A skilled fisherman will always succeed even if the tackle he is using is less than ideal but having the right selection of gear will certainly give you a real edge - and that definitely applies to the trout fisherman on the rivers of South West England. Fortunately we live in a golden age of superb fishing tackle and, after more than half a century of fly fishing, I would never wish to go back to the tackle that was available when I started.
Rods, reels, fly lines, leader material, hooks, fly patterns, waders – all have enjoyed dramatic improvements so, with such a wonderful range of tackle to choose from, let’s start with rod selection. I cast my first fly in the era of the split cane rod and still have some of the rods that I used in those days, but not one of them has cast a fly in twenty years or more. Every one is a work of art but since the advent of carbon fibre they all seem far too heavy and lacking in the casting performance that we now take for granted. The wonderful lightness of carbon fibre means that there is no longer a weight penalty in selecting a longer rod and for all of the medium to large rivers I use a rod of 8½ feet with a fastish action that will punch a 5 line into a stiff breeze when needed.
Many of the smaller trout streams in the south west flow beneath a canopy of overhanging branches so side casting is almost mandatory. However, these streams can be so narrow that the combination of a long rod and the casting loop of the fly line mean that you will be constantly catching the far bank rather than fish. The answer is a shorter rod of 7 ft with a crisp action that will cast a 4 line with a really tight loop. At one time many manufacturers produced what was described as a “brook rod” but fortunately these seem to be a thing of the past as most had sloppy actions that made casting a chore rather than a pleasure.
It is easy to spend a fortune on a reel but when you come right down to it the main purpose of the reel on a trout stream is to store the line. Where modern technology has really helped is with lightweight materials and there are plenty of well-made fly reels that keep the weight of your outfit to the minimum but don’t cost the earth.
My first fly lines were made from silk and had to be dried out after every outing - storing a wet line on the reel resulted in rapid deterioration. And even after a thorough greasing at the start of a day’s fishing the line often became waterlogged and had to be hung out to dry and re-greased to keep it floating. Thank goodness the synthetic fly lines of today have made all of that history. Floating lines of size 4 or 5 will cover all of your needs on West Country rivers but you have to choose between weight forward (WF) and double taper (DT). I am happy to use both and the skinflint in me enjoys being able to reverse a DT line when one end has become worn. This is a case of “you pays your money and you takes your choice” as the distance casting properties of a WF line are rarely needed on our rivers.
A well-designed leader can really improve the presentation of the fly and enable you to punch a fly into an adverse breeze. For many years I achieved the taper that is necessary between the thick fly line and the fly itself by knotting together various lengths of nylon in different diameters, but today continuous-taper leaders made of nylon or flourocarbon have made life simpler. On the bigger rivers a leader of 12 ft is ideal but on small streams you will have to come down to 9 ft or less. As a general rule I use a 6X (approx 3.5 lb) tippet, or point, in the spring, coming down to 7X (approx 2.5 lb) as the season progresses and the rivers drop and clear.
More and more anglers now appreciate the huge advantages in wading deep for trout but the full-length body waders that have been widely used for decades in other trout fishing countries have only recently come into general use on our trout streams. Breathable material has made chest waders increasingly comfortable in the warmer months and when the rivers run cold you can always put on the thermal underwear – unless you indulge in the luxury of an extra pair of neoprene waders for the cooler months. For more than 40 years I used stocking-foot waders and wading boots but since age and stiffness made it increasingly difficult to get in and out of them I have gone over to boot-foot waders, which are much easier to pull on and kick off. A combination of felt soles and cleated rubber heels helps to provide grip on both the stream bed and the river bank. Deep wading puts you right in contact with the fish but is a waste of time if you stumble around spooking every trout in the stream. Use a wading staff and you always have two points of contact with the river bed, which reduces the risk of taking a swim in cold water as well as ensuring a stealthy approach.
And then there are the flies, which have developed so much in recent years, but that is another story.