Wednesday, 25 January 2017 12:05

How To Read Running Water: IT’S MAGIC!

Clark Colman targets ‘magic lies’ on a small, feature-packed urban tributary in the hope of a back-end personal best.


I’ve been trying for a 2lb-plus wild brownie from this little river ever since I discovered it some five years ago. I thought I’d cracked it in 2012, after being led a merry dance by what turned out to be a very nice, but ultimately slightly smaller than expected specimen that seized my nymph in the neck of a pool overshadowed by overhanging tree branches. Things also looked promising a year later, when something rather out of the ordinary took hold while I was demonstrating for a guiding client. However, despite a lengthy and remarkably trout-like scrap along the wall-lined, undercut and rocky bank from which the fish had come, it was a broad-backed, huge-finned, gunmetal-grey male grayling that finally broke the surface.



Narrowing The Odds


It’s not entirely surprising that I’ve struggled to break the 2lb barrier here. For all its urban surroundings, tight confines and varied, man-made riverbed detritus, this is a remarkably clean system that holds impressive numbers of fish. However, I’m not convinced that the available food it offers goes far enough to permit real growth in anything more than a small number of bigger residents. As a result, finding such trout can be something of a war of attrition, particularly if conditions on the day aren’t right. In my experience, the odds of landing a really sizeable wild brownie (particularly on venues like this) are best narrowed by timing your visit appropriately and being a little more savvy where reading the water is concerned. A little touch of ‘magic’ also helps. 

While inevitably tinged with sadness as another season draws to a close, September also carries with it the promise of bigger than average fish that might, just might, be more readily catchable than in previous months. Having survived another year in competitive running-water environments, such quarry will (like their smaller cousins) now be looking to feed as much and as efficiently as possible to see them through the forthcoming rigours of spawning and another cold, lean winter.

As ever, it’s important that trout receive more energy from aquatic and terrestrial morsels than is used up in getting them, and that they also continue to have a care for their other basic needs: oxygen, temperature-stable water, shelter from fast currents and bright sunlight, and protection from predators. Welcome assistance in these respects is rendered by the cooler and generally more hospitable conditions that tend to follow the dog days of August. With water and oxygen levels rising as a result of early autumnal rainfall, and a host of nourishing grub still there for the taking, September fish are now tempted to leave their high-summer hidey-holes and venture forth more readily at meal times – particularly when (as was the case when this feature was shot) periods of higher and more-coloured water embolden trout more and place more dislodged food items at their mercy.

That said, the territoriality with which bigger residents monopolise the most productive parts of a river or stream still often remains. As with any other time of year, therefore, it’s a wise move to seek out specimen wild brownies in areas where as many of their requirements as possible are met in one place – just like the areas where, prior to this feature, my biggest fish from the venue in question had come from.



Magic Lies


In his excellent film ‘The Anatomy Of A Trout Stream’, the well-known American entomologist and flyfisher Rick Hafele refers to these locations as ‘magic lies’. This term has stuck with me since childhood and I love the sense of anticipation and excitement that it conveys. The very appearance of such lies often reinforces this, as many look decidedly ‘mysterious’ and are awkward to cover with a conventional roll, overhead or sidearm cast. Think overhanging trees, bridge stanchions, walls, undercut banks, submerged weed beds, tree trunks or roots (not to mention the host of shelter and protection-providing man-made items that can turn up in our urban trout waters) and you start to get the idea. If there’s a reasonable amount of depth there also, together with an oxygen and food-providing current line or two (such as in the neck of a run or pool), then so much the better.

How To Read Running Water P6
Magic lies aren't alays the easiest places to access! Expect dense vegetation...


How To Read Running Water P6 2
... and extreme wading conditions ...


How To Read Running Water P6 3
... and when finally there, tricky casting scenarios!


The awkwardness of some ‘magic lies’, together with the fact that they often cater for most (and in some cases, all) of a trout’s basic needs, is what makes them so attractive. It’s hardly odd, then, that such areas have long become synonymous with stories of the biggest, oldest and wisest of running-water fish. We’ve all read or heard of trophy trout grown fat on a diet of bigger morsels as well as more run-of-the-mill food items, and which have lived to a great age by taking up residence in attractive but practically inaccessible areas, and by using their wits to avoid capture by scaly, furry, feathered or wader-clad predators. The next time you come across such a tale, pay close attention to its watery setting. I’ll wager you could describe it as a stereotypical ‘magic lie’.



