It's funny how you forget how difficult flyfishing really is. Or maybe it's just easier to learn things when you grow up doing them. Like the guitar; I'm trying to learn to play this bloody thing, but can I make it work how I want it to sound? No. And I'm quite sure that Sean, and now Lisa, will both support me in that point of view.
Both Sean and Lisa have come to flyfishing relatively recently. Sean's been flyfishing for some five years, I think, and so has reached the intermediate level, and Lisa for about six months and is still very much the complete beginner. The last month has been very interesting for me both as a friend and instructor.
Let me explain something here, I don't teach flyfishing; I teach flycasting. I figure that flyfishing is something you have to figure out yourself, not because someone can't show you, but because half the fun is in figuring it out. And it's great fun to watch of course, particularly in Lisa's case, since you only work things out by doing them wrong in the first place. No one ever learnt to flyfish by doing it all right!
So when Lisa fell in the mud, discovering in the process that the lake edge of Mystery T Lake, was both soft and slippery, she learned to take care when tussock jumping. I could have told her of course, but I didn't, and that's the mark of a good instructor I think. I sow seeds, not flowers.
In fact Lisa has experienced a whole bunch of firsts: never been camping before, especially in the rain, never driven a 4 wheel drive before, off road, even when there was one, never lit a fire before nor collected the wood for it. Never been for more than a day without a shower, let alone a week… anyway, as they say, the experience is in doing. Is this the Paul Arden Fishing Experience, we wonder?
Last week, while Sean was still here, we made a trip up one of my favourite rivers and we met a bloke, a young Norwegian chap, who gave us the impression that NZ was a very dangerous country and you had to be an explorer just to handle it, which is perfectly true of course; I often consider myself to be a bit of an Action Man – especially when I'm wearing camo and doing my eye exercises (for those under-privileged people who are fortunate enough never to have owned an Action Man, Action Man had “eagle eyes” that went to and fro, from left to right, and back again, because that kind of stuff's important when you're a mean son-of-a-bitch adventurer) – and around the campfire we got talking about how we got into this perverse flyfishing thing and whether there was any hope for us. Basically we got talking about roots.
My roots as a flyfisher began on a stocked stillwater, which is going to tie in with Steve Parton's stuff of course. And like many other delinquents I started off coarse fishing, which for those of you in the rest of the world means bait fishing. Yeah I know, but there it is. Anyway by the age of 11 I'd realised that I was never going to be any good at coarse fishing, because despite having the longest keep-net on the planet, there was never anything worthwhile to put in it. And so I got into flyfishing.
It may not have been quite like that incidentally. This was a long time ago and so I may have just made it all up. Do you care?
And you know when I started fishing stocked stillwaters – let's give the place a name, Ardleigh Reservoir – everyone fished lures. There were a few people fishing buzzers (Chironomid pupae), I discovered later, but imitative fishing hadn't really caught on. Not here anyway.
The first trout I ever caught was on a whisky fly, a hot orange lure originating from Hanningfield. I then started catching on Sweeny Todds and Ace of Spades. I had small flies of course, but like everyone else I knew they didn't work. Trout in lakes eat big flies and so that's what we fished. In fact it took me a long time before I realised you could fish a floating line.
The thunderbolt came about one afternoon when I really should have been at school but thought better of it and was fishing the dam wall. There was only me and one other guy, which was not surprising really since there were three electric storms going on all at once, along with some heavy rain action; basically you'd have to be insane to be out on a day like this. Which is kinda what it's all about, right?
And he was catching fish. A bagful in fact. And as he wandered past me we got to talking and he showed me his fish, and I showed him that I didn't have any. And he asked if I had a floating line, and I dug it out. Which he carefully set up, with a nail knotted butt-section and three flies, tiny flies – or so I thought, all buzzers (Cove PT's) – and then he showed me how to fish, using a fuller's earth compound to sink the leader and how fish very s l o w ly with a figure-of-eight retrieve, how to see rising fish and how to identify takes. After perhaps three quarters of an hour, having well and truly fucked up the rest of my life, he wandered off, leaving me to my own devices. Not long after I saw a flattening of a wave, as he said I would, and I struck into a 6 pound rainbow.
I'd never seen a fish this big before and I very very nearly lost it at the net, but I grabbed it, fell over it and slayed it. Ok I know now that it was probably stocked at this very weight, if not bigger, and that there's more to life than catching fish, but at that moment it was as if I'd found the Holy Grail. It still is, kind of.
Sure I only associated buzzer fishing with thunderstorms for a long time afterwards, but slowly, slowly, I began to get to grips with imitative fishing.
This is where the story goes off into two directions. I'm not all that sure about the history of dry flies on stillwaters. We've been doing it for a long time, since before the turn of the century (the one before last), but as a serious UK stillwater tactic it only came about in the mid-eighties. Gink really changed everything and enabled scruffy flies to sit in the surface. By this time I was working on Ardleigh Reservoir – so that I could afford to go fishing – and one of my occasional fishing partners was a chap called Dennis Cooper, whom I believe originated the Hopper – a sort of shortened up orange daddy long legs. I never liked the fly much but Dennis was, and no doubt still is, one hell of a fisherman. One of the very best thinking anglers I've met; it wouldn't surprise me if he was the guy on the dam, assuming that guy existed and wasn't some sort of phantom.
Anyway, like everyone else with too much time on their hands, I really set about the fish with dries on the lowland stillwaters. It was very weird, just as I couldn't believe that fish would take anything small when I first began, none of the regulars would believe that fish would take dries. I spent about five years fishing hard with the best fishing partner I ever had, a chap called Trevor Wood. No idea what happened to him either. And, you know, for years we'd frown upon “lure bashers”, and this is where I come back full circle, because last week while talking with Sean and the Norwegian Explorer I was telling them how I'd just nailed two dun-feeding brown trouts on a black woolly bugger and how I regarded this as a wonderful success.
Anyone can catch fish on dries; making them change their feeding habits is much harder.
Yes, I'm full circle and bashing lures for all it's worth...
(With apologies to Trevor Wood)