Trout like to keep ‘gentlemen’s’ hours – they seldom rise early and they like to dine late
My friend George Murray and I stood on the bridge at the far end of one of our favourite club beats and wondered what we were doing wrong. In fairness, it was one of the more difficult beats belonging to the fishing club but he and I usually managed to bag at least one fish each, yet there we were after several hours of fishing with absolutely nothing to show for it.
‘I haven’t seen a trout all afternoon,’ I complained. ‘If I didn’t know better I’d say there isn’t a single fish in the river.’
‘Same here,’ agreed George. ‘I’ve tried everything I can think of but haven’t had so much as a sniff.’
‘Do you think it’s because they’re mainly stockies and haven’t been in the river long enough to figure out what flies are for?’ I ventured, struggling to make any sense of it. We had reached that conclusion on a number of occasions, the theory being that a gold head or a weighted nymph worked better as the ‘plop’ they made when hitting the water reminded a stocked fish of a trout pellet which was, after all, what they were used to eating. Whether that was true or not, it didn’t make much difference as nymphing was strictly forbidden by the club rules until the end of July.
‘Perhaps they just don’t like our flies?’ I suggested.
‘There’s nothing wrong with the ones I’ve tied,’ he said defensively. ‘I think it’s just that things have changed. The fly life is sporadic these days and nowhere near as prolific as it used to be.’
That was a topic which had dominated the club AGM at the end of the previous season and was one which I’d heard repeated at other flyfishing venues as well.
‘Well, whatever the reason, we’re wasting our time here,’ I said. ‘For all the good we’re doing we might as well try playing pooh sticks.’
George gave me a look that needed no interpretation. ‘I didn’t come here to play pooh sticks,’ he moaned.
I hadn’t intended it as a serious proposition but, on seeing his reaction, I couldn’t resist playing him along, just for the fun of it. ‘Well, you shouldn’t knock it until you’ve tried it,’ I said, watching a twig floating down the river towards us. ‘When we were kids we used to play pooh sticks all the time when we’d given up trying to catch sticklebacks and bullheads in a net.’
With that the twig disappeared under the bridge and we both instinctively crossed to the rail on the other side and waited for it to reappear. ‘So, what was it about watching a stick floating down the river that you and your pals used to find so engrossing?’ he asked.
I shrugged, not sure whether I should let him off the hook or not. ‘Well put it this way, it’s no worse than us standing here moaning about the lack of fish and at least it meant we were out in the fresh air and enjoying the river. What could be better than that?’
‘Well, each to his own,’ he muttered. ‘But I have a better idea.’
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘Why don’t we call it a day and adjourn to the King’s Head for a beer?’
That sounded like a very good idea to me so we gathered up our gear and started back along the return pathway so as not to disturb the river in case anyone was fishing up behind us. As it turned out we didn’t see anyone until we reached the stile at the start of the beat where we found another fisherman and fellow club member, old Josh Taylor.
Josh was sitting on a bench busily tying on a fly. He never carried more than half a dozen patterns with him but he always had several of each in various different sizes. As a senior member of the club, he was reckoned to be one of our most successful fishermen.
‘This should be interesting,’ said George. ‘Let’s see what the so-called expert can do on a day like this.’
‘So, how did you young fellas get on?’ asked Josh when we reached him.
I smiled as it had been a long time since I’d thought of myself as a ’young fella’.
‘We both blanked,’ admitted George. ‘Didn’t so much as see a fish.’
Undeterred by that news, Josh carried on securing his fly, his old fingers deftly tying the particularly complicated knot he liked to use.
‘What are you thinking of trying?’ I asked.
He wetted the knot with his lips then tightened it before biting off the tag end with his teeth. That done, he tested it then held up the fly for us to see. It was not a pattern I’d ever seen before. ‘It’s a wee fly I tie myself,’ he told us. ‘It’s like one of them black gnats you fellas like to use.’
It didn’t look much like a black gnat to me but it was certainly ‘wee’ – a size 22 or possibly even smaller. ‘Why are you trying that?’ I queried. ‘I haven’t seen anything like it all afternoon.’
Old Josh didn’t say anything. He just smiled knowingly as he placed a flask on the bench beside him, then started to pack away his other bits and bobs. Not that there was much of that as he obviously liked to travel light when fishing. He didn’t wear a fishing vest and instead stuffed the few things he thought he’d need into an old canvas bag.
