THE winter months bring depression to many as they wallow in their Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) but, for the hardy flyfisher, this is a time to relish. The late-season temperature drop results in oxygen rich water and these conditions lead to happy, hungry trout; cue bending rods! But rather than being filled with jubilation at the prospect of this cold weather action, I have come across many winter anglers (in fact throughout the season) who seem just as miserable as those affected by the lack of sunlight. These anglers often return to the lodge within an hour of completing their permit moaning at the fishery manager that they have caught all their fish and now they have to go home! There is no pleasing some people!
Further enquiry into their astonishing accomplishment usually meets with an account of how a Cat’s Whisker or similar gaudy lure was thrown as far as possible across the lake and then ripped back at high speed. Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing erroneous about pulling lures, in fact I love a session when the fish barrow after the fly and then nail it. But, as with all things, there is a time and a place. Small water stock fish tend to be fairly unaware of what constitutes natural and unnatural food, having spent much of their lives charging after pellets twice a day and so, once introduced to the fishery,
their natural reaction is to treat a high-speed lure without any caution. This means that, unless you intend to be searching for something else to do for the rest of the day, you will need to slow your catch rate down. It seems a crazy notion to pace ourselves during a session at the water’s edge but, let’s face it, where is the fun in reaching your limit after half an hour?
Arriving for a day at North Devon’s well-established Blakewell Fishery I am greeted by John and Richard Nickel who expertly manage this gem of a venue. They seem very confident that I could expect some brisk sport as the lake is well stocked and advise that lures will probably catch best of all. After thanking the guys for their assistance I set about tackling up and, while doing so, I’m soon able to spot several fish cruising just a few feet below the surface. This is typical behaviour for newly-introduced fish who must feel they are in heaven, having been given several acres of water to explore after a lifetime spent in a relatively diminutive stew pond! As an experiment I throw a small lure out in front of one of the fish and within seconds a shoal of three are following it! Rather than maintaining the retrieve I stop and the fish backs off allowing me to recover the fly before it is taken. It’s time to peruse the fly box and find something a little more subtle.
Over the years my fly collection has grown into a mass of variations, but recently I have started to fall back on that old faithful, the Hare’s Ear. This ancient pattern is relied upon worldwide and can be altered to suit many and varying conditions. It is also a fantastic 'hedged-bet' fly that can be used to imitate all manner of food items. Stock fish will take the Hare’s Ear of course, but this imitative artificial will also lure resident small stillwater specimens who, after a run in or two with a sharp hook, now possess a little more caution when it comes to enjoying a meal. Deciding on a goldhead version with a pearl rib, I set about modifying my leader ready for some laid-back nymphing.
There are all manner of leader configurations available to us but, when small water fishing with nymphs, you can keep it simple. While there is some uncertainty on a large reservoir whether or not your fly is being seen by many fish, during a small water session you can virtually guarantee that most casts are being eyed up. For this reason I rarely see the need to fish multiple flies when casting a nymph although, on tougher days, I may add in a small lure as a general attractor. This can be achieved by splicing a dropper into the leader using a water knot although, if I am feeling really lazy, I will simply construct a 10-foot leader, tie on my mini lure and then blood knot a further one foot section of leader directly on to the hook bend of the lure. To this section I then tie on my Hare’s Ear or similar nymph and find that the results can be mind blowing. For the moment, though, I am happy to sit back and watch the day go by as my singular Goldhead Hare’s Ear bumbles its way through Blakewell. Feeling very content I reckon it is a good half-an-hour before the first take materialises and I am in such a comatose state that I completely miss it!
Relying on a very slow figure-of-eight retrieve I had barely been moving the fly and, if I had been paying attention to the line, I wouldn’t have missed the fish. After all, if you feel the line pull at your hand, it had to have moved! Spot that movement and a firm lift will result in a hook up. Despite my bad angling I am not unhappy to have been beaten on this occasion. It is, after all, the sudden adrenalin rush of the take that I crave and so, already, I had been successful in my mind. Even so, the surging run of a trout is also welcome and so, now that the fish had my attention, I begin to concentrate. Casting the Hare’s Ear out once more my thoughts fall upon the weight of the pattern that I am using as it incorporates a goldbead. Coupled to my long leader and fished using a very slow two-finger figure-of-eight, the fly would have been deep and virtually static, even though I was using a floating fly line. Sure enough, I had enjoyed a take but I felt the fly was actually below most of the fish. Based on my previous observations of fish high in the water, I therefore choose to tie on a new un-weighted Hare’s Ear and up my retrieve speed to four fingers. Remember to always experiment with your retrieve; it is often the key to success.
