In the first of his articles for Fish & Fly, John Bailey considers the limitless challenges that fly fishing presents.
The vast majority of us face mutual challenges and have developed broadly the same range of skills. For example, most of us know how to fish a dry fly, a nymph or a team of buzzers with a certain amount of respectability. We've probably fished wet flies in broken water from time to time. We might even have learnt to spey cast or certainly to roll cast. And all these abilities will take us a long way in our flyfishing lives: probably we won't even want, nor have the opportunities to progress yet further. This is where the fascination and eternal complexity of fly fishing comes in.
The truth is that in the world of fly fishing there is an absolutely limitless array of challenges and difficulties waiting to be mastered. I don't care how experienced or well-travelled anybody maybe but nobody can be the total master of all the skills flyfishing in every situation demands.
Personally, I have been extraordinarily lucky in my life to have travelled a fair bit with a fly rod in my luggage. I've encountered many complex situations which on many occasions have defeated me. let's just look at a handful of those situations where you really have to pull some very special skills out of your memory bank if you are to succeed.
Let's take Greenland. In many of the rivers here, the rivers flow straight from the Ice Cap and they can be startlingly clear and frequently freezing cold, often with chunks of ice swirling past your feet. Many of the best pools are deep, sometimes twenty-feet deep and the Arctic char, the primary species here, can hang at any level in these icy torrents.
They're willing to take a fly but they're not willing to move up or down to intercept one. This means that your challenge is to put the fly at exactly the right level so it literally brushes past the char's nose. And this is hugely difficult: in water as clear and as deep like this it is often hard to judge even approximately whether a char is lying at thirteen feet or at seventeen feet and those forty-eight inches can make all the difference to whether you succeed or fail. And, even when you've made an accurate assessment of depth, you've still got to present your fly at that level regardless of currents, cross currents, eddies and shrieking winds from the Ice Cap. No wonder the biggest Greenlandic char can be almost impossible to catch.
Or in Mongolia, one of the most demanding skills is to raise a big taimen into accepting a mouse pattern fished across the surface. The problem is that very often the biggest of the fish are sulkers. If you haven't caught them on a feeding spree they lie doggo in the fast-moving rapids simply holding position around the boulders. You incite a taimen into action. You annoy it. You drive it wild. Finally, it takes but often you need to cast thirty or forty or fifty times over an individual fish to rile it, to make its temper boil. And of course, this demands complete accuracy of casting. And it's not like you're casting a nymph. You're hurling out a fly that could be six inches long and it's soaking wet. And there's a wind cutting like a knife from the plains of Siberia to the north. There's probably snow in the air and fallen larch needles are coming down like a golden carpet over the river. This is a challenge of skill and determination but the explosion of water when a taimen takes is ample reward.
And then there's Argentina. Hunting dorado in the vast marshlands riddled with clearwater creeks and rivers. Locating the fish is hugely difficult and the dorado themselves can be incredibly spooky in water that is again crystal clear. Or perhaps, again, you're on one of the big sea trout rivers with a massive wind belting into your face. It's a wind that can flatten houses but you know sea trout of between twenty and even thirty pounds are running in front of you and somehow you batter that fly out.
I remember once in New Zealand, on the northern island fishing a river that runs into Taupo. I happened upon three enormous rainbow trout obviously long-term residents in a small pool. These fish were all in the fifteen to twenty pound bracket and over four solid days I absolutely failed to interest them in a fly.
First my approach was wrong. And when I got that right my presentation was wrong. And when I got that right my fly choice was wrong. And I never did get that right because I had to fly home. Mind you, those three Antipodean monsters were no more difficult than tiny wild brown trout have proved on crystal clear rivers like the Barle as it makes its way across Exmoor. The fish there may only weight five to the pound but they can drive you crazy.
