Bare Midriff Ant Pattern

January 12, 2022

Some nineteen years ago I was privileged to participate in the 23rd World Fly Fishing Championships in Jaca in Spain, as part of the South African five-man fishing team. The fishing was tough and not least because, as a result of heavy winter snows and then very warm summer weather, each day many of the rivers would flood as the snow melted and turned the streams from crystal clear waterways to muddy and unfishable flows within minutes.

Jaca is an old city with buildings dated back to the 11th Century

This is a spectacularly pretty part of the world; if one has notions of Spain based only on the Costa Del Sol and its overabundance of British tourists, fish and chips and Watney’s Red Barrel then the surprise at the glorious tranquility and wonderful scenery is near overwhelming.

Jaca, the host city for the competition lies in North Eastern Spain in the Huesca region, right at the base of the Pyrenees. It sports a number of medieval walls and buttresses surrounding the 11th century cathedral as well as, as I recall, both a girl’s school and a military base; one has to wonder if this represents as much a headache for the officers as it might for the parents.

Recollections of the place include glorious mountainscapes, wonderful hospitality and crystal-clear streams, running at base of deep mountain gorges.

The Spanish Pyrenees are spectacular

As is frequently the case with such events the fishing venues were often quite far apart and as a result of the terrain not always being that accessible, competitors faced long hours on buses being transported, dropped off and again picked up along the sectors they were due to fish.

In short, such competitions require a good deal of transportation and a lot of dead time sitting on coaches, either planning one’s strategy or reflecting on mistakes made. Such times however provide the ideal opportunity to discuss things with other anglers and most of us take that chance to meet up, befriend and share ideas with fellow competitors. Actually, despite the competition, those championships I have been fortunate enough to attend are really rather like going to “Fly Fishing University”. There is a plethora of knowledge and, for the most part, it is shared freely, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that anyone was giving away secrets related to the fishing during the event, but fly anglers are generally a friendly and helpful lot, they are happy to discuss almost anything else, fly fishing related.

So, it was on one of these winding coach trips over serpentine mountain roads that I found myself in conversation with a Scandinavian competitor about some streamer flies he had shown me. They were unusual in that the fly was tied in two separate parts, the tail and then the wing, with bare hook shank between the two segments. 

Generally speaking, and certainly at that point to my knowledge, most flies are simply tied in one go. It would be normal to take the thread to the bend of the hook, tie in the tail, body, ribbing and finish off with a wing and a whip finish. These flies were different, the tail had been tied down and then operations curtailed before reattaching the thread near the eye of the hook and adding in the wing. What purpose the bare shank in the middle? Turns out that the theory, and to me a pretty sound one I would imagine, is that these flies were designed for toothy fish such as pike or perhaps Zander and the lack of dressing mid-hook make it harder for the fish to bite down on the dressing and prevent the fly moving during the strike. Essentially then, designed to allow the hook to slip between the teeth of even a heavily clamped jaw and allow for the fish to be hooked.
I can’t actually say if it works, but it at least makes sense and I am a sucker for a good theory, so long as it ticks the boxes of logical thought.

I don’t have the opportunity to fish for any such toothy critters so I have never been able to genuinely put the theory to the test.

Now it so happens that I have, of late, been tying quite a lot of flies and even more so quite a lot of ant patterns. The primary reasons are that we have a planned trip to Lesotho at the end of the month and ants are one of my primary “go to” flies up there on the Bokong River. The resident yellowfish are particularly susceptible to terrestrials, hoppers and ants mostly. The second reason is that we have had a lot of late rains here in the Cape, and to be honest that hasn’t done the fishing any favours. It has been a poor and slow start to the season, with the fish behaving more as they might in spring than in summer. The rains do however offer at least the possibility of a flying ant fall, which if it happens can provide a red-letter day on the water, so long as you have an ant pattern to throw. (if you don’t you might as well go home and drink some beer).

It is an unfortunate happenstance for the ants, although a potential bonus for the angler,  that many of insects end up in the water, trapped, helpless and at the mercy of the fish.

I tend to carry a number of different ant patterns on the Bokong. The yellowfish love terrestrials and ants in various forms are a must have.

Ants hatch and then fly out to meet a mate and set up a new colony and they tend to do this after rain, because the wet earth is softer and easier for them to dig out their nuptial burrow, which, if they are successful will become an entire new colony in time.

Of course, that might not happen on any day I am on the river, but it pays to be ready and with that I have increased my stock of minute flying ant patterns just in case.

I have a particular soft spot for ant patterns, mostly because so do the fish, both trout and yellowfish tend to become fixated on ants if they are available and it definitely pays to be ready, as said, if you can’t copy them, you are in for a very hard time of it, if you can, you are very likely to experience an exceptional day.

One of the interesting things about imitating ants seems to be that the fish key into the segmentation of the body, all ant pattern designs at least attempt to mimic or better still, exaggerate the segmentation. Little black mayfly patterns simply don’t work if the fish are tuned into ants, a near identical pattern with a distinct waist will do the business nine times out of ten. So segmentation is, to me at least, a crucial factor in a good ant pattern.

The most obvious features of most ants are the segmentation and the very thin waists of these insects.

I have already experimented with a number of effective copies of ants, the Compara-ant, from my book Guide Flies, is a case in point. To better emphasize that segmentation and waist there is no hackle, no post, no anything that may detract from the obvious ant shape. (it is a failing, in my opinion, that many commercial ant patterns don’t do a good job of imitation, tending to be overdressed and not obviously segmented.

In my opinion, many commercial ant patterns fail dismally to exploit the obvious narrow waist of the natural.

This recent fly tying session had me tying parachute ants, size 18 parachute ants to be precise and it is pretty hard to get a distinct segmentation with a small hook and a parachute pattern. But then my mind wandered to those streamers I was shown in Spain, all those years back, and it dawned on me that should I skip any thread or dressing on the middle of the hook I might more easily exaggerate the required waist on the fly. There is after all no real requirement to dress the middle of the hook, real ants have tiny almost invisible waists and by tying the gaster and thorax as two separate operations I was able to achieve what I think to be a far better pattern.

Sparse hackle and bare midriff accentuate the segmentation of the natural

It seems odd really that it should take close to twenty years for one innovative idea to spawn another, in fact I doubt that I could be the first person to think of this or even to attempt it, but I am pleased with the results. Now if the fish decide, for once, to play ball, and if the ants, sitting in the warm dark of their mounds have been keeping an eye on the weather and figure that the next couple of days might be a good time to kick the teenagers out then we might just be in for some great fishing.

It is still after all the holidays and I am overdue for a good session. What I am pretty sure of though, is that if that all comes together I will have some great patterns to try out and I am more than confident that they will work, possibly better than other previous designs.

Some conventional ties and some with bare midriff’s, the segmentation of the latter is more obvious in my opinion

Coitus Interuptus

January 9, 2022

Almost a year ago we had planned to revisit the spectacular fishery of the Bokong River in Lesotho. Even in normal times this is something of a crap shoot, the water can be too high or too low, the fish may move in or move out and probably like many destination fishing adventures the entire enterprise tends to be fraught with risk of failure.

Most anglers simply accept that risk, it is part of the game. Your flight into Alaska might be grounded by bad weather, your trip to the Seychelles may accidentally coincide with Hurricane Hilda or your exhaustively planned trip into the Rio Negro could be interrupted by civil unrest. Let’s face it travel is a gamble, fishing trips probably doubly so. But we tried. We tried because this venue, when you hit it right can provide you with the fishing of a lifetime.

So, our fervent attempts last year, in this era of Covid lockdowns, governmental intervention and panic, nonsensical regulation and more resulted in what? Nothing; no trip, no flights, no entry into the country and more to the point no refund of our expenses. It was a disaster not simply financially but emotionally too.

The scenery is almost as good as the fishing

One sees the images on line of fly-fishing destinations, almost all of them far too far outside of my budget. Fly fishing on line has become the theatre of the wealthy; exotic locations and even more exotic fish. Sure, I wouldn’t sneeze at giant trevally or schools of bonefish on a tropical flat, I don’t begrudge those who can wet a line on “Jurassic Lake” or chase “Golden Dorado” in the jungles of South America, but those things are not within the realm of my existence. Lesotho, and its spectacular fishery for yellowfish is (just) within the scope of my financial limitations and it isn’t any the less special for that.

To be honest, the main reason I can afford to go (giving up some creature comforts in the course or the year to do so) is that Yellowfish are yet to hit the headlines. Thankfully, a remarkably ignorant public with eyes on the media, have yet to cotton on to just how magnificent these fish are or how spectacular the fishing on the Bokong can be. It probably won’t last; this blog may even lead to the downfall. This place is special, and for those of us who have chased it, there is something of a love/hate relationship. When she rewards you, you are on cloud nine, but the system is an unforgiving mistress

Yellowfish are almost unknown to most fly anglers but they are a spectacular quarry, solid muscle and they like flies.

