Fly fishing in a flat calm, and other John Horsey heresies!

It’s always refreshing when you meet an angler who doesn’t do things by the textbook. But when that angler happens to be one of England’s most finely-tuned competitive brains, you just have to sit up and listen! Dom Garnett joined John Horsey and Turrall’s Gary Pearson for a fascinating, testing session on Chew Valley Lake, along with some great tips for summer fly fishing.

Whether we subscribe to them or not, every angler has heard the clichés of the sport a hundred times. The fish bite best when the wind is in the west; sunny weather causes trout to go deep. Oh, and forget about fishing in a flat calm, because you may as well be on the beach with an ice cream.

“A dead loss?” says John Horsey, as we look across an eerily smooth Chew Valley Lake. “No way! Calm, sunny conditions can be great. It’s the anglers who tend not to be confident. I actually love it when it’s like this!”

chew valley fly fishing

As with so many chunks of angling lore, the general rules tend to be plagiarised wholesale through the generations. The danger is that they’re either slavishly adhered to or applied completely outside their original context. Which is what makes today’s encounter so refreshing.

We’re also here to film some useful tips videos on stillwater fly fishing with cameraman John Deprieelle. But without wanting to steal his thunder, it’s too good an opportunity not to scribble some notes. After all, how often do you get to pick the brains of one of England’s all-time great international anglers?

This is one of the brilliant things about fishing. Unlike other sports, the stars are available to everyone (and you can book a day with John at johnhorsey.co.uk). We’re truly lucky in this respect. If you don’t believe me, try getting a coaching session with Pep Guardiola or a kickabout with Marcus Rashford next weekend.

Embracing your calmer side…

So why might a flat calm be anything but a calamity? Are we all thinking about windswept lochs and terrestrial flies? Or perhaps many decades ago, anglers needed a good ripple to disguise the comparatively crap lines and leaders of the day? As any seasoned angler will tell you, clichés and generalised advice can be lethal.

“In a flat calm, trout can see the surface perfectly- and pick off food with ease” says John. “They’ll move across the whole lake when it’s still. Hatches tend to be good- and in fact what you don’t tend to want is a combination of sun and stiff breeze.


With everything rather late and out of kilter this season, however, his local knowledge could also prove invaluable. Hotspots and hatches can change by day, and it’s this instability that makes Chew such a fascinating, challenging place to fish.

Just this week, the fish he has spooned have contained everything from bloodworm and baby leeches, to buzzers and grass seeds. So where the heck do we start? Well, one of the benefits of flat calm is that we can see moving and rising fish quite easily. And so, we make our way quickly towards Heron’s Green Bay where, contrary to the handful of boats already out, we avoid the ripple and get into the glassy stuff!

Ghost tips and subtle takes

 While I’m quick to set up a floating line, I’m interested to see that both John and Gary both go for sink tip. They’re both fans of the new Cortland Ghost Tip line, which is, in essence, a short head of clear intermediate line, with a floating body line.

Cortland’s Ghost Tip 3 fly line proved a great choice for our session, comfortably outfishing standard floating line.

So why the fuss? Why not just go for an intermediate? “Well, the simple answer is control and take detection” says John. “A sinking tip tends to ‘anchor’ your flies at your chosen depth. But with the floating main body of line, you still get excellent take detection- which you simply don’t on a full intermediate line.”

The subject of takes in itself is a fascinating one. We’re all told to watch the line closely, but how many of us actually read what’s going on? John and Gary are constantly on the lookout for flickers of interest on the line. When nymph fishing the movements can be small- just a quick flick upwards is common.

Don’t rely on touch alone; watch that fly line like a hawk!

“It doesn’t matter how many times you tell most anglers,” says John, “a lot just don’t watch the line closely. Sometimes I’ll see someone get several takes without detecting a thing- that’s because you won’t feel a lot of them at all!”

As a professional guide and a guy who generally wants his fellow anglers to succeed, he admits it can be a sticky subject- nobody wants to be a smart arse, but it’s hard to bite your tongue when fish are being missed!

