Hoggin' the rainbows
Stan Headley tackles bad behaviour and pin-fry feeders on Pitsford Water
Stan Headley tackles bad behaviour and pin-fry feeders on Pitsford Water
I’D NEVER BEEN TO Pits ford before, but on the haul from the lodge to the dam-wall, I fell in love with her. She looked to me like Rutland’s little sister – charming, gentle and very pretty. I have never valued stocked fisheries over wild waters, but they most certainly have their place in the grand scheme of angling things. The quality of fish, especially at Pitsford, is amazing when I consider what we were asked to accept even a decade ago. Mind you, in those days I was fishing competitively, and numbers were the target. Now I can be selective and head for areas known to hold acclimatised fish. I have long believed that rainbow trout are more selective about pattern, depth and presentation than their brown cousins. There are so many things one has to get right for ’bows. If I wanted to catch quantity instead of quality, I would plump first for the washing line before experimenting
with other tactics. That method is appealing to fish and fisherman. Modern-day rainbows are highly susceptible to static or slowly fished flies at a precise height in the water column, and the washing line gives us that in spades. However, these days I like to see my fish take, and the slowly building pressure of an unseen take just doesn’t do it for me. So, I prefer dry-flies or pulled wet-flies on a “high” line. The great advantage of fishing high is that you can assess the reaction of the fish to your flies. For example, if you see a fish swirl at a fly without a touch, you are doing something wrong with your presentation. How many fish come to a sunk fly and turn away at the last moment without giving the angler any indication whatsoever? A good fisherman can work out how to make positive changes if he is provided with visual evidence. We – Peter Gathercole, Mark Hirst and I – had plenty to work on as we drifted from the Picnic Bank to the Pines. Mark is an out-and-out wild-fish man, widely recognised for his ability to catch ferox on fly (he devised the Stone Goat primarily for this purpose), but hasn’t a great knowledge of modern rainbow-trout tactics. My knowledge has waned over the years as I am no longer involved in competition fishing. With plenty of wild opportunities on my doorstep I have neglected rainbow fisheries – if I can’t fish with dry-flies I am no longer interested. Peter was our photographer and essential guide. It was a bit like Malta taking on Brazil in the World Cup. But where skill was perhaps lacking, enthusiasm was abundant. We had a decent ripple, broken cloud cover and, as I said previously, Mark and I were much taken by the venue. The Pitsford staff were very helpful, pointing us in the right direction and, with hope in our hearts, we slipped under the causeway and into the main body of water. We had been advised to stick to the western end of the south shore and just short of the dam wall we pulled in and started a drift towards the Pines. I had set up a short midge-tip, a Claret Sedgehog on the top, and two wee wet-flies further down. I won’t bother to describe the wet-flies because they did sod all, but the whole idea was to pull the greased Hog so that it dipped and bobbed in an enticing manner. If a fish was attracted to the diving Hog, but wasn’t convinced, he might just take a following wet-fly. That was the starting theory. It didn’t quite work out that way. Covered fish were showing interest in the Hog but not to the wet-flies. It was obvious from the start that these great big, roiling boils were the product of pin-fry feeders – notoriously hard targets. Nothing is harder for the fly-fisherman to attempt to catch. We have them on Loch Leven in the early months of the season and they’ll have you tearing your hair out. But that’s wild browns on stickleback fry. On the reservoirs it is mostly rainbows on coarse-fish fry and they are not impossible. I have had moderate success with claret dryflies, so here on Pitsford I was determined to give a pulled, greased Sedgehog a thorough outing. After all, these are very aggressively feeding fish. Surely a “dry fly” with movement and a tempting popping action would stimulate some response? I had a size 12 Hog on the top dropper, as I said, and it was getting all the attention, so I decided to shorten my cast. Eliminate the middle dropper and stick a size 10 Claret Sedgehog on the point. Two Hogs on at once, something I rarely do. Immediate response. I got into a covered fish that gave me a right seeing-to before coming to the net. It would have weighed between 3½lb-4lb and was in prime condition. It took the point fly, which had a lighter “wing” than the top dropper Hog. For wild fish I prefer the dark deer hair from the spinal ridge of the animal, but stocked fish seem to have a predilection for the lighter flank roedeer hair. That is a theory that needs to be confirmed, but whatever the shade of hair, the dubbing needed to be claret. I tried fiery-brown and hare’s ear, to no avail. The seemingly unequivocal susceptibility to claret inherent in pin-fry feeders is bewildering. But again, let’s not waste time arguing with fish. Let’s just give them what they want, understandable or not. There was a problem with using these Sedgehogs on fry-feeders, in that it was very difficult in the roiling mess of surface activity when a fish homed in, to identify the take. It was tempting to tighten at the first movement, but this invariably meant a missed take. And to leave everything alone until the line went tight, and shot away, resulted in fish falling off. I was trying to formulate a proper response on a number of drifts off the shoreline when, as we approached the
“Surely… a tempting popping action would stimulate some response?”