She can give you a glimpse of her stockinged thigh and leaves you for dead when you attend the party, she can tempt you, offer up just enough that you become enthralled, leave the sweet scent of that first kiss on your lips, only to draw back again. The waters may run gin clear on arrival only to flood in rampaging spate just as soon as you unpack your bags or alternatively there is just not enough rain to bring the fish into the system

Yes, it is madness, it is addiction, it is the gambler’s chant that “this time I will win”, it is the addict’s mantra “one more time”, it is the ingrained hope of every lover, every wallflower at the town dance that somehow, this time the God’s will favour us, and I can’t argue with that. Because when she rewards you, when the river runs clear and the fish move in, when large yellowfish in their hundreds pick and choose over your dry fly, when your reel screams and you are well into backing, all those slights, all those inconveniences and sacrifices burn away like morning mist on a hot day.

Small mouth yellowfish are really carp which have been redesigned by Enzo Ferrari

So, in short, I am planning a return; I thought that my previous trip was the last, then we planned another, interrupted by foolish Covid regulations which had little basis in truth or reality. Equally I had planned to be off this continent by now, but again viruses and regulations push one back and it is easy to feel like Sisyphus eternally pushing his boulder up hill. Governments will do what they do, they need not explain, they don’t have to consider the emotional or indeed financial costs to others, they simply impose and, in that imposition, they have contrived to ensure that I am still here, at the tip of Africa, and my best shot at amazing fishing is to once again, hope against hope, plan a trip to the Bokong.

The emotion is worthy of consideration, there is massive excitement, anticipation and planning but with them equally, the sweated dreams of potential failure. In the past I have been rewarded, perhaps just sufficiently to maintain the addiction. When it is good, it is out of this world, the scenery, the people, the friends and the fishing, but the entire affair spins on a pin head. One thunderhead too many, one last minute governmental mandate and all is lost. In short it is a gamble. I feel like some piscatorial meth head, knowing that I am addicted, knowing that perhaps I should focus my efforts on less ephemeral objectives but unable to tear myself away from the perceived prize. As I said, when it is good, well it is better than you might ever imagine, so hope springs eternal. With all the interruptions and disappointments, perhaps this will be the year?  I have previously been welcomed into that embrace, I have touched that stockinged thigh and I want more, I am prepared to risk all and perhaps humiliate myself in the pursuit of happiness, because make no mistake, if you are a dry fly angler and you catch the Bokong on a good day, happiness is assured.

On a good day, happiness is assured.

The Three Fish Rule

May 9, 2021

Fly fishing is supposed to be a relaxing pursuit, one where your worries are carried away on a light upstream breeze. Where the daily grind recedes from one’s mind as you focus on the pursuit of fish. A quiet amble next to a trout stream, a hike into the Lesotho Highlands with little more than goats for company. Perhaps quietly bobbing in a boat on the gently lapping waters of a lake somewhere. But of course, much of that tranquility can disappear like an early morning mist if there are other anglers close by, if they are catching fish all the worse for you. If you are sharing a boat with one, the proximity is tangible, the temptation to be swayed almost irresistible. In competition angling all the more so. Whether you think you are competitive or not the truth is that the capture of a fish by someone else whilst your net remains dry can be a deflating experience which can put you off your game.

If you are sharing a boat, either with a buddy or for that matter a competitor from a different outfit, the pressure is easily on. Someone has to catch the first fish and if it is you, you are going to feel pretty darned chuffed, you might even be tempted to start the fishing equivalent of sledging banter with your down at heart proximal fishing mate. If however you are still fishless and it is your “partner” with the bent rod then you are likely to be the one a tad miffed, in a competition not only miffed but perhaps panicky too.

What all to often happens, is that one guy catches a fish, or perhaps only gets a take and misses it, but now you are thinking “I must be doing something wrong”… “Perhaps I have the wrong fly, am at the wrong depth etc etc and confidence pours out of you like water from upturned waders.

I have seen it all too often, one angler catches a fish and his compatriot starts to cast more fervently, retrieve faster, his heart beats faster and with that, all his skill, confidence, style, knowledge and more go straight out of the window.

So for many years now I have operated on what I call the “Three Fish Rule” when boat fishing, either competitively or socially for that matter.

The three fish rule is based on the very simple and very logical concepts below.

  • Someone has to catch the first fish
  • One fish doesn’t mean a thing, it could be simple and straightforward luck
  • A second fish can equally be a matter or good fortune, not worth changing anything because you might be the next lucky guy.
  • A third fish means that the other guy is doing something right that you are not!! It isn’t to my mind likely that a three fish lead is a matter of fortune, now there is a theme, a sequence of events suggesting that there is something that you should well consider changing.
When your boat partner hooks up, do you have a plan or do you panic? Image courtesy Steve Cullen Fly Fishing

I have used the same little bit of mental gymnastics to good effect for years. Firstly it obviates panic, if the other guy catches a fish I do absolutely nothing different, I might well change lines or depths or countdowns as part of my basic approach but I won’t start to copy the other angler.

I can remain calm and focused, stick to my guns (which may well turn out to be correct in the long term)

If my “partner” goes two fish ahead, same thing, no changes other than those I would make normally, it is entirely possible to be fortunate twice.. but THREE, if he goes three fish ahead I change, without question without preamble, without hesitation I change. I will firstly change lines to approximate the depth I think he is fishing, I might even make a fly change.

That doesn’t matter if the “score” is 3/0 or13/10, three is the magic number and I stick to it religiously.

What you absolutely don’t want to happen is to be sitting there confident with your approach, fly selection, leader, line, sink rate and countdown and change it all because one guy catches one fish. That is madness, it is as likely that you both end up being wrong as being right.

I have on numerous occasions fished like this, got ahead of my boat partner and then fallen behind, perhaps one fish or two fish, and we are still both catching and the “score” undulates, 6/8..7/8…8/8..8/9..8/10..9/10..10/10..11/10..11/11..11/12..11/13..11/14 CHANGE..

Normally I will first change lines to hopefully get to the right depth, bear in mind that the right depth might change over the course of the day and I am making changes anyway, but if my compatriot goes three fish up I change to whatever line they are using. that is if they tell me. If not, I have to make a guess.

Actually the point of the “Three Fish Rule” isn’t simply to catch more fish, it is to counter the panic and doubts and lack of confidence which so easily overwhelm one when fishing in close proximity with someone else. It works and I am not the only one who uses it. Almost all of my social boat partners use the same method, sometimes my success will “force” them to make a change, sometimes I change to follow them, and quite often neither of us give up on our choices and still do well.

Socially and even competitively (if one can get the cooperation of your boat partner) the “rule” also means that you can both quite confidently fish two different set ups and cover more water whilst trying to find fish. That you both know the way it works means that you actually can work better as a team, in short it isn’t about you winning, it is about you both winning, both doing better than you would on your own. In essence it isn’t a competitive technique for the out and out “win at all costs” angler, it is a method of sensibly approaching a day on the water wherein you improve both your chances of success and that of your partner.

If things go quiet you can go back to your normal changes and experimentation until hopefully one of you cracks the code again. For me at least it simply makes the fishing more relaxing not less so, I have a plan, even if that plan is simply to keep doing what I am doing unless there is good evidence to do otherwise. But jumping in and changing because the other guy got a fish to swallow his fly isn’t a sensible approach.

As they say one swallow doesn’t make a summer.

The Molenaars Beat

May 7, 2021

The Molenaars beats on the Smalblaar River in the Limietberg reserve outside of Cape Town have always been a favoured section for me to fish early and late season. Truth be told the parts of the river are too warm during the summer months for good fishing and any fish caught are likely to die as a result, so I forgo the pleasure for more than half of the fishing season.

The name itself is something of an oddity, this beat has been the Molenaars beat for several decades at least, but confusion reigns because when the Huguenot tunnel was built the engineers and/or the roads department decided to rename the Smalblaar River the “Molenaars River” for no apparently good reason. Head down the N1 for another five kilometers and turn right into the small town of Rawsonville , and then after negotiating the main street  you can cross the selfsame stream proudly announcing that it is the Smalblaar River, with an official plaque on the bridge supports to prove it. How can a river can change its name in less than a few miles?

Mind you none of that was particularly on my mind last week when I had a precious day of solitude to venture out onto the water. The winter chill is just starting up in the mountains and overnight temperatures are cooling the water nicely, whilst a tad of early winter rain has raised the flows to near perfect levels. It of course helps that the polluting fish farming activities higher up the stream have apparently been curtailed and what greeted me in the morning was a crystal-clear river, flowing smoothly under a bright autumnal sky.

