Sunday 15 December 2013

Fly Fish Off at Bellbrook

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Competition might not be the reason I usually go fishing, but I must admit I've been enjoying some friendly contests recently. There's a definite excitement to these days out, whether it's the draw itself, or the fun of catching fish against the clock. I'd urge even the less competitive angler to try the odd match in fact. It definitely adds an extra something and far from being cut throat you invariably find a healthy camaraderie at these events.
The recent Tiverton Christmas match was a good day out as usual, although tough going. In fact the measly 420g of roach and a solitary skimmer I caught actually felt like a decent effort from a tricky peg. Hence I was hoping for better when I swapped the long pole for a fly rod at the Bellbrook Christmas Fish Off. Like the Tivvy match, this was well attended, with twenty anglers present. It's a pairs challenge in essence and I roped Ben, my older brother into the bargain to form a duo of Garnetts. At the start you draw a sequence of numbers and change pegs at 45 minute intervals. The aim is to catch a fish from each of the six lakes- or as many as you can.
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What a crazy start it was too. On Bodmin Lake, I had a bite second cast. Activity was rife in the first leg, but I managed to lose both the fish I hooked. Damn it! I wasn't the only jinxed angler though, as my neighbour and Ben did the same, hooking and losing fish to draw a blank in the first round.
Still, at least the flies were working. My all time Bellbrook favourite, a sinking rubber-legged daddy longlegs, got them going. Even so, it was well after the start of the second leg that I hooked my next fish, a three pounder that really slammed the rod over. Everything is that bit more exciting in a contest. You pray that bit harder that the fish won't come off. The relief is that bit stronger when it hits the net.
As it turned out, I never looked back after recovering from that iffy start. The fish did get trickier as the day went on- not surprising when you consider that twenty of us were thrashing the water all day. A black mini lure seemed to keep them coming for me. Perhaps I'd got my bad luck out of the way early, because on the final round I had just one bite but it led to a fish in the net, taking my total to five. As for the best of my bag, I had a real battle with a fish of dead on five pounds that needed careful playing not to smash the tippet. A silvery beauty too- and in a match even more of a morale booster:
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So how did we do? No angler took the full six fish, although three of us managed five. Ben took three which gave us a total of eight, enough for second place on the day and a bottle of port each, just behind the winning duo on nine fish. Above all though, it was straight up good fun. Friendly banter, good sportsmanship and a very civilised lunch, while fishery boss Chris even came round to dispense hot mince pies and mulled wine. How many matches does that happen?!!
In fact, things have been looking up all round. I even managed to avoid a blank for a change on Exeter Canal this week, with a smallish but exquisitely marked pike.
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I'm also feeling mightily relieved to have completed my third book, "Canal Fishing: A Practical Guide", which is currently being designed by Merlin Unwin Books. It has been one of the most intensive slogs I've ever had as a writer but I'm really excited. Canals have always been close to my heart- and bloody hell do we have an amazing variety of cuts in this country. Here's a first look cover draft:
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Monday 9 December 2013

Trials and treats of a predator angler

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I've probably explained before about my love hate relationship with "the slag of all canals": Exeter Ship Canal. Do I blame conditions for my latest blanks, or simply the fact that the fish can and do move away from the places you caught them before? I'll get to the bottom of it at some point, but at the moment I get the feeling it could be later rather than sooner.

In fact the logic is rather skewed with this beast of a canal. You'd think that its deep waters would be ideal for consistent winter fishing. So why is it that the shallow canals of the west seem to produce many times more bites? It might be true that Exeter Canal has the bigger fish, but it also sees more pressure. And in my book roving about for some jacks is more fun than sitting on your (cold) arse for an interminable amount of time for one bite that might just be something big.

