In the first of a two-part series, Steve helps us catch trout in lakes when there are none to be seen.
I don’t think you’ll actually find the term blind fishing a fly (sometimes unfortunately called blind flogging) in a text book. Google isn’t particularly helpful either, giving a million-plus results for blind fishing which are literally about fishing for visually impaired people. But the term is nonetheless used every day by flyfishers. It’s commonplace to say, ‘I caught it blind’, or ‘I was fishing blind’. So, to keep us all on the same page, the working definition of blind fishing here is: ‘Any form of flyfishing when you haven’t actually seen a fish, or a sign of one.’
We blind fish all the time in a hundred different ways on rivers and in lakes. On a river, it seems more straightforward; natural even. We look at a stream, quickly whittle down what we see to the 5% of water most likely to be holding fish, and cast to that. But when it comes to blind fishing a lake, it can be more daunting. Even if you manage to narrow the target area down to 5% of the water, on a lake that is still a lot! Where do you even start when it’s so big?
Not Blind Flogging
First, this has to be more than literally blind flogging – the random chance of catching a fish of a thousand casts. And yet when someone asks me what’s the best way to blind fish a lake, I seem to equivocate. It’s not that I can’t help, it’s just that some of it isn’t easy to explain. What I often end up saying is something like, ‘Fish the soaks (boggy bits) and river mouths; or get the fly down with some weight or sinking lines; or mix up the retrieves; or fish the yabby banks and weed-beds. Cover a lot of ground; look for birds that are both duck-diving and surface feeding. And of course if there are pelicans and cormorants, there will be fish too.’
But whilst all that is true, it’s just the beginning. There are so many more things you can do to help you catch a trout when blind fishing a lake. I’ve heard skilful blind fishing described as instinctive, yet that’s too simplistic. It’s not pure instinct because instinct is inherited, untaught behaviour, and it’s so much more than that. Perhaps instead, successful blind fishing is a long story of thousands of observations over decades of fishing. What I’m partly saying is, that when I see or notice certain things, a subconscious bell goes off and I become alert.
In my father’s last years, his eyesight had failed, but he still loved to come fishing. Although he was a farmer, he never discouraged my fishing passion – even when I bludged off from my farm work. When I was studying for my fisheries degree, he would come out on my boat at Plymouth to fish for sea bass, conger, turbot, plaice, and dogfish. I would line up the rods in their holders and bounce a few baits off the bottom, while he held on firmly to his single rod. Dad always ended up catching more on one rod than I did on two or three. He would drift the line out through his fingers, he used fewer sinkers, he felt the slightest touch, and he knew whether it was bottom, a crab or a fish. He would lift a bait away quickly from nibbling crabs, and strike as soon as he felt the prize, all with a running commentary of oohs and aahs. Of course, I always said he caught more because I had to keep baiting his hooks and driving the boat. But the truth was, he wasn’t relying on watching the rod tip to tell him when he was getting a bite. His fingers held the line with a sensitivity that belied the gnarled fingers of his agricultural life, letting him feel everything that was going on at the hook. He was using other senses.
When flyfishing blind, that’s what we need to do: use our other senses as well as sight. Touch and concentration can help detect a fly on the bottom, or brushing weed, or the gentlest of takes from a trout.
The Beginning of Learning
I started trout fishing on small Cornish streams. As a young boy, I walked all day along the lines on a local map that were the River Fal’s tributaries, often passing through villages with cottages and halls built right to the edge of the bank. Concrete weirs and undercut rock-wall banks housed fish, eels, and water rats. Every flat stone was blenny habitat, and every streaming weed-bed crawled with insect larvae and nymphs. Anabranches, seemingly stagnant in drier weeks, still wriggled with tadpoles and newts. After heavy rain, small fat brownies were a dime a dozen if you dropped a hook and worm off the stone bridges joining the two sides of every village.
I fished with cheese and worms, and ABU Droppens and Mepps, and learnt to sort of cast a fly, and to downstream nymph. I heard my dad talking to the river bailiff he’d gone to school with about reservoir fishing, about the big fish he kept in his bath, and how when I was old enough, he’d take me to Argyle Reservoir – a place to this day I’ve never been, and may well deliberately never now go for fear of dislodging its magical place from my childhood dreams.
My favourite bit of poaching was to climb down a cliff into an abandoned quarry dammed for the local village water supply. Here I could catch giant eels on knitting wool threaded through with bacon rind. I’d also catch the landlocked Atlantic salmon that lived here; the biggest fish a small boy could ever hope to hold. The salmon fry entered the reservoir by dropping from a pipe high above lake level, gravity fed from the river. They could enter but never escape. I made my own hole in the chain-link fence and ruined more than one pair of shorts sliding down the gravel quarry face to my secret spot. It was many years later I learnt that the local squire, old Mr Secombe-Stevens, used to keep a watchful eye on my missions from the garden of his mansion atop the quarry cliff. But he never told a soul.
Everyone in the village understood that I had a knack for catching fish. I knew the best times and the best spots. However, no one ever really taught me, I just read about fishing and observed and learnt from experience. My favourite book was the ‘ABU Tight Lines Annual’, which I read cover to cover every January, and again in February and then at least once every couple of months throughout the year, checking out the shiny new reels and rods, and consuming stories about catching mighty salmon, seemingly as big in the picture as their catchers. Smiling blonde-haired Swedes held oversized trout standing in front of either giant rivers or equally giant Volvos. My collection of annuals got extra attention in winter months; much favoured over homework, the pages coming loose through overuse.
As a young man I moved to South Wales, where I first started to fish lakes. This was an epiphany. These waters seemed immense and infinite after the small streams of earlier years. The trout were bigger, and no matter the weather conditions or water levels, I could always imagine catching a fish. I believed there were fish to be caught. The opening days of the season were a frenzy of fish, and evening rises were predictably to chironomids and sedge.
