While perhaps not discussed in the reverent tones used for the 12th of August, the 15th of March is still a date of note in the outdoor sportsman’s calendar. For this is the day that, for many fly-fishermen, marks the start “proper” of the fishing season as trout once more become legal quarry. How-ever, the start of the season seems to slip by, while the end of the trout season on the 30th of September is met with a twinge of sadness.
Neglecting the start of the season relates, in part, to what is commonly termed “expectation management”. In this information age we are bombarded with tales and images of giant fish, red-letter days and a bewilderingly wide array of casts. Stepping on to the river-bank at the start of the season, we may find the fish dour and sullen, hatches non-existent and the weather inclement, so it is no surprise that the fishing may not live up to expectations. The trick, therefore, is to limit (often drastically) one’s hopes for the day.
I know full well that my first few trips of the trout season will be plagued with inaccurate casts, leader knots and a relative paucity of fish. Even so, I believe being on the river has to be better than sitting at home looking at pictures or watching films of other people fishing. Keeping this in mind, the early season angler needs to know where to go and how to fish if any success is to be met.
Go west, go low
One of the great things about living in the Westcountry is that we have a relatively mild climate. Not for us the biting winds of the fens or snow powder of the north. So, when the season opens, it is almost a sure thing that the temperatures at the southern end of the M5 will be bearable. This results in the chance of some sport with wild brownies, provided that one doesn’t go off half-cocked to favoured summer haunts.
I have previously extolled the virtues of Dartmoor and its stunning if somewhat tempestuous streams. However, the early-season angler will do better to look elsewhere. Due to its elevated and exposed position, one of the defining features of moorland, the rivers that cut through Dartmoor on their way to the sea remain cold and the trout within them torpid for longer than their lowland cousins.
The key at this time of year is to think warm, both for you and your quarry. Head for lowland streams surrounded by farmland or those at low elevation; as a rule of thumb, every 1,000 metres of elevation equates to approximately a 7°C decrease in average temperature. Rivers such as the lower Taw, Axe, Culm and coastal East Lyn are good places to try.
Old favourites can be equally good places to start. The Usk in west Wales is a freestone stream with an international reputation for the early-season sport that it offers. I fished it last year and, while hardly typical (I was there in late April in virtual summer temperatures and water levels), I had some great sport that culminated on my last evening with the sight of clouds of olives of almost plague proportions hanging over the river.
Ring the changes
The angler who starts the season early has one major card stacked in his favour – naivety. After a winter of peace and the rigours of spawning, early-season trout are less cautious than they will be later and thus easier to fool. Make use of this and their chill-induced stupor to good effect and give the fish what they want.
Quite often, the key to a successful early season is to ring the changes. Don’t tie on a dry fly at the start of the day and think that it will do. Be prepared to fish both nymphs and dries. When fishing nymphs, a simple rig with a heavy Goldhead on the point and a light Hare’s Ear or Pheasant Tail as a dropper will suffice. Run it through the slower pools and deeper runs; in the cooler waters trout will be holding closer to the bottom and minimising their energy expenditure.
If fishing such a rig don’t be afraid to use – and whisper it here – a strike indicator. While scorned by some, they are invaluable at detecting subtle bites when fishing heavy water or deep runs, particularly if you have to fish a longer line. I know some excellent anglers who use them when the conditions are right but, given the opportunity, can throw a mean line with a dry fly on the end.
Just as when fishing a dry fly, however, you need to concentrate hard and think about your drifts. It isn’t enough merely to lob everything out into the middle of the river and watch it trundle back down towards you. Drag, the kiss of death for a dry fly, has a similar effect on nymphs fished upstream. They need to drift back to the angler neutrally with the current and not be dragged upstream or up in the water by the line or indicator.
A useful ploy when casting a longer line in particularly heavy or fast water is to cast upstream and, as soon as the nymphs have landed and started to sink, throw a short, fast mend in the same direction as the cast to place the first foot or so of fly-line upstream of the indicator. This has the effect of giving the nymphs a bit more time to sink through the water column as the fly-line drifts down towards you and over the flies. As water velocities are highest at the water surface, if you simply cast upstream and let everything drift back down towards you, the rapidly travelling line tends to pull the nymphs (suspended at a level where water velocities are lower) up in the water column.
I started on the River Teign a couple of seasons ago and vividly recall using such tactics to take seven trout in almost as many casts from a boisterous run under the bankside. All the fish signalled their interest by a gentle upstream slide of the indicator as they intercepted the offerings drifting past their nose. While the excitement is perhaps not as great as watching a fish take a dry fly from the surface, there is a tangible thrill as the indicator slips from view.
If the odd fish shows on top, prospecting with a dry fly can prove productive, although now is not the time to reach for the 7X tippet and size 18s. Rather, with minimal hatches and surface activity, flies need to be generalist patterns that instantly attract attention and present a decent mouthful to a sluggish trout. A cracking early-season fly is Wyatt’s Deer Hair Emerger (DHE).
In tying this fly, the key is to fashion a nice, almost overly large-looking wing and tease the dubbed abdomen out so it’s good and “buggy”. Both of these features give the fly an excellent visual footprint. This pattern was very productive for me early last season and accounted for some good fish. My “it was this big” tale was the gargantuan brownie that exploded out of nowhere from the head of a deep run on the upper Usk, walloped the DHE from the surface, leapt twice and then unceremoniously broke me off on a rock in the depths of the pool. I think it was all over before I had even realised it had begun.
Of all the hatches that we fly-fishers try to imitate, none is more famed than the mayfly. These leviathans of the stream invertebrates, graceful once in the air yet distinctly clumsy as they attempt to get aloft, have attained global status for the dry-fly sport they offer. The canny early-season angler can take advantage of the fondness trout exhibit for them and “jump the gun” so to speak.
The westernmost chalkstreams of the Frome and Piddle have excellent mayfly hatches and many of the Devon and Cornwall rivers are home to populations of Epherema danica, if not quite on the same scale. Although hatches of mayfly are generally reckoned to occur later than they once did, the odd one can be seen on the water, usually from late April. Trout are quick to home in on these early risers and the search image of that giant, striped body and inch-long, translucent wings be-comes rapidly re-imprinted.
During early-season forays, keep an eye out for that unmistakable shape shimmering up from the stream. As soon as even the odd one is seen, tie on a suitable imitation and search for fish that have noticed the start of the hatch. Get your timing right and such opportunism can be worth the effort. The real thing will not be around in huge numbers, while the fish – on the lookout for an easy meal – will have seen few, if any, imitations for almost a year.
This approach was highly successful during a pre-May trip to the Frome and Piddle the season before last. While we picked up plenty of fish on patterns such as Pheasant Tail nymphs and dry Adams, one of our party noted a couple of mayfly coming off the upper Piddle on our last day. A switch to a large Mayfly pattern (the creation of a friend and ambitiously dubbed “The Silver King'”) gave almost instant success, with several cracking fish coming to the fly. In virtually all cases, takes were confident, the fly being sucked from the surface by fish determined to prevent the tasty morsel floating overhead departing into the ether on the far side of the meniscus.
As the season kicks off, it is worth setting out in search of sport. If nothing else, it will give you a head start on those still tucked up at home in front of the television or fly-tying vice. Just keep your hopes modest and your approach flexible and you may well be pleasantly surprised.
More fishing in The Field