My changes result in a positive outcome as a tidy Blakewell two-pounder makes its way to the net a while later, after a cast presented close to a weed bed. Examination of the stomach contents using a marrow spoon reveal that this fish had been feeding naturally on hoglouse, which the trout often turn to during the winter months if their favoured buzzer pupae are in short supply. The drab outline of my Hare’s Ear had obviously been mistaken for a hoglouse by my first fish of the day and I feel a sense of achievement that it had succumbed to an imitative approach. A lure may well have done far more damage in that initial hour or so but I am having much more fun taking the day steadily and potentially have another four fish to enjoy out of my five-fish limit. For those who enjoy filling their freezer, Blakewell even offer a 10-fish limit for the knock-down price of £50, amazing value and another means of prolonging a day at this picturesque stillwater.
With a fish in the bag I make another fly change, again going for a Hare’s Ear-based pattern but incorporating a strip of holographic tinsel along the flank and a bright floss head. This may seem like madness when a successful pattern has been found, but if there are plenty of fish to be enjoyed then use the time wisely and experiment with a few flies in your box that might not otherwise see the time of day. This willingness to try a variety of patterns and tactics builds overall confidence levels, which are crucial to success.
The alternative fly makes several journeys across the water and back again without incident; meanwhile I can see other anglers using lures bending into fish frequently. They seem happy enjoying their sport and that’s all that matters. My choice on the day was to go down the imitative route and, although this meant I had to work for my fish, I too enjoyed myself, especially when a top-quality Blakewell trout of 3lb snaffled the Hare’s Ear variant and shot off across the lake!
Steadily I continued to add to my bag throughout the day, but could not resist the opportunity to take a fish using pulled tactics to finish my session. Tying up the lazy angler’s dropper rig with a Straggle Cat followed by a Goldhead Hare’s Ear, I have another hour of fun throwing the patterns at fish spotted through my Polaroids. On many occasions fish charge down the fly, often creating a bow wave in the process but I pull the fly away at the very last moment, leaving a confused trout wondering where their potential lunch had gone! This is a seriously exciting practice and, not only is it fun, but also educational. Mess about with the retrieve and watch both the fly in action and how the fish react to it. This is invaluable information that can be used to visualise what’s going on below the surface when fishing blind. My final successful presentation of the day results in another fit Blakewell resident charging after the lure in an excited state. It's downfall turns out to be the Hare’s Ear – a great example of how flies can work together as a team to produce the desired result.
I enjoyed a proper day's fishing but remember that small stillwaters don’t always give up their fish easily and it is not wise to try experimenting when conditions are really tough. Instead stick with tried and tested methods in these circumstances and remember that when the fish have had their fill of lures, a slowly-fished standard Hare’s Ear on a long leader is hard to beat!
Tackle used and why
Rod: 9ft 6in 7wt middle-to-tip action, which allows for very comfortable, relaxing casting. I enjoy using the heavier line for long casts, but many stillwaters can be approached with 6wt or even 5wt rods. If you are allowed to catch and release on your chosen venue, ensure your tackle is up to playing the fish hard and fast.
Reel: Disc drags are worthwhile if you like to play fish on the reel. John and Richard had been cutting back the bankside vegetation prior to my trip and were in the process of removing it. By playing most of my fish off the reel I was able to ensure my line did not get caught up in any stray foliage.
Fly Line: A two-tone floating line in weight forward seven (WF7). An easy line to cast and I like the two-tone design for both casting and effectively spotting takes.
Leaders: Tapered leaders are a must and especially when there is little or no wind. Imitative tactics call for the very best presentation and a tapered leader will provide excellent turnover with a practiced casting technique. The water was very clear and this required the use of fluorocarbon, a leader material that reflects less light than copolymer for example. When fishing exceptionally clear water, drop down to 4lb because, when fishing slowly, the trout will have plenty of time to inspect your fly.
Net: I choose to carry a net with a long handle for trouble-free landing of fish while using long leaders.
Headgear & Eyewear:Important safety items. During my session at Blakewell the light levels were low so I went for a polarised lens with a yellow tint.
Flies: Lures stripped quickly through small stillwater stock fish often catch rapidly. Fishing with imitative flies such as Hare's Ears, Pheasant Tail Nymphs and Diawl Bachs may not interest the stock fish so much and could pick out the better resident specimens.