Pike on the Fly - FishingMagic editor Ian Welch visits Chew
Welchy takes up the offer of a day fly fishing afloat with pike fishing buddy John Synnuck; but has he bitten off more than he can Chew...
I’m constantly surprised when people don’t believe me when I tell them that I cannot cast a fly. Why on earth would I want to lie? And why on earth do people think that because I’ve fished for most things that I would have necessarily have learned to throw bits of fluff and feather?
I’m told Wayne Rooney can kick a football but give him a proper (oval) ball and he’ll struggle to whack it between the uprights. Likewise give me a feeder and I’ll drop it on a sixpence at 80m but give me a bit of tinsel on a hook and a floppy stick and I’ll end up with it at my feet or, more likely, in my head.
To tell the truth I’ve always been rather embarrassed by the fact that I couldn’t fly fish and have tended to keep very quiet about it – unless asked. I’m one of those irritating people who doesn’t like to do anything unless I can do it well; sod all the politically correct “it’s all about the taking part...” nonsense!
So it was with some trepidation that I took up old friend John Synnuck’s invitation to join him for a day’s pike fishing on the fly at the current UK big pike Mecca – Bristol Water’s Chew Valley Reservoir.
John and I have pike fished together for the past 20 years or so and had been looking to catch up for some time and, for once, my inability to cast a fly didn’t matter because, firstly, it was John - and I’m more than happy to let old friends see me make an arse of myself and, secondly, was the small fact Chew holds more 20 and 30lb pike than you can shake a number 7 weight fly rod at - and even a total arse could end up attached to one!
I do possess a lightweight fly rod and, courtesy of a very kind act of generosity, a fly reel to match. The generosity was down to one time (perhaps still current) FM member John Woods who spent a morning patiently trying to teach me to cast a fly a couple of years back – sadly we lost touch and I never practised...
Neither, however, were any use for chucking a fly the size of a Yorkshire Terrier and dealing with a snapper which could potentially be north of 35lb so I called on my boss, MacNab Media Chairman Richard Hewitt, and fellow editor, Fish & Fly supremo Paul Sharman, to furnish me with the appropriate kit.
“What? You can’t fly fish?” said Dick in amazement...
After taking several delightful Hardy creations out of their exquisite tubes and lovely shiny reels out of their pristine cases Dicky then uttered the words I knew would be coming but which I had nonetheless been dreading all morning: “Best we go into the garden and see which ones suit your style of casting best...”
It was only when he saw me foolishly flapping in the breeze that Dick finally realised that I had been telling the truth and his face went very pale indeed as it dawned on him just who he had given several hundred pounds worth of prime Sintrix and finely engineered aluminium to.
Twenty minutes tuition had me landing a 7# Intermediate line in a (roughly) straight line at a range of about 10m (at very best). Dicky was despairing of me but from a boat and with all day to practise I reckoned it might just see me through...
Nestling in the foothills of the Mendips and constructed during the period 1950 to 1955 Chew Valley is Bristol’s largest water body covering some 12,000 acres and was built to supply water to the city and environs; holding some 20,000 million litres according to operating company, Bristol Water. From an angling point of view more pertinent perhaps is that it is relatively shallow and operated as a trout fishery with limited availability for pike fishing – but oh what pike fishing!
Hailed by most predator specialists as the top pike water in the UK at present Chew has produced fish to over 40lb and offers a better chance of a 30lb fish than any other UK water, and what is more it appears to be improving year on year. It cannot quite match Llandegfedd or Blithfield in terms of huge (35lb plus) fish – at present – but with a massive head of big fish and plenty of back up specimens it looks like it is going to be the pike water to be on for the foreseeable future.
With an open door first come, first served policy and sensible rules the pike fishing season on Chew is busy but exceptionally well managed but if, like me, you have had enough of the rat race of trout water piking open days with the racing starts the cheating and the inevitable 25 boats moored over the hotspot then Chew is particularly special because the snappers can be fished for on a fly at any time during the trout season – and what is more they are regularly caught too, and not just the small ones!
Back to the ressie and the day itself was not a good one; an all too rare sunny, flat calm when to switch the pike on we needed overcast with a bit of a blow. Nevertheless we loaded up the boat and headed out, motoring towards the southern end of the lake where John had landed fish to over 20lb recently.
