We went to Grafham as a group and fished with each other taking turns and swapping round. And it was maybe on the third trip when I noticed that Dick Shrive's boat was drifting directly down the wind at relatively high speed and that he was sitting in the stern casting directly into and across the wind. I was immediately fascinated - it didn't take me very long to figure out that he had to have had some kind of rudder on his boat to make it do that!
The next week I too had some kind of a rudder (made hurriedly out of solid mahogany with ill assorted fittings from the local boatyard) and set about learning how to do what Dick was doing. We didn't get too many fish either and we smashed the rudder to bits coming ashore in the half-light and forgetting to take it out of the water.
But the week after we had a better rudder and after another couple of months we had really rather good rudders.
Dick was always the inspiration and I learnt Northampton Style mainly by watching him and I reckon it took me about 4 years! I got so good at it that I could even tell when he'd hooked one trolling illegally coming back up the wind - he always started slightly! A dead giveaway!
He was an absolute master at concealment - when he hooked a fish the boat was always turned side on and the fish landed on the side away from any nearby boats. He played fish with his rod low to the water, his reels were modified so they ran silently, and if anybody he didn't know came motoring past when he had a fish on he would make retrieving motions with his off rod hand and pretend he wasn't playing the fish at all! I once counted 143 strokes of 'retrieve!'
And as for dealing with illegally trolled fish his drill was to do nothing until he'd rowed up to the head of the drift when he'd row the boat round, start the drift downwind, then pick up another rod and pretend to be letting out line and casting out with that and when all had gone quiet he'd put the false rod down, pick up the real one, pretend strike and play out the one he'd towed maybe half a mile upwind!
Trolling was critical to the development of the style not because of the numbers of fish caught by it but because it was a way of identifying actually where the taking fish were.
You have to remember that we were in an age where the very best echo sounder was good for telling you the depth only - effective fish location with echo sounders was a non-starter until the mid 90's!
The practical fishing relationship between trolling upwind and ruddering down worked out to be that you had to use a line approximately 20% faster sinking on the troll because the effect of faster continuous rowing forced the line to run a little higher in the water, as simple as that!
Why you use Northampton Style
Northampton Style is specifically about accurate presentation of the fly at depth. You can do this accurately in two styles one being at anchor casting out, running your stopwatch and retrieving to keep the fly at much the same depth for a part of the retrieve path.
Or you can do it out of the back of a drifting boat. In an organised, accurate and systematic quiet manner.
You cannot do it accurately in over the front style drifting at all because the boat is always overrunning the line. And yes almost every poor sap in competitions habitually fishes with hyper fast sinking lines hoying them vast distances in front of the boat and pulling them back like some demented monkey spanker to keep in some form of contact - whilst the flies plunge down and then whizz towards the surface. And yes it does work some days and yes isn't it fun, not!
And then there's the fascination with deliberately targeting the bigger fish - one that I have never ever got over. Me, I'd sooner be in with a serious chance at a 10lb grown on brownie than anything else - and I haven't caught one yet (three low nines so far and every one worth everything else I ever caught!)
I think the best part of it is the take - as soon as it locks up or you get that tap-tap-tap thump - you don't know what it is and that is truly exciting - it puts me in a state where I just react without thought or care till I have a feel for it! Nirvana maybe!
Over the front styles of fly fishing are most effective when you can actually see them rising. Absolutely appropriate in that scenario. Maybe the best pure fun in boat fishing that there is – casting to risers and the fast and furious last half hour of light is the very best of it all!
I have caught feeding trout from the surface down to around 60 feet. And with modern echo sounders in Browns - only waters I have seen shoals of trout at 80 feet and once on a Cousteau programme about Lake Titicaca I saw a huge rainbow swimming around at 120 feet! This is a lot of depth for them to go and hide in! With Northampton Style the game goes three dimensional - it isn't surface chess, it is what they used to call '3–D Fairy Chess' and it is conceptually much harder!
I learned in a number of ways - experimentation being the main one. That and watching every other boat in eyeshot (and I have always carried binoculars!) Trading information is handy as well. But it does take a very long time to develop the expertise and sheer weight of experience to predict where, when and how deep the feeding trout are likely to be. Because on large water you always operate on the assumption that somewhere there is a feeding bonanza and it is down to you to find it.
(There are only three basal conditions that abrogate this rule - one being sustained extremely hot weather with surface temperatures in excess of 17 c. which stops the lot feeding, two being a relative absence of stockfish and three being a manifestation of the foul parasitic disease prevalent at Rutland Water over the last couple of seasons.)
It didn't take me and my pals too long to actually figure out a systematic approach to Grafham - basically we ran the fishing day by trolling up to the top of the wind and then drifting downwind working inshore to out, rowing in a little further down the wind and repeating and basically fishing the reservoir thoroughly down one side in a sort of sawtooth wave. Then we'd row right up the middle and repeat the pattern down the other shoreline. And of course as soon as we hit fish we fished the same area until we ran out of fish!
Frankly I fish smaller waters in exactly the same systematic way with a float tube to this day! I don't know how else to do it - I don't think there is a better way.
(Unless, that is, you have inside information - if you have you cut to the chase straight away and you'd be a damned fool it you didn't!)