Wednesday 24 February 2016

Fly Fishing at Simpson Valley, North Devon

If there is one glaring contrast between coarse and game fishing in the UK, it is that of catch and release practise. On stocked stillwaters, certainly, the coarse side is never “catch and kill” (unless you’re breaking the law) while the fly side is almost always exactly this; catch your bag and sling your hook, so to speak.

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Which is why Simpson Valley Fishery makes a refreshing change. There are very few catch and release fly fisheries in Devon, full stop. Owners fear that their fish will either grow wary or they will lose stock anyway, due to the fragility of rainbow trout and (so, shoot me), the not very brilliant catch and release skills of many game anglers. Perhaps this is connected to the lack of catch and release fisheries?!!

But here, at least, in a quiet corner of North Devon, the game changes a little. You don’t have that risk of your day being over in under an hour, effectively, should the fish be too bold and easy to catch. Nor do you end up with four trout in the freezer when you only really needed one (even my trout in mustard sauce loses its charm after a couple of nights). Equally refreshing, as some readers might note with interest, you are free to lure fish here provided you use single barbless hooks.

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A £20 day ticket is decent value for quality rainbow trout fishing, but fisheries such as this, and their stocks, need respect if the owners are to continue offering such tickets. Sensible rules include barbless hooks only and these tickets only running through the colder months, since rainbows suffer much higher mortalities in warm water. Nor should you take the piss, and I can think of little more pointless than catching silly numbers of trout by pulling streamers through the water. No, this is the type of fishery to try a subtle approach and enjoy testing different presentations with smaller flies.

Much as I enjoy getting features and pictures done, I like to keep a good number of sessions for pure pleasure these days. Excessive target setting and deadlines can be the enemy of fun. So I took my dad, a self-confessed fair weather fisher, for a semi-lazy day out.

At first, the trout were a little slow to respond on Mallard Lake. I tried a long leader with a Superglue Buzzer on point, but it was a Diawl Bach on the dropper that got the first take. A pretty fish of about a pound and a half, I barely handled it at all, keeping it wet using the landing net head in the margin. There really isn’t any need to yank these fish out and have them flap on the bank and get stressed.

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But with the lake flat calm for the next hour or so, sport was slow and it didn’t take me long to dig a pike fly setup out of the car. Mallard is unusual in containing pike. Most fly fishery owners wouldn’t dream of stocking any. You don’t suspect there are many big pike in the lake; you tend to see little jacks that probably stay small, because they cannot handle the rainbows and without any coarse fish beyond the occasional perch they probably struggle to kick on. Even so, it’s worth a go for them here in your trout session, because there are almost certainly one or two good fish.

I did a lap of the whole lake in around an hour, running a large pike fly into every likely area. In fairness I did see one, and it was a good twenty…. centimetres. By which time, the breeze was picking up and I felt reasonably confident the trout would respond better.

Such is the way with buzzer fishing. If it’s flat calm, you have to manipulate the flies more. Nothing like as good as casting into a nice ripple and simply letting the flies drift with very little retrieve to speak of. Do nothing is often the best policy- just wait for the pull.

The bites were not always positive on a cool afternoon. With the next bite, the only signal was my leader “sinking” a bit too quickly. This in itself was an indication that the fish were a little higher in the water than I’d expected. In fact, you can tell a lot by the time it takes to get a bite, especially when you’re barely retrieving the flies. If it’s a good minute or more after casting out, you can be fairly sure that the fish are several feet down. Savvy anglers will then switch to heavier or lighter flies in order to spend more time in the “take zone.”
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Pretty soon, the fair weather king also struck. And although we pretend not to keep score on these trips, he hit a run of trout to come from 2-0 down to 3-2 in the lead.

If anything, the action seemed better on the smaller Skylark lake, where the wind was concentrating the fish in one corner. I was getting bites on a Black Superglue Buzzer, but it still wasn’t plain sailing, with many bites quite tentative. Eventually, a switch to a smaller fly worked best- in this case a size 14 Satanic Buzzer, which has to be one of the greatest trout flies never to be commercially produced! Basically it’s a buzzer with two little red flexi-floss horns.

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Could we have cleaned up on lure style flies? I don’t really care, because I love fishing the buzzer, using the elements for a natural presentation and picking out those subtler takes. We finished with a dozen trout between us, every one of them unhooked in the landing net with minimal handling.

