Fishing Rod Decoration


By Graham Waterton

One Jerk in the Footsteps of Another

- By Graham Waterton

This article was recently published in The Flyfishers' Journal Summer 2014


Fishing for striped bass had been on my to-do list for many years. Its listing had its roots in various books and articles but I pushed it near the top after I read Robert Hughes' A Jerk On One End, which was published in the UK in paperback in 2000. 


Hughes, an Australian, sounded like an intriguing character. He was an author of many books, a journalist, art critic, film producer; survived three marriages, a car crash that nearly killed him, the death of his first wife and his only son, and was by repute opinionated and colourful. I'm guessing he was pretty good company.


A Jerk On One End is a great little book but difficult to bracket: not so much a fishing book as a fishing memoir with attitude. It is neatly divided into three chapters: Salt Water, Fresh Water and Troubled Water. The first of these reinforced my desire to chase stripers, but it is the third that seems to define Hughes the fisherman, with a robust statement of his personal fishing beliefs. He starts by tackling the philosophical angles with typical Aussie directness and the words 'Fishing is a cruel sport'  before moving angrily on to the commercial slaughter which has put so many species in jeopardy. He directs venom at the record chasers, and after a lifetime on the water urges moderation in all our fishing. Throughout the book his love and fascination with the rivers, the sea and all their creatures shine out without a sliver of sentimentality. I liked the sound of him, and if he liked striped bass fishing, I wanted to try it too.


In 2011, about a year before Hughes died, I found myself entrusted with delivering my son to his university in Rhode Island. The date of my trip was fixed, so as with trying to intercept any migratory fish, I had to find the right place for this time.


As the water temperature rises through spring and early summer, huge shoals of stripers move north from their spawning grounds off Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina. By the the summer and autumn, the shoals have spread up the east coast as far north as Maine, until their prey thins out and the cooling water encourages them to head south again. My trip in late August was too early for the heavily fished 'blitzes' of late September and October, but after speaking to a number of guides I found I had a chance in the area between Block Island and the north end of Long Island.


Our flight out of Heathrow was the last before Hurricane Irene struck America's east coast. In a fit of post-Katrina caution, the entire seaboard was shut down, but in due course I finished my family duties in Rhode Island and drove south into Connecticut. If you want to get into local culture anywhere in the world, hire a car, drive and listen to local radio. An hour or two of local news and '70s rock music brought me to the seaport and former whaling town of New London (complete with River Thames) and the first of three ferries across to the small but very pretty and affluent town of Sag Harbour. 


The first crossing was the longest, an hour or so across to Orient Point on the tip of Long Island's north arm. As the ferry swung west into a glorious sunset, we passed between Plum Island and the lighthouse at the tip of Orient Point. Picture: /blog-files/blog/w288/plum-gut-lighthouse.jpgThis strip of water is called Plum Gut and it's mentioned by Hughes as a concentration for bait and fish, where the tide forces its way in and out of Long Island Sound. He was right, I would catch a lot of fish there. 


A short drive to Greenport, and a second shorter ferry trip to Shelter Island, were completed in fading light. From the south of the island a final crossing of only 200 yards onto the south arm brought me to Sag Harbour in the dark. A great little road trip. My guide for the three days helpfully offered a spare room at no extra cost, on condition that I took him out for supper each evening... which turned out to be a good and highly entertaining arrangement.Picture: /blog-files/blog/w288/shelter-island-ferry.jpg


Early next morning, lingering jet lag and a Mexican gardener with a leaf blower provided me with the opportunity for an early walk round the town. A wide, pretty main street full of classic New England architecture and upmarket brands leads down to a gin-palace-filled marina. Sag Harbour also used to be a whaling town, mentioned in Moby Dick and home to numerous writers including John Steinbeck who lived here until his death in 1968. Today, it's split between South and East Hampton: a holiday playground for New Yorkers and Bostonites, Padstow on US Dollar steroids.


Each morning we would head out of Sag Harbour towards the islands and rips between the Long Island and Block Island Sounds. As is so often the case with saltwater fishing, you don't have to know where the fish are, just where the baitfish are most likely to be. At that time of year, large shoals of menhaden, sand eels and bunker congregate, and if you can find them you will find the bass. 


