Tying up the year

Although the fish, cold-blooded creatures that they are, may not be so active in these freezing days, they are still catchable, and when you do catch one they are liable to be in very good condition and give a good fight.

But if the snow, ice and fog are having a similar effect on your activeness, you can at least use the time to stock up on flies. You can shop for them at some of the excellent stores online [Glasgow Angling Centre is a favourite of mine], or go along to a fishing shop – but why not tie your own?

Flies are pretty cheap to buy these days, while capes and feathers can be expensive. So it’s not so much an exercise in saving money, as in creating flies that look and act exactly as you want them to. That, and the sheer pleasure of fooling a fish with a fly you have tied yourself.

Over Christmas I’ve been filling my dry fly boxes with some flies that I know have been effective at Redbournbury and elsewhere. Some of them have their prime times, others are all-rounders, bringing fish up in the water for the whole river season.

Here are a few that have come off my vice this Christmas.

Parachute Adams: the Adams is a classic fly from the States, one of the great all-round dries. This parachute version can be tied in a variety of sizes – generally I use them in sizes 14, 16 and 18.

Para Adams

The basic materials for this tying are:

Thread: tan.

Tail: grizzle and brown cock.

Body: dubbed rabbit fur.

Post: pink foam or antron yarn.

Hackle: brown and grizzle.

This seems to work best on the Ver from late May through to early August.



Grey Duster: another successful all-rounder, generally representing lighter-coloured flies, but with a dark thorax. Even when no upwings are hatching, this makes a good representation of a hatching midge, in which form it is a useful fly on the lake as well as the river.

Grey Duster

The basic tying is very simple:

Thread: tan or grey.

Tail: badger cock fibres.

Body: mixed rabbit and hare’s ear guard hairs;

Hackle: badger

A version with a strand or two of twinkle in the tail is a useful addition, with the tail then representing the pupal case or ‘shuck’ of the hatching insect.




Lunn’s Particular: this fly, created originally by Mick Lunn, river keeper and angler on the Test, is a very good representation of a small brown upwing of late Summer and Autumn that is quite prolific on our river. They are also blown on to the lake so the fly is a useful dry for the Rainbows. Tie it in sizes 16 and 18.

Para Lunn's Particular

It’s a very easy tying.

Thread: red brown.

Tail: brown hackle fibres.

Body: tying thread.

Hackle: brown.

“Simples” as the meerkat might say.

The fly is also very effective as a traditional tying with a vertical hackle.



Robjent Daddy: this dry Daddy is a tying you can buy only, to my knowledge, from Robjents fishing store on the high street in Stockbridge. Unusually the body is from peacock herl, instead of the usual [and more naturalistic] deer hair or tan foam.

This seems to make the fly more adaptable, and it catches readily throughout the season – perhaps the trout mistake it for a spider or beetle with its dark body, although Mr Robjent’s theory is that the herl causes the body to stand high on the surface, much as real Daddies float – their bodies rarely sink into the surface film.

Robjent Daddy

My version of the tying is on a size 12 dry fly hook, although you could use a size 10.

Body: 2 or 3 strands of peacock herl.

Legs: knotted pheasant tail fibres.

Hackle: 2 or 3 red-brown.

Wings: badger hackle tips tied ‘spent’.




Olive Emerger: fish are very keen on the ‘emerger’ stage of an insect’s life, when the emerging adult fly is struggling in the surface film to release itself from the pupal shuck. This makes the fly a ‘sitting duck’ for the trout – an easy meal without too much energy exerted.

This pattern is good any time olives are hatching, and can even bring fish up when there is no hatch. It’s a similar idea to the Klinkhammer and, like that classic fish-catcher, can be tied in any colour to match the hatch.

The tying is on a curved hook, a Kamasan B100. I usually tie them in sizes 14 and 16.

Olive Merger

Thread: olive, tan or grey.

Body: olive dubbing with a little hare’s ear.

Rib: a ‘tag’ of tying thread, or you could use fine tippet nylon.

Thorax: peacock herl.

Post: pink foam, yarn or calf’s tail.

Hackle: grizzle.

Incidentally, my preference for pink posts is not an indication that I’m particularly in touch with my feminine side, it’s simply that pink is highly visible in any water conditions, either against light reflections or dark shadows, and against any colour. Honestly.

With thanks to Paul King Photography for all photos.

Hardly a fair contest.

In the lefthand corner, the near-undisputed champion of the world, a heavyweight among trout streams, from Hampshire, The Mighty River Test.

