Saturday 30 August 2014

The Wye with Friends/ Fly Fishing for Chub

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As the saying goes, it's better to do something late than never. You say to yourself "I really must have a crack at X this summer," but with rain clouds and autumn threatening you still haven't done it. Actually, the scale of delay was even more dramatic in the case of the Wye. My pal Russ Hilton had arranged a trip for him and his dad with me on this great river last Christmas, but owing to terrible weather in early 2014 it never happened. So there we were, hitting the road in late August for what must be one of the most overdue festive gifts of all time.
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Still, after a daft o'clock meet up we started with a bang. We would have got the Wye even earlier, had my directions been up to scratch. Why oh why do two different places within 6 miles of one another both have to be so unoriginal as to go by the name of "The Red Lion"? Needless to say, we went to the wrong one first, before I got my bearings. Luckily there was no mistaking my favourite swim for feeder fishing. Russ and Dave were raring to go by this time, but we played it sensibly, baiting positively and letting the fish settle for over an hour before casting in. And patience was rewarded as Dave Hilton kicked off in style with a chub of over 4lbs. It wasn't fish a chuck, but the barbel also came along in dribs and drabs over the course of the afternoon and next morning. The chaps also got a special visit from Bob James, much to their surprise, who was on hand to provide tea, cake and some timely fishing tips (you can read more on Russ's blog "Tales from the Towpath"):
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Even if it's for mates, a guide's main priority should be to get their guests catching before all else. I barely fished on day one, but enjoyed netting barbel and some terrific chub for my friends- or just soaking in the peaceful flow of the river during the lulls. Nevertheless, there was time for a cast on the second day. In contrast to "bait and wait", the fly can work instantly. You won't catch the numbers in one spot you will with bait, but there is nothing I love more than roaming about and casting a fly. Bob even snuck back for a go with some small lures as we spent a pleasant hour or two fishing side by side and comparing notes.
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Bob was quickly into a couple using tiny spinners, before he had to depart while I got into action on the flies. A couple of fish came quickly after a good walk with polarising glasses as I kept a close eye on little weed rafts on the near bank. Approach is everything with these fish; usually a case of carefully sizing up each spot before approaching from a safe distance and presenting a good sized dry fly cast well upstream. As is often the case, anything big and juicy seemed to get them going. I got a little overexcited and pulled a Black Cricket right out of the gaping mouth of a cracker that looked four pounds plus! The next two fish were barely half that size but I made no repeat of this mistake. I might have got even more takes with a lighter leader, but 5lbs was as light as I was prepared to go around the rough stuff.
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Fly fishing for chub is certainly not for the lazy on river like the Wye. Steep banks and tight spots must be negotiated, while I always feel the right way to proceed is to spend at least as long just looking for fish as you spend actually casting.

