The elusive sea bass

When we fish for trout, we know, with some certainty, that the fish are there. Finding a feeding fish and fooling it with a fly is another matter.

The story when bass fishing is a little different…

Last week I had three sessions fishing for bass on the Cornish coast. Day 1 saw us offshore on a boat looking for active gulls responding to the predators chasing baitfish to the surface. We covered many miles from Lizard Point down to Mounts Bay, checking known marks with our skipper glued to the fish finder but the shoals of bait-bashing bass just weren’t to be found. We ended the day with just three bass and a couple of decent pollock.

The second day we went back to what we knew best, exploring the shore marks we had researched using Google Earth and OS maps. We picked a shallow bay on the south of the Helford River mouth, it was a good walk to even get there and access to the shore wasn’t easy. The tide was just beginning to flood and at first glance the fishing looked tricky due to the weed that had accumulated after several days of northerly winds. I put up my old Sage RPL 8 wt with a floating line and my failsafe chartreuse and white clouser and within a couple of casts a hungry half-pounder had swallowed my fly. Two more of a similar size came soon after. I moved along the bay towards the headland where a shallow reef was slowly being submerged by the incoming tide. Fishing around the rocks, I quickly had a better bass of ¾ lb. Thereafter nearly every cast would produce at least a follow if not a take. As the tide crept up the fish kept getting bigger and by the time we had to pack up, I’d had 20 bass of which the last half dozen were all over a pound and a half. A fabulous afternoon’s fishing.

Needless to say, we were very confident about our last day’s fishing. We didn’t have enough time to head back to the same mark but chose to fish the north side of the Helford River instead. We arrived with the tide low and looked down over what looked like perfect bass ground. There were reefs and rock pools aplenty, all full of crabs, shrimps and blennies. Surely the flats would be alive with bass once flooded by the tide. Several hundred casts later we had to call it a day without a fish seen, let alone caught. As the late great Hoagy Carmichael used to sing “Some days there just ain’t no fish!”.

Dee salmon fishing in May

May salmon fishing – not always short-sleeves and floating lines

On the River Dee, we expect the best fly fishing of the year in May. The birch trees are in full leaf, the summer migrant birds have all returned and are busy with their nests. We can anticipate fishing floating lines with small flies long into the never-ending dusk. This year was a little different. There was still snow on the hills, topped up while we were there. The wind was set firmly in the north and we had cold squally rain every day. It was March fishing without the respite of stopping at 5 in the evening!

Successful flies were long-tailed shrimpy patterns in size 8 and 10, with the usual colour combinations of black, orange and yellow working well. We fished the flies on intermediate tips or short sink tips. Unusually we only had one evening fish, on the Toucan of course.

For once I had a photographer on hand for one of my fish, a beautiful fat 12 pounder from “Twenty Nine”, so there are a few action shots to convey the excitement of playing, landing and releasing a strong Dee springer.

Spring salmon time

It was touch and go but thankfully I was able to travel north in the last week of April and revisit one of my favourite places in the world – the River Dee where it flows through the Glen Tanar and Dinnet & Kinord estates. We were met by ghillies, hoteliers and proprietors relieved to see returning anglers after an extended absence. We were also lucky enough to be met by some beautiful spring salmon.

Conditions were challenging with low temperatures matched by low water levels but overhead conditions were helpful (outside the occasional sleet or hail shower) as we avoided the bright sun of the previous week.  Monday started in promising fashion, with a fish lost before lunch. Another fish was risen later in the afternoon which piqued my interest as I would be fishing that pool in the evening, and indeed I hooked a good fish in that same lie after we had our dinner. Sadly, the fly came away just as it was nearing the net but elsewhere my friend Mark had more luck landing a very fresh 7 pounder on a Toucan.