All of us can up our game instantly, however, by paying close attention to the line. Unlike in lure fishing, where we might point directly at the fly, the best rod position for nymphing is with the rod tip slightly higher, so that there is a very slight loop of slack. A taking fish will instantly lift this forward. You’re basically waiting for this to lift and hold (a bit like an old-fashioned coarse angler’s swing tip).

“Only two things make the fly line lift up and hold,” says John, “a fish or a snag”! He also points out that you’ll get little flickers on the line that are tiny nips and pulls you can’t strike at. “If you see a smaller pull that doesn’t hold, then you keep going. There is every chance that fish will take properly soon- and if you got a small indication early in the cast you may have 20 yards to get it to commit!”

With a proper pull and hold, he then advises to pull back the fly line and feel for resistance- any sense of a presence there and it’s a case of lift the rod to strike, fast! For the record, both of our anglers are using Cortland’s Mark II Stillwater Competition rod in a 10ft 7 weight- which is a cracking all-rounder for boat fishing.

Cortland’s MkII Stillwater Competition Rod is a great all-rounder for boat or bank fishing.

The tricky bit to get used to is judging takes by sight alone. “A lot of the takes, you just won’t feel,” he says. “For so many anglers, the vast majority of fish they catch are the ones that virtually hook themselves- because they will only strike by touch.”

Other interesting lessons quickly emerge from this. One is that you’ll tend to get better, firmer hook holds when you spot the take and strike properly, rather than waiting for a fish to hook itself. Another is that as soon as trout get some angling pressure or settle onto natural food, the takes can become far less brutal.

“Some anglers you can tell ten times and they won’t get it,” smiles John wryly. “I can still remember when the penny dropped in my own fishing- and you think to yourself ‘bloody hell- how many takes have I been missing?’ “

In a competitive arena, this obviously becomes critical, because if you’re only detecting the most obvious takes you’ll never catch as many fish as the best anglers! Unsurprisingly, takes can be far subtler from keyed-up fish, for example in the aftermath of several intensive practice days.

Even for the pleasure angler, though, this can be incredibly important. On tough days, or fish that are simply keyed into natural food or seeing a fair bit of pressure, takes will quickly get more subtle. Not tuning in with gentler indications could mean a dry net when you might have caught a handful of fish.

Best flies for calm conditions

I have to hesitate slightly as we discuss flies and leaders for a calm, sunny day- in part because both John and Gary believe in keeping it simple. “With most anglers that’s all they’ll ask –‘what fly are you using?’ “ John laughs. “Why is it never how deep or what speed you’re fishing them?”

When leading the England Fly Fishing Team, John would actually ban the opening of fly boxes in team briefings – purely because the various patterns could become a colossal distraction away from the more important questions of where, when and how flies were being fished.

 

Suffice to say, though, you won’t go too far wrong with staples like Diawl Bachs and Buzzers on Chew Valley and Blagdon, as well as dry flies at times- such as Hoppers, Bobs Bits and the Big Red and Big Claret.

I’m also interested to see how our competition anglers set up their leaders. For nymph fishing, it’s a 15 ft leader in three sections of 5ft. In flat calm conditions three flies can be better than four, as well, because the fish are that bit warier of having too many droppers around them. 8lb fluorocarbon dominates, because these are powerful fish and John thinks that with quality materials the fish really don’t detect it easily.

Opt for quality materials and don’t fish too fine if you want to land almost every fish you hook!

For dry fly fishing, the leader is an even simpler 13ft and usually two or three flies. One thing John insists on, however, is a copolymer tippet rather than fluoro. This is not only because of its sinking tendencies, but the way it tends to “dig” the flies in at the surface, not to mention landing and lifting off less cleanly. Another useful tip he adds is to use one line class up on dry fly tackle, to help speed and accuracy of casts needed to cover sighted fish quickly.

A slow start

 As we start our session around Moreton Point and Heron’s Green, it quickly becomes evident that this could be a tough session. There’ll be a little boat hopping today, so I’m at least get some different perspectives on what our anglers are doing. While I’m ready at the camera, however, I’m also going to have a try.


