Nick Halstead braves blustery conditions high up on the Lancashire moors to demonstrate some neat tricks to maximise your chances when the wind is against you.
IF your flies aren’t in the water, they aren’t going to catch fish.” It’s an oft-quoted truism, but one that it’s all too easy to forget when the fishing is tough - or when conditions make casting and, perhaps more importantly, presentation difficult.
Many anglers waste too much time and energy casting, when they should be concentrating on the fishing. Getting your flies down to the right depth is far more important than casting an extra five yards just as keeping them in the feeding zone is far more important than ripping them back at 500mph.
These mistakes become even more pronounced when faced with a headwind or strong breeze blowing from right to left. If you’re not confident in your casting you’ll probably opt for the ‘easy’ bank where the wind is at your back, but if the fish are on the opposite bank, it’s going to be hard to catch them.
If you do decide to ‘tough it out’ with the wind in your face, it’s all too easy to become obsessed with casting the same distance you’d expect to reach on a flat calm day. The result? Lots of false casting, wind knots, tangled leaders and, pretty soon, a frustrated and demoralised angler who is more likely to pack up and head home than catch his limit.
Help is at hand however. There are a number of pretty simple tricks and techniques to get round the wind without becoming a tournament standard caster overnight!
Weather played a huge role in the proceedings on the first day of the brown trout season at Stocks Reservoir, which was dominated by very strong South Westerly winds gusting well in excess of 30 mph on occasion. The winds also brought that great Lancashire tradition: heavy rain... very heavy rain.
With closed season restrictions on fishing lifted, anglers had the potential to fish water that hadn’t seen a fly since October 2003, although most of the fly casters decided to stick to the oft-stocked Hollins Bay area that offers the security of consistent results.
It probably had something to do with the shelter afforded by the high bank but with a constant stream of high quality stockies gracing the nets of most of the anglers, who could question their logic?
FLIES FOR STOCKS
Thread: UT C70 black
Tail: Black marabou
Rib: Gold wire
Body: Black seal fur, well picked out
Hackle: Black Chevron genetic photo dyed hen, palmered.
Head: A A pinch of gold lite-brite dubbing.
FRITZ IPN (Idiot Proof Nymph)
Hook: Kamasan B175 size 8
Bead: 4mm black Tungsten (careful when casting this one!)
Thread: UT C140 black
Tail: High quality black marabou, get the best quality you can, it really helps.
Body: Black glacier chenille (Keith Fraser)
Hook: Kamasan B175 size 10 (strong hook for big early season fish)
Thread - UT C70 black
Eyes: Enrico Puglisi "Hot Eyes" 3/32" in fluoro chartreuse or orange to suit variant
Tail: Marabou, black or sunburst to suit variant.
Rib: Silver wire (colour doesnt matter because it buries in the dressing anyway, it’s only there to secure the palmered hackle)
Body: Gold or silver "Humungus body" (a sort of mini Fritz), to suit variant (available from Rutland Fishing)
Hackle: Palmered natural grizzle or dyed sunburst cock, the hackle should be genetic to get the length to palmer yet soft enough to allow the all important movement in the water.
We decided to tackle up in the car park after a few words of wisdom from fishery manager Ben Dobson, who advised us that the fly doing the ‘business’ was that Scottish import the ‘Humungus’ and its variants. I set up two Diamondback VSR 10’#7 rods.
I rigged one rod up with a floating line and a 7ft ‘big butt’ leader to which was attached a further 12’ of 9lb BS ‘Riverge’ fluorocarbon with two droppers.
On the second rod, I put up an Airflo 40+ Di3 with an 8ft big butt leader to aid energy transfer and therefore turnover and a 10’ long single straight length of 9lb Riverge to which was attached the ever reliable Black IPN with a 3mm black tungsten bead.
We walked down the steep hill down to Hollins Bay and set about fishing. The right to left wind dictated that we employ the reverse ‘back casting’ style to ensure the flies travelled safely away from the body. As if to illustrate the importance of learning this technique, one of our fellow anglers ended up with a hook through his eyelid later the same day. Needless to say, a decent pair of sunglasses would have prevented this mishap.
The back casting style is not one which would impress many APGAI instructors but is highly effective at safely delivering a cast in adverse weather conditions, although the style can be difficult to master. Turn your back on the water, and aim your cast back towards the bank. When you’ve got the line-speed required to shoot, simply let go of the line on the back cast. This technique takes some getting used to and it’s important not to drop the rod too far on the back cast as this will reduce power and line-speed and usually means the leader will end up in a heap on the water. But just like regular casting, practice makes perfect.