In the righthand corner, the challenger, a little-known lightweight with no history to speak of, from Hertfordshire, the little River Ver.

Seconds out…

ROUND 1: Water Quality.

The clear waters of the Ver

The round starts with the two trading blows equally – both the Ver and the Test are chalkstreams, with everything that implies about clarity of water, alkalinity and richness in minerals.

Both support good growth of weed and large populations of creatures like freshwater Shrimp and Bullheads that are indicators of excellent water quality.

One odd feature of chalkstreams is that, on occasion, perhaps for 1 or 2 seasons at a time, they suddenly seem to flow with more colour than usual. This happened in 2008 and 2009 on our River, but in 2010 it has run crystal clear all year [except in the aftermath of heavy rain of course]. On the Test, the same thing happened in the middle of this season, although by October it was running clear again. Still, the contest is even.

But as the round goes on, the Test’s bigger size begins to tell. The Test is supplied by countless springs and tributaries, with the flow steady along many miles of the main river along with miles of carriers that run in parallel to it. [It has been estimated to total over 86 miles of river.]

The broad waters of the Upper Test

By contrast the flow in the Ver is subject to the variations caused by everything from the Mill downstream raising the levels of water held back, to lack of rain causing the aquifers to run dry. The truth is that excessive abstraction of water has reduced the Ver from the river it once was – which was more than twice the width of the stream we now see – and the lack of flow means we constantly have to battle to stop it from getting clogged by silt.

On flow alone, then, the Test certainly has the Ver on the ropes.

SCORE: First round to the big fella.

ROUND 2: Fly Life.

One result of the uncertain flow of the Ver is that it doesn’t support the kind of fly life you find on the Test. For a start there is no Mayfly hatch, something the Test is famous for, and which provides ‘Duffers’ Fortnight’ when anyone who can land a large artificial on the water is likely to come away with a fish, as they feast on the giant Ephemera Danica. Another blow landed by the Test.

The mayfly is not the only upwing to hatch in numbers on the Test. Every kind of upwing from Blue-winged Olives to Caenis has its moment, when the fish are turned on to them by huge hatches.

By contrast our hatches on the Ver are much more sporadic, although improving as the years go by. For the most part there is a very different balance of food on the Ver, with flies like Caddis, which don’t all hatch at the exact same time, being more important, and terrestrials playing a huge part. The river is so narrow, and has so much growth overhanging it that terrestrials – Daddy Longlegs, Hawthorn Flies, Alder Flies – regularly fall or are blown on to the surface. Our fish are rarely fixated on one food source, although on occasions the cobwebs that stretch across the river testify that there has been something of a hatch going on.

SCORE: Another easy round to the Test

ROUND 3: Fish quality

A wild Ver Brown Trout

So far the contest has all gone the Test’s way, but suddenly, in a fine show of counter-punching, the Ver comes back into it.

All our fish [apart from the odd escaped Rainbow] are wild Brown Trout bred in the river. Not so the Test. Most of the large trout there, although they are Browns, are stocked fish. True the biggest are larger than ours, but they lack the brilliant colour and finely tuned instinct of a wild trout. This is a big blow landed by the little Ver, and the Test rocks back.

The Test is unexpectedly on the ropes. But in a fine display of defence it counters – what about the Grayling? These beautiful wild fish are prolific on the Test, and grow to huge sizes for the species – 2lb fish are common, and even 3lbers are caught with some regularity. Once they were regarded as a pest that competed with the trout for food. Frank Sawyer, who was a keeper on the Test, developed his Killer Bug just to catch and kill as many Grayling as possible.

A test Stockie

Now the Grayling has become a sought-after quarry in its own right – and rightly so. The truth is, the rich waters of the river can easily support both species. Although they will readily take a dry fly, the under-slung mouth of the Grayling indicates its favoured place to take food – on the bottom, unlike the trout that take at any level in the water.

Also unlike the Brown Trout, the Grayling breeds in the Spring [as do Coarse Fish and Rainbow Trout]. This means that there is fishing on the Test almost all year round – when the trout are off-limits, the Grayling are in season and vice versa.

Test Grayling

So good defensive work from the Test, but the Ver shades the round with its wild browns.

ROUND 4: History.

