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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.

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