Murder on the Usk
Take a wild, rocky river with abundant prey and you’re sure to find trout with a decidedly mean, predatory streak. Dominic Garnett investigates the exciting potential of streamer fishing. Pictures by Jo Bliss.
Looking across a boulder-strewn section of the Usk, you can almost feel the menace. There’s a reason why the small fry flit nervously under your feet. These are not mellow waters but killing fields; an array of sunken hollows, deep channels and rocky corners all harbour trout with a taste for blood.
It’s often said that larger trout, perhaps any fish which reach over a pound, don’t reach fearsome proportions by picking off the occasional olive. No bull; one look at the toothy jaw of one of these assassins unmasks a character every bit as aggressive as a pike. From minnows and sculpins right through to their own grandchildren, no little fish is safe. True, we might tempt these brutes with a little nymph or dry during times of plenty- but the rest of the time, why not give them what they want, a good mouthful of prey?
In truth streamer fishing has always received a mixed press in the UK. In essence it goes against many generations of fly fishing logic dominated by gentlemen with a love of all things dainty. But perhaps it’s time for a rethink, because there are plenty of times when throwing a solid, savage trout a tiny nymph feels a bit like waving a salad leaf at a serial killer.
Dressed to Kill
A quick jump across the pond quickly reveals a very different attitude to approaching trout with murder in mind. The Brits might save lures for lake fishing, but American anglers have long reached for meaty streamer patterns to tempt trout. A crude case of throw and retrieve? Hardly. A different attitude may be required, granted, but the process requires its own deadly craft.
The immediate significant change comes in the tackle required. Gone are wispy, short rods. You wouldn’t take a plastic cup to a bar room brawl now would you? Instead, a six to eight weight rod with some backbone is required - generally a nine footer you’d feel comfortable launching a sinking line with.
If you thought the tackle was man sized though, just meet the flies. The criteria are simple in effect, and your ideal streamer must present a good sized mouthful with plenty of movement. You could do worse than pick that terrific all-rounder, the Woolly Bugger - but I also pack fast-sinking Clouser style lures and Muddler Minnows.
Launching and presenting such bruisers poses a different challenge to delicately casting a small nymph or dry. A fast sinking line is the order of the day where currents are strong - which I stick with even in quite shallow water. A decent trout will come up to hit the target, but much of the time these fish hang low in the water and the closer you can present a fly to them, the more chance of a sudden jolt on the line. The sinking of the line also adds a pop and swagger of life to buoyant patterns such as the classic muddler.
I’ve tried various streamers, including some ultra realistic sculpins and minnows, but have come to the conclusion that having a carbon copy scarcely matters beyond our own aesthetic gratification. Give me something with good movement which fishes at the right depth and the trout will do the rest.
One of the chief reasons I enjoy streamer fishing is that it forces you to live a little dangerously. A river like the Usk presents a bruising combination of strong flows, rock littered channels and craggy pockets. If you’re used to more sedate waters, your natural instinct is to shy away from disaster zones - and yet it is often the case that these nasty little areas are the very places where a heart stopping smash is most liable to occur.
Presentation can be tricky - a point worth making to anyone who believes that streamer fishing is a chuck it and chance it method. The usual ‘delicate cast upstream’ rule needn’t apply to start with. Where possible I like to cast across the current, even if the fly swings so that it is weaving against the flow. Like a salmon fly, you might find you get more movement this way. You can of course cast upstream, but you might need to retrieve line with a vengeance in order to get the fly to dance properly in addition to taking in slack. Hence in some areas you’ll need a vigorous strip-strip-strip retrieve to get things moving. Where you can get the fly across the flow, so it swings attractively as it comes back to your position, the current will do more of the work for you.
Depth can be a key issue with presentations, depending on the spot. Larger predators don’t often haunt the shallows in broad daylight. On the Usk, key areas are the rocky channels cut into the river bed. Even with a full sinking line it can be a pain getting the fly deep and I like to include a few fast sinking flies in my box to give me a fighting chance to draw the thing over a waiting attacker’s head.