I chose a spot near the boat jetty, where I knew that if the fly was presented into the disturbed water at the end of the jetty, then a few fish would be vulnerable. The boat jetty actually disturbs the surface water flow and this is sufficient a feature to attract and hold the early season stockies.
Because the wind was moving the surface layers of water very quickly, I used an ‘anchoring’ technique which employs a very heavy point fly to slow down the rate of travel of the fly line and leader. The point fly actually ‘bites’ into the slower undercurrent and in fact may even drag along the bottom of the lake in the shallower areas.
If the point fly starts to catch bottom and continually snags, then it is a simple matter to make the point fly truly sacrificial by cutting off the point of the hook at the bend. This technique requires a certain amount of ‘balancing’ of the cast by adjusting the length of the leader and the weight of the flies used, but as a general rule of thumb, your point is the heaviest, then the middle dropper, but even the top dropper will likely need a weighted fly to achieve the desired control.
The retrieve for this technique is very simple: don’t. Let the wind do the work. If you retrieve your flies you are removing the very effect we are trying to achieve, which is to slow down the presentation. This is especially important early season, when the water is cold and the fish are less likely to waste energy to chase your fly.
First cast resulted in a solid take, which I missed totally. Full of anticipation, I recast and a minute later, everything went heavy and a beautiful full-finned silver 2 1⁄2lb rainbow came to hand after a short but spirited fight.
It had taken the heavy Black Fritz on the point before the flies even had a chance to settle. There were obviously a lot of fish there and over the next 45 minutes I hooked or lost a further five fish.
Unfortunately the wind started to pick up, making the floating line impossible to control so I switched to the second rod rigged up with the Di 3 40+. I went for the AFTM 8 rated line on the AFTM 7 Diamondback VSR as this powerful, versatile rod is well capable of coping with a line size larger when required.
On this set-up, the flies required a faster retrieve to keep them clear of the bottom and the ‘roly-poly’ retrieve seemed to work best. Many anglers seem to think this retrieve is all about stripping back the flies as quickly as possible, but I believe the smoothness of the retrieve is probably more important.
The rod is tucked under the arm and both hands are used to slowly, steadily retrieve the running line. I feel this technique is more skilled than it looks and the trick on this particular day was to retrieve very evenly with no jerks or jumps during the retrieve.
To achieve this, I watch the rod tip for signs of movement, as this will give you an idea as to how evenly and smoothly the flies are being retrieved.
The running line on the 40+ is very slick and can be difficult to grip during the retrieve (particularly if your hands are cold and wet) so I tend to trap the line using my thumb between my index and middle fingers, this gives a much more positive grip on the running line and if a fish takes savagely, then this will stop the line being pulled through your fingers.
Early season takes tend to feel like the line going heavy because the fish are still lethargic and not as aggressive as when the water temperature rises, when their metabolism increases, so they don’t hit the flies as hard.
The way to hook fish effectively on this method is simply to keep retrieving until the fish kicks back. Don’t lift the rod or strike, as this may affect the angle of travel of the fly and make the fish either drop the fly or miss the hook point. Just keep retrieving and if you must do something, then slightly increase the speed of retrieve. DON’T STRIKE.
A further stream of fish came to these tactics - a real mix of blues, some browns and silver fish (triploid blues) up to just short of 3lbs in weight. Ben has stocked hundreds of these beautiful fish at around the 4-5lb mark and they look and fight like grilse. Several anglers latched onto pods of these quality trout, but they had so far managed to elude us, so we decided to leave the recent stockies and go in search of some longer established or perhaps even an overwintered fish.
I thought the best area to achieve this was by the Dam in the area known as Grindy’s Lawn, where the previous week I had landed two doubles in two casts.
We walked up what is increasingly being described by Stocks regulars as Cardiac Hill and were rewarded with the most spectacular views of the Reservoir from the Trig point at the top of the hill.
As we neared the top I was beginning to regret my choice of heavy winter weight neoprenes, which I later weighed on the scales at 9lb! But my discomfort was soon offset by the fact that I could comfortably stand in the chilly early season water for long periods of time without getting frozen through.
The wind was again very difficult in this area, with a south-westerly gusting up to 30 mph coming at our right shoulders from that awkward 45 degree angle.
