September is always a poignant time of the fly-fishing year. As the days grow noticeably shorter, the trout are the fattest and healthiest you’ll find them all season, but they often seem to be fixated on the very smallest and most technical food forms – like midges and pale wateries, presented totally drag-free, on gossamer-fine tippets.
Author, fisherman and environmentalist, Theo Pike discusses the exception to this rule and the secret weapon that shouldn’t be too far from your fly-box this September. It’s the daddy-long-legs. Here’s 6 top tips for landing yourself an end-of-season specimen.
Also known as crane flies (Tipulidae), these big insects will have spent the year as leatherjacket grubs, burrowing invisibly in the roots of the grasses and meadow flowers along our river banks. Now, as the air cools a little and turns humid after the long hot summer, they start to emerge and search for mates, to start their mostly-hidden life-cycle all over again.
For reasons best known to expert entomologists, some years are more prolific than others. Yet it’s no exaggeration to say that even in a sparse year, this can be the daddy of all seasonal hatches – at least as significant as the grannom or mayfly for the observant fly-fisher.
With cigar-shaped bodies, rambling legs that stick out in all directions, and wings that don’t seem nearly big enough to keep them airborne, daddy-long-legs look like Heath Robinson contraptions that fly badly, when they fly at all. The slightest puff of wind is usually enough to dump a few of them onto the nearest body of water, where they’ll struggle haplessly in the surface film, attracting attention from fish for yards around.
There’s no delicate sipping when these big mouthfuls are splashing down: trout and chub in particular will hit drowning daddies with real intent, sometimes even leaping out of the water, flattening them with a belly-flop, and circling back again to mop up the doomed insects.
If you think this sounds like some of the least technical fishing of the year, you may be right. But there are still a few useful things to remember if you really want to make the most of the early-autumn daddy-long-legs bonanza…
1 – Beef up your tackle
Daddy-feeding fish don’t tend to be too tippet shy, and the takes can be vicious, so this isn’t the time to take your tippet diameter much below 5lbs. Stiffer monofilament will help you avoid corkscrewed tippet when you’re turning over big, air-resistant flies into a headwind, and you may find a slightly heavier rod helpful, too.
2 – Match the hatch
Entomologists say there are around 300 species of crane flies in the UK, and while it’s hardly worth lugging around enough flies to match all of these, there are definitely times when the fish will respond better to one pattern than another. Carry a good selection wherever you’re fishing at this time of year, and stay alert for opportunities to try the nearest possible imitation.
3 – Chop and change
Most of us aren’t lucky enough to be able to fish when the weather is perfect, so having a tactical selection of patterns in your box will let you pick the best option for the conditions you’re facing. For example, a fully-hackled fly flutters lightly over a wave, while choosing a low-riding pattern, with hackles clipped off the underside, will help your imitation sit enticingly low in a flat calm.
4 – Give it a twitch
After ditching in the drink, most daddies will fuss and struggle as though they’re trying to signal for help. Follow their lead by adding a little twitch to your presentation now and again, instead of focusing on a perfect dead drift, or just letting the fly float static. If the fish you’re targeting hasn’t been convinced so far, this may help to seal the deal.
5 – Go trophy hunting
The crane fly fall will often get the biggest fish in the river looking up for the first time since the mayfly hatch, so now’s your opportunity to target the really big beasts. Don’t be afraid to use the heft of these flies (and of course your heavier tippet) to fire them into places you’d normally assume are far too tight. After all, this is where the trophy trout, chub and even carp will be lurking.
6 – Don’t strike too soon
As mentioned above, some predators will deliberately swamp a struggling daddy, then come back and take it confidently under the surface. If you don’t feel the fish, try to ignore the impulse to pick up for another cast – just leave your fly in place. It sounds counterintuitive, but it often works.
Like Kieron in this article on how to fish daddy-long-legs, I do tie most of my own flies, but I tend to make an exception for daddy-long-legs and mayflies.
These are two hatches when having a flexible choice of different patterns is more important than having a whole row of clones in your fly-box, and it’s fun to let the designers show their paces with all the latest innovations. Grab yourself a generous handful of daddies from your favourite supplier – Fishtec stocks Fulling Mill, Iain Barr and Caledonia – and get out there to make the most of this end-of-season bonanza!
Theo Pike is a freelance environmental, fishing and marketing writer. He’s also Chair of Trustees of the South East, and founding editor of urbantrout.net, a website and eco-brand dedicated to the urban fly fishing and river restoration movements. His first book, Trout in Dirty Places, was published by Merlin Unwin Books in 2012, and his new Pocket Guide to Balsam Bashing appeared in 2014.