With the late start to the current season, river fly fishers will be as eager as ever to get back to what they love. Turrall blogger and fly tyer Dom Garnett has some excellent hacks to help make the most of your time on the water this month.
“With such a long layoff before this year’s river fly fishing season, it’s been a rough time for many. Obviously there have been far more important things than fishing at stake, but the enforced absence should also make us cherish our sport more than ever.
I’ve missed hosting guided fly fishing trips almost as much as my own fishing this spring. But, if nothing else, there has been time to tie extra flies and sort the gear out properly. While doing so, it struck me that while I so often write about the joy of fly fishing in Devon and Somerset, I don’t often commit as many words to the practicalities of tackle, flies and some of those useful dodges that get overlooked.
So, this month, I’m going to take a closer look at how to fly fish small rivers- or at least how I do it!- in terms of the tackle and some of the practical aspects I try to impart in my guiding over many years here in the South West.
Start small and keep it local
Throughout the country, there is affordable fly fishing these days- but many are put off by the price and exclusivity of more expensive waters. And in the digital era there’s also the endless stream of huge trout and orgasmic looking river shots on social media. All I can say is don’t worry about what others are doing, because with some local homework and a look at fisheries like suburban rivers and fishing passport schemes, there’s some excellent fishing to be had for peanuts. Nor should anyone be travelling hours to fish in the first place right now!
Here in Devon, what the small rivers lack in huge fish, they more than make up for in beauty and the stacks of gorgeous, greedy little trout. And who can complain at fishing as little as six quid a day or even free? Two sources I’d highly recommend are the Westcountry Angling Passport and Theo Pike’s book Trout in Dirty Places.
Simple, affordable tackle
One thing I love about stream fishing is how simple the tackle is. Anglers can get obsessed with the best fly rods and reels, but basic, practical tackle is all you need . For my small stream fishing, I am still using a 4 wt rod bought for £50 in a sale 10 years ago. My reel looks smart, but is just a cheapie. Partly because my last slick looking number from a big brand fell to bits.
Fly lines are similarly dazzling to many anglers. Yes, for a big river, specialised tactics or very fussy fish you might want to invest a bit. But for the streams, where there’s seldom the space let alone the need to cast more than 10-15 metres, a solid basic line from a decent brand is fine. For me, the Cortland Fair Play series is ideal. The performance marginally better on a £50 line, but would I even notice while flicking a fly out ten yards on a stream?
Sort out your leaders and tippets!
When I first started river fishing I made the mistake I see many newcomers repeating today; they get through endless leaders in a season and pick tippet materials that are either mediocre quality or too thick. My approach tends to be the opposite; an ordinary reel and fly line, combined with top quality tippet materials!
Find a reliable tapered leader for starters, and extend its life by adding a tiny leader ring on the end to attach your tippet. This will save you many quid in the long run, as you won’t keep shortening leaders until they are useless.
In terms of leader length, a 9ft tapered leader plus 2-3ft of tippet is a very useable typical length. I would only bother changing this if the stream was especially tight- in which case I occasionally chop down to 7ft of tapered leader plus tippet.
The actual tippet is possibly the most vital part of all . Does it really matter to the fish whether you use 5lb or 3lb tippet, or whether you use the posh stuff? In a word, YES! This is especially true for dry fly fishing. There is a world of difference between say bog standard 3-4lb mono and a really top class material.
The best of them will give you a fantastic presentation with just under 3lb of leader strength at just 0.10mm of diameter. Flies just behave more naturally with thin, supple tippet, it’s as simple as that. Why is it that we will pay over £100 for a reel, but consider anything over £10 as outrageous for really top notch fishing line?
For the record, I also find low diameter fluorocarbon perfectly fine for dry fly fishing. Yes, I know others will disagree and say “no, fluorocarbon sinks” but in finer diameters it seems fine. It will still stick to the surface tension or, at worst, just-about-sink. Perhaps this is to our advantage, as it makes those final few inches harder to see?
90% of the fish on just 5 flies
My favourite 5 (L to R): Klinkhamer, Elk Hair Caddis, F-Fly, CDC Quill Emerger, Beaded Hare’s Ear.
Ok, so it’s the pub debate that never ends. But if you could pick just a minimum of patterns, what would you take? Well, with the right choices would still catch plenty of fish on any small stream. You can experiment with stacks of realistic flies and beautiful designs, but in truth simple is best (especially when trees will always confiscate some of your work).
So, while I always like the odd curveball, I keep coming back to the same flies time and again for a reason. They do the job and are either easy to tie, or cheap to buy for those who don’t roll their own. With the dries, I love a simple Klinkhamer Emerger (size 16-18) or Elk Hair Caddis (12-16), especially for broken water with the latter. For subtler presentations and smoother water, CDC patterns tend to rule, such as a Quill Emerger (16-18) or basic F-Fly (16-22). All of these will be tied barbless or debarbed (and a pair of quality forceps that will crush a barb easily is another must have fly tying accessory).
For wets, I’ve tried so many but rarely do I feel that I’ll catch any more fish than with a simple beaded Hare’s Ear, (usually with a size 16 being optimum and these days usually tied on a “point up” jig hook). In fact, I remember one season when my brother made incredible wet flies- spectacularly realistic in every detail, from legs to gills. And yet the basic, tie-in-five-minutes-flat hare’s ear still caught more fish! Sorry realistic fly tyers; I still love your patterns but on any small river where much of your work will only decorate trees, I’ll save your creations for more spacious venues.