The Reverse Bung
I’ve been working on a new technique to try and beat these conditions by restricting casting to the minimum and maximising fishing time. Christened the ‘reverse bung’, it offers all the advantages of fishing a Booby with none of the risks of deep hooking the fish - which is very important when fishing catch and release.
This is a very specialised technique which excels when the fish want a static fly in difficult crosswind conditions, but it won’t work in water depths of more than 12-15 feet. Basically it twins the ‘bung’ or ‘washing line’ technique with a sinking line.
It is very important that the leader length is considerably longer than the depth of water being fished. Mine is always about 18-20 ft long made up of a short 7ft ‘big butt’ leader like the Normark Adaptaleader and a tippet of fluorocarbon with two droppers.
The leader spacings need to vary according to the depth being fished, but as a rough guide based on 10 ft deep water see the accompanying diagram.
This leader arrangement lets you cover the depth of water quite evenly, but I would suggest that the dropper spacings need to be fine-tuned to the conditions and the expected depth at which the fish are feeding. I had already caught fish at around the 4 ft mark so I knew it was roughly correct. Weighted flies are unsuitable for this method as the weight will counter-act the buoyancy of the bung and make spotting takes difficult. The line used needs to be a fast sinker such the Masterline Powerhead type 7 Super Fast Sink. This line's head sinks at 8in/second but its running line sinks at 2in/second, so it's easier to cast, more durable and less likely to tangle. It's also relatively low stretch, so the bites can be hit effectively.
Cast the line out to the desired position and wait for everything to settle. In 10ft of water, this takes about 15 to 20 seconds. The bung should be clearly visible but the line remains unaffected by the wind because it is submerged down to the reservoir bed - well away from the surface drift and allowing you to fish your flies static.
I have got the best results when the rig is fished totally static, although this rig can be retrieved very slowly when the conditions demand it.
The bung slides away or disappears altogether when a fish has taken the fly and unlike Booby fishing, you can use conventional nymphs or even lures, which don’t need to be buoyant and consequently bulky. Another advantage is that you can see exactly where your flies are at all times and can repeat cast accurately to the areas which are producing.
When the bung disappears, strike! You will see the take before you feel it, so this gives better bite detection, and as all those little twitches and nips are visible, you can really see what is going on.
I fished the technique for about 20 minutes and was rewarded with two takes, one I lost on the way in and the other was a fin-perfect rainbow of about three pounds, which took the Humungus. These were really good ‘hard’ fish which had been in a while and offered dogged resistance, taking several minutes to subdue.
The worsening weather conditions forced us to move down into the relative calm of New Close bay, where we finished the day. I was lucky enough to attract a few bites on the floating line rig with the ‘sacrificial’ point fly and even managed a double hook-up at one point, although one of the fish came off the barbless hook during the fight.
The incessant rain finally got the better of us and we both agreed that we had probably seen the best part of the day, even though the fish were still biting, and we returned to the lodge for a very welcome and hearty Lancashire Hot Pot and a couple of mugs of steaming coffee.
We felt as if we had really earned our fish today and it was very satisfying to deploy specialised methods which resulted in a good day’s sport despite the horrendous weather conditions.
Two ways of beating drift
Nick uses either a floating line and heavy 'anchor' fly (bottom) or his new 'reverse bung' method, (top) employing a fast sinking line and very buoyant bite indicator.
If you haven't read the first part of this mini-series, click here.
A methodical approach
Blessed with a situation where several fish are on the go at once, try to be methodical, rather than scattergun, in your approach. Plan the order in which you aim to cast at individual fish or rise forms. Wading or stalking upstream will be the norm and selecting the fish rising closest to you is good practice. If you cast over closer fish you will warn nearby trout that all is not well – a fly-line landing on the heads of feeding fish can put them down for a considerable time.
Timing is everything
Unless there is much in-stream cover (rocks, ledges and vegetation), pool tails can look barren and uniform, especially the upper reaches of rainfed rivers. There will be the odd fish in residence, but it is likely that the bulk of fish will only favour the tails during heightened insect activity, when flies hatch or return to deposit their eggs. In spring, this will be during the afternoon and perhaps in the early evening. As we move towards summer, late in the evening and into dusk will be the prime times. In a heatwave, many insects may be more active in the cooler night air. With this in mind, on early summer mornings you may find fish still stationed in the tail following a midnight feast.
