Fly Fishing Devon: Instruction & Guiding on Dartmoor Rivers

"The great charm of fly fishing is that we are always learning."- Theodore Gordon

    Reviews of:
  • Simon Gawesworth “Single-Handed Spey Casting”

  • John Gierach "Fly Fishing Small Streams"

  • Ed Engle "Fishing Small Flies"

  • Peter Hayes "Fly Fishing Outside the Box: Emerging Heresies"

Review of Simon Gawesworth’s book “Single-Handed Spey Casting”

Very occasionally a book comes along with the potential to fundamentally change how we approach fishing for trout. Simon Gawesworth’s book falls into that category. Paradoxically it contains little that is truly revolutionary. Instead it applies what is already known about the mechanics of fly casting in a novel context. For years spey casting has been used by anglers fishing for salmon with double-handed rods. Gawesworth uses clear photographs and well-chosen words to show how spey casts can be used with a single-handed rod on rivers with restricted space for overhead casting. Gawesworth grew up fishing narrow rivers in Devon that are characterised by overhanging vegetation. The inhabitants are small (six to 12 inches long), wild and ‘spooky’’.

Knowledge of Spey casting is invaluable in this type of situation. But I fished these rivers for over 25 years using conventional overhead casts. And so did everybody I met. Consequently fishing effort tended to be concentrated in a few large, open, often slow-moving pools that contained progressively fewer and fewer sizeable fish. And a tradition of river maintenance developed that relied on clearing overhanging vegetation to facilitate overhead casting. Removing overhanging vegetation can expose fish to aerial predation and lead to a downward spiral in fish habitat and angler enjoyment. Hopefully – by showing how to cope with bankside obstructions - Gawesworth’s book will lead to a more sympathetic approach to preserving good trout habitat on our rivers.
Nowadays many anglers learn to cast on stillwaters and then progress to fishing for wild brown trout in rivers where short accurate casts are needed. Some find the transition difficult. In part this is caused by unsuitable tackle. Fast tip actioned rods are well-able to cast a fly a country mile and there is obviously a market for this type of equipment. But trying to learn how to roll cast a short (10-15 feet) length of fly line with one of these rods can be difficult. Gawesworth’s book may encourage more manufacturers to develop rods that enable the average angler to roll cast with confidence. Already we are beginning to see innovation in fly line design with the introduction of Skagit lines for single-handed rods.

“Single-Handed Spey Casting” presents clear descriptions of the roll, switch, single spey, double spey, snake roll and snap T casts. These casts drag the fly through the water in the initial lift phase of the cast. This is not a problem if you want to reposition a wet fly across and downstream. But small stream trout fishing usually involves casting a dry fly upstream, and spey casts can waterlog a dry fly. Gawesworth describes how to overcome this problem in a chapter devoted to the dry-fly spey cast. This is a combination cast. It starts with several overhead or side false casts to dry the fly, followed by a single spey or snake roll cast to deliver the fly upstream and across the river.

However on some rivers Gawesworth's dry-fly spey cast is difficult because bankside vegetation prevents overhead or side casts. Also – as a casting instructor - I have found that timing the single spey element of the cast can be difficult for beginners to master. But it is possible to substitute other casts described by Gawesworth for the single spey element. Gawesworth advises beginners to use the 'crude spey' cast before attempting to master the conventional single spey. The crude spey involves lifting the rod and sweeping it overhead until it points at the target. Lowering the rod point dumps line just downstream of the angler. The angler then forms a D loop before executing the forward stroke. One advantage of the crude spey is that it need not be rushed. The angler has plenty of time to avoid snagging the line on vegetation and set up the D loop opposite the intended target. Once the student has gained confidence with a crude spey they can be introduced to the snap T cast. This has the same function as a single spey and many people seem to find it an easier cast to master.

Incidentally, water can be flicked off a fly by repeated roll casts made directly upstream well away from fish holding areas. I use the phrase ‘ line parking area’ to describe this area of relatively shallow, slow moving and unproductive water to distinguish it from deeper fish-holding water along the opposite bank. The line preparation area can also be used to adjust the amount of line outside the rod tip prior to using a crude spey cast to deliver the fly.

Read more about our approach to single-handed spey casting here ...

John Gierach "Fly Fishing Small Streams"

John Gierach's "Fly Fishing Small Streams" is a beautifully constructed mixture of 'how-to' information and mental approach to small stream fishing. For example, Gierach has a refreshing approach to the 'lunker' mentality:

"So let me introduce an idea - just something to kick around: Maybe your stature as a fly fisherman isn't determined by how big a trout you can catch, but by how smalla trout you can catch without being disappointed, and, of course, without losing the faith that there's a bigger one in there". (From 'Fly Fishing Small Streams").

