For this type of fishing Toby Coe says you must enjoy being a light-weight
Summer. The aroma of freshly cut grass fills the air. Hedgerows tremble with the movement of unseen birds and long grasses dampen the knees of my waders. For the fly fisherman, this time of year is made more special as trout are looking upwards with intent for their food.
This is the time to be on a small stream, desperately trying to work out how to get a clean drift of your fly over the trout steadily rising on the other side of the river, safely tucked away under an overhanging branch. For me, this generally involves a crawl/shuffle/wade into a feasible casting position, prior to the following cast making firm contact with the tree perfectly placed to snag a mistimed backcast. But that is part and parcel of the fun of this type of fishing.
I have seen discussions on internet forums from fishermen across the world about the joys of this kind of fishing – days spent wandering along small rivers carrying suitably matched small rods, sometimes referred to as ‘twigs’. If casting a 12-weight after tropical saltwater bruisers is the fly fishing equivalent of thundering around in a Hummer, stalking up a small stream with a little 6-7ft 2 or 3-weight is like driving an MG Midget. The sheer finesse and delicacy afforded by a little, light outfit makes the whole experience of fishing that bit more enjoyable.
Hampshire may have the largest and most famous chalkstreams in England, but the intimate, delicate streams of Dorset present a perfect environment in which to use a suitable twig to flick dries into gentle glides in search of feisty summer browns. The River Piddle is one such stream that springs to mind. Often no more than a solid leap in width, it offers an ideal fix for any small stream addict.
Some friends and I spent a very enjoyable weekend fishing it in May of this year, before the rains of high summer saturated most of the UK. Starting out on the first day, the conditions were hardly ideal with a heavy grey sky pressing down on us, combined with little sign of any insect activity. Sheer persistence saw a couple of small brownies come out of various lies to bead-head nymphs fished upstream; the delicacy of the little rods we were using allowing us to place the flies tight under cover or up against the banks.
We were really there to fish the dry fly however, and so on went a small Adams in the hope of raising some interest. Stalking up a shallow section of river, I came to a suitable looking lie which had that intangible ‘fishy’ feel. Sure enough, on the third drift, the fly disappeared in a bronze swirl and a nice lively brown was shortly brought to hand. It was from this point on that the fun began.
Although we had only seen Mayfly somewhat singly and sporadically, a large Mayfly pattern (the invention of a friend of mine, which he has dubbed ‘The Silver King’) went on for a change of pace and to see whether it would elicit a response. Fished on a relatively short line it was repeatedly clattered by hungry trout rejuvenating after their winter stupor. One fish in particular hammered the fly, exploding out of the water in the process and gave its Danish captor a real run for his money on the light gear.
The next day a move to the Frome highlighted both the benefits and drawbacks of a ‘twig’ in one short session. A little 3-weight enabled trout to be winkled out of awkward spots (including an absolutely gorgeous wild fish of about 2lb), particularly in and around trees where a longer rod would simply have got in the way. However, in the more open stretches of river, the larger size of the Frome compared to the Piddle meant that the sacrifice in line control resulting from a shorter rod became a problem, and a more typical chalkstream rod felt more suitable.
The wilds of Devon
The chalkstreams of Dorset represent an occasional treat for me, most of my twigging taking place on the small, wild streams of Devon. It is here that a small light rod really comes into its own, enabling one to punch short, tight casts around the inevitable overhanging vegetation. The very first small stream brownie I tempted on a dry fly in Devon will always stick in my mind as a good example of the frustrations and joys of small stream twigging.
Dashing out of work early on Mayday itself, I had headed to a local stretch of a suitable small stream. High, brown water greeted me on my arrival and things didn’t look good. Tramping upstream did little to assuage my impending sense of an evening spent casting nymphs, rather than dries: the surface of the water conspicuously free of the dimples of rising trout. Finally, in perhaps the most ludicrously difficult to reach place in the entire river, a bronze snout broke the surface and snaffled down one of the few small Mayflies drifting downstream.
Sitting as the fish was on the far side of the river, with a tree stump in the middle of the flow, my first couple of casts fell hopelessly wide and short of the mark. Finally, by climbing a tree (inconveniently placed just down and across from the fish), reaching right out across the river with my favourite twig and invoking various deities, I was able to land the fly just once in the right spot. It proved to be enough however and a handsome, if somewhat small, brownie of about six inches was shortly landed and returned to hopefully entertain some other fisherman with its frustrating choice of abode.
Summer moorland madness
Rivers aren’t the only places such diminutive tackle has a place, however. Living in Devon as I do, high summer often finds me up on Dartmoor searching the various stillwaters for signs of life. During such a trip a couple of summers ago, there was an ant hatch of epic proportions. The glossy August sheen of Fernworthy reservoir was replete with spent ants, whilst trout rose everywhere with abandon. Busying myself with the task in hand, I looked around to observe my fishing companion waging a personal, highly animated war against what he (still) claims was a swarm of berserk ants.
Said swarm, once despatched, was carpeting the surface of the water and the trout were rising within feet of the bank to take advantage of the glut of food. Fishing light with little 3-4-weights allowed us to place small dries delicately into the margins to intercept the cruising fish. Or at least that was the theory. In reality, the sheer quantity of food available to the fish and their haphazard patterns of movement meant that we struggled to get more than a very occasional take, all of which we missed in a severe case of trigger-finger. Despite ending fishless, we still had a lot of fun trying.
Twigging tackle and tactics
As for all fly fishing, tackle for fishing small streams should be matched to the water being fished. Short, light (1-3-weight) rods between 6-7.5ft long are perfect as they allow delicate, short-range presentations. Casts are generally fairly short, with an emphasis on accuracy as fish may be holding in a very specific location.
Fishing upstream with either a dry fly, nymph or New Zealand rig (a small nymph such as a goldhead PTN suspended beneath a buoyant dry fly) are the most productive tactics. Due to the narrow width of the streams being fished, the usual up-and-across tactics are often reduced to simply ‘up’, with the length of the drift dictated by the length of the leader. A tapered leader between 6-9ft with a section of 2-3ft of tippet attached is ideal – a longer leader is often difficult to handle in the often cramped conditions being fished.
As you are often casting to fish from fairly close quarters, a quiet approach and careful casting pays dividends, particularly if fishing to trout feeding at the surface. A particular hotspot in these small streams is the seam where two different flows or currents converge. A nymph or New Zealand rig run through such a spot often results in a take from a plucky little brown.
Small streams are plentiful around the country and have afforded me some of my most enjoyable fishing sessions. For anyone living (or holidaying) down in the south west there are numerous rivers worth trying. Two very useful starting points are the Angling 2000 scheme (www.angling2000.org.uk), which provides access to various stretches of river throughout Devon and Cornwall and the fishing available through Richard Slocock in Dorset, at www.goflyfishing.co.uk