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Fishing on the Frontier Part 58 - The Personal Frontier

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A 50cm grayling taken on a Hydropsyche-style jig A 50cm grayling taken on a Hydropsyche-style jig

In the latest instalment of his series Jeremy Lucas looks at the ‘Personal Frontier’ and the debate regarding what is 'right' and 'wrong' to fly fish with.






Early last season I had one of those odd moments that result in one questioning what we do in our fishing lives. I was with a friend on the Eden, downstream of Appleby, on a typically raw north-country morning. It felt more like March than the late April day it was and the river was quite high, carrying a little colour. My friend is a very good nymph fisher and he was revelling in the conditions and eager to explore this section of river, which had fished very well to that point in the season, yielding some big, wild trout. With a complete lack of rising fish, he naturally elected for nymph; actually a double nymph rig on a leader rig, with a short fluorocarbon indicator section, which he greased. He was using a Ryac-style jig on the point with a Hydro-style jig on the dropper, both flies being size 14 and carrying 2.4mm tungsten beads.

Being my guest I sent him upriver, while I fished the water up behind him. I had also set up a double nymph rig, of a PTN jig on point and Hydro-style jig on a dropper, but on a Tenkara, fixed-line set up. I wanted to watch him fish, and perhaps just to explore some of the shallower water on the river’s far side, which he might miss. In any case, I was simply looking forward to the dry fly action, which I knew would develop after mid-day. The fish were not particularly active. The first two runs we fished through, each about 30 metres of ‘prime’ target water of about a metre depth, well-defined by foam lanes, he caught three trout, while I had just one. This was not a surprise. As I said, I knew the river would be entirely different later in the day. We continued moving upstream, through similarly lovely water, but taking only the odd, smallish trout and a couple of out of season grayling. Nearly every fish fell to the Hydro.

We had been fishing for about two hours when my friend climbed out onto the bank and announced that he wanted to try something unusual. He opened a fly box to reveal a row of Squirmies, the like of which I had previously only seen used on stocked still waters. "What, seriously, on the Eden?" I questioned. "Humour me", he beckoned as he took off both the nymphs he had been using and tied on a single red Squirmy on the point.  It looked ridiculous, really, and so out of place on one of England’s premier limestone rivers.


We walked back downriver to where we had started fishing. There was still almost no surface activity, though a few medium olives, probably the previous evening’s spinners, were in the air, which was now quite warm. Surprised, and a little uncomfortable, I watched him re-enter the run and cast the Squirmy into the foam lane. The reaction was almost immediate and he brought the first trout to the net. But then I was astonished, because in that very first run he caught three more, with one of them a magnificent 40cm fish, and this was followed by another five trout, and two grayling from the next run upstream. All of these, from water previously covered with very good nymphing technique. In fact, had I not known this section of the Eden, I would have doubted that there were as many fish as this in total in those two runs.  Moreover, the takes were completely un-missable, negating the need for an indicator at all. Several of the fish simply hooked themselves. At that moment I felt that I had never before seen fly fishing looking so crude, and yet so effective, and then I began to question if this really was fly fishing at all. Ultimately, I felt disappointed; that a section of the Eden could effectively be fished out in such a fashion. "You know," announced my friend, "I could not have caught more if I had trotted a worm through those runs."

At about two in the afternoon we began to notice medium olives flecking the foam lanes, with fish up at them. Nymphs of any description were now just a memory as I tied up a plume tip and completely focussed on the risers. This is the ultimate in fly fishing for me and I am always thrilled by it; the ways that both trout and grayling position themselves on the feed lanes and the subtlety, particularly of big grayling, taking the surface fly. I don’t consciously think about it any more, the process is almost methodical, entirely instinctive, and completely absorbing. It is about as close to a ‘one-ness’ with nature as an angler can achieve.

After what must have been about two hours, my friend signalled me to meet him on the bank. Climbing out of the river I asked him how he had fared. “I had three trout following you upstream, I don’t think you left any more than that.” he said, and this set us both thinking, and discussing what we had learnt.

In that session I had caught 17 fish, to my friend’s three, all on the same size 19 heron herl plume tip on the fixed line. It was nothing short of devastating in those conditions of an upwing hatch (there was a gentle upstream wind, which is ideal for dry fly presentation). The entire process was utter simplicity: slowly wading upstream, picking out rising targets (and I hazard that almost every fish in the river was indeed rising during that period, as is typical during an upwing hatch), manoeuvring myself into position such that I could place the plume tip on the drift lane above each fish.

Rejections were non-existent, unless I made a careless cast which, at the close range imposed by Tenkara, and the disturbance-free nature of this approach, was not many times. So, finally, what is the difference between what I had just done with a dry fly and what my friend had done in the morning with a Squirmy? It is all so personal, and so subjective.

There has been considerable debate in fly fishing media in recent years (actually, it has always been thus) about certain key issues. Leader-only fishing, in the form of French leaders with indicators, for example, led on from the wickedness of fishing duo – nymph under dry - on the river. Goldheads and Czech nymphs led to tungsten beads, and then to the use of the latter on jig hooks, for goodness sake. The French even gave us the thoroughly questionable ceramic nymphs; all of these, and more, were evolved to catch trout and grayling more efficiently than we were able to do before, which they have all done.

The Squirmy -  I frankly remain horrified!Tenkara itself has been a viciously debated sporting hot potato. And now we have the Squirmy, or Squirmy worm as it is more honestly described, and a vast tranche among fly fishers are offended. And yet I found myself, that afternoon on Eden, having been astonished and alarmed at my friend’s use of the Squirmy, scorning it, and then going onto the river with probably the easiest means of catching almost every fish in a section of river with utter ruthlessness. Something does not quite add up, when one begins to look at it this way. No-one, using any other fly fishing method or fly pattern could have caught even close to the number I caught in those two hours, so what makes my use of dry fly, classically accepted (utterly incorrectly in my own view) as the holy grail in fly fishing, any better than my friend’s use of this novel Squirmy pattern? Is it just that the one is prettier and more elegant than the other?

So, I find myself with my own personal frontier, which is as above, with trout and/or grayling rising to surface fly; but it is just that – personal, and I have at least learned not to run down, openly, anyone else’s approach. To think how we were so concerned about the Czech nymph masters of the 1990s, or the Euro-nymph exponents of this decade, when the truth is that both these methods actually require considerably more skill, if not practice, to attain any real proficiency, than to do likewise when casting a dry fly upstream during a hatch.

Does the Squirmy fit in this category? Well, at the risk of appearing opinionated, I don’t think so. I have seen it used a lot now, and I frankly remain horrified, because it really is as easy to use as a trotting rig, with a worm, and just about as effective, but this is not to say that it should be banned; not unless CDC plume tips were banned from spring, summer and autumn use on European rivers! So, it must be down to the individual.

What is wrong with children, or newcomers to the sport, being introduced via the use of a Squirmy? Surely anyone with any sense of inquiry or exploration will soon move on from this, to other fly patterns and more demanding techniques. What does seem wrong, to me, is when a skilled, experienced fly fisher does more than dabble with such a ‘fly’.

My friend, for example, is a brilliant nymph fisher and I do see something fundamentally wrong with him fishing Squirmies to fish that could be caught with more imitative patterns, perhaps. But then, I catch myself on my own frontier with a plume tip, catching fish and moving on, relentlessly, and sometimes now I leave the river with a profound sense of guilt.

It would be great to hear readers’ ideas on this theme, via the forums.






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