Tuesday was chilly again and the river had eased up a few inches overnight. With drizzle and low cloud on the hill, I switched to my trusty Green Shrimp and in the middle of the afternoon the line drew away steadily in a classic big fish take. Pol Slachd is a lovely pool in which to play a fish but there is always a danger of a drowned line if a fish heads upstream into the deep pot on the far side of the current. This fish was determined to try every trick in the book but eventually I was able to coax his head onto the gravel and admire a magnificent deep 17 pound cock salmon. After a quick picture, I slipped him back into the current at the head of the pool and he soon swam off strongly. I sat down and reflected on a magnificent fish with which to mark my return to the Dee.

As the week went on we caught several more fish, a couple on Frances flies, one each on the NessC and Black & Yellow Shrimp. There was another fish for the Green Shrimp, this time a first ever salmon for Kiloran Buckler landed by herself in the Middle Bobby pool.

Fly of the week, as so often for us, was the Toucan with six fish. This is my default fly for the witching hour before the sun sets and it didn’t let me or the others down. The last fish took at 9:40 pm on Saturday night, a perfect end to a great week.

Is this spring?

I am writing this blog post just over a week into a new trout season and, like the early swallows I saw over the Windrush on Thursday, I’m wondering what has happened to spring. We have swung from a balmy March to a first week of April dominated by northerly winds and rudely interrupted by snow showers.

Many will have reached for a box of heavy nymphs in these conditions but in between the icy blasts and flurries of snowflakes the large dark olives continue to trickle off. The numbers are never too big but the wild trout on the Leach and the Sherborne Brook are canny enough to make the most of every opportunity for an early meal.

Fishing dry CDC olive emergers and quill-bodied klinkhamers produced good sport on the surface on the Leach in particular, where Luke Stevens caught a lovely fish of around 12 inches. The secret to success with the dry at this time of the year is reading the stream and then making the first cast count. The wild browns are wary as anything, especially before the weed growth has really kicked off, and a stealthy approach and a good cast are essential.

Next week promises more cold nights but perhaps a bit more warmth during the day. I’ve seen a few hawthorn flies already and I would hope we might see some grannom hatching on the Coln. One of the signs of spring is the first hatch of orange tip butterflies and I was pleased to see them on the wing on Friday.

Next Friday, I’m looking forward to a first visit of the season to the River Wye where I’m hoping to guide a salmon novice to his first fish. Wish us luck.

Tight lines!  

Is fly fishing the new yoga?

Fly fishing offers everything you need to enhance well-being: An immersive, meditative yet physical activity for mindfulness.

One of the first sports to come back after the lockdowns, the links between fly fishing and positive mental health and physical well-being are well documented. Fly fishing is increasingly being seen as an alternative to yoga or meditation as a natural activity to reduce stress.

It has been used as recreational therapy for women recovering from breast cancer and for traumatised and injured military veterans. Indeed, research in the USA by the Rivers of Recovery programme has identified significant reductions in PTSD in veterans after taking a three-day fly fishing course.

The activity itself is immersive in every sense of the word. It combines the sense of being at one with the water of wild swimming and the meditative features of forest bathing. It is reflective and meditative while being both physically and mentally challenging. The rhythmic casting action requires concentration and dexterity, keeping your mind remains focussed on the task: it is skilled and mindful.

You need to understand what is going on around you, under and above the water. You’ll learn patience – lots of it – while being at one with nature. But that patience is rewarded with moments of thrilling excitement: the flash of a kingfisher, the silent flight of an owl, the splash of a diving water vole or perhaps a glimpse of an otter. Finally (hopefully!), the thrill of the catch and a positive rush of adrenaline and endorphins.

Our local fly fishing locations are beautiful, peaceful and contemplative: good places to hang out for an afternoon and meet new people. Add to this lunch by the river and a post-trip drink and chat and your day is made!

Although a low impact sport, fly fishing is still a calorie burner – for those of you for whom that is important. An afternoon’s fishing can be a total body workout: wading against the flow of water works your core and legs while casting and landing fish works your arm and upper body.