We are lucky because Dartmoor's rivers teem with small trout, which at times can be free rising and liberate childish delight in all of us. And there are occasional bigger trout in surprising places. Last season a colleague returned a 14" trout within yards of a normally busting tourist honey trap, and there is always the possibility of hooking a sea trout.

Time is short in instruction sessions. We constantly feel under pressure to teach purely mechanical skills - controlling wrist break or tying knots that won't slip. Just as important is the need for stealth when approaching and entering the water. Often the best thing to do is simply stand still and do nothing. But fifteen minutes of just standing and staring would be hard to justify in a short session.
Gierach devotes an entire chapter to this important topic which begins:

"I think stealth , and its various manifestations rates it own chapter. It's an underrated skill in fly fishing that's often listed after casting, entomology, wading, and even fly tying in order of importance, but I could introduce you to several fly fishers around here who can't cast worth a damn, don't know a mayfly from a barn owl, and wade like buffaloes, but who still catch lots of trout because they know how to sneak up on them."

Pure Gierach - seemingly effortless prose but used with deadly precision.
He has useful things to say about many topics including: etiquette, casting a dry fly downstream rather than the conventional upstream approach, the use of streamers - a very underused technique, and the perennial problem of choosing a rod for small stream fishing

"I once worked in a fly shop and the hardest thing I had to do there was help customers pick out fly rods - customers who didn't know exactly what they wanted, that is. What most chose to do was take every rod in the store out into the parking lot for a test drive and then buy the one they could cast the furthest with. I spent a lot of time, saying things like, "Well, that's very nice, but most of the casts you'll be making around here will be more like from here to that pickup truck, less than thirty feet - sometimes considerably less."

How true, how very, very true. An awful lot of rods seem designed to cast into the next county. And to emphasize how 'fast' they are, they sport names that you normally see on the back of sports cars.

Gierach's chapter on fly selection is refreshingly honest. He describes two familiar stages of developing an appropriate fly collection that - believe me - we all go through: Stage 1 is 'thrashing around' collecting every fly known to man and buying ever-more complicated and expensive fly boxes. I have found myself seriously considering buying a box designed to keep water out, despite owning a much simpler fly box that was carefully constructed to allow water on flies to drain out! Some folk progress to Stage 2 which involves 'over-simplification' - a tiny collection of patterns based on the theory that trout in small streams are 'generalists' and will eat anything that floats past them. Or, as Gierach puts it:

If I absolutely had to go fishing with only two flies, they'd be an Adams and a Hare's Ear Soft Hackle, but lets not kid ourselves. Nobody goes fishing with just two flies unless he's secretly using worms or trying to win a bet."

I confess to almost becoming stuck at this 'minimalist' stage of development. If you find yourself in a similar predicament, take a look at Ed Engle's "Fishing Small Flies". This may help us progress to Stage 3 - Matching the Hatch.

Ed Engle's "Fishing Small Flies"

One unique feature in Engle's book is the series of "Match the Life Cycle" diagrams that summaries the life cycle, patterns and fishing tactics for the types of insects we encounter on Dartmoor rivers and streams: ephemeroptera, midges, and microcaddis. We may not really need to closely match the hatch, but it helps boost confidence - and gives a new dimension to the richness of the fishing experience - if you have a rationale for using a particular fly presented in a particular manner.

Engle devotes an entire chapter to the importance of taking time to watch how trout rise; this may give a clue as to the insects they are feeding on, and perhaps more importantly where they are feeding - taking insects on or just below the surface. He draws on Marinaro's distinction between simple, complex and compound rise forms and repeats Marinaro's explanation that these different forms reflect the trout's level of suspiciousnessabout the (artificial) fly.

I am a great admirer of Marinaro's work, but I might quibble with the idea that trout are suspicious. Certainly it looks like suspicion from a human point of view. But it's difficult see how this behaviour would have evolvedin trout. I prefer the simpler explanation that variations in rise forms are due to the trouts' visual system, environmental factors such as the rate of current flow, and the structure of different insects. But then I am known as a bit of a pedant about this type of thing!

The important point is that Engle's chapter on observation together with Gierach's chapter on stealth and watercraft will help you get more enjoyment from your fishing

Engle stresses simplicity in his choice of tackle. For example, he goes into great detail on leader design. But his open-mindedness shines through when he admits that he "still goes back and forth" about the merits of knotless over hand tied leaders. He gives the following down to earth advice:

"The key is to experiment with different leader designs until you find one that works for normal conditions where you fish."

The problem of 'drag' figures prominently throughout the book. For example:

"Drag is especially challenging for small-fly fishermen because its effects can be more difficult to detect when fishing a fly that may not be even visible on the water's surface. The best course of action is to assume that drag exists on anything but the shortest of casts and act accordingly. Consider your position before the cast, use casts that put slack in the leader, and if necessary, mend the fly line once it's on the water to counteract drag."

Descriptions of the whole range of techniques that avoid drag and achieve dead-drift presentation when fishing dry flies and nymphs are at the heart of Engle's book.

