ALTHOUGH lake fishing has unique attractions of its own, many anglers are held spellbound by the infinite charms of our British rivers and streams. The variety and types of water are endless; the majestic sweep of our larger rivers vies in appeal with the magic of moorland streams; every turn, every bend bring fresh delight and there is scope for a wide variety of fly fishing techniques and skills. In such circumstances, prejudice against and bias in favour of one method or another inevitably occur, but you should not allow yourself to be unduly influenced by the opinions of individuals however forcibly expressed. In serving your own apprenticeship, seek to discover for yourself the joys of mastering every branch of the craft. What matters in the end is that your fishing brings you personal pleasure. In the same way as we examined the tactics of the lake angler, let us now glance at those of the river fisherman.
Method No. 1. Down-stream Wet-fly Fishing
This is the simplest technique by which you can absorb the elementary principles of river fishing. The line is cast at an angle of about 45 degrees across the stream and the current sweeps the flies down and across until, finally, they lie directly below you.
Tackle up on the river bank. Your floating line will serve very well, although it is possible to use either a sinking silk or plastic line. A two- or three-fly cast of very much the same type as those used in lake fishing is quite satisfactory. The fly pattern and size will depend on the locality, the time of year, and the nature of the river or stream. The selection possible is very wide but river anglers usually prefer lightly-dressed flies. Let us suggest a March Brown, a Partridge and Orange and a Green-well Spider as a random example. Your leader should be about ten feet long and of A – 5 lb breaking-strain.
Your aim, first and foremost, is to choose a likely stretch of water. A broken run where the water is disturbed but flowing fairly fast will do for a start. Your first lesson is to discover how your line behaves in moving water. As you assemble your gear, keep the following points in mind: (1) Trout lie resting with their heads upstream so that the current carries water through their mouths and out over their gills where the oxygen is extracted. As this means that they can readily see you approach from above, never approach carelessly nor expose yourself needlessly on the skyline. (2) If you are wading, a smooth, unhurried entrance into the water is always advisable. Avoid splashing and heavy footfalls on the gravel or rocks around a pool, as trout can pick up vibrations travelling through the ground. (3) If possible, choose the bank where you can take advantage of any assistance from the wind.
Strip off a few yards of line from your reel and cast out. Repeat this until you have a comfortable amount of line out and are ready to begin. Make your first full cast at an angle of about 45 degrees downstream. Watch your line, and you will see that the line and the flies start to move slowly at first and then faster and faster as the current takes hold. The tail fly at the far end of your leader is swept down and round whilst the others follow suit through the water. As they are brought round, they finally slow down and stop below you. You are trying to let the current bring your team of flies across the noses of any fish as they lie with their heads pointing upstream, and to do so in as natural a manner as possible.
Now try the effect of casting straight across the stream at right angles to the direction of flow. You will see that the current catches the line in the middle and pushes it forward into a curve or belly . As it does so, the tail fly, in order to catch up, literally skips across the water at high speed causing a furrow as it does so. No natural fly is carried downstream like this. This undesirable movement of your artificial fly is called ‘drag’, and you must seek to avoid it at all times since few trout are likely to be deceived by a fly which behaves in such a way.
Mending the Line
The line, of course, will be influenced by the speed and nature of the water. The exact angle at which you can direct your cast in order to escape the effects of drag is a matter of trial and error. Experience in anticipating what is likely to happen will come to you with observation. Concentrate on watching the effect of each swirl and ripple on your line and flies. This is particularly easy with a white floating line. Drag can be countered by a process known as ‘mending the line’ . If it is immediately obvious that the middle of your line is about to form a belly, flick your wrist upstream. The effect of this move- ment should be to lift the back and middle portion of your line and throw it upstream. This means that there is no belly to pull your flies into a dragging position and they should come round at the same speed as the current. Mending requires a good deal of practice and it must be linked to the precise nature of the water you are fishing. It is not, of course, invariably necessary.
Having seen the ill-effects of drag, let us go back and make a nicely-angled cast across the water. Watch the area through which your flies are moving, follow the line down with your rod and continue to fish until the flies are directly below you. Fish may take at any moment from the time the flies land on the water until the very last second when they hang suspended at the finish of the cast. Allowing them to dangle there just prior to your next casting movement often induces a last-instant take. Remember, of course, that if you are fishing round from deeper water into the much shallower side, it is unlikely that fish will follow your flies into a couple of inches of water. In these circumstances, it is not sensible to fish the cast completely round. Do not be content to stand in one spot but move downstream step by step, covering fresh fishing water as you go.
Extra distance can be gained if required by using the ‘shoot’ as in lake fishing. Aim at a point a foot or two above the water so that your flies land softly. Shooting is useful on the river since it can put additional distance between you and the fish and so decrease their chances of seeing you. The left hand too, can be used to retrieve a little line and so jerk and move the flies to make them appear more lifelike as they swim downstream. At the completion of a longer cast, remember that you must pull in the extra ‘shooting’ line until you have extended in front of you only that line length which you know you can aerialise in your back cast.
