Clark Colman refines his dry-fly techniques to enjoy good early season surface sport on a taxing but a productive river, whose wild brownies can often be found ‘looking up’ right from opening day…
As a devotee of modern, light-line, European-style nymphing approaches, it’s not always easy for me to lay these aside in favour of other methods when the new wild trout season dawns on our rivers and streams. With over 80% of a trout’s food being taken sub-surface, and with insect hatches or falls yet to gain real momentum and volume, my first trouting sessions of the New Year usually involve the same techniques that serve me well for grayling during the autumn and winter.
Wild brownies respond just as well as ‘the lady of the stream’ to the delicate presentation and sensitive take detection afforded by my favourite 10ft 2-wt and 3-wt rods, fixed-line leader-only setups, and tungsten-beaded bugs presented on the finest tippets that conditions and fly weight allow. With bumper catches possible right from opening day, it’s all too easy for me to become fixated by such approaches. However, there are times when greater flexibility is called for in making the most of changing situations or a venue with certain fish-feeding peculiarities of its own.
Speculate To Accumulate
One such place is a largely unknown and very challenging river lying a short distance from my former home in the northeast Midlands. Seldom more than thigh deep, the narrow, gin-clear and largely sedate stretch on which I tend to concentrate appears made for the single-fly French nymphing technique, especially at the start of the season.
Given the mild winter we have had this year, don't be surprised to see early hatches of winged flies...
Given the right conditions, dry-fly fishing is equally productive at this time. The shallow water here can warm up a good deal earlier than on other, deeper rivers nearby, which stimulates a good deal of early aquatic plant growth and invertebrate activity. As a result, the river often enjoys decent hatches of that familiar early season upwing, the large dark olive, not to mention ‘hardy perennials’ like black gnats and midge. So if ever I’m in the mood for some good surface sport right from the off, this is one of the places to which I head.
... especially in the shallower runs and glides
Tackle For Twitchy Trout
One particular dry-fly session on this difficult but rewarding venue stands out in my memory. It started on a crisp April mid-morning around three years ago, under bright blue skies, minimal cloud cover and piercing sunlight, which, together with the river’s crystal-clear water and intermittent rises, foretold of wary fish and the great care that would be demanded in terms of equipment, fly patterns, watercraft and presentation.
With little opportunity to get close to trout, my 9ft #3 tip-flex rod would allow me to cover them at distances beyond the reach of a French or presentation leader, while still aiding delicate presentation. The latter would also be helped by a more gently tapering weight-forward line for tight loop formation, turnover of long, light-tippet leaders and minimal landing impact. The one I opted for sported a willowy-olive colour – a perfect compromise between visibility and minimisation of line flash.
I’m usually well outside my comfort zone with anything less than 12 feet of tapered leader when dry-fly fishing. Given the conditions, today would have been no exception, and I was thankful for the largely clear surroundings and lack of downstream breeze that rendered a necessarily longer leader both possible and comfortable. The one I used was formed by barrel knotting a 5ft tippet of 0.10mm copolymer to the 0.12mm point of a 9ft tapered leader.
I’ve been a convert to the drag-reducing benefits of long, level tippets for some time now (largely through Jeremy Lucas’ influence), and was confident that such a leader configuration could be more than adequately presented via my choice of rod and line. To further aid turnover I’d also removed the small welded loop at the tip of my fly line in favour of a needle knot line-to-leader connection, which is far more efficient in transferring energy (built up during false casting) from fly line to leader.
The raised, open banks on my side of the river entailed keeping a low profile while observing rise forms and choosing an appropriate fly pattern. There were one or two large dark olive duns on the water, but from my vantage point, it appeared as though the trout preferred more easily targeted emergers over fully hatched adults that could disappear in a second.
In such circumstances, an appropriately sized Parachute Adams or my own GPE (General-Purpose Emerger) usually finds its way onto my tippet. These are hardly the stuff of legends when it comes to creativity; however, I seldom find the need for anything more complex at this time of year and prefer (on the basis of experience) to prioritise presentation over close-copy imitation.
Bringing fish downstream to the net quickly in the shallow glides will avoid spooking the other rising fish upstream.
Recent work by Paul Procter, Dave Southall and others has questioned the need for regular degreasing of dry-fly tippets on running water and instead argues for the greater benefits of slack-line casts and tippet collapse in aiding natural, drag-free drifts. I don’t doubt for one second that their experiences and expertise more than bear this out; however, I’m at my most confident when using all available ways of minimising poor presentation – especially on this hard taskmistress of a river.
Thus, before sliding carefully down the bank into the gin-clear water below, I went through my usual leader-preparation drills. First up was greasing everything to within three feet of the fly, to ensure clean, smooth pick-up when rolling or lifting off into the next cast (or striking into a fish). I then used sinkant paste to degrease the remainder of the tippet, which would prevent it silhouetting on the calm, oily surface like a scratch on a mirror.
