The joys of fly fishing in Spring

This cusp of seasons is so exciting for the river angler. It opens up many more opportunities to get out fly fishing after your itended quarry. The end of the grayling season on the Eden was a little quiet, although there were some outstanding specimens caught.  This is typical year-round now actually, with low numbers of grayling (and trout), but much larger than average fish turning up.  My records show that the average for grayling through 2011 was 35cm, and oddly enough that for trout was only just short of this.  Interestingly, I have caught grayling up to just under 50cm (18”) and trout to 56cm (22”), through the year, and this trend of few, but large fish is persisting in the new trout season.  I have heard from friends on many other rain fed rivers throughout Britain that this is fairly typical, though the situation appears to be rather marked on the Eden.

Many anglers are quite happy with such a situation, but I am not.  The lack of small fish is a sure sign of either excessive predation (mostly by goosanders and cormorants) or farm pollution (mostly by run-off from compacted and ploughed land).  Nonetheless, the fishing is tremendous.  For the last month the large dark olive hatches have been steadily building.  They are currently lasting for about two hours and fish rise continuously for this period, particularly trout.  During the last week or so we have also seen better March brown hatches than I have seen on Eden for many years, so this at least bodes well.

I have fished a size 19 cdc plume tip; usually a yellow quill version.  A pattern has emerged.  Until the hatch gets underway, one is most tempted to fish with nymph, or spider, in the deeper, slower sections.  This has not been particularly productive.  I have concentrated more on very shallow, riffle water, even when there is no evidence of fish.  Invariably, the trout have been there, rising freely to the plume tip, while my experience in these circumstances with a size 18 (on a TMC 2499 SPBL) partridge and hare spider has been, frankly, thrilling.  I think that spidering is a much under-rated approach, as is ‘free-style’ upstream nymphing (without indicator).  It is probably the lack of apparent contact with the spiders or nymphs that put people off; this sort of fishing is rather demanding on concentration, but this is a shame and probably the fault of excessive reliance on duo (nymph under dry) that is the reason for this.

Of course, the easiest technique of all is the single dry fly, and this has been incredible lately on those Eden riffles.  It astonishes me, even now, how big trout can hide in such thin water, or even hold there for so long.  I don’t think they remain there when there is no food, but it is probably most surprising that there is indeed food in these areas for much of the day, and certainly from very early spring until deep into autumn.  The mild weather we are currently having also entices the fish out of the deeper water.  Control is not quite so demanding or important as on the more evenly flowing, smoother glides and drift lanes.  Even big trout will decide in a flash to take a fly, so if it is about right – like the plume tip or small spider – it will usually be snatched away.  The trick is not to wade in too far, if at all.  I have already this last month caught quite a few big fish within a couple of metres of the bank, just by free-drifting the fly with the minimum of disturbance (for which l-to-h is brilliant).  Another point: keep the fly small, smaller even than the hatching flies.  Dry or spider between 20 and 18 will usually be taken preferentially to a bigger fly.  A 19 plume tip is about the right size for a large dark olive, but it is dwarfed by a March brown.  In the summer when the danicas or olive uprights are hatching, I never use a plume tip bigger than a 17, and trout pick it out among the comparatively giant natural duns drifting past.  As a general rule of thumb, if a fly is rejected, change down at least one size.

Right now, with large darks and March browns coming off, and the trout lean and ferociously hungry after the colder months of winter, British rivers are approaching their best, much sooner than most European rivers, or Scandinavia.   It is so worth the fly fisher taking a few days away from the opening reservoirs around the country to fish wild waters and get to the roots of the sport.  Mind you, take care, because once you’ve fished a spring olive hatch on a shallow rain fed river with a good population of trout, stocked rainbows in still waters never quite hit the mark!  Judging by the ever increasing number of anglers we see out on the rivers nowadays, it is clear that there is an avalanche of interest in this special branch of our sport; and long may this continue, because without the anglers, our rivers would be no more than agricultural sewers.

Out today on the Appleby town water and saw a cock grayling well in excess of three pounds (I momentarily thought it was a salmon kelt!) and then noticed clusters of grayling upstream of this giant.  They were spawning, in water not even a foot deep, on an expanse of clean gravel: this is actually a month earlier than least year, which just reveals how mild the late winter and early spring have been.  I left this visual marvel and moved off well upstream to the thin water of the weir, where again the 19 plume tip was taken by half a dozen eagerly feeding wild brownies.  I noticed that for the first time in a month, since the start of the significant large dark olive hatches, there were actually more March browns in evidence.  These are at least as big as an olive upright, and relentlessly hunted by trout.  Hatching off very shallow water – sometimes mere inches – this ephemerid seems rarely to make it down onto the deeper, glide water.  If they do not lift off very quickly, marauding trout are certain to find them. Many of us feel that the historical reverence of danica mayfly feeding, which is so often a disappointment, should really be assigned to the March brown.

By the way, those of you who are comparatively new to the river, might like to consider that the quality of the modern fly fishing rods is such that the line rating standard has dropped to a #3, while we increasingly see #2 weights.  What this means is that we can explore ever-finer technique, with spider, nymph and particularly dry fly, than was ever possible with the heavier tools commonly used even five years ago.  My own personal favourite is the Greys Streamflex XF2 10′ #2, which, with a leader-to-hand rig, is simply the most delicate outfit I have ever had the joy to use.  It has further opened up the potential of particularly challenging conditions for me, such as low, clear water, and trout or grayling feeding selectively on micro dry flies.  Finally, such fine fishing tackle allows the minimum of disturbance, which invariably equates to significantly improved results on the river.

