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!”
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.
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?
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!
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.
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