When he’d finished, he settled back and poured a cup of tea from the flask, clearly in no hurry to actually start fishing. He took a sip then offered it to us but we were both focused on beer by then, so declined. ‘See, I don’t reckon fish are as choosy as most folk seem to think,’ he assured us. ‘If a fly is presented right and looks a tad familiar, there’s a good chance they’ll take it whether they’re feeding or not. They’re not so silly as to turn away food unless they suspect there’s something wrong with it.’
I could see that George was not so easily convinced. After all, we’d been trying that particular approach all afternoon without success.
‘The trick is not to try the same fly too many times,’ said Josh sensing our misgivings. ‘That would spook ‘em as sure as eggs. Give them two or maybe three casts then try something else or move on. And don’t be in too much of a hurry. Take your time between casts. See, for them food don’t normally present itself in the same place every time so if you just keep casting, they’ll pretty soon know something’s up. Unless of course there’s a hatch in which case they’re inclined to get a tad greedy.’
‘That all assumes you can see a fish to cast at,’ sneered George.
‘Oh, the fish are there right enough,’ chuckled Josh. ‘Just ‘cos you can’t see ‘em don’t mean they’re ain’t.’
‘I was always told that trout like to keep gentlemen’s hours,’ said George.
‘What does that mean when it’s at home?’ asked old Josh.
‘Well, I suppose it means that they don’t like to rise too early and prefer to dine late,’ explained George. ‘Isn’t that why we talk about fishing the evening rise?’
Old Josh gave another smile. ‘That all depends on what you mean by evening,’ he said. ‘Some folk seem to think they have to be here at dusk or be fishing in the dark. Now’t wrong with that but I reckon you can catch fish anytime so long as it’s not too hot. See, trout don’t like it then so tend go deep or tuck theirselves up underneath the bank. It’s a bugger to tempt ‘em out when they do that.’
‘So would now be a good time to fish?’ I asked, looking at my watch and realising that it was already close to opening time.
‘Aye, now would be as good a time as any,’ he said. With that he emptied his cup and screwed it back onto the top of the flask. He then picked up his rod and crept towards the river. Once there, he settled down on his hands and knees and laid his rod down gently on the grass beside him. That done, he peered through the bankside vegetation, making as little movement as possible and no sound whatsoever.
George and I took his place on the bench and watched, mesmerised by this old fisherman at work, half hoping he would blank like us and thereby salvage our own reputations when the catch report for the day was finally analysed by the club secretary.
I began to wish I’d accepted his offer of tea as the minutes dragged by. Then at last old Josh seemed to stir himself.
‘There’s one over there, tucked up beside them reeds,’ he whispered, then slowly and gently took up his rod. He hesitated for a moment then cast his fly over the water to land just upstream from where he’d seen the fish.
I have to say that his casting was a work of art. He didn’t risk a single false cast, instead his rod seemed to move so smoothly that the line just flowed from the tip and landed the fly softly on the water almost exactly where he intended. We both watched as it then drifted along the margin on the opposite bank. Unfortunately, it remained untaken.
George looked at me as though to say we’d told him so.
With that, old Josh retrieved the line then paused for several long, agonising moments before casting again. This time both George and I were amazed when a fish rose up to inspect the offering, though still refused it. Most fishermen would have been tempted to try one more cast on the basis of the fish having shown some interest, but not old Josh. Having recovered the line for the second time, he removed the fly he’d been using and selected another from an old tobacco tin he kept in the breast pocket of his shirt. I couldn’t see what the fly was but as he tied it on and cast again, George and I watched intently, by then willing him to succeed. Sure enough, we were not disappointed. There was a flurry of movement on the water, a very slight splash and the fly was gone.
Old Josh got up as nimbly as a man half his age and eased the fish towards the bank. Once it was there, he deftly used the tip of the rod to remove the barbless hook and, without it even leaving the water, released the fish so it could swim away unharmed – although probably a bit bemused by the whole experience.
We both stared at old Josh, not sure what to say. It had been a masterclass in the subtle art of dry flyfishing and we couldn’t help but be impressed.
‘So why did you release it?’ I asked.
‘He was a wildie see, and I wouldn’t never take one of them for the pot,’ he explained.
Having wished him well, George and I made our way to the pub in almost total silence. ‘So, that’s how it’s done,’ muttered George at last, clearly as much in awe of the old man’s skill as I was.
‘I can’t believe how he not only spotted that fish but even tempted it to take his fly,’ I said. ‘He was only fishing for about twenty minutes whereas you and I have been hard at it all afternoon and both blanked. It just goes to show that we’ve still got a lot to learn about this flyfishing lark.’
‘Exactly,’ agreed George. ‘Either that or as you said earlier, we might just as well try playing pooh sticks.’