November 2016 - Seasons Reflections, the Winter to come and Bruce Sandison
Tuesday 1st November 2016 - By Graham Waterton
The seasonal transition of early Autumn is an appropriate time to look forward to the delight and frustration of chasing pike and grayling during short winter days and capricious weather and a moment to reflect on the half year long trout season.
Autumn on the Itchen
Over these last six months the chalkstreams seemed always to be full. True for the first few months but latterly a false impression created by abundant weed growth and skilful scythe work during the rivers later haircuts. Other than the greeny algal stain that the rivers now regularly endure in May, the cool, alkali, nutrient rich water squeezed from deep layers of chalk flowed with the clarity of the gin distilled on the banks of the River Test at Laverstoke Mills. Even now at the end of rainless October the rivers run unclouded.
A wild brown trout in gin clear chalkstream water
We must be careful not to be fooled by this apparent visual perfection. The water has many unwanted ingredients that at best reduce and at worst destroy much of the invertebrate life that this fragile system requires for a healthy food chain. The perpetrators are being watched but prosecutions which result in real improvements are frustratingly slow.
Before the mayfly emerged into cold and blustery mid May days the fish rose hungrily to early olives. These early season days are often overlooked by those who prefer to fish in shirtsleeves. Late April and early May days can provide excellent fly hatches and our targets often rested, hungry and naive. By the end of this years annual danica feast there had been more days clad in waders and waterproofs than shirtsleeves but many displays of astonishing and insatiable greed, mostly, but not exclusively, by fish.
Spot the natural
My guiding diary was thankfully very full this year and took me to a wide range of chalkstream beats, a few for the first time but mostly to more regular haunts. Some immaculate in manicured splendour others wildly beautiful in their subtly managed neglect. The proliferation of rewilding projects and the conversion of stocked to wild fisheries continues and is to be applauded.
For another season I have introduced dozens to the chalkstreams and to flyfishing. Most left having caught their first fish, with lasting memories and hooked well enough that I hope they will be drawn back again next season. I never tire of seeing their amazed faces reflect the wonder of fooling fish in our preferred method of delicate trickery.
" I never thought that would work!"
The summer followed a not untypical pattern of strong and varied daytime hatches reducing through July and August into unpredictable evening rises. These late summer days so often characterised by hours of finding and spooking fish and then a period in failing light of very challenging and often rewarding fishing. It's a shame when clients leave the river too early. They seem not to appreciate that they can miss an hour of excruciating frustration. My two biggest wild fish this season were taken late on separate evenings during a sparse spinner fall which brought previously unseen fish out to feed. A real test of technique and temperament. We won't talk about the fruitless waits for something to happen when either nothing did or my technique or temperament were wanting.
I fish for the magic moments and my selective memory does the rest.
For the second half of the season, on most beats anyway, the dry fly restriction is lifted and as a devotee of clearwater nymphing to sighted fish I really enjoy this part of the season and teaching this method. Over the last few months as the levels dropped, we've been fishing in skinny crystal water as often or not flowing over gravels blanketed in weed, to shallow and very spooky fish. Everything needs to be stretched to avoid our patience going the same way. Our traditional nymphing methods need to be refined. With an increasing Gallic influence we're using the thinnest of tippets, very long leaders and long, accurate, delicate casts. Bite detection becomes harder; the fish are so far away it's tricky to see the subtle movements which trigger the hook set. Add a helpful mid leader bite indicator and the French leader transition is virtually complete. Clearwater nymph fishing to seen fish has always been an art form, now French style leaders and long light rods are advancing our skills, particularly in the current low clear water conditions. This is the second year where these tactics were needed in low water at the end of the season.
These very effective techniques will continue now for grayling until the first rains arrive but when they do we are in for a very dirty river as the golden gravels are rinsed of the all enveloping and choking algae and filamentous weed.
I was sorry to hear a few days ago that Bruce Sandison had died. In 1983 he wrote " The Trout Lochs of Scotland". An impressive research project and an invaluable guide for those who enjoy solo wilderness flyfishing, as I do.I still have my copy which is well thumbed and dog eared as it accompanied me on many trips north, stuffed in pocket or rucksack. This book was the main reason I tramped across heather and hill and found a staggering variety of trout lochs, some with "a basket of 6/8 trout totalling 2 pounds can be expected" to lochs which for no apparent reason held very big peat loch trout. This book also introduced me to the crystal clear limestone lochs of Durness which provided, over many years, unsurpassed stillwater fishing for large wild trout. I will be forever in his debt for the many amazing days and nights I enjoyed drifting across Loch Caladail.
An essential for the wandering flyfisherman
So, I'm looking forward to some early river piking with interest. Pike are pretty idle, they seek a place which requires little effort to ambush and then digest their last meal. In high levels and strong flows, as we had last Autumn they find eddies and slacker water often close to the bank. In this water they'll look for depth so finding them could be easier but there is still so much weed. We'll see. On my first day out I found a nice 10 pounder; a good way to start.
Salmon fishing this year, has followed a similar pattern wherever the Atlantic Salmon cling on. Norway, Russia, Iceland and home rivers all showed a similar pattern. The spring fish, where they did appear, were late. The grilse run was thin and although there were some good multi sea winter summer fish, this run ended early with many of the traditional back end rivers not seeing many late running fresh fish. Success with Atlantic Salmon is hard fought but worth every second of effort. They are the most beautiful and wonderful fish.
My few days in Iceland in early September were great but dominated by some abnormally miserable weather. The high spot was two consecutive sessions where the water height and colour were perfect as fish in every pool rose and chased a square cast stripped Sunray. Visual, exciting and very productive. The current exchange rate roller coaster will make my return from next years trip tricky with with only one arm and one leg.
What you can't see ... about 4 degrees and blowing a gale!
But for now it's the refinement of the grayling and the primeval elegance of the pike that has my attention. I love my winter fishing. Waters less fished, different challenges, different frustrations. Plenty to enjoy.