How fly-fishers read rivers: Interpreting running water in the Peak District

Natural navigator Tristan Gooley joins old hand Stuart Crofts in the Peak District and learns to interpret the river's subtle language 

Tristan Gooley
Monday 21 March 2016 19:09
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Fishing on the Cantreff Reservoir in the Brecon Beacons
Fishing on the Cantreff Reservoir in the Brecon Beacons

Dr Johnson once said: “Angling is an amusement with a stick and string: a worm at one end and a fool at the other.” Sir Humphry Davy countered that it was more a case of “a fly at one end and a philosopher at the other”. I travelled to the Peak District already confident who was right, but with a plan to make some enquiries of my own.

Stuart Crofts shook my hand when we met in the village of Castleton in the Peak District and before he let go he was assuring me in a thick Yorkshire accent that we would soon be discussing with the river the things it would be happy to tell us.

Stuart describes himself as one-third fisherman, one-third entomologist and one-third overtaken by a childlike enthusiasm for all nature. I had arranged to spend the day with him to help me fine-tune my reading of water in one specific area.

I am no fisherman or hunter and, if I am honest, I have never had any great desire to be either; but I have long respected the deep wisdom that both hunters and anglers develop for their niche in the natural world. It is a wisdom that often brings a calm confidence outdoors and one that allows a little self-deprecation, too. Stuart laughed, recounting the ribbing that his young daughter had given him when he had tried to impress her with a catch: “Congratulations, you've just fooled a creature with a brain the size of a pea.”

It is only possible to grasp the artistry and passion of fly-fishermen when we appreciate that the catching of the fish is a very minor part of the appeal. I asked Stuart, a man who has dedicated his every possible waking moment to the sport and the nature around it, how he would feel if he were told he would never be allowed to catch another fish in his life.

Flyfishing kit on the River Usk Alamy

“Wouldn't bother me in the slightest,” he replied calmly and sincerely, and I had absolutely no reason to doubt him – I get it. Dry fly-fishing may date back to the Macedonians at around the time of Christ, but it was the Victorians who embraced it as a pastime and this was the moment it began the leap from food for the stomach to nectar for the mind. Fly-fishing is about understanding the water, the fish and the insects they eat, and recognising how the slightest breeze or even the movement of a cloud across the sun changes everything.

The idea that a tiny change in our surroundings has a broader impact is commonly talked about, but in fly-fishing you see it actually happen. Flying insects live on the edge of death every second of their short lives. The very fact they are flying at all is a precarious balance, dependent on how hydrated they are (most insects die from dehydration) and factors such as how warm they are. When the sun slips behind a cloud, insects will cool slightly, and some lose the ability to fly and drop out of the air onto the river, where a trout will be expecting them. It is this sensitivity that makes the angler.

“Very little in fishing is down to luck,” Stuart told me. I laughed because I thought he was joking, but he said he meant it. He has a fine sense of humour, but he wasn't going to let laughter dilute the important stuff.

We would be travelling downstream over the course of the day to ensure biosecurity, so that any organisms that we inadvertently gave a lift to would be taken in a harmless direction. In sensitive ecosystems, which of course is all of them, walking upstream and getting in and out of the water runs the risk of allowing hostile infestations to piggyback into previously unsullied waters. Heading downstream offers no favours to rampant invaders such as Himalayan balsam and signal crayfish.

Like any art, fly-fishing is not immune to passionate debate about the finer points. But the beauty for me is that there is an art in fishing without fishing. Let us call it “rise-watching”. And the same debate can surround it, because it is a rich and rewarding one. Fly-fishers adore to see fish rise, even if they end up not catching any. The rises are what demonstrate the activity to the rise-watcher and the potential to the fly-fisher, and are equally exciting to each.

