Fishing: A little insulation wire goes a long way on the icy Coln

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WHEN WINTER settles right in, and the ground crunches underfoot it is time to go fishing for grayling. These fine, silver fish (kennel name thymallus thymallus) provide particularly fine sport when other game fish are out of bounds; although it is not just in winter that you can catch them. Last July, on the Test, I caught nothing but grayling, despite aiming for brown trout. It is highly fitting that these fish are almost as shiny silver as stainless steel, because the best time for catching them is when the landscape matches their outfit.

So it was that, wearing two sets of thermal longjohns and 17 other layers on top of them, I waddled on to the Coln's riverbank in Gloucestershire. There are times I wonder why I am a fishing correspondent. Why I would choose to do this rather than say, be Cuban cigar correspondent and report back from the warmth of the fireside with a single Speyside malt clinking in a crystal tumbler. How many times I asked myself this question that day. I also had to finally concede that wellingtons are crap for keeping feet warm. I have tried them with 10 socks, no socks and only one pair of socks, and they still chill your feet to sub-zero temperatures within five minutes. Never mind wine coolers, bottles should just be put in wellingtons and they would reach perfect drinking temperature sharpish.

I had last been to the Coln in September and, boy, had she put on weight over Christmas. She had flooded her banks and filled out rather a bit too much. The first day there, the water was too coloured to fish, although I tried. But even if I had lobbed my torch in, I doubt the fish would have seen it, so soupy was the river.

Back in July when I attended an Orivs course taken by fishing supremo Oliver Edwards, Oliver dredged the river bed. One of the most interesting things I saw was the peeping caddis. There are two main types of caddis: case-making or free-living. The case-making ones make shell-like homes for themselves for when they get to the pupation stage of their little insect lives. This they do by gathering up tiny bits of the river bed: gravel, twigs, sand grains. Imagine a blind potter with a penchant for patchwork pottery grabbing whatever comes to hand and sticking it all together, and you'll get the idea. The caddis live in these cases for 30 to 40 days, during which time the larva breaks down and reconstructs itself into a proper winged grown-up. When the caddis is ready it hatches out of the case and, as it struggles to freedom, it crawls along the river bed with the soon-to-be-discarded case hanging off its bottom. This is what a Peeping Caddis fly tries to imitate.

Back at the Coln, my fishing buddy and I decided to retire and discuss tactics for the next day's fishing. We had brought the fly-tying box with us, which was a bit anorakey but meant that we could tie up some Peeping Caddis flies. Pete had never seen a real peeping caddis so I was technical advisor. We were limited by materials and my suggestion of opening up a plug, stripping some of the insulation wire out, threading that on to a hook and sticking bits of gravel on to it was met with a raise of the eyebrow. Instead Pete took a size 10 long-shank hook, wound touching turns of lead all the way down the body and then made a cylindrical body of dubbed moles' fur. The feelers were made out of mottled partridge feathers. This is not how Oliver would make his, but we were doing the best with what we had.

For reasons best known to myself, I refused to fish with the Peeping Caddis the next day, instead tying on a Gold Head Killer Bug. I even tried my summer favourite, the Parachute Black Gnat, which was a stupid thing to do. When it is that cold, fish are terribly lethargic and rarely rise to the surface to feed (although a couple did, but not to my fly). My day ended with no fish.

This was hardly a surprise, because apart from pig-headedly using the wrong fly, I should have been using a sink tip and wasn't. I should also have had my fly - any fly, even the wrong one - in the water for longer than I did. But my fishing was punctuated by having to do star jumps (far from the bank) to reintroduce feeling into my extremities. Pete, feeling no cold like only boys can, caught a very beautiful brown trout on his Peeping Caddis, which he saw safely back into the water. Sadly, his rod spontaneously snapped in two at the end of the day; maybe it was not meant to be used in sub-zero temperatures. I finished my day, rod intact, eating a fine steak and kidney pudding that warmed all parts of me very nicely indeed.

Apologies, two weeks ago there was a misprint. The correct telephone number for the Flyfisher's Classic Library is: 01364 653828.