The Test is out of its corner quickly and straight back into the contest. The Test is one of the most written-about trout waters in the world, dating right back to the time of Frederick Halford, the orginator of modern dry fly fishing. It heaps a bibliographic bombardment on the Ver, as the little river backs up against the ropes with both gloves in front of its face. Halford, Skues, Plunkett Greene = names familiar to any angling historian, all wrote about the Test and its tributaries.

The Ver has little to come back with. It is rumoured that Eric Morecambe did fish our section of the Ver in the 1970s, but that hardly counts as fly fishing history.

But then the Ver suddenly switches from defence to attack – with a huge haymaker of a punch. The first ever written account of fly fishing in England was the Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle from the Book of St Albans. The rumoured author was Dame Juliana Berners, Abbess of Sopwell Priory. Those who know St Albans will know the ruins of the Priory in the town – sited on the banks of the Ver!

For a moment this huge blow staggers the Test. But the ref immediately steps in. It seems the attribution of the Treatyse to Dame Juliana is dubious to say the least. It’s a low blow, and although it has definitely hurt the Test, it is ruled illegal by the ref.

ROUND 5: Price.

The Test is well ahead on points by now, and as they come out for the last round, the Ver is on wobbly legs.

But attack is the best form of defence, and the Ver comes out swinging.

On price, the Ver definitely has the advantage. It’ll cost you less than £20 to fish the river at the fishery, with every chance of a good sized wild fish.

It can also cost you a mere twenty pounds to fish parts of the Test. But only out of trout season, and then you’ll be lucky to get that kind of price. Even in Grayling time, some beats on the Test and its tributaries can cost £80.

People come from the world over to fish these sacred historic waters. And that’s why, at the height of Mayfly time it can cost you several hundred pounds for one day’s fishing.

A strong last round for the Ver, but is it enough?

Sadly no. A definite points victory to the heavyweight. But a good performance, nonetheless, by the little Ver.

The best Barr none?

Craig executes yet another perfect cast

Just before Christmas we had a visit from the captain of the England Fly Fishing Team, Craig Barr. Craig arrived on a working party day with a journalist cum photographer from the magazine Today’s Fly Fisher. As you would expect, Craig’s casting was effortlessly powerful and very elegant, although even he struggled to catch a fish on a very cold day when the water was as close as it ever comes to freezing. I understand that the article is due to appear in the January issue of the magazine.

Big Dave "up to his nadgers..."

I’m standing up to my nadgers in cold spring water, wielding a sickle through the long grass, reeds and nettles along the riverbank. Somewhere upstream, Big Dave is doing the same. Every few minutes a raft of leaves and stems comes floating by, and the river is running thick and brown from Dave’s size 11 waders stirring up the silt.


The sickle hits a post hidden somewhere in the grass and is ripped from my grasp. Before I can grab it, it falls in the muddy water. Bugger.


I feel around with my wader boots, but all I can make out is a thin layer of mud. I’ll have to wait for a tea break to let the water clear and hopefully find the sickle at the bottom of the river.

This is a fairly typical activity for the work parties at this time of year. Not losing sickles, I mean, but clearing the growth on the bank. With the sunshine and rain, the rate of growth is tremendous and clearing it back, at least enough to give some clear water to cast a fly on, is a fulltime job.

It’s a job best done by hand with manual implements. The bankside growth and the weed in the river are home to hoards of insects and other invertebrates, which are the main food for the trout. They also provide cover for small trout to hide in. So you don’t want to cut them back too drastically, with say a strimmer. The old methods are the best for this work, as labour intensive as they are.


Without these regular efforts to clear the banks and any excess weed in the stream, the river would quickly become completely grown over.


On this particular work party day, another group of volunteers were creating fishing platforms on the bank of the Coarse Lake. The work is very varied and divides itself fairly evenly between the river and the lakes.

In October, as the river season ends, we put nets over the spawning shallows to protect the mating fish, and then we don’t go in the river until the following March, when the trout have hatched and moved away from the gravels.

It’s well worth a visit to the upper reaches of the river in November to early December when the fish are spawning. If you approach reasonably quietly you should get a glimpse of some superb fish thrashing around in water that is scarcely deep enough to cover their backs; digging redds in the gravel, laying eggs and then fertilising them.

Another job - Crayfish eradication

Autumn at the fishery

Winter work tends to include fence mending, to ensure the cattle don’t venture in and destroy the banks, clearing the banks of both river and lake and generally tidying up – everything that gets neglected in Spring and Summer when we’re busy with other stuff.