Izaak Walton described fishing as the contemplative man’s recreation. Well, anyone can participate – young and old, male and female. Globally the sport has seen a welcome recent uptake among both the younger generation and women. And yes, there are kit buying opportunities aplenty!

Some of us may yearn to get back to the hustle and bustle of pre-lockdown life but for those who want to hang on to life at a slower pace, spend more time outdoors and enjoy all that our local countryside can offer, maybe give fly-fishing a go.

You can read more on this topic in The Sunday Times article for which Mark was interviewed: Keeping it reel: why millennials are practising mindful fly‑fishing
Download a copy | Read online

Our location

The Cotswolds offers some of the most picturesque stream fishing alongside wonderful places to stay and explore. We can advise on local pubs, B&Bs and hotels near to our fishing venues if you would like to combine your flyfishing experience with a break in the Cotswolds.

Winter work: getting ready for a new season

While there is still the chance of an occasional grayling outing, winter is the time for getting our trout streams into shape for the season to come. As part of the Cotswold Flyfishers’ Fisheries Team I’ve been working throughout the off-season out on our Cotswold rivers on our annual programme of maintenance.

Most of the work is regular maintenance, trimming back the annual growth of bankside willows, alders, hawthorns and brambles, and clearing any trees that have come down through the winter. We do our best to balance the opening up of access for fishing with the enhancement of the habitat for wild trout and other wildlife.

This year has been a challenge thanks to a succession of storms that brought down trees and left us battling high water. Nevertheless, necessity is the mother of invention and those fallen trees yielded large logs that can be recycled as flow deflectors to introduce in-stream features.

Here on the Coln we protected the bank from erosion using stakes intertwined with willow. The brash from routine maintenance is used as backfill material. Over the winter this structure will trap silt and protect the bank. The woven willow structure will also be a great habitat for trout fry.

The least enjoyable part of our winter work is discovering just how much litter our fellow citizens dispose of in our rivers. This was a day’s haul from the River Churn below Cirencester.

From April, we will be back fishing for trout again and I can’t wait. We’re taking bookings now if you’d like to book a guided day on the Cotswold rivers or a casting refresher ahead of the new season

Confidence choices for sea bass

We all fish better when we feel confident. For me confidence comes first and foremost from the choice of fly. The variety of flies and styles we can choose from is immense but that huge choice can lead to uncertainty and doubt. Take sea bass for example. These supreme predators feed on a wide variety of marine creatures: just look in the sea angling magazines at the variety of baits used to catch them. I’ve caught bass gorged on sand eels, smashing shoals of whitebait or with crunchy stomachs packed with shore crabs. I’ve experimented with shrimp flies, crab flies, poppers and all sorts of weird and wonderful saltwater flies from around the world. But when in doubt I reach for these three flies which seem to work regardless of what the fish are feeding on.

Chartreuse Clouser – This fly style – the Deep Minnow – is a brilliant design created by the American angler and fly tier Bob Clouser. It is simple, hard-wearing and deadly. The weighted eyes ensure it sinks quickly and gives the fly a very lively action as it is retrieved. It fishes hook point up so is less likely to get snagged on the rocks and kelp. It looks good enough to eat. This colour combination, chartreuse and white, is consistently my most productive bass fly.

Pink Clouser – Clouser’s minnows can be tied in a variety of colours but rather than arm your box with all the colours of the rainbow, I suggest you add just one alternative – the pink and white variant. This provides a contrast in shade to the vibrant chartreuse. The pink and white combination makes for a translucent and less showy alternative. Try it over sea weed or on sunny days when the chartreuse seems to be just a bit too bright.

Livebait – This pattern was designed by Austen Goldsmith, a bass fishing guide In Cornwall, and is simply the most lifelike sand-eel imitation you could want. It is another simple and hard-wearing fly, essential when you are fishing over rocks or catching large numbers of toothy school bass. The Livebait is unweighted and a great choice for fishing in shallow flats and over reefs where a Clouser may sink too fast.  It features a bend-back style of tying that helps mask the hook point from weeds.