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The other benefit of the Bridgwater to Taunton Canal and Levels are that perch are pretty common- and I shared a catch of several in a day trip with Russ Hilton. Bait fishing is perhaps the really selective way to fish, but I just love roving with the fly rod at the moment. You really cannot whack sight fishing. In the course of a long wander we spotted so many fish. I've been scaling down and using small fry patterns for variety of late:
 photo securedownload_zpsbb46c135.jpgI caught several jacks as well as small perch on our last trip, and had I held my nerve would also have added a two pound chub that sucked fly in before I snatched at it, pulling the thing straight out of its gob. Put it down to excitement, but I really never learn. A lot of fun though, and a lot of fish even in the really flaky bits around Bridgwater.
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In one swim in particular I found no fewer than four tiny pike, all keeping an eye on the fly as well as each other. Another fish did something crazy- I watched this jack of about two pounds follow the fly to the near bank before changing its mind and lashing out at a nearby rudd instead! He only managed to grab it by the tail and so we watched for several minutes as the fish flapped while the pike refused to let go. Bizarre stuff- and all part of the joy of clear water and polarising glasses.
We did also locate one or two that required the net, not huge but very welcome:
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Certainly a lot more exciting than the next early morning stolen on the Exeter Canal at the back of Water Lane. I ended up using my scarf not as insulation, but as nose protection from the infernal stink of the nearby factory. What do they do in there? Boil a mixture of dog turds and dead horses?
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I will have my revenge at some point- but the only pike I saw on Sunday otherwise was the one below, a bit of a festive tradition at my folks house that my mother always insists on; in Switzerland these seasonal, sweet bready treats are made every year. Most volunteers make little people. Being a fishing idiot I compensated for my lack of real pike by making one out of dough, raisins and nuts. Desperate stuff eh?
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Friday 29 November 2013

Ultralight poaching with Peter and Peter

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As far as different branches of angling go, ultralight lures and fly fishing for predators are pretty close cousins. Both are active, intimate methods that suit smaller waters perfectly. They also suit the fidgety angler who constantly wonders if there's a better spot waiting just a little further along the bank. When conditions are tough, as they have been lately, that's no bad thing either. I always fancy if the fish aren't especially hungry my best chance is to simply show a fly or lure to as many eyes as possible.
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Joining me for a couple of roving canal sessions were the two Peters, Wardle and Higgins. It started in pretty urban style as Pete Wardle and I tried around Bridgwater, flipping flies and jigs around likely structures. The fry were present in spades, but the only perch that gave a solid take was a fish of perhaps a pound lured by Pete that came adrift. Other small fish followed or nipped, but it was a bit underwhelming on the whole, a sudden explosion of fry and a rolling pike the most exciting moment. Why is it that these attacking fish quite often seem hard to tempt I wonder? Maybe amidst a mass of living prey fish, a lure or fly is suddenly not so appealing?
Never mind- we soldiered on and ventured out in the sticks to find incredibly clear water and plenty of visible life. We both stuck it out on the really small stuff, because I quite fancied one of us to connect with a decent perch following my pole fishing session on the Taunton to Bridgwater a couple of weeks earlier. The theory was nice, but the fish that came at my fly was more in the small but cute category (what brilliant colours these clear water fish have!):
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With polarising glasses it was easy to spot perch and jacks, but less easy to wake them from their lethargy. Were easterly winds and high pressure to blame? Pete thought it was more a case of clear water and light levels- and the fishing definitely picked up in the last hour. I managed to hook and lose a rocket powered pike after switching to a black streamer, while Pete had the last laugh with this cracking perch guesstimated at around a pound and a half on a tiny soft shad:
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Peter Higgins joined us nearer home the following day for another testing canal session with similarly chilly, clear water and rather lethargic fish. The place looked beautiful all the same- and it's certainly a confidence booster to be able to spot fish, even when you can't always tempt them. I think Pete Wardle, used to fishing busier, murkier cuts, found our canals a very different prospect and swapped the ultra light lures for a fly rod, so that all three of us were fly fishing:
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And so the tricky fishing continued. Even the tiny jacks were a bit nervous or disinterested, sport only really picking up in the afternoon. I kept ringing the changes during lulls, and while the takes didn't exactly come thick and fast a black fly worked best for me- a Black Beast, to be specific, that Turrall will be producing early next year for the new "flies for coarse fish" range. It's not the first time this has been a get-out-of-jail pattern for me by any stretch and also tempted the best fish of the day:
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This was a strange creature, big mouth but not much bulk. The take and ensuing fight were both rather lazy and bloodless too- although it did manage a sudden thrash on the bank as I retrieved the hook, giving me a bloody thumb as a thank you. Mind-blowing fishing it hasn't been of late then, but interesting nonetheless and perhaps what I like about fly or ultralight fishing is that it makes every fish an event: every bite is earned and you don't need to hook anything spectacular to put a decent bend in the rod. After all, fishing should be about fun rather than bragging rights shouldn't it?
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Wednesday 20 November 2013

