Weir'd Dreams

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Dream days. You know the sort of thing. Easy to conjure up in your grey cubicle, the one you got to choose when the office layout was being decided. You chose it because it was nearest the window and, if you stretch a little, you can see the sky.

If you crane your neck you might even glimpse a tree or two. That's all you need to start off with, a glimpse of green and blue…..

…You would get up ridiculously early, dead easy 'cos it's a dream. It's late July so let's say 3:30am. Noiselessly load the car with the small amount of fishing tackle and the vast amount of inflatable boat and engine and anchor and stuff that you'll need to reach your favourite Thames weir. The drive really is a dream! The car floats through the streets unhindered by the ant-farm reality of the weekday rush hour. Your strength of purpose seems to force the traffic lights to green all the way. Maybe in the week it's your reluctance to go to work that turns them red.

At the boat ramp the Thames is silent. No pleasure boats or joggers. No kids on bikes or shouts of "hey mister, give us a go on yer boat!". Just a silky flow beneath a deep grey-white smoky river mist. You have your head in the clouds.

The Zodiac inflates quickly and there are no signs of any slow punctures which could interrupt your day. It's highly disturbing if you have to break off from your dream every 15 minutes or so to frantically pump air into the tubes. You launch smoothly and the trusty (or should that be rusty?) outboard fires up first time. Let it run for 5 minutes to warm up; no great hassle as you can set up the rods while you're waiting.

First the Orvis Saltrodder 9wt. Not the flashiest rod you own but maybe your favourite. This rod gets a Teeny 350 line and an Al's Eel.

Al's EelA good set up for the deeper areas. If the going is slow you can twitch this fly along just above the bottom at water-snail pace. But this morning it's not going to be slow is it? So stop messing about and set up the 8wt RPLXi. This gets the clear intermediate and a Conker. The Conker is your shamelessly adapted Bunny Bug. Tied in exactly the same way but with racoon zonkers. In the water Conkers look twice the size of Bunnies. The intermediate line and un-weighted fly is lovely to use if you don't need too much depth. Probably your most successful method to date.

Time to cast off and motor up to the weir. The river mist is just starting to lift now. As you slowly navigate the stream swans appear and disappear, dissolving and coalescing into and out of the mist. Very dreamlike. The mallards are definitely in a world of their own; heads tucked in and gently bobbing close to the bank. What's to stop them drifting away downstream in their sleep, their dreams rudely interrupted as they tip over the next weir down?!

Ten minutes upstream and you slow the boat still further. That low rumbling sound and the musty, organic smell of Thames water are enough to tell you that you've arrived. Creep into the weir pool on low revs and on the opposite side to that which you'll be fishing. The drill is to get upstream of the chosen spot and silently drift back on the oars to the likely looking swim.

You drop the mud-weight about 10 yards from the bank, just off the large back eddy on the right hand side of the pool, opposite an overhanging tree. Part of the tree fell in a couple of years ago and now creates a great holding feature right next to the bank.

Fifteen minutes of casting, and no response. Surprising, given it's a dream. Maybe not. Your dream day isn't one that's too embarrassingly easy. We should, after all, expect to work a little for our dreams.

Time for a move.

Not far though. Lift the mud-weight and let the stream carry the Zodiac into the edge of the bay. About thirty-five yards across and no more than five feet deep, the bay is heavily lined with alder and oak. In the gaps between trees vertiginous banks make it inaccessible from shore. Drop the mud-weight just right, keeping the boat out of the bay itself and fifteen yards from the bank. Those pike won't have a clue.

The sun is well up now. You can take off your hat and gloves. And the coat.

And relax. No point rushing. You can be out all day if you like. Pour yourself a coffee, grab a muesli bar from the bag, and settle back for a while. Let the sun soak into your bones, and allow yourself and the boat to soak into the landscape.

Okay, that's enough soaking. You've a day-dream to finish.

A fly change. Al's Eel: Alan Hanna's foam-headed-rabbit-tailed nightmare, designed originally to be fished booby-style off a fast sinking line. But also a useful slider/diver pattern when fished on an intermediate line.

Yep, today you want to try and catch your first pike on the surface. Never done that before but it's a perfect day-dream so why not? Anyway the slip-sliding of the fly as you twitch it across the surface will be fun to watch with or without a pike in pursuit.

Just to the left of the boat, about 20 yards away, there's a small recess in the bay. No more than three yards square. But it's still shaded, and bounded by overhanging bush. How can you resist? Cast, and for once the fly goes into the bay-within-a-bay first time; pulled there by providence, today you probably could've done it blindfolded. Cool.