A very pleasant and increasingly rare day off I’d say, with twelve trout between us a nice result for a crisp, cold day without a great deal of breeze or insect life! This is a cracking winter fishery and the C&R tickets run through till 1st of April if you’re keen to try. It’s also a spot I’ve used successfully on several occasions for guided fly fishing trips in Devon; do drop me a line if you fancy learning to fly fish, or refining your casting and fishing skills (more details on all my fishing tuition and guided angling here).

Last but not least, do take a look at the current Turrall Flies Blog for more fishing tips and some superb fly patterns. Chris Ogborne recently gave us a cracking little blog post on gearing up for saltwater sport, while the next entry will be focused on catch and release tips that both coarse and fly anglers can learn from. It still surprises me how few words are written on this important subject each season, while we cover tactics, baits and venues to death! To my mind, it’s something even experienced anglers can improve at and learn more about their quarry- myself included. Check out all the blog posts HERE.

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Wednesday 17 February 2016

BFFI 2016

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Fishing has often been described as a solitary sport. An inward looking one, even. Which is why the big fishing events such as the British Fly Fair International are so refreshing in turning this idea on its head. Having attended for six years or so on the trot, I can only describe it as a family affair. And in simple terms, the greatest gathering of anglers, fly tyers, guides and specialist fly fishing shops and organisations in the UK. And the lovely thing about attending each year is that you get to know so many ruddy brilliant and creative people.

So where do I start? As good a place as any would be the "Fly Tyers' Row". The men and women you meet here are the heartbeat of the event, and the reason it's almost impossible not to leave the show with new ideas buzzing around your brain. And at the BFFI you get everything from classic salmon flies to saltwater specials. Branches once on the edge of the sport also start to become the mainstream, which is great to see. To take just one example, the quality of pike and predator flies gets better each year, as evidenced by Martin Smith:

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As for the smallest flies in the show, that prize has to go to Roger Salomonsson. These cased midges were truly minute flies, tied right down to size 26 and smaller! To some it might seem an unnecessary obsession, but those who have ever struggled with fussy trout eating tiny insects will know the value of having some real tiddlers in your collection. Lovely work:

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It was also great to meet up with the Turrall team and watch Gary Pearson at the vice. He has a really keen eye for a stillwater pattern, with beautifully refined nymphs and lures. There'll be more on the way on the Turrall Flies blog too; the latest entry features saltwater fly fishing tips, but Gary's top flies will also feature very soon to set you in good stead for the new stillwater trout season:

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It was a nice problem to have, but the show was so busy I couldn't often leave my stand. Which is probably just as well because I could spend a fortune on the latest materials, tackle and fly tying gubbins. I travel up with John Horsfall, who tries to spend money, while I try to keep it. Which can be harder than you thought, with all the treasures on display.

David Miller's work always catches my eye. I've been a fan for years, and was thrilled to have his artwork feature on the cover of Tangles With Pike. Others of you might have seen his brilliant set of British stamps, picturing threatened and sustainable sea fish. For more David Miller fish art, do take a look at his official site HERE.

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As for the materials and suppliers, I just couldn't get to all of it. But you can literally find almost anything at the fair. Fly tying, just like fishing as a whole, is becoming less sniffy and more open. I was especially heartened to chat to plenty of anglers who now target coarse fish, not to mention a healthy number of younger anglers and ladies at the show, to give the old boys a run for their money! Because the truth of it is that there is space for every style and every one of us, from young to old, traditional feathers to space age materials. This is not an off-the-peg sport with fixed rules, which is exactly why it attracts folks with character and creativity in spades; you can tie and fish exactly as you like and little is now out of bounds. The only certainty is that there will be even more surprises next year.

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Wednesday 3 February 2016

Reservoir and Gravel Pit Pike Fishing

While I can always wax lyrical about catching pike on the small waters near my home, I've also been lured by the bigger waters lately. Longer journeys mean bigger risks but also bigger rewards. The very nature of writing means that I have to be nomadic and cover as many stories and experiences as possible. But hit and hope doesn't always pay off. You need a bit of local knowledge, or at least some luck.

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Or you need a local nutter, like Polish angler Seb Nowosiad. We were once thick as thieves fishing on the gravel pits. We fished many of these waters and the trips would take up whole weekends. It was survival at times, besides hunting down pike. We camped out, fished and sometimes damned nearly froze together.

