My second lesson in fly fishing on the river

AS SOME OF you may know, I went out a few weeks ago with Martin James from BBC Radio Lancashire, the host of “At the Water’s Edge” for my first fly fishing lesson. Unfortunately, due to the extremely windy conditions, we couldn’t do much. Martin could cope with it, but a newcomer like me didn’t have a chance. However, Martin kindly booked me in for another trip, which took place a few weeks ago. I didn’t get chance to write it up at the time, as I then went away for a couple of weeks boating holiday, but it’s all still so fresh in my mind that it doesn’t really matter.

On the day I was due to have my next session, I awoke very early, and the first thing I heard was the sound of rain. The first we’ve had for weeks. Why? Why today of all days? It was just bucketing it down. I telephoned Martin to check he was still happy to go ahead with our trip, fully expecting him to say “forget it”. Luckily he’d heard the weather reports as I had, which promised better weather later in the day, so he was quite happy to carry on with our plans. Yes! Result! I can’t tell you how pleased I was to hear this.

I bought my own tackle

Although we had a very limited session on our first outing, I’d learned enough on that trip to know that this was a method of fishing that I could learn to love, so I’d been out to my local tackle shop and invested in a fly rod, reel, line, etc. (Many thanks to Steve at Padiham Angling Centre for being so patient with me whilst I dithered over what to buy!).

I bought a 9ft Masterline #6/7 rod, a Masterline Ideal XL wide arbor disc drag fly reel and some Cortland Fairplay WF7F fly line. I was confident in choosing Masterline rather than some of the other more expensive brands on offer as it was a Masterline rod that Martin used for our first session and I just know that he wouldn’t use it, even if only for beginners, if it wasn’t up to the job. It wasn’t the cheapest rod they stocked, but it just felt good, and it was within my budget, which was important. I had a maximum budget of £ 100, which was still stretching my finances to the limit, but the whole outfit, including a few bits and bobs (leaders, flies, etc) cost me only just over £ 95. I was very pleasantly surprised, and pleased at that.

I dare say I could have got it a lot cheaper on the Internet, but there’s nothing quite like feeling the rod, etc, before you buy, and having someone there to answer your questions and steer you in the right direction. I could probably have saved a lot of money in the last year since I started fishing by buying it all on eBay or sites like that, but unless you know what you’re doing, you can end up making a big mistake. Besides, Internet sites don’t welcome you with a big smile, a “Hello Janet, do you want a brew?” and then spend hours telling you about who’s been catching what, where, when and on what baits. I’m happy to pay more simply because of the service I get, the advice and the chat, even if half the time I don’t quite understand what they’re talking about! Support your local tackle shop. They may not be the cheapest option, but they provide that important link to your local waters.

On the buses

Anyway, back to the story. After getting the go-ahead, I then got my bag packed and off for the bus over to Clitheroe, where Martin had arranged to pick me up, as I’m reliant on public transport. Amazing how light you travel when fly fishing, compared to the stuff I haul to the canal bank when I’m after my favourite perch. Rod, line, reel, flies. That’s about it. No bags, boxes, bait, etc. Just the bare essentials.

I arrived in Clitheroe slightly earlier than scheduled, so went for a wander up to the tackle shop for a mooch round (as you do!). On our river session earlier this year, Martin had used LG shot to help us land my lovely chub, but LG shot isn’t widely available. However, I know that he buys his shot from this shop. When I asked “Do you have any LG shot in stock?”, the guy just looked at me and said “You’ve been fishing with Martin, haven’t you?” He should charge extra for all the people like me who have been out fishing with Martin! Couple of LG’s, chunk of bread, job’s a good ‘un!

“Right Janet, let’s see what you’ve got.”

Martin arrived to collect me right on time, and we headed up to his lovely stretch of the River Ribble. It’s only been a few weeks since I was last up there with him, but the change is amazing. The trees are now full of leaves rather than their bare winter branches, the air is alive with all kinds of birds, and the river looked totally inviting. Inviting to a novice like me, that is. He explained about how the river was much lower than he would have liked, and how much they needed some rainfall to avoid the repeat of that long hot summer we had last year. He’s not anticipating a lot of river fishing this year if this continues.

Once we reached his fishing cabin, we got our priorities right, and the kettle was soon on for a lovely cup of tea. Then came the scary bit. “Right Janet,” he said, “Let’s see what you’ve got.” I was dreading him telling me I’d bought all the wrong stuff, but I’m glad to say that he approved of it. I’d fettled it all myself, after reading a few websites, and had attached my backing to the reel with an arbor knot, then attached the backing to the flyline with an allbright knot and was hoping to hell that I’d got it right. I did! I was really worried as he stripped all the fly line off the reel to make sure it was ok. He then stretched it all out slightly, bit by bit, to ensure that it didn’t retain any memory. He had mentioned about doing this on our last fly fishing trip, but it was one of the bits of information that didn’t quite register, as there was so much to take in with this new style of fishing.

