Low water success
Steve Cullen shows you how to catch river trout in low water conditions
DURING summer and often into autumn, warm temperatures and low water make f ishing diff icult, but on a river, it’s a war of attrition! Just now, the evenings tend to be productive for catching trout on f ly. In fact, many anglers won’t f ish the river until then. I agree, day time f ishing can be ver y diff icult but catching trout in low water can be ultra-rewarding and with a handful of tactics and f lies, low water can sometimes be ver y productive.
Lose the baggage
Be prepared to cover a lot of ground during the day in search of f ishable stretches. A low, late-summer river is a tough mistress but by focusing on certain water, you massively increase your chances. Travel light, I use a good qualit y chest pack – not too heav y and not overfull, keep it minimal. My rods are light, nothing over a 3w t, you want minimum disturbance in low f lows. I like my Drift XL, it goes from 9ft 6in, ideal for small dries, to 10ft 2in, making the action softer so that it’s spot-on for nymphing. It also allows me to do what I want without changing rods. A few f ly boxes and a spare spool with a sinking line (I’ll explain later), lightweight tippet (diameters from 0.14mm down to 0.008mm), a tapered leader or two plus some floatant, sinkant and you’re good to go. Polarised glasses are a must, not only do they allow you to spot f ish but there’s always the safet y aspect.
Location is key
Trout need three things – oxygen, food and safety. Consider this when you look at a stretch of water. I’ll tr y a well-oxygenated run, which f lows down into a deep pool. These can be great holding areas in most river conditions but in low water it’s a godsend. Trout move into the faster water (oxygen) to feed (food) and then drop back again to the deeper water and their bolt hole (safet y).
On the dries
Star t at the pool tail, a place that’s occupied by trout in ever y thing apart from the brightest and harshest of conditions. Begin with a single dr y f ly, as it’s a pool tail it’s of ten fairly shallow, so I go with a small f ly. I like small Olive patterns in size 19 and 21. Trust me, f ish will hold in water that barely covers their backs, and you won’t see them until they come up to your dr y.
“Trout need three things to survive – oxygen, food and safety.”
To f ish dries blind properly, keep casts relatively short, you don’t want to be ‘lining’ f ish left, right and centre. Grid the water, starting close to your bank and working across. Once you’re over to the far side, take a few steps upstream and repeat coming back to the bank that you started on. Keep movements slow and precise, you’ll cover the water effectively.
Once into the pool proper – water that’s over your knees – and with some semblance of pace, and ONLY if I’ve seen no risers, I’ll switch to the ‘duo’ method. The duo is a nymph suspended underneath a dr y f ly, a kind of two-forone deal. It can be good for smaller f ish but it rarely dupes the bigger, wiser ones. For this method I use a nine-foot tapered leader, but cut it back to six feet. To this I attach three feet of 0.14mm tippet and a size 12 dr y f ly, usally a small Klinkhamer, and I’ll stick 24 inches of 0.10mm tippet to the bend of the Klink hook. On the point goes a size 16 or 18 nymph. Depending on the depth of water I keep a bit of distance between the dr y and nymph, usually two feet as this allows the nymph to sink and f ish closer to the river bed. In shallower water, when f ishing around weeds and rocks, I reduce the dropper length to around 10 to 12-inches.
Fish both flies
It’s important that your dr y f ly isn’t just an indicator or f loat for the nymph, your choice should be based on a pattern suited to the river – one that you’d normally f ish on its own. This dr y f ly will also lead to increased takes throughout the day, if trout start feeding on the surface. Remember you’re fishing two methods at once – the dr y and nymph. Always plan your route up the run or riverbank, never just walk into it. Read the water and form a plan as to how you’re going to approach and f ish all of the river, not just the good bits! Pinpoint where you think the food is coming downstream, bubble lines indicate where trout will position themselves in the river as this is where the food is. It’s also a good idea to have an area picked out downstream of where you’re f ishing so that you can play and land your trout, minimising surface splashing, which spooks other fish.
One of my favourite methods for shy, summer fish is French nymphing – it’s good for fast, riff led water and obstaclestrewn runs in clear, low water! Either fishing with one or two nymphs French nymphing is often devastating. No f ly-line is used and this means there’s ver y little drag, as there’s no fat f ly-line to be pulled by the current. I use ver y long, tapered leaders, up to and over six metres. The taper allows the f lies to turn over better, the weight of your f ly/f lies loads the rod without the need for f ly-line – use a soft actioned rod. Attached to this tapered leader are some brightly-coloured mono sections for take detection. I apply some luminous grease to this section too. On the business end, I then attach a ver y fine tippet of 0.12 to 0.08mm, depending on water depth and clarit y (clearer the water, thinner the diameter). Tippet length is also determined by the depth of water. I usually have one metre of tippet to the first nymph and 40centimetres to the second. Small tungsten-beaded nymphs, usually Hare’s Ear or Pheasant Tail variants, are best, tied on 14 , 16 and 18 hooks. Drag-free line control and take detection are the most important aspects to this method and again stealth, which ever y angler should practice in all conditions. Position yourself downstream of where you think trout are holding and, in your head, divide your target area into sections. For example, make your f irst cast at 10 o’clock, then 11 and so on till
2 o’clock, repeating several times, and var y the speed at which it f ishes, dead drift to pulling faster than the current, before moving on. Concentrate on your indicator, which sits on the surface or above if you choose to ‘high stick’, for any interruption in its downstream movement. Lead the f lies by holding the rod downstream of the indicator, pulling the f lies slightly faster than the current at times, but always maintaining complete contact with them. A lways perform a striking action before making your next cast; a fish may have taken on the lift.