Bits vs Beasts

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If ever a session illustrated the merit of having different lines of attack, it was my last canal fishing trip with Russ Hilton on the Taunton to Bridgwater. The subtext was getting a few more shots for my canal fishing book and some practice for the Tiverton Christmas match, but I was just looking forward to some fishing as opposed to merely writing or talking about it. At the start it looked like we might catch silver fish all day long on bread punch. And had we so desired, that would have been a distinct possibility, so stuffed was the venue with small rudd and roach. It didn't matter whether you went all cute and fine with a tiny piece, or switched to flake on a fourteen, the hordes descended.
 photo DSC_0041_2_zps4233b472.jpgRuss was definitely catching these quicker than I was, at a fierce old rate on the whip. Makes me think I should dig my old whip out again at some point. A four meter model, with pointless yellow decor on the handle, was the first ever fishing rod I could call my own as a small boy. But in terms of fish caught that crummy length of fibreglass probably represents the best value item of tackle I've ever owned. It was the downfall of many Thames roach, as well as bullheads and bootlace eels. Not quite as posh as this rather sexy Sensas model you'd have to say:
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But I digress. Fun though it is bringing endless rudd to hand, it's always nice to put something bigger in the net too. And the trouble with small baits is that it can take an age to get through the bits and pieces. Luckily enough from my own, slightly disorganised perspective on this occasion, Hilton came up trumps with a ridiculous bag of worms and strict orders that he didn't want to take any of these home.
It's a plan that works so often on canals, but worth reiterating the value of a "feed and wait" line on the cut. A pole cup of chopped worm and caster went across to a tree on the far bank, which not only looked fishy but had good depth under it. Apart from a top up after an hour or so, this was left well alone while I kept out of mischief by pinching more rudd, roach and a solitary silver bream.
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Slipping a redworm minus head onto a size 12 and heavier rig, I eventually made the switch across and the response was pretty instant. After a slightly better rudd, the next fish was a proper head shaker in the form of a much better one, a perch this time. Had it been a match I'd have been cursing because I managed to lose the next two, including what felt like quite a beastie. Meanwhile Russ was taken all over the canal by what we guessed was a carp, which actually turned out to be a rocket powered pike of about four pounds that picked up a worm. In fact we'd seen little fish scatter at the surface a few times and not all of these attacks screamed pike. After another top up and another crack at the rudd, the next fish from the sunken tree stayed hooked. A lovely perch of 1lb 14oz proved the best of the day- and just in the nick of time because I had to leg it back to Exeter.
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In spite of my late, lucky perch Russ must have had the greater weight of fish, with a silly number of rudd and some better ones that showed later on the bread. I wouldn't put it past him to teach me a similar lesson in the Christmas match:
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And on that note I'm really looking forward to a proper winter break, with no deadlines and no place to be on a cold morning. Other than the odd order I've done little fly tying lately, which I must put right. After giving talks to branches of the Fly Dressers Guild on tackling coarse species I definitely have the bit between my teeth. Especially so after seeing the collection of Chris Reeves, which included this rather baroque looking antique pike fly:
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Tying is rather like fishing: always a new trick to learn and another direction to try. I am permanently making little notes and snaffling samples when in the company of fly tying enthusiasts. And at least the long, dark winter provides plenty of time to fill a box or two with new creations.
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Thursday 7 November 2013

Upper Tamar, Untamed

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I've said it before in these ramblings, but more often than not the angler doesn't pick the weather- the weather picks the angler! You get a day or two free if you're lucky and go for it. I mean, why exactly would anyone pick two days of gales to try a spot of perch fishing on a big sheet of water? I was actually really pleased to take a trip in the company of Chris Lambert and Tyrone Norah on this occasion. Not only does it keep your spirits up on a testing session, there is the added benefit of tea and shelter.
 photo DSC_0312_zps00927548.jpg In exchange I bought a tin of beer each for an afternoon tipple- best not to mention where I store my tinnies though eh? (yes, that's right, they also help keep the maggots cool!)
 photo DSC_0291_zps834a3ee6.jpgSpot number one on this wide open lake had to be abandoned, such were the extreme conditions. A shame because bream were stacked up in the "match" pegs. I was getting a skimmer a chuck- although it was literally impossible to stake out a keepnet. You would turn round to see net, fish and all literally being blown clear of the water, such was the wind.
Plan B was to seek more sheltered sanctuary and the fishing, while not exactly hectic, was decent. Perhaps I should have gone for more selective tactics though, because while I caught lots of skimmers, roach and the odd rudd, I was struggling to get through to the perch even on half a lobworm with fish like this about- not that I'd ever regard these as a nuisance:
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Prawns did the damage in the end, at least for the odd better fish. These are a bait I've never really put my faith in, although I love eating them myself. I really should go back to the drawing board because they definitely sort out decent perch. Decent you say? Make that cracking perch- because that's exactly how you'd describe the best fish of the trip at 2-12, taken by Chris:
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It was a fun but testing trip in the end. The British climate has a dark sense of humour I sometimes start to think. On the afternoon of day two everything finally settled and for about an hour it was lovely. The heavy feeder tackle suddenly seemed a bit excessive; the quiver tip kept trembling and the fish kept coming. A slightly better perch of a pound and a half or so also showed up amongst the silvers:
 photo DSC_0326_zps101c0e39.jpgAnd then out of the blue as I was filling the feeder for another throw a little chunk of ice landed in it. Like a fool, I ignored the warning shot before three minutes later the hail pelted down and I got that stinging sensation as I ran for cover. Despite a weekend of natural disaster style weather though I had a nice bag of mostly skimmers and silver bream on each day. No giant perch, but I guess you can't have everything and being a fidget I do like simply fishing for bites. The crappy weather never left on the second evening and at around five it was like God had just flicked the light switch to "off" and announced "get yer coat and bugger off."Next time, I'm coming here on a calm, sunny day- that's for bloody certain!
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Wednesday 30 October 2013

