At talks and presentations, or guided fishing, throughout last summer and this autumn, I have been asked more and more about this aspect of our river fishing. It is refreshing to realise, actually, that there is a rapidly increasing number of river fishers out there who recognise the value of wading technique in the whole gamut of factors that influence the effectiveness of our approach. While I will always say that one’s casting has the single greatest influence on presentation, wading (obviously where this is allowed) is crucially important.
I discussed some safety aspects in my last piece about wading, but I do want to press home the need for care and attention paid to safety. Make no mistake, please, any river is a hostile environment, the potential danger increasing considerably the larger the river and the faster the flow. Even in shallow water (because you never know when you might push out that little bit farther into deeper flows) I would strongly recommend you wear an automatically inflating life vest. Get used to wearing one: it really does fade into the background and you will rarely know you are wearing one – until it is needed. I know they are expensive, to buy and to maintain, but not as expensive as that beautiful fly reel or that exquisite Hardy Marksman four-weight, say, which, at the end of the day cannot save your life. Further to this, I will have a chat with Charles Jardine and Paul Sharman, to see if we can do a bit of a survey and review of currently available life vests. I think this would be hugely worthwhile given the ever-increasing interest and development of river fly fishing.
One thing that even quite good river fishers hesitate over is the need to get close to a target fish. We are, after all, conditioned in the need for a stealthy approach and being shielded from the fish as much as is possible. This is a perfectly sensible attitude, because all fish are sensitive to their environments and the potential danger of nearby predators. Anything we do that alerts the fish to our presence is surely going to result in a certain amount of fear and flight response, at best. In most cases this undoubtedly is the case, though there are exceptions with shoaled grayling and even trout which certainly home in on the lee of a wading fisherman for shelter and disturbed invertebrates. I could describe occasions I have witnessed when top European fly fishers, such as members of the French and Czech national teams, have waded incredibly aggressively, to the extent that one would expect they would spook everything within 50 metres, but have proceeded to catch grayling, and even trout, in the most disturbed water (nearly every occasion I have observed this has been on fast, broken water). This being said, in most instances, the tactical wader must attempt to minimise disturbance and ensure a stealthy, appropriate approach to target fish.
You will notice that I am concentrating on river wading. I do not, however, want to create the impression that a tactical approach in this regard is less important on still waters. Many are the times that I have noticed a slight or profound change in wading position (or standing/kneeling on the bank), will make a huge difference in effective presentation. Just think of drifting a dry fly on the edge of a foam lane, in a side wind across a point, say. The stationary angler is at the mercy of that wind, having very little time during the drift before that fly begins to drag (even if this cannot be seen), thus compromising presentation. This is actually losing control of the situation. Walking along the bank, or wading slowly down-wind, will extend the dead-drift presentation. It will give you control. You might think this a very minor tactic, but this ‘walking a fly down the wind’ has caught me thousands of still water trout from the bank.
Tracking the fly down the stream, doing whatever one can to extend the drift, is also a part of tactical wading in rivers. Here our presentation can fall to the mercy of the flow, and it is the static angler who is most limited, or most out of control. You can take control, however, by working with that flow. You can do a great deal by using slack line casts and using the motion of the rod. Assuming you are casting up and across, you can track the fly downstream, maintaining slack, by dropping the rod tip down stream in pace with the flow rate. Even passing the rod from the upstream hand to the downstream hand will give you an extra couple of metres of drift in most situations (It is great if you can learn to short range cast with both hands, even if only with a rudimentary roll or switch cast as described in an earlier Fishing on the Frontier piece).
Then again, there is the matter of using your feet to help your presentation. Nearly every inexperienced wading angler steadfastly refuses to move his feet, or change his position during an actual drift. For some reason (and I think it is the feeling of insecurity that comes from casting, fishing through the drift, and wading all at the same time), most anglers have to be shown that the actual fishing process involves the use of moving one’s feet, constantly shifting position with respect to the target fish. You simply cannot achieve good presentation by casting alone. The fishing process requires wading and casting technique, simultaneously. This is applicable to both still water and river, though most especially the latter.
A very common situation on the river involves wading up stream on a pool or a glide, only for fish suddenly to rise across stream of your position, or even down stream. A good slack line cast might give you a chance at the fish, by avoiding drag for long enough, though here again I could not possibly count the occasions that a rapid drop down stream, perhaps four or five steps, has afforded me better presentation and bonus fish. It is such a simple thing to do, and remember that you will already have experience of the river bed down stream of you, because you have waded up through it.
These subtle aspects of presentation are not so much a collection of minor tactics, but a whole technical and tactical approach to the single-handed fly rod discipline. To achieve the best out of, particularly, a free-stone river, one has to engage more of one’s body than the casting arm and good eyesight. The successful fly fisher understands that the river and lake shore environments are dynamic and how this relates to fish behaviour and presentation.
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