If a trout has taken a dr y, then from the instant I lift the rod tip, the tip stays high. When trout come to take a dry f ly then they normally come up vertical and go down vertical. To keep the hook where you want it, upwards pressure always scores best. Just be sure that you have enough give in your drag, just in case of any lunges. When nymphing, as the indicator t witches I’ll strike. I’ll move my wrist back, which has the effect of moving the rod tip about a metre, more than enough to set the hook. Once I feel the f ish on I immediately tr y and pull the f ish downstream with side strain. Get the fish away from the other trout, the ones still upstream that I’ve yet to cover. Keep the rod low with the tip to the water all the way through the fight. Even when the trout jumps or thrashes, keep the tip low to the water. The leader I use has enough stretch, so with that and a fully bent rod, I can get away with it. With any method, I always get downstream of the f ish to net it. It just makes ever y thing easier. When I get its head out of the water, the f ish tracks downstream in the current and into my net. I’m not PULLING it over my net against the f low. I’ve seen boys bounce f ish over fast water to the net, if that trout takes a dive in the fast water it’s normally game over. Take your time, play the f ish out and get downstream of it before you net it.
If you do hook that special f ish and it heads downstream into water that you don’t like the look of, DON’T apply strain! Let it run. You’ve more chance of landing it by follow ing the f ish, getting wet, climbing over rocks and obstacles than you have tr ying to put the brakes on a running f ish, trust me! I lost a char a while ago in Iceland. I’d played it for 20 minutes on a 3w t rod and at the end of the f ight it f inally headed to the slack pool tail – sadly, there was some serious fast water below it. I tried to stop the char, thinking that it was tired… it wasn’t. The result, was me losing possibly the biggest char ever caught in Iceland with a f ly rod. The guide estimated the f ish at around 20lb!
Death on a stick - Streamers
People say that pike are the ultimate predators, but I think it’s trout. Trout get territorial in low water and so I f ish a small – international rules – Streamer when I’ve exhausted all other methods. Trout can’t help themselves when it comes to streamers. For this style of f ishing, choose the ‘dead’ water, long slow pools with lots of tree cover – the kind of water you’d often overlook. I f ished such a section not so long ago, 300 yards of NOTHING water, switching from dry f ly to duo all the way up. I did well, landing three f ish and losing one. Once at the ver y top where the depth was such that I couldn’t go any further for fear of going over my waders, I changed tactics. Off came the floater and on went the slow sink line, tapered leader (six feet) and a three-foot section of 6lb fluoro carbon and my small black and red streamer. I fished the exact same water all the way down to the bottom of the beat where I’d started. The results were startling. Water that you’d swear was pretty devoid of life produced nine ‘proper brownies’, wild fish between a half pound and 2lb! I cast the f ly hard into the opposite bank, in under trees or up against the bank. My streamers feature a 3.5mm tungsten bead so that when they hit the water they make a heav y plop, which gets the trout’s interest! Be ready for a hit straight away on your f irst strip, they can hit it so fast. Retrieves are simple, one foot strips are best and retrieve right back to your feet. If you do get a hit but no hook-ups on your retrieve, take a minute before you cast again. Get the f ly in the exact same spot, but this time tuck the rod under your arm and use a roly-poly retrieve. That same fish will come back again and this time it’ll of ten hook itself ! Whichever one of these methods you employ, choose the correct water for the method and you won’t go far wrong. The photographs for this feature were shot on the River Risca in Wales, the week before the international, so you can imagine it had been battered by some of the UK’s best anglers. But by employing some of the above tactics, the f ishing was worth it!
“The result was me losing possibly the biggest char ever caught in Iceland with a fly rod. The guide estimated the fish at around 20lb!”
Words & pictures: Steve Cullen
Steve nets a good brown trout on a low River Ebbw in Wales.
Steve’s leader material of choice. Always use balanced gear. Essential items for the business end. The River Ebbw wild browns are easy on the eye. TACKLE YOU NEED
Weir pools provide much-needed oxygen in low water conditions.