Archive for May, 2021

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.