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Skunked again!

By Peter Lapsley

Those who write about fishing are no less vulnerable to blank or thin days than anyone else. The trick is to learn from such events

The Derbyshire Wye is a wonderful river with healthy populations of wild brown and rainbow trout
The Derbyshire Wye is a wonderful river with healthy populations of wild brown and rainbow trout

Some people may suppose that those of us who write about fishing must catch vast numbers of fish, using knowledge and experience to avoid blank days or even very thin ones. I can only speak for myself, but certainly in my case (and in those of close fishing friends), that is a long way from the truth. I have at least my share of blanks and ‘blank patches’. I do, however, try to analyse them and learn from them, rather than simply to say, “Ah, well, that’s fishing,” and slope homeward with shoulders slumped and head hung low.

Occasionally, of course, I fail to find satisfactory answers for failure and have to resort to blaming it on the weather (a north-east wind is a useful excuse, as is ‘too bright a day’), the fish (too few of them), unfamiliarity with the water (which is often valid), misleading local advice, a noisy boat partner (a plausible reason in one memorable case) or even, in extremis, my own crass incompetence.

More often, though, if one ponders the problem carefully, perhaps discussing it with others, a realistic answer becomes evident, enabling the problem to be overcome when next I fish that water in those circumstances. Here are a few examples.

Picky, picky
The Derbyshire Wye is a wonderful river with healthy populations of wild brown and rainbow trout, and with fly life as varied and prolific as it was on most rivers before the Second World War. The rainbow trout prefer fast, white water; the browns tend to live in the glides. It was early afternoon on a balmy, early-June day, with thin cloud cover and a soft south-westerly breeze. I came round a corner of the river and there ahead of me was a low weir with fizzing white water bouncing and bubbling for five yards or so below it. There was a good hatch of Mayfly developing and half a dozen decent fish were rising busily in the foam. “A piece of cake,” I thought. “I’ll have a leisurely sandwich and a can of beer, munch an apple and then catch the lot of them, one after the other.” So confident was I that I almost felt sorry for them.

When I had finished my picnic, I checked my leader and tied on a new Poly May Dun – by far the most reliable Mayfly pattern I know – and paddled quietly into position 10-15 yards below the nearest fish. The first cast landed perfectly, the fly settling neatly onto the water about 18in ahead of the fish, which ignored it completely but kept on rising. I cast again – and again – and again. No reaction of any sort; the fish just kept on rising. I tried another fish with precisely the same result, and then another. I neither put any of them down nor elicited the slightest interest from them. It was frustrating, and the frustration was beginning to make my casting just a tad ragged when Phil White, an old friend, came round the corner behind me. I told him what had been happening. He watched the water for a few moments. “But they’re not taking Mayflies,” he said, “they’re taking either medium olives or small spurwings.”

I replaced the Poly May Dun with a size 16 Thorax Olive Dun and, to make a short story shorter, caught and released four of the fish in about ten casts – beautiful, fit, fierce, deep-bellied rainbows of between 1½ and 2lb, each of them with the give-away white leading edges to their pelvic and anal fins which mark them out as truly wild.

Even pickier
The Yellowstone River proper begins in Wyoming where its North and South Forks converge. It then flows northward through Yellowstone National Park, feeding and draining Lake Yellowstone. Flowing out of the northern boundary of the park, it heads north-westwards through the Rockies before turning north-eastwards near Livingstone where it begins its 500-mile trek through the length of Montana, eventually joining the Missouri near Buford in North Dakota. Yellowstone National Park is high on the list of the world’s great natural wonders. My wife and I spent a week there in early September last year, chiefly to see some of its extraordinary geography and wildlife. For substantial areas within the park, the ground burps and wobbles, and geysers spew forth astonishing amounts of steam and water. The aptly named Old Faithful is the best known of them, but there are countless others. And the park is home to grizzlies and black bears, elk, moose, bison, pronghorn and black-tailed deer, wolves, coyote, river otters, bald eagles, trumpeter swans and numerous other species, including the cutthroat trout that are native to its rivers.

