Archive for February, 2013

A Barbed Comment

February 19, 2013

Barbed Head

A barbed comment:

I recall an episode from my youth, the only time I ever received any formal fly fishing tuition, a weekend at the Arundell Arms in Lifton in Devon. The hotel is renowned for its fishing, fly fishing courses and is surrounded by numerous trout, sea trout and salmon rivers. I was only in my early teens and was on a weekend course run by Roy Buckingham. In my youthful arrogance I wasn’t overly interested in the casting instruction; I just wanted to get to fish their waters and was champing at the bit to do so. On the second day we were left to our own devices, fishing for the resident brown trout and I struck late at a slow rising fish ending up with my fly hooked firmly in my neck. As I remember it I think that the fly was a Royal Coachman Dry and being as pragmatic then as now I simply cut the nylon, left the fly in situ and continued to fish, but of course had to admit to the error on returning to the hotel.

Arundell ArmsThe Arundell Arms in Lifton, an English Fly Fishing Institution.

The problem was viewed by the staff as a simple one, the local GP down the road had , as you might imagine in such a location, removed countless hooks from numerous anglers and we all expected the problem to be resolved in short order. The only problem was that the local doctor was apparently taking leave, lounging on a sun bed in the Bahamas’s or something and we instead found a locum with very little experience of GP practise, or at least little of removing barbed hooks from youthful necks.

He became instantly besotted with the artistry of the fly and didn’t wish to destroy it, I simply advised that he should pull the hook all the way through, cut off the barb and be done with it. He was however reluctant to destroy what to his eye was “feather art”. One fly represented a substantial investment of pocket money to me, but I was more than willing to forego its future use for the benefit of my hide. The young doctor was having none of it, convinced that we would be able to free the barbed hook from my skin.

Barbed in FaceThis is when you start to think “I should have taken the barb off”.

I am going to ask you a question; “have you ever seen your own neck without the aid of a mirror?”  Because I have, foot on chair, forceps grasped in both hands and local anaesthetic administered the aforementioned medic (some might venture butcher), pulled and pulled until I had a clear view of my skin, stretched taut as a bow string. Eventually the hook bent, the skin ripped, the doctor nearly fell backwards onto his rear and the offending dry fly released its overly robust grip on my epidermis.  Now it was just a matter of stitching up the hole that had been torn out of my throat, I suppose I might have protested but in reality I was happy the offending pattern had been removed and thankful, given the less than efficient technique used, that my thyroid hadn’t been ripped free with it.

Barbed fly hooks are an anathema to me, they are ineffective and as the above story will confirm, potentially dangerous. At least that was my neck, but what if an eye? I don’t like barbs on flies, simple as that and I don’t see any point in having them there.

Barbed Coachman

A beautifully tied pattern, would it be less so with the barb removed?

Where I fish the waters have been under compulsory Catch and Release and Barbless Hooks Only regulation for over a decade by now. Not that that is really a milestone, many of us were fishing barbless well before that. The oddity of it is that our decision had very little to do with the wellbeing of the fish, or the wellbeing of ourselves for that matter,  at least at that time. We were fishing light gear, #2 weight rods and 7X tippets, and before you think that wasn’t particularly light the only #2 weight rod at the time was the original Orvis superfine which was far softer in action than more than a few #1 weights and such that one sees on stream these days.

It became apparent that the barb was a serious setback in terms of hooking and landing fish on light gear. With ultra-light gear and fine tippets you simply cannot pull the wedge of a barb into a fish and you either snap off or drop the fish early in the fight. I am one of many anglers who have absolutely no faith in barbed hooks, they simply are not as effective particularly when fishing fine.

In some bizarre twist of fate that has proven an advantage in international competition, some teams who fish with barbed hooks in their home waters lose confidence when fishing barbless, for us it is just normal.

To be frank after some forty five years of fly fishing, using both barbed and barbless hooks I have come to a conclusion that the only real disadvantage of barbless hooks is that the easily fall out of your hat. Beyond that there is no comparison and yet barbed hooks in flies persist.


Spiders are simple and quick to tie, surely leaving time to remove the barb.

