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Chub - Fly vs Lure

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Chub - Fly vs Lure

Casting artificial lures or flies is an intimate, exciting way to target autumn chub and 'Fly Fishing for Coarse Fish' author Dominic Garnett recently pitted his arsenal of fur and feathers against the lure expertise of Bob James.

It started not so much with a bang as a scatter. Watching a friend cast out on a typical Wye session, we watched as explosions of fry leapt clear of the water every time a feeder full of groundbait touched down. I had my own theory, but Bob just said one word: “Chub”.

As more small fish came to the groundbait, it got to the point where you could actually hear a second splash after the feeder touched down. Something was really lashing out at them. It’s not always wise to issue advice to someone who was fishing the river before you were born, but I couldn’t help it:

“Is bait really the way to go today Bob? I bet a spinner or the right fly would clean up?”

Perhaps it should have been obvious. There you are sitting on a river and throwing in helpings whichever bait company’s pellets and boilies, when the most obvious and abundant food source of all was there all along: tens of thousands of fry and minnows, in every single swim. 

 Another explosion of fry: Autumn sees hordes of fingerlings.

Lightening up

We didn’t need asking twice as I grabbed a seven-weight fly rod from the car, while Bob reached for an 11ft Avon and a selection of small lures. Why the trotting rod? “Because I don’t have a spinning rod with me,” answers Bob. “In actual fact, I really like this rod for throwing small stuff about.”

While it’s fair to say that plenty of chub are taken on large lures or even pike flies each season, both of our selections err towards the smaller side of predator catchers. Tiny spinners, spoons and little plastics of just an inch or two get Bob’s vote, while I will go for small streamers (flies to resemble fry, minnows and other lively prey).  Both of us crush the barbs on our hooks and, with trebles especially, this is a must because it is much kinder on the fish.

To do justice to typically small offerings, both of us go for line of six pound strength, Bob’s on the reel, mine as a rod’s length of fluorocarbon leader attached to the fly line.

“Exactly how long have those relics been in your tackle box?” I tease Bob as he selects a tiny spinner. Some of his favourites look ‘well used’ to say the least.

“Watch it Dominic,” he warns. “They’re a bit like me - a few miles on the clock, but still catching!”

A perfect looking chub succumbs to Bob's lure.Nor does it take long to get a response right where the fry were jumping. But it isn’t quite what he expected. Bob gets a good thump on his prehistoric spinner, before a rattling fight takes place in current. The culprit is the perch I suspected all along, perhaps touching the one pound mark, which manages to shake clear of the hooks without Bob needing to unhook it.

More casts are aimed at the tree line and I’ve only just landed my streamer near the cover when the next thump arrives. This time it is indeed a chub. An angry one too, which seems to have the current in its favour and several more gears than those I’ve caught elsewhere.

Our friend Russ Hilton is still glued to his quiver tip as I bring in a typically beautiful Wye chub. To be fair, it all seems a bit cheeky and Bob concurs:

“I think we’re taking the Mickey now - it’s probably time we took a walk.”

Moving on

The minimal gear involved and complete mobility of lure and fly fishing for coarse species are surely key factors in the current surge of interest in these methods. The only drawback on this occasion is that Bob’s legendary kettle and supply of cake will have to stay in the car while we take a wander.

The next swim is classic chub territory: A lovely sweep of current before us, with tree cover and an inviting crease where the water slows just beyond. We decide to fish elbow to elbow at first, comparing notes as we go. Casting straight out towards the cover, our artificials are steadily taken downstream, as we work them back slightly against the current. But who will get the first hit?

On each cast, Bob lets the lure sink briefly before retrieving just quick enough to keep the spinner blade pulsing. On only the third cast he gets a hit, right as the spinner sweeps round and catches the meat of the current.
“You often get that sudden ‘whack’ just as the lure changes direction,” says Bob. “I think they tend to follow first, before a change of angle or that extra little burst of movement prompts them to take - and that one really gave it a bang!”

The fight is impressive in the hearty current before us, certainly sharp if a little short. At perhaps three pounds it is a typical Wye chub; so perfectly conditioned an artist couldn’t draw you a more perfect one.

It’s not too long before I get a grab of my own with the fly, although I get the feeling I’ve been racing it in a little needlessly - as a streamer or lure passes downstream, the current adds plenty of action on the retrieve without the angler needing to go crazy. And equally important is the depth.

“It’s always good to be disciplined and count down your lure or fly,” says Bob. “You can kid yourself that you know the depth the fish are at, but unless you make a mental note it’s easy to end up purely guessing. It’s better to be diligent.”
Today the fish are about two feet down and it seems odd, on reflection, that we tend to fish for them with baits much nearer the bottom.

