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Good Sports

The Damp Angler heads for some stillwater fishing, where his 'never fails' fly is put to the test...will it live up to its name?


“Never fails”: Small fry imitation composed almost entirely of tinsel. Responsible for my best day on Crabtree Lake.
“Never fails”: Small fry imitation composed almost entirely of tinsel. Responsible for my best day on Crabtree Lake.
March Madness: Tying spring flies is the only thing to keep me sane through wild days of winter. Are the wings back-to-front?
March Madness: Tying spring flies is the only thing to keep me sane through wild days of winter. Are the wings back-to-front?

Although I didn't appreciate it at the time, Crabtree Lake, at Gilling West, in North Yorkshire, was the setting for my finest day. It was a glorious summer's afternoon and the water was as clear as the air around it. The fish – scores of them – were swimming together; circling the middle of the lake in a continuous ribbon of gently rippling silver. Perhaps they were doing it deliberately to stir up the lake bed or more likely it was just a pattern of behaviour they had accidentally fallen into. But in the midst of the shoal, surrounded by scores of rainbow trout a fraction of its size, was an enormous fish with a brown patch across its shoulders. After catching half a dozen of the rainbows, I began to target the big fish, timing the cast so that the fly sank just as “Patch” came around on another lap – it was the fishing equivalent of in-play betting – but each time, a smaller fish darted out from the shoal and snapped it up. Patch showed no interest in the fly at all. By the end of the day, my arm was aching after catching more rainbows than I could count with the same “never fails” bundle of silver tinsel, but instead of revelling in the success of the day, for a long time afterwards I could recall only that one big fish ignoring the fly.

Crabtree Lake: The lake is two and half acres and costs £10 for an afternoon's fishing – but the trout don’t always throw themselves at the fly…

A tackle shop owner in Scotland told me he preferred rivers to stocked stillwaters because he thought there was something unsporting about “catching fish that had been put there for him to catch”. That would be true if the fish were in on the deal, but they are not. Once released into the lake, they will do whatever they want and to hell with anglers and their favourite flies.

Which brings us neatly to the present. Rain and sleet in recent weeks have swollen the rivers and reduced me to days of fly tying. Two March Browns from madness, the weather cleared, but all that water has to go somewhere and both the Tees and Swale remained unapproachable.

Aching for a stretch and the sight of a fish, I rang ahead to check if Crabtree Lake was still operating (it's been a while) and had a short conversation with the owner, who said the lake was still open for business, but warned there has been a problem with weed this year – a problem shared by all of the fisheries in the area – before quickly adding that anglers had been catching nonetheless.

“Do you still operate an honesty box?” I asked innocently.

“No,” she said, “you have to leave £10 in the box by the farm house door and take a permit.”

Having established that one of us didn't know what an honesty box was, I set out for the lake. She was right about the weed, but keeping the fly away from the bottom by adjusting the rate of retrieve avoided the worst of it. It also avoided the fish. Three hours later, I had caught only fleeting glimpses of activity in the water – a slight bow wave here and there or a sudden ripple in the distance. Nothing surfaced and nothing bothered the fly. The “never fails” bundle of tinsel may be looking at a name change.

Platform Blues: There are fishing platforms along the banks of the lake with plenty of room for the back cast.

It wasn't the lake's fault, of course. Stillwaters like Crabtree are constantly changing puzzles and a world away from the rivers I'm used to, where the fish haven't been “put there for me to catch”, but more often than not are sporting enough to take a fly anyway. So if the weather holds and the Tees and Swale calm down, I'll be back on familiar ground before Christmas and the next post might actually have some fish in it...

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