I like to keep my bass fishing as simple as possible and would happily set out for a session armed with a line try, a 9 ft 8 weight rod, a clear intermediate line, a spool of tippet and a box of these three flies.  One final tip: don’t think you always have to strip the flies as fast as you can. These flies are so lively in the water you can fish them slowly and that is often the way to pick up the larger bass.

At Blue Zulu Fly Fishing, we’re offering a 12-fly selection box containing four hand-tied examples of each of these three patterns tied on top quality stainless steel hooks for £45 plus delivery.

Spring salmon flies for the new season

Something to look forward to at last …

I am not complaining. So many people have had a much worse time through the COVID-19 pandemic than me. But it is encouraging to hear news that a vaccine looks more likely than not to be with us in the spring, and perhaps we can start looking forward to things returning to something like normal next year.

Normal for me includes organising salmon fishing trips to Scotland, hopefully with self-catering lodges open again and all my fishing friends able to travel. Maybe too that trip to Norway might go ahead next year.

That spirit of optimism has been fueling my recent efforts at the fly tying bench. I’ve been thinking about the best flies to stock up the fly box for April and May fishing on the bigger rivers I fish like the Wye and the Aberdeenshire Dee.

Here are four patterns, based on different colour palettes, that I think will cover the bases for any spring salmon fisherman. They are all simple-enough tyings based on a shrimpy style, featuring a long sparse tail of bucktail with a hint of flash added and a prominent collar hackle. They owe a lot to Alistair Gowans’ Ally’s Shrimp and Cascade in terms of profile and movement in the water, in fact I think the lightness of these dressings accentuates that movement.

NessC – This is a bright pattern for a bright day. It was devised by Ian Sinclair as a cascade variant for the River Ness in Inverness. I have had great success with it on the Dee in April. At first glance it looks rather garish for a river where “an inch of black” is the default salmon fly specification. The secret is to tie it as sparsely as possible.

Green Shrimp – This is very similar to the NessC but with green as the dominant colour rather than purple. Overall it shares the colours of the famous old Green Highlander pattern. This fly comes out of my box on the dull, dreich days we sometimes get on Deeside. There is an old saying “When the mist is on the hill, ‘tis the green fly that will kill”. Give it a try, you won’t be disappointed.

Willie Gunn Shrimp – The Willie Gunn has always been one of my most productive salmon flies. It is so versatile and can be tied in so many styles. Here I am tying it with a gold body and a long tail, to give the same profile and mobility as the NessC. The colours of the Willie Gunn are universally successful and you can fish this with confidence all through the year. It works well in clear water but also when there is a hint of peat stain in the water.

Black and Yellow Shrimp – The combination of black and yellow, with jungle cock cheeks, is a classic on the Dee but is successful on every river. This, of the four flies, is the first choice for clear water conditions in early season.

At Blue Zulu Fly Fishing, we’re offering a 12-fly selection box containing hand-tied examples of each of these four patterns tied on Partridge Patriot double hooks in sizes 6, 8 and 10 for £60 plus delivery.

Which dry fly for trout?

Choosing dry flies for trout should be a simple exercise. Surely all we need to do is work out what the fish is feeding on and then present an imitation. That logic is at the heart of the traditional approach to chalk stream fishing developed by Marryat and Halford in the 1880s. They codified the process of fly design and selection, developing a direct one-to-one mapping between a natural insect and its artificial representation.

In practice it doesn’t always seem so straightforward. The trout often appears to prefer flies that behave in a particular way. It seems to be the attitude of the fly in the water and how it sits in rather than on top of the surface that provides the trigger for a confident rise. Looking through my fishing records for the year I see that I used remarkably few conventionally hackled dry flies, instead fishing increasingly with no-hackle styles.