Pocket water is another classic scenario with any little sheltering hole amidst raging water worth a shot. A comparatively ugly ‘dump’ cast sometimes does the job of landing the fly in a fishy hole with enough slack line to let the fly sink into position. You might only get a brief window of opportunity, but it only takes a second in the right place to persuade a waiting fish to smash the fly. Savage hits and ugly hideouts also explain why you should think nothing of using 10lb fluorocarbon for your attack.
In some ways a river can be misleading however. Certainly, when you look at the food on display, much of the available prey can be seen in shallow, calmer waters. A quick look often reveals lots of food whether it be gangs of minnows, immature trout or bottom hugging stone loaches and bullheads. All well and good, but where are the trout?
The truth is that trout, much like pike, often select different areas to rest up and to hunt. In the daytime, and especially if it’s bright, you must target the fish where they rest - in their living quarters if you like. Patterns with weighted dumbbell heads are useful to get down to the fish where they lie. A waiting trout might still slash at a helpless passer-by or, more likely, eject an intruder with pure aggression.
Much of streamer fishing is about engendering this kind of response, provoking as much as offering an easy meal. Wild fish are territorial creatures and something bold and vigorous that passes through their patch is unlikely to be welcomed. In animal behaviour terms this is the classic ‘fight or flight’ response; keep your head down or batter the bloody thing out of existence. This also explains why even small trout will decide to pick a fight with a fly that looks too big for them to eat.
Where the truly predatory behaviour often starts is when the fish move out and feed. Those shallow, prey rich areas will be visited, but only when the trout have the advantage, usually in the early morning, late evening or under cover of darkness. Planning ahead and staying late can be well worth the effort on this score. Indeed, if you can find a shallow area with plenty of prey that lies close to one of those deeper, snaggy areas where good sized trout shelter, it’s a pretty safe bet that when the light dips a raid will take place.
The game quickly changes again when it comes to fishing into dusk, but on several occasions I’ve had a mediocre day’s fishing before getting an almighty hit or two by staying an hour or two into darkness. The rules change, and rather than keeping on the move it’s time to find a spot where you feel confident there’s rich pickings for a decent trout and covering the water thoroughly, sometimes repeatedly, until something moves in.
Be warned however; everything becomes more difficult in the dark, so it pays to familiarize yourself with the area first. This is the time for a Muddler Minnow, and a black version would be first choice to retrieve with vigorous strips. Don’t be too surprised if a marauding predator hits the thing like you just insulted its mother!
On yet another score then, streamer fishing lies well outside the normal trout fishing rulebook. Delicate presentations and fine tackle are out; hefty flies and X-rated hits are in. It’s a steep learning curve at first, but once you receive that first bone-jarring hit you may wonder why you never tried it before.
STREAMER FISHING SUMMARY
Outfit: A 6-8 wt set up with some muscle.
Line: A di-6 fast sinker is first choice for pacey water with some depth, or alternately add a fast sink tip to your floating or intermediate line.
Leader: 6ft of 10lb fluorocarbon
Other: A large portable net & head torch. A stripping basket can also be handy.
AREAS TO TRY AND SUITABLE FLIES
Deep areas: For searching deep pockets, pools or rocky gullies, try tungsten beaded lures or Clouser style “dumbbell” head flies.
Mid depth glides: Steady paced areas, typically 3-4 ft deep, often provide the best chance of daytime sport. Try a Woolly Bugger (black is my favourite) or any lively streamer.
Shallows: Hit knee deep areas rich in minnows and other prey early or late- and into darkness. Muddlers come into their own here. I prefer patterns with rabbit strip or mink tails, for added hustle.
Dom Garnett is author of “Flyfishing for Coarse Fish” and a qualified level 2 Game Fishing Coach. Visit his website for further photography, flies and more.
The River Usk is one of the UK’s most exciting trout rivers, with good stocks of larger trout for the adventurous angler. Plenty of water is available on a day booking scheme from the Wye and Usk Foundation.