My article in the current Fallon's Angler brought it all back. His wild enthusiasm for pike fishing. His daft superstitions. Seb thinks shaving is terrible luck on the day you fish. He also thinks bananas will lead to disaster if you are fishing on any kind of boat.

Our original aim was to go pike fishing on Llangorse Lake, but trying to get any information, let alone a boat for the day was like trying to contact the dead. So instead we headed north to Farmoor Reservoirs, an imposing concrete bowl of immense size where the likes of Paul Garner and Andy Black slay big pike for fun, while the rest of us slowly freeze and stare.

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With the sun on your face it was nice just to be out searching the lake though. The structure looked good, I have to say. Classic features here for big perch and trout, and perhaps I should have brought the fly rod. But instead we were hurling big, bold jerk baits and soft lures for the pike. We fished aggressively and covered a lot of water, but the only brief excitement came from the trout. This one hit a lure of 4.5 inches and for all of five seconds fooled us that it was a pike.

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With the gales heavy by three o'clock, however, we thought it would be best to find a more sheltered spot for the next day, and so it was off to try pike fishing on the gravel pits. We had to stop on route just to stock up on supplies, get all the usual bloke stuff- beer, bacon, backy. And because Seb had forgotten to bring any kind of sleeping bag.
"Nah mate, I'll be okay," he says. I virtually have to insist on him buying a blanket. He is a tough but silly bastard sometimes.

Our spot on the pit is only reached in cover of darkness, thanks to the traffic. But it's here the adventure starts. Putting up a bivvy under the headtorch. Feeling the first bite of the wind as you bundle your gear in for the night. I'm convinced our best chance of action will be first light, but once we're set up we also put a rod out each.

I have mixed feelings about night fishing for pike. You do have to be attentive and quick off the mark. You have to stay close to your rods. Big baits also help at night, because even a large pike won't swallow them instantly. So it was a whole sardine for me, and a half lamprey for Seb. And for us, a pan of curry and some IPA.

Seb Nowosiad is hilarious. He's the sort of bloke who will open a can of beans with a machete, start singing or even drop a conspiracy theory on you, after he's had a third shot of Jagermesiter.

Even though this was our first long trip in quite a while, the camp was fairly well organised. Just as well, because the wind lashed out all night, while not very much happened. At one point we had to hold down the corners to stop the bivvy being levered up from the ground by the wind. Rough stuff, but we laughed at the madness of it and at perhaps two or three in the morning things finally calmed.

It was a little after first light that my first run arrived. The bait had been positioned on the near shoulder of a bay on the pit. It had been half an hour or so after I'd just recast a fresh bait, chopping up and ground baiting with the old one. The clip fell and the line pinged free. It kicked steady but only really felt big as it came towards the net. I'm always eager to hook them cleanly and net them quickly. But you can rush them too, especially when it looks like the biggest pike you've seen in some time.

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Just a shade over seventeen pounds and beautifully proportioned. And then, for pretty much the whole morning, it was Seb's turn. The next two were good doubles- and at one point I had to help with one fish while the other rod also went off! We had brought plenty of bait too, and built up the area by repeatedly throwing in old baits and chopped pieces. It's also good practise to keep recasting baits. With a lot of weed present, it also seemed sensible to pop the baits up.

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We had also tried lures at intervals and hopping swims, but in the end it was the same area that kept producing. It's not my preferred fishing style, but by sticking to one area you will certainly intercept moving fish at intervals. You'll pick up different pike at different times of the day too, as they become active and roam the pit.

It was Seb who predicted the best fish would come later, in the afternoon, and he was correct when I got a really brutal run. It almost seemed that the fish had hooked itself, such was that first rush. It seemed to take a tense age to get within range. I then saw the length of it and things became serious. Big fish!

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A lovely pike, it was exceptionally long and went 22lbs 2oz. She was well behaved for a quick snap too. I do like to get into with wellies or waders these days, and hold the fish over the water for that final shot or two. You won't harm your catch at all, even if you were to drop it, and the water itself makes a nice light background.

It must have taken me a good couple of days just to properly thaw out and feel normal. I quite often sleep little- or sleep irregularly- on overnight fishing trips. But the fire is burning again, and I'll be back out soon.

Don't forget, if you enjoy my blog do look out for my angling books. Tangles with Pike has further pike fishing articles and adventures, and you can also buy it together with Crooked Lines for just £20 right now.

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