A recent 3-day angling trip to the South-East of England reminded me that the essence of what makes angling so compelling is not the catching itself, but the anticipation. When you are either catching with every cast or you are going through such a barren patch that you lose any belief that a fish will take, the sense of anticipation is lost and fishing loses its sporting appeal.
Having had two good days fishing despite the cold conditions for the fit and feisty rainbows of Grafham and Pitsford reservoirs, our last day was to be for brown trout on the River Wissey, a small Norfolk chalk stream. A day on the Wissey has become an annual highlight for me, with the ability to sight fish for wild and grown-on brown trout in its gin clear waters having employed commando tactics in order to do so – appealing enormously.
We took a 40 minute trip from the Cambridge domicile of my host full of enthusiasm (is there any other way to travel?) but arrived at our allocated beat to find the trees bare of leaves and the river running both at a high level and (unusually for a chalk-stream) carrying a degree of colour. Allied to the lack of sun and the wind-induced surface ripple the conditions suggested that we should get back into the car and go home. With it being my one visit for the year, and with our attitude always being one of ‘keep fishing and prevail’ we decided to try our luck however hard (or impossible) it might be to spot fish.
Spotting fish in a chalk-stream scenario is vital. You cannot base your approach on prospective casting into likely lies as you might in other sorts of rivers, because fish in gin-clear chalk-streams are notoriously skittish and will be spooked by any casting – clumsy or otherwise – which is not directed specifically at them. They will disappear in an instant if they sense the presence of something alien such as a fly line above them. Unless your approach is stealthy, the flash of a fish darting away will normally be the only view you have of the finned inhabitants. The trick is to see the fish before they see you and make the necessary upstream approach with dry fly or nymph…something we were going to have trouble with on such a day.
For the next six hours we were to resemble ‘human herons’ walking the bank with the utmost stealth and barely moving when approaching likely pools – ‘slowly, slowly catchee monkey…’ was our mantra.
Through long experience, I have found that if approached slowly from almost at right angles these chalkstream fish seem to have a blind spot. My tactic is, rather than to walk straight along the bank and hope to see fish upstream, to go right back from the water and approach at right angles to the flow some 10 meters upstream in a series of bounds. Each approach to the water MUST be slow – often crouched over or on your belly – but the rewards can be to find yourself sitting opposite a fish that can’t see you. You have then achieved phase one of any fishing adventure – finding your fish.
The next phase depends largely on the depth, position and attitude of the fish.
If you are lucky – as I was to be after an hour of executing this tactic – you will find a fish that will be feeding (in this case on nymphs being washed downstream) and not spooked by your presence.
In other regards I was less fortunate, as I had approached slowly but standing upright and only saw the fish at the last moment. I was thus forced into a game of piscatorial statues, not daring to move an inch despite feeling that I was very obvious to my trout. The fish was lying very deep in the slightly coloured water and keen on feeding, so these facts were in my favour. I now had to find some way of flicking out my weighted nymph in such a way that it would land in the water above the fish so that it would dead drift past it and potentially be taken.
I won’t labour the details but suffice to say that such was the situation and the incredible anticipation that my right knee-cap was physically trembling as I spent the next 20 minutes (no exaggeration – my friend timed it all) in a slow-motion world of sloth-like movement and observation of my quarry as again and again I trundled a series of nymphs down to the fish’s position to have them ignored time and again. Three times I saw the fish move from its lie to intercept my offering and three times I lifted too soon and pulled my fly out of its mouth…! A ‘rookie error’ but better to do this than to have it feel the fly and eject it before tightening in…as at least it is less likely to spook the fish.
So I didn’t take him but, oh I will remember that 20 minutes for as long as I have my faculties! It’s that anticipation thing…