Leader to Hand Technique

Jeremy Lucas describes the advantages of his leader to hand techniques in his February Fly Fishing Diary.

Most of us are starting to get excited about the improving prospects on river and lake even though the weather is turning colder with what seems to be a late winter freeze. Most of us in the north and west of the country have been kept off the rivers for long periods because of wild weather and floods, even while the south and east has been experiencing drought. Certainly, on the Eden in Cumbria the days when the river has been perfect, or nearly so, have been comparatively scarce. Difficult for our southern friends to appreciate, actually, because I know that most of them have been complaining about lack of water.

A common, disturbing theme, however, is that most rivers throughout Britain have fished poorly for small grayling, fish up to 30cm. On Eden, for example, I have caught very few of these since early last autumn, and far more fish between 30 and 45cm; indeed healthy numbers of these. We do have a goosander problem on the system and we know that cormorants are a devastating threat to most other river systems – all over Europe. Also there is the continuing and increasing devastation of industrialised farming. This is very severe now throughout England. Heavy working of the land with enormous tractors has ruined the substrate over vast areas, the end result of which is erosion and siltation on an unprecedented scale. Water crowfoot, many invertebrate species, and juvenile trout and grayling all suffer and we are seeing this everywhere.

Notwithstanding the above, we all love to catch the big fish and I have heard of outstanding catches on some rivers. My friend John Grindle told me that some days on the Dorset Frome have been ‘too easy’, and the grayling in this river tend to be among the largest in the country, with two pounders commonplace, and three pounders hardly rare. Here on Eden, I tend to have one hour sessions through a typical winter day, trying to choose the times (usually early afternoon) when the grayling are at their most active. In the mild weather in January trout were still coming to the nymph, but in the deeper cold now these have disappeared. Most sessions yield ones and twos, with an occasional three or blank; though the fish have been outstanding specimens and, to my eyes, the most beautiful grayling in Britain. Yesterday, was exemplar. I reasoned, being late afternoon, that I had arrived a little too late. Indeed, second cast, allowing the pair of Czech PTNs to drift way downstream, on the hang, there was a tiny nudge and I set the hook into what I thought was a small fish, but which materialised into a magnificent 43cm cock fish. This was followed by high expectation but not another single take in 45 minutes before the cold, and the satisfaction of the big grayling, enticed me off the river.

I have been fishing exclusively with presentation leader-to-hand technique (for two years now) using #2 and #3 weights; the Greys Streamflex XF2 fly rods 10′ and 11′ which, in my view are utterly the best river rods ever designed, whether with conventional fly line approach or the new presentation leader. In combination, the above have changed everything in the river sport and is now beginning to make similar headway in terms of application on still waters. It all stems from World and European championships, and particularly the European approach. Famously, this involved the French leader at the outset, though this technique has been utterly surpassed now by properly constructed leaders that can be cast, at range, with low mass flies, particularly dry flies (for which a French leader is not good).

The point is that conventional fly line presentation, on the river, of either dry fly or nymph (including spider), at ranges greater than six metres, necessarily involve fly line on the surface, and interaction with that surface which, ultimately, results in compromised presentation, and the related factors of control and contact. For this reason I have long maintained that most fishermen are limited to a maximum range of 10 metres, beyond which presentation and control rapidly decline. Even top international competitors and casting gurus will manage very little greater range at which they can maintain control, on the river, no matter what they claim.

It took me a long time to develop a leader suitable for both dry fly and nymph and I have described this process elsewhere, but what I discovered has far surpassed expectations. I would have been satisfied to have improved presentation and control out to the fly line limit of 10 metres, but we now have this to 18 metres, with a subsequent controlled dead-drift running for up to 20 metres! This is simply astonishing and really has extended the boundaries of possibilities. Moreover, as I embarked on this process in order to achieve better presentation than is possible at range (6-18m) with either fly line delivery or French leader, we find that the casting skills we have learned and become dependant on with conventional fly lines are not lost. We have a new paradigm now, and merely must extend the casting we know and understand into new applications, specifically, with low mass leaders replacing the anachronistic AFTMA system fly lines.

The outstanding Greys Streamflex XF2 fly rods 2 and 3 weights are the ultimate casting tools for these leaders, particularly in lengths of 10′ plus which also give supreme control at these unprecedented ranges on the river. The essence of casting a presentation leader I have covered elsewhere, but it involves primarily the ‘constant tension’ cast with nymph, and the conventional overhead or, better, side cast with dry fly or spider (or low mass nymph). With an overhead, the stop points must be closely observed, as in all fly casting, while the rod tip between the stop points moves much faster than with fly line. Also, the pause on the back cast, and the final follow through on delivery, are appreciably longer. Very strong winds, or conversely dead calm air, give the greatest problems, but in practice we discover that we are no more dominated by wind strength and direction than we are when using fly line; not, at least, when we have learned to extend our casting skills to compensate for the comparatively low mass of the leader in flight.

If these blogs prove popular, I will describe the development of this new approach, particularly now that we have made the breakthrough to a new level of dry fly presentation on the river, as well as the applications on still water.