Spring Fly-Fishing – with Martin James

This third extract from Martin James’s excellent book, At The Waters’ Edge, sees the host of Radio Lancashire’s own angling programme tackling up for some spring trout fishing…

The coarse-fishing season ended on 14 March, a new trout season commenced the next day in Lancashire, while over the border in the white rose county of Yorkshire the season started on the 25 March. What did please me was that, in February there were big hatches of fly life, mostly large dark olives and chironomids – often known as midges or buzzers. I was also catching the odd, out-of-season brown trout when fishing for grayling. The trout were bright and plump and in excellent condition. I was very happy to see these over-wintered fish. Whatever the conditions are at the start of the season, I will always spend an hour or two on the River Ribble.

If I’m lucky, I might catch the odd brown trout – I just enjoy immensely the experience of being there. I often share the first day with Alan Roe, who really is a great all-round angler; sea, coarse and game-angling; his fly-casting, and fly-dressing are excellent. He teaches both of these skills professionally. Alan is also a wizard with a centre-pin reel, he demonstrates Wallis casting countrywide at county shows. It’s a pleasure to watch a great exponent of this art. Many OAPs complain about being retired: I don’t. I can fish five days a week – many times its seven!

The early spring weather was dry and quite chilly; the rivers were low and very clear. I felt we were sitting on an ecological time-bomb whenever these conditions existed – just a small pollution incident could cause a major fish-kill. Often, between one and two in the afternoon, in a sheltered area of the river, Alan and I would see a hatch of flies; the odd trout could be seen dimpling the surface. Though fishing was extremely hard, Alan and I usually caught a trout or two; we often fished small flies on long leaders with a fine tippet. I can remember one first day, 15 March. Alan and I arrived on the river with excellent conditions – overcast sky, light southwesterly wind and very mild conditions. Fly were hatching and trout rising.

As we sat on a riverside bench, drinking a freshly-brewed mug of tea, we watched some taking-trout as olives drifted down the stream in profusion. We had both chosen 9ft 4 weight rods and floating lines with long tapered leaders. Suddenly, this huge, ignorant person, dressed in the latest fashion, carrying a new rod with its plastic covering on the handle, announced it was a Czech-nymphing day. He then plunged into the water. Making his way upstream casting the nymph, he was waving the rod about like the sword of Zorro. I suppose he had gone a few yards upstream when I noticed the trout were still taking flies downstream of this oaf. We looked at one another then Alan picked up his rod; after tying on a size 16 olive he quietly moved into position.

Making an upstream cast, he delicately dropped the fly a few feet ahead of the rising trout. As it drifted downstream the fly got eaten. I followed Alan and soon we were both catching fish. An hour later the big oaf announced the trout didn’t want to feed. What an idiot. After those first couple of weeks the season opened on various waters in the Pennines. It was time to move eastwards.

In late March, Kent Sherrington and I were repairing some stiles on the River Hodder. I said, “Are you up for a day’s trout-fishing next week?” Kent said, “Yes.” We decided on a small Pennine river – the word ‘stream’ would be more appropriate. We agreed to leave just after his daughter had gone off to school. At Kent’s house we had a brew, then loaded my tackle, waders and lunch along with the obligatory kettle and gas stove in Kent’s vehicle before heading off to enjoy a day’s brown-trout fishing. An hour or so later we parked up in our usual spot surrounded by some delightful countryside.

Before assembling my tackle, I put the kettle on for a fresh brew. After pulling on my waders and wading boots, I put together my tackle. When I had first fished the water I had used a 4 weight rod, today I was using a 3 weight, 7ft Thomas and Thomas LPS model, matched with a Cortland double taper floating line to which I attached a 9ft Frog Hair leader with a 2lb tippet, choosing to start off with a size 16 Grey Duster which I have found very successful on this water. After a mug of tea we picked up our rods and made our way across the field towards the water. Before you see this delightful river, you hear it bubbling and gurgling as it tumbles its way downstream. Pushing through some riverside willows and hawthorns, I got my first glimpse of the tiny river; it looked beautiful in the sunlight. Fifteen yards upstream it disappeared as it made a right turn between the riverside trees and bushes.

I could see some late primroses and marsh marigolds. Blackbirds were about in profusion, a song thrush was singing its heart out in a nearby beech tree; a dipper zipped downstream, an area of water was ruffled by a light wind. Close to the overhanging horse chestnut tree, a good fish swirled on the surface. It’s a spot where we always see a fish. Kent cast a size 14 Olive, the fly drifted about six inches, there was a slight dimple, and the fly disappeared. His strike connected with a small brown trout which was quickly unhooked in the water. Seconds later another fish dimpled on the surface, the artificial olive pattern was again quickly cast upstream; as it drifted over where we had seen the fish rise it was quickly taken by another small, hungry trout.

