The rewards for careful, accurate and persevering anglers can be considerable when fishing glides, as Clark Colman demonstrates.
While I might not be able to tell you where I’ve left my car keys, or where that piece of paper with an important telephone number on it has ended up, I can recall many fishing sessions from years ago as if they happened only yesterday. Over a decade has passed since the one featured in this article, but the combination of tough conditions, the end result and framed photograph in my study that commemorates it will, I suspect, always keep this particular day fresh in my mind. What’s more, the key part of it took place on a glide. Time for another trip down memory lane, I think…
The Dog Days
With my doctorate secured and a place on a secondary school teaching course awaiting me come autumn, 2006 was a very happy year for me. After eight busy years at university I’d finally said goodbye to the Midlands and returned home to northwest Cumbria, where I spent my time earning a few extra pennies by working for a local bookmaker, catching up with family and friends, serving as vice-chairman of my local Aspatria Angling Club, and putting in more time on the water than I’d been able to for a long time.
As flyfishers we often talk about the ‘dog days’ of August, when temperatures are high, water and oxygen levels low, and the trout lethargic for much of the time. I’ve fished through many Augusts like this; however, I can’t remember one that fitted the dog-day description quite as neatly as that of 2006. Nevertheless, I was determined to make the most of those blissful few months before I became a student once again, and could frequently be found creeping up the River Ellen at all times of the day, even when – as was often the case that summer – the afternoon sun beat down from a cloudless sky onto a river that was already down to its bones. Still, the inimitable Noel Coward once sang that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Mad English flyfishers too, if my activities were anything to go by.
A typical glide brownie. The quality of fish from this section of a river tends to be pretty good!
In conditions like this (and others besides), glides aren’t often the first choice of location for running-water fly anglers. Slow, fairly shallow and generally uniform in depth, they don’t carry a huge amount of oxygen at the best of times and are certainly (along with riffles) the quickest to admit light and warm up to uncomfortable levels. Glides can also be the widest part of a river or stream, and in clear water environments with a smooth, relatively unbroken surface, a water column of (usually) little more than three or four feet, and a lack of overhead protection, they become an avian or underwater predator’s dream.
The slow, steady pace of a glide is the ideal part of the river to fish dries. These patterns will be small and presentation needs to be perfect
Anglers, meanwhile, can easily disturb a glide and the trout therein, even with the most careful of wading, while the slow current pace gives fish every opportunity to inspect food items before deciding whether or not to take them. More so than any other component of a river or stream’s anatomy, it is the glide that, arguably, demands the most of us in terms of fly selection, watercraft and longer, more accurate casting.
Mad Dogs And Englishmen…
While the heron climbing steadily skywards in the distance may have had other ideas, I certainly wasn’t intending to spend much time on glides as I tackled up towards the downstream limit of our club’s water on the Ellen that afternoon. Based on previous visits over the last few days, I was confident of finding a fish or two in the faster-flowing, better oxygenated and more temperature-stable riffles and runs hereabouts, or skulking in the shaded depths of pools. Expectations of landing wild brownies hand over fist were far from running high. However, this was intended as little more than a pleasant two or three-hour stop off on the way to the pub.
Given her importance for the latter part of this story, I should now probably introduce you to my mother, Noreen. A hard-working, kind-hearted soul, for whom nothing is ever too much trouble, she has borne the many trials and tribulations inflicted by her eldest son over the years with a mother’s love and the patience of Job. Two of her many other attributes are that she makes blackberry jam to die for and has a keen eye for a photograph – which is why she, a plastic bag or two and her trusty little Kodak EasyShare camera were also out along the river that day.
A careful heron-like approach from downstream is essential to avoid spooking any rising fish
After munching on a blackberry or two, I left Mam ferreting among the hedgerows on the other side of the road and dropped down to the river. Its temperature in the pool under the cattle bridge was akin to tepid bathwater, and only in the fast neck of the first run, I came to did a fish reveal itself. A splashy, vividly spotted seven-incher pounced on my little Griffith’s Gnat and complained about it all the way to my wetted hand, while still having sufficient energy left (owing to the fact that I’d played him quickly in the uncomfortably warm water) to dart away contemptuously as I twitched the barbless hook from his right mandible. A sign of things to come? Well not quite…
Over an hour later, I’d become more or less convinced that he was to be the only trout of the day. No more fish had risen to the dry fly, combining all the likely looking areas with nymphs and streamers had proved fruitless, the temperature was rising even further and the image of a cool pint of Jennings’ Dark Mild in the nearby Horse And Jockey (now, alas, no more) was rapidly taking the place of lethargic, uncooperative August trout in my mind. In the distance, I could just make out the two bulging bags carried by my mother as she made her way upstream to join me for a minute or two.