Engle's suggested knot

Engle also reproduces the full instructions for tying the surgeon's loop or double-overhand loop knot which is used to attach the fly to the tippet. The fly is held within a loop at the end of the tippet. This  reduces the 'lashing tail' effect which can occur with a conventional clinch or half-blood knot: A simple step but it may just make the difference between success and failure.

An appreciation of "Fly Fishing Outside the Box: Emerging Heresies" by Peter Hayes

Published by Coch-y-Bonddu Books, Machyynlleth, 2013
Peter Hayes succeeds in his aim of encouraging anglers of all abilities to question what they have been told about fly fishing for trout. He doesn't expect the reader to agree with his conclusions, but urges them to avoid "... accepting a structure of supposed truths about fishing the fly ...".

He has 30 years experience on English chalk streams. I come from a different background; the rivers and streams of Dartmoor: granite not chalk, small wild brown trout with runs of larger sea trout.
The last paragraph in the book answers the question most anglers ask at some time: "What flies should I use?". The list is hardly controversial: Parachute Adams, Elk Hair Caddis, Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear etc. But the message I take from Chapter 12 ("Dry flies from outside the box")is to look at well established patterns, make an educated guess about why they are effective, and incorporate those designfeatures into your own flies.

I call this the Lloyd Morgan's Canon approach to fly design. For example, here is my Comparadun Tups. It looks a mess but it works for me. Why? It borrows elements from Tups Indispensible (body) and the Sparkle Dun (comparadun wing), but maybe it's simply due to my confidence in this fly.

The book covers a wealth of interesting topics: Should the tippet be greased?; What's the best fly floatant?; using a slack line cast to aid presentation and prevent drag.
Chapter 6 "How fish see the leader"argues that because a floating leader is less visible to trout we should not follow the conventional advice to de-grease the tippet. I must confess that I don't have strong feelings either way on this point.

Personally I'm not convinced that trout react to the leader as a sign of danger. I would need to be convinced that tippet acted as a selection pressure that led to the evolution of 'leader shyness' in trout. Or that learning to avoid the leader is an example of " preparedness"But maybe I'm trapped inside a box of evolutionary prejudices.

I do hold eccentric views on fly floatants ( Chapter 7 'Whatever floats your fly'). I am a firm believer in the value of all the "faffing about" involved in applying this stuff to flies. Why? Because it wastes time, and wasting time is important after you have caught a fish, scared the 'bejeesus' out of its companions, and then hope to catch another from the same pool. Going through the ritualof drying the fly with an amadou patch, applying a water repellant powder, and finally applying a paste floatant all help to allow time for the pool, and the angler to recover.

Chapter 5 (Casting every which way - but loose)presents a convincing case for casting a loose leader and tippet to avoid drag. I confess that when I am instructing I do teach beginners to cast a straight line which the author describes as " exactly the opposite of what you want to achieve."

Why do I do this? In two words, accuracy and speed. On my local rivers the angler needs to place the fly accurately and be prepared to react quickly to an offer. In the relatively shallowparts of our rivers it helps to be able to present a fly just outside the edge of the trout's window which can be around 12 inches in diameter. And it helps if the angler reacts quickly to any offers. Slack line doesn't help in this situation. In fact I advise anglers to take up slack by raising the rod tip as the fly travels downstream. This can help to hook a fish that rises to the fly.

I'm sure the slack line technique is the answer on chalk streams if a relatively long drag free drift is required. But on Dartmoor I might title Chapter 5: "Casting every which way but overhead"because of another of my heresies,I encourage visitors to avoid false casting and use a roll rather than overhead cast. One problem with overhead casting is that flies inevitably get caught in trees and bankside vegetation. This can be particularly frustrating on small tree-lined westcountry rivers.

Chapter 15 (Pushing the envelope: Mimicking the secrets of the trout's larder)resonates with me: the significance of small (hook size 20) chironomids in the diet of rivertrout; the challenge of creating artificials to represent simuliums (reed smuts and blackfly) and members of the glossomatidae family of caddis. These ' neglected' flies are common on rivers running off Dartmoor.

There is a lot in this book that will interest readers curious about the history of fly fishing. Chapter 19 (Reading outside the box)is an enjoyable review of the origins of fishing with a dry fly. It may not tell you much about how to catch fish but it throws a cautionary light on the role of the ego in the history of fly fishing.

Chapter 20 (Full circle with Tenkara)compares Tenkara with the original methods of fly fishing in Britain. The author suggests that Halford's Dry Fly Revolution killed off the long established Tenkara-like approach in Britain. I agree with the author that Tenkara is not appropriate when large trout are expected. But at least this chapter suggests a solution to a problem that I hope to face in the next few years: teaching a grandchild to fly fish for small wild Dartmoor trout- Tenkara looks the way to go.