Whatever technique I’m employing, I always try to get as close to rising fish or likely looking areas as possible, so as not to jeopardise presentation and line control with longer than necessary casts. In this respect, the gravelly riverbed offered comfortable, secure wading, which very much supported the ‘gently, Bentley’ approach that would make all the difference between success and failure that day. Even with the slowest and subtlest of leg movements, I could do little to prevent expanding ripples from arcing upstream towards rising trout; however, the tail of a narrow, foam-flecked run afforded a measure of cover from which to make my first casts.
Smooth acceleration to crisp stops over a narrow casting arc served to load the rod and turn over the long leader with minimal fly line beyond the tip. After three failed attempts, I managed to drop the size 16 GPE just above the nearest rising fish, and up it came. Afraid that his splashy acrobatics would spook other trout in the run, I quickly steered this plump, vividly-spotted 10-incher downstream and into the net for a quick photo, before releasing him back into the cold, clear water.
Parachute Adams Variant
Hook: Orvis Classic Extra-Fine Dry-Fly, sizes 14 to 20
Thread: Semperfli Nanosilk (grey)
Tail: Mixture of Grizzle and Rhode Island Red cock hackle fibres
Abdomen & Thorax: Hare's Ear or Wapsi Superfine dubbing (Grey)
Wingpost: Orvis Poly Pro Yarn (White)
Hackle: Grizzle and Rhode-Island Red cock hackles, wound together
GPE (General Purpose Emerger)
Hook: Kamasan B100/B100 Gold, sizes 14 or 16
Thread: Semperfli Nano Silk, olive
Abdomen: Stripped Peacock quill, dyed olive; varnished for protection
Wing: Two natural CDC plumes, backward-sloping
Thorax: Olive-dyed Hare's ear
Legs: Dark dun cock handle, clipped
Something A Little Bigger…
With large dark olives continuing to trickle off, and the run rested briefly, the antics of this first fish wouldn’t prevent more of a similar size from following in reasonably quick succession – providing, of course, that I’d dried the fly with floatant dust and retreated the leader. Then, while distracted by a busy water vole some little distance upstream, I almost missed the slow, unhurried swirl that engulfed the GPE in the shade of a left-bank reed clump.
Clearly no 10-incher, the trout bolted off upstream as I struck, accompanied by all the line I’d retrieved (at the same speed as the current) to keep in touch with the fly as it drifted back downstream. More line followed by a singing reel, before the fish paused, hung in the placid current and shook its head a couple of times – always the sign of a bigger brownie. Then it was off across the river, intent on burying itself under the bank.
A big tail and long, golden-olive flank slapped angrily on the surface before the hooped-over rod tip sprang backwards and the barbless GPE dropped sadly down to the surface. “At least you know they’re here,” I said to myself, in a not-entirely-successful bid to assuage my guilt at losing what was clearly a very special trout for this river.
Onwards And Upwards
It soon became obvious that the escapee had put his smaller cousins to flight, so I crept slowly upstream to the tail of a wider, slower and even shallower run, where I’d observed several fish rising consistently while tackling up. They were still there, and in good numbers too, but longer casting and even greater care with presentation were necessary here.
At times I was my own worst enemy in this respect. Whether mulling over my lost ‘monster’, engrossed in watching the fly or distracted by my new friend the water vole, I wasn’t always quick enough in retrieving line to maintain drag-free contact with the GPE. This caused a loop of line to pass behind the rod tip, creating a ‘pulley wheel’ effect that zipped the fly downstream in a pronounced V-wake – clearly very offputting to the trout. Also, if takes from less-discerning fish had come at that point, I’d have needed to lift the whole loop off the surface before driving the hook point home – by which time they’d likely be long gone.
A bit more self-discipline was necessary to bring several more pretty wild brownies to the net, including a fine, olive-hued and large-spotted 13-incher. Given their preference for helpless emergers, takes weren’t exactly hurried, and the number of rising trout here made it all-too-tempting to recast immediately if the GPE passed over one without disappearing. This would, however, have caused much disturbance, so I waited until the fly, leader and fly line were well downstream, raising the rod tip all the while to create a D-loop, before gently rolling the line high off the water and accelerating into the back cast.
Given current weather conditions, this day on one of my all-time favourite early season rivers seems like a long time ago. To judge from the cold, wet and windy scene outside, not to mention the welcome fire crackling in the hearth, it’ll be a little while yet before the large dark olives start to appear in sufficient numbers to warrant resting my nymphing rods and heavy bugs.
When they do, however, I might well celebrate with a trip back to the Midlands, armed with a light-line dry-fly outfit and a box of appropriate imitations – plus a reassuring tub of leader sinkant or two!
For all the satisfaction I get from leader-only, European-style nymphing tactics, I must admit to missing the sight of a fly line and leader unrolling over a rising river brown trout. It should at least make for a nice break from the norm, and hopefully, Mr Vole will be there too – I do miss his company!
Don't rule out the dries this spring...
... the rewards are well worth it!
(Photography by Will Burn)
Name: Clark Colman
Tel: 07752 268073
Clark Colman is the Fly Fishing Specialist at Orvis UK’s Harrogate store. He also runs EDIP Fly Fishing – a popular guiding service operating nationwide.