With a large perch sighted in one area, I also tried a few catapult casts with a tungsten bead streamer- but disappointingly I just couldn't get this lovely fish to make a grab:
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There were other treats too: I lost a fine trout on a daddy longlegs, while I also spotted a cracking pike sunbathing in barely eighteen inches of water. While I would have loved to go for it, my seven weight rod and fluorocarbon leader would have rendered such a a feat virtually impossible, not to mention irresponsible. So I just caught her with the camera instead:
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After that, perhaps the most interesting fly fishing of the day was with streamers. I've done a fair bit of this for chub, but the trip really emphasised the value of fishing downstream. In several spots it was the only way to cast towards a snag only accessible from one side. Casting downstream has big benefits: you can not only fish the fly much slower (often getting a strong pulse by little more than just holding the fly against the flow), but you also get really positive whacks and a high rate of hook ups, because you have no slack line to pick up. The size of fish seemed to increase too, with a Black Woolly Bugger doing more than its' fair share of the damage:
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Ok, so such tactics aren't quite as tantalising as watching fish rise, but streamers seem to catch in a wider range of conditions. Even cool winds and a spot of rain didn't seem to stop the chub launching some gratifyingly brutal attacks. There is no need to fish too fine with streamers- and I often fancy the method for bigger fish, hence my set up was to fish straight through with 8lb fluorocarbon. They don't always fight super hard but rather fight dirty, lunging for snags, getting into the main river flow or trying to wrap you in weed. I was glad I used robust tackle anyway:
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Why did I leave it so late this season to have a crack at the Wye? It beats me. I really wasn't keen to leave. I was even less willing after catching up with Russ and Dave in the afternoon, who had started getting bites from barbel again. It felt warmer too, and after a whole morning on my feet I fancied an hour on my backside I couldn't resist having a cheeky cast with the feeder in the main swim they'd been steadily baiting. It suddenly felt warmer too and after a lot of earlier climbing up and down banks and wading it was great to lose the coat and waders and sit on my backside. The rod didn't so much rattle as wrench over with my final bonus fish, while the lads added three others:
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A few "last casts" were inevitable, before we remembered that human beings need things like food and water. I think my pals were as knackered and starving as I was anyway, and on the way home we devoured fried chicken like men who hadn't eaten for a week. Like our Wye trip I guess you could say we left it rather late. For anyone who still fancies a crack at this great river, there's still time to drop me a line though and the fishing can still be very good in the autumn. For details of our two-day "From Float to Fly" trip, as well as juicy, purpose made flies for chub, check out my site:

