It’s that time of year again, when those who pack away the tackle for winter will now have the bit between their teeth. Fly lines are cleaned, reels oiled, and along with the new flies to try, rods will be at the ready. Personally speaking, it seems a mere few years ago that the opening weeks were something of a damp squid. Then cold weather made sure trout kept their heads down and any attempt at fishing dry fly was considered foolhardy. I even wrote somewhere that the dry fly should never be contemplated during March. How wrong can you be? Times have changed and my diary tells me that for the past two seasons fish have regularly taken flies close to or on the water surface.
All pointers suggest that global warming had a hand in this, that’s what the experts tell us anyway! I’m not so sure whether our winters are actually getting any milder or just becoming more unsettled? As a youngster I remember any cold snap would last for weeks at a time. These days, we’re subjected to a week of rain, followed by a chilly blast and by the time you’ve found those winter woollies, its back to the wet stuff. What nature and more importantly the trout think of this, who knows? Though given settled weather leading up to the season, fly hatches generally respond in our favour. This has certainly been the case over the past two seasons anyway. Although water levels were a tad high, March 2006 saw bumper hatches of large dark olives on the Kent. And even late winter floods that battered the Eden didn’t deter upwinged flies.
Whilst the best of the hatches are reserved for April/May, never look a gift horse in the mouth. Nowadays, it only takes one rise for me to change to the dry fly or spider rig, well, maybe two, but no more. Some days the fish can be up and gone in minutes, at other times you may have their company for a good hour and more. So failing to act on these vital signals can prove costly. As ever, in anticipation, I arrive at the river far too early. If you have the inclination, an hour or two scratching about with deep nymphs can be worthwhile. Call me a purist at these times, for me there’s something special about the first fish of a new season falling for the subtleties of a spider or dry fly.
The best of any activity will inevitably take place between lunchtime and 3pm and may even extend towards dusk on kinder, mild days. Whilst I’m a slave to complex leaders which contain several sections of mono and as many knots, the early season set-up is best kept simple. Looped at both ends for ease of changing rigs, a 5-7ft tapered leader attached to the fly line acts as the delivering force. For spider fishing, 3 flies positioned on droppers about 30 inches apart on Orvis Super Strong tippet of 3.5lb (6 X) breaking strain is about right, giving an overall leader length of 12-14ft. If the need arises for a quick change to dry fly, it’s only a matter of replacing the 3-fly spider rig by removing it from the bottom loop of the tapered leader and replacing it with a 4ft length of 4.75lb (5 X) copolymer, before knotting on a 3.5lb (6 X) tippet of equal length to the end. This tippet section may appear long by text book standards. However, it tends to land in loose coils, resulting in a fly behaving naturally.
With two spiders carefully secured to the droppers and a small nymph on the point, fast, streamy water will be the first port of call. Here, added weight from the nymph helps in getting flies a fraction deeper. A move to slower glides may see the nymph replaced by a third spider pattern. A huge dilemma facing the wet fly enthusiast is whether to fish upstream, downstream or dead-drift across the flow? Fish often show a preference for a given approach on certain days and no two days are alike. It might be the upstream tactic that works its magic one day then the very next outing involves fishing downstream to connect with trout.
Various water characteristics can also have a major influence one way or other. In narrow, riffling runs with easy wading, quartering upstream is often productive. Make a blanket sweep of the water by fan casting. Keep a short working line, no more than three rod lengths. This not only makes for effective fly and line control, takes are more likely to be spotted. A short belly section of an old Hi-Viz fly line connected between line and leader and marked with a black waterproof pen helps detect the subtlest of takes. A dab of Wonderfloat gel ensures this butt indicator floats high, making it visible in bad light or the rough and tumble of boisterous water.
Heavy, fast water would mean some full-on casting and retrieving with barely time to draw breath. Life is made a lot easier by dead-drifting flies across the rushing current. It is equally as good for covering water which is inaccessible by wading. Pitch the flies some 45 degrees across and upstream of square, followed with an upstream mend. This enables the flies to sink. Now, track the fly’s downstream progress with an elevated rod tip. Takes generally register as the drooping line off the rod tip flickering or drawing away. It’s then just a case of tightening into fish. If no takes are forthcoming there are two options here. Either, lift off and represent upstream, or allow the flies to drift unfettered until a taught line accelerates them across stream.
The across and downstream method is often frowned at as merely a "chuck and chance it” affair. Apart from being deadly in the right hands, it’s a great way to randomly cover water when few fish reveal themselves. Furthermore, water that remains untouched to the above mentioned can be fished with confidence. And, adding an upstream, aerial reach cast ensures a degree of natural drift is achieved before tension causes the flies to swing round. As the flies wash downstream move the rod tip at the same pace, watching the line for pausing or any movement. Further mends can be thrown to eke out a little more drift before fingers of line grabbing current finally have their say. Takes may come at any time though key stages are the drift period, just as the flies begin to accelerate and finally as they come to stop on the dangle. Again, it pays to experiment. Some days the bulk of hits occur as the flies idle along unimpeded, on other days it’s the sweeping flies that interest fish. I’ve also found this technique quite devastating on untypical spider water. Generally, those animated, vibrant pools suit spider patterns best. That said, they can be put to good use on long, sluggish, glides where stillborn duns or adult midge accumulate. With hardly any push to usher the flies along, a downstream mend helps speed things up a little. Unorthodox it might be, however, this has given me many memorable afternoons for winter grayling and more importantly, spring trout.
Once a hatch of fly is under way and fish are looking up in earnest, it’s worth popping a dry fly on the point. This dry/spider team offers the best of both worlds. Fish seeking surface duns will home in on the dry and those harvesting emergers or drowned adults can’t resist a spider. Of course, it’s critical that drag does not affect the drift now. Although trout may on occasion tolerate this in sub-surface flies, more fish will be scared than caught by a dry fly skating past their noses.
Despite the dropping temperatures of late afternoon, fish frequently continue feeding until dark. Even when the olives have long gone there’ll always be a few stragglers and a residue of stillborn flies washing downstream. Midges too may keep trout on the go. For the last hour I will alter my team of flies once more. A size 20 black spider will occupy the top dropper. Below, is a size 18 black magic and on the point, a size 16 waterhen bloa. Even at this time of year, fish grow confident in the gather gloom and more than once the best sport has been held back until daylight dwindles.
AAPGAI and Orvis-Endorsed Guide
Read more from Paul and other Orvis Experts at www.orvis.co.uk/experts