No two experts will agree on the exact form that arises when a fish breaks or even nears the surface. But the areas of agreement are tied by the logic of fish-feeding behaviour. The fish – and we will focus on trout for simplicity – come to the surface to take an insect. We know how sensitive water is to the slightest change around it, so when any fish takes an insect in their mouth, they cannot do it without disturbing the water's surface. This creates the rise that we can spot; so far, so simple. But what exactly will this rise look like and why? And what can we deduce from the subtly different rise patterns that we see? These are the questions at the heart of fly-fishing and rise-watching.

Stuart Crofts describes himself as ‘one-third fisherman, one-third entomologist and one-third overtaken by a childlike enthusiasm for all nature’

There are a few fundamental principles that all are agreed on. The trout's food, the insects, are varied in form and behaviour. There are small ones and large ones, ones that fall dead from the sky, ones that are trapped and wriggling, and ones on the surface that are ready to fly away an instant later. Imagine a trout spots a very small, motionless, probably dead insect on the water's surface. It is neither much of a meal nor likely to escape in a hurry and so the trout will approach leisurely and eat gently – why waste lots of energy on a surging dart and energetic snap? But a much larger insect that is very much alive and poised to escape: that is a different challenge for the trout – a proper meal, but one intent on not becoming one. And so the trout will approach this much more like a smash-and-grab raid.

The various strategies employed by fish to take their meal at the surface lead to the wide variety of rises that anglers subscribe to and look for. Depending on the authority you refer to, there may be kissing, sucking, sipping, slashing, flushing, kidney-shaped or bulging rises. The debate and disagreement, even between long-hallowed experts, about the exact form that these rises take is bewildering. But with Stuart's help I will try to simplify this area.

Below the trout's rises, even the subtlest kind, there is still plenty of spotting to be done, of course. Sometimes a fish that is swimming just below the surface will disturb the water in a way that is so subtle that it wouldn't qualify as a rise, all but invisible as it is to most observers. But it will be noticeable if you are looking at the right sort of reflections. The straight, clear edge of a tree trunk may become blurred or may flex slightly, perhaps even twisting in a full 'S' shape.

Trout will change colour rapidly if necessary, in a matter of days, to suit their environment, and they are masters at being inconspicuous to birds' eyes, let alone our own weaker instruments. They are so good at changing their appearance that the Victorians classified several different species of brown trout, when they were looking at only one species in many different clothes. But we are not powerless and when hunting for nymphs, trout will betray their whereabouts in the following way. They face upstream, occasionally shifting their position to the left or right, before returning to their original position, all of which might be hard to spot at first until the tell-tale sign reveals itself: the chink of light, which is the small patch of white that appears against a dark background each time the fish opens its mouth.

You're unlikely to spot the fish's tail itself straight away, but it's worth being alert for the rhythmic movement of the shadow of the tail. The best general rule is this: search for any anomalous movement, because even though camouflaged animals can make themselves almost invisible, especially underwater, one weakness of camouflage is that it can't disguise movement very well, as the background doesn't change to keep up with the fish. Occasionally a fish will ruin its own camouflage by fanning silt away from a gravel patch below it, making it stand out against a lighter background.

Unsurprisingly, when looking for the fish themselves, it helps to give some thought to the sun and wind. Calm days when the sun is high and behind the shoulders make looking into water easiest, but bear in mind that the fish will be sensitive to any breaking of their horizon by you. You can improve your odds by increasing the light you need and decreasing the light you don't, which essentially means screening out the sky with a wide-brimmed hat or cap.

Stuart and I had been watching the rises from the same spot when he ran me through the combination of factors. The insect behaviour, the wind direction, the slow pool next to the faster water, the sunlight and shade on the water, the fact that we had a line of dark trees behind us, so were not breaking the fishes' horizon. We watched a sequence of three rises, each one triggering a muted, excited reaction on my part. By watching the sequence of these rises, you can quickly work out if it is several different fish in the same pool, or the same fish on a circuit. If it is on a circuit, predicting the exact spot of the next rise gets easier.