Fishing the “V”
At many pool tails, especially on larger rivers, the water forms a classic “V” shape where it is squeezed into a central flow by rocks and banks. Immediately above this funnel is a smooth, glassy surface that, to the untrained eye, appears benign. This surface calm belies fast and deceptively powerful currents. It’s not surprising, then, that fish prefer the margins and creases of the “V” and lies that are close to the banks. Concentrate your efforts in these places.
Playing a fish
Playing fish in the tail of a pool can be tricky. Trout will often hold on the tail’s lip or charge downstream into the fast flows of the next pool. If you think your target fish is big, try to position yourself below it and cast upstream. This way, when hooked, the fish may run upstream against the sensation of pressure and into the middle of the pool. If it slips back, getting directly downstream of it will be easier and you may be able to scoop it into a net as it passes – although this demands confidence and a swift, accurate hand.
Stewart-style flies and the critical inch
When fish are targeting food in the critical inch – just below the surface – it can be difficult to choose the right fly. A dry-fly may drift over their heads and all but the lightest wet-fly quickly falls through the water. My preferred option is a Stewart-style fly (below). As well as its usual Spider traits – slimness, translucency and an overall suggestive nature – it has a palmered hackle and this greater surface area helps it to linger in the critical inch.
Watch the fly-line
When fishing an evening spinner fall, instead of trying to locate a low-riding dry spinner pattern in the surface film, you could try a team of lightly greased Stewart-style flies pitched slightly up and across, and rather than trying to see your flies in the mirk, watch the fly-line at your rod tip (below) and wait for it to draw away when a fish takes.
The riverbeds of some tails are made of pea gravel, which creates a more uniform flow and currents that are easy to decipher. While fish like sitting on a uniform bed like this, these areas are often shallow and offer little in the way of protection for them. Exceptions may be when cloud cover or breezy conditions create sufficient surface disturbance for fish to feel secure beneath a ruffled curtain or when a pool is shrouded by trees that provide cover and falls of terrestrials.
Large fish, shallow water
Surprising numbers of specimen trout can be taken in the thinnest water of a pool tail. This goes against everything we know about the behaviour of big fish, yet when a surfeit of food occurs in nature, the urge to feed outweighs the need for safety. Usually, terrestrial flies are responsible, but dense spinner falls will attract large fish to water barely deep enough to cover their backs. With the fish focused on the food and having lost their timid streak, they can be caught off guard.
Wiggle and pile casts
The ability to make slack line is a cornerstone of a river angler’s armoury. A simple Wiggle or “S” cast forms the basis of throwing slack. As the line unrolls on the final forward cast, gently wiggle the rod from side to side to impart a series of “S” shapes into the line. If the cast is delivered with enough momentum, accuracy isn’t really a problem, even in a niggling breeze. To inject even more slack, the Pile cast takes some beating. It’s particularly good when fast water separates you from fish holding in slow water and for introducing extreme slack in the leader, close to the fly. Aim your forward cast higher than normal and as the loop unfolds, sweep the rod to the water, dropping the line near the rod tip. This loss of energy causes the unrolling loop to collapse and the line and leader piles on to the water with desirable slack. This cast lacks impetus and is not best suited to windy conditions but given a calm evening on the tail of a pool, it’s a winner. To fine-tune your technique, I would recommend you take a lesson from a qualified casting instructor. Visit www.aapgai.co.uk
A pool tail will often contain boulders around which fish take up residence and find food and shelter. Where powerful water pushes and feels its way around a cluster of these mossy obstacles, the fishing challenge can seem daunting. It’s best to approach the problem by separating the ribbons of water into manageable channels that can be addressed one at a time. It calls for a close, intimate approach, where nymphs and Spiders are the best options. Casting upstream will help you to guide the flies through the maze of boulders.
The tail of a pool is often overlooked in favour of the seemingly more promising water of the body and head. But trout will drop back to the tail in search of food. Depending on the river’s size (narrow or wide; deep or shallow) and type (upland or lowland; rainfed or chalkstream), the topography of a tail can vary greatly, which means that planning your approach is very important: clever casting and good positioning can be critical to your success.
Fishing upstream or fishing downstream?
Though trout have almost all-round vision, they predominantly face upstream, so you would think that approaching them from below is your best chance of remaining undetected. Fine in theory, but because the water at the lip of a tail gathers pace, this conventional approach may not be the best one. The difference between this faster water and the slower, flat surface where you would like to land your fly can be so great that your fly is whisked away the moment that it alights, dragging the leader behind it. These line-grabbing currents have to be overcome by putting slack line into your cast or by mending the line to keep the flies on track.