A few yards further upstream we arrived at one of our favourite pools. Kent said, “Your turn Martin.” I made a cast, up towards a moss-covered rock. The Grey Duster dropped on the water like thistledown, then drifted downstream about ten feet before disappearing. The strike connected with a nice fish, and after a brief struggle, I was able to draw a foot-long trout to hand where I could bend down and slip out the barbless hook. We moved a few yards upstream to another nice-looking stretch, where the river flowed quite fast from right-to-left, then over some rocks, before flowing slowly over silt and gravel. I made a long cast upstream, the Grey Duster settled on the water and then drifted downstream. A small dimple – I tightened into a good fish which put a nice curve in my rod. An eight inch fish was unhooked in the water. It was fin, tail and scale perfect; unlike most of the stocked fish in our still waters. As always, I felt that Walt Disney could have painted these trout.

Walking quietly upstream, we came to another good-looking pool, at the tail there was an overhanging willow. A couple of yards before the pool, on the left hand bank, was a large hawthorn which was always waiting to grab a badly-cast fly. I made a parallel cast upstream and missed a fish on the first drift. It was Kent’s turn – he didn’t make a mistake. As his Paythorn Olive drifted downstream, Kent retrieved the slack line. Fifteen feet into the drift a fish sucked down the olive. The strike connected with a good trout and a few minutes later a fifteen inch fish was unhooked in the shallow water.

Once more we moved several yards upstream to a spot where the river was over hung by trees and bushes. Two large beech trees, some willows, alders, and hawthorns created a tunnel-like appearance. As always, some branches of a beech tree trailed in the water creating a scum line, and, as always, good fish rolled on the surface. Two warblers, with their black caps and white necklaces, were chasing olives as they hatched off in the warm sunshine; the king cups and marsh marigolds looked beautiful. More dark olives were coming off. Life was wonderful. In fact it couldn’t get better. We were having a millionaire’s lifestyle without being millionaires. Kent and I both caught a nice trout apiece before they were spooked.

We moved on upstream making a left turn and came to a beautiful looking bit of water, with no bushes or trees to impede the casting. It was a fly-fisher’s dream bit of water and a place which had often given us a good fish or two in the past. Fish were rising freely to olives as they floated downstream looking like miniature yachts. I cast the Grey Duster upstream; as it dropped on the water it was immediately taken, I broke on the strike. I moved back from the water’s edge, it was Kent’s turn; the fly drifted downstream ten feet before being eaten. A trout was hooked, the rod tip was pulled down by a good fish and Kent was forced to give some line. This one needed a landing net to make sure it wouldn’t be lost. It was unhooked and released and as we often do we discussed the beauty of the fish. In the next couple of hours we fished some delightful water with lots of character. After a couple of refusals, I changed my Grey Duster to an Iron Blue dun. In the next thirty minutes I had brace of fish then after a 15–20 minute session, without any sign of rising fish, I decided it was time for a change.

With only the odd fly drifting down the stream, and no rising fish it was time to go downstairs. After changing from a dry fly to a size 16 Pheasant Tail nymph, I carried on fishing upstream. I would cast up the stream then let the nymph free drift its way down towards me as I retrieved the slack line in my left hand.

On my second cast, I spotted a tiny movement of the fly line. I tightened into a nice fish which went off upstream forcing me to give a few feet of line. Retrieving the lost line, and a few extra feet, I let this fish work its energy off under the rod tip, then, having drawn the fish into the shallow water, I was able to bend down and slip out the barbless Pheasant tail nymph from the scissors of a beautiful brown trout of perhaps twelve inches. I watched with immense pleasure as the fish dashed off to the deep water. Give me a brace of these fish any day rather than a brace of six-pounder rainbows from stocked water. Upstream, a Dipper emerged from the river with a mouthful of what looked like caddis. It was time for a well-earned fresh brew and a sandwich. During the rest of the day we caught a few more trout, I also had three fish on a small imitation Chironomid or Midge larva. I don’t feel we use Chironomid larva enough in flowing water. Everyone knows how successful they are on still waters. I have learnt a tremendous amount about fishing the Chironomid, Midge or Buzzer from the book Midge Magic which Don Holbrook and Ed Koch published by Stackpole Books – a book I thoroughly recommend. As we sat enjoying a fresh brew we agreed it had been a good day’s fishing on a small Pennine stream.

Sadly all the life and beauty of this Pennine stream, and others like it, could be lost by some silent enemy escaping into a water course, such as chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides or silage; perhaps the releasing of a deadly poison from a riverside factory, garage or farm. It doesn’t of course have to be by a river. That small foot-wide stream near your home eventually flows into a river. We need to ensure all these tiny veins of the countryside are kept clean and healthy. As we build more homes, factories, schools and hospitals, we must make sure we build the sewage treatment plants to cope with all the extra sewage and chemical effluent. I recommend the following reading: The Pursuit of Wild Trout by Mike Weaver, Merlin Unwin books. ISBN 1-873674-00-7. Environmental Poisoning and The Law ISBN 0 9516073 1 6. The Silent Spring by Rachel Carson published by Hamish Hamilton 1963. Of course, we should all be members of the Angling Trust, let’s be honest, we cannot trust the EA which, as we know, is a Government quango.

Martin’s book, At The Water’s Edge can be purchased online from Tackle Discounts