I have a problem with fishing maps. Now this may be my own fault, I am fully prepared to take some of the blame but in my experience most fishing maps bare about as much relationship to the river they purport to depict as an old fashioned identikit picture did to any human being, alive or dead. It looks like a river, it might even be the river you want to fish but quite which part and how you find it would need the skills of Davy Crockett on a good day. I suspect this may not be entirely accidental. If you provide the visitor with a dodgy map he wont be able to catch your fish, but I’m probably just being paranoid. In any event I have spent many frustrating hours driving round various parts of the UK, having paid my money, unable to match up my poorly photocopied map with the actuality on the ground. (They are a bit like those walking guides you used to get, you know, the ones that say after 250 yards take the left fork by the oak tree through the 5-bar gate. It is only later you realise that the notes were written 35 years ago and that fork, oak tree and gate are all under a small housing estate called “the Elms”). Once the seeds of doubt have been sown it is very difficult to relax and even if you think you have found the right beat there is always part of you that is wondering whether you have strayed onto the exclusive stretch next door and whether some large and irate keeper is going to harangue you. Under those conditions concentrating on delivering a drag free size 18 olive to the rise across the river becomes a little fraught.
And it’s not just on smaller, out of the way streams and rivers that this occurs. I remember being allowed to fish, on my own, a carrier of the Test that a friend had a rod on. I had my map, a black squiggle with a few seemingly arbitrarily placed bridges, and the advantage of the keeper escorting me to within 100 yards of the water and pointing out that the beat ran from that beech tree over there to the group of ashes over there. It was only after he had left that I discovered that the beech I thought he was referring to was in fact an oak and the ashes were alders so which particular trees he meant I had no idea. But my map will save me, I thought. Not a chance. Now you don’t want to make a mistake on a chalk stream so the only stretch I was absolutely certain I was allowed to fish was the 150 yards near the fishing hut so that is what I did, all day. Fortunately there were a lot of trout and grayling in that short piece of prime crystal-clear water and I had a good time but I did feel a bit of a fool. Where is the Ordnance Survey when you need it?
So the jaundiced eye I cast on the proffered map that was given to me by the guide in the Peacock Hotel for their stretch of the Derbyshire Wye was not entirely because I had had to get up at 3.45 am in order to be there by 9.30. Brian and I listened as Bernie explained the different areas we could fish, the access points and where we could leave the car, our excitement tempered by our past experiences. But, Heaven be praised, we should have had more faith for the map did not lie. We decided to park the car at the first stopping place up stream, walk back and fish up to the car again. The parking place was where the map showed it to be. We walked downstream and I felt slightly disorientated because I was orientated; you could follow your progress on the map. There was the left hand bend, there the looping curve and there the footbridge – hallelujah! So the map was accurate, the weather was perfect, the mayfly had begun to come off – we were in heaven.
Fly-fishing is a funny business. For some, being afloat on a large reservoir, rod in hand is Nirvana; for others it is fishing a remote Scottish lochan and for some it has to be a tropical paradise with bonefish and permit as the targets. Speaking personally my boat is floated by running water, preferably clear, wild trout, or a close approximation (you have to make some allowances in the 21st century) and a hatch of flies (which don’t have to be Mayflies, that is just jam). So I was in clover, on Cloud Nine and like a pig in some particularly dirty and smell stuff. The Wye looked perfect; its meadows sparkled with buttercups and ragged robin; small gatherings of flag iris brightened the scene in unexpected places. The air was filled with swifts and swallows, dippers nodded to you and water voles swam past like a scene from ‘Wind in the Willows’. Bernie had said that the fish were not yet preoccupied with the mayfly and that we should use small flies on the quiet water and reserve the big buggers for the faster, streamier water. When our progress downstream was stopped by a recently fallen tree we looked at the water in front of us. It was fast. We tied on large flies, a Grey Wolf in my case. We cast in and we caught fish. Sometimes fishing really is that easy, not often but sometimes. Both fish were stunning 14in rainbows and in the fast water made our rods bend. Mine managed to wrap the tippet round a root and I had to slip into the, fortunately, shallow river to free it. There is a strict wading embargo on this stretch of the Wye and, though I’m sure I would have been let off, I reckon wading has to be done in waders or you get wet and I was wearing boots and I didn’t so I was not wading.
After our initial success we thought we were going to fill our boots but it didn’t quite work out that way. For one thing the small fly in the calm water turned out to be trickier than we had imagined. Although Brian had some success, despite changing fly several times I could not buy a strike. I am sure the problem was drag. With large flies like the mayfly patterns you can sometimes get away with drag, at least with the duns you can. The fish are used to seeing the naturals struggling to take off and even a skating fly will sometimes take a fish. I remember a large brown on the Kennet travel a yard to take a deliberately (honestly) skated fly when it had repeatedly ignored the same fly on a dead drift. And here on the Wye I had several splashes at the fly when I was retrieving a fly in preparation for the next cast. But when you are fishing a size 18 drag is a thing you cannot afford and it can be dreadfully hard to spot especially when you are fishing fine and far off. The real pain, of course, is that drag can not only mean a refusal but a put down fish and that can be particularly irritating when you have spent some time crawling through spiky things in order to cast. Incidentally, why is the small inconsequential looking nettle with the particularly painful sting always just where you put your hand? A second problem was that the water had a little colour to it. Nothing terrible you understand but enough to mean that we were fishing to rises we could see rather than fish we could see and when you can’t judge the fish’s reaction to your offering your task is that much harder. I probably spent far too much time casting at fish that were just no longer there or that had given me a metaphorical finger and sunk into the depths.
