Hunting with the Big Red
Alternative tactics help Andrew Flitcroft catch Draycote Water’s prolific surface-feeders
Boatcraft and a deadly dry-fly help Andrew Flitcroft on Draycote
WWHICH ENGLISH RESERVOIR offers the most consistent dry-fly sport? Let’s look at the contenders. Could it be Chew Valley and Blagdon, which are generally shallow and warm quicker than most? They have a rich history of dry-fly fishing and must surely be on the podium. Grafham would be up there, too. Despite its often green-tinged water, if the fish aren’t rising – which they frequently do – they will come “blind” to a dry-fly. Eyebrook is also good, although its most productive, shallow areas can colour easily in a strong prevailing wind or if the brook is in flood. No, if I had to stick my neck out, I would argue that the most consistent water is currently Draycote, where anglers come from far and wide to enjoy tremendous summer surface sport. I know of friends from Ireland that visit Draycote every year and their teams of floating flies rarely fail. Every season rods wait for news of the first risers on Draycote because when the trout are up, the fishing can be exceptional. I’d got wind of big fish coming to surface methods last July and headed off with a box of dry-flies and a five-weight to fish with up-and-coming angler and Draycote ranger Tom Bird, who had been catching fine fish on dry patterns. Tom has a degree in Fisheries Management and Aquaculture from Sparsholt College and aged only 24 already has an impressive track-record on reservoirs and rivers, including twice fishing for his country. Given that he’s a guide at Draycote I needn’t worry about finding fish.
“It was the perfect dry-fly day: bright with a fair bit of cloud cover and a slight breeze”
It was the perfect dry-fly day: bright with a fair bit of cloud cover and a slight breeze – enough to muster a ripple everywhere but the lee shore. That’s where we headed, to the top of the wind, a point between the Inlet and Draycote Dam known as Flat Stones. It forms a small oasis of vegetated bank with dams (of which there are many at Draycote) on both sides. The water here is shallow and often attracts grown-on fish from the deepest part of the reservoir around nearby B Buoy when the shallow’s weedbeds and their associated food are established. I’d caught trout here before. In the early ’90s, when I was a fledgling reservoir angler, I remember fishing for Trout Fisherman magazine with a chap called Bob Wallinger, who targeted Draycote’s huge grown-on trout. The “deeps” were (and still are) one of Bob’s hotspots and the tales he told of huge fish following his flies to the boat have stayed with me. Bob fished with huge lures on customised super-fast sinking lines, but knowing that big trout like this area and must occasionally enter the shallows around Flat Stones has always drawn me to it.
No sooner had we set the drift than we saw fish rising. Tom was in first, netting a stockie of around a good dry-fly day. If fish are rising first thing, the This day promised to be no different. The theory: it’s better to fish two flies well than
says that Draycote fish move quickly and tend to cover more water between rises than on most
apart on 8½ lb Rio Fluoroflex Plus fluorocarbon. He chooses fluorocarbon because it will sink into the surface a little, offering disguise, but his flies are not on the water long enough for them to be dragged down. He fan-casts on a short line, keeping his flies close to the boat so that they are easily seen. In calm, summer conditions such as those we experienced that day, trout tend to switch from feeding on ascending pupae to those emerging at the surface. This is a dry-fly fisher’s dream. I like it because fish seem to rise better in a flat calm, picking off trapped titbits that in a ripple or wave would hatch and take to the wing more quickly. But Tom’s fish had been eating snails, which would explain the leisurely rises in front of the boat. Snail-feeders can be extremely picky, but there is a fly for every eventuality and today it was the Big Red. This popular reservoir fly has a parachute hackle rather than a normal collar hackle, meaning that the hackle sits on a horizontal rather than a vertical plane and unlike a standard collar hackle, all the fibres are directly in contact with the water’s surface. If you look at a natural adult buzzer sitting on the water, its legs form a circle from a point behind the thorax. The hackle style on the Big Red mimics this footprint, which along with its low profile is one of its key attributes. Because all the fibres touch the water it also means that fewer turns of hackle are needed to support the fly, which in turn gives the pattern sparser, more natural-looking characteristics. The Big Red may closely imitate an adult buzzer, but its low-riding profile also makes it a good pattern to try for trout grazing on the snails that migrate in the summer months, hanging upsidedown in the surface film. If there is a downside to this deadly fly, it is that it sits so low in the surface that it’s difficult to see, but if you must choose between a fly that’s easily seen or one that will catch you more fish, I know which one