The exceptions to that have been the flies with parachute hackles, either tied in the style of a klinkhamer or as para spinners.

So what were the flies of the season, here on our Cotswold streams?

CDC & Elk – I first came across this fly many, many years ago when its inventor the Dutch flytying genius Hans Weilenmann showed me how to tie it and assured me of its efficacy. It has been a staple of my fly box ever since. It is extremely versatile but I find it most effective as an adult caddis pattern in the summer months.

DHE – The next pattern is Bob Wyatt’s deer-hair emerger, another simple, versatile and rugged style of fly that somehow captures the tangle of legs, wings and shuck evident at the moment of emergence of an olive dun. There is a nice story in Bob’s book Trout Hunter about how he dueled with Hans on the Elk River in British Columbia, each fly tier using their trademark pattern. That day the DHE shone while the CDC & Elk failed.

Sparkle dun – The sparkle dun is a simple derivative of the compara dun, originally tied by Al Caucci and Bob Nastasi, with the addition of an antron yarn tail. The theory is that the antron tail represents the shuck from which the dun has just emerged. No trout has ever confirmed this to me but this is a fly in which I have great confidence in a hatch of small olives. By changing the colour of the dubbing, all the upright flies we find on the Cotswold streams can be imitated.

Black klinkhamer – The banks of our little Cotswold streams are well lined with willow, alder and hawthorn, all of which are home to a wide range of terrestrial insects such as caterpillars and beetles. The trees also attract land-based flies like hawthorn flies and black gnats. So my go-to pattern if no olives are hatching is a small black klinkhamer tied to represent an unfortunate insect that has fallen from the trees above and ended up trapped in the surface film of the stream.

I’m offering a 24-fly selection box containing hand-tied examples of all these flies for £50. These will be delivered before Christmas and will set the recipient up with a proven selection for the new season.

Wildlife on the river bank

Why do we fly fish? That’s a theme I will come back to from time to time in this blog but one of the most important reasons is that it takes me to places I would never visit and to see things I would never have seen had I not been stood quietly, fishing rod in hand, immersed in the riverside landscape.

It is always hard to pick favourite moments but last season’s highlights included a pair of hobbies performing aerobatics above the River Windrush at Asthall, a grass snake swimming across the River Dikler just feet in front of me and a water vole drifting down the Dikler on his back almost to within touching distance.

Inevitably one doesn’t always have the camera to hand for these serendipitous encounters but I hope you’ll enjoy a few images of wildlife encounters on the banks of the Cotswold streams.

How to catch a fish

My previous blog looked at the steps involved in learning to cast, this time my subject is taking that skill and learning to fish.

Casting the fly isn’t an end in itself. The purpose of fly fishing is to catch a fish. Before we start fishing, the very first consideration is staying safe. Whenever we fly fish we wear eye protection and a hat to protect our head and eyes from hooks. Polarised sunglasses are the best choice as they reduce the glare of sunlight reflecting from the water surface and make it easier to spot fish. It is also important to be aware of and to understand the risks associated with being on or in a river or lake, especially when wading or fishing from a boat.

Right, let’s go fishing!

Step 1: Find your fish. This can be the most daunting aspect of fishing for a newcomer (or for the most experienced fishermen). All you can see is an expanse of water so where should you cast? The first lesson is to learn about the quarry – what sort of fish are we hoping to catch, what sort of food does it like, where does it like to hang out? How does its behaviour change with different conditions? You will spend the rest of your fishing career learning some of the answers to these questions but we’ll start you off in the right direction.

Step 2: What fly should I use? The essence of fly fishing is to identify what the fish is feeding on and then select on an imitation. We’ll teach you about what insects fish eat, their different life stages and how to identify them. We’ll show you the different artificial flies we use to imitate them and also introduce you to some old faithfuls that can be relied on to attract a fish when there aren’t any clues to what the fish are eating that day. You will learn the difference between dry and wet flies, and between nymphs and lures.