Monday 25 August 2014

Summer Fishing School

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Who are the most important people in fishing today? The answer is simple: those youngsters who will form the next generation of anglers. Their first trials and tangles with fish are the first precious steps on the road to success. But in every case a friendly helping hand, not to mention someone to take them fishing in the first place, are essential.
This is exactly the reason why I've been so keen to set up some proper fishing sessions for youngsters this summer and I'm delighted to report a roaring success. It takes energy and organisation, as well as coaching badges and pints of maggots, but it is also one of the genuine highlights of what I do. That grin that says "I just caught my first fish" (as demonstrated here by young Tyler Billing) is absolutely priceless.
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Can you actually teach the art of fishing in just four hours? The honest answer is that there's no way on earth you could cover it all in that time. But what you can do is to coach some basic yet vital skills such plumbing the depth, loose feeding, striking and safely releasing your catch. The vital thing is not so much to catch fish, but to catch that spark of enthusiasm that every true angler has.
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Some old heads will tell you "it's about fishing, not catching," but I believe it's important for beginners to have some degree of success quite early. Which is why West Pitt Farm proved the perfect venue to take our new crop of young anglers. It's also a great place to learn one or two vital lessons: Firstly, that if you keep feeding small amounts of bait accurately, you'll catch a lot more fish. But equally, I'm always keen to show that you don't need to cast miles to catch- and many of the fish on small lakes are right by the bank.
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By using simple tackle (margin poles or waggler set ups) and fairly light gear (4-5 pound line to size 14 barbless hooks) everyone caught plenty. Not all beginners are fans of maggots, so sweetcorn was probably the most successful bait and we got through pints of the stuff, while loose feeding small pellets too. The species list was quite varied from the very first hour, with various carp (common, mirror and ghost) joined by roach, rudd, bream and some interesting hybrids.
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I just love the enthusiasm and imagination of kids- probably the part I miss most about being an English teacher in a former life. Young minds don't set limits and will always come up with crazy questions and ideas. Without any prompting, for example, we had various experiments with baits going on. On day one we had fish going nuts for broken Pringles, while I still have a grin on my face from cheeky chappie Nathan White who used a Haribo sweet on his hook to catch a carp! Is he a nut case, a genius or a bit of both?
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As well as the smaller fish we also had some real whoppers on the bank too, especially once the sun came up and we could target fish on the surface with baits like bread and cat biscuits. The biggest of the lot was landed by Josh Fawcett and expertly netted by his sister, Pip (you can see the beastie at the top of this blog entry). In one sense I was relieved because Josh had played an absolute monster for about ten minutes before losing it earlier that day. The best fish on day two was landed by fifteen year old Sofia and was well deserved; while the boys were all talking a good game she quietly got the better of a cracking common carp, which was so long she got younger brother Finn to hold one end of it for a picture. What a catch:
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All in all it was a brilliant two days and I left shattered but happy. Perhaps the perfect ending was to see Josh Fawcett playing a carp as we left. Having enjoyed the sessions earlier he had returned to the fishery to fish solo, landing a real belter of a fish with the skills he's learned, no coach now required!
It had been a great success then, but one that in no small part was thanks to two individuals in particular. Suzanne, who runs West Pitt Fishery, showed great kindness and support in letting youngsters fish the sessions for free as well as donating tackle and other bits in the process. I think this speaks volumes about her attitude to young anglers and I only wish every fishery had someone with such a good heart. I'd also like to thank Glynn Mansell too, who donated a boot load of seat boxes, nets, rods and other things which were invaluable over the two days. If every fisherman passed on tackle to the next crop of girls and boys so willingly, we could arm a whole generation of would be anglers. If there's any such thing as karma, you deserve to win the lottery Glynn!
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So, a huge thanks to all who attended- and for any Exeter based youngsters, we also have an event running at South View Farm this coming Thu/Fri 28/29. Just call me to book: 07804 240986. If it's half as much fun, it'll be a blast.
Not that coarse fishers have had all the kicks this week though, because I've also been starting others on a similar journey at fly fishing. Even given that keen lads Harry and Alfie Keyes and their dad Danny already go coarse fishing, I was impressed at how quickly they picked the basics up at Simpson Valley Fishery.
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I often like to start things off without the distractions of fish and water until newcomers can perform a decent cast. I've spent a long time on occasion suring up someone's basic cast, but after just an hour or so on grass all three of the new recruits were putting out a tidy loop of line. In fact I'd go so far as to say that young Alfie is one of the most natural fly casters I've ever taught.
Nice looking casts don't guarantee you trout though. Even on a prolific fishery, hot weather can make catching harder so I was dreading the bright weather we'd been forecast. Carp on small stillwaters might like a warm summers day, but rainbow trout are actually far more catchable in cool weather, right into the winter. Using nymphs such as Hare's Ears and Buzzers however, we received some good early takes before it got too warm and all three got a bend in their rods. Thrilling and satisfying stuff, because as much as I like to help as a guide I cannot make the fish take your flies.
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A two fish ticket at Simpson Valley is sensational value at just £10 (and also helps me keep a guided session for three really affordable!), and our anglers had five fish between them to reward a great first crack at fly fishing. No lures in sight either, with the best fly on the day a size 14 Hare's Ear slowly twitched where fish were showing. Well played lads!
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So, I'm really satisfied after a hectic week of coaching, but very much looking forward to an afternoon off with (you never thought I'd say this) no fishing for a change. Phew.

