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Right fly, wrongly tied

What happens when caenis are abound, but you don't have the right fly in your box? Let The Damp Angler explain all...

Swale trout: Fish have risen to the Kite’s Imperial even during the dog days.
Swale trout: Fish have risen to the Kite’s Imperial even during the dog days.
Tees trout: The fish that was tucked up tight against the far bank.
Tees trout: The fish that was tucked up tight against the far bank.

What trout are doing during the dog days of July and August has been the subject of much discussion. Some believe they are quietly feeding on nymphs and freshwater shrimp; others say they are simply lying dormant; waiting for the autumn hatches to kick in. Whatever the truth of it, persevering with dry flies when no fish were rising felt downright delusional at times.

With low water and weather best described as “changeable”, every catch during those months was hard-earned, but the hardest of all came at Thorpe House on the River Swale, where there is an access point I had driven past several times; repeatedly spotting the lay by too late to safely pull over. Having finally stopped in time, I wondered if the club sign was in the right place or if it had been moved there as a practical joke. On the other side of the fence lay a precipitous drop to the river a hundred feet or more below. Through gaps in the trees, what I could see of the river looked inviting enough – there was a large boulder set in the middle of a broad lagoon of smooth, dark water that screamed trout, but reaching it seemed impossible. At the point of dismissing the venture as not worth the effort or the risk, in the same moment that I was turning away, car keys in hand, just as I was taking one last lingering look, the oh-so predictable happened.

“Oh that's not funny,” I said out loud. “Not funny at all.” Half a minute later, the fish came up again. In the same place as before, next to the boulder.

Summer’s last gasp: Conditions have improved – just in time for the end of the season.

Providing a complete account of the climb down to the river would bore the most patient reader – and let's face it, every fly fisher has a story to tell about the day they nearly died trying to reach a rising fish – so let us just say that it was not without mishap and took some considerable time and the only passable route led to a point at the water's edge even further from the rising fish than I had been at the outset. Then began the slow wade upstream, my confidence rising with every tentative step as the conviction became stronger that the fish I was approaching had never before seen either an angler or a hook, the difficult approach having surely discouraged all but the terminally obsessed.

Finally, I was in the best casting position I could reach before the water in front of me darkened to unfathomable depths. Wade no further. But which fly? Caenis were everywhere and the only fly I had of comparable size and shape was a tiny Fulling Mill olive. It would have to do.

Now to the next problem. The rising fish was within range, but directly in front of me. Casting the fly line over his head would only spook him and render the odyssey I had just made a complete waste of time. Moving either to the left or right would bring me too close to the bankside vegetation and threaten the back cast. The situation called for a cast not found in text books or instructional videos. It doesn't have a name yet, but involves casting directly towards the fish and then, when the line is travelling forwards through the air over his head, flicking the rod violently to one side. The outcome is unpredictable, but this time the tiny Fulling Mill olive alighted more or less perfectly upstream of the fish's position, while the line settled... elsewhere. The fish rose, but the fly was so small it was impossible at such a distance to see if it had been taken. When I slowly raised the rod and tightened the line to check, the fish was on. Wet and with a full stomach and the fly still in his mouth, he might have tipped the scales at half a pound, but he was fresh, feisty and full of colour and this was one occasion when the fishing was at least as much fun as the catching. There are no pictures of either the spot or the fish because it seemed prudent to leave the camera (and other valuables) in the boot of the car, just in case my descent to the river got messy.

The vast majority of other catches during the past month have gone to the Kite's Imperial, which has been the go-to fly this year whenever olives have been around. And when olives haven't been around and no fish have been rising, it has still drawn the odd trout from the depths – now that nature has caught up with my pattern...

Fulling Mill olive: Taken by a trout during a caenis hatch.

In the excitement of finding a heron feather at the beginning of the summer I rushed into a fly tying frenzy without properly reading the recipe. The tail should have been dark during the early part of the season, only becoming honey dun later on. In too much of a hurry, I saw “honey dun” and got to work. John Gierach famously wrote that if you cast the wrong fly for long enough, then eventually it will become the right fly. And if you tie the right fly wrongly for long enough...

September has seen an improvement in both weather and water and the fishing on the Tees has sprung back to life. In one memorable two-hour lunchtime session I landed a lovely trout that had been tucked in tight to the far bank and half a dozen good grayling on a size 14 Kite's; the best of them an enormous fish that was extraordinarily colourful, flashing blue and purple in the sunlight as he paravaned left and right in front of me. ("Paravaned" is a word that I have recently acquired from Peter Lapsley and intend to use wherever possible).

As a footnote, my attempt to "improve" the Kite's Imperial did not go well. Doubling the hackle at the front certainly increased its bouyancy, but unbalanced the fly so that it floated nose down – no amount of trimming would cure the problem. Seeing the fly drift by, its tail cocked up in the air, was an object lesson in humility – like a slap across the back of the head from the great man himself…

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