Archive for March, 2010

Drag and Steak Dinners

March 26, 2010

This post sponsored by Inkwazi Fly Fishing Safaris

It is very much my contention that trout , and trout in catch and release waters in particular, will “learn” to avoid getting caught if they can. That is not to suggest that they necessarily go through any complex cogitative process but simply that, like all wild creatures they adapt to their environment to reduce wasted energy and tend not to do what is biologically inefficient.

On waters where there are strong insect hatches the obvious answer is to only eat specific insects at specific times which has in angling circles resulted in a near blind faith in “matching the hatch’. Something that I am quite sure has its place and an approach that even on the less fertile streams becomes critical at some times where the fish have honed in on beetles or ants or some such to the degree that anything less than a close copy is ineffective.

However much of the time on the less alkaline streams the fish really need to make the best of a bad job and eat whatever becomes available, a sort of mixed grill of bits and bobs that float down the river, from the wayward beetle to the odd caddis and over selectivity under such circumstances would see the fish burning more energy than they were taking in. Nature tends to be pragmatic and if there is food there the fish are more than likely to make the most of it.  A situation which I would hypothesize makes the trout more vulnerable to being caught because the old selectivity saw doesn’t offer any protection from making a mistake and ending up with a hook in the lip and together with that a large waste of energy struggling to escape.


To my way of thinking, and of course I am not a trout and don’t really know what trout think, it would seem that the “behavior” of the fly makes for a pretty reliable means of selecting the good from the bad  or the real from the doppelganger. Most certainly the more heavily fished a water becomes the more sensitive fish become to inappropriate presentation and when fishing dry fly “inappropriate presentation” means drag.

I well remember my first introduction to drag in a library book on fly fishing back in the day when such didn’t include photographs at all and descriptions were merely embellished with line drawings. So the line drawing of a fly “dragging” showed a dry fly whizzing across the surface at sufficient pace to leave a wake behind it like the spume from the back of a ski-boat.

Certainly that is drag but it is the most severe version and there are many more subtle variations, some frequently referred to as “micro-drag” which are virtually imperceptible to the human eye. Anything from that obvious wake to the fly travelling at slightly less or more than the speed of the bubble next to it can be sufficient to warn a trout off making a mistake. So the question arises, and it is an enquiry that has been asked of me more than once, “how much drag is too much” and the simple answer is any.

However lets put the idea of drag into a metaphorical frame so that perhaps novice anglers will get the idea as part of a clearer picture. It is a description that I have used frequently in various fly fishing classes and it seems to get the message across.

The power of repetition.

Trout tend to live in specific spots on the stream and if the angler puts himself into the fish’s fins as it were he will recognize that the fish becomes extremely  used to the way things happen on his particular little bit of water. Sitting comfortably in his favourite feeding lie the trout will see thousands if not millions of bits and pieces get carried along in the current. Each one, be it leaf litter, a bubble, an insect or a piece of weed will be driven by the current in exactly the same way over and over and over. Come down the current lane, flip to the left past the large boulder, spin slightly in the eddy and then get whisked away over the fish’s head. Over and over and over again.  One has to concur that this would lead to an extreme and probably near sub-conscious familiarity with the way things are.  With such a repetitive process occurring all the time any variation is likely to show up quite clearly.

Drag and your steak dinner.

So let’s put you in the trout’s position, imagine that every Friday evening you go to your favourite restaurant and order fillet steak. The same waiter every Friday puts you at the same table, you look out the same window, eat off the same table cloth and greatly enjoy the same portion of nicely done fillet with the same knife and fork , the same lighting, same same same, Friday after Friday after Friday.

Then on one particular visit the same waiter gives you the same greeting, takes the same order for the same steak dinner and when it arrives you pick up the same knife and the same fork, already in Pavlovian response anticipating the taste of your succulent first bite.  So the question is this “how much to you think that that steak would have to move on your plate to get you to lose your appetite”? That is drag and I think that you would agree, put in those terms you wouldn’t really even have to measure the degree of movement to know that something wasn’t quite right. A slight sigh on the part of your fillet would no doubt be enough to put you in panic mode.

So next time you are assessing “how much drag is too much” I suggest that you think of that fictional steak dinner and it should put things into perspective.

Pocket Water

March 15, 2010

Pocket water can be productive even when levels are low.

On the streams  outside of Cape Town where I fish and guide mostly there is one aspect, perhaps even a “trick of the trade” that frequently distinguishes the men from the boys, the winners from the also rans and to be honest those who go home with feelings of smug satisfaction compared to those who don’t.

It isn’t so much that everyone doesn’t know about it, more that they fail to believe it or simply don’t bother to try the type of fishing, casting and presentation required. The name of the game is to focus most of your attention on the pocket water and that brings with it at first a host of problems for the average angler.

I say average not implying any lack of skill, more that the average angler watched Brad Pitt casting in
“A River Runs Through It” got really excited and ever since has been in some way dissatisfied if he can’t watch his line snaking out in yards in front of him. Secondly the average angler has a problem believing that there could be decent fish in amongst those foamy little pockets in the boulders, I mean all the lunkers must be in that deep weir pool on the corner surely?

