Brian Harris says stillwater fishers should be aiming to fish much lighter rods for casting ease, improved presentation, better fishing, and more fun, and he adds a special summer dry fly imitation for you to test his theory
About 70% of trout-fishing fly lines sold in the UK are weight-forward seven-weights, and on big reservoirs a fair number of eight-weights are used. I find that popularity of what I regard as heavy lines, and matching, fairly stiff rods, evidence that too many fly fishers are over-gunned and miss out on the many advantages of lighter outfits
Competition fly fishers fish seven-weights almost exclusively yet, since they are restricted to relatively modest fly sizes in loch-style fishing (15/16ths of an inch in overall length) a seven-weight is often unnecessary. Such flies, even if bulkily dressed, can easily be cast downwind of a drifting boat with lines two or three sizes lighter. The main reason most competition rods fish seven-weight outfits, is, I feel, to be able to skull-drag fish to the net quickly on excessively strong fluorocarbon leaders and then try for the next fish – so-called ‘speed fishing’. Time bonuses, in my opinion, have much to answer for in making competitive fly-fishing a somewhat thick-eared game.
Competitive fly-fishing attitudes apart, fishing with lightweight outfits can be much more enjoyable, and effective, for a number of reasons. For example, lines of four- or five-weight are much slimmer than seven- and eight-weights, and this slimness results in many more confident takes. This is because a taking fish feels less resistance, due to reduced drag of the line through the water, and will often take the fly and swim on, quite unconcerned, giving time for a controlled lift to sink the hook to be made. And a slim line and flexible rod often protect the tippet when a smash-take occurs. Also, when a fish makes a long run, perhaps into the backing, it is less likely to throw the hook, open it up or break it, or snap the leader, again due to the reduced drag of the slimmer line.
In addition, that highly important aspect of competent fly fishing, delicate presentation, is far more easily achieved with slim, light lines and fine, matching leaders. Presentation is, of course, especially important in fishing floating flies, even more so on stillwater when there is little breeze to ripple the surface. A four-weight line alights far more gently than does a seven-weight.
When slim carbon-fibre rods became available they were a revelation to cast when compared to the thick measurements of hollow-glass rods, especially those with fast tapers and their even fatter butts. The atmospheric drag of those thick, thin-walled rods, especially when used in windy conditions, was tiring when casting; and even holding them steady when fishing the fly in a strong wind was a testing operation. A slim carbon-fibre rod to cast a four-weight has a much slimmer profile than a rod built for heavier lines and thus cuts through the air and wind easier.
Having been fly fishing for more than 60 years, I long ago decided that light and delicate tackle was my choice. In fact, when Kent’s Bewl Water – less than a mile from my home – opened for trout fly-fishing in 1977, my son and I, and Davy Wotton, the former Margate-based fly tyer, now living in America, fished the first two seasons from the bank with three-weight double-taper floating lines and matching rods. A disadvantage? Hardly! I feel a little ashamed, now, to admit that we three season permit-holders averaged about 400 fish each in each of those two seasons, when the daily limit was six fish. We usually fished about three or four times a week, mainly evenings, after work.
Many folk think that light, flexible rods and light lines and tippets are suitable only for modest trout. Nothing can be so wrong. As I have already said, flexible rods and lightweight lines and tippets can be an advantage in playing heavy trout. For the last two seasons I have almost exclusively fished a four-weight outfit, on big reservoirs, small stillwaters and on chalk-streams, and have taken plenty of big trout, both rainbows and browns, to 7lb+, from reservoirs – boat and bank – and from small stillwaters.
Fighting a big fish on a four-weight rod is no great problem. As with any rod and a heavy fish, it is necessary to hold the rod at a lower angle than the customary 45˚ to horizontal, so that the lower part of the rod can exert pressure to share the load with the delicate tip. Naturally, if a fish dashes away with many yards of line, it is good practice to hold the rod tip high with rods of any line weight, to keep as much line off the water as is possible to reduce drag.
My four-weight rod of choice is nine and a half feet long, and weighs only 3oz! That’s comparable to many rods of the same length and line weight costing three times more. I have long been a fan of top-of-the-range American rods but this British designed rod is at least as good, has an even better finish and build quality, retailed at just £195, and has a lifetime guarantee. I am sure that many more rods built in South Korea and other parts of Asia are as good and it is now common knowledge that one does not have to pay £500-600 to buy a fine fly rod. Some of those expensive rods are also made in Asia.
These rods, like many of the expensive American ones, will handle line one size heavier than designated without complaint – useful in windy conditions. Also, I have found my four-weight casts superbly and with excellent delicacy, with a double-taper three-weight floater. That combination is a great advantage when fishing dry flies and tiny nymphs of size 16 to 24.
At the age of 75 I do not have the arm and, most importantly, wrist strength which I had even a couple of years ago, and most of my joints are arthritic, but with my four-weight outfit I am still able to fish a full day without excessive stress or tiredness and can thus maintain good casting and fishing technique.
Too many fly fishers never learn to cast properly throughout their lifetimes and therefore struggle to get a line out in adverse winds, and their presentation and accuracy leave much to be desired. Instead of good casting technique they rely on brute strength, often with excessively stiff rods and heavy lines, to get any range. Often the reason for the struggling is due to a too heavy outfit, apart from the poor technique and wrist-breaking, and a lighter outfit can often be of great benefit to such folk.