“If you must choose between a fly that’s easily seen or one that will catch you more fish, I know which one I’d pick”
I’d pick. Luckily, the fly is big – as its name suggests – and for some reason when it comes to the Big Red, big is best. A size 10 is standard and there is rarely the need to go smaller than a size 12 on reservoirs. This and the fact that they are bright red (other colours can be tied, but are not as consistent) means that they are easy to see at close range. If you are not used to keeping track of a fly at distance it’s worth having a high-riding “sighter” fly in the team. This pattern is often sacrificial and will be only 4 ft-5 ft from the invisible Big Red so should anything rise or swirl near it you can assume the Big Red has been taken. A great way to make the Big Red more visible is to add turns of thread under the poly yarn tags at its front and rear (see tying sequence, p12). This makes the tags stand more upright but does not compromise the fly’s low-lying attitude. Tom had to leave us at midday by which time we had shared half a dozen trout, almost all to the Big Red, during a lovely morning of casting at rising fish. After lunch, I noticed several trout moving up and down the dam within feet of the stones. Luckily, the flat calm would keep the boat close enough for me to ambush them. Now fishing solo, with Peter taking the pictures, I was able to refine my approach. When targeting fish within a few rod lengths, you must be stealthy. In Ireland and especially on Corrib, I’ve fished for surface-feeders under the guidance of Larry Mccarthy and Dennis Moss, two masters of the hunt. They insist you keep low. There is no place for boat seats, which make you stand out like a tower block. They even point the bow at fish to reduce the boat’s visible bulk. These things make a huge difference on Corrib, but are not even considered by reservoir anglers. Kneeling in the bottom of a boat may not be as comfortable as sitting on a comfy seat, but it will scare fewer fish. I reasoned that if I kept low, the fish would continue to run between the boat and the dam, not 30 ft away. If I sat on the seat, they would spook. If I kept low, the only movement they would see is the rod – any body movement would be hidden. It worked. I was able to cover fish that would otherwise have been put down and by mid-afternoon I’d lost count of the trout I’d boated. Almost all took the Big Red – so many that at least two flies fell apart. Stealth, constant degreasing of the leader and settled conditions had brought success. Tom had caught the biggest fish in the morning, a fish of around 4 lb, but we’d seen bigger. Draycote’s prolific surface sport is testimony to its stocking policy. This season the owners will stock
34,000 trout in the 600-acre reservoir. That’s a hell of a lot more trout stocked per acre than some well-known English reservoirs and one of the reasons fly-anglers flock there. Young Tom also credits its dry-fly sport to its series of sunken islands or “shoals”. At normal summer level, Croft shoal lies 7 ft beneath the surface while Middle and Musborough are 15 ft down. These plateaux spread their bounty of food down into the deeps that Draycote’s big over-wintered trout call home. When you drift over them, just keep that thought in your head – imagine a monster porpoising over a Big Red, its tail wagging downwards into the depths…
Ambushing fish that patrol the dam at Draycote called for a stealthy approach. Kneeling in the bottom of the boat put down fewer fish.
Draycote warden Tom Bird uses a five-weight rod for dry-fly fishing.
Tom with the best fish of the day – a 4 lb Draycote beauty taken on a Big Red.
ABOVE One from open water, where pulses of fish kept coming to the boat.
ABOVE The fish were feeding hard on snails.
BELOW Proof of the pudding.
A big red adult buzzer – the reason for the Big Red artificial. LEFT