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Trick of the light

Does colour of fly matter on a sunny day?


Pale Sedge: which may pass for ANY sedge when the sun is out.
Pale Sedge: which may pass for ANY sedge when the sun is out.
The Swale trout were sheltering under the far bank, emerging to take sedges.
The Swale trout were sheltering under the far bank, emerging to take sedges.
The body of a Greenwell’s Glory, with the hook-shank showing through the body.
The body of a Greenwell’s Glory, with the hook-shank showing through the body.
The fish that attacked the author's legs.
The fish that attacked the author's legs.

THE first trout of the 2017 season came from the Tees in slack water on the inside of a bend, which is where trout seem to hole up when the river is heavy. Until then, it had been a hopeless evening; a chill breeze keeping the temperature down and ending all hopes of a hatch. There were signs of fish - nothing as obvious as a rise, but plenty of swirls and bow-waves and while this was encouraging in one way (being preferable to a flat, lifeless calm), at the same time it was disheartening, because there was no way of knowing what they were really up to. Were they feeding or just messing about?

A dry Greenwell is a good bet in these situations; if fish don't rise to the fly on the surface, it can be dragged in the current and persuaded to sink. The dry and wet versions of the fly differ only slightly anyway and the decisive feature (everyone agrees), the trigger present in both, is the waxy translucent body that as well as taking on an olive hue in sunlight, also allows the silhouette of the hook-shank to show through, hinting at an insect's innards. On this occasion, whatever the trout were up to, the dry Greenwell fished wet proved enough of a distraction.

By the first weekend, the Swale had fallen off and at Lownethwaite it was running clear enough to make wading risky ("Is that two feet of water in front of me or five?") It was warm and gloriously sunny with a light wind, but the only insects on the wing were small, pale sedges. Continuing to throw Greenwells at the fish sheltering beneath the far bank suddenly seemed bloody-minded, so I reluctantly tied on my last pale sedge. "Reluctantly" because it was a fly tied far too late at night and one in which I had absolutely no confidence. And yet, it was the only fly in my box that looked remotely like the sedges fluttering around in ever increasing numbers.

The fly touched down a little way along the bank from where the fish were showing and drifted slowly over them. When a fish slashed at it I was so startled I yanked the fly from the trout's mouth. The second take drew a more measured response, and the trout, a well-spotted brown of about a pound-and-a-half, was well hooked in the palate.

The next take was an odd affair. After a lazy sip that barely broke the surface, the trout meekly went with the pressure, swimming slowly towards me offering little resistance. But as he drew closer and then swam by, I was able to get a look at him and became uneasy. He was a big fellow. Really big. So why wasn't he...? And then he took off; nought to thirty in half a second, going deep, taking line a foot at a time and coming back at me so that I had to strip line in and then hold the rod as far from me as possible to keep him away from my legs, which the fish seemed dead set on. Trout have no idea what waders are, and this one probably mistook mine for cover and a possible escape-route. It was during one of his runs towards me that I managed to quickly stab the landing net into the water in front of him and hoik him out of the river, which was a bit of a sudden end to the game and not at all the way it's supposed to be done.

In hindsight (foresight would be better), the sedges must have been grannom (given the time of year), and may not have been as pale as I supposed. They may only have seemed so because of the bright sunshine, the darkest insects appearing pale when their wings catch the light. But assuming they were indeed grannom and not a freak hatch of some other, paler species, that begs a question: why did the trout take an artificial that was entirely the wrong colour?

Here's a theory. If my eyes were being fooled, then maybe the trout's eyes were too in exactly the same way. Either that or, looking up at the fly with a cloudless sunny sky above it, all they could see was a black silhouette roughly the same shape and size as the sedges they were feeding on. If this is true, that bright sunlight effectively cancels out colour, then any small sedge pattern would have worked equally well. Hopefully, the next few months of the season will offer plenty of sunny days on which the theory can be put to the test...

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