Step 3: Present the fly to the fish in a lifelike way. This is where your fly casting practice comes into play. You will need to deploy the skills of accurate and delicate casting to get that fly to fish without scaring it. We will teach you about fine tuning your tackle to suit the type of fly you are using and the prevailing conditions.

Step 4: Hooking a fish. At some stage a fish will decide to eat your fly and you will need to tighten the line to set the hook before it realises the fly isn’t real and spits it out. We’ll show you how to detect when a fish takes the fly and what to do when that happens. Depending on where we are fishing, we may teach you some new tactics to make it easier to detect the take.

Step 5: Landing the fish. Most of the species we try to catch using fly fishing techniques are strong fighting fish that will do their best to escape by leaping from the water, making sudden long runs, shaking their heads or seeking respite in weed-beds, under stones or in tree roots. We’ll teach you how to play the fish quickly and safely, using the flexibility of your rod to protect the delicate line. We will show you how to use a landing net to land the fish and we’ll show you how to remove the hook and return the fish unharmed. If we are fishing a stocked fishery and you want to keep a fish we will show you how to kill the fish humanely and to ensure it is in good condition for the pot.

Fly fishing tuition will help you understand these five steps but the real teachers are the fish and I can guarantee that you will spend the rest of your fishing career being continuously surprised by and learning from them.

Find out more about learning to fly fish on our tuition page.

Learning to fly fish: The cast

One of the objectives of this website is to encourage those who have not fly fished before to give it a try.  We aim to take you from being a complete novice to becoming a confident and competent fly angler, but what does learning to fly fish actually involve?

The first thing to learn is how to cast a fly. There are a number of steps in the learning process and I’ll try to summarise these here.

Step 1. What is fly fishing? We start with the fly, a fish hook dressed up with silk, fur and feather to look like fish food. We must get that fly to the fish and to do that we use two items of fishing tackle: a rod and a line. The rod and line work together to deliver the fly to the fish using what we call a fly cast. The fly line takes the place of the heavy lead weight used in other forms of fishing to propel the hook to the fish.

Step 2. What tackle do we need and how do we set it up? The fly hook has an eye to which we tie a thin piece of nylon called a leader. The leader is attached with a different knot to a thicker, heavier line (called a fly line). The fly line passes through a series of rings or eyes attached to the rod and the spare line is stored on a simple reel or winch. We’ll explain how to select appropriate tackle and show you how to set it up. We’ll also teach you some useful knots.

Step 3. How do we cast? The magic of fly fishing is the cast. As mentioned above the fly line is relatively thick and heavy, certainly in comparison with the usual nylon fishing line with which you might be familiar. The cast uses the weight of the line to load the rod like a spring or a catapult before throwing the line in the direction of the fish. The fly follows afterwards and the intention is for the fly to land on the water like a natural insect exactly where you want it to. We will start off teaching you how to hold the rod and then teach you two basic casts: a roll cast and an overhead cast. Those two casts are the foundations on which the skills of fly casting are built and at this stage you could start to fish but there is one more step that will give you a better chance of success.

Step 4. How do we cast further? Once the basic casts are understood, you will need to learn a few technical developments that will allow you to fish more effectively. You will learn to false cast (make a cast that doesn’t touch the water) and to lengthen your line. You will learn how to cast accurately at a target as well as learning tactics for dealing with difficult winds. At a more advanced level you will learn how to double haul for long distance casting and even how to cast around corners to improve the presentation of your fly.

Well those 4 steps sound easy, how long does it take to learn to cast? Steps 1 – 3 can be completed in half a day and then it is a good idea to spend a little time putting the lessons into practice. As in any sport, practice is essential for good performance. From there we can add in the more advanced elements when you are ready and depending on where you want to fish.

Find out more about learning to fly fish on our tuition page.