Bryan Martin, Devon Fly Fishing
Not so long ago, my river fishing was restricted to Saturday afternoons, having worked ‘up country’ from Monday to Friday. Those few precious hours were enough to completely de-stress me as everything in my head, except the job in hand, melted away. This is stress busting at its best and should really be available on the NHS.
Although relaxing, concentration is essential for success. Take your time, observe everything in detail. This is no time to rush. With careful observation you will become familiar with your stretch of river and recognise the places that hold the best fish. Often these are difficult to fish. Overhanging branches, irregular currents and other obstacles conspire to prevent your fly from reaching your quarry without arousing suspicion. Over time, with experimentation, practice and a bit of luck thrown in, you will deceive your fish. If you don’t lose a few flies en route, you’re not trying hard enough. Qualified instruction will fast track you to success.
For a good part of the season I fish with a dry fly, casting upstream, allowing it to drift down until the fly has passed the fish or if things have not gone to plan, the dreaded drag takes hold. Once the fly is pulled unnaturally by the currents acting on the leader and fly line, a fish is rarely fooled. My chosen method is not influenced by the so-called ethics of upstream fishing but simply because I find it a pleasurable way to fish and it also works extremely well. There are times, particularly when fishing an awkward spot, when a downstream presentation will be much more effective.
The fly can be chosen from thousands of patterns or from just a few. I prefer just a few; it’s a lot simpler that way. Successful patterns include Greenwells, Adams, Tups, Pheasant tails. These work throughout the season. Sedge patterns work well once the weather warms as spring moves into summer. These are usually effective in the late afternoon and evening of a warm day. There are always stoneflies about but I never bother with carrying specific copies, the above patterns are close enough. Use your eyes and learn to recognise the general characteristics of the flies present. Exact identification is unnecessary. Size and colour are the most important features.
In addition, always carry a few small black patterns. If you can’t see what the fish are taking and the olive or sedge patterns fail, a small black gnat (sizes 16 to 20 and even smaller if your eyesight can cope) will often do the trick. Don’t forget the terrestrials. At times when these are available to the fish, they can often be the only things they will show interest in. Useful patterns are hawthorn fly, black and red ants, beetles and caterpillars (fish these just sub surface).
At other times, particularly when no fish or only occasional fish are seen to rise, I prefer to fish with a nymph. This is often early in the season before the fly life has really got going. The water temperature is low and the level can be high. Take caution when wading when the water is high. I have known times when it’s impossible to get in due to the push of the current.
However, when it is fishable, you will need a weighted nymph pattern, as it is necessary to get the fly deep down to the fish. Cast upstream, allowing the fly to sink and drift naturally with the current. Don’t attempt to retrieve the fly as if stillwater fishing, just pull in line at a pace to keep in touch with the fly. Lifting the nymph towards the surface at the end of a drift will often induce a take. I never use any form of floating indicator to detect a take. It is possible to see the leader draw away, change direction or even stop moving with the current when a fish takes. Then lift into the fish immediately. By the way, I hate the work ‘strike’. It conjures up images of hooks being pulled out of fishes mouths or lines being broken. A quick tightening of the line does the trick.
I don’t carry a vast selection of nymphs. I use weighted hares ears, some with gold bead heads, in sizes 12 and 14. I also use weighted pheasant tail nymphs in sizes 10 to 14. Make sure you also have a few of these in unweighted patterns. I have these in sizes 14 to 18. If you want to add a gold bead head, buy tiny gold plastic beads, 2mm in size, from a craft shop. These are very light and don’t pull the nymph down too quickly.
These patterns are useful in low water conditions when the heavier pattern would snag the riverbed too quickly. They are also useful for fishing with a dry fly as a dropper. Being light they don’t pull the dry fly underwater.
The other inhabitants of my fly box are a few small wet spider patterns. Partridge and Orange and Snipe and Purple in sizes 14 to 18 are worth having. I fish these either upstream as I do the unweighted nymphs and also using the conventional downstream and across wet fly method. When fishing this way keep the rod up at about 45 degrees to allow a slack loop of line to hang below it to the water. This slack line allows the fish to take the fly and move off without feeling the resistance of a tight line. A taking fish is also easily seen as the hanging flyline lifts as the fish takes.
To be able to fish effectively in these small streams, your choice of tackle must be suitable for the conditions. You rarely have to cast far, branches, bushes and high banks are ready to catch any wayward cast and the wild fish will melt away if alarmed by any careless movement or poor presentation. A short rod is called for; seven feet to seven and a half feet will be suitable for most waters. For very small and overgrown streams, something shorter may be more easily used.Line size will be a 3 or 4 weight floating double taper. With the short casts, there is no difference in casting between a weight forward and double taper but the double taper offers the advantage of being reversible when one end is worn out. Effectively, two for the price of one!
Always use a tapered leader and a fine tippet. I use a 5X tippet in early season when the water is higher and has a little colour in it and a 6X tippet at other times. I keep a spool of 7X available for times when all else fails but I must admit that this usually fails as well when things get that tough. Small streams and long leaders are not a good combination. I keep my leader about the same length as the rod or just a little more. This gives good control when casting and keeps the fly line far enough away from the business end.
When you have had a day or two fishing these waters, you will appreciate the importance of good casting. We are not talking about long distance casting here but the ability to accurately and delicately place a fly in a precise position, often close to bushes and branches. There are also likely to be branches and bushes behind, above and at your side so the overhead cast has limited application in these cramped conditions. Learn to roll cast. This is one of the most useful casts available to the small river fisherman. Also learn to side cast. This will keep the rod low and out of the vision of a close fish. Learn slack line and curve casts. These will delay drag and enable you present the fly naturally and not alarm the fish. Get instruction from a qualified instructor on these and other techniques. A one-day casting and fishing lesson on a river will increase your success rate no end.
To fish these streams effectively, you will need to get in. Thigh waders are suitable most of the time but I find that wearing chest waders removes the need to get out so frequently when passing through some of the deeper pools. The streams in north Devon are what our American cousins call ‘freestone’ streams. This is an apt name as you will find that careless wading will cause you to stumble and get the occasional wetting as you trip over the loose and irregularly shaped stones on the stream bed. With a little caution and felt soled waders, the difficulty reduces and you will find yourself feeling more secure.