When the shoals weren't apparent, local knowledge came into its own and we sight fished along shorelines and over shallow reefs where the big tides ripped. Now and again we would encounter isolated drifting areas of filthy water and arborial debris washed down the mainland rivers and into the Sounds by Hurricane Irene. When circling birds appeared we raced over to cast for bass crashing on their preferred baitfish. Faced with an area the size of a tennis court churning with feeding fish, you imagine that any fly fished in any way will do... not so. These predators are remarkably fussy, and matching fly size and colour to the baitfish, and then getting depth and stripping speed right, were all as crucial here as matching the hatch anywhere. Picture: /blog-files/blog/w288/striped-bass-on-the-fly.jpg


Most of the stripers were not large (the big ones appear later in the autumn), and they fought much like their European cousins. I suppose 7 or 8 pounds was the average. But the revelation for me was the bluefish. These chaps are brutes... savage hits to the fly, and as you would expect from a member of the jack family they take no prisoners. However, I wasn't unprepared. Hughes, who would have caught them in Australia, describes them thus:


'Blues are voracious beyond belief. They're like Cuisinarts with fins, equipped with rows of razor teeth. A school of blues tearing into a school of baitfish on the surface is one of those spectacles that will still all thoughts of the benevolence and peaceability of nature. It is manic, out of control Morderlust - every fish a Jack the Ripper. Once hooked, they fight with a furious all out abandon that makes the classier and more fastidious striped bass look relatively sluggish'.Picture: /blog-files/blog/w288/bluefish-on-the-fly.jpg


I hooked loads of bluefish up to 14 pounds. The main problem in landing them is that they shred nylon with those amazing small, hidden but exceedingly sharp teeth: don't put your finger in a bluefish mouth. The stripers are quite leader shy, so if you set up for stripers and a bluefish turns up instead, chances are you'll lose it. If you rig up with wire, you'll scare off the bass. The answer, I hear you say, is have two rigs set up. But stripers and blues often travel and feed together: cast to a striper, and a blue can come out of nowhere and chew off your fly. This all results in lots of lost fish and swearing. I found that standard saltwater patterns like Deceivers in white and red and the ubiquitous green and white or tan clousers did the trick for both. I fished mainly with a 9-weight, but you could go safely lighter at this time of the year as long as you can handle the largeish flies. When the big bass turn up, though... it's 9-weights at least. 


Every time my guide named the spot we were about to fish I was reminded of Hughes' book and the iconic names of the local marks. We spent a lot of time drifting over the rips around Great Gull and Little Gull Islands: Plum Gut was very productive although a little unnerving as we drifted over the 'stoppers' created by the tide racing through a relatively narrow gap. 


We shared 'The Race' between Little Gull, Valiant Rock and Fishers Island with the big commercial tourist boats jigging for blues. When the bait were on the surface, and stripers and blues were feeding, individual fish were hard to identify, but a quick cast to one side and frantic stripping often triggered an aggressive take. When casting to identified individuals or groups, long slower retrieves tricked the fish to follow right up to the boat. Time and again they would turn away as the fly was lifted off, frantically looking for the missing snack, and as soon as they saw the recast fly would take it boldly. It was all a great experience and I'm sure catching a big striper is wonderful. But like Robert Hughes, I fell for the bluefish.


As it turned out, I was too late to meet Hughes in person, and I'm not sure who I would have found if I had. But I like his book a great deal, and I'm glad I fished, albeit briefly, in his footsteps. I can see why he lived there.


April - 'the cruellest month'?

- By Graham Waterton

April is a teaser of a month for the flyfisher, particularly in the south. It so often flatters to deceive with days of warm weather and fly hatches that beckon us towards the summer only for cold and wet weather to return us to the frustrations of winter.   


Last year's early fly hatches were limited to olives but this year the warmer early spring weather gave us a welcome return to form for the Grannom and the Hawthorn.  We get significantly more excited by Grannom than the fish do. This little early sedge can hatch in vast numbers. There were days in mid April when the centre of Salisbury was awash with insects. On the Avon south of Salisbury I watched a blizzard of fly hatch and drift up the river on a gentle warm southerly breeze. Over an hour, not a fish stirred. Were the fish taking subsurface or just full? Sparse hatches are so often more successful for the fisherman.


The Hawthorn also has started to appear and on a beat flanked with Hawthorns in blossom, particularly when these dangly legged black flies are blown onto the water, the action can be frantic.


