Trout often patrol the margins and with the right approach they are easier to catch than you’d think. Casting instructor Andy Hathaway shows you how.
It’s not often I lose my rag while fishing, but when a fellow angler skylines me the red mist can quickly come down. The one thing I have always regarded as a cardinal sin is someone standing high above you in full view of wary trout while you are stealthily trying to ambush your timid quarry.
The last time it happened to me was at Walthamstow Reservoir, my favourite water. I was having some success picking up a few fish when a tall bloke happily perched himself up on the wall behind me where his silhouette could be spotted by fish miles away and demanded to know why I was catching so many and with what fly. The reason I became annoyed was because one of the first things I ever had drummed into me was that watercraft is everything and fly choice comparatively insignificant. Because it’s now a basic instinct for me I forget that others are just not aware of how much ‘damage’ they can cause by being in full view of trout, whether they are wild or stocked. Although I was seething with the onlooker the main task was to coax him away from the skyline without being rude, so I asked him to
come down to sit next to me on the concrete. His next question was why my casts were so short 40 feet maximum and mostly parallel to the bank. I explained that fish do come in very close if they get the chance! Trout love to feed near to features, and the best feature they have is the bank, assuming the absence of shallow water and bright light. Where there is weed and insect life, there is a good larder for the fish, and these feeding hotspots are always great places to target them.
Actually, I shouldn’t have been so surprised about the guy questioning the distance at which I was fishing.
My main occupation is a casting coach, and almost every client wants to cast further. That is how they
judge how well they are doing, and they fervently believe that the further they cast the more likelihood there is of a fish intercepting the fly. This leads to an ever-present phenomena on stillwaters, of the angler who marches up to the water’s edge, preferably to a casting platform of some sort, hammers the line out to his maximum distance – which is always three yards less than he would like it to be – and then begins fishing. Usually, that craving for the extra distance is only satisfied by an excessive number false casts. What he has failed to realise is that by striding straight to the water’s edge and constantly waving his arms about when casting can only act as an alarm to any timid trout in the area. So, back to my new friend who was rapidly picking my brains. As it turned out he was quite a nice fellow and just
new to the game. We talked about fishing close in to the bank, and about being very quiet when doing so, aspects of the sport I take for granted but totally alien to him.
At Grafham, in recent times, I’ve caught so many trout off the dam wall that have taken the fly above the same concrete slab I was actually sitting on, highlighting just how close they are prepared to come in to feed. Possibly even more revealing was a time when I was wading out to cast to rising fish, near Fantasy Island at Rutland. I had to take a phone call to listen to an A-level essay written by my daughter. Twenty minutes later, having performed my fatherly duty, trout were rising so close to me they were splashing my wader tops, and all because I had been standing motionless for so long. Most of the time on stillwaters we don’t recognize how many fish we spook. And if we scare the ones that are close in, surely they will frighten the other fish, sitting further out, as they shoot off into the depths?
I love to cast. I’m more tempted than anyone to push the line out as far as I can. When I became a better caster, though, it seemed that I caught fewer fish. Reasoning it out after a few months, it became clear that almost no trout were being caught at the longest range. I was fishing in a dead zone, beyond the fish, as well as spooking the trout close by when I was dropping the belly of the fly line on their heads. A significant part of the fishing day was wasted, fishing in empty water.
Back To Walthamstow
My new friend was captivated and I felt it had dawned on him how vital it was to keep a low profile on hard fished venues where catch and release is common. As we crouched down, the trout I had been after reappeared, cruising across the ripple, sometimes even under the rod tip. Every so often I connected with one; solid thump, well-hooked fish – perfect. This was on one of those days when most anglers were getting plenty of touchy feely type takes, but no fish were being landed. My leader was 8lb fluorocarbon, about 15 feet long, with two flies, both size 12. The rod was a 10ft 7-wt, perhaps a little heavy, but I prefer heavier gear because I can completely boss the leader, which leads to better, softer presentation. Also, the fish can be beaten quicker with the stronger rod, which is better for catch and release. By now, my friend was hugely impressed with my strategy. I hadn’t really thought I had one, but he made me think that what I was doing was a bit different.