One instantly noticeable thing about both our anglers is the methodical nature of what they do. On casting out, both Gary and John will give a couple of pulls to straighten fly line and leader out, before counting down meticulously.

Top competition anglers are always hot on this- but it’s something mere mortals can also benefit hugely from. By counting consistently (one-and-two-and-three etc) you can accurately gauge when takes are occurring and how deep the fish are occurring. It sounds so simple, but it’s so easy to overlook this or, my own worst habit, completely forget what you were doing in the excitement of hooking a fish.

Another early lesson is to keep a straight line in front of the boat. This greatly aids bite detection, because as attractive as the angle might be if you cast sideways from a drifting boat, you’ll quickly get a little more slack line and lose some directness.

I also notice how quickly we move spots when things are not working. Our anglers are hotter on this than ever in calm conditions, too, especially in any areas where a few boats congregate. After all, angler presence will be that much more noticeable when the water is smooth and our movements are more obvious. Tellingly, after an early couple of pulls, the fish quickly switch off in an area where five or so boats are clustered. It’s time to move.

First contact!


Just as we’re wondering where the fish are, John finally gets a take and hits into a fish. It battles gamely but is the smallest rainbow he’s had in several months! Interestingly, it has taken the top dropper, which suggests the fish might be higher in the water than expected.

Gary is next off the mark, also on a Diawl Bach. Looking at his size 10 imitations, it’s duly noted that my piddly little flies might need stepping up a bit! The one thing I don’t have with me, though, is a sink tip line. I can’t help feeling it’s costing me takes, but why should that be? And couldn’t I get away with an intermediate fly line?

chew valley rainbow trout
As Gary puts it, it’s not just getting flies a bit deeper that is the key to a top notch ghost tip line. The sinking tip also “bites” a little better, giving more control than a floating line, which also tends to bounce around more given any ripple. Additionally, because you also have that running line after the head that floats, bite detection is not sacrificed either.

As in all my fishing and writing, I never mind taking a bit of a kicking as long as I’m learning things that will improve my game in future! I finally get a take when I switch to a heavier point fly, therefore, and watch the line like a hawk. It doesn’t stick, unfortunately- although I’m a bit more useful with the camera when John hooks the next fish about forty yards away. These Chew fish really do fight like demons!

Ghosting ahead

 With filmmaker John Deprieelle swapping places with me to get some different angles in the can, it’s a great opportunity to fish shoulder to shoulder with John Horsey to finish our session.

Sometimes when you get these chances- and the same rings true across any fishing!- it’s almost a bit of a waste to fish yourself when you could be watching them and asking questions. What always strikes you about John Horsey is his unquenchable thirst for the latest knowledge and those little edges that help him put his guided guests onto the fish or give him a competitive edge.

Tune into subtle takes and you’ll get a bend in your rod far more often!

Perhaps the single biggest thing I’ll take from the session is the whole art of detecting and hitting takes. One huge tip from John in particular is a bit of a game changer here. “I’d always hit those subtler takes with a line strike” says John. “If you strip strike at a lift, and there’s nothing there, you can always keep going and you may well get another chance. But as soon as you make a big strike by lifting the rod, you’re dragging your flies several feet up, and often away from the fish!”

As intensely as he fishes, there’s a bit of a contradiction with John, however, because even in a match he’s a highly sociable angler. The cameraderie is one of the things he loves about the competitive scene, in fact, and these days he runs a lot of competitions around the country (not least of all the Cortland Team Championships, which you can read about in our blog archives

You need to have a serious passion for angling to put in the shift he does every season! We might enjoy discussing our thoughts on England’s chances at the Euros, or the time John saw David Bowie live in his Ziggy Stardust days, but his mind seldom ever completely switches off fly fishing. The level of observation on these huge stillwaters he lives and breathes is mind-boggling, whether it’s intimate details of what the fish are eating at any given time, or the exact locations worth trying.

