Wychwood’s Mike Low goes back to his roots as he returns to the River Calder to show us how to tackle small rivers…
Even at the age of 30, I remember the only opportunity as a teenager to see exotic fishing destinations was in books, magazines and sometimes TV. Not now, though; in an age of the internet and social media, we are constantly bombarded with videos and photographs of huge fish and all the excitement that these faraway destinations promise in the glossy ads and beautifully edited films.
Destination fishing, be it for trophy trout or big game on the fly, is a growing market, but why? Sometimes we don’t realise what we have in front of us and this is more often than not true with fishing.
Each year masses of English anglers retreat to Wales, Scotland and Ireland, while Scottish anglers head to the other countries in the UK, and so on. But why is that? Why are we obsessed with searching out what we think will be the next best thing?
A number of years ago I was salmon fishing in Scotland and met an angler who was one of the party. It turns out this guy owned a farm on the banks of a very well known Midlands reservoir – I thought to myself: “Wow, what a lucky man!”
“Do you fish it much?” I asked him, and what he said next flabbergasted me: “Nope, never.”
I couldn’t quite believe it, but in hindsight, I have been guilty of that very same mentality.
Back To My Roots
The charm and character of the River Calder. Among the urban debris is an oasis of trout-holding lies!
We seem to be constantly seeking that next big thing, that bigger fish, more fish, better scenery and want everything to be bigger and better than the last time. By my own admission I am like this too, a thrill seeker if you will, but sometimes we need to stop and look at what is around us and, more importantly, what we have much nearer to home.
In my case, I have been fortunate enough to fish some amazing rivers across the world, but on a recent trip back to visit my parents just a few miles outside the centre of Glasgow I decide to have a cast on the river where I learnt to fish. This river isn’t grand, far from exclusive, doesn’t hold massive fish or large numbers but what it lacks in the aforementioned qualities it makes up for in charm and character.
Yeah, there are a few shopping trolleys to be seen and footballs bob along with the gentle flow, but what a place to fish and what a place to have on your doorstep. The truth is, most of us have a fishing oasis of some sort on our doorstep but just how many of us actually use it?
The Magical River
The Calder is a dream to fish for the modern-day flyfisher. It is full of pockets, holes, fast-flowing pools and slower glides. Granted it relies heavily on rainwater to ensure a healthy flow, but when it is on form it can provide some exceptional sport. The fish aren’t huge but trout of 2lb are not uncommon and stories of bigger ones getting away are told every year!
My learning curve on the River Calder was not with a fly rod but with fine line, small weights and a wriggly bait of either worm or maggot on the end. It is really interesting that the manner in which we fished these baits is essentially the same way in which we Czech and French nymph our flies nowadays. Making small casts, bouncing the bait behind rocks, through runs and into holes was always the best method with a spinning reel, and so today, many years on, I will be trying to fish my flies in that same way and through those same runs that I have done before, hopefully with success.
Long light rods are one option for small rivers because these allow you to high stick your nymphs!
The setup for this kind of river is extremely simple. There are two options: either a long, light nymphing rod or a short 6 or 7ft rod. These will fundamentally fish the flies in the same way but the only difference is one will be cast and the other ‘high sticked’. Now the chances are that simply by reading this article you are aware of what high sticking and ‘euro-style nymphing’ is, but if you are completely new to river fishing and want to tackle your local river in a more ‘conventional’ manner then it is very simple to do.
A short, lightweight rod can be set up and very effectively fish nymphs in all sorts of water. The presentation and bite detection is inferior to the euro nymph setup but the flexibility and ease of fishing with a short rod and short leader is fantastic for the beginner.
As mentioned, for these small rivers it is best to fish a small rod, something along the lines of 6six or seven feet is ample and the leader should be around the same length. With rods of this size, you can expect to marry them up with a 3wt line and there is no better for this style of fishing than the Feather Down floater.
With a matching rod, reel and balanced line setup we can look at the business end, and there are a couple of options here for nymph fishing. Of course, if you are fortunate enough to have a hatch of flies on the river and the fish are rising then this setup can easily be adjusted to fishing dry fly, and the small size of the rod lends itself nicely to casting under trees and getting in all of those awkward places that fish tend to lie!