You've got to watch like a hawk and more often than not strike purely on sixth sense and highly-tuned instinct
Imagine a golden sunset over an ancient lake. Chironamid are hatching into the air and big, golden, red-finned rudd are swirling under the surface, taking the ascending buzzers. Catching them should be easy but it's not. Whereas trout will jag the leader forward, these rudd sip in buzzers so discreetly there's barely any evidence of a take. You've got to watch like a hawk and more often than not strike purely on sixth sense and highly-tuned instinct.
It's like fishing for big European barbel in clear, vast water full of wavering ranunculus. You have to pick on exactly the right fly, guide it to exactly the right place and hold it there, in the current, long enough for an ultra-clever barbel to make up its finicky mind.
My own biggest humiliation was with some grayling in a river in southern Austria. The river and the valley were astoundingly beautiful and the grayling were gobsmackingly large. Many of them I put at four pounds in weight. And there were many of them but that didn't mean I could catch them. For six days I tried and for six days I failed. Unless you count a baby of a pound as a success. I tried them with dries, nymphs, shrimps, corrixa, everything and not once did I make one turn its head. I came to believe they knew I was coming the moment I left my hotel a quarter of a mile from the water!
Even if you can hook a fly into a fish, there are times when it's almost impossible to get them out. I remember Simon Channing's epic journey to the Brazilian rainforest after arapaima and what Herculean skills he showed in extracting fish of a hundred pounds and more. But let's say you're fast into a mahseer in one of the furious, white-water rivers of India. It's a sixty-pound fish hooked at the top of rapids three quarters of a mile long. How on earth do you hold something like this? And if you can't, how do you follow it? The toughest salmon gear in the world simply gets shredded. I've seen rods used for marlin even just buckle. Are there some fish in some situations nobody's skill can subdue?
Or how about big, northern pike in the Baltic Sea, yes, living there out in the salt? During the summer the biggest of the females lie some three miles offshore around large, sunken plateaus and islands. The water here is deep. The currents are ferocious. The areas are a jumble of massive, jagged rocks and heavy forests of weed. How do you get your big, silver streamers down deep in these places and work them so the pike think they are herrings adrift from their shoal? And if you do hook one of these pike in a boat so far from land, how do you land it? Remember, these are fish that can grow in excess of sixty-pounds in weight.
I once watched a man discover a nest of bass in a clearwater lake. There were three big fish lying over the scooped-out are about four feet down. He managed to wriggle himself into position without scaring the fish and put out a cast. They ignored him. He changed fly and cast again. Again, he was ignored. The angler made thirty different casts with thirty different flies without once making any one of those three bass blink. On the thirty-first cast, using the thirty-first fly, he hooked and landed the first bass. With the next two casts, on the same fly, he landed bass number and bass number three. A perfect piece of fishing.
Or Radim, a member of the Czech national team, who worked himself into position in the margins of a big, raging river and, in fifty casts, landed fifty grayling. It's true, I watched him. Or Bob, working a fly on the Kwinimass River in British Columbia mending the line at just the right moment so his fly paused that split second in front of the nose of his chosen steelhead. Eighteen pounds of fresh-run silver was his reward.
Skill upon skill upon skill. You could live to be a hale and hearty hundred and not master a fraction of the challenges the world has to offer.
John Bailey is one of Europe's best known fishermen.
He's a regular columnist for a number angling publications and has written nearly thirty books on angling, many recounting his adventures around the world. book 'The Fishing Detective' was the inspiration behind the 1997 BBC series "Tales from the Riverbank" which John also presented.
Articles by the same author
- Essential Skills - Dry Fly and Mayfly with Oliver Edwards
- New Canadian Beaver report spells doom for Scottish salmon
- Fly Fishing for Atlantic Bass - new book reviewed
- The Streamside Guide - Road Trips
- Wet Fly Fishing on Rivers - Essential Skills with Oliver Edwards
- Venezuelan smorgasbord at Los Roques
- Pope of the Madison
- The principles of layering - the base layer
- Game Fishing by Bob Church
- The Streamside Guide - Planning the Trip