In downstream wet-fly fishing, especially in the faster water, there may be no need for you to strike at all. If the fish takes your fly underwater, it frequently hooks itself as it turns. The first indication of an offer may be a decided tug and a sudden strain as the fish meets the resistance of the rod. Keep the rod up. In river fishing, you are fighting the current as well as the fish, so, where possible, try to manoeuvre your quarry into quieter water as you play it.
The fact that fish may hook themselves does not mean, however, that you can afford to stand idly by. Watch the water. A swirl, a hump or a bulge may indicate that you have attracted a fish, and there may often be a distinct, splashing rise to your fly. My own technique is to tighten the line by cocking my wrist downstream, as success often depends on the angle at which the fish has come at the fly. With wet-fly fishing of this type, I find that the quick immediate strike at the first sign of any movement results in the highest proportion of hooked fish. But this may not be the case for you, so try out the various possibilities – a quick strike, a slower strike, even no strike at all. It is customary to be wise after the event, but if you try to analyse the causes of your failure, you may hit on the method which suits you best. ‘Reading the water’, in the sense that you are able to predict the most likely spots for fish to lie, will come to you as your river knowledge grows. Watch for every natural rise which betrays the position of a fish and try to relate it to the nature of the water. Trout are to be found where food is brought to them by the flow of water – in the tails of pools, behind the stones on the river bed, in eddies, in fast necks of water. Never neglect an opportunity to stand on a bridge, or to watch fish take a natural fly or eject an unpalatable morsel. Spend an hour or two if you can with an experienced angler who knows his water and see how he fishes. It is a study that can last a lifetime.
Method No. 2. Upstream Wet-fly Fishing
As the name suggests, the principal difference in this technique is that you are going to start at the tail of the pool or other stretch of water and fish upstream, casting and covering as you go each likely ripple, run or stone where a fish might lie. It calls for greater effort on your part and for more frequent casting, but it is a more rewarding and satisfying method, since greater skill and dexterity are required. Once you have mastered line control in downstream fishing and taken a few fish, the next logical step is to spend part, at least, of your outings employing this second method.
The same tackle and floating line are used and the same team of flies is suitable. In this case, however, you are going to employ shorter casts directed at such an angle upstream that the flies are brought down over the fish. The water, of course, will sweep the line downstream towards you, so drag may appear again as the old enemy. However, you are now aiming either to cover specific lies where you suspect a fish to be positioned or you are covering a fish which has risen. If you cast two or three feet above this spot, your flies should sweep over it before drag sets in. If you can achieve this, your object has been accomplished; the onset of drag downstream of your fish does not matter and you simply cast again either over the same spot or a fresh one.
Delaying the onset of drag depends on how well you have developed an ‘eye for the water’ and on your casting ability. You can help to avoid it by the way in which you position yourself in the stream and by casting a ‘slack’ line, that is, casting in such a way that the line, instead of landing straight on the water, arrives in a series of zig-zags. These curves take a second or two to straighten out in the current, and this delays the onset of drag. Meanwhile, your flies are being brought over the fish in a natural manner – long enough perhaps, to deceive it into accepting them as life-like. Let us suppose you are trying to cover a fish which has risen in slower water. Between you and your quarry, faster water is running, so that if you cast a straight line and land your fly above it, the chances are that the speed of the faster water will form a belly in your line and whisk your fly past the fish’s nose. So, instead of a normal straight cast, try the effect of pulling off a few additional feet of line, casting in the normal way but pulling back on your rod just as the line straightens out in front of you. This should produce a wavy, zig-zag effect as your line lands. Try it out. You will find that it is not difficult, though it will be less easy to place your flies precisely where you want them. Practice will help you to combine this effect with accuracy.
As the line is brought back downstream towards you after your flies have covered a likely lie, or fish, it will probably be in a series of curves. If you attempt to lift your rod and cast, even with a short line, you may have difficulty. To ease the pick-up from the water and to permit you to obtain a straight back cast, pull in a few feet of line with your left hand. You will have to work at this until you acquire a sense of timing and rhythm. It will become a matter of casting, covering your stretch of water, observing the onset of drag, hand-lining and then re-casting. The technique will not be acquired overnight, and patience, persistence and a willingness to learn from your own mistakes are all necessary. Don’t overdo it if you are having difficulty – try it for half-an-hour between spells of downstream fishing where you can also practise mending your line downstream or upstream, as conditions dictate.
