. The largest was in the big pool where a beck flowed in from the opposite shore creating a stream of ripples that bore fresh fish-food down from the hills. The slow water of the deepest pools would have been the most productive areas on a dry fly but my nymphs aroused no interest at all. they needs a good flow to bring them to life.

The climb back to the cottage was straight up-hill and it wore me out. My socks were bunched into the toes of my wellies and I was sweating when I arrived at the gate, but I was un-crushable. I was reliving the days of my father and my uncle, even my great grandfather. They all fished this way but they would have returned with a wicker creel full of fish. I only brought home photographs. Just as they had done, in the living room of the house, I lay my assembled rod along the nails in the 200 year old beams that had probably been put there for that very purpose.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Chasing Rainbows

Note: Our native trout (Salmo trutta) require very high oxygen levels in the waters that they inhabit. Fast running streams and babbling brooks, burns and becks are what wild brown trout prefer, but they will live in lochs and lakes and even the sea if there is enough oxygen. Cold water absorbs oxygen much more readily than warm water, so your average warm lowland pond or reservoir is not trout habitat. Even if you get them to survive, they still need shallow gravel beds washed with cold oxygen rich water as a spawning ground.

The farm-bred American rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) is not so picky and it grows very quickly, like a battery hen. That's why rainbows are the fish of choice for stocking lowland waters.

Today I went chasing rainbows at Grafham Water. It didn't start well.

To access the water at my favourite spot, I had to walk through a field and that's where the trouble started. Walking purposefully and filled with expectation, I caught my line on a thistle and broke off the top six inches of my rod. I decided to carry on anyway.
Pea soup
Broken rod

The loss of six inches of skinny tip section had turned my rod into a poker but I could still cast with it as long as the line did not foul around the broken section, which it did often. I even hooked a fish, but lost it.

Problem number two soon became apparent: thick green algae and floating clumps of weed drifted past at walking pace, despite there being no wind at all. I soon gave up and walked back to my car with the intention of moving to another area of the lake, or another lake, or another country.

I keep a second rod in the car, loaded with a sinking line, just in case I can't find fish near the surface. It's only nine feet long, which is short for lochs and reservoirs, but it casts really well and I have many happy memories associated with buying it at LL Bean's shop in Freeport and using it to catch striped bass in Maine. I thought I'd give it a go for an hour with the floating line and so I went back to wade into the scum, hoping to be able to cast beyond it and find trout.

What I found was perch. I enjoyed catching them too, but then the sky turned thundery grey and it looked like the day was over at 4 pm. It looked very ominous, like the world was about to end. The perch stopped feeding and the air was electric. An osprey flapped across the reservoir while gulls meowed in defiance. Flocks of swallows swooped past me, low over the water; a sure sign of rain. A migrating sandpiper paid a brief visit to a rock and then left. Then nothing. The stillness and the silence were absolute. Time to go.

Boat anglers off the harbour at Perry.

Being  half Scottish and half Yorkshire I like to get value for money. It costs quite a lot to fish at Grafham and so far today I had spent £30 and broken a rod worth nearly £100, all to catch three perch.

I moved round to the opposite shore where the fishing boats are kept. There is a cafe and bar there, so, if the weather worsened, I would have shelter. I would not need to wade either. (Did I not mention that my waders had sprung a leak and that I was soaked from the waist down?)

Four rainbow trout.
The green algae was here too but instead of drifting past on the surface it was mixed in the water, creating a thin pea soup. It didn't look good. Indeed, I didn't see any sign of a fish for an hour on the harbour arm and the amount of weed growing in the bay was a hindrance, even on a floating line.

I followed the famous advice given to fishermen on the Sea of Gallilee and cast on the other side. More accurately, I moved to the other arm of the dock and soon saw a fish boil on the surface there. I couldn't get a take on my killer shrimp imitation but soon another fish moved, and then another, so I chased the school of fish round the harbour trying to intercept their route with a well-placed cast. Those fish were chasing their prey so I let the fly sink only a few inches and then gave it a good pull and was into a fish straight away.

The day redeemed itself. The rain went away, the sun came out and I soon had my four fish limit. As I was packing up, the bright hoop of a rainbow arched across the lake, just for me.