Coarse fish are great fun to catch on the fly throughout the summer. But what do you do if your chosen river is on the rise? All is not lost, if you’re prepared to be brave and mix up your flies and approach!
You know how it is every year, you expect blue skies and picnic weather as a given, but the British climate has other ideas. Such is the mood on a muddy River Tone, as we meet for a shot at some coarse fish on the fly.
This stretch of river is fantastic value, with a real mixed bag of species and day tickets at just £7.50 online from Taunton Angling Association. Usually in the summer it’s sparkling and clear. Rewind a few weeks and you only had to scan a few yards to spot lumbering chub, striped perch and hordes of dace and bleak. But today the mineral water has been replaced with an out-of-date smoothie.
Very frustrating, but what can you do about it? Which fly patterns should you use and, more to the point, exactly where on earth should you aim them when visibility is foggy? We are about to find out.
Fly fishing tactics for muddy water
Rule number one with any murky river is not to be put off, but to work at it and experiment from the off. One great way to start if you have company is to mix it up and compare different tactics.
My feeling today is that a dark streamer could still work, for perch as well as chub, especially in near bank slacks. With it being so mild, though, there may still probably be fish willing to rise. So we start on some big foam dry flies.
My opening choices for a muddy river with chub the main target (L to R): Black Woolly Bugger, Kicking Hopper, Jasper, Death Wish Ant
The initial battle with such water is confidence! It can look so unappetising. For the first half-hour, I can’t win a bite on a Black Woolly Bugger, but I still fancy the fish must be in these type areas to be close to cover, keeping out of the main flow.
Encouragingly, we start to get some small fish to rise. There are definitely some smaller chub and dace about- and the good news is that they can still pick out a fly! Nor are they in very deep water; any reeds or dangling branches seem likely places.
It’s also a great chance to try out some new and existing dry flies from the Turrall range. I’m quite tempted to put on something huge, but for now, we just need a fish to win our confidence back. Hence I start smallish on a 12.
Everyone is now getting the odd take and a small chub comes first, hooking a small Red-Legged Hopper. A busy little dry fly with Klinkhamer style post and kicking rubber legs, it’s certainly easy to spot for fish as well as angler in the muddy water.
It’s amazing what that first fish in the net can do, anyway, and this is suddenly looking a lot more encouraging.
Drag, snags and big mouths
As encouraging as our start is, this is challenging fishing on a brown river. A few things quickly become apparent. The chub are clearly hanging off the main flow, at the edges of cover. Sometimes the water is still very shallow- but because of the colour they feel quite comfortable even tight to the bank in inches of water. You do have to drop your fly close, though, if you want a fish to look.
Drag is also a problem at times because with any cast to the far bank, the fly line still gets taken by the faster current in the middle. Mends can help, but another good solution is to throw a bit more slack or a bit of an “s” shape into your cast. This way, you can buy yourself that extra second or two of decent presentation, before the fly drags unnaturally.
That said, on occasion a bit of draft seems to provoke the chub, which are always such a contradiction of caution and greed! They really are fascinating, surprising fish.
I’m so relieved just to see fish rising, the next little encounter takes me by shock. The fly lands close to reeds on the far bank, when a larger shape looms into view and gulps it down in one effortless motion.
They’re not as dramatic fighters as trout, but the fish gives me a good run in the current, churning hard and trying to find the weedy bottom. Even with a fish of just a pound or two, I’m grateful for a long-handled landing net and sensible tackle. Today’s set up for me is a 10ft 4 weight, the others are using the Cortland Fairplay in a 5/6 weight, and we’re all on 5lb tapered leaders.
Go big or go home?
The action then slows again- and seemingly there are little spells of activity before the fish go off again. After the last, slightly better chub, though, I’m keen to go larger.
I’d have no hesitation about using any of my usual chub flies, which tend to range from sizes 6-10. Today, though, I can’t resist trying the ridiculously named Chernobyl Ant. Anything but subtle, it gives a little splat on entry, with spindly black legs to add to the effect.
The next mouth that comes up is bigger again. As frustrating as it is not to be able to locate fish by plain sight today, the chub we are getting seem quite decisive! This one gives a lovely slow-motion take, before bolting out of sight. I bully it a little on the near bank, fully aware it knows the snags here better than I do. Another nice fish.
As far as surprises go, though, there’s something much crazier still to come. It starts as one of us hooks a small chub on the far bank. He takes his time playing it, and as the fish passes the middle of the river, it suddenly feels heavier.
For several anxious moments, the rod curve builds deeper. I’m assuming he’s either weeded up, or it’s a jack pike, but neither is the case. The two-ounce chub he thought he was playing is attached to a large, mean-looking perch!
I can’t remember the last time I saw this. With pike, it happens every season that fish are stolen and you occasionally catch the culprit. He still does well to guide it to the net, with weed around the line and the small fish still flapping in its jaws! Amazingly, both fish stay hooked as I manage to sink the net.
It’s a fabulous perch- and the sort you’d kill for if you were fishing by design. On a muddy day like today, though, we’ll take any fortune we can get!
By lunchtime, we’ve had a surprising tally of fish, with that cracking perch joining several chub of different sizes. And to think how little we fancied it when looking at the river just a few hours ago! We might easily have written the session off, which just goes to show that it’s always worth a try.
Tips from our session
When the river is up, it might be tempting to go with fast sinking flies or try the deeper water. If anything, the opposite was the case on our trip. With extra murk, the fish were quite comfortable in shallow water, away from the main flow.
Be as accurate as you can. On any high river, the fish will be condensed into smaller, tighter places- and they won’t move as far when the current is strong.
Use sensible, strong tackle. Fish in a rain-swollen river are less likely to be tackle shy- and a large fish can still present a danger when there are stronger currents and debris in the water. With modern copolymer lines, you still get good presentation with 5lb leaders and tippets.
In terms of fly choices, don’t be afraid to go larger and more obvious. Black patterns were best for us, and those with rubber legs seemed to work especially well for chub.
Be brave and give it a go! You might need to work at it, but keep on the move and find the spots where fish are sheltering and you still have a great chance of success.