The beat is well known for the quality of the fish

The conditions were, after a number of previous weather affected fishing attempts, PERFECT!! A light, almost immeasurable zephyr of a breeze, which turned upstream by mid-morning a touch of warming sunshine and clear blue skies overhead. The trek into the stream was a bit of an issue, I don’t think that it has seen too much foot traffic and the path has become badly overgrown, but then again I have become quite used to clambering down cliffsides never quite knowing if one is standing on solid ground or little more than an illusion of security made up of broken branches and greasy palmiet fronds. I had left the rod in the bag and had the reel tucked in my vest in anticipation of this battle with the foliage and the slippery underfoot conditions and arrived at the water’s edge safe and sound.

My God, the river looked pretty, just enough flow to make it fishable and there in the tail out of the first pool, a fish… I could see the shadow on the river bed but whilst trying to find the actual fish some inadvertent movement must have become apparent and he spooked. It didn’t really matter, the rod was still in its bag and I had yet to tackle up. It was however an indication that the fish were more than a little gun shy, and spooky in the bright conditions.

Before I even started fishing it had warmed sufficiently for me to ditch one layer of clothing and then I headed upstream, as always playing about with the leader set up to insure that I was happy with the presentation.

The first few runs were really practice, checking casting efficiency and aiming at imaginary targets, I had to adjust a little as I repeatedly fell short until I lengthened the leader to well over two rod lengths.

Often the shadow is more obvious than the fish

A few runs without sign of a fish and then on a long section of shallow pocket like water I spotted a trout, languishing in the current, not rising but definitely “on the fin”. A cast with a #20 parachute olive and he swung back and followed downstream before a half hearted take. I am not sure that he ate it, but raising the rod tip didn’t produce a result, despite that my quarry remained on station. The next cast of the same fly saw him swing away as it drifted past and I was sure that the game was up. The next cast and he spooked, somewhat expected, but the sun shone and hope sprang eternal, I had been at this for less than 20 minutes.

The next fish I spotted was in near impossible conditions, thin water and little flow, I feared even the 8X tippet might cast sufficient shadow to spook the fish, but at least he was active subsurface and very occasionally coming up to the top. I threw the same 20ft 8X leader and #20 fly with somewhat limited confidence, he didn’t spook but ignored the fly. I resolved to change tactics.

I added another foot or two of tippet to the dry fly and a diminutive CDC soft hackle with all the physical presence of an anorexic comma. It is late in the season and I haven’t tied many flies, so these were the “dregs” under dressed to a degree of near absurdity. On the very next cast after the change the fish swallowed the soft hackle and so it was to be for the rest of the day.

You don’t need GPS, the old swingbridge still acts as a marker at the bottom of the beat, although it has seen better days and won’t last forever

Time and again I presented the tiny dry and the soft hackle combo to visible fish and each and every time they chose to eat the soft hackle. I would include an image but that it is too small to photograph with the equipment at hand. The pattern is short dressed on a #20 hook, about half the shank is covered with 14/0 black thread and the collar is a whisp of “Bisque” CDC tied in a split thread style. As already stated, these flies were the runts of the litter, left in a corner of the fly box as being really a little too sparse even for me to have faith, but the fish didn’t care. They gobbled these things up like toffees on a sweetshop counter.

The fish down on these lower beats are in tremendous condition, remarkably given that the river down here runs very warm in summer, spectacularly warm if you are a northern hemisphere angler, perhaps topping 27°C at times. But the fish were fat and fit and the best of the day, around 18” you would have been more than happy to pull out of a Stillwater.

It really is a privilege to be able to fish these waters and to experience the beauty of both the surroundings and the fish. It is technical that’s for sure, the trout are twitchy and nothing less than perfect presentation will do. I spooked more than a few with the line in the air, and bear in mind that most of the time the only thing getting remotely close to the fish is the leader. Drag is a no no, shadows are a no no, large flies are a no no, near perfect presentation on a long thin leader was the order of the day and that’s just the way I like things. Even then the flies in the film outperformed those on the top by a factor of over 90% and again I am convinced that freestone trout like the easy pickings when they are available. Even in a hatch situation, which on this day there was not, the fish seem far more at ease chomping down on some apparently hapless drowned bug.

I have fallen in love with my rather ugly but functional “photographic net” makes handling of the fish far easier and less fraught with risk.

As something of an aside I have been experimenting with my “photographic net”, a pool noodle modification of a normal one. When fishing with such small flies unhooking requires that I first seek out my reading magnifiers and then the forceps. All too often I then have to unhook the top dropper from the mesh of the net and other fiddles, all of which represent delay and possible injury to the fish. Now I can leave the trout in a backwater, happily holding station whilst I “sort myself out”. It is a bit ugly I admit, but I am convinced better for me and for the fish. A few times the tippet snapped as a result of the top dropper catching the mesh, but with this set up I could easily remove the fly from the fish before release. With a different set up I think a few of those trout would have swum away with the midge still stuck in their mouths..

The fly fishing literature is filled with patterns that are “emergers” “stillborns”, “drowned duns”, “shuck stuck” and more, but in reality I think that they are simply “damaged” ( I thought of a less polite term and decided against it).

Having run out of #20s I resorted to #18s but still sparse!! Genuinely I took several fish on the fly in this state of “undress”

I have fished regularly with the same or similar soft hackle to tricky fish but I have rarely if ever cast flies so very tiny and so very sparse with this level of success. We are limited, as humans, as to what we can perceive and the notion that a fish will target something so tiny and insignificant really pushes the boundaries. That the darn fish can even see the fly is a miracle, I can’t tell if I have lost it from the end of the tippet without close inspection. The only real clue is if I don’t get a take from the fish the fly is most likely missing.

Fly Casting and “The Barometer Question”

February 24, 2021

The “Barometer Question” is really a test of the correct positioning of a question when used to measure the understanding of the person answering it. It has seen several variations but the central theme is much the same.

In the barometer question, the query is “describe how you may use a barometer to measure the height of a tall building” the expected, some would suggest required, answer is that if you take the difference in barometric pressure between the base and the top of the building you can estimate the height.

But there are of course a number or correct answers which may not necessarily demonstrate any great understanding of physics.

  • You could tie the barometer to a string, lower it from the building and measure the length of the string.
  • You could measure the length of the shadow of the barometer and the building and a simple ratio given the height of the barometer would tell you the height of the building.
  • You could go to the supervisor’s office and offer him a nice new barometer in exchange for him telling you the height of the building.

There are more possible answers: but the essence is that none are actually incorrect, they just don’t demonstrate any real understanding of the physics of the issue. In effect it is a clear illustration that all too often there is more than one answer and at one level it doesn’t matter that it wasn’t the answer you were expecting. It is, for example, quite possible that using the shadow is going to give you a more accurate answer than using barometric pressure despite the fact that the former is technically not the correct answer.

That brings me to much of the on-line discussion of fly casting, some of it is wildly inaccurate or at least apocryphal, much is well meant and moderately true, at least in a simplistic sense, and to be frank nearly none of it is absolute fact in terms of quantum physics.

The problem is that most of these discussions (read arguments if you wish) relate to teaching fly casting, not in fact the physics of it, and I would suggest that teaching anything requires that one fib, at least just a little bit, if not actually lying, one at least is going to be forced to simplify things beyond what a bone fide geek would accept as factually correct.

This really is the norm when it comes to teaching near anything. We were all taught the same basic structure of the atom in physics in high school. That the electrons whizz around the nucleus (containing protons and neutrons) usually illustrated with something like the diagram below:

Informative perhaps but definitely untrue

Speak to anyone who really knows this stuff and it is wildly inaccurate if not indeed untrue. More “advanced” models have the electrons in an electron cloud with probabilities of their position changing based on wave function.(yes and if that lost you, as it did me, that is the point of the discussion).

Equally and more simplistically I could point out that in reality an electron is about 10,000 times smaller than a proton, but of course how the hell would you draw that on a piece of paper?  Physicists should be screaming from the roof tops that we are teaching our children inaccuracies, and threatening to burn books. We have been teaching lies.

In fact the structure of an atom, as we best understand it, means that a solid isn’t actually very solid at all and is mostly space, and yet with the simple diagrammatic representation above and our concept of what solidity is, none of us worry about sitting on a table for fear that we might fall through and end up with a Higgs Boson up the bum.

It should come as no surprise that I like fly casting, and recognize that it is a functional skill which will no doubt catch you more fish or at the very least make the catching of fewer fish less frustrating. But I like it, I will cast on a lawn with no prospect of catching a fish and still be happy.