Let the fly settle for about twenty seconds and start the retrieve. Slowly. Just twitch it to start. Just an inch or two. You can just see the rings emanating from the fly. The racoon zonker tail will be gently undulating now. Breathing life into that tiny pocket of water.

Thrash!Now twitch a bit harder. Make the fly dart forward, say 6 inches. Again. Now a long, slow-twitchy pull. Time seems to slow, and for a few seconds it feels like someone has turned up the contrast switch. Your senses tingle and you are aware of every ripple, every leaf, every sound. All is converging on a single point at the end of your line.

Thinking about it later, you imagine that you may have noticed the water behind the fly just rock a little in the nanosecond before the bay-within-a-bay exploded.

God! Did a dog just jump in? Involuntarily you pull hard with your line-hand, at the same time sweeping the rod low and firmly to the right. Thump! It's there. Pull with the line hand again. And again. Keep stripping in line 'til you feel that positive head-shake that tells you that you're firmly attached to your first ever, bull-dogging, cart-wheeling, surface-feeding pike. Now that's fantastic isn't it?

Without touching the fish you slip the barbless hook from the scissors of possibly the most welcome four-pound pike ever to enter a day dream.

Another fifteen minutes with the slider produces nothing more, convincing you that the remaining pike in the bay aren't up for looking up today. There are more fish to be had from this spot, though, on this day of days.

So change tactics. Snip off the Al's Eel and knot on a red and white Conker. All your pike flies get tied to American Fishing Wire's Surflon Ultra 17lb wire. A surgeon's loop at one end of the wire interlocks with a 15lb mono cast. You tie all your lures on with a non-slip loop knot which allows the fly maximum movement.

First cast with the new fly goes back into the bay-within-a-bay. Let the fly sink a couple of feet. The water is clear, your dream Thames conditions, so you can still see the fly as you twitch it back with sharp eight-inch pulls. You can still see the fly on the fifth pull when a two-foot yellow-green flashing banana arches out of nowhere and engulfs it. An especially long pull with your line hand sets the hook, and you hang on as the second pike of the day circles the boat, miraculously missing the anchor rope on several occasions before you get a hand to it. Two casts later and there's an almost exact repeat performance from a spot no more than six feet from the first. Ahh, can life get any better?

In a moment of pure Walt Disney, the birds seem to be singing just for you and you can't stop yourself grinning stupidly. Thing is, even Walt wouldn't have been so cheesy as to script the next bit.

Switching to a black and yellow conker, you start searching the rest of the bay. Now, as the sun hits the water you lose sight of the fly so you're relying on feel alone. Half-way in the fly stops dead.

When you first started pike fly fishing you'd have thought this was weed, but now the auto-response is to give a short strip-strike, and another, and another. It's not until the third pull on the line that you feel the sullen head shake which signals it's fauna and not flora that's grabbed the fly.

13lb ExactlyThis one does feel excitingly different though. No three-pounder tugging-and-sprinting this time. Just a heavy weight slowly submarining around the bay. The eight-weight is locked over nicely, just as it was designed to.

With three- and four-pounders, once they are next to the boat an eight-weight will easily bring the fish into view. With this one however it circles the boat at least three times before you can coax it to within two feet of the surface. Whoa, that's a nice one! If it doesn't chuck the hook it'll be the biggest thing you've ever had on a fly rod.

It's not ready yet though, powering off under heavy palm pressure towards some rather alarming looking tree roots. You lower the rod slightly to bring the full power of the rod butt to bear on the fish and increase the palm pressure still further. Those people who think you can't tackle big fish on a fly rod should see this. With confidence in your tackle - a strong leader and decent hooks - you can put amazing pressure on fish. It certainly works in this case and the fish glides round in a nice arc back to the boat. Beaten!

On with the glove and out it comes. A round of applause emanates from behind you. You'd been so focused on the fish that you didn't notice the pleasure cruiser arrive on the far side of the weir. Another early riser, on his way upstream to Oxford perhaps.

The hook, although well back in the fish's throat, pops out easily and you quickly slip her into the weigh-sling. Thirteen pounds exactly. Not only your biggest fly-rod fish, your biggest pike ever! Long and lean, this one will probably be nearer sixteen pounds later in the season. A couple of snaps with the camera and back she goes.

And there really is no point in going on is there? There's a moment in every dream day where to catch any more would blunt the pleasures of that which has gone before. It's tempting to take more than you need, but like alcohol, it's intoxicating - you know you'll regret it in the morning. "Firsts" and "biggests" should be savoured for what they are. Don't lose that sense of joy in the headlong rush to the next landmark. So still grinning you stow the rods, and after a last celebratory coffee you up-anchor and head home. In time for lunch on this day-dream dream-day.

But who needs day-dreams when reality is as good as this?

© William Shaw 2002