Fishmail: Sex, death and lure-fishing

August 17th, 2002

First, a word of apology for my absence last week, occasioned by the death of a close and dear friend in New Zealand. Cameron was not a fisherman, but he was an exceptionally smart and curious man who knew who Izaak Walton and Norman Maclean were without having a particular reason to do so – he read them because he thought they wrote interesting and thought-provoking stuff, even if he had no first-hand experience of the things they wrote about.

I thought of him yesterday as Paul and I faced a puzzle that his fine brain would have enjoyed solving. For the second time in a week, we were pursuing fry-feeding trout at Grafham. I had never really seen trout feeding this way before ­ sure, I knew that they did it and that autumn fishing on many waters was characterised by the fish's obsession with chasing the bounteous shoals of that year's fishy progeny around. But I had never actually seen it happening, and I was completely unprepared for it. Last week, the trout were vicious in their pursuit of their tiny prey, slashing through the shoals with a kind of explosive glee at the novelty of it all. Yesterday, their intent seemed more ruthlessly murderous – they were better organised, hunting in twos and threes, more relaxed but at least as devastating. And they were, to all intents and purposes, impossible to catch.

We tried pretty much every weapon in our combined arsenal. And we had a few successes – Paul, in particular, tricked a few fine fish with his trademarked Arden Fry imitation, a flashy combination of floss and twinkle and tinsel and varnish that I would certainly have eaten if I was a trout. I hooked and lost one on a Polystickle, caught one on a cat's whisker and considered myself lucky to have caught even one fish in two of the most frustrating and thought-provoking days trout fishing I've ever had. And about halfway through yesterday, I suddenly received a revelation: lure fishing for trout can be every bit as imitative and challenging as the hardest insect hatch.

This will hardly come as a surprise to many of you, I know. But I must put my hands up at this point and confess to a somewhat dismissive view of lures in the past. It has always seemed a lazy way of fishing to me, a mechanical and brain-dead pursuit that relies as much on annoying a fish as tricking it into taking your 'fly'. Watching people dragging Vivas and dog nobblers through muddy catch-and-release ponds over the years has done little to disabuse me of this notion. But chasing Grafham's fry-feeders, I suddenly realised the truth; no matter how aggressive and apparently demented trout are, they are still the smart, tricky bastards they are when eating buzzers or sedges or nymphs – they know what they want, and nothing else will do when they are in that kind of mood.

As revelations go this is hardly the Third Secret of Fatima, I think you'll agree. But I remained pretty amazed, not least because of the fact that they can be so physically discriminating under conditions that you would expect to favour the fisherman. In the presence of millions of fry of many different sizes and species and colours and shapes, you might expect that anything that looked even vaguely fish-like would be swallowed up in no time, especially if it was fished in a way that made it look crippled or otherwise easy to catch. But no; these fish clearly wanted something very specific that we didn't have. I hooked one of these fry by mistake as I dragged some lure or another through the shoals – a tiny bream, perfect in its miniaturisation, and I was suddenly struck by the sheer difficulty of this sort of demanding behaviour from the trout's point of view. I may be mistaken here, but I think it's pretty unlikely that even the most selective trout is spending much time counting the scales on the lateral line or measuring the distance between the dorsal fin and the tail.

And this is where our problem lies. How do you tie a fry imitation that represents a baby bream rather than a roach or a rudd or even a carp? Perch are easy enough to identify, which I suppose is why you see so many more commercial imitations labelled 'perch' rather than 'roach'. The others... well, they all seem as close to identical as makes no difference, and I'm not sure that I have even a fraction of the skill to imitate those minute differences in something that might actually catch me a fish. Meanwhile, I have gained new respect for people who do understand these things, although I suspect that they are few on the ground – yesterday, we heard hardcore match anglers and Grafham regulars complaining that they had caught nothing all day, which made my single fish seem all the more satisfying.

So, where now? I had another insight yesterday, which will probably make sure that even if I now recognise the subtleties of lure fishing and the puzzles its mastery may allow us to solve, I will probably not pursue them. I hate fishing with sinking lines – hours of slogging away with slimes and Hi-Ds have been nothing more than hard work with little reward, and even a fish or two would not have changed my view of this. If I can't catch it with a floater, I don't want to catch it at all – a maxim that I hope will save me from yet more frustration in my pursuit of trout. Sometimes, thinking about one problem really does solve another.

Sean Geer ( is a freelance journalist and author. He specialises in ritual humiliation by fish on four continents - most recently in Ireland, where he became the first angler in history to not land a mayfly-caught trout on Lough Corrib in the middle of the mayfly season. A retired seahorse conservationist and self-taught zen origamist, he is currently writing a novel about sex, death and the meaning of fish.

Return to whence you came
Return to home page