Sunday, 29 April 2012

Great Hatches & Big Fish In The Scottish Borders

Working as a flyfishing guide has many advantages and is a decent way to earn a living. People are often envious of the life a guide leads, spending our working life on river banks, in fishing boats and on the shores of upland lakes. It can also lead to trips abroad, and I will be forever thankful of the places it has taken me too already. However, the downside to all this is that it stops you going fishing yourself and you can lose the desire to go fishing. You've spent days teaching and guiding, stood in cold rivers, watched and helped people catch fish, tied on hundreds of flies, untangled every imaginable birds nest... then a rare day off in the season comes your way and it's easy to just not go fishing and do something else instead. I find one of the only ways I can guarantee that I will go fishing is if I plan a 'proper' trip...

So throughout the season I arrange to fish with friends up and down the country. We get them in the diary early so that they do actually happen. Last weekend I'd arranged to meet my good friend Tony and fish a river in the Scottish Borders. The chosen river is well known for great hatches of fly, including the iconic March Brown, and wild brown trout that can reach specimen sizes. Our trips are normally arranged to coincide with far from ideal fishing weather. In March 2011 we met on the River Ure at Hawes with it showing its bones, sun shining brightly in a cloudless sky and a cold easterly wind. April 2011 we fished Stocks Reservoir in bright sun and 30mph easterly winds. Our September 2011 trip was arranged with even more impeccable timing - it coincided with Hurricane Katia battering the UK! Well on this occasion we fell lucky, extremely lucky. The Yorkshire Dales had rain lashing down most of the preceding week and rain was forecast all through the weekend. The rain was accompanied by strong winds, hail and thunder, and the rivers were bordering on being unfishable. Miraculously the Scottish Borders missed all this . The river was in perfect condition, winds light and little to no rain. If it had been a couple of degrees warmer it would have been absolutely perfect, but I'll take what we had any day.

There is always something exciting about fishing a new river, especially one with a good reputation. It's the mystery, anticipation, not knowing what's around the next corner. It's because it's different; you don't know the good lies, the places where you can always avoid the dreaded blank. You need to work, observe, your senses are heightened because you're out of your comfort zone. Are the stories you've heard true? Will I catch a specimen trout? Have I chosen the right beat? Should I have fished one of the other beats? Will my flies be effective away from home? All this is going on in your head and at the same time you know you are only there for a few days. You can't return the day after to put right your mistakes. But that's what makes them more enjoyable than your bread and butter fishing at home. It's all those things I've listed, and more besides, that create that "new river buzz"!

Mega hatches - the surface is littered with hatching flies
The problem with river fishing trips in April is that things don't start to happen until 12pm at the earliest and on this trip, with temperatures below average, it was nearer 1pm. At home you'd just go fishing later, but when you're away from home there's nothing else to do. This gives you the feeling that you are walking past some great pools and wasting them because you are too early. I could of course have fished nymphs but, put simply, I didn't want to - it was a dry fly trip, looking for fish rising to hatching naturals.

You'd see the odd fly hatching in earnest from the start, but the trout knew there was no need to waste energy chasing single flies, they knew what was coming. When the hatches did start they were awesome. I thought we got good hatches in the Yorkshire Dales, but here in the Scottish Borders they were on a different scale, in another league totally. Not only a hatch of a particular fly, but various flies hatching in massive numbers all at once. No wonder the fish didn't take the early flies that were sampling the air. On the first day I saw possibly the biggest hatch of flies I've ever seen - a hatch of Iron Blues, a fly I rarely encounter in the dales. They were everywhere and just as I'd read in the past, their emergence was seemingly triggered by rain. The problem with a hatch such as this is getting the fish to see your fly amongst the thousands of naturals - like "trying to catch a cow with a blade of grass" as an old angler I used to know would say.

Flies would hatch all day, pulsing in intensity, though most of the time the fish weren't going mad for them. I simply can't understand how a fish can rise to a natural, then let loads more float by without touching them? Not just any natural, but big juicy March Browns and Olive Uprights. These fish would sometimes rise 15 minutes later when you'd moved off upstream, or just not rise again, despite the continual flow of food items just waiting to be taken. Mystifying!

This is a list of the main flies we saw in 3 days fishing: March Brown, Olive Upright, Large Dark Olive, Iron Blue, Mayfly (single specimen - very early), Large Stonefly, Hawthorn (saw about 20 - quite early for the north), stonefly sp. (unable to catch and identify). With the exception of the Mayfly and Hawthorn all were hatching in massive numbers.

Tony's 2lb 12oz trout
Tony's 2lb 12oz trout
The highlight of the fishing was trout of 2lb 12oz (Tony), 2lb 6oz (yours truly) and 2lb 2oz (Tony). All these were seen rising and taken on dry March Browns. I did land an out of season 2lb grayling on a March Brown imitation. And before anyone comments I know grayling don't have a close season in Scotland, but I'm a Yorkshireman and it doesn't seem right targeting them. I moved away because it was obvious I'd found a shoal of grayling feeding on the hatching March Browns.

That brings me onto what was quite an amusing episode on our second day. It was around 3pm and we'd still not had lunch due to the hatch intensity and fish activity, so you can imagine we felt pretty hungry when a lull in proceedings came along. We had decided to sit down for lunch when we found the next good looking pool, so we could watch for risers as we ate. As we rounded a bend in the river we came across a pool with fish rising towards the tail. The rises were so close together we agreed that they had to be grayling. Grayling tend to live close together, whereas trout prefer to be further apart and this can often tell us whether it's trout or grayling rising. In other words, if you get a lot of rises very close together it is a good bet they are grayling and not trout. So that's what we deduced in this case. They were clearly big fish from the water they moved when rising, but they just looked 'graylingy' and even left the telltale bubble on the surface as grayling often do.

Yours truly with 2lb 6oz trout in the rain
Yours truly with 2lb 6oz trout in the rain
So there we were high on the bank above the fish eating our butties and drinking flask coffee, not really bothering if the grayling saw us and spooked. They didn't spook and continued to rise in a frenzy (not an exaggeration), big fish and a good few of them. They were taking March Browns. Tony decided to have a throw for one of the near fish before he finished his lunch and immediately hooked one. I nearly choked on my sandwich as a 2lb+ trout leaped from the water. I'm not sure if it was the shock of it being a big trout and not a grayling, or that Tony now had two, 2lb+ fish and I hadn't caught a fish much over a pound! But still we stood high on the bank and didn't rush the rest of our lunch as the other fish continued to rise with gusto. Tony's trout must have been a trout amongst the grayling we agreed. OK, lunch finished and my turn to cast and guess what? Yes the same happened. A huge trout head engulfed my March Brown Paradun and I was into what turned out to be the 2lb 6oz trout listed above. So there you have it - ALWAYS LEARNING! And you wouldn't believe the numbers of trout we put down with a 'careful approach'!