The latter can literally change by the day, which is what makes Chew such a challenging and interesting water, perhaps in a way that small stillwaters can’t match.

Sadly, we can’t add a final, big grown on fish as we try Herriot’s Bay for a last fling- but by this time, he’s had five fish on a day plenty of others- myself included- have struggled badly.

Next time, I promise myself to watch the line like a hawk and to move spots more often, to name just two big lessons. Furthermore, I simply must treat myself to one of the new Ghost Tip Lines- because it’s fairly clear that my regular setup hasn’t quite cut it today. In terms of refining my understanding and tackle choices, though, it has still been a fantastic day out.

Catch more from Turrall Flies and Cortland this season!

For more news, tips, competitions and more, check out our Facebook page and blog archives! We have stacks of free fly fishing articles, from river trout fishing to action with everything from summer carp to saltwater bass!

Don’t forget, you can track down our award-winning range of flies and accessories, as well as Cortland fly lines, rods and more, at all good Turrall stockists across the country.

Carp and catfish on the fly

With a new target species and some new toys to play with, the Turrall lads have been back on the bank this week. Even appalling weather couldn’t stop them from tangling with some impressive coarse fish on the fly, but could they tempt a wels catfish? Dom Garnett met up with Turrall’s Gary Pearson and Rodney Wevill to take up the challenge.

 Rodney Wevill Fly Fishing turrall

After the trials of both a virus pandemic and an insanely dry spring, it seemed fitting enough this week to be embarking on an extremely strange fly fishing mission. Think of the “gentle art” of tricking fish with artificial flies and the wels catfish has to be the last fish on the list. Even for the bloke who wrote a book that featured barbel and bream on the fly, it seemed a bit nuts. Possible, yes. Sensible, no.

Of course, it has now been done in the UK. With heavy streamer tackle, the likes of Ben Bangham and last year’s Fly For Coarse runner up Stuart Watson have managed to get their string pulled by some serious catfish without the need to get on a plane… or psychiatric help.

Fly fishing for wels catfish UK
Catfish on the fly are now a realistic target in the UK- as this fish from Stuart Watson shows.

So, when it transpired that a fishery not too far from our base here in Devon might let us try for one, it wasn’t just my ears that pricked up. We also managed to tempt down Rodney Wevill- a keen all round fly angler who’s just become part of our team of fly and kit testers and developers. A huge fan of pike on the fly, this should be right up his street.

If you plan to do this on any fishery, however, you will often have to book out a whole lake, we should point out (so as not to annoy carpy regulars). And you’d also need an XL net and unhooking mat, as these are seriously long fish. But who knows, perhaps this could be the next big thing for fly anglers looking for the ultimate battle in freshwater in the UK?

Two of the hardest fighting UK fish to catch on the fly…

If the plan to catch a wels catfish sounded a big ask, another great reason to head for a coarse fishery was to get stuck into some summer carp. With this branch of fly fishing growing massively, we were also keen to test some new fly patterns and tackle.

Having two species to go at also made perfect sense, though, because it meant that we could switch when the going was slow. And with catfish having quite short feeding spells, it would be a case of picking our moment with care rather than flogging the lake to death and losing the will to live.

So what tackle might you need to catch these species? As I explained in my book Flyfishing For Coarse Fish you don’t need specialist gear for carp. You can have great sport with “fun-sized” fish on tackle as light as a four to six weight. On our fishery for the session, though, with fish averaging 8-12lbs and snags present, this would be rather light.

Simple patterns will do fine for carp and cats: Peter Cockwill’s carp flies are excellent. For the catfish, you don’t need huge flies. In fact, all our takes came on sensible sized pike flies, preferably with a bit of pulse and throb to them. Turrall produce several that fit the bill perfectly- such as the basic Black Pike Fly (L).