When I give casting lessons, I provide my clients with lightweight outfits, especially children and women. Such gear helps them to avoid wrist-breaking on the back-cast when performing such unaccustomed arm movements. I also advise them to do exercises to strengthen their hands and arms, especially their wrists. An empty wine bottle, held by the neck, is used, raising and lowering the forearm vertically and also rotating wrist and forearm in both directions. Initially, the exercises should be done for 10 minutes daily with an empty bottle and then, when strength comes, put a couple of inches of water or dry sand in the bottle, and add an extra inch every few days. The basic idea is found in Charles Ritz’s book, A fly fisher’s life.
Also, one can create an overall lightweight outfit by choosing a smaller and lighter reel than would match, say, a seven-weight rod and line. A modern, machined aluminium large-arbor reel with a smooth disc-drag can be as small as three inches in diameter and still carry a four-weight line and an adequate amount of braided backing. I would go for a Dacron braid of 15-20lb test rather than the ultra-thin Dyneema, the coils of which I have found tend to bury under the fly line and can then refuse to run out. A lost fish is often the result. I find 70 yards of backing behind a 30-yard fly line is usually adequate. If a fish gets much more backing than that it is usually a lost fish!
Even a well-made simple adjustable ratchet-and-pawl reel of about three inches diameter, with a good hard-metal pawl and fine-toothed cog, will do the job. I often use a reel whose main use is coupled with my 6.5ft cane wand for a tiny brook. Let’s face it, only one trout in a hundred hooked might justify the use of a disc-drag.
Many fly fishers habitually play their fish by stripping in line by hand and letting it out under tension beneath a forefinger held against the rod handle. Naturally, it is necessary to control a fish immediately after it is hooked by stripping line by hand, but after that, unless the fish is small, any slack remaining should be quickly reeled up and from that point on the fish should be played off the reel. That’s what a reel is for. Of that I am convinced, because I have seen many good fish lost when recovered loops of line have tangled in grass or brush, or round something in the bottom of a boat. It certainly happened to me in the distant past, but not any more.
In addition to tangling loops, if a good fish suddenly makes a strong run when line is being stripped back in big loops by hand, the combination of the sudden lunge of the fish and the manual hauling in of the line can cause leader breakage, hook distortion, or a loosening of the hook hold. All those catastrophes can happen when fighting a fish.
My armoury of fly rods includes two expensive and excellent seven-weights of 10ft and 9ft 6in, but they have not seen the light of day for three years or so. And my two six-weights now see little use, except on very windy days or when I know I may need to cast a minimum of 23 yards consistently. Even when I visit Ireland to fish for Lough Currane’s big sea trout, I have found that a 10ft, five-weight has been adequate for the task.
I hope I have tempted a few readers, especially greybeards like myself, and anybody with modest wrist strength, to give lighter outfits a try. They make fishing much more enjoyable and with few disadvantages in most conditions.
Don’t ignore late-summer shield bugs
Shield Bugs can be important food items for trout in the period from late summer to early autumn. They are frequently blown on to stillwaters, lochs and loughs bordered by deciduous woodland, particularly birch, ash, hawthorn and oak, and the fish can become pre-occupied feeding on them, providing excellent dry-fly fishing – if you have the right fly.
Selective feeding by trout in stillwaters is not very common, in my opinion: migrating snails, a fall of ants and a massive Mayfly hatch have been the main stimulants in my experience. But now I have added shield bugs to the list, following experience over the last few seasons.
I have found fish selectively feeding on shield bugs on several reservoirs in south-east England and they proved not that easy to catch until I came up with a suitable dressing of floating fly. I habitually spoon my fish, and from mid-August to the end of October shield bugs figured prominently in stomach contents. A flat-back CdC dry took some fish but the catch rate rose pleasingly when I used my closer imitations.
As the name implies, shield bugs have a hard wing-cover shaped like a medieval knight’s shield. Most of those I have seen have been nearly half-an-inch in length with the shield-shaped back of bright green – like the shade of a newly opened beech leaf. When blown on to the water they sit quite low and flat. The attitude of a fly on the surface is very important, a point hammered home to me when I fished with the late Vincent Marinaro in Pennsylvania. His little Jassid pattern, for use on selective feeders on little leaf hoppers on the Letort Spring Run, had a jungle cock nail feather as a flat wing case and worked a miracle after frustrating times, and, later on, Ernest Shwiebert produced his Letort Beetle. Both these patterns largely concentrated on the fly’s attitude and silhouette when floating.
So, I followed the same trail when producing my shield bug pattern. What I wanted a fish to see when looking up was a dark, shield-shaped silhouette. The underside of a green-backed shield bug’s wing cover is a nondescript dark hue anyway.
I selected a medium to light wire hook for the simple reason that it is essential that a fly cast on to stillwater needs to float for a reasonable amount of time. Too many reservoir fly fishers tie their dry flies on heavy hooks, like the Kamasan B175, probably because they fish seven-weight outfits and strong leaders. They then wonder why they tend to sink!
Shield Bug (Harris)
Hook: Hook: Kamasan B400 or Jardine General Purpose, size 12.
Thread: Uni-thread medium brown, 8/0.
Body: Fat-ish, lightly dubbed mixture of brown and olive baby seal's fur.
Hackle: Short-fibred medium red or cree cock, palmered.
Rib: Fine green wire or round tinsel.
Wing case: Small, black-tipped brown feather from a cock pheasant neck, taken from just below the steely blue feathers. Coat with clear Bostik or Sally Hansen's clear nail varnish on both sides and allow to dry. Trim to shape and size with sharp scissors before tying in. On the natural insect, the widest part of the shield is at the head end but the fish do not seem to worry that it is reversed on my pattern.
After winding hackle, trim flat on top so that the wing-case lies flat. When tying in the pheasant neck feather include a few fibres (herls) of the feather under the thread windings, not just the quill, which prevents the feather lifting and coming loose when casting.