As we travelled we reminisced about some of the most memorable days we had shared afloat after pike in the past; far too many to recount but three or four in particular make us both chuckle no matter how many times we recall them:
There was the day on Weirwood when the fog was so thick we couldn’t see past the end of the boat. We didn’t really have a clue where we moored up but I hit into a run on a float-legered mackerel very early on and really gave it the butt. John told me to ‘calm down’ and I replied with the classic “Don’t worry it’s only a small jack” just as a shape the size of a small croc surfaced alongside before waking up and powering off...Thankfully I got it in and at a couple of ounces short of 30lb it set a venue record at the time.
Then there was the day on the back lake Thorpe Park when we wound in our trolled livebaits to the side of the boat in order to motor between swims – and John’s bait was taken in inches of water as we powered along at full throttle – by a fish of 27lb!
And Bough Beech in the depths of winter with a wind chill of minus 20 and driving, horizontal sleet. I felt ill, very ill and John watched as I went from pink and healthy to white as a sheet and very sick. We came in early, I somehow managed to drive as far as the Clacket Lane Services where I climbed into the back of the car – and slept for the next eight hours...
Then there was the Front Lake at Thorpe where we had trolled livebaits all morning without so much as a dropped take. Under the main bridge John pulled the most bizarre looking lure out of his bag. Ever the sceptic when it comes to artificial baits, “No way!” I said, “You’ll never get a take on that...” I think it took no more than three cranks of the handle....
Happy days all of them; even almost dying of exposure on Bough Beech!
Back to Chew and we cut the engine close to the Roman Shallows, with the aim of drifting west into the 11ft profile which seemed to be the depth the pike were holding up in on John’s last trip - but the lack of wind to move the boat made it tricky. On a typical day you need to employ a drogue to slow the drift down, today we needed a bit of work on the oars to get moving at all.
On John’s recommendation I’d put an intermediate line on Richard’s Hardy Demon and tied in a couple of metres of fluorocarbon leader. I’d brought along some 12kg Cannelle Supratress to use as trace material and was pleased to see it was almost exactly the same as the material John was using: a soft, supple, low diameter wire and braid weave that knots perfectly and never kinks. With a handful of flies I’d picked up in the Woodford Lodge tackle shop on site and a Rapala knot to give the fly a bit of movement in all planes I was ready to go...apart from the casting that is.
John took the Mickey something rotten as I donned a deerstalker to prevent hooks getting caught where they shouldn’t but I thought I looked rather fetching and given it was a scorcher it was the perfect sun hat too. OK, OK so I looked like a prat but I was in a boat and nobody was going to see me!
My first attempts at propelling something which looked more like an Xmas decoration than a fly were, it has to be said, rather pathetic but I persisted and after ten minutes I was at least getting the thing away from the side of the boat into ‘open’ water and I had worked out how a steady retrieve compared to a twitchy one made the fly behave differently, giving a lovely pulsing action.
With John effortless landing his fly three times further away from the boat than me I wondered if I would actually cover enough water to have a sniff of a fish when, suddenly and just a couple of metres off the side of the boat, a pike surfaced right behind my fly and backed off slightly watching it. I stopped the retrieve, let the fly drift back towards the fish and twitched pulsing the thing right on its snout – some things come naturally whether a fly fishing novice or not!
The take was electric and I somehow I remembered the advice, from both John and Richard, to ‘strip strike’ and I yanked back hard on the line before setting the hook. The next five minutes were just pure joy as I realised exactly what it felt like to play a fish on a fly rod and I grinned from ear to ear as the rod hooped over double as what not a large fish powered under the boat. If that was what a small pike felt like I couldn’t wait to find myself attached to a twenty or thirty!
Sadly conditions on the day meant my pike was to be the exception rather than the rule and we struggled to connect with more; John netting two jacks and me losing a small one later in the day. I did, however, connect with a suicidal rainbow of a couple of pounds behind Denny Island which somehow took a fly about the size of its head – very nice it was that evening too steamed Chinese style with spring onions, garlic, ginger, soy and sesame oil!
By the end of the day, despite tired arms, I was really beginning to get the feel of the tackle. My wrist was finally remaining locked, I was waiting long enough on the back cast before flicking forward and was even single hauling to speed the line through the guides – and I had doubled the distance I had cast at the beginning of the day.
Despite the fact it was tough going fish-wise it had been the most marvellous day’s fishing I had enjoyed in a long while and I really can’t wait to get back out – although I may just treat myself to a bit of professional casting tuition so when someone next hands me a fly rod I won’t feel quite such a plonker!