I am not sure that I am a card-carrying member of the “casting geek” fraternity, but I could be, I may even aspire to be. My problem comes with much of the on-line discussion related to fly casting, most of which is targeted at learners or the instructors of those very same learners.

It is, I would imagine, imperative, that as an instructor you know more about your subject than your pupil, I would suggest that it is equally important that you don’t necessarily try to convey all that you know during the first class.

I see endless debate about SLP (straight line path) or hard and soft stops at the end of the strokes, I see what are to my mind overly pedantic discussions about the minutia of rod flex or arguments about what is or what isn’t a tailing loop. All good, perhaps if you are an instructor you need to discuss this stuff, I can certainly enjoy the debate, but I don’t believe that you need to baffle your student with it.

The above image supposedly demonstrating SLP (straight line path) and adjustments to casting arc with increased rod bend is in exactly the same class as the atomic diagram. It is wildly inaccurate. There is virtually no translation (stroke) the arm movement is questionable, there is some degree of curvilinear hand movement etc. we can discuss it ad infinitum, but for most novices it is probably “good enough”.

Teaching is, by definition, explaining something to someone who currently doesn’t have knowledge of the subject. To do that, educators require some basic format to work with and it is likely that the format will become more complex and possibly more accurate depending on the level of the education. In fly casting for example, Bill Gammell’s “Five Essentials” have stood the test of time, not perhaps because they are the final word but because they do offer up a workable framework in which to position instruction.

For the average, or even relatively advanced student, the casting equivalent of the above atomic diagram is more than sufficient to convey what needs to be conveyed.

Certainly, our understanding of some things has evolved, as indeed should be the case, by all means question everything, but the reality is that students often need to understand things in a more practical than scientific sense.

So, the old “casting clock” system of moving the rod between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock has been debunked, it is pretty easy to prove that that isn’t a reliable manner of casting a fly line and I wouldn’t accept anyone using that as a reasonable method of tuition. Even for a complete novice such instruction, although simple is perhaps “too wrong” to be reasonable.

Other things however, if still not entirely true on a quantum level, are to my mind “good enough”. Suggesting that a student try to move the rod tip in a straight line is probably a fair explanation of what we are aiming for. That some of us recognize that a true SLP isn’t possible and quite likely not even desirable doesn’t matter a jot. The student is trying to improve their casting and “SLP” is a reasonable approximation of the truth, at least until they reach considerably more advanced levels.

So, a recent on-line discussion as to whether the rod tip in a video by Carl McNeil actually moved in a straight line as he suggested, is on the one hand a fair and reasonable discussion, on the other hand what Carl is attempting to demonstrate in a video aimed at relative novice casters is to my mind “good enough”. Actually, more than good enough, he produces in his “Casts that Catch Fish” series some excellent tuition, all clearly filmed and in glorious surroundings. I would recommend those videos to any aspiring fly caster.

Virtually all of my academic education was focused in the sciences, it is essential that from that perspective we continually update our knowledge, question the status quo and explore better explanations, it is equally important that we don’t become overly dogmatic and accept new evidence as it is presented. The demise of the “clock system” is evidence of the benefits of doing exactly that. But the vilification of a teaching method because it isn’t “entirely true” probably over steps the mark.

Most five-year old’s have a fairly limited understanding of physics and most fly anglers cast poorly, neither group requires the quantum mechanics explanation of cosmological string theory to help them better function in the world. What they need are clear and simple explanations which whilst perhaps not entirely accurate are “good enough” for them to progress.

It is probably important to be as accurate as one can when teaching something, but absolutes rarely exist and if they did may still not be entirely desirable.

For all of that, if you are a novice caster I would highly recommend to you that you get proper instruction from a certified instructor at your earliest convenience. Most of us (instructors) spend far more of our time undoing ingrained faults in anglers who have been taught poorly than we ever do with beginners who with a few simple instructions can improve greatly.

Not About Fishing

February 21, 2021

Firstly, let me tell you a little story from my childhood:

I come from a small town in the Northernmost corner of Cornwall on the English South West coast. It has always been primarily a holiday town, serving summer visitors and providing a central hub for the farming communities around it. It was small but not exactly tiny, there was very little industry, but lovely beaches and good surf, if you are into that sort of thing.

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Bude in North Cornwall

When our household required provisions, my mother would write out a shopping list of required foodstuffs and other items on the back of an envelope and take it down to the local grocery store. Mr Bate, the owner and operator of that store would then weigh out and pack up the required items after mother had left. For those of you unfamiliar with the idea, in those days most goods were loose in sacks and boxes, and Mr Bate would weigh out the cloves, sugar, flour, raisins or whatever and pour the measured amount into a crisp white paper packet, sealing it with a quick flick and twist of his wrist, in something of a flamboyant professional flourish.

Once all the required items were bagged and packed, Derek Inch (local schoolboy), would then deliver the parcel to our house on a bicycle specifically designed for the job. On the bike there was a tiny front wheel to accommodate the large delivery basket on the bow and a larger wheel at the stern, designed to provide traction and forward momentum from whatever energy Derek could manage to force into the pedals. I doubt this weighty contraption boasted any sort of gears and having done a similar job in my youth I can attest to the fact that such cycles were tricky to master. The basket doesn’t move when you turn a corner, but the front wheel, hidden under the aforementioned basket, obviously does, it makes steering rather troublesome and most delivery boys had grazed knees to prove it.

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The delivery service cost nothing extra, and mother would only be required to wander down to the shop every Friday, whereupon Mr Bate would investigate the dusty pages of his large accounts book and calculate a total owed; which mother would dutifully pay in cash.

Now this system is remarkably efficient and cost effective, it required no additional time from my mother, produced very little if any additional waste and certainly no plastic, the newspaper wrappings and the crisp white bags could be used to light the fire and little went unused. It essentially allowed Mr Bate to use his time most effectively and did much the same for his customers. There were no electronic tills, self-service lanes or credit cards and bear in mind that mother could purchase goods in any volume or mass she wanted and not be restricted to a plastic packet of 376 grams or some other arbitrary measure. People with a five-person family could shop to suit them and those alone at home could do the same with lesser volumes.

It was efficient, based on good service and as much to the point benefitted both retailer and shopper alike. It was equally efficient because customer service was the measure of a business and if Mr Bate failed to twist those crisp packets neatly enough, or Derek failed to summon sufficient energy to pedal fast enough, then people would shop somewhere else.

The entire point of the above story is that things actually used to be efficient, eco-friendly, customer orientated and really rather simple; whilst not necessarily engineering to be any of those.

Today, to achieve much the same, we are required to drive our car to a shopping centre, pay for parking, pick up our own goods in the volumes and weights which the manufacturers decide should be available. We wheel our own trolleys, pay for our plastic packages which will shortly find themselves wrapped around some poor turtle or migratory sea bird. We will have to set up on line accounts, credit cards, banking apps, snap scans and more. We will burn fossil fuels, waste time and all too often stand in a long queue simply to pay for the goods which we have harvested from the shelves through our own labours, and then, on arriving home celebrate the wonders of modern efficiency.

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Is modern shopping really efficient?

It is a con, this isn’t efficient or convenient, answering the door when poor old sweating Derek arrives with your stuff is efficient. Nipping down the road once a week to pay your account is efficient, and purchasing items in the volumes one requires is efficient. We have lost the plot.

What has brought these reminiscences to mind? The recent and near continuous battle against absolutely shocking and inefficient customer service (more like lack thereof).

Plans to travel have recently been laid waste by various governmental lockdowns related to this damnable Covid virus and the interventions made as a result. That there are problems and restrictions on travel is understandable, that one cannot reach your booking agent through any means: telephone, email, or on-line chat (we are here to help you), have proven to be entirely fruitless.

In the time it has taken to try to manage my booking, Derek Inch could have delivered, by pedal power alone, half a Southern Right whale, carefully weighed out into crisp paper packets, and two hundredweight of washed potatoes.

Websites seem to offer the illusion of convenience, efficiency and modernity, but actually generally fail on all counts. The “Contact Us” button would be better named the “We have your money now F*** Off” button.

We have become so enamored with the idea of on-line efficiency that we continue to imagine it exists in the face of overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t. These glossy electronic pages promise far more than they deliver and I suspect far more than any entity actually means for them to deliver.

Take for example a recent and protracted expedition into the on-line world of customer service I undertook on behalf of my mother-in-law. (Let’s call her that for sake of simplicity).


S
he purchased a Fitbit gadget, a “Versa 3” for herself; she is a remarkably motivated and fit over 70 swimmer, in better shape than the majority of school leavers and takes a great interest in her well-being, diet and weight, not to mention her swimming abilities. (she holds a number of SA records, just so that you know)

This gadget isn’t what I would call inexpensive, more expensive still when she finds out that having purchased this item, she then needed a newer and smarter smart phone for it to connect to. She was still however determined, and eventually after much messing about the “Fitbit” “Synced” with her new phone and could give her all manner of data about how far she had walked, swam or whatever.

