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Back to the Stone Age on the Tees

Hot grayling dry fly fishing on the Tees, aided by a useful fly-tying hint on the Kite's Imperial, and a handy flapjack tip

On the Tees, grayling have been their usual suicidal selves.
On the Tees, grayling have been their usual suicidal selves.
The Kite’s Imperial with the split tail. If one of the fibres is bent under the hook, the fish will ignore it.
The Kite’s Imperial with the split tail. If one of the fibres is bent under the hook, the fish will ignore it.
Using the tag-end of the tying thread to keep the tail forked.
Using the tag-end of the tying thread to keep the tail forked.
Trout have been few and far between in recent weeks.
Trout have been few and far between in recent weeks.

If catching fish was all that mattered, then during the summer months we should arrive at the river at 9pm and leave an hour later. Between sunset and darkness, the Tees is popping with fish. Until then, there is nothing for it but to wander through the sunlit woods lining the riverbank, keeping an eye out for rising fish and a comfortable bit of shade for coffee and flapjacks.
Trout have been few and far between, but the grayling season is now in full swing, which is always a relief. Around Darlington the Tees is so thick with grayling it is impossible to avoid catching a few during the close season, which leads to a certain amount of anxiety. I have never heard of anyone being prosecuted for catching them out of season, but that only makes the anxiety worse – imagine being the first!
The stand-out grayling fly so far this year has been the Kite’s Imperial. A size 16 is best, so long as the tail is right. During the past few weeks at virtually every cast grayling of all sizes have emerged from the gloom like moths to the flame; inspecting the fly before either turning away or having a go. As often as not, when they have turned away and I have reeled in to check the fly, one of the tail filaments has become folded under the curve of the hook. You wouldn’t think that small difference would have such an effect, but it certainly has. Seeing this made me wonder about the anglers of old who reportedly filled entire baskets with fish. These days, we tend to be quite dismissive of such achievements, attributing them to an abundance of fish in rivers allegedly free from both fishermen and pollution. Can we be certain it wasn’t the flies that made the difference? Even though the tying instructions for flies from those early times have survived, I wonder if they are detailed enough? Or rather, are they not simply a list of materials instead of detailed tying instructions?
To illustrate the point, re-reading the recipe for the Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear in several books, I noted that only one of them contains the instruction to wind the body ribbing “tightly”. That seems like a small detail, but it makes an enormous difference; bunching and segmenting the body to make it appear much more realistic. How many other vital details for classic patterns of old have been lost to time? Are we – “we” meaning modern fly tyers – flattering ourselves? These days, when I see a grayling turn away at the last moment and I say to myself: “Nearly, but not quite...” I am not referring to the fish, but to the fly.
(Incidentally, I have found the surest way to tie a forked tail so that it will remain forked is to leave the tag end untrimmed until after the tail filaments have been attached, and then to draw the thread up between them, separating them, before pulling it tight and securing it with a couple of turns. The hardest part about this is not snipping the tag-end off immediately after tying in. It’s a hard habit to break!)
On the Tees, grayling can be caught all day long but, as mentioned earlier, the best time is undoubtedly sunset, particularly on warm days. Maintaining discipline is the biggest challenge during these frenetic periods; with the sun sinking and the light ebbing away, a certain urgency creeps in and the cast and recast steadily picks up speed until, surprise surprise, the bites dry up. A few weeks ago, between about 9.30pm and last light, it was a fish a cast until the evening was brought to an abrupt end by an enormous grayling that broke me off. In the same moment that I raised the rod, the fish threw himself thataway and 20 feet of line was curling back towards me with a resounding “twang”. It was fitting that such a frantic evening should end with a bang. I tried to attach another fly to the tippet, but couldn’t see the eye of the hook, never mind tie a knot.
A few evenings later, the day nearly ended just as abruptly.
It was Saturday at about 9.30pm when a group of teenagers on bikes arrived and gathered a short distance upriver. They were in high spirits and thought it would be fun to throw stones at the man standing in the middle of the river.
Reeling in, I kept my eyes trained on the gang, just in case their aim turned out to be better than their manners. Now on the bank, I continued into the undergrowth until I was hidden from their view. Now what?
To reduce the chances of being hit by one of the pebbles still coming my way, I crouched down on my haunches at the foot of a tree. I could head downriver, but they might follow; me chasing fish, kids chasing me. Circle of life. I poured a cup of coffee. Sound carries at that time of night and above the soft roar of the river, I could hear the teenagers talking:
“Where is he?”
“Dunno, can’t see him...”
A minute passed. The voices were becoming more anxious.
“Watch the path. I think he’s coming.”
“He might have crossed the path already.”
In one of my waistcoat pockets I found a piece of flapjack wrapped in clingfilm. I couldn’t remember putting it there, but flapjack keeps for ages and it didn’t smell as if it had gone off.
“He might be going to the main gate. He’ll get behind us. I think I can hear him!”
Then came the sound of bicycles being untangled from each other and then voices, difficult to discern now, fading into the distance as the boys hurriedly rattled away, seen off by a cup of coffee, a slice of flapjack and their own imaginations...

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