On Fishing Techniques

Over time I’ve seen, heard and employed some angling techniques that leave me a little red around the cheeks when I talk about them. I think we all have. We read some nonsense and have a short lapse in reasoning that leads us to employing them on-stream.  

We buy some gadget or fly or piece of tackle that is going to be an absolute game-changer and as soon as we’ve strapped it onto the line we realize that we are walking, in full view of our royal subjects, naked. 

I’m reminded about this because I was reading recently an article on catching trophy trout in late autumn. The technique described involves putting a small nymph, New Zealand style, ahead of a dragon imitation and then swimming this around a still water. It contained the common sense recommendations of looking for lanes between weed beds, structure and such. 

I’ve heard this one many times before and it might even work. I haven’t tried it myself. I’m just uncertain about it. It’s one of those things that you read and while you don’t necessarily roll your eyes or click your tongue you certainly raise your eyebrows just a bit and exhale deeply. Or at least I do. 

The technique relies on something like the triggering of a predatory instinct or something in a trout as a result of it seeing another predator at work. It ignites a call to action in the trout’s pea-brain and galvanizes them into comitting to the take. I’d like to believe this theory because I suck on lakes even worse than on streams and I’m hoping that this may perhaps be the panacea I’ve been looking for. But I just don’t know. 

I know that raising a nymph or swinging a wet toward the end of its drift works and that it can be a deadly technique. I can also apply my limited experience and some old fashioned common sense to understand how and why it works. 

I know, for example, that a stranded, hurt or helpless prey can illicit a fearful response from either a trout, a mugger or a politician. I’m dithering, but are we talking here about an apex predator recognizing a pre-injured prey? Is it some sense of what my kids would call FOMO on the part of the fish? I can’t help myself; I’m starting to roll my eyes now. 

Unfortunately I think that we’re overthinking this one somewhat and that the idea appeals to us more than to the fish. Think about it, your #18 GRHE is suddenly motoring horizontally through the water in the mirror image of the dragon nymph that’s following it? Like some sort of entomological synchronized swimming exhibition? Nah. Unlikely. (I’ve even seen some guys do it with bloodworms. Are they suggesting that a bloodworm has the mental capacity and physical ability to make a preemptive run away from a dragonfly nymph, let alone match it perfectly in pace?)

In the words of the noted physicist Niels Bohr, “no, no, no, you’re not thinking; you’re just being logical“. 

Look, I like nothing better than a good old fashioned slap chip and I have the middle aged abdominal girth to prove it. Sometimes I feed quite selectively on them and I will move some way out of my feeding pattern to get me a stubby little greasy stick of salt and vinegar carbohydrate-dense goodness. You’ll be surprised the lengths that I go to. But, I have never, ever walked past a pavement cafe and seen someone about to slip a slap chip into their mouth and taken a bite out of their head. (Or, for that matter, their slap chip. Ask my friends, they’ll confirm it.) It just doesn’t work that way. 

I think that when you’re trying to fish imitatively you can’t be taking ideas that appeal to the human sense of logic and applying them to the fish. It doesn’t hold up. They don’t think that way. 

I’ve moved off the whole ‘dragon chasing a nymph’ thing (try to keep up, it was just an example) and I suggest to you that if a thing just doesn’t seem right you aren’t going to eat it. Period. 

Having said that I think that it’s amazing what a fish does take as an imitation. Some of our traditional ‘imitative’ flies look nothing like the natural. It’s the whole idea of suggestion that causes a fish to take, not some trickery or tomfoolery, no matter how compelling the logic behind it. (Also, stop trying to perfect your ‘shadow cast’. You look like a felt hat wearing dick.)

Let me explain what I’m trying to say by recalling something that happened to me on an overseas trip. 

My wife was attending a conference in Geneva a decade or so ago. Having recently been paid a rather decent performance bonus and having a lot of accumulated leave we decided that we would meet in Europe for a few weeks of vacation. 

We met in Zurich, Switzerland, and after a few days there mucking around in the snow, drinking the fine local beers and blowing our kids’ university fund we prepared for a rail trip to Paris. Not knowing what food would be on offer on the longish trip my wife kept an eye on our luggage (an entirely unnecessary exercise in Switzerland, but a habitual one for my countrymen) while I went to rustle up the makings of a light lunch. 