It seems that for some the presence of a barb offers some sort of comfort, a superstition or act of faith that the barb is helping them to catch fish, whereas my personal experience tells me that the barb is a hindrance and a potentially dangerous one to boot.

I suppose that it is fine that we all make up our own minds, but in searching my mind I cannot really find a good reason for using them. Certainly not for trout anyway.

Barbless hooks penetrate faster, with less force and less damage to the fish, in fact virtually no damage as can be attested by the number of times I have inadvertently stuck one in my finger without ill effect.

So no I don’t like barbed hooks, they are offensive to me, the fish and the thoughtful angler, and they serve little to no purpose.

What is bothering me though is that surfing the net, reading magazine articles, blogs, books and such I keep on seeing images of flies with barbs on them. Barbed hooks in vices, barbed hooks in trout and occasionally, (oh blessed karma that is it), barbed hooks in ears.

Barbed SmallFish

This barbed fly is very likely to cause unecessary damage to a juvenille trout.

I really see no need to fish with barbed hooks, they are counter intuitive in terms of hook-ups, dangerous to the angler and to the fish. Those who write, publish, blog or whatever would do us all a great service if they took a little more care in showing pictures of hooks that have been de-barbed or are barbless.

I don’t wish to pick on anyone particularly but throughout this post are images of barbed hooks which were collected off the internet. I have against my normal policy, not provided credits, for the very reason that I am not suggesting anyone is worse than anyone else. Some of the images come from anglers who I know personally fish barbless all the time. Some of the patterns are so beautifully tied that one would expect they come from experienced and thoughtful anglers. I am just trying to illustrate that perhaps we need to be more careful about the images we use.

Barbed DDD

I am certain that this pattern comes from an angler who fishes barbless.

Let us all demonstrate some leadership here and make a commitment to avoiding images of barbed hooks in the same way that most have, over time,  given up on those pictures of dead fish strung on a fence. I believe that writers and editors have a responsibility to their readership, to show some moral guidance and to, over time, sway public opinion; publishing only images of barbless fly patterns would be a small step forwards in convincing others that barbs are unnecessary.

BarbedStringerImages such as this are generally now viewed as unacceptable, perhaps barbed flies should be viewed in the same way?

Barbed hooks will cause untold damage to the fish that you wish to release and perhaps worse still will not easily come out of fish should you break off during the strike or the fight. I have only caught a trout with a hook already in its mouth twice in over twenty years of fishing our streams. Both hooks had barbs on them.

Barbed Adams

So I am hoping that we can all avoid the use of images of barbed hooks, that we can continue to influence others in terms of being more responsible, and promote sustainable angling and safety at the same time. Once one realises that fishing with barbless flies is a win win, for you and the fish, the decision to switch is a no brainer.

Barbed in Finger

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Just Sitting

February 14, 2013


“Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits”. There is wisdom in the classic quotation from AA Milne the man who brought us all the joyous tales of Winnie-the-Pooh :.

Just sitting is something of a lost art, it seems, in this pressurised and hurried life we lead that one should be “doing something” as though “just sitting” is the equivalent of doing nothing but sitting is doing something and more to the point can prove remarkably productive if you will only give yourself the time.

Perhaps the ability to sit is a sign of some degree of maturity, I mean a three year old is rarely still, but it has to be said that there aren’t any three year olds who have come up with an invention like the wheel or mastered quantum mechanics either. It is all well and good being busy, or for that matter cultivating that wondrous urban skill of “looking busy”, but does it achieve as much as one might hope? Just sitting is an activity, it is an art, just sitting takes practise to do well. Just sitting is a bit easier if you have a book, a drink, a cigarette or perhaps best of all a tobacco pipe, but just sitting should be cultivated. You see there is stuff in the universe that moves to it’s own sweet rhythm, you can’t force it or hurry it, sometimes you need to just sit and wait for it.

Actually the world is going fast enough already, at the equator you are spinning at 1675 Km/hr, which makes “just sitting” a pretty frentic pursuit when you get right down to it. There is some bizarre comfort in the idea that the “busy” guy who is racing due west at the speed limit is actually, at least in distance terms, achieving less that you are whilst resting on your bottom.