If these differing currents are severe it may be better to fish downstream where current will have less effect and there will be less chance of drag. Even dry-flies can be presented downstream, courtesy of a wiggle or slack-line cast.
When fishing downstream you have to be more mindful of spooking fish and so longer casts may be necessary.
As a guide, I would recommend that in low, clear water or under bright skies, you should approach the pool tail from below. In higher or coloured water, or if a breeze distorts the surface, or under cloudy skies, fish downstream.
A 9 ft rod is most anglers’ first choice for river trouting but, as ever, there is a balance to be struck. A short rod, 7 ft or 8 ft, on a vast pool or in a riot of currents makes line control arduous, yet the same rod will excel beneath a jungle of trees or on a narrow, intimate beck. A longer rod, meanwhile, will meet the demands of line-mending, helping your presentation of flies, and feel at home on big pools. There is a definite trend towards the use of longer rods.
Trout often widen their feeding lane at the tail of a pool by traversing the current. It pays to wait and watch their movements. Having moved into position, prepare for your cast by peeling sufficient line from the reel. Study the river, establishing at which point the fish comes closest to you. Don’t try a longer cast, it may “line” the fish.
A waiting game
In shallow tails a hooked or spooked fish may upset other fish feeding nearby – usually revealed by the bow waves made as they scurry up the pool in search of safety. During a sustained hatch or fall of terrestrials, these disturbed fish will be keen to return to their feeding station. If you sit quietly, or perhaps step away to patrol the banks elsewhere, the spooked fish will drift back to their lies and resume feeding. This may take three minutes or it may take ten. You must be patient.
Lengthen your leader
“Skinny” featureless water is the realm of nervous fish and so longerthan- normal casts may be required. You may want to lengthen your leader so that your flies are further from any commotion made when the fly-line lands on the water. If you are nymphing, be sure to select a lightweight pattern – not only to prevent it from sinking too quickly but because the “plop” of a heavy fly can alarm nearby fish.
Try an F-fly
The F-fly doesn’t exactly imitate any insect, but this delicate CdC dressing can land like thistledown on the smooth surface of a pool tail.
In the absence of rising fish, blind fishing can be effective. Systematically fish downstream working a team of Spiders or wet-flies, or a brace of nymphs through the tail. Pay special attention around boulders, deeper channels or clumps of weeds, if there are any. Cover all the water, making your way down the stream and fishing with a slightly tensioned line.
Creep and kneel
Being positioned directly opposite rising fish has its advantages. Casts can be placed just upstream of your target and, if there’s no take, peeled from the water a little below,making for precise, economical fishing.
However, unless you are fishing the broad reaches of a river, most pool tails won’t afford you sufficient room for such a cast. Here a stealthy approach is needed. Creeping and kneeling may be necessary and will get you surprisingly close to feeding fish, even in broad daylight. The key is to move slowly and monitor the rise pattern on your approach. If fish begin rising less frequently, call off the stalk until they resume. The poor light of dusk or dark clouds will help.
Stalking by sight
The smooth surface of a pool’s tail can allow you to visually locate fish when they are not rising. Polaroid sunglasses make it possible to peer beneath the surface glare if conditions are favourable; some sunlight and reasonably clear water is best.
The most telling sign of a fish is a flash, usually seen when a fish moves to the side to take a nymph. However, some fish will appear motionless and you would think that there is nothing there until you enter the water and they bolt upstream. When the river appears barren, you need to study the rocks and stones on the river bed, looking for elongated shapes or something that looks out of the ordinary.
Concentrate on anything that looks like a tail or pectoral fin; study these for a period of time as they may move! Sometimes fish may look paler or darker than the river bed, depending on the depth at which they are sitting. Spotting these fish is not easy but be patient and study the riverbed carefully, staring at small sections at a time. You will soon become accustomed to identifying fish – given good eyesight in the first place!
Calming the fish
If you are fishing downstream and a fish takes, the hook-hold is more likely to be precarious because the fish often feels the resistance/pull of the fly-line. This can be partially negated by keeping the rod high and introducing a little slack fly-line. When you hook a fish and it runs downstream, a more vertical rod will also exert less pressure and this can have a surprisingly calming effect on a fish. You now have two options: to walk the fish upstream; or keep low and sneak downstream before playing it out.
To go to the second part of this mini-series, click here.