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High water, back-eddy and a single dry fly

When faced with high, fast river-flows, there’s always somewhere to find a fish… or even two

First from the back eddy.
First from the back eddy.

It’s at times like these, with incessant rain (in the north, in any case), and rivers bustling through at a rapid rate, pushing anglers into the lush, marginal vegetation as the water levels stay unusually high, that my thoughts turn back to my coarse fishing days.

When I was a teenager, my mates and I would cycle to the Welland, usually on a Sunday, as that was the only day I had off school. As we topped the hill to overlook the Welland valley we’d ponder: “I wonder what the river looks like?”

I think we’d have been classed as reasonably intelligent, but for some reason we would have no idea what condition the river way down in the valley would be in. I suppose we had no internet water levels and weather forecasts being beamed to us on a mobile signal, but we also obviously had no idea about the amounts of recent rainfall, the saturation of the land, and the degree of run-off.

However, as we pedalled to the crest of the hill, all of us would be praying that it wouldn’t be big, wide and muddy brown, indicating that it was in flood. It was these conditions that caused us most dread. We had the whole day ahead of us, then a long ride home, and we had to find some fish in the boisterous, rolling, powerful flows. We usually struggled in such conditions.

I used to hate that feeling of arriving at a river in flood – I always wanted the river to be ‘normal’. That was until I fished with my mate’s father, the late Ray Thorpe, part of Uppingham’s Nelson’s Butchers dynasty. It's the sort of shop that you have to psyche yourself up before entering. If you’ve ever been in there and got some Thorpe cheek, then you’ll know what I mean; you need your wits about you. I once bought a single sausage and, for a joke, paid for it with a £20 note. Ray didn’t bat an eyelid, he took my note, turned, rang it up in the till, and gave me back my change… all in 5p pieces.

Apart from being an ace practical joker, Ray was a hugely talented fisherman, and had taught Dave and I since we were kids. Thing about Ray was he never forced you to learn anything; he just let you pick up from his cue, or absorb stuff organically. However, I do remember clearly him telling me how he used to ‘hold back’ (aka, ‘stret pegging’ or ‘laying on’, with a float weighted to fish on the bottom, baited with maggots or redworm) in a big flood, right in the margins, and he would pick up large bags of roach, dace and chub right under his rod-tip from the quieter water in a back eddy, well away from the tumult of the main current.

I tried it in the very next flood, and netted a good mixed bag myself, and then later caught my biggest-ever roach (a shade under two pounds). Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I found myself looking forward eagerly to a flood.

Fast-forward 40 years or so and, despite fly fishing being a wholly different branch of angling, the lesson remains the same, because all fish are the same. In high, fast water, they seek out the quieter flows.

So, last week, when I got to the river and it was piling through like an express train after incessant heavy rain many miles to the west, I had to re-think my plans. Although the river was clear, dry fly was surely out of the reckoning in that rocketing flow, but even wets were being swept around on a stormy, sweeping current. Hmmm, I needed to do something different, or it would be a long evening.

Now, there’s a big bend on the beat and like on most bends, there’s a back eddy. I normally ignore this pool, but today, I sat at the head of it, and focussed on the smoother water and the circling flow of the back eddy on my side - water that, in a normal flow, I would walk straight past.

There! A fish moved at the surface a foot away from my bank. Some blue-winged olives were in the air, and things were suddenly looking up. I re-set my gear for a single dry with an Emerging Olive, slipped into the water, which was quite deep at this high water level and, staying tight to the bank, waded into the gliding current of the back eddy, until I could deliver a back-handed cast to where I’d seen the rise. At least there was a fish there.

In fact, there were at least four. All fell to the dry in an area of just two square metres. Who’d have thought it: dry fly sport in a massive river like this?

Thanks, Ray. That’s 5p I owe you.

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