 

Gary opted for an 8/9 weight Cortland Fairplay set up. Part of the reasoning was that we simply wanted to give it an uncompromising trial with some strong fish! At under £100 for rod, reel and fly line, this setup really is the best possible value for carp on the fly, but would also be a cost effective way to tackle up for bass, pike or other species too. An 8lb leader and a selection of carp flies and we were good to go.

tackle and catfish flies UK

On the catfish front, we would need far more specialist tackle (above). 10 and 11 weight rods are the minimum to consider, along with thick pike style fly lines and a minimum of 40lb leader to put up with a brutally strong fish armed with a mouth full of abrasive little teeth. It really isn’t worth compromising on materials here either- yes, quality fluorocarbon isn’t cheap. But for a fish that could be as long as you are, you don’t want to be taking any chances!

Carp on fly capers

After a preliminary look round the lake, it seemed carp were our best opening bet. Having bait fished for cats before, I can vouch for the commotion when they’re active and feeding! From huge eruptions of bubbles to heaving patterns at the surface, they are not the most subtle species. But for now, it was already approaching late morning and we were seeing nothing.

By the time we’d tackled up it was also slamming down with rain, which would barely stop for the next entire day and a half. Even more reason to break up the session into two species and take breaks. With shelters up, we were at liberty to take cover as required and time our fly fishing attempts carefully.

Carp were the first species to show, as Gary found fish moving in a shallow back channel on the lake. Despite the horrible weather, they began taking a bit of loose feed off the top. Much as I love to try and catch carp on natural flies, perhaps a majority of our commercial fisheries see a lot of bait, and so the most reliable route is to get them going in this way.

It took a fair time to get the fish to play, even with bait, it must be said. They’d come up to sneakily take a morsel or two of feed, then disappear again. These are wily fish, too, and easily missed- especially where they know what anglers are like. One good tip here is to keep trickling feed in just three or four pieces at a time, and be patient, rather than showering in freebies and jumping straight in.

You can’t help feel the fly rod, with no bubble floats or other casting weights, is ideal for cagy fish, because of the minimal disturbance. And it proved third time lucky for Gary, after two missed attempts he hooked a solid fish.

Gary’s first carp of the session gave a titanic fight!

The Cortland outfit stood up well. Ok, so you’re not going to get super fine or fussy performance at £70- but the powerful forgiving action of the rod was spot on. Nor was Gary milking it for my camera- it was a really strong specimen! Looking at the abuse dealt with (the rod, not just Gary!) this would also make an ideal starter outfit for pike fly fishing for anyone on a tight budget.

Weighed at 15lbs 8oz, it was a new PB carp on the fly for Gary and an impressive test for the rods and gear! I should also mention that Gary was testing some new carp fly patterns, which are on the way from Turrall.

Back she goes, after a brief argument with a fly rod!

Catching up over a cast or three hundred…

Delighted as we were to see that carp, the main event was still to come with the catfish. But it turned into a gruelling session. For one thing, the cats have quite short feeding spells, as I knew from bait fishing for them. We would not only need persistence, but regular breaks to keep our energy and enthusiasm levels up.

Between downpours, though, it was good to get properly introduced to Rodney, who is a keen fly angler and tyer with a broad taste when it comes to fish species. He’s particularly drawn to the predators in fresh or saltwater, with some impressive specimen pike on the fly to his name.

That said, his most recent obsession has been mullet on the fly. Easier than catfish perhaps, but also a test of patience and tackle! Good results have been coming on small nymphs and other mullet flies- and at some stage we’ll have to twist his arm to writing a blog post for us.

Shelter from the storm: Bivvies were very handy to keep us from drowning in rain, although interestingly I only had one carp on bait with two rods out overnight. Hour for hour, the fly was more effective!

The late show

 It’s one of those curious facets of any angling that it’s often just when you’re tired and confidence is waning that fortune suddenly changes. On our trip, it had been a long, wet day and we were soaked and feeling a bit dour by the evening. That said, the last spell of light is so often a time for catfish and other predators to wake up and feed.

Commotion can be regular on smallish lakes- but most of it will be carp. Catfish tend to make huge swirls or release enormous patches of bubbles as they stir!

We were also seeing the occasional sign of fish that didn’t look like carp. Either a big swirl at the surface or a sudden huge patch of bubbles erupting can be signs of catfish stirring.