shallow water under the pines, I felt a slight tightening of the line with no surface indication of a fish. In retrospect that’s when I should have tightened into him but, when the boil confirmed a take, I lifted the rod and a cracking brown of around 3lb shot clear of the water and spat the hook. I have been caught out this way a number of times on fisheries containing browns and ’bows. You have just formulated a response to the more numerous rainbows when a brown comes along and catches you on the hop. This is more likely to occur when pulling flies than static tactics because of one factor. Rainbow trout tend to take in a more or less horizontal manner, engulfing the fly at the same level in which they are travelling. Browns, stocked or wild, prefer a vertical movement, taking the fly in an upward trajectory, and being hooked as they turn down. This is why I believe that static dry-fly tactics are the more reliable techniques for mixed fisheries, if the fish will play ball. Pulling a greased-up Hog does complicate the issue, but both species can get suicidally interested in it when conditions are right. When we first arrived in the south-west corner, fish were feeding from the boils to the shoreline. As pressure increased with the arrival of more boats, the fish abandoned the shallows and the number of active fish reduced dramatically. But we consistently found fish in the stretch between the mouth of Pitsford Creek down to Table Bay. Mark took a nicely conditioned fish in this area on his Claret Dry, quickly followed by another cracking 3lb-plus fish from under the Pines. Note to the guys who think an outboard motor has only two speeds – flat-out and stop. If you really want to improve your fishing returns, don’t roar back up the drift you want to repeat – take an elliptical route at a moderate speed back to the head of the drift. There is a dog-in-the-manger attitude among many boat anglers. The mere thought that someone may get to their drift before them makes many apoplectic, and they’d rather ruin their own fishing than hand their drift over to another boat. I can just about live with that, but what really boils my urine is when one or more boats see you getting action in an area and believe it is good practice to anchor slap-bang in the centre of your drift. Angling etiquette is an endangered species on the reservoirs and lakes. Our continual interest in this area did attract attention. A couple of boats anchored, annoyingly interfering with our drifts, and there was a rudder “operator” who started on the boils but, as the day progressed, moved closer to the shore. That’s life, I suppose. At my age, I can remember better
behaviour. Mark had commitments in the evening so, if we were to investigate pastures new, here was the motivation to get on with it. At first we crossed in front of the dam wall to the north shore and drifted down towards Sailing Club Bay. There was a lot of surface activity in this area, but it was radically different to that of the pin-fry feeders – here were gentle moves and sneaky sips. There wasn’t anything imitable on the surface, only minute midge, but the quantity of active fish necessitated an attempt on them. I changed from Hogs to delicate dry-flies. Mark stuck with his Claret Dry. We got enquiries but no solid takes. In retrospect, I suspect nymphs or buzzers, fished high in the water, would have done better. Hey-ho! On we go. We all knew the weather forecast. Storm Hector was fast approaching, raising doubts about the morrow. But our Pitsford day wasn’t quite finished, although the pernickety behaviour of the fish indicated they had also been watching the forecasts. With a strengthening breeze we crossed to the south shore looking for a likely last drift. We found it in North Farm Bay, towards open water. The increased ripple encouraged me to go back on the Hogs, and I completed our day with a cracking 3lb-plus rainbow that tested my gear to the limit. The quality of the fish we caught had been stupendous, rivalling anything other Midlands reservoirs could deliver. All in all, it was a wonderful day. It reminded me of olden times when we would go out with floating lines and modified traditional wet-flies, pull like good uns and catch fish after fish. Those days are largely gone, but the unique behaviour of a Sedgehog, greased and pulled on a high line, gave me a brief glimpse of those exciting, visibly thrilling days of the past.
LEFT Solving the pin-fry puzzle. Claretbodied flies are a good starting point.
Stan fights a reelstripper. Soon his success would attract unwanted attention. RIGHT
STAN HEADLEY has been fishing for trout since he was a boy and is author of Trout & Salmon Flies of Scotland and The Loch Fisher’s Bible.
ABOVE A quieter drift into the shore. Eyes glued on CDC and deer hair.
Rays in the tail. Mark with another Pitsford trout in prime condition.