Tiddlers First?


There are one or two caveats to all of this, however. In the first place, not all ‘magic lies’ are as readily identifiable as those around which so many legends (and realities) have gathered. In theory, you could pick out many more commonplace parts of standard riffles, runs, pools and glides (such as necks, current seams, pockets and drop-offs), and term them ‘magic lies’ simply because they’re the most likely fish-holding areas in front of you at that time. Such locations may well need a little more in the way of observation and understanding of running-water anatomy to identify and make the most of them – which is where I hope the previous articles in this series have come in handy.

How To Read Running Water P6 4
Unmanged urban rivers are capable of holiding some quality fish despite the surroundings.


What’s more, there’s no guarantee that ‘magic lies’ will always hold the grandaddy of the river or stream. Such lies are just as attractive to smaller fish as the bigger ones that can bully them out, prey on them; or which, over time, have become more substantial after managing to hold on to such prime territory since their youth. So don’t be surprised if the monster you’ve been expecting isn’t among the first few trout to show themselves – especially if, like the little urban river featured here, the density of fish prevents the available food from being enough to create and sustain decent numbers of bigger residents.

Finally, for all the attractiveness of ‘magic lies’, bear in mind that there are certain times when you might not find a trout there at all. Changing weather, water and feeding conditions throughout the season can sometimes cause fish to behave in ways other than how you might expect them to. The very pleasing River Ellen brownie that I wrote about last month would have fitted in perfectly as a mugger of small fish and other bigger morsels from the security of a ‘magic lie’. However, there he was, happily sipping in a procession of tiny emerging midges from the middle of a shallow, clear and sedate glide. Why? Simply because he could take in enough of them to satisfy his appetite, with no real threat to his comfort and safety. In contrast, grabbing hold of something bigger and potentially more animate to eat might well have been more of an effort in those hot, low-water and oxygen-depleted conditions – even when operating from a more covert ‘deliberate ambush’ station. 


Think Like Robin Hood


More accessible ‘magic lies’ can be effectively targeted with the equipment, fly patterns and presentations appropriate for the situation and fish feeding behaviour. The more difficult ones ask a little more from flyfishers, particularly in terms of casting and line control. Having such ‘get out of jail’ options as the bow-and-arrow or catapult cast in your armoury can be worth its weight in gold. Whenever I think of this or go through it with a client, I always revisit the example of Don Howat – a lovely, good-humoured ex-RAF ground crew technician for whom I had the pleasure to guide some three years ago through Bill Howell’s excellent Fishing for Forces organisation.

How To Read Running Water P6 5
It's not just natural features to look out for. Bridges are often places where those special fish lie.


The first ‘magic lie’ that Don confronted that day was a pool with a surface not much bigger than that of an average-sized dinner table, and a depth of little more than two or three feet. The only refuge of any size in an otherwise-shallow, fast-flowing and inhospitable area, the shelter it offers is enhanced by a short current tongue entering at its neck, and by the lower tendrils of large, awkwardly hanging tree branches that almost render it unfishable – but which also provide shade, protection from avian predators and a source of terrestrial food.

It’s difficult to pick out this little ‘cistern’ from the raised bank above, while down below many anglers choose to wade past it in favour of the weir pool a short distance upstream. I knew from past experience, however, that it usually holds a bigger than average fish or two, and thought it might make a nice challenge for Don – who had by now gotten to grips with the short-range, fixed-line duo technique we’d been concentrating on. However, while soon appreciating why a cast or two here might well pay dividends (especially if his Balloon Caddis and Copperhead Hare’s Ear Nymph combo could be placed into the neck of the pool), he couldn’t see a way of getting the flies there without falling foul of the overhanging branches. He’d reckoned, however, without the bow-and-arrow cast!

After kneeling down carefully below the pool’s tail, Don began by adopting a ‘thumb on top’ grip with his rod hand, which provides stability and a means of directing the cast. With the nymph held between the thumb and forefinger of his line hand (hook point carefully exposed to prevent it being driven into these!), and the line below the reel clamped against the rod handle by the first two fingers of his other hand, Don then pointed the rod tip in the direction he wanted the line and flies to travel – in this case upstream towards the narrow ‘window’ between the bottom of the branches and the attractive pool neck. Slowly and steadily, he drew back the fixed length of line and leader to flex the rod tip upwards and back towards him. All Don had to do then was simply let go of the nymph, watch as his duo rig was catapulted forwards over the unloading rod tip, and be ready to keep in touch with the flies as they landed and drifted back towards him.