Behind one of the islands on the fishery, I had just such a cue as the water churned. Two casts later and I had a sudden knock on the line. Was this a cat? It didn’t exactly slap me in the face those first seconds. In fact, whatever it was just plodded lazily at first. Could it be one of the smaller “kittens” in the lake, rather than grandma?


As I increased the pressure, the change was startling. The fish suddenly “grew” in size and fury, putting yards between us in seconds. It seemed to take a small eternity, but the whole episode must have been only a minute or so. The fish made an angry bolt for the near bank and, try as I might to keep up, it got wedged.

For many anxious seconds, I kept the pressure on, but could feel nothing. My slightly mangled looking barbless fly eventually pinged free, but I suspect the fish had long gone. Round one had gone to the catfish.

About two hours later, just after nine o’clock, Rodney then got his turn to hook one. Casting space is always an issue at non- fly fisheries, but he’d proved just how close in the catfish must roam with a bite right in the margin.

Rodney bends hard into a catfish- these creatures have incredible power!

With an even stronger rod than the one I was using, I thought he might have a better chance, but the fight was a carbon copy of mine. If anything, he got a slightly longer ride before being thrown off the horse! Again, after a few seconds of battle, the fish plunged for the near bank and everything went solid. He got the fly back, too, but that was the end of it.

The school of hard knocks!

As I write this, the questions are still echoing through my head. Were we unlucky or just not firm enough? Were the fish even properly hooked? Looking at the mouth of the wels, there are only two “sweet spots” at each corner of the mouth, where a hook up is likely. Find the crushing, sandpaper like “pads” and you can forget it. This is why a firm line strike, low and hard, rather than a lift would seem to make sense.   It’s also why you probably need a bit of luck.

As for flies for catfish, we also learned by trial and error. I tried many casts with large poppers, thinking the cats would love this. While you sense these might help wake the fish up a bit (and you could even splosh one about before trying a sinker in the same spot?), I didn’t have any attention on them.

Nor did the big pike flies get any attention. In fact, all takes came on very ordinary looking mid sized pike flies of 3-5″, and bucktail headed patterns seemed a good bet, because of the wake they create. All takes were had midwater or nearer the surface, too, interestingly. In spite of the cat’s bottom hugging profile, it seems a hungry hunting wels is often prowling the margins or right off the lake bed in open water!

The dirty antics of the catfish also need some adjustment- and I think you have to accept you won’t apply the brakes on these creatures in the early stages, regardless of your rod choice. However, it’s worth using extremely strong leaders and being up for a serious fight and unusual tactics. In hindsight, I should not only have run along the bank earlier to keep up with my fish, but got the rod tip well under the water to keep the line free of snags and hopefully keep itclear. Experience is the best but most ruthless teacher in any sort of fishing, I guess!

Gary had his own chance the following morning, but this time the fish bumped and was gone, without any fireworks. But this was the total of our efforts. It might not make the happiest conclusion to our story, therefore, but it was certainly an educational trip and we’ll be better equipped for a future rematch. Even with just curse words and a dry landing net to show for it, the fight alone and that lost fish was one of the most visceral experiences I’ve ever had on a fly rod!

Other things we learned were the value of each packing a shelter on a horrible day, not to mention the value of having another species (carp) to go at in the slower parts of the day (and while never topping Gary’s specimen, we did add to this tally). Other than this, timing seems everything for the cats. It’s a game of commitment, concentration and few chances, so rather than flogging the water for hours and hours, it made sense to take regular breaks and hit hard during the peak times of early morning and late evening.

Salmon fishers would probably understand the right mentality; you’re fishing for probably just one or two takes in a session at most and it calls for a quiet, calm determination and inner readiness. I also sense you might need to lose a fish or two in order to learn how best to play them. Lots of lessons learned, then, and there’s always the chance of revenge next time.

Watch this space and keep an eye on our Facebook page for more updates this summer, with patterns and tips for all kinds of fly fishing.