Sunday 17 August 2014

Timeout on the Teme

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As an angler of varied and restless tastes, I am torn two ways when it comes to the tackle I use and own. On the one hand it's always nice to covet something new, as the garage floor will tell you. But on the other, I just hate having lots of kit with me when I travel. Generally, I start with pure intentions. "Just one rod" are my usual famous last words, before the dreaded "what if?" strikes. What if the river is flooded? What if my favourite method isn't working on the day?
I managed to retain some self discipline and pack just a couple of rods for a roving session on the River Teme with Scott West, who also fancied a good wander somewhere new with the chance of some nice barbel or chub. Setting off at the crack of dawn, we grabbed a ticket from Allen's Tackle and headed for a stretch not too far from Worcester for a wander. And with barbel fishing virtually redundant in Devon, you might have forgiven us for getting a little bit excited.
Enthusiasm is one thing, but on any given trip what you hope for and what you get are so often different things. The river was dropping but still quite coloured, too much so to cast a fly, so a pragmatic feeder fishing approach got the nod. Plan A was thus a positive ground bait attack, with worms or my favourite barbel bait, double 10mm boilie, on the hook.
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And what a sumptuous river the Teme is. We didn't see or find lots of fish, but there were so many really fishy looking spots it was tough to know where to start. As is so often the case on an unfamiliar water, it seemed sensible to bait a few spots therefore and try just a short-ish stay in each swim until we found some bites.
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After just a small perch to show for the first couple of hours, it was only in swim number three that I was finally given not so much as a bite as slap in the face. The fish, presumably a barbel, took so hard my rod rest was toppled over like a felled tree. But by the time I'd started pulling back the hook pinged free. One nil to the barbel.
Meanwhile, I was also getting nips from small chub on worm baits to the point where it was a nuisance. Hence a tactical substitution was made to 10mm boilies on both rods. Funny really- I can take them or leave them when carp fishing on manmade waters (part of me thinks that they are very overrated, or certainly overused), but when it comes to river fishing I find them brilliant and highly selective.
I was luckier with the next take, which went from a few flirtatious little dinks to outright violence and another "grab your rod or kiss it goodbye" moment. On light tackle (and I should qualify that as eight pound line and a standard tip rod), barbel are sensationally powerful. The fish shifted from a near bank crease to mid flow in a split second, while I thanked my very bones I'd tested the drag at the start of the session. I have no idea what a barbel of seven and a bit pounds represents in today's fishing scene, but to my senses and with the thing charging all over a small swim it was quite an epic experience.
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Scott meanwhile was also finding some small chub on the worm, along with some frustrating whacks on the boilies which may also have been chub giving the bait a whack without being hooked. We also mixed things up by trundling baits through the swim, doing so by ditching the feeders and trying link legered presentations. This is a lovely way of fishing, tweaking your bait through a good looking bit of water and feeling for takes. Active too, but we struggled to find the better fish, most often small chub wrestling with the bait. Ok, so it isn't necessarily as efficient as a heavy weight and a short hook length, but like fly fishing or trotting it's an intimate, active way to do it and a method I'd like to do more of.
The next action was on the static boilie presentation again however, as I picked up a chub immediately dropping into a swim that had been primed with some bait perhaps half an hour earlier. The quick transition from full steam ahead to a duller lolloping fight suggested chub this time. Not a bad one either, at least to a Devon boy used to seeing typical fish of less than half this size:
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We worked hard for our bites then, but in spite of some success in the afternoon our final evening swims just didn't produce as we'd hoped. Never mind, it's always a pleasure to explore somewhere new with a friend, never fully knowing quite what to expect.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Fishing and Folk Week

 photo DSC_0319_zps0df180c9.jpgRecent angling has been somewhat interrupted these last two weeks or so, for several reasons including the perils of organising fresh work and a lively Sidmouth Folk Week. Those care free, meandering summer holidays I remember are long gone it seems. But if there's one thing the busy angler learns it's how to free a couple of hours here and there, whether that means making a suitable excuse, getting up early or sweet talking your other half. And sometimes a couple of hours are all it requires.
Unsurprisingly, short stolen sessions often involve a fly rod for me and while rudd often give instant kicks, I've also been packing a carp set up ready to go. No crazy ultralight antics here though: at present I'm using a nine weight and ten pound leader as the only solution to tame some seriously fit and wild carp on a very weedy pond.
It's something I've spent a long time doing over the past few seasons, but admittedly my success levels have varied greatly. That said, where there is low fishing pressure and/or tons of natural food it is now something I attempt with confidence. My most recent catch is a classic example, occurring after two blanks with bait. And yet carp fly fishers always seem to suffer the same hang up: they feel the need to feed bait and fish dog biscuit "flies" even when the carp are perfectly happy eating snails, shrimps, nymphs… you name it.
The fly I've had most takes on lately is an adult damsel. Strange, because although plentiful you wouldn't imagine the fish picking up more than an occasional casualty. I fish this with no floatant, so that it sticks for just a second or two to the surface before very slowly sinking. Even so, it's a game of anticipation, letting it fall gently where it can be seen. Cast gently and you might present the fly ten times to the same fish; mess it up and it's game over. I've also found the carp perfectly happy to track the fly until it sits on top of weed, examining it for a few seconds before having a suck. No such trouble with the latest fish though, which took on the drop after two pals had ignored it:
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The fish gave me some real heart attack moments, mostly just due to the way it hugged the weed. For a couples of minutes all I could do was keep the tension, as all I could see was a pair of lips poking out, the fly neatly in the corner. Eventually though, I used the frame of my solid framed landing net (much better than the triangular specimen models in this situation) to gather her up, along with a good helping of salad. She was just an ounce under twelve pounds and absolutely stunning: fully scaled mirrors are my favourite carp in terms of good looks.
Very satisfying indeed- and although it might betray that I'm better with a fly than bait in general, I managed to pull a blank on the next night session with boilies. I think the absolute key to the fly is its subtlety; it's such a delicate presentation, whereas even a free lined bait makes an audible plop. And while several thousand cliched articles will tell you this is a "dinner gong" (groan!) to carp, that's only usually true on heavily stocked waters. Indeed, in an age where even the most "natural" of carp presentations usually involves two ounces of lead as standard, we still have a lot to learn about finesse.