“I always think of chub as a midwater species,” says Bob. “You only have to look at the eyes and the way they’re built to see that they’re the most versatile of fish, real all-rounders. They can travel up or down just as easily; in the summer I tend to look from midwater to surface, and in the winter from midwater to the bottom.”

Bob has added another nice fish before I get a proper ‘smash’ rather than a pluck. The delightful part of using the fly is that you feel these assaults directly through the fingers, as the line pulls tight dramatically. These Wye chub are a class apart in the fitness stakes and even with six  pound line common sense applies. In a strong, abundantly weedy flow it’s best to get the rod tip high to keep the head of the fish out of the rocky,
weedy bottom.   

A Meeting of Methods?

Two of a kind: Fly and lure fishing are close companions.On a fun short session, both techniques get their share of hits, but it is a small spinner that perhaps has the edge. Why is this? It could be a tinge of colour in the water that makes the flashing spinner stand out a little better, or the greater vibration.

Which method is king out of fly or lure is debate that could take many cups of tea or beer to figure out. My money would usually be on the fly, but it’s not every day your friendly rival is Bob James.

In reality, light lure fishing has great similarities with fly fishing. It’s probably fair to say that in coloured water the extra vibration of lures is helpful, while casting is also much easier in cramped spots. Fly tackle, on the other hand, makes it easier to cast and present the really small stuff and has the advantage of greater subtlety when fish are sitting in shallow water; chub might be greedy, but they can also easily spooked. My personal preference would probably thus be a fly when the river is low and clear, or lures when the river carries some colour.

Bob cuts through my own ponderings with a statement I can hardly disagree with however: “Loads of methods work for chub. The problem with fishing these days is that we tend to focus so much on the tackle, techniques or special baits we forget about the quarry. Years ago when the gear was nothing like as good, fishing articles focused a lot more on the actual fish and how they behave.”

Casting Upstream

The tactical discussion continues as we leapfrog down the bank, but the real eye-opener for me on this occasion is just how effective ‘downstream’ fishing is (ie casting so that your artificial is working ‘against’ the current rather than coming towards you). There are a few good reasons for this: one is that you don’t have to keep retrieving to take up slack line and get presentation correct. The current does some of the work for you and sometimes you can just hold your fly or lure against the push of the water, making the tiniest lifts or pulls to really get your artificial moving.

A late equalizer on the fly. A black Woolly Bugger fooled this one.With the fly this really pays off around near bank snags. I tend to hop into the river a safe distance upstream, before casting my streamer fly in a nice straight line just off the cover. Again, with the river working ‘against’ the fly, little retrieve is needed to get lots of movement and I can even simply hold the artificial in place in key areas as it dances in the current.

This is the total opposite the way I tempt a couple of fish on dry fly tactics later in the session, by casting upstream. Whether hatching or blown in, natural insects go with the current; hence imitations dragging constantly against the flow tend to look wrong to both man and chub.

Bob meanwhile also gets stuck into some different swims, including some tight areas I would only fit the very shortest of casts with the fly rod. Both of us enjoy some great action, but I only manage to catch up with his tally as Bob has to leave for a friend’s party. It turns out that it is the 65th Birthday of the Peter Smith, the very man who introduced Bob to the Wye some half a century ago.

“Blimey, just thinking about it makes me feel old.” He says. “And it’ll be my turn in a fortnight.” I might make the obligatory jokes about free bus passes and Daily Mail sensibilities, but the old dog is still in the lead by this stage.

“I do feel some sympathy for your generation, dashing about everywhere, constantly on all this social media” he counters (to Bob, the worlds of Facebook and Twitter are still totally alien). “These days I feel like I’m permanently cruising along in second gear,” he adds, “which is actually quite nice.”

On this occasion there’s no time for an extra ‘last’ cast or three, but it has been a fun expedition and with the tackle so simple, we’re packed away in no time. The real eye-openers for me have been the effectiveness of real old school artificials, whether it’s a Woolly Bugger or a good old-fashioned spinner. River chub are certainly obliging creatures when it comes to these enjoyable methods.

Further Info

Dominic Garnett’s website is well worth a look for his photography, a regular blog, books and a range of flies designed for coarse fish (including chub flies).
More on the subject of catching coarse fish on the fly, with tips, catch galleries, national records and more can be found at www.flyforcoarse.com

Bob James offers guided days on several waters with excellent chub, barbel, roach and pike fishing through the autumn and winter.

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