“One, two, three... there! Same fish,” he whispered and we watched until the pattern was repeated. Then we edged uphill to gain a different perspective and the rises stopped. We had passed the edge of the trees and were now breaking the horizon. The trout were sensitive to our every movement now and had darted for shelter.

“People don't believe me when I tell them this, but it's true. When I fish at night, I cast by listening for the rise. Seriously.” I believed him. “There, look at that scum lane.”

“Scum lane?”

“Yep. Where the bubbles flow in a line down the river. It shows us where the forces of the water and wind are collecting things at the surface. That's where the insects will congregate. We'll see a fish there if we're patient.” We didn't have to wait a minute before a set of concentric rings spread out and then another and another.

“It's not scum, as in dirt though, is it?” I didn't like the idea of any dirt in this purest of rivers.

“No, that's just the name for the bubbles, the bubbles just come from the white water, the riffle up there.”

I watched for the next rise and spotted it easily, but then my mind drifted to all the different types. Having spent a long time wrestling with the different rise forms and failing to sift one from the other at all effectively, I decided to put the matter to Stuart. He was very diplomatic – perhaps unwilling to speak blasphemously about the great names in his sport – and said that each person sees what each person sees and that it's not something you can be “wrong” about, as long as you're honest in what you report seeing.

He seemed to suggest that there was a subjectivity to the perception of the rise forms, which is fitting in the light of considering this as an art form. Perhaps it was a question of the level of detail that each person wants to see, one person's splash being another's “double-kidney shape”. I pushed him and asked him which rise forms he personally identified and used. He paused to consider his answer, and my eyes were drawn to the swallows that were dipping down into the water below the bridge, for the briefest of drinks on the wing. He explained that after 40 years of passionate fishing, he grouped the rises into three categories. I almost sighed. But then it became clear that there was only one in each of Stuart's categories, and my hopes lifted.

“There's the kissing or sipping rise: think of a grandmother gently rocking in her chair. She asks for a teaspoon of gin and you have to touch it to her lips ever so gently. This is the kissing rise.” It was the rise we had seen earlier.

“Then there's the splash: when the fish is moving at pace and its head often emerges, sometimes you can see its eye!

“Finally, subtlest of the lot, there's the subsurface. Very hard to spot, I sometimes call it 'nervous water'.” This was a rise I had heard referred to as “the bulge” by others. “When the fish takes something below the water without breaking the surface, although its tail sometimes tips up. No use fishing with a dry fly for a subsurface rise – you're wasting your time!”

We moved away from the river's edge through an air thick with wild garlic scent and between two wood anemone carpets. “It's a game of chess. But you might only get one move,” Stuart said, as he unpacked a gas burner, kettle and mugs from a wooden cube. We enjoyed a cup of tea and I could not resist showing him how the lesser celandines and daisies in front of us were arranged to point south. Over tea, the conversation became yet more philosophical, as Stuart talked about his approach more broadly: his desire to blend in so that the river doesn't know he's there. I was struck by the way he liked to use the word “river” as a shorthand to describe not just the water, as many might, but the intricate network and ecosystem of which the river is but one artery.

“It's about allowing the river to invite you in, so when you're walking up the river, you may put your hand on a duck while it's still sat on its nest, or you get a kingfisher flashing past you, having to take avoidance action so it doesn't crash into you, or a dipper, or even a heron that gets up and you feel the waft of its wings – that's when you've been invited and that's the point at which you start to become a true fisherman or a true hunter.”

Until that moment comes, there is no harm in any of us pausing at a bridge and looking down for clues as to where the fish will prefer and then watching for a rise. If I was offered the choice of a freshly caught trout and the sight of a rise exactly where I have worked out one is likely, personally I'd go for the rise. It tastes less good, but serves up better memories.

'How to Read Water: clues, signs and patterns from puddles to the sea' by Tristan Gooley is published on 7 April and available to pre-order now (Hodder & Stoughton, Hardback, £20)

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