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As for the rest of my summer, the near future is all about getting kids fishing. I find 90% of my guiding falls into two categories: People who are novices and want to learn the ropes, or those who are experienced but want something new (usually coarse fish on the fly). I'm well aware that a lot of youngsters could use a friendly teacher though, who can provide all the bait and tackle and not charge the earth for it. Which is why I've set up my "Summer Fishing School"
events. The first (on Thu 21 and Fri 22 August) takes place at West Pitt Farm, near Tiverton. The owners have very kindly waived the fee for kids to fish, meaning I can provide everything for £16 a head. Do drop me a line if you have kids, family or friends who would enjoy it. There are two sessions each day (9am-1pm or 2pm-6pm) to pick from and this is an ideal fishery for it- I am 99.9% positive every single guest will catch and learn loads in the process. Every child will catch roach and rudd, while they also have every chance of fine carp. I'd far rather people booked rather than just turning up however, because this helps me keep groups small and balanced so I can give the best and most focussed sessions possible. Just give me a bell on 07804 240986/

And off the normal fishing beat, Sidmouth Folk Week also provided a proper "session" in all things musical, with the odd local tipple thrown in. I'm slightly ashamed as a Devonian to say that this was my first proper experience of the event, which sees sleepy Sidmouth descend into a happy kind of anarchy involving dancers, musicians, jugglers, pyromaniacs, tricksters and revellers of all kinds. What I loved best is that it seemed such a beautifully unscripted event. The British "have a go" spirit prevails where you find everyone from a 12 year old kid doing their first ever performance, right through to the professionals. The costumes and even the very instruments themselves are often hand made from scratch- as you can see from this rather fetching guitar, fashioned from a cigar box and with beer bottle caps for volume and tone controls:
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If you steer past the usual tat and the odd dull covers band, it also seems very much the sort of event where you might spy a big name or two to look out for in the future. My pick of a talented bunch was Cam Cole, a moonwalking, hollering street guitarist who plays stripped down, rootsy music with killer riffs and a distinct twang of the blues. Worth looking up, or even better going to see:
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After a whole week of invasion, the town then geared up for the big finale, with fireworks and a parade where you wondered what you'd been drinking: Morris men and women, fire carriers and even giant jelly fish made up a spell-binding procession. In our Tescos era of bland consumer nonsense, it's genuinely refreshing to find eccentricity and tradition alive and kicking:
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Monday 4 August 2014