Then it fell off the nightstand and the glass cracked, an accident for sure, but again one has to ask the question, how a “fitness smart watch” designed, one would presume for active people, would be damaged so easily. That notwithstanding, she, and then I, set about finding where we could have the unit effectively repaired. The answer: (I don’t wish to draw out the tension and have your smart watch beeping as a result of your raised blood pressure), is that you can’t. That’s it, the final word, the official mandate of the manufacturer and distributor of this expensive piece of crap.

But to reach that point I dredged through Fitbit websites, endless flash images of sexy people looking cool with this latest “lifestyle must have” piece of crap strapped to them. I searched through pages to find “contact us” buttons which would then refer me to FAQ’s which would then tell me all that they wished me to know about how wonderful this thing was and failed to answer any query I might have.

I was diverted to the “Fitbit community”: apparently there are quite a few hapless idiots who have been convinced of the merits of this overpriced bit of pointless and fragile technology.

I suppose it isn’t good business to put a FAQ on your corporate website that suggests that “we don’t do repairs, we don’t offer spares, our warranty isn’t worth a cup of warm spit and it really is a laugh that you paid so much money for something we had manufactured in China (quite possibly by displaced Uighur labour) for a couple of dollars. But it does look sexy doesn’t it?

Unperturbed I followed my quest; King Arthur would have found the Holy Grail twice over with the same amount of effort, and I finally managed to locate a +27 telephone number for “customer services”. (+27 is the international dialing code for South Africa, the current home country of myself and my “mother-in-law”)

The number told me “we are currently closed please phone back during office hours”, which was odd because it was office hours, the website said 9.00 to 5.00 and I was within those parameters.

Suspicious I thought, but I tried again later, and at least the call was answered, albeit by an electronic voice.

Now I realise that this is already a lengthy tale, but I need to digress to ask; who is this woman? The woman that many American based and some other companies use on their telephone systems. She sounds as though she has Covid throat and has recently swallowed a small rodent together with the squeaker from a dog toy. She is apparently trained to tell you to F*** off in the most professional manner possible and I have encountered her previously in businesses as diverse as the US Postal Service, US Internal Revenue Service and others.

The only highlight so far, in a troublesome day, was to realise that, somewhere out there, some poor bastard woke up with this squeaking amazon and probably has to listen to her all day..

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Anyway I digress; eventually, having at squeaky’s instruction, pressed 4, 1, 4, etc squeaky suggested that she would put me in touch with one of the “Fitbit Advocates”. That is a really nice touch, “Advocate” I already knew I was heading down the “we don’t give a shit” rabbit hole, only companies trying to hide something refer to their customer service staff as “advocates”. It is like those who ask “how can I make your day golden?”, which to me suggests that they are about to piss all over me, and that usually proves to be exactly the case. I was put on hold listening to some canned electronic music. I had time to ponder at this point and already realized that the chances of this going well were on a par with those of a diabetic, obese and comatose Covid victim in a rural hospital.

Eventually the answer came “Hello, how may I assist you?”, I think that was what he said, the international call crackle and the distinct accent made communications tricky and had me immediately (although unsurprisingly) realise that I wasn’t speaking to anyone with a +27 international dialing code.

Curious by nature I enquired as to the geographical whereabouts of this particular “advocate”, to which the reply was Columbia. “Fucking Colombia”, how was someone, currently interrupting their important international drug deal in Columbia, going to advise me where I could get a smart watch repaired in South Africa? Well of course they couldn’t, the official response was “We don’t repair covers for our smart watches”. That was it, “we don’t”, not “we can’t”, not “there are currently no spares available”, not “under covid restrictions we are unable to assist”, Just “we don’t”, and with that I say “FUCK YOU” Fitbit.

I can’t help thinking that should my mother have been able to purchase a “Fitbit” from Bate’s Grocers and encountered a similar issue, Mr Bate, having answered the phone without the intervention of Squeaky or for that matter a geographically distant “advocate”, would have simply said “don’t worry Mrs Rolston, drop it at the shop and I will have Derek bring the repaired unit around to your house on the bike this afternoon, no charge”..

I am going to make a simple observation, companies who don’t offer any sort of repair, who don’t answer their phones, who employ “Squeaky” to do their dirty work and Columbians to provide the mirage of customer care, don’t deserve your money. Those companies who manufacture in China whilst using “American pricing” don’t deserve your business.  (according to a Google check, Fitbit are looking at pulling out of China, “to avoid tariffs”.) 

If you want to check your heart rate put your finger on your radial pulse. Not only will it be quite effective and inexpensive but it isn’t going to further raise your blood pressure.

Chasing the Dragon

January 31, 2021

Apparently (and I admit to having no first-hand knowledge of the subject) those unfortunate enough to become addicted to narcotics spend their lives in continuous and inevitable decline in an effort to “reproduce their first hit”. Attempts to once again experience the intoxication of that first exposure, which according to the pundits will inevitably be unattainable, can lead those afflicted into an increasingly desperate downward spiral.

There seems to be no indignity that those unfortunate enough to have been caught up won’t be prepared to suffer to continue their quest. They will in time give up everything, lose jobs, homes and incomes as well as their health. They will sleep rough, cover miles on foot and exhaust all of their physical and financial resources in a desperate attempt to indulge their passion or addiction. They will lay waste relationships with family and friends, even circumvent the laws of the land if that is what it takes.

As said, I have no personal or intimate knowledge of narcotics, but in my world, my “first hit” was watching a carefully stalked yellowfish rise up in the crystal clear waters of the Bokong River to inhale a tiny and carefully fashioned ant pattern. That slow and deliberate adjustment of the fins, the golden flash of the sun on a scale-armoured body, the kiss like slurp as the fly was inhaled and the screaming of the reel not moments afterwards. Those images and sensations are burned indelibly upon my conscience.

Apparently you can never reproduce that “first hit” but it doesn’t stop one trying

I can close my eyes and see those images as though they were yesterday, I can hear the gurgling of the river and the slight burping noise of the take. I can smell the grasslands of the high country and self-induce salivation and tachycardia at the merest thought of returning.

That is my addiction, and right now I am chasing the dragon again. Plans have been afoot for almost a year to return to the Bokong. It isn’t just that the place is spectacularly beautiful and remote. It isn’t that the camp is superbly well run and the guides great people who work tirelessly to try to provide the best of it.  It isn’t just that (if you get it right) the river is host to hundreds if not thousands of small mouth yellowfish very willing to eat a fly, but more so, that when conditions are right, they will happily gulp down patterns on the surface.

Gorgeously remote, scenically spectacular, but the addiction lies with dry fly eating yellowfish migrating in these waters.

That is my passion, my addiction. We would, of course, tolerate catching them on nymphs and Euro-style rigs if the going isn’t good, the reel will scream just as wildly and the rod will bend just the same, we will still dash precariously over the boulders after our prize, but that is still only a shadow of the experience we are aiming for. A high to be sure but a mildly unsatisfactory and disappointing one, not quite managing to match up to that original “hit”.

I am only learning now to what lengths I am prepared to go in search of that dragon, only scraping the surface of what troubles and indignities I am prepared to suffer. Having rescheduled airline tickets, car hire agreements, covid tests and more over and over again I have still not resolved to quit.

Where is this addiction going to lead?

We have changed arrangements from driving to flying and changed flying from one day to another, one week to the next. For over a fortnight sleep has been fitful, interrupted by the palpitations and sweaty brow of the addict. Prospects of rejuvenating rest laid waste by dreams and nightmares of further governmental impositions, and worries that tropical storm “Eloise” may have blown out the fishing even if we get there. With my eyes closed I can see the fish, I can feel the river, but in my imaginings the fly pulls free, the tippet breaks or the backcast hooks up on in the mealie fields. I can’t rest, I am equally obsessed and determined, hopeful and yet resigned.

Jobs have been put on hold, finances stretched, and relationships strained, Valentine’s day preparations have already been postponed, just in case we can make the trip. I may not have any narcotics flowing through my veins but I recognize that I am heading down a slippery slope, prepared to suffer near any set back or indignity in my quest. I haven’t quite reached the point of abject lawlessness, theft or prostitution to feed my habit, but I am not sure that is too far off. The camp has agreed to accommodate us even if we arrive two weeks late, the airlines are still negotiating amendments to our schedule and there is at least the possibility that the governmental policies which keep interrupting our journey are going to be relaxed. There is still hope, perhaps the false hope of the addict, only time will tell.

