The Sneep: In pursuit of wild trout (Part 2)

By Ian Colborne

The set-up I use for catching wild trout consists of a furled leader of 4’ (this is a braided tapered leader made from power silk – mine come from Rob Dibble in Devon). This is perfect for turning over your flies in a tight spot. Then 2’ 6” of 4.4lb BS nylon (Maxima or Bayer Perlon has just the right amount of stiffness). I then add a dropper of about 18” of 2.5lb BS line, making the whole leader about the length of my rod. Any longer and you’ll struggle to turn it over with a restricted back cast.

I mainly use a Klinkhammer on the dropper (usually in sizes 16-18) as these flies sit up well in broken water. The body colour in olive, brown or grey normally does the trick. As it’s only a sight indicator and the fish don’t see it, you can make the post any colour you like. I prefer yellow as it shows up well against the dark peat-stained water and my eyes can pick it out more easily than other colours I have tried over the years.

You can also use other types of dry flies – sedges, mayflies etc – on the dropper, depending on the time of year. For me though, the point fly is the most important as it accounts for about 70% of the takes. I read somewhere that trout do over 80% of their feeding beneath the surface of the water which makes you wonder why we anglers always carry more dry flies than nymphs in fly boxes? Maybe we just live in the eternal hope of a good hatch. I have experimented a lot with point fly variations over the years, one of which I created myself called ‘the bed bug’. The name is an in-joke I have with Alan, the General Secretary of the club, the origin of which I don’t wish to divulge! The tying instructions however are as follows:

* Size 14 or 16 Kamasan B170 hook
* 3/32 copper bead
* 5-6 dyed olive/brown
* Pleasant tail feathers in the tail
* Lureflash Bodyflex in dark brown cut into a 2mm strip and wound round the hook for the body
* Veniard glister sparkle dubbing for the thorax

Alan, for those of you who haven’t met him, is a larger than life character and an avid collector of fishing gear and fly-tying material who could open a tackle shop in his spare room if he had a mind to. Alan’s a real tackle junkie who gets as much pleasure buying tackle as he does using it and loves competition, especially with me. He particularly loves to tell the tale of the one-eyed trout.

This happened about ten years ago when Alan and I were fishing the middle stretches of the Derwent at Shotley Bridge, just below the iron bridge.It was during the mayfly season I had set off downstream and was planning to fish my way back up to meet him a few hours later. The river was fishing well and I was picking up trout regularly on a CDC mayfly.

I was running a bit late but I was nearly back up to our meeting point when I came across a particularly difficult trout. Alan must have decided to come and look for me, because I usually find him asleep next to his car on hot days if I’m late back. Now, being a left-hander, I view the river differently to right-handers and what seems like a difficult spot to someone else can seem easy to me. Anyway, Alan was standing behind me offering the usual banter that two fishing friends give each other, secretly hoping the other will give up and let them have a try. The ideal is to catch the fish with your first cast, thereby totally humiliating your friend. You can then tell the story forever more, almost turning it into folklore over a long period of time.

I could see this trout was taking mayfly, so why would it not take mine? As I was changing my fly for the third time, Alan decided he would have a cast to what I now considered to be ‘my fish’ from behind a tree higher up the pool. This was a big old trout rising confidently and as far as I was concerned, it had my name on it, but before I could say anything Alan was playing the fish and laughing his head off. Then, when he landed it, on closer inspection we noticed it had a cataract in one eye – so from the angle Alan had cast to the opposite side of the fish over its good eye, it had seen the fly and taken it straight away. Whereas mine, being cast to its blind side, had been completely ignored! Of course, Alan tells this story slightly differently to me but we both know what happened. (You can read his version of the story here)

Alan and I grew up on the River Derwent together, fishing, camping and egg collecting (as teenage boys, egg collecting was something that didn’t seem so illegal in the mid-Seventies, but looking back I am sure it was). We never dreamt that one day we would play a part in running the club we loved so much.