Fishing with the Fly Punk

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There are places we travel to fish that are extremely prolific and others that are simply good for the soul. Ireland is both, and a place I'd sorely wanted to return after some enjoyable pike fishing a few years back. These days I'm also just as keen on my trout fishing, and I guess you could describe me as a "successfully rehabilitated" pike angler. You might say the same about my host Aidan Curran (aka Pubz McWreckthegaff), an angler with plenty of teeth marks on his angling CV who's now just as happy tangling with trout. Not that you might guess so from this piece of ongoing current work from his wife, Pony:
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Anglers come in all shapes and sizes, but it's probably fair to say that with his red mohican and taste for punk rock, Aidan is not exactly your typical fly fisher. Then again, with a love of "coarse" fish and aged clearly below 50, I'm probably not either. We broke the usual rules about discussing politics and religion fairly quickly, while also swapping flies and ideas along the way as the car rattled with raucous tunes. Our main target was the legendary River Suir near Tipperary, but we must have spent as much time on tributaries such as the Ara. Such streams are about as idyllic as it gets for a travelling angler.
It was an "educational" experience in more ways than one on our visit. Ok, so hot weather had rendered waters low and clear, but these trout were as spooky as I've ever fished for. There were stacks of them, but no matter what we tried for the first two or three hours, you couldn't help but send them scurrying. Perhaps the sheer head of them was part of the problem: you'd see one spook and literally stir up a dozen of its mates up in the process.

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I then finally got the chance to get even with a little tip-off from local guide George McGrath, who can be seen above with Aidan, studying a bridge pool and issuing some advice. Very much an authority on fly fishing in this neck of the woods (+00353 085 1519770), George is one of those old school heads who will tell you in no uncertain terms which flies work and what you should or shouldn't be doing. And he certainly proved the worth of local knowledge by lending us a few flies, including a tungsten beaded nymph that I used to hook, but sadly lose a lovely wild fish of perhaps two pounds. Blast! It was only later in the evening that fish could be picked off more easily and we had some measure of revenge:
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The days proved tough in general, where distinctly un-Irish weather proved baking hot and not ideal at all for trout. Not all bad, because this did make for fine weather to get out and see the local countryside and culture, probably also preventing my girlfriend from going mad. The "Rock of Cashel" was one highlight, as were the Guiness, sea food and home made soda bread we dug into:
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It was to be a trip of tricky fishing during daylight hours in general, albeit punctuated by short flurries of activity late and even into darkness. I don't have the space here to go into the whole shooting match (and naturally, I'm always keen to save some of the really juicy plot for my next magazine articles), but it did make me wonder why night fishing isn't more popular at home for trout. The main reasons are simple: while the darkness conceals line and angler, its also true that all the little creatures come out to play, feeling safer, while the trout follow suit, including the bigger ones.
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There were many lessons then, but one of the biggest was to pack more caddis type patterns in future, and especially the smaller sort, like the Balloon Caddis (above right) in a size 16 from George. I think we still sometimes have the impression that when travelling the fishing is likely to be easier and we can take liberties with flies. Wrong on both counts! If I picked up one key message other than staying late, it was the value of having smaller flies in a few key patterns. Whatever your level of experience, the locals will almost always know better than you what works and having six key flies is better than boxes of the wrong versions.
And we did indeed save the best for last with a final crack into darkness. The transformation in results was staggering in fact, just by persevering into that dingy period when most anglers pack up and go home. Sport went from the odd missed take to carnage in the shallow flows where fish were suddenly queuing up for the hatch and I finished feeling pleased to have finally hit the river at "rush hour". None were vast, but the power of a foot long Irish river trout in a good push of water is still a rod-kicking thrill:
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As always, the only trouble in Ireland is that you will eventually have to leave. There is simply so much to explore here though. Too much for five days, although we did also head west for a crack at some rudd. I had a the odd small one and even a hybrid on the fly, but the giants that these rich waters can produce were sadly lacking. Even so, the venue was absolutely stunning and I found a real kindred spirit in Aidan:
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It's hard in fact to reduce the experience to a few lines of blog, when we did so much in the week- including a quick blast in Dublin's brilliantly musical and drunken Temple Bar area. I also did something else I've avoided for a long while, and that's to take a fish for the frying pan. Very different out here, I guess, where the rivers are quiet and fish plentiful. We treated the best of my brown trout to butter, salt and pepper. I'm not about to make it a habit over here, but washed down with a drop of ale it was a real treat.