It has to be one of the timeless ironies of fishing. While fine weather sees hordes of is descend on the bank for skimpy returns, horrid of weather so often brings more rewarding better fishing.
Granted, so it’s no fun feeling like a human teabag. Nor are your casts going to look very elegant in fierce winds. But such horrid conditions with cooler temperatures and ruffled waters so often bring fish onto the feed- and that is never truer than with the predatory species.
Trout are no exception of course; and that includes stocked besides wild. Which is why, at five or so in the morning as I awoke to a chorus of howling wind I had both a sense of keen anticipation yet mild dread at our planned day out at Blakewell Fishery, which offers some great fly fishing near Barnstaple in North Devon.
Some of you might have seen my recent blog for Fishtec about the great value in day ticket fisheries at this time of the year- and I stand by every word. If we don’t use them, we lose them- and they need your custom more than ever in mid winter.
The best or worst conditions for trout fly fishing?
Meeting up with fellow angling scribe Wayne Thomas (who runs http://www.northdevonanglingnews.co.uk) and fanatical fly angling guide Jeff Pearce. Even more impressively, given conditions dirtier than the Brexit debate, fair weather angler John Garnett joined us. Spoiling for a fish after a few months lay off he was clearly not deterred by rain and gales. And I had the old man down as a fair weather fisher too!
The most civilised of starts was had at Blakewell’s café, which is a welcome place of shelter on the worst of winter days. I’m always partial to proper butcher’s bangers, black pudding and the rest- but when it’s rough outside, these things are even more comforting and, yes, an angler needs a bit of insulation at times.
Discussing flies, we all had our own ideas about what might work. For me, the best flies for flood conditions and possible poor clarity are meaty streamers. Better still, I like those with rubber legs such as the Crazy Legs, Vibrator Daddies and Rubber Legged Woolly Buggers from Turrall. Yes, the very names sound like filth- but they do a great job of showing up in less than appetising conditions.
Steeling ourselves for a blustery day, though, the water was not as stained as I’d feared- and Jeff was setting up buzzers, in contrast to my leggy monstrosities. A break in the rain was all the cue we needed to get out there.
Following the breeze
Starting off on the “finger” of bank that protrudes out into the middle of the lake, we were soon casting out. To my surprise, I had a nice pluck on the very first cast and a wriggly fish on the end. Surely not a trout?
Nope, it was a greedy little perch that had seized my conehead woolly bugger- they do like a bit of wiggle and those rubber legs had been too much. The same happened the very next cast, and again soon afterwards. Not quite the plan, but very welcome nonetheless! It seems whatever I target at the moment, on whichever method, I catch perch irrespective. They must love me, because I feel like a kind of perch Pied Piper this winter so far.
With bigger hits not forthcoming though, we decided to move to where Jeff was setting up. It’s usually a good plan to follow the wind- which will blow food and warmer water into one side of the lake. Indeed, the best spot on the lake for fishing is often something very different to the best spot for casting! In this case, we also knew that Jeff was very much the one with the local experience and wouldn’t be positioned there on a pure whim!
Pretty soon, the takes were coming. Both Jeff and Wayne were into early fish, using smallish buzzers and a cormorant type mini lure respectively. These battles take on an extra drama on a choppy, wet day and the fish leapt and surged for all they were worth.
Nymphs or lures for trout?
I’m definitely a fan of imitative fishing, but decided to stick with the more visceral fun of twitching back lures to start with. I find it savagely good fun and it needn’t be a case of just haul-the-damned-thing-back-fast-as-sin. One retrieve I swear by is a twitchy figure of eight, with the odd pause or extra spurt of pace thrown in.
It amuses me, anyway, and our breakfast conversation had been all about flies and confidence. Wayne’s theory is that if you believe in the fly, you fish it more effectively and determinedly. I completely agree- and with these lairy, kicking streamers that’s especially true. You can’t be half arsed, you have to commit if the trout are to do the same.