The ‘bed bug’ is an excellent search fly and has just enough ingredients to make the fish curious and is quick enough to tie to not get too attached to. As American angling writer John Gierach once said, “Fishing flies should be treated like shotgun cartridges – as a means to an end.” I know some fishermen who carry flies in their fly boxes which took them so long to tie they have no intention of fishing with them for fear of losing them.

This fly accounts for about 40% of my wild fish (which was about 400 last season, by my calculations). The most important factor in this fly is the weight – I find 3/32 copper bead gives it just the right weight to get it down to the depth required, but it’s not so heavy as to snag the bottom of the river bed. Depending on the time of year, you can vary the dry fly on the dropper depending on what’s hatching. (See Entomology for Beginners for an idea of what to use when)

You can also vary the point. If you are not sure what nymph to use, try kick sampling the river to see what’s about. For this, I have constructed my own net using two lengths of dowel about 18” long and a piece of net curtain about 2’ long, attached between them. You then position yourself upstream and with the net stretched between your hands, then shuffle your feet to kick up the nymphs and bugs. You then lift up the net, open your fly box and tie on the nearest thing you have to the nymphs you’re seeing in your net. You don’t even need to know the names of what you’re looking at. The fish certainly don’t. Entomology is a massive subject to cover and you can take it as far as you wish. Some people love to spend half their fishing day bug hunting and it is quite easy to get carried away once you start turning over rocks.

A word about beadhead nymphs: no nymph in the natural world has a copper, silver or gold head but to a wild brown trout with a short growing season, living behind a boulder in a small weir pool, it’s more about opportunity. If it acts like food and looks like food, then the next step is to see if it tastes like food. And that’s when you have got him.

The method of fishing these rugged parts of the River Derwent is something the Americans call klink and dink and we English more usually refer to as ‘the duo’. To fish this method, cast (or more accurately, pitch or flip) your flies upstream, positioning yourself level with the middle of the pool a rod length or so away from the runner you are fishing. You need to keep low and move slowly when you are fishing this close to the trout as it is easy to disturb them. Bear in mind that most predators attack them from above and they haven’t survived millions of year on the planet by being stupid. They will dive for cover at the first sign of danger. I suppose I just enjoy the sneaky aspect of this sort of fishing, staying low, wading stealthily, sometimes kneeling behind rocks and boulders to keep my silhouette hidden from view, crossing the river back and forth trying to position myself at the best possible angle to the pool.

Using the leader set up I described, you only need four or five yards of line out from your rod tip, depending on the length of pool. Some pools can be as short as ten feet but as long as there is enough depth in them and cover for trout to hide, they will be there. A tip here is to wear a pair of polarised glasses, as sometimes a fish will come up and have a look at your fly but not take it first time past. Keep all your line from dropper fly to your rod tip off the water as this enables the dry fly on the dropper to bob around more naturally, following the flow of the current. Try drawing the fly with your rod tip from the main flow to the slack pockets behind boulders that trout love to lie in. If you cast a fly in the conventional way in this sort of water there are so many conflicting currents pulling this way and that that drag would set in straight away and nothing spooks a trout more.

I find there’s something exciting about catching a wild trout that I just don’t get from catching stocked fish. With wild trout I think it’s more about how small a fish you are prepared to be satisfied with rather than how big they actually are that constitutes a good day’s fishing. The little wild brownies on the Derwent are full-finned and perfect and are the natural size this river can sustain. Trout have a natural survival mechanism whereby they only grow to the size their river can support, ie the amount of fly life (food) the river in which they live yields. So if you have ever wondered why their cousins in the southern chalk streams grow so much bigger, it’s a simple case of mathematics. The crystal clear water lets the light penetrate to the bottom of the river bed promoting weed growth, which in turn creates more habitat for the insects to breed. More food equals bigger fish. A lot of big trout coming to the end of their natural life die from starvation due to cataracts (partial blindness). If you have ever studied these fish, you’ll have seen them slashing at dry flies and often missing them completely. It’s a sad end to such a wonderful creature.

