by Craig Rist - Presented from Issue 91
By the time the month of April has arrived, the end of the brown trout season on our rivers is steadily coming to an end. Those magic days of trout rising to a hatch of insects are all but over. To the avid dry fly fisher, this is a reality that is hard to take at the end of every season. For me, it’s time to change tact, just like the trout in a river have to do to survive. As the amount of fly life in the river starts to taper off, more and more trout in the lower Mersey revert back to feeding on the native galaxia (baitfish), just as they do at the start of the season.
Although these trout in the lower Mersey River never really stop feeding on the native Galaxia, they seem to seek out these small schools of baitfish with even more determination at this time of year. The schools of baitfish, that are present in the river at this time, provide a perfect food source for these trout who are out to put on as much condition as possible in readiness for spawning.
Wet fly Fishing
For some fly fishers, tying on a big wet at this time of year is hard to do after spending most of the summer watching fish come up to a dry fly. As with all fishing, wet fly fishing is what you make of it. There are still plenty of opportunities to sight fish and search those likely areas where trout like to hunt this small baitfish.
Sometimes, blindly searching the likely stretches of a river is the only option. The term blind searching may be a little harsh when it comes to fishing rivers, as any angler who has spent time on a river soon learns where trout are likely to be. A good systematic approach to effectively fish a river when things are quiet is to swing a fly down and across the width of the river. One of the things you learn relatively quickly in fly fishing is that fish don’t take kindly to a fly line landing over them. This is can be one of the biggest disadvantages of fly-fishing in any blind searching scenario. Using the down and across method is one way of ensuring your fly will be the first thing a trout sees as it swings from one side of the river to the other.
Once you understand that, you’re really only fishing the length of your leader as it swings across stream. Any further lengthening of your line or movement down stream can be made with this in mind. This method of swinging a fly down and across stream is used to catch fish in rivers all over the world with great affect. The basic method is to cast a line down and across the river at approximately 45 degrees allowing it to swing across the river until it is directly below your position. This simple act gives the fly a unique action as it drifts down stream and then swims back into the current as the fly line straightens out. Trout often respond to this sudden change of speed and direction and will take advantage of what may look like a baitfish struggling to swim against the flow of the river. Imparting some life into the fly by shaking the rod tip or stripping in line can enhance this basic technique to further trigger a response.
Fishing deep water with a floating line can often require the cast to be delivered further up and across stream to allow the fly time to sink before it is swung across stream. Any drag on the fly at this stage will slow or stop its ability to sink effectively. Manipulating the fly line on the water by mending the fly line is often needed to allow the fly to sink and to have a straight line by the time it is ready to be swung across at the usual 45 degrees position. Failure to do this may have the unwanted affect of the fly line being presented to the fish ahead of the fly.
One other thing to consider when fishing down stream is the real possibility of getting broken off during a savage take when you have a tight line pointing straight down stream. A good way to avoid this is to leave a loop of slack line between the reel and the line held against the cork in your rod hand. This loose line can then be allowed to slip through your fingers as a fish takes the fly. This extra line also allows time for a fish to turn down slightly which can also improve the hooking angle.
When you’re lucky enough to be on a river during a blue sky day, sight fishing with the aid of Polaroid sun glasses can be like fishing in an aquarium. It’s amazing just what you see and learn when you take the time to stop casting for a moment and observe the world of a trout from an elevated level. Basic things, like where trout like to position themselves in a river are not always obvious from the limited viewpoint you have when you’re standing in the river.
As always, having a spotter positioned high on the bank to spot fish and then relay their position to you, is always going to give you the upper hand. Sharing the role of spotter is especially useful when fishing areas such as backwaters where trout could turn up anywhere along these slower parts of the river as they patrol the edges. The use of a spotter is widely used in places such as New Zealand and is just as effective here.
As winter approaches these blue sky days are also coming to an end. More often than not, clouds cover the sun at this time of the year causing the reflections of the sky to limit your vision beneath the surface, to those areas of the river that have high banks and over-hanging trees to shield the water surface from these reflective rays. These small windows can offer the last possible viewpoint to spot fish during an overcast day.
Slower side waters and backwaters are perfect places to stop and wait for a trout to return on its beat. This scenario presents the perfect opportunity to ambush a trout with a fly using a short bow and arrow cast from within the cover of the tree lined riverbank. At this moment you dare not move a muscle as the fish responds to the sinking fly. This can end in two ways, the fish rejects your fly or it inhales it before your eyes, prompting you to set the hook. If, however, the fish has not sensed the fly in the water, a slight twitch of the rod tip to impart some life to the fly will often get their attention.
With the exception of watching a trout swim up to a dry fly, sight fishing doesn’t get mush better than this. There are always going to be times when your vision into the water is going to be compromised by circumstances that are out of your control. During these times your sight fishing is going to be limited to the disturbances and sounds made by trout feeding on baitfish.
Small baitfish seek refuge out of the fast water along the shallow rocky and sometimes weedy edges of the river. The quiet water, hard in under the willows, will also provide shelter for these small fish and unfortunately for them, large trout also. Knowing such basic things as the behavior of the trout’s food source gives you a better understanding of where to start.
These sheltered waters often erupt with the sound and sight of a trout churning up the water as it eagerly tries to expose an easy target. With many trout hunting the edge of the shallows or under the willows, sometimes the best place you can be is out in the middle of the river with the fly line stretched out behind you ready to make a quick cast in the direction of the next disturbance. If you can get the fly into the attack zone quick enough and then quickly strip the fly back out into deeper water, you stand a real chance of hooking up to a good fish.
There are many different flies that are used to imitate small baitfish. Everyone has their “go to” flies when it comes to targeting trout feeding on small baitfish. Old favorites, such as Black Woolly Buggers and fur flies, like the Yetti, are still used with great affect on the Mersey River Galaxia feeders. I like to use these flies tied with a bit of weight, on size 10 or 8 hooks.
These small flies are easy to cast on a 4-weight rod and will sink as soon as they hit the water. Flies that are tied without additional weight can become aerated during the cast, causing them to float unnaturally on the surface at the most inappropriate time. As is often the case, presentation can be more important than the fly you choose.
Boating the Mersey
A river of this size really lends itself to drifting down its length by boat. Fish that are usually out of reach are fair game when you have some type of watercraft to make them accessible. A well setup boat will have a rear anchor ready to deploy, whenever there is the need to hold off an area that may require more than one or two casts. This would almost certainly be the case if you were the sole occupant of any watercraft. Something to remember, during any float trip, is that it may be more beneficial to get out of the boat and fish a productive area from the shore, than to over shoot it with a boat. After all, using a boat in a river is merely a tool to cover a lot of water and hopefully access more fish.