What do you need and what river features do you look for to begin North Country fly fishing?
Tools for the technician
Rods have traditionally erred on the long side (over 10 ¼ ft/3.2m) for this style of fishing. But one of (2.6-2.9m) long, with what might be classed as a middle action, is ideal – especially if you intend to fish the dry fly and nymph as well. (In fact, to fish with North Country wets all the time – deadly as they sometimes are – would be unwise.) Avoid stiff, pokerlike rods.
Match this with a light, single-action reel that has a smooth click ratchet and a well-ventilated drum which can hold a floating DT 5 or 6 and 30m (33yd) of Dacron or 10lb (4.5kg) nylon mono for the backing.
Double tapered lines are recommended rather than weight forward ones. In North Country fly fishing much of your casting is ‘picking off and laying down’ – long shoots play only a minor role. It’s true that you can pick off and lay down a fixed length of weight forward fly line, but its front-heavy profile can result in a clumsy presentation in the hands of a beginner. There is nothing worse than seeing a delivery hit the water like a sack of spuds. The trout don’t appreciate it either!
By tradition the North Country style is fishing with a team of three flies, often called a leash – consisting of a point, a middle and a top dropper.
The make-up of the leader is quite straightforward. For good balance the distance between the three flies should be 36-42in (90-105cm). Measure a length of 2.6lb (1.2kg) mono. Using a double surgeon’s knot (two-turn water knot) for connecting the sections of line, knot together an identical second length of the same b.s., leaving a 4in (10cm) tag beyond the knot for the middle dropper. This second length of 2.6lb (1.2kg) mono is connected to an 18in (45cm) length of 3.2lb (1.5kg) mono, again leaving a 4in (10cm) tag beyond the knot for the top dropper. Finally, the other end of this 3.2lb (1.5kg) line is knotted to the fine end of a 3-4ft (0.9-1.2m) steep tapered knotless leader, one that tapers from 12lb to 4lb (5-1.8kg) at the point.
To make the leader manageable and also easy to change, glue the thick end of the steep tapered leader inside one of the modern braided mini-connectors, the type with the small, neat purpose-made loop. Also glue the end of fly line as a permanent feature to a looped mini-connector.
To avoid tangles when casting the three-fly leader, slow down your action slightly, and strive to produce a more open loop with a pause at the end of each back cast. Avoid false casting whenever possible.
Where to start
Ideally, look for a riffle which is moving at a moderate pace – walking speed – and which has a regular popply surface and a depth of 45-60cm (18-24in). The bottom should be an equal mixture of rocks, stones and pebbles. Avoid stretches peppered with boulders, for they throw up standing waves and bubbly ‘line drowners’ on their downstream side. Such areas are tricky to fish.
Why fish a riffle anyway? First of all, such water is very- well oxygenated and is usually home to thousands of aquatic insects. Secondly, it offers good cover for fish. Broken, rippled water makes it difficult for natural predators to detect trout lying on the stream bed. These two reasons alone ensure that most riffles are usually well stocked with trout and grayling. At certain times of the year – summer in particular -riffles may hold 70% of the river’s total fish population.
From the wet-fly fisherman’s point of view, the riffle is perfect: the broken surface which hides the trout so effectively also gives the fish an unclear view of the angler. So fishing at short range is practical. Furthermore the rippled surface helps disguise the fakes you are presenting as food. North Country wets generally fish in the upper layers, the very place where surface disturbance and distortion are greatest.
Many fly fishermen, when discussing or writing about the North Country style, insist that it must be practised upstream. This is rubbish!. They have read too many old books.
Every square yard of river is different, so the fly fisherman must vary his approach and angle of attack. The experienced angler assesses the situation constantly as he starts each new cast. He makes these decisions unconsciously and appears as fluid as the stream he fishes on.
A riffle with a popply surface and a depth of 45-50cm (18-20in) is excellent for fishing the upstream method – especially on a warm day in late May with a hatch of olives just underway. Farther downstream, the water probably gushes through a rocky gul-ley, pours into a deep angular pool and then runs out through a broad glassy flat. There are many fish-holding pockets throughout the stretch, yet some areas can be devoid of fish while tenanted at other times of the season. How can anyone who’s familiar with Britain’s northern rivers seriously suggest that you fish North Country wets correctly only when working upstream? It’s nonsense.
However, there’s fishing downstream and fishing downstream! Standing storklike, casting downstream at a 45° angle and then allowing your team of flies to swing back towards the bank in an arc – the popular concept of downstream wet-fly fishing -is definitely out.
To understand fully what the North Country angler is trying to achieve, you must start with the fish and imagine what it expects to see as it gently fins the current. Most food items which the fish see can be classed as small, very small or tiny. The nymphs, duns and spinners of various insect orders, as well as myriad diminutive terrestrial creatures which fall from overhanging trees, are trapped either on, in or just below the water surface. As spring bursts forth into the summer, this ‘soup’ of goodies increases daily and is carried along as if on an endless conveyor belt.
These insects cannot make headway against a strong current. Instead, they have to go with it. At the most, they may make a little progress sideways as they are swept downstream. Even nymphs classed as darter/swimmers are carried downstream as they rise to the surface to emerge.
So upstream or downstream, the trick is to imitate the behaviour of the insects. Strive wherever it is possible to fish the team of flies dead drift with the current and without drag.