“I’d have been better off harvesting blackberries,” I grumbled to a passing cow as she made her way down to the river for a cooling drink.
Phoenix from the Flames
If memory serves, I was winding in my fly line (for what was intended to be the last time that afternoon) when I spotted the rise. It came some little distance upstream, about halfway along and slightly to the left of centre on a high-banked and partially tree-lined glide. Owing to its tight confines and easy-to-disturb water – plus the rather tricky wade around a deep pool that’s necessary to reach it – this spot doesn’t attract many River Ellen flyfishers. One reason perhaps (together with a measure of shade and overhead protection) why the riser was there in the first place.
Thinking about it, and despite the mentioned problems and challenges inherent in glides, there were other reasons why trout – however temporarily – might choose to station themselves in areas like this. Easy light penetration and quickly rising temperature levels are useful, up to a point, in that they stimulate weed growth, photosynthesis and invertebrate life – which often thrives on the generally flatter, stonier bottom of glides. The much slower current pace here is also attractive to fish (both small and large) in terms of energy conservation, through the ability to intercept food items without putting in too much effort.
Often the widest and slowest moving parts of the river gildes will be of a uniform depth, so features such as overhanging trees are likely fish-holding areas.
While the threat from both overhead and underwater predation is always high in glides, those that offer at least some cover and shade – such as this one – can make fish feel at least a little more at ease. As I crept slowly upstream along the right-hand bank, gradually narrowing the distance between the still-rising trout and myself, it became even more obvious that here was a fellow who wasn’t in too much of a hurry to feed. The chances were, however, that once he’d taken his fill of emerging midges, he’d soon be off in search of better oxygenated, more temperature-stable and securer water. Moving into any glide is always something of a compromise for a trout – especially a larger, more visible one – and it’s a pretty safe bet that such compromises are often driven by attractive feeding opportunities that are worth taking risks for.
In the calm water of glides, rise forms can sometimes be deceptive in giving the impression that the rising fish is bigger than it really is. This one, however, had all the hallmarks of a sizeable trout – which, for the River Ellen, is anything over 1lb. My fears that I would eventually spook him increased with every expanding ripple that travelled away from my wader-clad legs up the glide, and for an anxious few minutes, after I dared go no further, it looked as though I’d put him down for good. I had, however, managed to tuck myself into the cover afforded by a large patch of weed, and after waiting with bated breath for a little while, up he came again – and again.
A size 18 CDC Shuttlecock Emerger seemed like as good a bet as any for tempting him, and in the tight spot around me, I was glad of the shorter (8ft) rod that would be necessary to avoid getting caught up in the trees while casting more line than I’d normally use on running water. A 9ft leader tapering to a 21/2lb point was the longest I could comfortably manage, and there’d be little forgiveness from the surroundings for tracking errors that caused the rod tip to do anything other than accelerate along a straight-line path directly above my head when casting and covering the fish.
In all honesty, it really did work first time – which was just as well, because to this day I’ve remained convinced that I’d only have been allowed one shot at this fish. Two or three false casts extended the fly line in the air, and stopping my hand in front of my nose on the back cast (a favoured technique of the late, great Jack Martin) helped greatly in achieving a climbing line that unrolled behind and above me. The 4-wt line was, for once, a little too pale for my liking. However, the trout evidently wasn’t spooked by line flash and calmly head and tailed over the emerger within seconds of it touching down some 30 feet or so from where I stood.
Thankfully, the delicate, degreased leader point (necessary in view of the small fly, but rather worrying in view of the fish, the overhanging trees to my right and bankside snags all around) held against the rushes, lunges and headshakes of what immediately felt like a big and rather angry brown trout. I was determined to have him in the net as quickly as possible, so as to help him recover quickly in the tepid water. However, it was only after steering the fish away from some submerged tree roots for the third time that I could reasonably hurry him in.
Thankfully, my mother had managed to get close enough for a photograph, after which I cradled the butter-gold beauty – which we estimated at a little under 3lb – until he recovered his breath sufficiently to slip away. To this day I’ve never caught a bigger fish from the River Ellen – and I’m not sure I’d ever want to. The fact that this one came from a particularly challenging piece of water in far from ideal conditions, on a home-tied fly and after a cast that gave me more satisfaction than many others made before or since, is something I’d rather not have eclipsed in the future.
Whether big or small, don’t be put off by the challenge of glides. Yes, they can be difficult and frustrating to fish, and frequently require significant refinements to equipment, flies and techniques in making the most of them. Yet the rewards are often there for the taking – even on hot days such as the one recalled above. Noel Coward may have been right in singing that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun but as I made my way to the pub later that afternoon, one or two other words from the song appeared far more relevant: “Ha ha ha ha, hoo hoo hoo hoo, hee hee hee hee!”
A butter-gold beauty of nearby 3lb from the River Ellen