Soon enough, I got a couple of little pulls and misses, before that gratifying lock up. All the early fish were a couple of pounds or so, but lively to put it mildly. Tantalisingly, Wayne also spied a much better brownie that was moving around but less inclined to lash out.
As far as the conditions and the fishing went for the rest of the day, both were unpredictable. At one point there was clear sky; the next, a rainbow. One hour later, stinging hail. The fish weren’t always easy, but the level of challenge was refreshingly well balanced, we felt.
Casting into a stiff breeze isn’t always fun, but I find some little dodges always help. One is to up your tackle a bit. I fancied a five weight, for instance, but in that weather was glad I went for a seven instead. You can also get more purchase into the wind by dropping your rod a little, so it’s almost between a side and overhead cast, and making lower, faster strokes to cut through the wind.
Better still, don’t be a skinflint like me and change your fly line when it gets damaged. Mine should have been changed two sessions ago- and started cracking up a treat. Being quite literally dragged through the mud can’t have helped. The bit that really served me right was when I got a thumb not around one of the cracks and –predictably- just as I tried to unpick it, a trout pulled back, catching me off guard.
But I digress. The takes were not every cast, but with a bit of figuring out we got into more fish. The man who really had it sussed best was Jeff, though, gently inching his buzzers through a clear corridor in the middle of the fishery’s windward bay. Every so often, the line would zing tight and the water would erupt; testament not only to his knack, but the trout’s ability to pick out even a size 14 buzzer in water of less than crystal clarity.
By mid afternoon, we’d had a ball it’s fair to say, with perhaps a dozen fish between us. I found the fish get harder the longer we fished- and went down to mini lures to keep the pulls coming. John Garnett’s luck wasn’t in though, so I lent him a similar pattern.
The timing and appetites of fish can be weird and uncanny, but you suspect it is rarely random. What makes trout decide to suddenly feed? After a slower spell, there was a manic little window, when in the space of thirty seconds, Wayne hooked up, followed by me, followed by John. Go figure…
Just as well, really, because I would have been reluctant to pack up until we’d all put something in the net. Mission accomplished! Well, almost. It took an age to get back to Exeter, with slushy hail on the roads and tailbacks for miles. But in spite of the unsavoury stuff, we’d had a great day of sport that never felt too easy or too hard, but just right. A testament to the fishery and sensible stock levels, you’d have to say. We really are blessed to have such consistent fishing year round these days- and personally, much as I love river fishing, these places are a godsend and really come into their own through the winter. For full details of the fishery, visit www.blakewell.co.uk
Further festive angling reads…
Finally, for anyone looking for further reading in the dark of midwinter, I’ve been busily writing away for several sources. My Angling Trust “Lines on the Water” blog continues to explore some interesting avenues and uplifting stories from around the country. Most recently, I’ve been looking behind the scenes at the highs and lows of running a fishery, at Stenghill Lake in Devon. A retrospective with my favourite photographs and stories from the year will come soon. Catch it here: linesonthewater.anglingtrust.net
I should also point out that the Angling Trust Christmas special issue is out now, too, complete with a beautiful looking David Miller perch poster and some great features- including a look at Jeremy Wade’s new “Mighty Rivers” show, while I look back at some of the best and worst fishing Christmas gifts of all time! Or, for fans of the longer read, you can also catch Fallon’s Angler number 14, just out, which includes reflections from Chris Yates on the passing of Rod Hutchinson, along with the latest from your other favourites. Oh, and The General meeting the Headhunters of Borneo. Yes, really.
Should you be looking for a stocking filler or gift, don’t forget to have a quick peruse of my shop either. I have various fly sets on offer, from perch patterns to specially picked sets for river and stillwater fly fishing respectively- not to mention the usual books and other offerings – including just one remaining collector’s edition of Crooked Lines in salmon leather. See https://dgfishing.co.uk/shop/
Have a great Christmas and see if you can sneak out for a cast 😉