Pocket water offers both advantages and problems in equal measure:

Firstly even in low water the pockets generally have a little bit of current and at least some riffle to the surface that makes your presentation a tad easier than on the still slow glides.

Secondly fish in pockets have a pretty limited view of the world making them easier to sneak up on and for the most part sit still in the current looking upstream waiting to intercept the next food item to appear. They don’t have a lot of time either so they need to make a relatively hasty decision about the true nature of your presentation. Conversely those fish in the still pools of summer, and there are plenty of them, have the entire millennium to count the tails on your mayfly, to look at the knots on your leader and generally swim about in all directions being for want of a better description “particularly difficult”.

Thirdly because for the most part they are loners if you spook one he will duck under a rock and not race about scaring his brethren and generally mucking up the fishing for yards ahead, a frustrating reality on the glides in low water.

Fish in pockets just seem to be happier with their lives in general, snug amongst the boulders they display a relative calmness lacking in their open water cousins and all that is good if you are an angler.

Not that it is all plain sailing this pocket fishing lark:

The downsides are that pockets have tremendously varied currents and pocket water fish whilst they may well be relaxed are not immune to the effects of drag on your fly. It all happens fast too so you can’t solve the problems by mending the line, most of the time that will be too little too late, even if you could work out which way to mend in the first place.

Secondly the pockets are small and some degree of accuracy in the casting department is essential if you aren’t going to spend your time fishing on the tops of dry boulders. If you have spent your casting practice (you do practice don’t you?), on distance you are going to struggle in the pockets, short accurate casting is what’s called for and it is a heap more tricky than it looks, especially if there is a breeze.

Thirdly to control your drift you will need to get close, closer than you might imagine and that brings with it the issue of at least some measure of stealth. Tapping wading staffs and boulder rolling are unlikely to enamour you to the fish and despite the previous comments they can become more than a little skittish if you don’t approach the pockets carefully.

Also in the faster little nooks and crannies it isn’t as easy to see the fish, sometimes you can,  but if you can’t see a fish you should cover the water anyway,  you neglect to cast at your peril , even should no fish be apparent , many an incautious extra step has seen a trout bolt for cover just as your boot descends.

Finally perhaps the real inner battle for the angler is that pocket water fishing is of necessity bordering on inelegant, in fact on occasion some of the best presentations really are rather ugly which is why you never see the angler in advertisements battling away in amongst the stones. Art directors, like most anglers prefer the “shadow casting” format, even if it results in less fish in the net.

So how to go about it?

Pockets as I would define them can vary from the size of a shoebox, just big enough to hold a decent trout to a few square metres in area, they generally have more than one current lane in them flowing from different angles and the fish could be watching one or more of them for food.

The best pockets offer relative depth, that isn’t to say they are deep but there will be a divot in there somewhere to provide a sense of security and to allow the fish to keep under the current and save energy. Plus very many have a distinct lip which forms a pressure wave at the back of the pocket, the ideal place for a trout to balance on its tail whilst waiting for dinner. The best pocket water anglers always make a cast just above the lip before they head for the obvious water a bit higher up, the fish are often so close to the back that on hooking them they wash over the lip..

Softer Action Rods are better for fishing pocket water.

The best rods for fishing pockets are soft in action because you will be casting a lot of leader and very little fly line. Cane probably is the optimum but then pocket water streams are dangerous places for expensive cane rods and most anglers will have a light #2 or #3 graphite rod, often an older model that has avoided the marketing department’s rush to make every blank a stick. Despite the close proximity and tight spaces on many pocket water streams you don’t want a rod that is too short. Being able to reach is a distinct advantage and for me a rod between 7’9” and 8’9” is about right.

(I am not sure why but I can’t think of rods in terms of metres and I don’t care what the international standard unit of length is, fishing demands its own rules, rods in feet and inches, trout like babies should be measured in pounds and ounces).

The ideal tactic for most pockets is to fish a fly a tad larger than you would on the flat water and one that you can see , fish in pockets tend to be pretty cosmopolitan in their tastes and as said they will make their minds up fast. That isn’t to say a size twelve Royal Wulff is the way to go, but visibility is important you have seconds to pick up the fly or you are likely to miss the take.

It also pays to cast aggressively to gain accuracy but at such close range that could lead to poor presentation so a long leader is also an advantage. Even in tight pockets I rarely use a leader under fourteen feet. The long leader also allows you to “High Stick” that is lift the line off the water the moment the fly lands avoiding drag for the most part by near “dapping” the fly. The leader allows you to do so without dragging the pattern unnaturally on the water and in all but the worst gales you can gain near perfect drifts at close quarters doing this.

I simply adore fishing pocket water, it is all so close, you see the fish, the mouth open, the take all right in front of your feet, there is an intimacy to it lacking on the bigger water which I simply adore. It also happens to be deadly effective and because so many anglers walk past these tiny little apparently shallow pockets the fish are often less disturbed than in the pools..

I was once asked for some advice from a novice about where to fish on our streams and my, perhaps slightly terse response was this: “if it’s damp fish it”, you can get some surprises in pocket water and not all the fish are small and not all the best holes are deep. Given some practice you will get some pleasant surprises if you focus on the pockets, especially when the water is a bit low and the pools and glides are simply too still to offer you much of a chance.