A now regular event at the start of the chalkstream season is the Test One Fly Competition. This year it was held on 25th April (St Mark's Day) and is centred around The Peat Spade pub in Longstock. It impossible to entirely remove the competitive element from any group of fisherman but despite this and its name the event remains a very uncompetitive day. The rules are clear and well defined but the atmosphere is wonderfully relaxed. I contacted Simon Cooper, the originator and organiser of the event back in January to enquire about entering and he suggested I joined the guiding team!  I'm still not sure how to interpret that but I'm glad I did as I had a really enjoyable day with my delightful fisherman.


We drew a beat on the pretty River Dun, a minor Test tributary where I have caught a number of lovely wild fish in the past.


Picture: /blog-files/blog/w288/river-dun-wild-brownie.jpg


For the first time however, the weather gods did not shine on this event and we had rain all day. The Dun is susceptible to rain and soon it was rising and coloured.


Picture: /blog-files/blog/w288/river-dun-in-the-rain.jpgHowever in the middle of the day we had a 2 hour hatch of olives including Large Darks and Iron Blues. A great sight but one not shared by the fish in brown water and anyway we had a tungsten headed GRHE on the business end! Just to underline the absurdity of it all on a wet cold day and for the first time, a dry fly won.

All in all a thoroughly enjoyable day with a lot of friends, old and new.


I had another trip to the River Frome to try and catch a spring salmon but a cold north easterly and high a slightly coloured water made it tough.

Picture: /blog-files/blog/w288/river-frome-spring-salmon-fishing.jpg

 Typical that Robin should catch a stunning wild brownie.


Picture: /blog-files/blog/w288/river-frome-wild-brown-trout.jpg


As the water warms up salmon fisherman want to learn new tricks. The sinking lines in all their varieties are going back in the locker and I have had a number of good casters who simply want to polish their technique and look to cast further. Once the rod and line are balanced and the basic stroke examined we concentrate on two things. Lengthening the stroke and increasing tip speed.

Now I tell every one that it is not all about distance but these small simple changes, when practised can really improve the length of cast and turnover.


I have spent Mays in the tropics, in the Southern Hemisphere, in the US and on continental Europe but there is nowhere I would rather be than in Britain. Every day the view greens and warms and the urge to get out on the river grows. For me the next 6 weeks is dominated by guiding on the chalkstreams and I predict we will have a better mayfly season than last year!



I had two evenings in April huddled with others in a darkened room. The first was the Fly Fishing Film Tour. Six short films, all from the US. Lovely evocations of the gentle peaceful art of flyfishing accompanied by heavy rock tracks! For me pretty perfect entertainment. The second was a wonderful photo lecture about a friend's trek to Everest Base Camp. Both were hugely inspirational.


So which one's it to be?  Let's go fishing!

April Flyfishing - Past and Present

- By Graham Waterton

In the UK we are confronted with a variety of trout fishing opening days from 15th March to well into April according to individual fishery rules and of course National and local bye-laws. The freestone rivers of much of the north of England and Devon, for instance, start early but for the chalkstreams of Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset it is April fools days when the flag drops. Very appropriate you may think.  For, as TS Eliot wrote 'April is the cruellest month'.

So although many get to fish in March, us chalkstreamers see April as the first month of the season 

Early season fishing has its challenges, not least the vagaries of the British weather but we are not the first to confront them. Through the writings of those who fly fished before us we can see that they too, for over 150 years, have enjoyed the anticipation and frustration of April fly fishing.

In 1899, Viscount Grey of Falloden in his book Fly Fishing, rather dismisses April for the dry fly fisherman on the chalk streams of the south but as a lover of wet fly fishing he takes a more positive attitude to the freestone rivers at the other end of the country.

'Let us take an April day on some northern river. It is a days fishing that is before us, and the first thought in the morning has been 'what sort of a day is it?'. Probably that is the first thought of every one who lives out of town and cares about the country. It is always some sort of a day in the country, not always the sort that had been expected or desired, it is one to be looked at, studied, recognised and made the most of in an appropriate spirit.'

And that's the first lesson with early season fishing. If you open the curtains or listen to the forecast and then go back to bed you don't even get the chance for a taste of pain and pleasure.

Falloden goes on to describe the good April days:

'Such days may come at any time of the month, in the beginning, middle, or end, but in the north, at any rate before quite the end of April, trees will still be brown and bare. That does not matter. There will be a spirit in the air, an appeal, a promise, a prophecy, to make a man's heart leap up within him. There is a feeling of rising sap and reviving life.'

Exactly. Optimism flies high on those first trips. The anticipation is over and at last we're on the river.

In Reflections of a River by Howard Marshall, published in 1967, he beautifully evokes how we feel about our favourite rivers and those early April days.