The third problem affected the pair of us on both days and with small, medium and large flies. Often we could get a strike at our artificials but when we tightened…nothing. When this happens all you can do is experiment. Received wisdom is to say things like say “God save the Queen” before you lift the rod but this did not work. We did say quite a few things after we had tried to set the hook but we will gloss over these as they had absolutely nothing to do with timing. To be completely honest we never solved the problem, just got it right often enough to keep us happy but at times it did get very frustrating. I would catch a couple of fish and think I had found the answer only to have the line, leader and fly loop back in a tangle as I missed the next three. Even in the fast water this was a problem. There were fish lying below a big wear that were taking mayfly after they had been swept down through the white water. I managed a couple on the first day but on the second I must have had maybe 7 or 8 “takes” that resulted in nothing more than thin air. How can a trout grab a big fly with a big scalpel-sharp hook in fast water where, presumably, it has to make the decision to eat a fly instantly or lose it, how can it take that fly and reject it in a split second? It beats me; the reflexes of Ian Bell at short leg seem slow by comparison.
I did get a chance to see this close-up though I can’t say it helped – my “one that got away” story for the trip. It happened on the afternoon of the first day. I was creeping along, like you do, when I found a 2lb-plus rainbow tucked in under my own bank with a tall bush just upstream and a dead tree below; a nice safe lie for a trout. There was no way I was going to be able to cast conventionally but he was too good to pass up. I slowly worked my way towards the tree until I was able to lean on it and, hopefully, become as one with the tree. The trout was still there. So far, so good. Better, he was actively feeding on the mayflies and I watched him hang a foot below the surface, rise and take a fly and sink back down. Occasionally he would sink deeper and I would worry that he had sensed me standing there only 6 feet away only to see him rise again apparently unconcerned. It didn’t take a genius to work out that my only hope was a sort of guided dap of some kind. At this point I was using a variation of a Lively Mayfly which has a little touch of orange at the thorax. I can’t for the life of me remember where I picked up this dressing but the fish in the Wye liked it and it did look very like the Ephemera danica duns. Incidentally I believe both danica and vulgata species were coming off, there were certainly two different size flies involved. Mostly I prefer artificials that are relatively quick and easy to tie for river fishing because if you don’t loose flies on a reasonably regular basis you’re not fishing the right places but the Lively Mayfly is an exception. It is not quick or easy, at least not for me, but it is very buoyant and very effective.
Anyway, I inched my rod tip out over the water with the fly dangling beneath and attempted to flick it upstream of the trout. My position was so cramped that I am sure it was mostly will power that got it there. The breeze was downstream – isn’t it always – and I had several (read that as dozens of) attempts before I could drop the fly in the right place and quite how I managed to avoid the clutches of the bush upstream I am not at all certain. So the fly floated down over the trout, the trout tipped up and sipped in the fly and I pulled it out of its mouth. You have to remember that I thought I was on a fool’s errand and that there was no way that trout was going to take my fly. Because of the limited space the rod tip hadn’t moved too far and the tangle was only mildly like a cat’s cradle. I had to move out from the tree to restore order and then crawl back in but the trout was still there and still feeding. I think it must have been a few books short of a library but I obviously hadn’t pricked it so I went to work again. By this time Brian had managed to get into a position where he could watch the action and so we both saw the fly, with huge artistry and skill and at only the 23rd attempt, alight and begin its short journey. Up rose the trout and down went the fly. We both saw the fly disappear into the rainbow’s mouth. We both saw the mouth close and the fish drop down. And we both saw the fly reappear like a Polaris missile and spin round a dead branch when I tightened. How do they do that?
River fishing is full of little encounters like that, moments that stay with you forever to be run like a personal DVD whenever you want. The day continued with small victories and small defeats; fish winkled out from difficult places and some missed or put down that should have been a doddle. All the while the improbably large ephemeroptera studded the water and peppered the air. We saw no one. It was my first time on the Derbyshire Wye and I fell in love with this happy river with its wild trout and grayling. The landscape is stunning, the hills dotted with old farm houses built of warm limestone, just on the comfortable side of rugged – a thing that England does so well. Brian and I stopped fishing at about 6pm when the hatch of mayflies began to tail off, as Bernie had said it would, and drove back to the hotel for a shower, a good meal and a bottle of wine. The effect of all three meant that Brian’s well known sleeping warthog impression failed to disturb. It had been the best day’s fishing I had had for years. A British river in late May has such a fragile beauty that adding wild trout seems almost too much. And as I drifted off that night with the warthog limbering up I could only thank my lucky stars that we had another day on the Wye to look forward to.