Escape to the cut

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Someone recently asked me "what does it take to produce a fishing book?" The truth isn't so glamorous, I'm willing to admit. It takes as much perspiration as inspiration. It requires sitting in an empty room for long periods, well away from any water. It takes a maddening process of words, photographs, emails, strong coffee, phone calls and miles on the road. I love it, but it can be lonely. Take the above shot, one of a few possibles for a cover image. It looks serene enough. But what you don't see are the 120 "not quite right" versions, the buggering around with angles and exposures and self timers. Or the part where I'm desperately scrabbling to nail one final alternative shot before the light fades and end up with one foot in the canal.
Then again, there are the genuine discoveries. Like the brilliant stories and anecdotes that have arrived in my inbox. Or the way that sometimes mid sentence I'm transported back to 1991 again, catching rudd and perch as a kid sitting in the beer garden at Double Locks.
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And why not start with the small things? If I had to try and distil the essence of canal fishing, it would be something child like, the simple act of finding somewhere quiet, watching a float and wondering what might happen. And I felt closer to that moment by putting everything down last midweek and getting down to the canal for an afternoon with my old man. After all, you can have too much research and not enough practise. It was a sweet afternoon too. I had a small, suicidal perch on a bare hook while plumbing the depth and the bites pretty much continued from there on in. No grand ambitions, just a float tip and a cute swim. And the canal was alive with fish. An infinity of greedy perch, and my dad cursing the lightning quick roach bites. We each had quite a collection on pinkies over ground bait:
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I also anticipated pike however. It's inevitable they'll find you when there are that many small fish. The first spotted was about two pounds and arrowed into the side of the keepnet, daft bugger. That was about all the invitation I needed to switch to a pike rod for the last hour.
More and more often on the weedier canals and drains I'm starting to think conventional pike fishing is rather dogmatic. Always two treble hooks, and a bait nailed to the bottom where it isn't incredibly easy for the pike to spot. Hence more often, I'll float fish a deadbait at mid depth, with just one treble nicked through the back. This also lets the bait drift with any tow or breeze and search more water. Call me eccentric, but I also enjoy using a centre pin for this close range fishing. I fancied there would be several pike in the vicinity ogling all the small fish drawn to the ground bait and it took no more than twenty minutes before the float popped and started a slow walk that I hit immediately:
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The fish went on an absurdly strong first run. They so often punch hard at this time of year, all lean and angry. The single, semibarbed treble fell out in the net and I released the fish without the indignity of weighing her, a low double I'd guess. A great afternoon's fishing and for at least a few stolen hours I'd forgotten all about word counts and emails.  photo DSC_0346_zps2a2a87d7.jpg

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Canal zander

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I seem to be getting more and more nomadic as autumn kicks in. I feel like I've spent more time in the midlands the last fortnight than actually at home. Zander explain at least half the reason why. Not only do I love fishing for them, I've also been eager for more canal fishing material for my current book project (Later note- this is now finished and available from my site- Canal Fishing: A Practical Guide). My high opinion of zander might well cause a sharp intake of breath from pole anglers who read the finished article- but I not only enjoy catching these stylish killers (or trying to!), I consider them a very welcome species.