'... from the moment you have put up your rod and tied on a Greenwell in early April, you are conscious of being gathered up into the kindly, loving season before you, and you know that it can bring you nothing but happiness.'

In JW Hills classic book A Summer on the Test he too describes April with enthusiasm.

'A good many Aprils have been spent after ... trout in northern waters, far from the Test. The great lesson which April trout fishing in these streams teaches you is never to despair. Fortune may suddenly change, and you will never know what you bag till you have reeled up.'

'But the chief joys of April are anticipation and the sense that you are getting something for nothing. All the best of the year is in front of you, and you have not used it up yet. However bad your luck, nothing is wasted. The real season has not begun. And so, if you do get a good day, it is something additional and unexpected.'

One of the perennial debates on the chalkstreams is whether there is less fly than there was. Reading old fishing books won't teach the experienced fisherman much but the benefits, other than sheer enjoyment, are that it takes us to the roots of some of our flyfishing traditions and it gives us the opportunity to compare then with now. They describe good seasons and bad, they observed cyclical changes in water levels, weed growth and fly hatches. They had issues of pollution, overdevelopment, draining water meadows, unnecessary dredging, revolutionary changes in agricultural practices, to name but a few. As far as fly hatches go, their descriptions make it clear that they had the same species then, as we have now. Over recent years I started to suspect that numbers of fly may have reduced, particularly during the years of low flows and poorer water quality but again, they are cyclical. For instance many bemoaned the apparent disappearance of the BWO but I saw some consistent heavy hatches and falls throughout last July and August.

The references are too many to quote but consistently the staple April flies over the last 150 years on the southern chalkstreams have been the Large Dark Olive and the Grannom. The Hawthorn gets mentioned but I suspect this leggy black terrestrial was considered a little 'infra dig' as well as being unpredictable. In the north add March Browns and Stoneflies to that list. So again not much changes.  As for patterns however ... that's a subject for another article.

Hills, for me, sums up April dry fly trout fishing so well in this passage and it applies just about anywhere in the country.

'There is a quality of magic about those early spring rises. The river looks dead and lifeless, and this impression is heightened by the bare meadow and the lifeless trees. The stream runs with a dull lead like surface, which nothing disturbs and apparently nothing will ever disturb. You expect a rise and it does not come, and then suddenly, when you have given up expecting, trout start moving simultaneously as though the signal has been passed around. At one moment you see fly after fly sailing down untaken and you think nothing will ever break the unbroken surface: at the next the river is alive with rings of rising fish. It has come to life, and the sturdy vital trout, which a moment ago were hidden so completely that you doubted their existence, have mysteriously reappeared.'

He then describes finding a group of feeding fish, selecting the largest and having his Large Dark Olive pattern rejected. And then again by another fish and knowing that time may be short he changes to a Medium Olive Quill and immediately his fortunes change. But as quickly the rise is over.

'This indeed is the peculiarity of early spring rises, that they start and end suddenly. You are lucky to get a fish before they begin: when they end, you can go home. Whilst they are on, fish are not difficult, provided there is not too much fly: but you very rarely do well when your artificial has to be a member of a drove of naturals, for the competition is too severe.

But in these short April rises, you have no time for bungles or disasters or changes of fly: if you are to do well, your fly, must be right to begin with. And this is not as simple as it sounds.'

Never, never believe that cold weather hinders fly. You will hear it, always and everywhere; but it is not only untrue but the reverse of truth. Except at the very beginning of April, you get more fly on a cold day than on a warm.

Once again, good advice. So as far as April is concerned the message is clear. The waiting is over, the anticipation satisfied and now is the time to get out and enjoy those fleeting moments of April magic. And why read old fishing books? Well I don't subscribe to the mantra of 'there's nothing new in fly fishing' because there is and much is good but it's sobering to be reminded that so many of our routine customs were their hard won lessons. Its good to understand some of the history of our sport and always a joy to read wonderful writing.


March 2014 - The chalkstream season approaches

- By Graham Waterton

As you read this we will be on the eve of April Fools day and the start of the chalkstream season. Often, an entirely suitable coincidence. A consequence of winters slashing weather perhaps, but I can't remember being so pathetically excited.

In February's blog I sympathised with river keepers who would struggle to get ready for the opening day. Well for a few it is worse than that. Over the last few weeks, the flood waters have only trickled away now exposing waterlogged and damaged banks, paths, access tracks and bridges all conspiring to delay the start of their season.  Several have delayed until the start of May and one large multi beat estate near Stockbridge have pushed it to the start of June. This will mean loss of revenues for the estates and I suspect that the fear of that will drive many to open too early. Prepare for some muddy wet banks. Delete carpet slippers, insert wellies.

