Tactical Wading Part 3
River fly fishing, indeed all fly fishing, is mostly about presentation. I know that flies are important – specific patterns; but the best imitation, the best tactical pattern, is almost useless if it is not presented properly. In rivers more than still waters, however, presentation is optimised by good wading technique. When I help guests with their river fishing technique it is almost always problems with their wading that is more significant than casting issues.
I have written about wading safely and with confidence in the last two Frontier pieces, and I want here to look more closely about how wading can be used tactically in order to maximise fish catching opportunities. I have mentioned (and some might think laboured) that the most significant aspects of presentation are range and angle, particularly the former. Fly fishing instruction courses like GAIAC and APGAI, and even the FFF international courses, are overwhelmingly dominated by casting ability (and the teaching of casting). This is wrong, actually, because frankly wading technique is not only more important in terms of controlled presentation, but it has such a bearing on one’s safety in a river.
Look at it like this: it is always preferable to present a fly to a target fish at six metres, rather than any longer range. Beyond 10 metres on flowing water and control very rapidly drops away. At the extreme, I suggest that it is irresponsible to take on a cast much longer than 12 metres in the sense that if a fish takes at this range it is likely only to be pricked or hooked and lost, and potentially damaged. At the very least, the opportunity of catching that fish is generally wasted, whereas a better choice of range would drastically increase the chances of successful hooking.
We have already looked at the issue of spooking fish by getting in too close; but it is absolutely the case that with practice of careful wading technique (which does not have to be slow) that you can usually be within 10 metres of your target, and often down to six metres. Obviously in thin, clear water and bright sunshine, we must qualify this and stay at much longer range to our target. I have fished rivers all over Europe and found time and again that one catches more fish by using one’s feet to close the range and optimise the angle than attention to any other factor. Just remember that one must not abandon stealth and utilisation of natural cover, including broken water, when tactically wading towards fish.
Inexperienced waders all watch the water in front of them very closely while actually moving. This is natural, and indeed sensible, but betrays a lack of confidence and an understanding of flowing water. I see this all the time and it is something I concentrate on in my coaching and guiding sessions. If you watch genius river fly fishers such as my England team-mates John Tyzack and Stuart Crofts, what strikes you is that while actually fishing, they hardly take their eyes off the target areas. They do no more than glimpse the water where their feet will be in the ensuing steps. We say that we become locked onto our targets, and this is exactly how it is. In our analysis of the water in front of us we map out the river bed as we can see it, and constantly refine this as we wade. Obstructions and clear dangers or features are noted immediately. These might be underwater boulders revealed by the flow bulge on the surface, or dangerous depths shown by the blackness of the water. Cross currents, sills and weed beds all have their flags and signatures. It is while actually wading, however, when the angler engages the stream and the prospective targets, that one learns most about any given sector or beat of water.
The point is that we feel our way through a river. Even through several layers of footwear one can feel the nature of the river bed. Concentrating on the target area your lead foot explores the river bed in the direction of travel. It is methodical and largely subconscious, but it registers somewhere in the brain. Experience optimises the process and one builds confidence remarkably quickly. All rivers are different, and the bigger they are the more difficult and demanding they are to wade in terms of safety. Small rivers can actually be rather more demanding in terms of tactical wading (or bank-side positioning) in the approach to wary trout, although the same principles apply. In all cases, one senses the nature of the footholds less by vision and more by experience and tactile information.
Several of my team-mates have developed a liking for knee pads (as much to protect the waders as the knees). These certainly allow very close-quarters approaches to fish in thin waters, effectively lowering the angler against the skyline. I dislike kneepads, actually; in most cases preferring to stoop and keep my feet well apart, which produces the same effect. I also find that I can move more quickly through a beat. I tend to root myself only when the potential of a particular reach of water in front of me demands a slow approach. There are times, particularly in bright weather, when that indigo gash of depth requires a highly customised presentation. It takes time.
I do not want to get pre-occupied entirely with range, because angle of presentation is up there very close in terms of importance. Approaching a target fish from too acute or obtuse an angle can be almost as detrimental as presenting at too great a range, though sometimes we are forced to taking on extreme angles to have any chance at all. What is important here is knowledge of the effects of presentation at different angles, and making the most of any particular situation. In most cases, small adjustments of position by wading, can make profound differences in angle of presentation.
We are bound to return to this subject time and again, but right now, as the winter waters subside and the snowdrops nudge their brave flowers into the cool air, we are thinking grayling, and deep water holding areas; those indigo gashes in the flow close to gravel bars and ledges. I will try to get as close to such areas as possible, ideally almost under the rod tip, with a nice 45 degree angle to the flow, compromising a bit to accommodate nuances of the river and depth. More than anything, try to keep contact with the team of flies, even leading them slightly through the water, rather than complete dead-drifting. Grayling will accept and reject a fly remarkably quickly until they indulge in that very brief feeding phase during these short days. In most cases you will just have to wade in order to achieve this suitable range and angle.