The nymph leader setup could not be any simpler for approaching a small river like this. Either a small nymph under a dry fly or two nymphs fished on a leader approximately the length of your rod, with the flies spaced equally apart. Both approaches can both be fished from the same leader setup, ie six to seven feet for leader, and dropper tied at three feet. Now I know you maybe think that this seems short and not exactly stealthy, but if fished correctly and with the help of a delicate fly line it is more than capable of catching fish.
As mentioned, the River Calder is made up of varying types of water and with each move upstream you will constantly fish the new and varied water. The leader setup lends itself well to this type of river, as with a quick change of one fly you can fish fast anything from pocket water to slower glides.
How To Approach Small Rivers
Deep Holes And Pocket Water
Depending on just how deep the water is and whether it is pushing through or not, I would say that the double nymph is usually the best approach for these small holes.
There are two approaches to fishing this water:
Firstly, fish the flies on a short line, holding the tip of the line lightly off the water, or secondly, put a small cast up to the head of the flow and let your flies flow back. With both methods keeping firm contact with the line and taking up slack is so important.
‘Streamy’ water can be classed as the ‘nice’ flow that comes into a pool or the streamy water that flows along a river from one pool to the next. The latter is what I have seen more anglers than I care to remember walk past, or even worse wade through without actually fishing it.
This steady flowing water is more often than not home to lots of fish as they like the medium current. It’s usually a good feeding station and invariably the fish have somewhere to move should they encounter a predator.
There are two approaches for this water, and these are determined purely by the depth of the streamy water you are fishing. If you feel it is shallow or of only medium-paced flow then the nymph under the dry is always the best approach. It offers so much versatility and in this type of water fish often look up for their food, so bonus fish on the dry are highly likely.
When casting and approaching this water it pays to try and cover the water methodically. Look for large stones, bulges under the water’s surface or anything that would suggest a feature, as more than likely fish will sit behind or around them so try and fish your way around these holding areas.
If you think the water is deeper or a little too fast flowing for the duo then the double nymph approach can be adopted. Again, like the duo, fish this type of water methodically. Make small casts upstream and either take up slack or lift the rod to assist in doing so. Also, don’t be afraid to cast across and swing the nymphs round – on its day this can be absolutely deadly, but the most important thing is to experiment.
Slow glides and deeper slow pools are usually the most difficult types of water to catch fish from. The fish often feed on the surface and with the slow-moving current have plenty of time to inspect the offering which you are putting out to them. It is best to approach these pools with a dry fly if fish are feeding or the duo if nothing is to be seen on top.
Tips For Tackling Small Rivers
Keep On Moving
For a new river angler this is probably the most valuable bit of information you can be told: don’t stay in one spot for too long. In fact, don’t stay in the same spot at all, keep on moving.
There are exceptions to this rule if you are casting to fishing fish, stalking a big fish or you have located a shoal of grayling, but your instinct would tell you not to move!
But seriously, try to be constantly on the move; if it’s not happening in these small pools then move. Usually within five or six casts you have either caught the one or two fish that live in that pool, spooked any fish that were there or covered all the hotspots you need to and the fish aren’t playing – move on!
Change Flies – Often
The Calder offers a mix of habitats from slow smooth glides to fast streamy water
The very nature of the River Calder and many like it means that from one small pool or run to the next you are met with completely different water. This could be made up of five metres of streamy water or a pool with two big holes and then a slow glide.
Change your flies on a regular basis, focusing on the weight and sixe of your flu for the water you are fishing
Basically, for each little part of the river you need to consider the fly choice and more specifically the weight and size. As a rule of thumb the deeper and faster the run, the heavier the fly.
Blend in with your surroundings. You areafter wild, educated fish!
It is important on small rivers to keep yourself low, well hidden, and move carefully from one pool to the next. Try to use what is around to hide yourself from these wily fish. You will, with time and knowledge of the river, begin to learn where these fish are most likely to lie and this positioning yourself is easier as you approach each pool, but when learning I would say stay as stealthy and hidden as possible.