Misconceptions about Fly Fishing:
1. “It is the pursuit of only gentry and of the pompous.”
The “J. R. Hartley”, full tweed image is always going to be a difficult one for fly fishing to shake. After all, it’s a field sport, inextricably linked with the countryside and many land owners and lords still indulge in a spot of fly fishing. But – and this is a big but – fly fishing is popular with men and women from all walks of life. This popularity has been further buoyed with the rise of fly fishing for non-traditional game species, such as carp and pike.
2. “You need an encyclopaedic knowledge of flying insects and their larvae to go fly fishing.”
There is definitely a purist faction of fly fishing which demands such a knowledge to be able to “match the hatch” at any given time by fishing very close imitations of the aquatic life on show, but generally anglers attain this knowledge and skill through long dedication. However, the majority of trout waters are stocked with captive-bred fish which aren’t entirely clued up on what is and what isn’t a naturally abundant foodstuff in the water they live in. At most times of the season these trout can be caught on a few more “general” types of flies (such as lures, boobies, montanas and klinkhammers), which rather than closely mimicking a single species of insect or larvae, offer something which the aggressive rainbow trout simply find interesting/annoying.
3. “Fly casting is difficult; an art form.”
Whilst the latter part of this statement might be true (watching a proficient fly-caster at work can be relaxing and sometimes almost hypnotic), it is certainly not difficult to learn the basics well enough to present a fly and catch a fish. Sure, learning to delicately deliver a dry fly to a rising fish at 30 yards will certainly take some time and practice, but I learned to fly cast with a single, free lesson at the much-missed Chatsworth Angling Fair when I was about twelve years old. So if this lanky, clumsy, impatient 12 year-old boy could pick it up fairly quickly, then anyone can!
Despite never pledging allegiance to any “specimen hunter’s code” I consider myself, by-and-large, to be a “specimen hunter” – or the more modern term “specialist angler” – although that very term can seem a little restrictive in that the angling weeklies would generally have you believe that specimen hunting is a coarse fishing-only pursuit. Surely a specimen is a specimen though, no matter what? So why limit ourselves to just coarse species and methods? I think that a spot of sea fishing or fly fishing now and then can be rewarding in more ways than one; it provides the opportunity to set some new PBs and pick up some new skills along the way. I’ve always held the view that improving on your skills with one method or species can be of greater benefit your angling skills in general. Maybe “all-rounder” covers this philosophy better by definition, although I would hesitate to consider myself one of these, because it implies a certain all-round capability, whereas I’m more of a trier than an achiever! Anyway, digressions aside, after neglecting fly fishing somewhat in recent years, I had a couple of tries for perch on the fly last year and managed fish up to almost 3lb, which was bigger than my PB trout, so I felt it was time for the fly rod to make a rare outing in pursuit of trout.
Depending what you seek to get out of it, fly fishing is a sport you can either dabble in or become completely immersed within. There are so many fascinating skilful aspects, from stalking a wild brown on a dry fly in a mountain beck to tying your own flies; so if fly fishing grabs you, it can become as complicated as you like. If though, like me, you enjoy having another method at your disposal which you can turn to when you’d like a bit of a change from the norm, then it’s easy to pick up enough of the basics and take it from there. I now have a small selection of fly rods and reels, along with a haphazard collection of flies which consists more of the weird and wonderful than of proven fish catchers, but they enable me to fly fish for trout, pike, perch, carp and even sea fish, whenever I choose. The bonus of fly fishing for trout is that the months of April, May and June are some of the most productive of the year, which coincides very nicely with when the rivers are closed to coarse anglers.
If you’re a coarse angler who’s looking to dabble in fly fishing, there are a few items of tackle you can use which you may already own: Most of us have polaroid sunglasses and a good pair of these is essential. Not only do they let you see past the surface glare better, they also protect your eyes from any wayward flying hooks! Then a pair of wellies or thigh waders, a standard pan-style landing net, some forceps for unhooking and some fluorocarbon or clear mono in the 6lb to 8lb category for leader material. If you don’t have your own rod & reel setup, most fly tackle shops and some venues hire them out. Many also provide casting tuition and advice on choosing the correct flies, etc.
