North Shore Flyfishers Club river competition day.
As I sat on the riverbank waiting for my time to start, calculating my devious plan to segment my beat into swingable chunks, I started thinking of the whole idea of competition. This was no National Champs competition by any means – but a humble annual fly club meet, set up with fun and safety as the main requisites but a healthy dose of competition for bragging rights and the glittering prize of the Rod and Gun trophy to sit on the mantle for a year. A lake segment for the first meet and then a river comp for the second. I personally had bombed the lake part this year but was keen hurl whatever flies I had at it to keep my name etched on the brass while exclusively swinging on a double handed rod. It’s a funny thing competition. Throughout my life, I have never been overly drawn to competition, despite growing up with a father and brothers who were all about contesting for the win; siblings that managed to represent the districts and even NZ one occasion in sport in their youth days and who would even flip the board over, slam doors and run out crying when our dear old Nan put the coffin nails in at a friendly game of draughts (She may have smacked those pieces down in a very definitive way, but come on a game is just a game!).
Although not particularly drawn to compete, it would be a lie to say I’m not competitive. My two long standing passions in life: fly fishing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu both hold competitive values and are rather alike in some ways: They both involve a bit of trickery – getting someone or something to take the bait and do what you want them to do without them knowing it, and once hooked in, both require a strong bout involving the wresting of another into submission. Luckily for my training partners, there isn’t the option of being knocked on the head with a rock after the struggle! However, what really puts these two pastimes on the same parallel is their innate requisite of problem solving. Why do 20% of fishers catch 80% of the fish, and most likely 5% of that 20% catch 80% of the 80% of fish??? Like most of you sitting with a fishing mag in your hands now – obsession! That drive which keeps you up at night wondering just how you can manipulate your gear to catch more fish, bigger fish, different types of fish or just plain… fish! However, even after all that planning and contemplativeness bordering on madness to the unangled eye, sometimes when things don’t go to plan, it’s easy to give in to the frustration and end up with the feeling of apathy where you just mentally ‘tap out.’
Fly fishing may not entail the danger of being choked unconscious or having your arm broken, but it has its own share of breaks: the sinking feeling of a fish taking you hook, line and feather (barbless hopefully); or in my case by a yellow tailed friend in the Summer just gone: being taken hook, leader, entire fly line and tip section. Or just the frustration of not being able to hook one in the first place. That feeling when sighted trout that just will not eat anything you throw at them, or in the case of swinging – the grabs just don’t come – the dead water where you start to feel like your once beautifully tied triumphant fly starts to feel like an object of revulsion; made worse even when someone slips into the same pool (above you, hopefully) hurls out a budgie sized indicator and hooks one first cast – the fish are there and they are hungry but…. Something just doesn’t feel right. There are those days when you are keenly on the river with fishing buds; you’ve spent all this time daydreaming in preparation, getting your new shiny gear together, filling fly boxes – buying or tying up new-fangled creations and gold standard tried and tested patterns. The hype builds on the journey up, down or to the side, telling tales of fish once hooked, and if you are anything like me while lying awake in a bag of feathers, your wired mind peaks early envisaging behemoth salmonids lurking in pools ready to pounce.
Up in the morning with the smell of coffee brewing and excitement starting to creep through everyone’s sleepy eyes. Rods are rigged, the creations attached and like magic you’re stepping into that cool water full of hope. ‘Boom’ friend X or Y is in! A glistening being leaping for freedom; you exit the water net in hand, high-five them, the shutter clicks a few times and that’s one on the board slipping back into the water. ‘Whiz’ your next friend is in and you watch with glee and perhaps a touch of envy washes over your cool face. “Must be the fly” you say to yourself as call out to your mate to find out what colour and pattern they happen to be fishing; you clip off that fly you had once touted the holy grail (hopefully not with your front teeth) and tie on something to replicate what your compadre had on. Cast, swing, cast, swing… You see your mate down the run hooking another; its silvery body thrusting into the air. “Lucky bugger getting to lead the run you think to yourself. “Fish on!” bellows out from behind, in water you thoroughly covered! Of course…. you’re stoked for your mate …. but ‘that feeling’ starts to creep over you. As you get out of the water to get a picture of the beauty your mate has just pulled to the bank, they slip you a fly – exactly the same as they have been nailing it on and hope returns. You slip back into the water with a little bounce in your step. Try as you might though, you cast, the line swings, rinse and repeat and those tugs just won’t come. Back behind you hear a splash and that friend following close behind through your wake is in again….
The way I see it, although there is an element of luck in it: right place, right time, right fly, there just has to be something there to pick up on; some minute detail being overlooked. And, I guess it’s the accumulation of these details that help a fisher creep consistently into that clichéd 20% or consistent 5. Like any obsessed angler, I fixate on these, trying to make mental notes over my exact leader length compared to weight of fly, the angle of the swing, where on the swing the fish are hitting on and other minute details. I prove time and time again to myself that although there are takes that come out of nowhere, there are places that are perfectly predictable to get a tug on a swung fly. Feedlines and seams, guts and drop-offs, undercut banks and overhanging trees all provide safe havens for a wily trout to sit as the bite sized morsels trickle down the conveyor. It’s always worth trying to be very measured about your swings around boulders and pieces of broken water as those breaks in hydraulics give a perfect resting place to feed. Possibly hanging the fly in front or behind of those visible or not so visible boulders. If trout are seeming to be very active, maybe look to sink and suddenly wake that fly into a quick swim right in front of it, like a hurrying piece of spooked prey. To set up this step, give the head a bit of a mend upstream and keep direct tension off as long as possible to allow the sink tip and fly to get down before letting the line straighten out to engage the swing (If you can do this while keeping some connection at all times, all the better to allow you to strike in the case of a surprise take). In a deeper slower seam, look at leaving the fly to stew for a while. It may look to you that its dead movement with the head sitting atop the water in the same place, but in fact, those currents under the water may have your fly tickling around on the bottom – a meal just sitting there waiting to be pounced at. Sometimes adding small downstream mends to the near bank will give your fly that little bit more movement through those really soft seams; just enough to elicit a take. I’ve been amazed on many occasions how a fly just seemed to be inhaled, suddenly, right when I was hitting the point of boredom and about to start stripping it back. Its always worth adding a touch of movement back and forth or a twitch of the line or two, followed by another pause before you start that retrieval of the running line just in case you’ve got a mysterious follower.
Risk your flies with obstructions like fallen trees and log jams, not only because the tackle stores will love you, but because they are natural safe havens for trout, and quite often, rather large specimens – imagine if you were home and UberEats knocked on the door and left a nice juicy burger just waiting for you! Test that will power whenever you can! All these little details and tricks add up to differentiate the art of swinging, from the simple act of stray lining with a fly rod. It shouldn’t come down to competition here, especially with mates; also the fish don’t care how proud you are! Match up gear, share your patterns and intel and solve these puzzles, solid collaboration over competition, win-win and a general upward trend until the next hurdle, to get better at fishing and then after all that, compete over who was the fortunate one to have the largest, strongest or most acrobatic of fish to eat on that day. Sometimes it may just be timing and a bit of luck, but over time, these little bits of problem solving stack up and each of those little clues sometimes conscious – other times unconscious, add up and creep to mind helping to clarify that once silty picture. I was edged out in that competition by the way, the better man on the day won, but with 33cms in it, gave it my dandiest and loved every minute. The main thing was, everyone had fun, caught fish and traded exaggerated stories from the day whilst sinking a beer or two and wiping the grease off the newspaper clad fish that weren’t as fortunate as their river counterparts.