Striking upstream fish presents problems. I like to use my left hand, as it is already holding the line as the flies come down, and a short left-hand pull of six inches can be combined with the normal wrist turn. This helps to straighten out the line curves and, in my view, quickens the whole business of setting the hook. Don’t hesitate to strike if you have any reason to suspect a take. If you detect anything unusual in the flow of your line – if your leader appears to stop – strike then as well as to the more obvious rises and takes.
Upstream fishing is not easy. It makes demands on you physically, and on your skill as an angler in every sense of the word, but it will afford you greater challenges as you strive to master it, and reward you with bigger baskets and more enduring satisfactions when you do.
Method No. 3. Dry-fly Fishing
The object here is usually to imitate a dun or spinner floating on the surface and to present it in such a natural way that a rising trout accepts it as another of the tit-bits on which it is presently feeding. To succeed in doing so, you must acquire three things: accuracy with which to place your fly within a few inches of your fish, delicacy with which to float it gently on to and down the water and, lastly, a little experience in striking. Let us examine these factors in more detail.
Accuracy is a matter of distance judgement combined with rod and line manipulation. As you become more confident with wet-fly fishing and cast to rising fish, it will not be long before you can place your flies within the ripples of the rise. To this ability, you must now add the art of the false cast. As we have already seen, there is nothing difficult about this – indeed, wet-fly fishers frequently use the false cast when altering the direction in which they wish to present their flies. Instead ol allowing the forward cast to land on the water, a fresh back cast is started as soon as the line has unrolled forward but is still in the air above the surface of the water. Once you have learned to shoot, you will be able to alter the length of the line while it is actually in the air. If you continue to follow the recommendations of hard practice, these manipulations will develop your rhythmical sense of timing until you are capable of putting a fly where you will.
Delicacy in presentation can scarcely fail to come as you learn to control your rod. It is mostly a matter of stopping the forward cast at the right instant so that the line does not slash the water but unrolls and permits the fly to drift gently down- wards. It is just as much a part of good wet-fly fishing as it is of dry-fly angling. Finally, striking is essentially an inner discipline closely connected with the control of muscle movements which you will achieve as your casting improves. If we return now to the river, we shall soon see how much of the mystique about dry-fly fishing is really justified.
Your medium-actioned rod will serve very well. Specially designed dry-fly rods are only worthwhile if you decide to specialise in this branch of fishing. Your floating line is also perfect for the purpose, though a helpful change could be made in your nylon cast. A more delicate presentation can be made if the cast is tapered, and you can easily make up your own by reference to the later section on knots. The flies used are principally those representing the Order Ephemeroptera, the ‘Upright Winged’ flies. They are used singly – Ginger Quill, Blue Dun, and Olive Quill being typical examples.
Let us suppose you are standing by the river bank when a hatch of flies appears. As they struggle free of their nymphal cases, fish begin to feed steadily on them and the water becomes ringed with rises. If possible, pick up a fly in your hand and examine it. Perhaps it appears a pale olive colour with greyish wings. Search through your box until you find a reasonable imitation, tie it on and anoint it with your floatant preparation, being careful not to get this dressing on the nylon. You are now ready to begin.
Pick out a rising fish within your casting range, preferably one which is slightly above you. Perhaps you may reach it easily from the bank or perhaps you may require to wade towards it. Remember that the fish, too, can see, and that the key word is ‘stalk’. Show yourself unnecessarily and the quarry will be gone. If you are on the bank, it may be preferable to kneel; if you are in the water, close in gently until you are within range.
Strip off a few yards from your reel and work out the line on the water below you until you judge that you have sufficient to reach the fish. Now false cast to dry off the fly. As you whisk it through the air, watch out for any obstacles behind you. Keep the main principles of casting in mind – a good back cast lays the foundation for a good forward cast. You have time to ensure that your line is moving correctly. Prepare yourself mentally by anticipating the spot, two or three feet above the fish, where you intend to drop your fly. Consider the possibility of drag.
Now let the forward cast go. Your fly lands nicely, sits up attractively and floats down towards the fish. Watch it! As it passes over the spot, there is a sudden commotion, and the fly disappears. With a turn of your wrist, you act with a deliberately-controlled excitement. In a flash, the line tightens, the rod bends and the reel drum rattles round. You are into your first fish on dry-fly!
This, of course, is only the bare bones of the technique. Once you have grasped the idea and seen for yourself that it is not too difficult, you may choose to develop the elaborate superstructure of the dry-fly specialist. It is an exciting and pleasurable study.
Your first encounter with a sea trout is likely to bring you into agreement with many anglers who think that, weight for weight, no better fighter swims our rivers. Once you have experienced the unique excitements of fishing for them at night, any remaining doubts will vanish. Sea trout afford superb sport.