When Spring comes, first job is to remove the nets. Then the work comes in thick and fast – keeping the growth under control, clearing weed and sometimes algae from the lake, creating new riffles with gravel and topping up the old ones, planting ranunculus in some of the downstream swims, keeping the Norfolk Reed growth down in the middle section and sometimes getting the boat out and trimming the growth on the islands. There’s also the ongoing work of sieving the soil from the Coarse Lake to create gravel for the river and topsoil.

All this keeps us busy until October comes round again.

Fishing on a work party day

It’s not hard work really, although it’s quite relentless. Personally, it’s a welcome antidote to so many days spent in the office in front of a blank computer screen haunted by deadlines. Although the work is not exactly taxing, there’s something mentally restorative about it and the surroundings are endlessly beautiful and fascinating. And at the end of the day it helps to improve all our fishing.

So let’s give a big hand to Dave, Steve, Ray, Jim, Tom, Paul, Big Dave and all the others who give their time to keep the fishery working.

And if anyone happens to come across a sickle in the river, could we please have it back?

[If you’d like to join the work parties, please call John on 07774 197411 to find out the date of the next one. Your reward for a few hours work on a Saturday will be free fishing].

Jungle Warfare

Listen up chaps.

Reports are coming in that it’s all getting a bit overgrown down on the river. This is due to a number of factors. Sun. Rain. Steve getting married on a Saturday and inviting several work party members to the ceremony. All these have contributed to the ongoing river overgrowth situation.

But fear not chaps. HQ have come up with a few suggestions for making the most of things. There are three elements to remember: strategy, tactics, and resources.

Firstly, the strategy. Rather than seeing the terrain as a challenge, we make it an opportunity. How? By using the element of surprise.

In clear water, anything that can help you approach the fish unnoticed is a bonus.

Consider the entry of the fly into the water. A large fly [or even a small one] falling suddenly into the stream can easily spook a wild trout in clear water. But where grass, reeds and nettles hang over the bank, they can act as a cushion.

Overhanging grass and Reedmace

The fly lands on a blade of grass, the stem of a nettle or the leaf of a bulrush [more properly Reed Mace]. The line slowly pulls tight. The fly slides along the leaf, eventually falling the short distance to the water surface, and landing gently and unobtrusively.

The trick is not to be tempted into speeding up the process. If you pull on the line the hook will invariably bury itself in the leaf or stem, and then you either have to pull hard to get it out, causing all sorts of ructions in the undergrowth, or approach the snagged fly, spooking every fish in the area. Let things develop at a natural pace and often the fly will extract itself unaided.

Let's play spot the river

Consider also the banks of weed in the river that allow us to wade up close to the fish. Trout feel very safe and secure with a roof of weed over their heads, or close enough so they can easily retreat in to it. But if you are wading slowly upstream, the weed over and behind the trout can provide a good barrier between you and the wary quarry.

If you’re fishing from the bank, the growth, sometimes shoulder high, is also excellent cover. Standing tall on a bare bank instantly spooks wild fish. By hiding behind the fringe of reeds and nettles you can easily conceal yourself from the fish. It may, on occasions, make casting harder, but at least you will be making that difficult cast to a river with fish still in it.

Fish caught from the bank

Also, all this growth overhanging the river is home to an army of terrestrial insects – Crane flies, Soldier Beetles, Caterpillars, Spiders. All will at one time or another fall into the water where the trout will happily devour them.

Oh and talking of Spiders, it’s worth looking around at their webs in the long grass and reeds. One day in June I came across a web that stretched right across the river from bank to bank. It was full of small brown upwings – I tied on a small Lunn’s Particular and had take after take, all the way upstream.

Secondly, tactics. With so much growth around on the banks and also in the trees, the straightforward overhead cast you’d use on the lake is rarely possible. Often you are casting not much more than the leader. You have to use a variety of other tactics to get your fly on the water.

Sometimes a side cast is possible – shifting the overhead cast into a horizontal plane to avoid overhanging bows. Other circumstances call for the Roll Cast, which can be executed without the line extending behind you.

Then for the really difficult, overhung swims, there’s the Bow and Arrow Cast. With a bit of practice you can fire a fly in a straight line along the rod with no danger of catching it in the undergrowth or the trees above. Or your thumb.

Finally, equipment.

When you’re wading at the top of the river, a short, light rod is a real boon. I use a 7’ long 3 weight, which I can easily wield without danger of catching branches overhead. On the other hand, at the bottom of the river, fishing off the bank, a longer rod may well give a bit more control over the fly.

