I have been fly fishing for 35 years and I have been a full time professional fly fishing guide and instructor for the past six years. I do around 130 chalk stream days with clients each year. I guide and teach most often on the River Test and I also guide on the rivers Itchen, Kennet, Wylye and Coln in the Cotswolds. I am a passionate river fly fisher and whenever I can I get away to fish for myself.
I want to try to help you to catch more fish and to enjoy your fly fishing days more. In this article I will cover:
- Tackle for chalkstreams
- Watercraft - where to fish, approaching the water, where to cast
- Tactics - how to fish the flies to tempt the fish. Most chalkstream beats have very varied water from wider slower deeps to faster shallow carriers. Tactics and flies will vary from one location to another on the same day.
Rods – I use different rods in different situations. If I was limited to just one for all my chalkstream work it would be an 8’ 6” 5-weight mid-flex 4-piecerod. In choosing the right rod for the situation consider the width of the river, the depth of river, the size of fish, the size and type of the flies you will be using and the wind conditions and pick the right rod for the situation. For wider rivers sections I’d use a 9’ 5-weight rod, for carrier streams an 8’ 4-weight rod and on windy days I’d increase the line weight from a 5 to a 6 or from a 4 to a 5.
I don’t like tip action rods for my chalkstream fishing. As most of my fishing is being done at relatively short range I’m not going for distance. A delicate presentation of a small fly on a fine tippet calls for a medium actioned mid-flex or full-flex rod. I use the Orvis Helios mid-flex and Orvis Superfine Trout bum full-flex rods combined with an Orvis Battenkill II large arbor Trout game reel and an Orvis Wonderline Gen 3 weight forward floating fly line. I use the 8’ 4-weight rod for carrier streams and the 8’ 6” 5-weight rod for main river beats. On wider lower-reaches main-river beats a 9’ 5-weight rod will give a slight advantage over the 8’ 6”.
When there is a stiff downstream breeze or I’m fishing a beat with lots of big fish I might step up a line weight with the rod. I’ll only ever use a 6-weight rod in these situations…and on wider main river beats during the Mayfly. The wind resistance of a size 8 Grey Wulff fished on a 5x tippet might need the extra backbone of the 6-weight.
I mostly use Orvis Superstrong Copolymer 9’ knotless tapered leaders and Orvis Superstrong Copolymer tippet. 5X 4.75lb is the most useful but I also use 6X 3.5lb bs for small dry flies and small nymphs and 4X 6lb bs for larger nymphs. I only use fluorocarbon in difficult conditions – sunny, very clear shallow water. I never use fluorocarbon leaders on the chalkstreams preferring to add two or three feet of fluorocarbon tippet to the end of a 9’ Copolymer knotless tapered leader.
The most important fishing skills for chalk stream fly fishing are not fancy casting or fly selection they are observation and stealth. A pair of polarised sunglasses is an essential item of tackle and a hat with some form of peak or rim is also useful. Don’t advertise your presence to the fish. Don’t wear bright or white clothing. Wear drab coloured clothing to blend in with your background.
Never be in a hurry with chalk stream fly fishing. Always do everything in a very slow and relaxed manner. If the fish see your fly before they see or hear (eg. vibrations through the ground) you you have a much better chance of them acting naturally and taking your fly. Catching Trout is not about getting the maximum time in casting, it’s about fishing carefully and intelligently to undisturbed fish. Walk very slowly along the bank, keeping well back from the waters edge. Take advantage of any benches along the beat to sit down, watch the water and take in the beauty of the riverside environment. You are watching for signs of fish. You may see them rise or jump or with your polarised sunglasses you may be able to see them in the water. In an ideal world you see them rise but the world is not ideal and often you won’t see them rise. Except during good hatches the vast majority of the food of the fish is taken on or near the river bed. So just because you see no rises don’t think that there are no fish there or that they are not feeding.
Much of the time there will be no signs of fish but they will be there. Look at the current structure, undulations in the riverbed, weedbeds, etc. Trout will often lie just on the slow side of a fast current, at the upstream end of a deeper run or in the edges of the river where there is overhead cover or an undercut bank. But look everywhere. In time you will learn where the best Trout holding areas are on your beat.
Once you’ve had a chance to study the water in front of you and taken a couple of minutes to watch for fish don’t just start casting anywhere. Decide exactly where your best chances lie and plan your casts to that area. Use the minimum of false casting and don’t cast too far. If your fly line lands on top of the fish you will probably spook him. Ideally you can cast slightly across the current and none of your line, leader or tippet will go over the fish just your fly.
Ideally start at the very downstream end of your beat.Start with short castsand gradually lengthen them and after making a few careful casts to each fishy looking area within casting range move slowly upstream to your next casting location. Think like a Heron. Stalk like a Heron. Do not stomp up the riverbank start casting immediately and expect to catch fish. Stalk them carefully. Fish are much less likely to notice you if you move slowly….and it makes for a more relaxing and enjoyable day. You can’t catch a fish that isn’t there and are much less likely to catch a disturbed fish. So try not to let them know you are there. The first few casts in each new spot are the ones most likely to succeed. Don’t keep casting in the same place…unless you can see that there are fish still rising or taking nymphs within casting distance.
