As an Orvis Endorsed Guide and full time fly fishing instructor, most of my days throughout the season are spent on the River Wharfe in the Yorkshire Dales teaching beginners, improvers or more experienced anglers the skills required to effectively fly fish a freestone river. A typical freestone river will consist of fast runs, glides, riffles and pools, superb trout and grayling habitat but not easy to fish especially for the less experienced angler or one used to the more sedate flow of a chalk stream.
Over time a pattern has developed as to the common mistakes people make when fishing this type of water and a little instruction on watercraft, fishing techniques and line control can make a huge difference to their success both in terms of chances of fish and fish landed.
It’s of course essential to use the correct equipment, I find the T3 9’ 5-weight rod matched with a Battenkill Mid Arbor III and olive dun Wonderline an ideal combination covering the majority requirements and conditions found throughout the season. Breathable stocking foot chest waders and felt soled studded wading shoes are essential and I cannot fault the Pro Guide waders together with the Henry’s Fork II wading shoe which offers truly outstanding grip, comfort and ankle support. A wading staff acts as a “third leg” and will help you wade safely and with confidence.
So what are in my opinion the basic “Freestone Fundamentals”…
Observation - obvious I know but the most anglers walk up to a pool and start fishing, spend a few minutes looking at the pool. Are fish rising ?, if so mark them, is there anything on the water or in the air they may be taking ?. If nothing is moving study the pool and try to identify where fish might lie and position yourself for the best approach relative to the flow etc.
Watercraft – think like a fish, the best lie would be one that brought you the maximum amount of food for the minimum amount of effort in a safe place. Look for changes in the current speed and direction, cover and the “crease” between the faster and slower water and any change in depth. Bubble lines are a great clue and often hold lots of fish for the simple reason that if the flow is pushing the bubbles into lines it’s also pushing any food both on or beneath the surface into the same lines.
Line Control – is in my opinion the most important skill of all. Fish as short a line as possible with the minimum amount of line on the water if you cannot control 5 yards of line you surely won’t control 10 yards. Most of the time I fish with no more than a couple of rod lengths of fly line out which enables me to control things by lifting the rod and by an occasional figure of eight retrieve, detect takes and hook more fish. I can also put the flies exactly where I want them more or less first cast every time.
When fishing upstream lead the line with the rod and don’t let the line on the water overtake the rod tip, wherever possible use the rod to control things and not a retrieve. For fishing across and down mend if required and reach out and track the rod down with the line so the flies are “dead drifting” as far as possible.
Okay there are situations where a longer cast is required but overall fishing a short line is more effective, it’s just a question of building confidence.
Covering the Water – often fishing a freestone river requires a more prospecting style of fishing covering a lot of water quickly in the hope that you will pull a fish here and there on your dry fly, nymph or spider pattern. Be methodical in your approach, cover all the water and likely looking lies quickly, a couple of casts in each place is normally enough, fan your casts out and above all keep moving. I often cover a few miles of river and all the gear I need is carried in my Battenkill Pro Guide vest which I swear feels half the weight it did my previous vest.
Methods – I use a wide range of different methods from the traditional “North Country” spider fishing to New Zealand Style with a dry and a nymph (or spider !) and all work well on their day. Be prepared to change and try different techniques so often for example when rising fish have refused a dry fly I have taken them by fishing spiders. When fishing with a client I usually take two of the T3’s one set up with a team of spiders and the other set up New Zealand style with a Klinkhamer and small bead head nymph of my own design to hedge our bets.
When I fish on my own I just take one of the T3’s but have spare leaders already tied complete with flies which are stored in an Orvis Dropper Rig Fly Box. This is an excellent piece of kit, very light and slips into one of the back pockets of my Pro Guide vest enabling me to change leaders and therefore methods in no more than a couple of minutes.
Fly Selection – I don’t get too hung up about flies and although I have plenty of different patterns in practice I tend to only use a limited selection, I believe in the main it’s how and where you fish them that catches the fish and often enough the actual pattern matters not a jot. I have a simple philosophy if I think fish are taking something small and black on the top then I fish something small and black on the top ! I know it’s not always as simple as that but I have confidence in that philosophy and in the standby patterns I use
Fishing a freestone river for the first time can be a daunting challenge but by following the brief guidelines in this piece should help put you on the right track and ensure some early success.
Steve Rhodes, Orvis Endorsed Guide
Guiding: All freestone rivers of the Yorkshire Dales for trout and grayling; most stillwaters throughout the Yorkshire Dales.