Like salmon, they are migratory fish. Unlike them, however, they feed freely in fresh water. The two- or sometimes three-year-old smolts move down to the sea after spending the first part of their lives in the river. The smaller fish of half to three-quarters of a pound which ascend our rivers again in late spring, summer and autumn may have spent only a few months in salt water. In different districts, they may be known by such names as peal, whitling, herl or finnock. The weight of larger, older fish may easily run up into double figures and they are some- times mistaken for salmon. The timing of the main run differs on various rivers, so if you are thinking in terms of sea trout expeditions, enquire locally. Nothing is more disappointing than to arrive too early before the fish have begun to run.
You do not need special tackle for your first attempts. Your trout rod and line will do admirably. With 6 lb breaking-strain nylon, you will hold the three-quarter pounder with ease and have a fighting chance with very much bigger fish. Two or three flies are commonly fished, as in downstream wet-fly fishing. As a beginner’s introduction, the sea pools where the fish abound and rise freely will provide you with plenty of pleasure.
Further up the river, however, particularly if the level is low, sea trout become much more difficult to take. They are extremely wary; so much so that they begin to feed at dusk and it is often only after dark that it is possible to catch them. Fishing in the dark makes special demands on you but is particularly exciting. We can summarise the main points to watch as follows: (1) You must know the water. Make a preliminary tour of the stretch you are going to fish and note any obstacles or any obviously dangerous wading. The tail of a pool is an excellent spot and good fish can be taken even where the water seems, at first sight, too shallow. Since wading is often easy here, you could make this your first night’s fishing-place. Long, slow glides too are favourite haunts and also merit special attention. Try to build up a mental picture which will aid you when darkness alters the scene. Seek local advice. (2) Don’t start too early. The urge to fish may be almost irresistible but the sight of you on the pool as the sun goes down may put the fish off entirely. Wait until it is really dusk. Approach the pool quietly, and try not to splash or stumble around. (3) In the darkness, of course, you must cast more by feel than by sight. Use enough line to enable you to respond to the movement of the rod and try to develop a rhythm. Long casting is not necessary, and a single fly will avoid those exasperating tangles which may occur with two or three flies on your leader.
Size No. 8 flies are about right for most night fishing. Teal and Silver, Invicta and Zulu are all great favourites. (4) You will not be left in doubt about a proper take. A decided tug is usually followed by a screaming reel and the sort of fight that lives in your memory. Netting is a tricky business in the dark, and beaching is safer if the bank is suitable. (5) A word of caution. Sea trout fishing is an emotional experience in a class by itself. You may be tempted to rise before dawn, fish all day and continue into the small hours of the night as well. But unless you are young and very fit, it pays to come to terms with your physical limitations. Divide the day up into four sections – dawn, morning, afternoon and night, and always rest up for one of them. In this way, maximum opportunity can be obtained and the fishing effort sustained over a fortnight’s holiday without excessive fatigue.
The trout fisherman’s principal cause for frustration lies in the apparent shortness of the season. He appreciates the necessity for a closed period when the fish must spawn and recover from the hardships of winter; yet, however many opportunities have been available for fishing in the spring and summer, somehow the days slip past. He hardly seems to have started before the long evenings have gone, and October has come round once more.
Fortunately, the keen fly fisherman need not put his tackle away. As trout begin to ‘go back’ in condition with the ripening of the eggs or milt, grayling, which spawn in the spring, approach the peak of their condition. Attitudes differ about grayling and, strictly speaking, they are not classed in this country as ‘game’ fish in the same way as salmon, trout and sea trout. On some rivers they are even regarded as pests, thriving only at the expense of the stock of trout. Since they will eat trout eggs and do compete with trout for the available food, there is some justification for regarding them as vermin. On the other hand, they will rise freely to either wet- or dry-fly, are in top condition in November and they do afford an excellent and sporting fight. Whatever views one may have about their presence in our rivers, they are already there and well-established. As they are also edible, they can afford the keen sportsman a further chance of employing his rod.
In the autumn, grayling tend to collect in shoals, often in large numbers. They lie near the bottom of long, deep pools with a good flow of water. In October, on warm days, when hatches of fly are still about in sufficient numbers, the fish can be seen rising and can be tempted with the usual dry-fly patterns. Once you have located a shoal, approach with caution; the same sort of care that you have learned is necessary for trout. Grayling take quickly and you will usually find that an instantaneous strike is most successful.
Later, as the weather becomes colder and few, if any, adult insects are about, wet-fly or nymph fishing must be practised. Nymphs are often very acceptable to grayling but, since these fish lie deep, dress your nymphs with a turn or two of fuse wire to help them sink easily and quickly. If you cast a few feet above your target, the nymph should be well down by the time it is over the fish. A team of wet flies which includes a ‘flasher’ can work equally well.
In general, the same down-stream or upstream tactics we have already discussed are suitable for grayling, always bearing in mind, of course, that more depth is required. Take any chances you can to enlarge your riverside experience and to develop and enlarge your methods of presentation. The grayling season depends on local river regulations; in some districts it may end on 31st December, on others you may continue through until March.