The park rangers are ambivalent about fishing. The park is one of the most rigorously conserved wildlife reserves in the United States, and fishing is the only field sport allowed within it – and it is only permitted because it always has been; to ban it now would be to incur the wrath of the powerful angling lobby. Very reasonably, however, every tributary and side-stream is ‘posted’, fishing being forbidden, to minimise the risk to fry, fingerlings and spawning fish. For all but one day, my fishing was confined to the early mornings and the evenings and, naively, I concentrated on the Yellowstone River for the four or five miles downstream of its egress from the lake. Access points were reasonably numerous, close to the road and easily negotiated, which should have told me something. One place in particular intrigued me. There is an island, no more than about 200 yards long, separated from the river bank by a relatively narrow stream, perhaps 20 yards wide. The stream is posted – and it is seething with fish. As the daylight faded, they would sidle out into the main channel and begin feeding, usually rising confidently to hatching nymphs or buzzers. But, no matter how low I huddled on the bank or how still I kept, whenever I put a fly to them, however delicately and accurately, they simply stopped rising. They didn’t flee but just lay there, clearly visible in the crystal water; you could almost hear them sighing, “Oh, no, not again!” If you left them in peace for a couple of minutes, they would begin rising again as confidently as before. In three mornings and three evenings, I caught just three cutthroat trout.

In desperation, I headed for Blue Ribbon Flies, the near-legendary tackle shop in West Yellowstone, owned by Craig Mathews and his wife, Jackie. Like so many others, I had been put in touch with Craig by our mutual friend, Nick Lyons, the most renowned of all American 20th century fishing book publishers. Convinced that I was either using the wrong flies, that the fish were gut-shy or, or both, I had intended to seek Craig’s advice on patterns and tippet strengths.

“You’ve been wasting your time,” he said. “The summer holidays have just finished and, while there may be few anglers about now, those easily reached stretches on the Yellowstone have been being flogged to death every day for the past two months. I’d try one of the smaller and more lightly fished rivers like the Lamar, at the north end of the park, or the rather more accessible but less lightly fished Madison, formed by the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon rivers and flowing westwards out of the park to the north of West Yellowstone. And try one of these," he said, handing me a Hopper tied on a size 10 long-shank. I bought six, my wife was happy to accompany me on a full-day trip to the Lamar, where I enjoyed one of my most magical days’ fishing ever.

Lessons from Daddy
I have a passion for daddy-long-legs. Through the second half of August and the whole of September, they can provide fishing comparable with that seen during Mayfly hatches. Fish that are familiar with the naturals will slash at them excitedly. The pattern I use is quick and easy to tie, robust, floats all day and, most important, it is as convincing to trout as it is to the human eye. It is important to note that the fish must be familiar with the naturals. As is the case with the hawthorn fly, which appears during the last week in April and the first in May, trout that have seen none of the naturals or only very few will often ignore an artificial completely, presumably because they do not recognise it as food.

The best Daddy fishing on rivers tends to be in meadowland, because that is where natural daddies are to be found in the greatest numbers. Their larvae, ‘leatherjackets’, live amongst the grass roots on which they feed.

I am fortunate that much of the River Meon (below), the pretty and productive chalk brook I fish in Hampshire, full of little wild brown trout, flows through just such meadowland. It provides good grazing for cattle – and bumper crops of daddies. Fishing one of the meadow stretches in early September a couple of years ago, I was having a field day. Almost every fish I cast to hurtled at my artificial, taking it with the sort of surface shattering enthusiasm usually reserved for Mayflies or evening caddis. Even more fun, some simply balanced it on their noses, drifting downstream beneath it and squinting at it quizzically, before either taking it gently or turning away. Heart-stopping stuff.