Please do note that this post is a little bit of relatively lighthearted writing, conjured up during a stressful point in time with plans assailed by government regulations and protracted lock down. It is in no way meant to minimise the true horrors of homelessness or narcotic addiction or to denigrate those sadly so afflicted.

FRUSTRATION

January 2, 2021

I do wonder sometimes if fly fishing and frustration simply go hand in hand, one gets hooked in the bushes or misses a take, there will always be a fish that one loses for one reason or another. If you are a novice the frustrations are even worse, because without skillful casting and line control the things that can, and do, go wrong, increase exponentially.

Perhaps one of the very best reasons to practice your casting skills and never stop doing so.

So, yes, I sort of expect some level of frustration at some point when on the river for a day, but I didn’t realise that the frustration can be “enjoyed” just as well in the privacy of one’s own home without so much as a rod in one’s hand.

I expect at least some level of frustration on the stream, particularly fishing under high banks and thick vegetation, but I figured I would be safe at home on the patio.

We are again, as so many others, currently experiencing further lock down measures as a result of the expanding COVID 19 viral pandemic and so many things which we might otherwise be doing during the holidays are currently out of bounds. That is an added level of frustration just to start with.

So, I have found myself sitting on the patio, tying some flies and watching a number of fishing related video clips on YouTube. One would imagine that to be a relaxing way to spend a pleasantly warm summer day but it turned out not quite so much as one might expect.

The problem is that so very many of the clips I have been watching, often from very well-known, and one would have assumed proficient anglers, are to my mind pretty good examples of how not to do things. There are of course some excellent videos out there, and even the less good contain some nuggets of information which can help any of us become better anglers and more proficient casters. The trouble is how do you sort out the wheat from the chaff?

I am not going to name any names; for one reason some of these anglers command my respect, they may be highly advanced in some aspects of the sport, perhaps tie excellent flies or cast well. Perhaps they have really mastered the art of fishing photography or videography, something that I certainly haven’t, but time and time again I am watching what I would consider glaring errors. The trouble is that if you are a novice, and perhaps even if you are not, you will watch these videos and because someone is apparently successful in catching the odd fish you imagine that they are doing things the best way possible when in fact they are not.

So I sit watching some tranquil scene of a clear stream flowing through verdant farmlands, perhaps some fish rising and the “influencer” expounding the virtues of some technique or another, and inside myself I am screaming “no, no, no”.. as said, not as relaxing as I had hoped.

A lovely pastoral scene, great for a relaxed day, or not.

I have now watched two different videos from a well known and well respected angler and fly tier in which he has several times ranted on that “you don’t need these very long leaders which are becoming fashionable”.. or words to that effect. Much of the time the leader in use is little more than seven feet long with some tippet added.

That is bad enough, but then he proceeds to fish and constantly comments that “it is very difficult to get a drag free drift because of the conflicting currents, or the troublesome position of the fish”.. Several times he spooks fish after repeatedly dragging a fly over them and still the penny doesn’t drop. The very best way to get longer drag free drifts is to use a much longer leader and a casting style to match it.

The presentations on the video are almost universally made with low line speed and a relatively high trajectory and open loop style, with the supposed “goal” of a gentle landing of the fly.. This is COMPLETELY AT ODDS with the way I believe one should present a dry fly and counter to everything that I teach on the stream when guiding.

Not surprisingly the “influencer” then tells us that with a downstream breeze one cannot turn over the fly on a “long leader”, well no of course you can’t if you cast the way he is casting!! Such casting style is both wildly inaccurate in all but zephyr like breezes and inefficient to boot.

I know that I have written about this previously and there will be some links to other articles on this blog on similar subject but having endured a couple of hours of very frustrating video watching I am moved to argue the point again.

Firstly, it has to be recognized that “drag”, that is the abnormal movement of the fly, either slower or faster than the current, is a dead giveaway to a fish that the imitation should be avoided. On many catch and release waters not only will you fail to illicit a take but may well spook the fish and stop it from feeding entirely.

Real bugs rarely make headway against the current and the fish know this. Drag is the dry fly angler’s most notorious enemy.

Drag doesn’t need to be the “V” wake inducing high speed skating of the fly through the current, a slight variation of speed can be enough to indicate to a fish that all is not well. Imagine sitting with your knife and fork hovering over a rare slice of fillet and ask yourself how much it would need to move for you to lose your appetite!

Drag occurs for one reason, the fly is tied to a long string and the string is tied to you, flies just dropped unfettered into a stream do not drag, it is the line moving at different speeds as it rests on varied currents that is the problem

Further, much as many books will claim that one can “eliminate” drag, in fact you cannot, you can only delay it. A fly tied on a string with an angler tied on the other end WILL ALWAYS drag eventually.

If you cannot eliminate drag what can you do to at least slow its onset?

  • Firstly, you can consider your casting position, the less line on the water and the less varied the currents that it crosses the longer the fly will drift drag free.
  • You can simply cast less far, again less line means less variation of conflicting currents.
  • You can hold line off the water (much easier to do with a longer leader) so as to avoid those currents
  • You can “mend” or “cast” the line so as to provide slack in the system or compensation of varied current speeds. (reach mends, curve casts, slack line casts as well as in the air or on the water mends all can be used to play a part in slowing down the onset of drag)
  • And to my mind the MOST important thing you can do is fish a longer and thinner leader which will provide more slack in the system, particularly slack near the fly which will be the most effective place for it to be to slow down the onset of drag.

One can use all or some of the above depending on the situation, I would suggest that positioning and leader length are the most useful and easiest to master. On the small freestone streams that I fish the most there is rarely time or space to do fancy casting and mending, the fly lands in a pocket drifts for a few seconds and is either recast or whisked away by the current. (oh happy times, it can be intercepted by a fish too)

Some things that you can do with a long leader which are all but impossible with a short one:

  • Hold the line off the water, with a fly line in the system the line will sag back towards the angler dragging the fly. It is the same “technique” which makes Euronymphing so effective, at short range with a long leader you can be nearly in direct contact with the fly with no line or leader on the water. It is a short-range technique but it doesn’t work if the leader isn’t at least a rod and a half long.
  • You can cast with very high line speed, providing accuracy and control even in a stiff breeze, because the leader will burn off the energy of the cast and still allow gentle presentation of the fly. With a short leader one is forced to cast gently, high up from the water to prevent the fly slamming down.
  • You can get slack into the terminal section of the leader without modifying your casting stroke or giving up on accuracy. This cannot be done with a shorter leader because it will not burn off the energy of a rapidly unrolling line.
  • You can cast tighter loops under branches and such without giving up on presentation or accuracy.
  • You can get very good, long drag free floats without specialist casts or mends simply by fishing a longer leader which itself puts slack in just the right place.

Essentially, from my perspective, you the angler should not be worrying about “presentation” of the fly, you should concern yourself ONLY with hitting the required target, be that a feeding fish or just a likely looking spot under the trees. It is NOT your job to “present” the fly, that is the leader’s job and correctly constructed it will do that for you all day long without additional effort.

So, what is a “longer leader”? To me it certainly is considerably more than 9ft, in my case usually between about 14ft (larger flies windy days) and 22ft (small flies and perfect conditions). The actual length doesn’t really matter that much, what matters is how it “works” and that depends on a few things:

  • Wind strength and direction (if you are casting with the wind you will want the leader longer, if against it perhaps a bit shorter but not a lot).
  • Fly size and aerodynamics, this makes a very large difference and if your leader is functioning correctly with a #18 parachute dry tied to it, it almost certainly will not function correctly if you up the fly to an extended body #10 Mayfly.. (so you need to modify your leader as circumstances and flies change).
  • Your casting ability: essentially the better you cast and the more line speed you can generate the longer the leader needs to be to burn off the excess energy and present the fly. “Long” leaders aren’t about some imaginary pissing competition of whose is longest, it is simply matching the outfit to the fly, wind and casting to provide effortless slack in the system without thinking about it. Even a poor caster can actually fish quite effectively with a 12 to 14ft leader, the better your casting gets the longer the leader will need to be.
  • Taper: A longer leader isn’t just a matter of adding 10ft of 7x tippet and expecting that to work. The leader really has a battle going on within it, in part trying to maintain momentum and energy to turn it over and part trying to burn off energy and slow things down to provide slack and presentation of the fly. Getting the correct balance between those two opposing things is achieved by playing about with the taper of the leader or at least of the additional tippet sections added.

A typical dry fly leader:
A very simply dry fly leader which I use a lot of the time is simply a 9’ tapered leader from a packet, to be honest I don’t much care about the brand, even the thinnest part of this is going to be far far stronger than the tippet, it is, if you wish, the base of the leader.