For one thing, they are so constantly mysterious and intriguing. Perhaps it's because they thrive in dirty water and hence defy attempts at careful observation. They are also beautifully mean to look at. That huge, cold eye. That mass of great fins and angular, sinister profile. And nor is the fishing predictable either, with lures, deadbaits and even flies all thrown into the mix. It started with bait tactics last week however, as I tackled the maze of canals near Fazely:
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Rain follows me like a bad smell at the moment, as you can see from this "character building" (and for some time utterly biteless) scene on a boat junction. I tried small, freshly killed dead baits here- and for the record, I always think catching a handful of baits is instructive in itself when predator fishing. Anyone who thinks zander, or pike for that matter, "eat everything" needs their brains testing. I found stacks of small and not so small fish here on pinkies, half a dozen of the smallest making perfect zander baits.
With space cramped and banks hard, quiver tip style tactics seemed ideal, with the rod tucked in parallel to the bank. I also made use of a swimfeeder packed with a fishmeal ground bait. I got a soaking for several hours, but the zander responded well and I had four in total, to about the four pound mark.
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The real eye-opener came a few days later however, although it nearly didn't happen as my car refused to start at 5am that morning. A visit from the AA and a new battery later though and I was back on the road and on my way to fishing a different canal in the company of John Cheyne and Andy Mytton. These guys absolutely love lure fishing and it was hard not to feel buoyed by their positive attitude. I decided I just had to try the fly rod- even though the water was so coloured it didn't exactly fill me with confidence. We roved between a handful of areas- although one thing I immediately noticed was just how long these chaps will linger in specific areas, covering water really thoroughly.
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The nips and pulls arrived early, building a sense of anticipation. I had been wondering if I needed my brains testing trying the fly, but one of my jig style flies, tipped with a tiny grub tail, soon got a big whack mid-canal.
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In fact my jig fly came back looking vandalised after this first hit, half of it gone. Revenge was sweet though, and the third solid pluck I received led to a proper hook up and a thumping, perch-like fight from this handsome devil:
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That was the best of a fly caught brace in the end. Very gratifying, although our lure enthusiasts took the most fish, using jigging tactics mostly with small shads. What a brilliant, skilful method this is too. I learned tons just by watching them- not least of all that zander demand a finer presentation than pike. Retrieves are quite gentle and the key is in keeping in touch with the lure at all times, often keeping the rod at quite a high angle to jig lures in the bottom foot or so of water. That said, both these lure men catch a lot from right under the rod tip, sometimes just by walking along the sides of walls and boats:
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Perch also joined several typical canal zander, this one falling to Andy's 4" shad:
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Honours were about even at close of play I would say, although John had the best zander of the day with this better sample. What a fantastic looking fish!
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It was a great day and the banter was every bit as good as the quality of the fishing. The most disturbing part of it was the sudden squealing sound of excited turkeys taking me by surprise. "The locals like plucking them round here," John told me (or at least that's what I think he said!!!). As for where we fished, well- I'm not going to lead you there by the hand but there is great potential for roving anglers here with twelve miles of water on the Grand Union to explore, controlled by the LACC on a cracking value five quid day ticket (see
With John acting as Regional Coordinator for the Angling Trust, it was also great to get his thoughts on the state of our canals in general, and a whole range of current ideas for their continued use and development. And on this note, I can't stress highly enough how important it is for all of us to put our weight behind the sport we love. Times might be hard, but one great current initiative is to offer membership for just £2.50 a month. That's less than a pint of beer, and an affordable way to give angling your much needed backing! (Check out the Angling Trust site for more details at
The way the last two weeks have gone I may as well relocate to Birmingham, my final trip taking me near Coventry for the Tackle and Guns show. I was there with Turrall, and also got to play with one of their lovely new Peak vices to turn out a few dozen flies for roach, rudd and pike.
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Events like this are brilliant. So many friendly people and friends I hadn't seen for way too long. It was also a great chance to spread the word about my work with Turrall, who will be producing an entire range of flies specially made for coarse fish species under my name in early 2014. The response so far has been really exciting- and when you think about it, it's about bloody time somebody made a series of tried and trusted patterns for roach, chub, perch and the rest. Coarse species are everywhere, not only accessible to everybody but often so much more affordable than trout waters. My favourites so far are perhaps the chub flies- which include beauties like a cricket, a kicking beetle and even a wasp (or "jasper" as we Devonians call them!). I'm hoping the range will provide a lot of fun and really take the headache out of fly selection for anglers in the new year:
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