There are many positive consequences of all the water which are well known and generally will improve the health of the river for its many residents and for us.

One possible unwanted consequence of the high levels could be caused by the presence of high levels of artificially introduced nutrients. Suspended solids with phosphates and nitrates attached are washed off the fields, eventually settle and have the same effect on river plants and algae as their originally intended crops. Several chalkstreams started the season last year with clarity less than gin. It had little negative effect on the fishing and on occasions was a positive help! Early suggestions were extended runoff colour or possibly algal bloom. If the latter then this year could be more extreme. More rain, more suspended solids could mean more nutrients. We won't know for a while but as the daylight hours extend the effect could be more apparent. Worse of course for the stillwaters but may yet affect the rivers.

The salmon season so far is the classic curates egg. The North Tyne, now without challenge the best English salmon river, is fishing its little Geordie socks off. There are fish running the Dee and the Spey but fort hose rivers, it's still a little early to judge. Odd things on the Tweed. Those fishing the lower beats, which flourish in low water, watched as early fish avoided the seals and screamed through but instead of spreading themselves evenly from Cornhill to Kelso they all seemed to get caught at Junction which is currently the rivers shining star. The Tay has battled with high water but is producing a few lovely big shiny spring fish. I guess it was never going to emulate last seasons early big numbers start.

I went out for a glorious, bright but bitter March day on my favourite Devon stream. Did not see a thing but it was great to chill my knees.

My platforms are now drying in the sun having reemerged from the flooded Fonthill Lake and a few days of repairs had them all spick and span and ready to start teaching people to enjoy the best pastime in the world. My first antediluvian student, a Welshman (I had to mention the rugby so he recalled 2013 - we called it quits and moved on) wanted to get ready for a week on the Spey.  By the end of a long hard day he was throwing a great line and will have a wonderful week.

The seasons nearly here ... not long now.

February 2014 - 'intoxicating anticipation'

- By Graham Waterton

'a spirit of delightful and well nigh intoxicating anticipation'

This was how John Ashley Cooper described his feelings when bound for the River Spey and the start of that rivers salmon season. It pretty much sums up most of February and March for me as we edge to the starts of various fishing seasons across the UK. Many rivers have different start times. Although somewhat  baffling and frustrating the reasons are generally sound ones. Each rivers fishery policy which included the close seasons are determined on a catchment by catchment basis rather than arbitrary parish, town or county boundaries. It's not a perfect system as there are many conflicting influences within each catchment but it does make sense. Just a shame that wider land management issues including flooding aren't dealt with on a similar basis. Thank goodness the EA have a national remit.

Politics, vested interests and ill informed public opinion still swirl around the flood plains of southern England and although the water remains high the press and cameras are drifting away and onto more topical news.  For many the next few months will be cleaning up and that's assuming we have no more rain.

Fishing days have been few and far between as most rivers remained out of condition. I feel for river keepers, part and full time who have been denied the last two months to carry out essential bank work. For many repairing the damage from recent floods will barely be finished before their seasons start let alone completing the work they had planned.

On the 8/9 Feb I went up to the British Fly Fair International at Stafford for the first time. The AAPGAI stand was busy but still plenty of time to wander round. Occasionally I wish I still dressed flies but not that weekend. My wallet would have been emptied up there. Who ever said that tying your own saved you money. An amazing spread of materials, hooks and other paraphernalia. I've often thought that casters were the geeky end of flyfishing but maybe flytiers edge it. Nonetheless it was good fun.

Apart from a few days feeling sorry for myself after 2 sessions of root canal surgery a lot of the month was confirming bookings for clients chalkstream excursions particularly over the mayfly period. As I write I have managed to get everyone sorted so far,with good beats well into the summer but already good dates are running out.

I have taken quite a few bookings for casting instruction but remain a little alarmed that my platforms at Fonthill are still under water. The lakes sluices are wide open but the level has only dropped about 6 inches in the last relatively dry week. As long as everyone brings waders it is good practice to cast in knee high water!

The month ended with another brilliant meeting of the Dorset Chalkstream Club organised by John Aplin. Good speakers and a real buzz that just round the corner the trout season beckons. As Ashley-Cooper said ... 'intoxicating anticipation'.