Generally, I will use a leader with a point of about 2-3X thicker than I intend to use as the final tippet section. (One of the great advantages of this system, amongst many others, is that the leader lasts me for an entire season most of the time, it rarely gets cut into or shortened from fly changes)

I will then add approximately 3’ of different tippet diameters, starting with 1X less than the leader and then 2X less than the leader and so on. I usually add two to three tippet sections, what the US anglers refer to as a “compound tippet”.

For example, then a typical small stream dry fly leader will be a 9’ tapered leader terminating at 4X, to which is then added about 3ft of 5X, then 6X and then 7X. (I frequently add a further similar section of 8X when the conditions demand it. That will give me 9’ + 3’ + 3’ +3’ = 18’ total. A good starting point.

Alternatively, I could start off with a 12’ commercial tapered leader and have it 1X thinner, and add less tippet sections, Say 12’ to 5X plus 6X and 7X the result would be much the same.

Testing:

You have to then “test” your leader set up based on the fly, your casting and the conditions, if it is going out dead straight you need to lengthen some of the tippet sections, if it is falling in a puddle you need to reduce some of those sections, although generally not by as much as you might think. Simply taking a section apart and retying it will use up enough nylon to make a difference. What you are aiming for is accurate high speed presentation with automatic slack in the tippet without having to modify your casting.

Bear in mind that there are numerous advantages to this sort of system.

  • If your fly drifts longer without drag you can cover more fish or likely spots more efficiently and with less casting
  • You don’t actually have to be quite as accurate as if the fly drifts longer without dragging you can lead the fish by more without negative consequence. You are also less likely to accidentally “line the fish”.
  • False casting is less likely to put the line shadow over the fish
  • You can “high stick” or hold line off the water with the longer leader
  • You don’t need to modify your casting to obtain good presentation, the leader should do that for you.

In the end I am absolutely convinced that the advantages of longer leaders are far greater than most anglers imagine. I would estimate, having “taught” this system to numerous clients for well over a decade, that they generally see a catch rate get close to double what it was with short leaders in the 7 – 9’ range. That is a BIG difference.

There are two additional problems that come with the system described.


The first is that your leader/ line joint will continually be coming inside the tip top guide of the rod, when casting or playing fish and a smooth joint becomes essential. So, I glue my leaders into the line (bear in mind that I don’t need to change them for a season most of the time)

The second is if you are forced to fish into a stiff downstream breeze, but this isn’t the problem that most imagine. Most anglers do turn over the leader, the problem is that it turns over high above the water and then blows back. It is essential when using such terminal tackle that your casting stroke is aimed higher behind you and lower in front of you, such that the leader turns over but centimetres above the water , additional reading on this blog https://paracaddis.wordpress.com/2016/05/17/casting-accuracy/

In short, all of the above is why I am frustrated, because I know that a correctly set up longer leader system is in fact easier to fish, more accurate and more efficient and will potentially double your catch rate. Having someone say on their video, that “you only need a 7’ leader” is really just telling me that they don’t understand the dynamics and advantages of such a system and/or that their casting is so poor as to be unable to put such a system to good use.

I have over the years “forced” numerous clients to fish leaders which they found very uncomfortable to start with, but they all caught more fish than they expected and they all refused to let me shorten the leader after a couple of hours on the stream.. That is evidence enough that it works and I recommend to you that you play with the idea, you will be amazed by the results.

When I first started fly fishing back in the early seventies one of the “recommended” ways of attaching a leader was to form a figure eight knot in THE FLY LINE.. obviously that isn’t going to easily slide through the tip top guide and historically as a result the “nine foot leader” became something of a standard. There is absolutely no logical reason for a leader being 9′ long, or for that matter 12′. It is one of those foolish elements of history which stick because nobody questions the validity of the assumption. Doing something in a particular manner for no reason other that “it has always been done like this” is one of the worst of all reasons and I find that sort of thinking very frustrating..

Goodbye 2020

December 29, 2020

The sentiments are the same in nearly every piece one reads, that 2020 was something of a ball breaker and indeed it certainly has been. Trouble is that the simple ticking of a clock, a notional “New Year” and a couple of fireworks displays, if they are allowed to continue, aren’t going to change much.

Lockdowns affected us all, loss of income and frustration at limited access to so much we have become used to, upset us all. Here in SA we have just been dealt another similar blow with new restrictions started without warning. For me it was troublesome not to be able to hit the waters, travel was restricted and may be again soon. The nonsensical limitations on alcohol sales and availability of cigarettes took a horrible situation and made it worse. Even now, when access to our waters is again possible, I have simply been too busy to fish, which probably contributes to the lack of posts on this blog. Tough to come up with something worthwhile on a fishing blog when one doesn’t fish.

Being busy may not be such a bad thing but of course at least some of that is playing catch up, trying to refill coffers which were over extended as a result of the lock downs. At least I have managed to scrape together some work, many have been less fortunate.

On top of that one of my best friends and regular fishing partner has been laid low by this horrible virus and spent several weeks in bed before ending up in hospital, although thankfully not in ICU or on a ventilator. I am very pleased to report that he is recovering, but lessons that close to home act as a wake-up call.

His condition is all the more important and worrisome in that we have plans to head for Lesotho in late January, it is something to look forward to and no small reason why I shall be, at least to some degree, in celebratory mood, come Jan 1st. I am certainly not one of those who imagine that things are going to get a lot better before they become somewhat worse. The date doesn’t amount to a silver bullet and even the vaccine on the horizon, and a very distant one in these parts, isn’t going to mean that 2021 is trouble free.

Hope of making it back to the Bokong in January hang in the balance, but for now it is something positive to look forward to.

On a personal level the year starts off fraught with danger, the planned and extended trip to Lesotho is problematic enough to start with. One requires rain to pull the fish into the river and lack of rain to warm things up and clear the flows. One needs enough water to make fishing pleasant and avoid having all the fish trapped in the pools, but not so much that one is risking life and limb in chocolate brown floods..

This is a summer thundershower area, and the rain laden clouds wander the skies before unleashing torrents in apparently random fashion, the water falls on one side of the watershed and one isn’t affected at all, on the other side and you end up drinking beer and watching the local buck try to make it across the raging torrents, (that is what passes for entertainment when the fishing is blown out).

Those are the “normal risks” of a fishing trip, but now there are new layers of complexity. We have to have a COVID test before entry into Lesotho, some 72 hours prior to crossing the border. Given that we are driving that means that we may only get the results whilst on the road and of course should they come back positive, even false positive, the border will be closed to us and I may end up seeking self-isolation somewhere in the Orange Free State. That wouldn’t make me too happy. On top of that with a resurgence of infections all over the place it is entirely possible that the border is closed or that travel is suspended in some way. Fishing the waters of the Bokong is always something of a crap shoot, but at present it is a crap shoot with eight sided loaded dice.

I haven’t so much as tied a fly or sorted out gear for fear of putting a “hex” on the trip. One imagines that my fishing buddy will be negative by then and one trusts unlikely to have to worry about a second infection, for me, who knows? I might still be buying green bananas but I sure ain’t heading to any clubs, malls or gatherings.

All that said, it is something to look forward to and God knows we all need a dose of that. If the fishing is good it really is GOOD with a capital “F”.. Some of the best dry fishing in the world I wouldn’t doubt. Stalking large and visible fish in clear water, usually, although not always, chasing them down with terrestrial imitations, ants, beetles and hoppers.. It is the stuff that fishing dreams are made of, or it will be if we can keep the COVID nightmares at bay.

Dry fly fishing with ant patterns is a favourite means of targeting the Bokong yellows when conditions are right.

So that is what I am going to look forward to, I am going to hope that the stars align and the fishing Gods smile favorably on us. We have booked a longer than normal stay, hopefully upping the chances of a couple of Red Letter days, and if all goes according to plan that should reasonably be the case.

In the meantime, let me just wish you all a very very happy, healthy and safe New Year. Each January I am sure we all hope for better and all to often of late that hasn’t proven to be the case. I hope that this year will be different. We are not out of the woods yet, so do take care and follow all of the advice. This holocaust is at least in part our own faults, those who have ignored advice, who have wantonly carried on doing what they wish have indirectly cost us all as much as the virus itself.

So take care, all the best for 2021, I hope that all of our dreams will come true and if there is one lesson from 2020 it is that really we can be very happy with less than we thought, that in times of hardship, family and friends, the occasional trip or the chance to wet a line become all the more important and thankfully all the more highly valued.

Things really have been quite horrible, worse for many than for me, so here’s to hoping that life will get back to at least a “new normal” and I suspect perhaps also that the new normal will include valuing things which perhaps we should have valued more highly in the past but never did.

