The Mark of a True Hunter

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(First published in Fly Fishing and Fly Tying Magazine - August 2009)

Holy jehozaphat!A large, arrowing, wave sweeps up across the tail of the pool, the size of the wave builds smoothly as the fish accelerates and shoulders on into the trees on the far bank.

"Holy Jehozaphat! Did you see the size of that thing? …Did You?" There's no reply: I'm talking to myself again. I say "again" as this isn't the first time I've spooked a big brownie on this stretch of river. And it always results in me talking to myself, and cursing, and sometimes even jumping up and down and throwing the rod into the bushes…

A cow in the field behind looks on, peacefully, in mild incomprehension.

As the wave dissipates and the pool returns to it's usual stillness, I'm still fuming. I'm fuming because (a) that's the next 100yds or more of river spooked, and (b) I know I could've done better. I know that I could possibly have seen that fish before it saw me. I know that then I would have been in with a chance of getting the right fly in just the right place so that, maybe, that big old trout would've taken it. Then rather than dissipating waves and a sinking heart, I know it would've been heart-in-the-mouth crashing splashes, a whining reel, and a singing line. I might even have landed the thing.

I know these things to be true. I know these things because on occasion I've done just that. I know these things because I spent a season pretty much ignoring normal trout and trying to catch those "did you see the size of that?" trout.

I should say from the start that the way to catching these bigger trout is not complicated, it's not down to secret fly patterns and complicated leader formulas. You've probably seen it all before.

How many times have you read these golden rules?
- First find the fish (Polaroids!)
- Don't spook the fish
- Find out what it's feeding on
- Get the fly to it without spooking it

Yeah, I know hundreds of times. But how often do you seriously apply it?

I'm a classic case. The tension in me is building before I leave home. I'm dying to get to the water. The tension is ratcheted up further as I'm stuck in traffic trying to get out of the city. My stomach is tightening as I hit the country A-roads. I'm in-and-out of the pie-shop to buy lunch in lightning speed, leaving the shop door jangling as I dive back into the car.

I live about an hour and a half away (including pie-shop stop) from the decent fishing, so by the time I reach the river it's a fever-pitch scramble into waders and a sprint into the river; waving the rod around, furiously aerialising enough line to get those flies into the water before the engine's stopped ticking. Forget those golden rules, I've got flies to cast!

Once I'd got the adrenaline under control my approach then usually consisted of systematically covering as much water as possible, dropping flies into fishy areas and casting to rising fish if I saw them, obviously. I was careful to move and wade slowly, and yes I did catch fish. Quite a few actually. But the big fish usually only showed themselves in their rapid departure - the aforementioned bow-wave, or a deep speeding shadow heading into the hills.

So this year I decided to try and calm down. I tried to develop the gimlet-eyed cool of a true hunter. Lots of deep breathing. Yoga might help…

Rather than prospecting for trout in all the likely spots I decided to only cast (a) if I spotted a fish, or (b) after studying the water for at least five minutes. I decided to approach the river more slowly than before and, ten feet from the water and behind cover, I'd stop. I'd stop and look. Really look. Pick out the stones on the bottom right under my own bank, as far upstream as possible. Get my eyes used to seeing through the water. Scan the pool. Look for movement, edges of fins, blinks of mouths. Yaddah yaddah yaddah. You've read all this before haven't you? Bet you're thinking "yep, I do all that".

But. Have you actually measured the length of time you look before wading in and casting? Try it next time you're out rod-in-hand.

Try looking for at least five minutes (by your watch!) before casting. It's almost painful the restraint you have to exercise! But it's amazing how often a pool that's looked devoid of all life for two or three minutes, gradually reveals itself by the fifth: A fish that's lain hidden behind a rock moves just a little and is revealed; a fish that's slowly patrolling its beat calmly swims under your feet; a slow riser pokes its nose up on the far bank leaving a trail of bubbles…

All of these fish would likely be spooked if you'd cracked and waded in after two minutes. Even if you don't spot a fish you may well pick out a small under-bank run, or mid-pool pot that you'd otherwise miss. If you still want to fish the stretch blind, at least you'll have a better idea of how to do it.

So you've spotted a good fish in the fifth, or sixth, or even seventh minute. What now?

The adrenaline's kicking in again eh? These big fish are almost supernatural in their sudden appearance and it's easy to believe that they'll just as suddenly dissolve back into the ether. So with indecent haste you unhook the fly from the rod ring and sling that fly out as quick as you can, right?

It's hard to do, but a bit more deep breathing, and possibly quiet mantra-chanting is required. "Don't spook the fish - find out what it's eating, don't spook the fish - find out what it's eating…". More watching I'm afraid. You need to work out if the fish is feeding; if so what on, and how near the surface. You need to work out the best place to cast from: can you cast without wading? Any slack needed? Are there any other fish in the pool that might spook when you cast to the big one? All this needs sorting out if you are to stand the best chance of latching into the big one.

Sometimes you'll come across fish that are seemingly nailed to the bottom. They are unmoving and sullen looking. I've found these fish almost never respond to a fly. So my tactic is usually to mark the spot (not in the canine sense!) and come back later to see if it's in a more cooperative mood.

Ok, you've chanted a little, the fish is feeding; you've sorted out the right fly and the right presentation. You've carefully got yourself into casting position. The critical thing here is to keep a sense of the fish's exact location. Often when you move into casting position you're too low to see the fish itself. If you have a friend along they can be posted to keep an eye on the fish and direct your casts; if the fish is rising you can wait for it to rise and mark its position. In the absence of these aids, you have to make sure you line the fish up against bank-side features to pin it down - and pray it doesn't move around too much! I once had to cross and re-cross a river five times to make sure I had the right casting position to one big fish. I kept losing the bank-side features I'd spotted from the other bank!

Fish that are actively patrolling or swinging back and forth across the current are a nightmare here. It's so easy to misplace a cast and spook the fish, and you need to massive self-control, only casting when you're positive as to the fish's location.

A little more deep breathing and you make the cast. Time to be positive! Make the cast with as little false casting as possible, and confidently put the fly where you want it. If you're nervous, and concentrating on nearby snags rather than the fish you know where the fly is going to end up don't you?

In an ideal world you make the perfect cast and the fish takes first time. Brilliant! Well done! But what if it doesn't? This is where the adrenal gland works over time once more and you immediately throw the fly out again, and again, and again: surely he's seen it? Did he see it? He must take it this time! Try again! A bit further upstream? Try again!

I don't know how many times I did this before the penny dropped. Continual re-casting is not a good idea. I didn't necessarily spook the fish immediately, or even completely. But gradually I'd find that the fish would rise less often, or sink lower in the water, eventually slinking off under a nearby weed bed or under the bank. Doh!

It's much better to make a maximum of two casts and then wait. Wait to see if the fish is still there and still feeding. Allow it to maintain its own feeding rhythm and try to build your casts into this rhythm. It's a really hard thing to do when you've got a big fish in front of you and a fly rod in your hand, but for me this restraint is critical.


And restraint is the word when, at last the fish takes your dry fly. For pity's sake let it get its head down before tightening! You'll feel such an idiot if you pull the fly out of the fishes mouth after spending a couple of hours trying to catch it!

All of this means that you will be spending more time not casting than casting, more time out of the river than in it, and more time between fish - I once spent 4 hours on one big fish. Yep, you'll also catch fewer fish.

You'll still spook fish, talk to yourself, and maybe throw rods around. But the fish you do catch will be worth the effort. They'll be the biggest fish in the pool, the fish other people pass by - the "look at the size of that" fish. Even the cows might take notice.

© William Shaw