I’m an all round all-year-round fly fisherman. My favourite fishing method of all is upstream dry fly. But I am no purist and I will always choose a nymph or other form of wet fly if the fish are not rising….if the rules allow it. We must all fish within the rules. These vary from one chalkstream beat to another so you must check before fishing. For example some beats are dry fly only until July.
A simple strategy in fly choice is if the fish are rising use a dry fly and if they are not use a nymph. If a fish rises just once I will start to think dry fly. If a fish rises twice in the same place I will definitely pick a dry fly.
Each fishing spot has different characteristics – current speed, depth, width, cover, etc. Don’t expect to be able to fish each spot in the same way with the same fly. Assess the characteristics of the spot you are in and adjust your tactics and fly accordingly. You will catch more fish. Time taken to change your fly and/or your tippet will also act as calming time for the fish. They may have noticed your arrival but if you do no casting for a couple of minutes they may well forget you and carry on feeding naturally.
Fly choice is determined mainly by what you think the Trout might be feeding on. But often the fish are not in an active feeding mood. That does not mean that they are not catchable.
Some of the year Trout will be nymphing in mid-water or even just below the surface but most of the year they will be feeding on or very near the bed of the river and if so your fly must be trundling along close to the river bed for you to have the best chance of catching fish. So the size and weight of your nymph must match the current speed and depth. If the fish are in deep quick flowing water fish a big heavy fly like a big weighted fly like a Peeping Caddis or a Walkers Mayfly nymph. And remember that the Mayfly nymph is on the river bed all year round not just in the Mayfly season.
If the water is shallower and slower flowing and the fish are seen to be feeding in mid-water or near the surface then use a smaller unweighted or lightly weighted nymph. I like the goldheads in dull conditions or slightly murky water. If the sun is out and the water is clear and shallow I prefer copperhead flies to goldheads. In deeper water a size 8 or 10 goldhead Walkers Mayfly nymph is a good choice.
The heavier your fly the better it will get down to the bottom where the fish are. But expect to catch the bottom with your fly quite often. I want to be catching bottom. If I am not I suspect that my flies are not fishing deep enough. Watch the end of the fly line for a take like a hawk. You won’t often feel a take. You must strike at any sudden stop or straightening of the end of the fly line. Greasing the end of the fly line and the first couple of feet of the leader can help you to see takes more effectively. I use good old fashioned Mucilin for this. The alternative is to use some kind of strike indicator.
Where it’s allowed I will often use two flies. Most commonly a dry fly and a nymph – with a New Zealand style dropper ties off the bend of the hook of the dry fly. Sometimes I’ll fish two nymphs – one heavy one to get down to the bottom quickly (called a sacrificial nymph) and one tiny one on which I expect to catch most of the fish. Less frequently I will fish two dry flies - again one large one and one small one.
If fish are rising with any regularity the best strategy is to ‘match the hatch’ with a dry fly. Look at the size, colour and type of flies coming down the stream and pick the appropriate imitation from your fly box.
If the fish are only rising very occasionally it is often a successful strategy to choose a large dry flylike Grey Wulff, Stimulator or Daddy Longlegs. The ‘Stimulator’ is a type of sedge fly so named to try to stimulate the fish to react and rise to take the fly. Often the fish are lethargic and not really in a feeding mood. But they can often be stimulated to take a fly by fishing either a large dry fly or large nymph. Also sometimes if you land the fly directly on top of the fish – rather than a yard or two ahead of it which would be the usual tactic – it will often cause the fish to react immediately and rise up to take the fly.
There are two main ways to fish your flies. The first and most obvious is the ‘dead drift’; the second is by actively moving the nymph. By ‘dead drift’ I mean whether you are fishing a dry fly or a small light nymph you should try to fish the flies at exactly the same speed as the current – dead drifting them down the flow – how most food items arrive at the Trout. Cast upstream or ideally upstream and across a little and retrieve the line at exactly the same pace as the current. One of the main reasons that the fish don’t take our flies is that they are not behaving correctly in the water. Usually this is caused by line drag pulling the flies out of line or causing them to move either faster or slower than the pace of the current. Try to put a little slack in your cast. That way the fly can travel a little further before any line drag sets in. Also mend the line by lifting some off the water and laying it back on a little upstream so as to reverse any line dragging bow of line.
But dead drift is not always the right approach. When the fish are not in an active feeding mood they need waking up. Do this by actively twitching or stripping the nymph. We are trying to move the nymph to make it look like it is alive. Often a twitched nymph will be taken when a dead drifted nymph is ignored. Generally twitch larger nymphs and dead drift smaller ones.
- Do everything slowly. Observation and stealth are very important.
- Try to ‘match the hatch’ with both dry fly – when the fish are rising – or with nymph when they are not rising.
- Look on each individual fishing spot as a different challenge and make your approach – method and fly choice – appropriate to that specific location.
- If conditions are hard, for example no rising fish and murky water, fish a large weighted nymph and twitch it to make it look like it is alive.
- If a fish has risen just once or twice try a large dry fly.
- Keep trying….but also keep stopping to observe the river. This approach makes for a very enjoyable and relaxing time on the riverbank AND will maximise on your chances of catching fish.
Dave Martin, Orvis Endorsed Guide
Guiding and tuition: Chalkstreams and lakes of the South of England
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