Thank you for reading during the course of 2020, all those furiously penned “Lockdown” fly tying episodes seem spectacularly insufficient looking back, but we tried, there was no telling where things would lead and no doubt that is still somewhat the same. But if you are reading this you have made it thus far, there are vaccines on the horizon and fishing trips to plan. May we all get to follow through on those plans in the near future..

WISHING YOU ALL A VERY HAPPY, SAFE, PROSPEROUS, HEALTHY AND LOVING 2021

It’s NOT about the fly

December 13, 2020

I have recently enjoyed the pleasure of doing a few tutorial guiding trips with relative novices. There is something both stressful and at the same time predictable about these sessions. Of course, it helps if the fish are being cooperative and at least out and about feeding. For novices having lots of potential targets does help in learning and reinforcing technique.

The clear waters of the Cape Streams can be a wonderful place to explore, improve and practice various techniques. It is rarely the fly which makes the difference

The predictable part is that no matter what, clients generally improve as the day goes on, technique gets better and confidence grows. We generally start off with them fishing as they would on their own, and I allow them to do whatever they see fit. It can be sometimes amusing, on occasion even frightening, like pitching up with a nine-weight rod on a small dry fly stream or tying on a 4mm tungsten bead nymph whilst looking at crystal clear water no more than a foot deep. But that, at least in my mind, is the best way of learning, make the mistakes and then correct them. Simply doing what I say to do doesn’t embed the decision-making process or the understanding of why one method might be more effective than another.

Bear in mind that I started fly fishing at the age of twelve with some rubbish tackle and a library book, borrowed not owned. I have made every fly fishing mistake that you can imagine and probably a few that you can’t. I have fished nymphs thinking they were dry flies and hooked more trees than fish on most days. So when I discuss these things they are not meant in any way to decry the efforts of the novices but merely to try to assist newbies with their progress. We are all hopefully progressing, and will continue to do so, this sport of ours doesn’t have an end point, you will never be as good as you could be, that is I suspect part of the addiction.

Yes that is me in the sexy fishing cap, at age seven. I have learned a lot since then and made pretty much every mistake you could make in the process.

I spend quite a bit of time on the things which I believe to be most important, almost all of that to do with “PRESENTATION”.. casting, leader set up, positioning on the stream as well as where to find fish, current lanes, food supply etc.

In many ways it is exactly the way I fish for my own pleasure, starting out with an educated guess as to what is going on and focusing, at least initially on the leader functioning correctly under the circumstances. Dictated mostly by the wind direction and strength and the size of fly I am planning on using, (although these days on these catch and release waters that invariably means small at least)

So we will “waste” a small section of water early in the day, messing about, making poor casts and fiddling with the leader design and length and not moving until we have gained at least some modicum of control and accuracy.

I will normally start off with a relatively small and visible pattern. Important to be able to check the the leader is functioning properly.

It is a mistake that many novices and perhaps more than a few more experienced anglers make. Heading on up river, spooking fish and catching little because they have yet to refine the set up for the day. I would far rather, when guiding or fishing, “blow” one section of water and be ready when a great opportunity presents later in the day than struggling on, thrashing the water with poor casts and dragging flies because the leader isn’t working for me, or the client.

The goal, if you can call it that, is to get to a point where the tackle is working, the casting functional and the presentation good enough that if we see a fish we are confident of being able to fool it into taking on the first or second cast. If you get it right you can reach a point where “if you see a fish it is as good as in the net”, or at least close to that level of efficacy.

When that moment comes where you have the fish of a lifetime in your sights you want to already be sure that your set up and terminal tackle are all working effectively. Now is not the time to start fiddling about.

What that means is that generally the success rates start off a bit slowly and improve, hopefully rapidly from there.

One of the most predictable things about such days, particularly if things are a bit slow, is for the client to suggest at some point “Shouldn’t we change the fly?”.

This blind faith of fly selection and fly changing is near universal in fly fishing circles, and yet probably one of the least important parts of the whole equation. There are many days where we never change the fly, not because I am unwilling to do so but because I find no necessity for it. But whenever I do change, I do have to have a pretty compelling reason to do so as well as a logical approach to the replacement.

I carry a lot of flies, but if I am going to make a change I do want both a good and a logical reason for the replacement.

If the fish are refusing a pattern, or one is not eliciting a response, it pays dividends to consider a lot more than the fly pattern. Perhaps it is the presentation at fault, the leader too short, the tippet too thick. Perhaps simply the position of the fly isn’t good enough to illicit a take, perhaps the fish never even saw it? Maybe one needs not a specific pattern but one at a different depth? There is a lot more to it than just going through some frantic and maniacal lucky dip through the fly box.

If there is an obvious hatch that is a pretty good clue, but in most cases, even then the fish are not totally tuned in to one bug, particularly on the relatively nutrient poor rivers I fish. Most fly changes, when the occur, are more about slight variations of sink rate or floatation, perhaps “something smaller” but rarely that one needs such and such a pattern with a specific number of veins in the wings and a slightly more olive shade of dubbing in the thorax..

The very load of flies that most of us carry , and certainly the variety out there would suggest that actually “specific matching of the hatch” , even if I believe that possible, is very much not the case most of the time. All of the myriad flies available catch fish at least some of the time and none of us could hope to carry even one of all of them, so logic dictates that actually it isn’t anywhere as important as many would believe.

If the fish are refusing to “come up” I may well go down after them with a nymph, perhaps they are shy to take the dry and I will fish an emerger or soft hackle, but very very rarely will I decide that I need a specific pattern.

On these waters ants are something of an exception, if they are on the water the fish do seem to totally hone in on them but then again that is a pretty easy observation to make, see ants on the water or more likely the rocks, select some form of ant pattern and away you go. Perhaps on some richer waters the hatches are massive enough to afford the fish the luxury of targeting only one species, but even then I doubt that if one asked all the anglers who met with success what fly they were using they would be identical. John Geirach writes about this in a short story “The Adams Hatch”, that even on some very famous and rich trout waters where the fish are targeting upwings or midges, a suitably sized “Adams” is likely to be “close enough” if well presented.

Even if the fish (in this case a smallmouth yellowfish from Lesotho) are focused on a specific bug, such as ants, presentation is still the most important part of the equation

Time and time again on tutorial days or simply fishing days on my own it becomes very apparent that good presentation and efficiency are what mostly lead to success. On slow days simple perseverance can be the “method of choice”, but rarely if ever is success measured on having one specific pattern or not.

It is equally obvious, having done so many different guiding and tutorial days with so many different clients of varied ability, that the absolute key is efficient presentation, which includes casting and leader design, wading and positioning. Focusing on the most likely areas of the stream and not getting hung up in one place for too long.. Constantly changing flies without a good reason to do so interrupts efficiency and wastes time when the flies should be on the water.

Yes I like tying flies, I like having dozens in my boxes “just in case”, I like to experiment with them and come up with new versions of them but really none of that matters if one cannot present them properly.

I like tying flies and having a large choice, but in reality presentation still trumps a large fly box on most if not every day.

Casting is of the utmost importance, not so much distance as control and accuracy. Even on tricky days all too often, if I make a few casts which is rare on a guiding day and slightly less so on a tutorial day, I frequently end up catching a fish.

Yesterday I made one cast to a very arbitrary pocket about the size of a wash basin. “Illustrating to the client” the importance of covering any potentially good piece of water and reinforcing the idea that many anglers would simply walk past this tiny section of stream. I didn’t see a fish there, I had no positive reinforcement that there was even a fish there, I was just trying to demonstrate where fish might be found and how to effectively fish a small pocket amongst the boulders.

ONE CAST, one cast for the entire day and I caught a fish out of that pocket. The same rod, leader and flies that the client had fished all day. That is not meant to be disparaging to the client at all, I don’t expect them to as proficient as I am on my home waters. But I think that it does clearly illustrate a point that rather than fiddling through a box full of flies in search for a silver bullet, some time spent on casting practice on a field, and more consideration of your leader set up than your fly box would produce dividends well beyond constantly shortening your tippet through endless and I might suggest fruitless changes of pattern.

I suppose that is obvious at one level, were it just about the exact imitation of a pattern then those with the most extensive fly boxes would catch the most fish. Competition fishing would be all about having the right fly and little else and it would be a tough ask for someone to consistently beat the opposition even by having a massive fly box. In the end we all know that isn’t true, we know that those anglers who present flies to the right places in the right way on average do better. So why the obsession with flies? Even today “old” generic patterns, Adams, Hare’s Ears, Elk Hairs and such feature in every fly box, for good reason. They offer a “close enough” option for the angler who knows how to present them properly

Success has a lot more to do with presentation than about fly selection most of the time

As I frequently tell my clients, “it is ALWAYS about presentation”… “and sometimes about the fly too

The “wrong” fly well presented is still a better bet than the “right” one presented poorly.