Then he saw the knot, looked at me and said “Who tied this?”. I gulped a bit, swallowed, and admitted that it was me. “Well done”, he said “I’d give that an eight out of ten”. (Well, he might have said seven, but you know us anglers like to stretch the truth a bit!). I was so chuffed. I’ve sat here night after night practising various knots, but never quite knowing if I’ve got the right result. It’s so good, after fishing alone to find someone who can look at what you do and say “Yes. That’s the way I’d do it too.”

Then came the fun bit

I was not going to have an easy day fishing from the bank this time. Oh no. I was going IN the water to learn how to do it properly! Martin managed to find me some of his spare chest waders and some wading boots. There wasn’t going to be any escape. Honestly, I looked like the Michelin man. How he managed to find a pair of waders to fit my ample posterior I have no idea, but find them he did! He also found me some very comfortable (if rather big!) boots and a wading staff. I can’t imagine how anyone could cope safely without one of these. The boots were a few sizes too large, but who cares? They did the job. However, I’m very pleased that Martin didn’t produce his camera on this occasion!

That was us ready (once I’d stopped laughing), so off we headed to the river for some fishing. Once I was actually IN the river I was astounded to see how quickly it changed. One minute it was crystal clear, and I was able to observe all the tiny minnows swimming around my feet, then the next minute it became slightly cloudy again and with a green tinge from the water that was coming into it from farther up.

We spent several hours with me practising casting, and Martin encouraging me and instructing me, and demonstrating how it should be done. It seemed as though I was doing it all wrong, as no matter what I did, I couldn’t get the fly to land on the water as he did, so effortlessly, but eventually I got one, then two, then three casts in a row that got a “Good cast” from Martin.

Unfortunately then it all went to pot, and I lost the rhythm and got my back cast all wrong. I was either too quick with my forward cast, or too slow. We took several breaks, so that Martin could show me how he did it, and to give my poor aching arm a rest. It’s quite a strenuous activity if you haven’t done it before, stretching muscles that you don’t often use. Over the course of the afternoon I gradually improved, even if only slightly, and had more decent casts than bad ones, although there’s obviously an awful lot of room for improvement. It will take a lot of practice to be able to cast well consistently and accurately.

Actually being IN the river was a strange feeling, and I didn’t feel particularly stable on my feet, so found it slightly difficult at times to turn and watch my backcast as Martin advised. I think much of it is down to confidence, and I should be much better when I have some wading boots of my own, that fit correctly and give me more feeling of stability. Still, Martin advised me not to worry about it. He said he hadn’t lost a guest “yet……”

So relaxing

Although conditions looked very good, and Martin had a few casts whilst I rested, we couldn’t see any sign of rising fish until quite late on in the afternoon. Watching him cast was an inspiration – always accurate, with the fly just floating down onto the surface of the water. I was mesmerised just watching. As I stood there, with my chin resting on my hands on my wading staff, just watching and taking it all in, Martin commented on how relaxed I looked. He was right. It was a lovely afternoon, and I was totally at peace, watching him cast, watching the water and listening to the birdsong.

After a couple of hours, we went back to the fishing cabin for a bite to eat and a nice cup of tea. As on my last couple of visits, he patiently answered all of my questions and offered lots of advice on all aspects of angling, together with a lot of valuable information on conservation and wildlife. Just little things, but important nevertheless, particularly if future generations are going to be able to enjoy fishing and walking in such a lovely spot as this. If we don’t look after it now, and help to stamp out pollution, rubbish, illicit discharges etc, then we’ll lose it. Following his advice, I have the Environment Agency emergency phone number (0800 80 70 60) programmed into my mobile, and I won’t hesitate to report any instances of pollution, damage or illegal fishing. It’s up to us to protect what we have for the future.

Once we’d had our lunch, it was back down to the river and more casting practise. Again it was good cast, then bad cast, but I felt as though I was getting better at it. I only caught the bank a couple of times (and you should have seen the one that got away!). All the time Martin was instructing me, demonstrating, correcting my mistakes and being infinitely patient when I kept on making them!

It came out of the water in an arc of brilliant silver

At last though, late into the afternoon, there were signs of fish rising. As Martin was busy tying a new fly, I saw a magnificent fish leap out of the water about a hundred yards downstream, just where I’d caught my chub on my fist visit. It came out of the water in an arc of brilliant silver, a beautiful rainbow of colour flashing in the afternoon sunshine. Just perfect. Although he didn’t see it, he guessed from my description that it was probably a sea trout. We saw several other rises, and as I’d been casting for a while, now seemed the perfect time to sit back and relax for a bit and let Martin take over and show me exactly how it should be done.