The type of fly I choose is closely integrated with the retrieve. I use two types of nymph, and they both ‘wink’. By this I mean they don’t give a solid silhouette to the fish, but rather change colour or shape with each twitch. My outstanding favourite is a plain Cruncher with slim pheasant-tail body, peacock thorax and Greenwell hen hackle. The hackle must be carefully chosen to be neither too stiff nor too soft, and tied butted up against the thorax so that each twitch makes it pulse, opening and closing. That creates a sort of leg-kicking, body-twitching action. It’s what insects do – they twitch, paddle, pulse and wriggle, and I’m convinced that the fly’s action is more important than colour. The second type of fly relies on light reflection. As it moves there is a glint, and that tempts trout. A buzzer with a pearl shellback is one of my best patterns, always tied slim, and in sizes 12 and 14.
I was all set to use this approach at Redbournbury Fishery, near St Albans, to prove that my stealthy skills work anywhere. This is a very civilised small fishery, and does not exhibit the absurd overstocking sometimes associated with this type of venue. Preparing for the feature, I visited two days earlier and found it to be crystal clear. Redbournbury is a tiny water and seemed tailor-made for my low impact, short-range approach.
But 48 hours later some heavy downpours of rain had coloured the water considerably and dampened
my hopes of catching on my chosen method. Feeling almost obliged to practice what I preach, I set a floating line on my 10ft 7-wt rod, a 10ft leader and two flies – a size 14 buzzer on the dropper and a size 12 Cruncher on the point, five feet apart. Crouching down and fishing along the bank for 20 minutes brought nothing and my confidence was swiftly evaporating.
The fish would neither see, nor feel vibration, from these small flies. Not a fish showed, either, so in the
cold wind and in the absence of any sort of hatch, it’s a safe bet they were lying deep. I had to rethink my setup. I took the flies off and added a new, longer leader of around 14 feet. On the point position
went a Cat’s Whisker sporting a gold bead for weight and glint, four feet above that went a Cruncher on a dropper and a further four feet away was a little buzzer on the top dropper. The Cat has a tendency to hit the water with a plop, and I hoped that this would excite any passing trout in the murky water.
I kept down as low as possible, making a point of staying out of any trout’s field of vision – even though thewater may be dirty, they can still see a silhouette against the skyline. After several short casts in the margins, I started to lengthen my cast, covering new water all the while.
After an hour and without any action, I decided to start placing the flies a little further out from the margin, casting a yard further out each time. Eventually, after trying various areas and depths by counting down in five second intervals – I had the first take at 20 seconds deep, halfway through my jerky, stop and start retrieve. It wasn’t much, a quick sharp pull and certainly not a nymph take – it was definitely a fish grabbing at the tail of the Cat. Interesting! I had been convinced that the trout would be a little higher in the water, given the colour of it, in the upper layers where the light could penetrate and they could see their food a whole lot better. Fishing has a habit of making fools of us all sometimes!
I took the Cat off the point and removed two feet from the end of the leader, bringing my dropper patterns further down in the water column, and tied on a leaded Minkie. I wanted to get the flies down deeper, quicker. Within a cast or two I was into my first trout, so it was an inspired change! Even more pleasing, it had taken my little Cruncher!
It wasn’t a huge fish, probably a tad under 2lb, but one I was very glad to come across given the conditions I faced. By adding the Minkie, which presents a bigger profile and pulses vigorously with a
twitchy retrieve, it had drawn in the trout to investigate.
Strange Bedfellows Work
It may seem counter-productive to fish lures on the same leader on which you are trying to fish small, delicate nymphs but it can, and often does, work a treat. It’s as if the trout need something they can home in on. When they do, and as long as your more imitative flies are nearby, they will often turn away at the last minute to take the smaller fly! Another cast out into the same area, and again using that stop-start retrieve, brought the flies into the margins where another trout, similar in size to the first, took the buzzer! The vertical movement as I began to lift the flies off to recast proved too much for this fish. It fought like a thing possessed in the shallow water before finally succumbing to my waiting net.
I’d now found success with both of my special nymphs, and to be fair it was all thanks to the large lure on the end! Once you find a method it can often be almost too productive, and I went on to take another seven fish before lunch time. To catch nine trout, irrespective of size in a morning’s fishing is some going. Unbelievably, I only took one fish on the Minkie, whereas five fell to the Cruncher fished a little deeper and three on the buzzer.