It just so happens that this coming weekend the town or Rhodes, or as it fondly known by many anglers “The Centre of the Universe”, hosts the world’s first ever “Stoepsitfees”. (For those not in the know, that is Afrikaans for Porch Sitting Festival). The idea is that you just sit, well actually the idea is that you can try to knit a woollen square if you wish which will be joined to other woollen squares to create a blanket or two for the needy, but I don’t expect the knitting is really the thing. The thing is to savour the time, the scenery and of course the neighbours. You can’t just sit, you should wander a little, chew the fat, get to know people and slow down. As Dave Walker (Rhodes most practised Stoepsitter) puts it, it is a case of “Ready, Steady, Sit”.


Accomplished “Stoepsitter” Dave Walker at “Walkerbouts”  in rare ambulatory pose, with stalwart
hostess Penelope Watson.

(image courtesy of Ed Herbst and Tom Sutcliffe)

I still have a bit too much three year old in me to just sit for an entire weekend but the point isn’t lost, we should sit a while on occasion, it can be frightfully enlightening.

Not long ago I was with clients on a local stream, it was warm and approaching lunchtime so we found a convenient boulder in the shade of a tree and ate lunch with our feet still immersed in the cool amber flow of the stream. We watched the water for signs of fish, chatted aimlessly about fishing, life and such, as one does and the client then looked up at the rocky hillside and asked “What are those?”.. “Those” turned out to be two klipspringer, a local buck its name literally translated to “Rock Jumper”. They are incredibly agile creatures, able to run up and down near sheer sandstone cliffs with gay abandon, they are also generally rather shy.


The shy Klipspringer, if you want to see them it behooves you to be still.

“Do you see many of them?” enquired the client, to which I was forced to reply “No very rarely, when I am on the river I never look up”. That is a sad indictment really, certainly I make a living from taking people fishing and I need to have my eye on the water, but still, we spend our time in the most magnificent scenery, a backdrop of majestic mountains, eagles soar overhead, dragonflies dance over the water, shimmering metallic attack helicopters chasing down lunch.

The river is never still, insects hatch and baboons drop in for a visit now and then. It is all really rather too good to miss by being overly focused on the fishing. But as we sat and watched the klipspringer come down to the water I became aware of a dimple on the surface of the pool, then another. Whilst we had sat quietly watching the natural world around us a trout had started to feed. By being still and quiet and just giving it time we now had our quarry in sight. It was obvious that had we rushed on we would have missed the chance and ultimately we had a fish in the net.

Then last week a similar occurrence, fishing away my colleague got a nasty tangle and so we set about sorting through the mess. By the time we had untangled the 7x macramé basket that had previously been a tapered leader and tippet a fish started to rise, right under the rod tip. A careful cast and the prize was ours, were it not for that tangle it would have been another chance gone begging.

When you stop for a while the most amazing things happen, and right now with the water in the rivers at a mid-summer low, the fish skittish after months of catch and release angling  and the sun high and bright in an azure sky, some quiet contemplation can pay dividends.  By taking the time to be still one can actually be more effective than by rushing about, you get to enjoy your day, see more of the natural world, wonder at its complexity and beauty and still catch as many or more fish than you would have.

This sitting lark is remarkably difficult to get into to start with, it takes some considerable self-control, but once you have witnessed the benefits, and convinced yourself that “just sitting” is actually “doing something” you will likely find that you are on to a real winner of a strategy.

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The Wrong Trousers

February 13, 2013


The Wrong Trousers.

I love Wallace and Grommet, the attention to detail in their films is simply incredible and as a fly angler one recognises that attention to detail can be all important.  A recent review of their movie “The Wrong Trousers” got me thinking, the simplest little things can make the biggest difference in terms of effectiveness and comfort on the river.

So it is with the choice of fishing pants, and hereabouts we frequently have no need for waterproof waders, the water simply isn’t that cold. Many of the trout streams are easily waded wet and the yellowfish rivers further north are warm enough for much of the year not to need any significant barrier other than that required for a degree of modesty.

Over the years we have experimented with various outfits, there was a time when we all simply used any old pants that were perhaps slightly too good to be put aside for painting and decorating. Some people used trousers that weren’t good enough for painting and decorating for that matter and the occasional soul would wear attire that you wouldn’t put out in the rubbish for fear that your neighbours might see them.