I have fished the Sneep many times over the years and introduced many friends to this fantastic gorge. Keith, a friend of mine, a butcher by trade, in his early fifties with a coarse fishing background, came to fly fishing in his late thirties. (I met him while teaching his 10-year-old son to fish.) He was fishing up there with me for his first time and was just putting his new Hardy Gem through its paces when he slipped on a rock while wading a difficult stretch of water. He fell backwards into the river, soaking himself and filling his waders in the process. When I explained to him that we were just past half way and it was pointless to turn back and that there was no way we could climb out of the gorge, he said he had no intention of going home as he was well into double figures and that it was the best day’s fishing he had ever had. He ended up becoming club chairman!

On a more recent visit to The Sneep in early September 2010, I was asked to offer my services and take somebody out on for a day’s wild trout fishing. This was arranged by John Adair, our web editor, and was in aid of the Grace House Children’s Hospice Appeal. I was half expecting a local fisherman to do the bidding but was pleasantly surprised when the winning bid turned out to be from Peter Anderson, a corporate banker from Berkshire. Peter had taken early retirement and seemed to be enjoying it, travelling around the countryside with his wife, sightseeing and managing to squeeze as much fishing in as he could muster. We met at Crooked Oak cottages, Wallish Walls, and walked the 20 minutes or so down to the lane to start fishing about three quarters of a mile below Lead Mill cottage near Silver Tongue. I don’t know if it’s the same in other sports, but when two fishermen meet for the first time there is only one subject on the agenda and it doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from. By the time we were at the river we were like a couple of old friends. There were a few pale wateries skimming the water and the beginnings of an olive hatch when we arrived at the water’s edge. It was one of those warm autumn days where you had to keep taking off your rain jacket between the showers. The river was about four inches above summer level with a tinge of colour in it, making the wading more difficult than usual; fortunately, Peter had remembered to pack his wading staff.

I tied on a size 18 klinkhammer with a pale olive body and a yellow wing post and a size 14 bed bug on the point, for no other reason than both flies give me confidence and I have caught plenty of fish on them in similar conditions. Peter opted for a size 16 Adams klinkhammer with a bi-coloured hi-viz wing post and a size 18 pheasant tail with a 2mm tungsten bead on the point. With very little coaxing, Peter was into his first fish. Conditions were not perfect as it had rained for two days prior to his trip, but we were both hopeful of a good day, and to quote Patrick F McManus: “The two best times to go fishing is when it’s raining and when it ain’t”, so we were going to give it our best shot.

I have taken many people out fishing over the years and enjoyed the company of most of them. Although fishing is an individual sport, you can’t help feeling responsible for them to catch fish. Especially when they have travelled from the other end of the country. So once Peter had caught his first fish, some of the pressure was off me and we both settled into what we hoped was going to be a good day, working our way up a series of mini waterfalls full of boulders and slack water, crossing from one side of the river to the other and picking up fish on a regular basis.

We made our way up to the Black Hole (also known as the black pool) near Comb Bridges, where we were met by John Adair, who provided us with a much appreciated lunch and beverages. As we sat by the river reflecting on a good morning’s work, I explained to Peter that we had some hard walking and wading to do that afternoon and that apart from the odd deer track there was no path to speak of, and certainly nothing like the manicured banks of the southern chalk streams Peter was used too. Peter said he was up for it and was relishing the challenge. The afternoon’s fishing was slightly slower as the river rose another couple of inches, but we both caught fish and as we climbed the hill out of the gorge at Snape End, both exhausted from the trek, Peter said to me that my definition of wild trout fishing was extremely accurate and that he had thoroughly enjoyed himself and was looking forward to an early night. Peter was a true gent and I hope to fish with him again some day.

One of the difficulties of writing and sharing such a wonderful place like The Sneep is the fact that it might become popular, others may go there, paths will start to appear and it will lose the feeling that I am the only person ever to fish there. So beware of the bears, avoid the poisonous snakes, and of course the occasional appearance of the black panther, and you’ll be fine.

As the American angling writer Sparse Grey Hackle says: “The trout do not feed in the cemetery, so you’d better do your fishing while you are still able.”

Ian Colborne
Membership Secretary, Derwent Angling Association
February 2011