As for the flies themselves, those with built in buoyancy give a real advantage. There’s next to no room for flicking flies around to get them dry.

Two possibilities offer themselves – flies tied with CDC and those that use closed-cell foam.

CDC is one of the great materials for fly tying. The feathers, from the area around a ducks preen gland, hence Cul de Canard [ducks arse], are naturally waterproof. Their filaments are also incredibly fine, replicating insects’ own delicate appendages.

The one downside is that, once waterlogged, they take a great deal of restoring to get them working properly again. The French however have a way of dealing with this.

Parachute pattern tied with a pink foam post...

Personally, this year I’ve tended to favour parachute flies tied with a foam post.

The buoyancy of the post keeps the fly afloat without the need for too many turns of hackle, which helps to keep the fly looking natural in the clear water. I tie mine with  posts of pink packaging foam that I nicked from a photocopier repairman at the office – the pink stands out well against dark or light water.

...and the fish it caught

Parts of the river are now thick with Ranunculus, or Water Crowsfoot, with hardly a clear channel to cast your fly over. In these swims the Funneldun, created by the ever-inventive Neil Patterson, is ideal. It floats hook point up, so it rarely snags.

Okay chaps, end of briefing. Good luck out there, and give them hell.

Just a quick post to draw your attention to a ‘meetup’ group in the area which brings anglers together for fishing trips, chats over a pint and other relevant activities. Many of the members fish Redbournbury.

The leader of the group is Ed Hennessey. They have some interesting upcoming events, including a trip to fly fish for Sea Bass down near Brighton and a casual chat about fly-fishing at a pub in St Albans.

You’ll find them at: http://www.stalbansharpendenflyfishing.com/

The river will always make a fool of you if it can.

No sooner had I unwisely pledged allegiance, in this blog, to sub-surface methods than, for the first time in two years, the river began to run clear as glass and the dry fly was in the ascendancy.

Fish rose freely to naturals and imitations alike. The average size of these fish was about half a pound, but the odd larger fish, up to two-pounds, showed itself. At first they took small upwing imitations – Adams, Dry Pheasant Tail, Kite’s Imperial and the like. But most recently [last Sunday] I had five [4 Wild Browns and an escaped Rainbow] on a size 12 Robjent Daddy in the space of an hour and a half.

A decent brown on the dry fly

This was classic dry fly fishing, casting to fish clearly visible and on the fin, or placing the fly as near as you dare to rafts of weed and flotsam, under which fish hide in readiness to hurl themselves out at passing food.

One Sunday morning I spent an entire hour on one small pool where I had sneaked up in my waders on a group of fish of all sizes hiding under a roof of weed next to a fast flowing bend in the stream. They drifted in and out from their hiding place, and there must have been a dozen or more in hiding, for if I spooked one, another would soon take its place. At one point a very decent brown hung in the current just three feet in front of me – in fact too close to cast to.

There were browns of all sizes and at least one very large rainbow. Just downstream from a fast tumbling run, the water was clearly comfortable for them on this baking hot day, infused as it was with extra oxygen.

I hooked a couple of small ones, then lost them. I hooked the big Rainbow and had it on for but a second. I spooked two very good Browns. But still more fish emerged to look at the fly as it sped by.

Finally a new Brown emerged, a fish of a pound and a quarter. The fly, an ‘LBJ’ [Little Brown Job – a simple size 18 upwing imitation with a body of brown thread, a brown tail and a brown hackle] bobbed along. The fish rose, inspected it and took it confidently. A hectic struggle, as it shot first upstream then down, and finally it was thrashing on the surface and could be drawn carefully over the net.

So why was the river running clear, after being cloudy for two years? Who knows. By a strange co-incidence, precisely the opposite is true of the Test in Hampshire, as reported on the fields sports channel programme of 07/07/10. Certainly the normally gin clear waters of the most famous chalkstream in the world were distinctly hazy on a trip there in early July. Stocked fish still rose to dries, but perhaps not as readily as they usually do. In water over two feet deep it was hard to see the riverbed.

It seems that these things happen at times. The Frome at the Wrackleford Estate near Dorchester, which I visited in late July, was running as clear as our own stream.

Some showers this week may have put a little more colour in our water, but it’s unlikely to last more than a few hours. Hopefully the clarity will remain. Hopefully the dry fly will continue to reign supreme.

But like I said, the river will always fool you if it can. So don’t rely on it. In fact I’d start tying up some big nymphs if I were you.

An average half pound wild fish from the river