Newcomers to the bow-and-arrow cast often have to experiment with the angle at which the rod tip is held, and with the amount of ‘draw’ placed on the tip, before they get it right. Too little draw means not enough load, with the result that the line, leader and flies simply collapse in a heap well short of the target. Too much causes everything to straighten quickly before springing back towards the caster as the rod tip counterflexes backwards again. The tip might even smack the water if it’s held too low in the first place.

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The bow-and-arrow cast. Essential to fish those hard to reach areas.


After a couple of failed attempts, Don’s third-ever bow-and-arrow cast managed to slot his flies into the right-hand current seam. I’d warned him to be ready for on-the-drop takes in such relatively shallow water, and to Don’s credit he reacted perfectly as the Balloon Caddis almost immediately took a dive upstream, signalling a take to the Copperhead Hare’s Ear beneath it. A flick of his wrist brought a speckled, paddle-finned and rocket-fuelled bar of gold cartwheeling out of the pool neck and charging back downstream towards the faster water below this ‘magic lie’. With Don applying as much pressure as he dared against the 21/2lb tippet, I managed to net the fish before it could get too far. When I eventually held up the 1lb-plus wild brownie I was treated to a sight I’ll never forget – a grown man kneeling in the river and absolutely roaring with laughter. Now that really was magic!


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Take extra care when running the 'grandaddy' of the river. These big browns are older fish and will take time to recover from the battle.


It’s Magic!


Size, of course, is relative. A two-pounder, for example, from a location in which there are a lot of two-pounders is nice enough in itself, if not exactly out of the ordinary. It would most certainly be a specimen, however, on venues where – for reasons such as those given above – the average size of fish is much lower. So persevere on such waters and you might just get lucky, as I did on my very last cast of the day in the neck of a pool that certainly qualified as a ‘magic lie’.

For the record, it was the reliable as ever Copperhead Partridge and Hare’s Ear Jig that did the trick, presented via the excellent, soon to be released 10ft, 3-wt Orvis Recon, a 40ft leader-only setup of 0.30mm monofilament with 20 centimetres of 0.25mm bicolour indicator mono, and four feet of 3lb fluorocarbon tippet attached to the indicator via a 1mm micro ring. It was just… now what was it Paul Daniels used to say?   



How To Read Running Water P6 8 

Hook: Orvis 1524 (Traditional Nymph Hook), sizes 14-16 (barb flattened) 

Bead: Copper tungsten, size to suit hook

Thread: Semperfli Nano Silk, 12/0, copper

Tail: Three or four cock pheasant centre-tail fibre tips

Body: Tying thread

Rib one: Red wire, diameter to suit hook size

Rib two: Bronze peacock herl, wound in opposite direction to wire (tying thread visible beneath both ribs)

Thorax: Dark hare's ear, natural  



How To Read Running Water P6 9

Hook: Tiemco TMC 2457, sizes 10-16 (barb flattened)

Bead: Copper tungsten, size to suit hook

Thread: Semperfli Nano Silk, 12/0, copper or olive

Tail: Cree hackle point

Body and thorax: Dark hare's ear, natural or dyed olive

Rib: Copper wire, diameter to suit hook size



How To Read Running Water P6 10 

Hook: Partridge Patriot Barbless Jig, sizes 10-18

Bead: Copper tungsten (slotted), size to suit hook

Thread: Semperfli Nano Silk, 12/0, copper or olive

Body: Dark hare's ear, natural

Rib: Copper wire, diameter to suit hook size

Legs: Brown speckled partridge

Collar (optional): Tying thread



How To Read Running Water P6 11

Hook: Tiemco TMC 103BL, sizes 13-19

Thread: Semperfli Nano Silk, 12/0, grey

Tail: Grey/tan polypropylene yarn

Body: Fine grey/tan dubbing

Underwing: As for tail

Overwing: Yearling elk hair

Thorax: Hare's ear

TFF 770 x 210 subs ban

TFF 770 x 210 subs ban

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