Just before Christmas I heard about Errwood Reservoir near Buxton. It’s situated high in the Peak District hills above the town, so it’s set upon a dramatic and picturesque backdrop. Up until 3 years ago, this 18-acre water was really just another trout fishery, but a new committee took over the running of the club and brought with it a fresh approach with regard to the stocking policy and the potential mass appeal this water could have. Regular re-stockings of two different strains of rainbow trout – Steelhead and Kamloops – weighing between 2lb and double figures (yes, this place regularly sees new introductions of fish up to 12lb!) take place throughout the season. The daily bag limit for a £15 day ticket is three fish, but catch and release is kindly requested, especially of the larger specimens which give great sport and are a bit large for eating anyway. Often fish are caught here which have “over-wintered” and these more highly-prized specimens can give further anglers the challenge and pleasure of catching them if they’re treated delicately and returned quickly to swim another day.
I arranged to meet up with Ian Gould, Club Secretary of Errwood Fly Fishing Club, on what turned out to be the hottest, sunniest April day imaginable! My fly casting was a little bit rusty and my experience of catching trout very small, so Ian had kindly offered to give me guidance and help throughout the day, to help me hopefully catch a trout or two. Ian was confident I would beat my personal best, which stood at less than 3lb. The form at Errwood since opening day had been superb, with numerous double-figure trout being caught including 3 in a week falling to Ian alone. So, the prospects were looking good, but with such bright and clear conditions forecast to last all day, Ian confirmed my own fears that this could be detrimental to our chances of catching anything.
Still, the scenery was amazing and even if we caught nothing it looked like a grand old day to be out by the water. So, we set up with #7 weight floating line outfits with straight 7lb fluorocarbon leaders. We were expecting to find the fish holding up deep, so Ian suggested we use quite heavy lures which would get down quickly and offer the trout something enticing to home in on. I started off using a goldhead Montana. Some other flies in our armoury for the day included black lures with blue or red tail flashes and some other chunky nymphs, all on size 10 to 16 hooks.
The sun was already beaming onto most of the reservoir when we arrived, but the corner down by the dam wall was still in the shade and quite conveniently also had a ripple on it. We’d seen a couple of fish rise here, so it seemed the ideal place to start. As my hurried first few casts crashed waywardly on the surface, I began to realise just how rusty my casting was! I got a sneaking suspicion that Ian had pre-arranged some divers to hook up some trout for him because he was just mentioning how important the first cast can be in fly fishing, as he hooked into a trout; low and behold on his very first cast! I had mentally prepared myself for a steady day, because it must be approaching a decade since I spent a full day fly fishing, so this was a most unexpected start.
Despite the banks generally being smooth and clear at Errwood, the corners near the dam wall are rocky and flotsam-strewn, so it wasn’t long before I’d got through several flies, through a mixture of second-rate casting and snagging rocks. After half an hour or so I was getting into the swing of things a bit more; my casting was improving and I was feeling more comfortable. Ian had successfully shown me the “figure of eight” retrieve, which I’d tried to teach myself after seeing it in books and on fishing programmes, but all previous attempts had resulted in line bunching up around my fingers every ten seconds. It’s actually very straight forward, once you get the knack! Meanwhile Ian hooked another trout which leapt a couple of times and seemed a bit bigger to me, but Ian assured me that because it was repeatedly head-shaking, it wasn’t a big fish. Soon he had it in the net and sure enough, this fish was only slightly larger than his first, at around 2lb 8oz. Soon it was unhooked and returned.
The action slowed so we headed down to try the deeper water near the boat ramps for a short while, but as we fished here we spotted quite a few rises back in the corner we’d come from! We moved back and on my second cast after returning, my retrieving fingers seemed to slip off the line. There was resistance but no jagged take. I gave the line a sharp tug and rapidly took up the slack. I was into a fish and it was kiting to my right and towards me at the same time. I have never caught a trout from a water larger than about half an acre before, so I was surprised by just how well this one was fighting. It dashed around but remained shallow and each time it neared the surface of the orangey peat-tinged water and caught the light, I saw a large magenta flash.
I was sure I was attached to a really good trout, but as it finally tired and came towards the net it seemed to halve in size! Quite a common occurrence, Ian assured me. I stared down at a fish of two and a half pounds and realised I had clearly underestimated the fighting prowess of these farm-bred trout. Their riverine cousins run riot on light float gear when trotting for chub or grayling; they hurl themselves suicidally when hooked on light spinning gear; but possibly the best fight of all is on fly gear. It seems that fly rods were designed to be so flexible, not only to hurl a fly line a long distance, but also to allow Mr Trout to use his speeding, sporting skills to their maximum potential.