I waded to the bank and made myself comfortable high up amongst the trees, where I had the best vantage point, and Martin proceeded to make several casts from the far bank over towards where I was sitting, gradually covering the whole water as he moved slowly downstream. It was very gratifying to hear him express his satisfaction with the rod and line I’d bought – he was using my equipment, and said that I’d made a good choice. Very reassuring!

He changed flies several times, as it wasn’t clear what the fish were taking. The first fly he tried was a hawthorn, as hawthorn flies were occasionally landing on the water, and then he used black, green or zebra midge pupae in 18’s and 20’s (buzzers), finally landing his first fish on a zebra midge pupa. A beautiful brownie it was too, vividly coloured and spotted, totally different in colour to the ones I’ve caught on my local River Calder. It was great to watch, seeing him spot the fish rising, then targeting it until it couldn’t resist. It was quickly brought to hand and released safely, only being out of the water for a second so I could admire it.

The best was yet to come though

As I sat relaxing and watching, we both saw signs of what looked like a big fish rising just downstream of where I was sitting. From where I was I could actually see the fish in the water, and a beautiful group of fat chub swimming lazily under the overhanging trees. Again and again this big fish came to the surface, taking flies with a loud slurp before swishing away again in a whirl of water. Martin cast over expertly from the other side of the river, but couldn’t quite get in the right position, so worked his way over the the bank near me, all the time casting and targeting this fish, but never quite close enough to land the fly where it needed to be.

Got it!
Got it! Cried Martin

I’d seen that determined look in his eyes before, when he’d taken me out fishing for chub, and knew that there was no way he was going to give up before he’d tried everything to land this fish. He ended up at the riverbank just below me, under the overhanging trees, in what looked like an absolutely impossible position to cast. The tree branch jutted out several feet over the river and the fish was in a deep pool on the other side. Surely impossible? No, not impossible, just a bit difficult. After several casts, letting the fly drift round almost above the fish’s nose, he got a positive take, but the fish managed to break free. His language was most undignified, but I knew how he felt! If he’d been determined before, there was no stopping him now! He was going to catch it, come what may! From my vantage point I could actually see the fish as it rose up, teasing him, and I could see that this was a real beauty.

A beautiful brown trout
A beautiful brown trout

I climbed down the bank closer to the water to observe, (and get ready for a rescue attempt!) as he went deeper and deeper into the water by the overhanging branches. Any deeper and he’d have needed a snorkel! All the time he was casting parallel to the bank, and letting the fly drift down and around towards the fish. Suddenly he shouted “Got it!”, or words to that effect, and sure enough, he’d managed to tempt this beauty into taking the fly. After a short but very spirited fight, he had it, and what a beauty it was. An absolutely scale perfect, beautifully marked glistening big brown trout, made all the better because of the difficulty in catching it. It was released in the water with minimum handling, as are all his game fish. He doesn’t take any for the table. As he explained to me later, you can keep coarse fish in a landing net or a keepnet whilst you go off and get camera gear, scales, etc., but not game fish. They need to be released quickly, with as little handling and stress as possible.

I’d watched him changing flies and leader several times as he targeted this fish, but wasn’t clear just what he’d used, so in Martin’s own words, here’s how it was done –

“I used a Kauffman’s size 12 Stimulator. I also extended the nine foot leader to 14 feet with fluorocarbon Froghair tippet of 3lb by using a three turn water knot. As I couldn’t do a normal cast overhead or roll cast with the wood right down to the water’s edge I did a cast parallel to the water shooting on the back cast. I fished a drag-free drift for about 15 – 20 feet.”

It was fabulous to see. I’d read about fly fishermen targeting a particular fish, but didn’t quite understand how it could possibly work until I saw it in action for myself during the afternoon. It was mesmerising.

All too soon the day was over and it was time to leave, as Martin’s ever patient wife Kate was waiting to be collected and I had a bus to catch. Luckily she knows that he’s inclined to always have that one last cast, so she didn’t mind that we were a bit late!

Although I didn’t catch anything myself, once again I’d had a truly enjoyable and memorable day, and learnt so much that I’ll be able to put into practice in the future. Martin has kindly arranged for me to have another day with him soon, when hopefully I may catch something, but you know, even if I don’t, it really won’t matter. It really isn’t all about catching. Much of the enjoyment I get from my fishing is just from being there and trying. Enjoying good company, observing the wildlife, taking in the fresh air and constantly learning is good enough for me. A fish at the end of it is just a bonus!

Janet reports back next week with the next instalment of her fly fishing exploits – will she catch one next time?