Swiss railway stations are amazing. The train pretty much pulls up (punctual to the nanosecond) into a shopping centre. I found a bakery and patisserie and loaded up on crusty loaves, artisanal (made with a hammer and a spokeshave I presume) cheeses and a large, dark salami. I love salami. I eat it by the chunk, grinning all the while. 

A few hours into the journey across the Alps our minds turned to food. Laying out my newly acquired disposable checked table cloth and taking from my pocket my Swiss Army knife (don’t laugh, it’s incumbent on you to buy one if you’re there and, besides, some shitty Frenchman later took it and the others that I bought as gifts from me at Charles de Gaul airport) I proudly presented my purchases. 

“Darling, that looks lovely! I wish we could get this cheese at home. This bread is to die for. Oh. Oh dear. Why is there a picture of a horse on the salami?”

“Horses are synonymous with farming and are a common logo on all sorts of manufactured and agricultural products.”

“I’m not sure what the German word for ‘ingredients‘ is, but isn’t horse ‘pferd‘?”

It sounded a lot like the Afrikaans word ‘perd‘ and I know that to mean ‘horse’. I recalled seek the word elsewhere, too. That’s it, we stock a brand of grinding discs called ‘Pferd’ and there logo is – a horse. Shit. I just bought a stick of Black Beauty. Of Silver. Wolfpower. Sea Cottage. Trigger. The names and faces of famous horses flooded my mind. 

My wife, brave as she is, wouldn’t venture much more than a nibble. I chewed bravely, but as tasty as it was I couldn’t bring myself to eating much of it. She wouldn’t even look at it. 

We told ourselves sternly that a horse bred for its meat was no different to, say, a cow or a sheep but, the fact is, to our palettes and with our background it just is. We tried to trick our minds that everything was cool and that we should dig into lunch but even the cheeses were barely touched.

In my (I promise you) very, very limited experience the same goes for trout. 

No, I take that back. I’m entirely, bar the reading of a few good books on the subject (which most of the trout I’ve cast to have never bothered to read and have consequently made my task inordinately difficult), self taught. My learning curve has been very shallow and very long. But I’ve learned some stuff. Some of it is good stuff and I don’t embarrass myself on a stream or a lake (much). None of what I learned is about tricking fish. I’m a wannabe angler not a wannabe prestidigitator. 

Let me try to explain that. In corporate training we were explained the theory of the hedgehog and the fox. I’ll simplify it. 

  • Fox has hedgehog firmly on his menu. 
  • He attacks hedgehog in a cunning movement and, owing to the fact that this occurred on a sandy bit in the forest, earns himself the title of ‘desert fox’. (I threw that bit in. For fun. Indulge me.)
  • Hedgehog rolls into a ball and fox deigns to stick his mouth around the dangerous quills.
  •  Fox thinks up a new plan. 
  • Hedgehog sticks to his original plan. 
  • Fox continually comes up with more brillianter and brillianter plans and hedgehog perpetually sticks to his original, basic plan. 
  • Fox ultimately gets the shits and takes his lunch from residential dustbins. 
  • Hedgehog ultimately gets smeared across the tarmac by a truck one fine Thursday afternoon. 
  • Fox (being a European animal not familiar with the more civilized African cultural practice of never speaking ill of the dead) struts around pointing out to whoever will listen what a stupid animal a hedgehog is. 

The point I’m trying to make is that the more experience that I have amassed and the more that I have learned the more I’ve realized that I’ve got to be a bit more of a hedgehog. It goes like this:

  1. Observe what is happening. 
  2. Decide on a plan. 
  3. Implement the plan. 
  4. Stick. To. The. Plan. And. Stop. Changing. It. Every. Second. Cast. 
  5. In the event of noticing a large goods vehicle hurtling directly toward me don’t curl up into a ball. (Ie tweak the plan in the face of disaster but don’t discard it altogether.)

Perhaps I’m wrong. I’m definitely far from the most talented or insightful fly fisher out there. 

I think a little logic test of the ‘predator chasing prey logic’ can be employed rather easily and that it may help me to make my point. 

If you took a minnow pattern behind a dragonfly nymph pattern behind a bloodworm behind a caddis behind a mayfly behind a snail behind a midge and fished them along at a – how the hell would you fish them? – you would expect the water to boil with fish (provided you could cast it), wouldn’t you? Don’t fixate on the order or choice of bug; the point is that the logic doesn’t hold. 

You aren’t going to trick a fish; deceive him, yes, but you’re not going to trick him outright. It’s just not how it works. 


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