Eventually, I decided my Daddy needed tidying up. I rinsed it, squeezed it carefully in an amadou patch, and gave it a good shake in a tub of granular fly floatant. When next I cast it to a rising trout, it tiptoed along on its hackle and the tips of its legs, high on the water. The fish took not the slightest notice of it. The same thing happened with the next fish, and the one after that. Then I realised – natural daddy-long-legs do not dance across the surface en pointe; they subside into it, floating with their bodies in the surface film and their legs and wings bedraggled around them – as, incidentally, do hawthorn flies. So, I rinsed the fly again to remove the residual powder, gave it a light squeeze in the amadou, chucked it out and was back in business immediately. The following week, I told this story to a fishing friend as we drove down to a wooded stretch of the Itchen. We went our separate ways in the morning, meeting up again at lunchtime. “How’ve you done?” he asked. “OK,” I said, “how about you?” “Nothing,” he replied, “I fished a Daddy all morning and haven’t even had a rise.” “But, Bob,” I said, “this is all woodland. There are no natural daddies here.” “Ah,” he said, “good point.”

Blankety Blank!
There are, of course, blank days from which it can be very difficult to squeeze lessons. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, almost all my fishing was on stillwaters, especially on Blagdon (below), which I love and which I fished frequently and regularly for many years. I even became quite good at it. Over the last couple of seasons during which I fished it seriously before moving up to London, I achieved an average of almost seven fish per day, all from the bank.

My then fiancée lived with her parents in The Forest of Dean, quite a short drive from Bristol. I became friends with Bill Burtonshaw, a retired police sergeant, chairman of the local fishing club and as passionate an angler as I was. We developed an informal tradition of fishing Blagdon together for five consecutive days at the beginning of June each year. Driving home one evening after a less than easy day, Bill suggested a change. “Why don’t we try Llandegfedd tomorrow?” he asked. “It was only opened as a fishery quite recently, has a good reputation and, being between Usk and Pontypool, it is only about 45 minutes away, a good deal closer than Blagdon. “Why not?” said I.

I picked Bill up at some ungodly hour the following morning and, having bought our day tickets from the self-service box at the deserted lodge, we were tackling up on an arbitrarily chosen stretch of bank by 6.30am. Surrounded by rolling hills and woodland, Llandegfedd is an attractive reservoir. But, although, at 434 acres, it is almost the same size as Blagdon, it lacks Blagdon’s length and narrowness and therefore its sense of intimacy. And we knew nothing about it. Filled with optimism, we fished hard all day, in a flat calm, under a clear, pale blue sky without a single cloud in it, taking only the briefest refreshment breaks and moving further up the bank a couple of times. We saw no other anglers, nor, importantly, did we see any sign of a trout between dawn and dusk. The whole place seemed completely dead. At one point, a friendly chap came by and articulated both the obvious and the zany – we were wasting our time, he said; there was a big black hole in the middle of the reservoir into which all the trout had vanished. We were tempted to believe him. Another passer-by told us the lake was full of pike which had eaten all the trout, and that we’d be better off not wading in case they ate us too.

Eventually, as the sun sank behind the horizon, I called to Bill that I would have five more casts and then pack it in. He agreed. On the fourth one, I caught a perch of about 3oz – the true full stop beneath the exclamation mark at the end of the blankest day imaginable. For all that that day is etched indelibly into my memory, there are lessons to be learnt from it. First and foremost, we should have stayed at home. Hot, bright, still summer days and good fishing do not sit comfortably together, especially when the fishing in question is on a large reservoir about which one knows nothing at all. On those sorts of days and on those sorts of waters, knowledgeable locals might just be able to find a fish or two; first-time visitors are most unlikely to do so.

Second, having committed ourselves to going, we should have sought advice from the reservoir staff, and followed it. They know where fish are being caught, on what, and how. And they want their customers to enjoy their sport and return. (I have frequently been told by fishery wardens of the number of times they give visiting anglers the best possible advice on where and how to fish, only to see them head off in the opposite direction, do something completely different and then moan about the ‘poor management’ of the water.

Thirdly, occasional blank or very difficult days can actually be valuable. The memory of them makes good days better, and if fishing was always easy it wouldn’t be fun.

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