One afternoon, on the Mataura river, I spent a half hour or so carefully stalking a rock. Seen through the drifting film of water, it had disguised itself cleverly as a trout and its dark streamlined form faced expectantly into the current. Its broad back suggested it was a good one too. I figured it would go two and half pounds certainly, maybe even three. This is a good trout in any river and quite exceptional in many. In retrospect, it is good that I didn’t know its true weight. Had I then known that it was at least twice my estimate I would have been reduced to a quivering bundle of nerves and my casting technique, shaky enough at the best of times, would have completely fallen apart.

The first fly I cast, a size 16 Adams, drifted over it but was refused. The sleek dark form did not even adjust its position on the streambed as fly drifted though its window into the sky. For a fleeting moment I was afraid I might have spooked that rock, but it held its position in the current. I felt my heart beating under my vest. Maybe my cast was not accurate enough? I cast again and tried to leave plenty of slack so that the drift was true. Another refusal! I fought the temptation to wade a couple of feet upstream to get a better look. I had approached slowly from downstream keeping low and remaining in its blind spot. The last thing I wanted to do was blow my chances by creeping too close and spooking the damned thing.

I took a long look at the contents of my fly box. I had always had faith in the adams and before changing pattern I reached for another, this time a size 18. Nothing! I tried a dad’s favourite size 18, again, no luck. Then on went a CDC emerger, a spent spinner, a gold ribbed hare’s ear, a pheasant tail nymph. Refused, refused, refused, refused – every single one!

Eventually I conceded that I would have to accept defeat. Maybe it was sleeping or would not be shaken from its lethargy until a good hatch was underway. I decided to continue upstream looking for less demanding quarry and, no longer constrained by the need to avoid detection, I approached more closely to take a closer look.

It was only then I understood my error. I was really mad with myself for not thinking things through. How could I have expected a heavy object, wedged among the polished stones of the riverbed to glide up and take a dry, or even a drifting nymph? What was I thinking? I realised far too late that my only chance of hooking it would have been using a heavily weighted nymph fished tight along the bottom – a big stonefly nymph maybe.

It has often surprised me how the capture of inanimate objects has been a used as an almost standard convention for ridiculing anglers by those unacquainted with the mysteries and pleasures of fishing. In the eyes of these cynics, a fisherman is simply some dork who attaches himself, comically, to a leather boot, or a bicycle wheel or an abandoned shopping trolley on the bank of some soulless canal. But it is true that such captures do occasionally arise and we should therefore be philosophical about them. I myself would go further and say that that we should celebrate these unanticipated events. Over the years, such objects have provided me with consistent results during times when the fishing has otherwise been disappointing. Blank days are almost unheard of and I have begun to take some pride in the wide range objects I have succeeded in hooking. Others may be slow to take credit for such accomplishments, but not me. I am happy to say that, with these things taken into account, I catch more than any other fisherman I know.

As fly fishermen we are particularly fortunate because back casting is usually a prerequisite to delivering a meaningful forward cast and we therefore have all kinds of extra opportunities to hook up with things. You don’t need me to tell you that trees offer themselves for this particular service. They more or less volunteer. Evolution has crafted them perfectly for this role with waving branches, twigs and fluttering leaves. I don’t like to blow my own trumpet but there are over 200 species of trees in the British Isles and I figure I’ve hooked most of them. The only place I have scored poorly on trees is while boat fishing the windswept loughs of the west coast of Ireland. Thankfully, in such places I have scored well on rowlocks, anchor ropes, tweed hats and the exposed body parts of my fishing companions.

Until recently I enjoyed outstanding sport with a particular landing net. I lost count of the number of successful hook ups I enjoyed during a long and successful partnership. Unfortunately I lost it in the long grass one evening and, with the fading light, did not notice that it had not made it into the boot of the car. Since then my returns have been far more modest. Gone are the days when I could offer my preferred response to friends or strangers who enquire about the success of my fishing trip when I tie the boat up or wander into the pub. Until I provision myself at the tackle shop with a replacement, I can no longer reply with insouciance “How did I get on? Well, put it this way. I have lost count of the number of times I had to reach for my landing net!”


Published by Fly Fishing and Fly Tying Monthly, April 2015 

Just the ticket