Denim Jeans

It however quickly became apparent that denim is not the thing, denims are cold, heavy and have the nasty tendency to “grab” your legs when wet, usually just as you leap nimbly from boulder to boulder, generally resulting in a spectacular aquatic face plant. The resulting falls are dangerous and more to the point; frighten the fish. The stiff blue fabric also produces the most incredibly painful chafing around your nether regions so denims were ruled out.

In fact we also rapidly worked out that underwear is generally to be eschewed for similar reasons, underpants stay damp when the rest of you is drying out and cause considerable heat loss as your femoral arteries pump warm blood close to the surface of your groin only to be constantly chilled by the evaporation from your wet knickers.. it just isn’t comfortable.RunningShorts

Some people wore running shorts, they are quick drying and don’t chafe, they also provide zero protection from the sun, snakes, horseflies and scratchy bushes and have the considerable disadvantage of nearly always being only available in neon colours.  So you end up, bitten, stung, scratched and still looking like a complete wally.


Pull on pyjama type pants found favour for a while, they were fashionable in the mainstream, and Country Feeling Clothing in Jefferies Bay produced some great ones. They were fairly fast drying, unrestrictive and inexpensive, they just weren’t that durable and over a season it was almost inevitable that the stitching around the backside would give out. We have all suffered the embarrassment of fishing on through the day with our naughty bits swinging free as a result of the failure of a seam or two.TornTrousers

Indeed I did once make it all the way back to town and into the queue in the bank before I noticed the problem, thank goodness it wasn’t my home town or for that matter my parent branch of the bank. One expects the occasional strange look from bankers, particularly if you are in slightly damp fishing gear but the intensity of the stares eventually drew my attention to the issue and I beat a hasty and rather undignified retreat.


Normal shorts are good, they don’t provide much protection from the brush but they do mean that you stay warmer than in long pants and if you can tolerate the bites from the horseflies they provide a good option for our trout streams. They aren’t much use if you are wading deep though, the discarded line as you retrieve has a nasty habit of catching in the hems making casting troublesome so they really only have merit on the shallower runs.

Rugby Shorts

I made the mistake of pulling on some black rugby shorts in something of a hurry last summer. In the African sun you don’t wish to wear black, as the day warmed my testicles were seriously questioning the wisdom of dropping in puberty and I spent most of the day sitting in the stream trying to ward off temperature induced sterility, it was a rather uncomfortable outing I have to say.

Fishing Pants

Over recent years it has become fashionable to wear what are described in the catalogues as “fishing pants”, generally they come in earthy tones which is good from the camouflage angle and have zip off bottoms to allow conversion to shorts which is also an advantage. In fact they have become something of the accepted attire and supposedly at least make you look like an angler. Great for posing for the camera or whilst leaning on the bar telling fishing stories. They just aren’t actually that practical.

The trouble is that they haven’t been designed by anyone who has ever flyfished. They sport all manner of pockets, buttons, buckles and little jangling tags on them that snag the line and cause havoc when your leader inadvertently washes around them.Drowning

They also hold a potentially dangerous little secret,  when wading in fast water at some point, as you get deeper, the pockets fill up with water, billow out like drogues in the current and spin you off your feet, if you are unfortunate, whisking you downstream to a watery grave. It is an angling technique known locally as “drown and across”.

I suppose that at least the police divers would be able to instantly recognise that you were an angler, and you would appear fashionably “outdoorsy” on the mortuary slab but it seems a high price to pay to get “The Look”.


For deep water wading I far prefer ladies lycra gym pants. No pockets, tight fitting, fast drying and extremely comfortable. Of course you look like a bit of a numpty but they do offer a practical solution except that they are almost always black and as a result will scorch your bottom if you wear them on hot summer days.


Right now I am back to wearing olive or beige coloured shorts, preferably ones without too many pockets. I get bitten by the horse flies on occasion and the bush frequently leaves blood running down my legs if I miss the path in and out of the stream, I have more than once become rather sunburned on the backs of my calves, but they offer a fairly practical and inexpensive solution.