Despite the pressure now being off, having both now banked fish, we both managed to miss a couple of takes, but the action dried up. It was lunchtime by now and we moved over to an area of the Western bank known as “Duffer’s Bank” (I’m not sure what Ian was trying to say about my fly fishing skills by fishing here!), as the breeze was pushing in this direction, so hopefully the fish would be following any food items blown over there, much as carp or bream would on a coarse lake. Things looked promising as Ian hooked another 2lb+ trout almost immediately, but after working a 100-metre stretch of grassy shoreline no more trout were forthcoming.
The sun was relentless all day, not once being shielded by a cloud and I hadn’t exactly gone prepared for such a gorgeous day. By late afternoon I could feel that I was sunburned and quite dehydrated but I was really enjoying my day and wanted to fish on. Eventually we ended up back where we started, near the dam. This final move paid off quite quickly as Ian hooked by far the largest trout of the day so far. This one stayed deep and took some landing but eventually an immaculate specimen rainbow of over 4lb was landed. The fish were rising well now and despite repeatedly casting towards rising fish, my next take came to a blind cast. This trout again took very gently but came in quite quickly until it was under the rod tip. This is a dangerous time in the fight because of the turn of speed a trout possesses. Fluorocarbon is quite brittle with little stretch, so it can easily snap if the fish decides to leap, close-in. My nerve and the leader both held long enough to land me a new Personal Best rainbow trout of 3lb 3oz. Now this is what I came for! I was now hungry for more action and as the sun began to set behind the hills opposite, I fished on with a renewed enthusiasm.
It’s hard to explain the state I enter when I spot a fish or see one rise; it’s almost like I begin to prowl. I become entranced by the hunt, but the adrenaline makes me restless. Once I can sense that there’s the imminent chance of a fish my mind goes into overdrive, I enter a heightened state of awareness and become entirely focused on hooking a fish. It must be the drug that I crave when I’m not fishing and during those long, blank days when it’s as much an endurance event as a relaxing pursuit!
Eventually my persistence paid off when I got a bit more of a fierce take which instantly felt in a different class to the fish I’d caught earlier. This fish wanted to stay deep, but in my initial adrenaline-fuelled haste, I managed to bully the fish towards the surface. I felt the line rise sharply before it leapt clear of the water. Having now seen my prize I realised I had to give it a bit more respect or I’d lose it for sure. My game plan changed and after a few minutes of wilfully giving line and then gingerly coaxing it back, I had gently eased the fish most of the way in. Ian started giving me some stick as to whether I intended to ever actually net the fish and I realised I’d maybe taken it a bit too steadily! Finally the fish was in the net and it was definitely worth the wait. This was a streamlined athlete of a fish with the frame of a salmon, not some fat pellet junkie. The fish weighed in at 4lb 7oz and was an over-wintered rainbow. Again, this fish was quickly unhooked, photographed and returned to the reservoir.
So, another PB had seen the bank, in the form of a fish and a fight that will both live long in my memory; our eighth fish between us for the day. It was the perfect end to a truly enjoyable day, which made me glad I gave the old fluff chucking a go again. Ian was excellent company and a great help, despite my early casting forays virtually emptying his fly box! I’d take fishing like this any day. It beats spending the closed season sitting by some muddy puddle catching carp!
I was completely won over by Errwood. It seems like the perfect fly fishing venue to me; relatively easy to fish (but challenging if you want it to be – think wild browns!), stocked with large, fit fish, set in the most impressive surroundings and of a size that can be comfortably explored in a day. Seriously, what more could one ask of a trout venue? The river coarse fishing season is almost upon us, so I doubt I’ll be heading back to Errwood any time soon, but a return trip next spring will give me something to really look forward to during next year’s closed season. I would urge all coarse anglers or “lapsed” fly fishermen to make plans to do the same!
If you’re interested in sampling a bit of the action for yourself, there is plenty more information on the Errwood Website. You can fish on a day ticket, which needs to be purchased beforehand from one of many outlets, or you can become a member, for which there may be a waiting list.