One final tip here for the guides is to stock up in bulk on the flies you use most. Sure, so you might have time to tie dozens of emergers and nymphs; but a much quicker solution is to find commercially made patterns you trust, get a trade account and order by the dozen! The same goes for tapered leaders and other basics; order in bulk and it’s so much cheaper (and knowing how many flies are lost and leaders tangled in a season you just know you’ll use them!)
Really damned simple nymph tactics
Talking of leaders and leader or “rig rings”, this tapered leader to rig ring to tippet set up also makes it a cinch to fish nymphs on smaller rivers. Ok, so I would always rather catch on the dry fly- but if it’s a cool day, nothing is rising, or the fish are in the deeper pools, why make life hard for yourself?
The same leader set up is just fine- and the leader ring makes an ideal stopping point to keep a basic, fold-on foam indicator in place. Yes, it’s very basic- but with a gold bead nymph it’s an incredibly effective, hassle free set up. Don’t get me wrong here; French leaders are great on big rivers and fussy fish, it’s just that on a cramped little river they are needless. Long rods and vast leaders are just impractical on bushy little streams.
Line and fly management
Meeting lots of anglers of all levels every season, I can vouch for the fact that they love their little containers. Some anglers have more containers than Gandalf’s cellar! Nothing wrong with any product if it does the job for you, but my advice is always find a simple selection and stick to it.
Beyond a bit of fuller’s earth to dull shiny tippets or help nymphs to sink, my entire selection is simply Mucilin, dry fly grease and a bit of dry fly revive powder.
As you can see from the state of my containers (above) these last a long time- and they fix a multitude of little sins. One common fault that drives me to ruin with guests, for example, is seeing floating fly lines sinking and scaring fish; it’s so simple to fix; just smear on a bit of Mucilin on the final few feet.
As for dry flies, just a tiny rub of floatant is all that most need. For rough water and patterns that need extra buoyancy, like the Elk Hair Caddis, a good tip here is to apply floatant twice- once at home, followed by a second time on the water.
As for the more delicate side of things, I do love CDC patterns- but they can be as brittle as Premier League footballers, tending to crumple in a heap when bitten. A bottle of dry “fly revive” powder is like the “magic sponge” of the physio, quickly perking them back into action, hence it also finds a permanent home in my pocket.
All waders leak, but there’s a way to stop hating them and buying more!
Now we come on to one of my pet hates: waders. There, I’ve said it. I hate them! It’s bad enough trying to find any pair when you have size 14 feet (yes, I know I am a freak), but I once found getting them to last more than a season or two impossible! You know the score- regardless of whether you paid £40 or £200, they start to leak. Finding the right pair that lasted longer than a Happy Meal almost got to the point of war.
So what’s the answer, when the whole industry (even the posh brands) produce these items quickly and cheaply in the far East? Well, I’d still invest a bit more for comfort. Things like tough knees are important, given how much time I spend kneeling to keep my lanky frame off the skyline. But as soon as there is even the hint of a leak, send them away to a chap called Diver Dave’s Wader Repairs. He’ll not only eradicate that sudden chilly sensation around your knees, but treat and re-glue all the seams, joins and other vital bits on your waders so they are not so much “like new” but better than new!
As a final point, there will also be the hottest days of summer when anglers ask “do I really need waders at all just to go fly fishing?” Well, strictly speaking, no. An old pair of sports type sandals or “flats sneakers” or any Croc-type shoes with decent grip are fine. Just don’t try it for winter grayling, unless you want to sound like the Bee Gees.
Other really useful fly fishing gear
Ok, so there are other things that are not especially sexy, but so indispensable you would file under “really bloody useful kit”. First of these is polarising glasses. So much nonsense is spoken about these! Perhaps it’s because I’m tight, or clumsy enough to break them, but I’ve never felt the need to spend more than £30. You’re welcome to spend £300- just don’t lend them to me, whatever you do. I like an amber lens, too, best of all.
Next comes a means of keeping your valuables dry. Ok, so you can store your keys etc under your waders- but a phone is something you want to hand at all times (in fact, with the risk involved, I’m less and less inclined to take a digital SLR camera). Find yourself a waterproof phone-sized pouch and neck lanyard and you’re in business (also essential for anyone who kayak fishes!).
Next there’s your hat. Baseball caps never suit me and leave me with a neck looking like I come from Kentucky. A wide brimmed hat is probably even less stylish, but just so much more practical and the fish don’t care if I look like a dad on a Eurocamp holiday.
On the subject of not getting your face burned, I find sunblock vile stuff that inevitably stings your eyes and makes you look like someone who has just experienced tragedy. So get yourself a purpose made face protector cream (the Body Shop or Bulldog do the best ones). Yes, they cost a bit more, but I would rather risk looking a bit metrosexual than have horrible cheap sunblock stinging my eyes (which happens EVERY BLOODY TIME I use regular sunblock on a hot day).
Last but not least, I would not be without my stick on rod holder for the car? Why exactly? Because I once smashed a friends rod clean in two by propping it against the car; before it slid down and got caught in the car door, mid slam! For £15 the Sportsman Bumper sticks magnetically to the car and avoids all risk of the sort of accident that could cost a small fortune and ruin your day. You have been warned! Google it and buy one, because they are absolutely indispensable.
Guided fly fishing and more to read from South West guide and author, Dom Garnett
Dominic Garnett is author of Flyfising for Coarse Fish and a regular blogger and writer for various titles. He’s also a qualified coach offering guided fly fishing near Exeter and right across Devon and Somerset, from trout to pike and other coarse species.