One thing for sure, it is very difficult to be both practical and fashionable at the same time and I am one of those anglers who goes fishing to catch fish not to look good in my pictures. Which means that usually by day’s end I look as though my wardrobe was exclusively sourced from some army surplus store and that I have been dragged through a couple of hedges backwards.


It all works well enough, but if the car breaks down on the way home chances are I shall be arrested for vagrancy, I doubt that anyone will offer me a lift.

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Getting your Mojo Back.

February 9, 2013


An interesting little hypothesis:

It is an annoyingly common complaint I suppose, you set about doing something that you love for a living and then find that you don’t actually get to do too much of it as a result. Fly fishing guiding is no doubt one of those enterprises which on the surface provides the opportunity to immerse oneself in a passion and then at the end of the day turns out that you don’t have the time to enjoy it as much as perhaps you should.

Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do and I greatly enjoy teaching and guiding, I have had the opportunity of late to guide a good many novice anglers and to see the surprise and joy of catching their first fish on fly is worth any amount of struggle.


A young Jake Amaler, contemplates the complexities of the next run.

Plus I have a lovely office, surrounded by a wallpaper of gloriously majestic mountains, carpeted with cool clear mountain water and sporting a ceiling of bright blue sky in which the occasional fish eagle or perhaps a giant king fisher will show itself. It’s just that when the working week is over it is tricky to motivate oneself for the long drive back to the streams to enjoy them for one’s own personal pleasure. Plus at that point the clients have generally used up a heap of flies and I need to set at the vice in preparation once more, I just rarely seem to actually get to go fishing for my own pleasure for an entire day.

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother day at the office  

As a result many of my very few casts over fish are hurried and pressurised once offs in demonstration to a client. I generally don’t fish when I guide so the opportunities are few and far between, generally at tricky fish which the clients offer up to me when they are tired, or perhaps simply recognise the difficulty is beyond them and figure they will “give the guide a shot”.


Luke Criticos puts the benefits of some on stream coaching to good effect.

All of that means that I am nowhere near as practised as I once was and never really “get into the groove” as it were. On top of that the clients are generally outfitted with slightly shorter leaders than I would use and larger flies because they struggle to see the tiny ones. Over time one gets used to this set up and then when I cast a fly with my own gear it lands further away than I expect, I have trouble picking up the tiny morsel in the current and being out of practise miss the strike. Or at least that is what I thought was happening.


Visiting Aussie angler with his first ever trout on fly.

So it turns out that recently I was coaching a lady angler on the rivers, it was a voluntary thing and as such I was unlimited by the commercial constraints of not fishing and shared the time on the water. With that I had the chance to hone my skills a little, make more casts than usual and get used to my own set up, the longer finer leader and the smaller flies and would you believe I didn’t miss a fish.


Have I got my Mojo Back?

I would love to imagine that I have “got my mojo back”, but I don’t think that is actually the whole picture. It seems to me that the smaller and better presented flies illicit a far less circumspect view from the trout. They take the patterns with more confidence, slower and more deliberately. The minute hooks are not as easily detected by the fish in a mouthful of water and as a result they hang on a tad longer. All of that makes it easier to time the strike correctly and allow the small hook to gain a significant purchase.

This is how I always used to fish, it’s just that over time, with so many novice anglers or at least less proficient ones I had got into the habit of fishing a little less finely and as a result was missing fish left right and centre. Fishing “properly” is more tricky, troublesome at times but it does work, I suppose that’s the point.  Back in the groove, with long fine tippets, measured presentations and smaller flies the game has changed back to the way it was.

GuideFlies 001

I prefer small sparse parachute patterns for much of my fishing.

I suspect that there may be a good many anglers out there who experience the same thing, perhaps for different reasons. But if you have become used to the larger flies, the shorter leaders and the generally “easy” way of fishing beware. The process can be deceiving, it still looks as though you are being successful, the fish will frequently rise to the large patterns, success seems but a hair’s breadth away but at the end of the day you find that you missed a lot more than you actually hooked. Changing down to smaller patterns, pushing the limits of your leader, in both length and diameter and settling into a focused rhythm might just see your success rates climb again, it has proven to be a valuable lesson. Perhaps now I really do need to find the time to get out there on the water again for my own pleasure.