But it was the everyday fishing that I loved, when often, no one else bothered; and the late evenings and into the nights when most people would pack up and go home. At these times, I would picture where the trout would be lying in wait. I would fish any fly that I thought would catch fish, both big and small, dry and wet. I learnt how to throw large flies, which became a specialty, and I stuck with the flies I’d come to believe in. I mixed up retrieves, tried to be patient, cast both aggressively and passively, searched for fish and watched for signs. And when something worked, I did it again.
My approach and the techniques I use today, have evolved from hundreds of micro-experiences over more than forty years of river and lake fishing. So, when someone asks, ‘How do you fish blind?’, well, where do I start?
While we inevitably spook trout when blind fishing, some do so more than others. We need to recognise that, although there are times when the fish seem to be almost oblivious to human presence (such as when the light is low or when they’re feeding intently) there are other times when trout are incredibly alert to danger and spook at anything – they’ve simply got a dose of the creeps.
So, even when blind fishing, you need to blend in. Don’t confuse not seeing trout with not spooking them. Avoid waves and vibration caused by stomping around too much, avoid standing with the sun as a backdrop, avoid shadow on water. If you have to look down to pick a track, stop first, then look back at the water – you won’t see anything fishy by staring at your feet. If you decide to wade out, do so slowly and gently. Fish the clock-face of water in front of you with short casts before you cast to the horizon. Lower your profile as you approach the lake. If possible, use a high bank, trees or shrubs as backdrop cover. Avoid anything that can reflect light, like chrome glasses frames or mirrored sunglasses.
Trout have very good eyesight, and are especially sensitive to contrast and movement. If you blend in, move slowly or stay still, sometimes you’ll see a previously unsighted fish swim right past as if you’re not even there. Did I mention that at times you have to stop breathing?
I fish with a lot of people who do not cast particularly well, and plenty of people who cast better. Some days the average caster will catch more than me; other times I will catch more than the champion caster. My point here is, for blind fishing, casting is probably not the most critical skill once you have a reasonable grasp of the basics. Of course, it’s nice to be able to throw a fly 30 metres, but sometimes we end up spooking more fish than we catch by lining them with long casts. Just recently, I saw a nice trout caught between a wading angler and the bank. On that day, even though I knew the fish were likely to be close to the bank with the water rising over grass, I was still tempted to cast long. It was only after two trout had snatched the fly within a few metres of the rod tip that I started to fish shorter casts – with more control and better results.
So, don’t worry about casting a long way. Whether you’re new to casting or an old hand, working with 8 to 10 metres of flyline is often plenty. That’s where the feeding fish are a lot of the time, and with shorter casts you’re likely to have better contact with the fly.
In a lake, feeding trout are moving trout. If you watch a fish actively moving along a lake edge, they will hold a steady course and depth, sometimes pausing briefly to look around, sometimes speeding up if they see something that catches their attention. It makes sense then that if you cast your fly and let it just drop through the water, sooner or later a trout is likely to pass by and come and have a look.
I have a fishing buddy who regularly catches fish after casting, tucking the rod under his arm, ferreting around for his smokes, lighting up and enjoying the first few drags; before yelling ‘On!” Another smoker mate from Victoria came on a trip to Lake Jindabyne. Not a good caster, he found a rocky deepwater spot with an offshore breeze, and cast a sinking mudeye pattern before pulling out a cigarette. I watched him fidget a bit and tut-tutted subconsciously as he lit up. He finished his smoke and, as was his habit, put the butt into a small container in his pocket; whereupon he lifted the rod into some serious weight. I rushed over for a look and my first thought was, his casting must have improved because he was fighting the fish on the backing! A short interrogation revealed he had in fact not bothered to put out his smoke after the fish had self-hooked and taken off. He’d just let it go, which probably explains why he didn’t break off that particular 5lb plus brown. As often seems to happen when a fish takes a dropping fly, it had inhaled it and was very well hooked.
There are several phases to a wet fly retrieve and the first is the impact of the fly on the water. If you drop a fly on top of a trout it will often spook. But a fish several metres away will sense the fly landing through its clever sensory acoustico-lateralis system involving the inner-ear and its connection to a jelly-filled lateral line that runs along both flanks. This sensory system detects and transmits environmental information to the fish’s brain; things like changes in pressure, vibrations and sound. So, let your fly do what a cautious aquatic prey item – or fallen in terrestrial – would do: move steadily towards the bottom. This involves counting. Ten, 20, 30 and so on, trying longer and longer drops until maybe you’re catching the bottom or bringing in weed. But always fish the drop. Do not straighten or tighten your line, let it be natural.
Whilst the drop is targeting a trout that’s come across for a look at whatever made the splash, at the other end of the retrieve is the hang. This is to catch those fish which follow the fly out of interest, without actually taking it. Ever wondered why your fly sometimes makes a disproportionate bow-wave as it comes towards you? Well, trout follow flies all the time and you hardly ever know about it.
So, when you’re bank fishing into deep water or boat fishing, before lifting to recast, let the fly hang there for several seconds (maybe even longer) and you will catch more fish. The biggest rainbow I’ve ever caught on Lake Eucumbene followed the fly right to the bank. I lifted the fly, hung it and the trout swam away. I lifted the fly to recast and the fish swam around like a dementor looking for it. I re-cast no more than three metres, and the fish came back and hit the fly like a steam train, then leapt from the water. My fishing buddy heard the splash and thought I’d fallen in!
The biggest rainbow I caught from Blagdon Lake near Bristol in England, was on an extended hang while I was eating a ham sandwich and drinking a cup of flask tea at the end of a boat drift. So, don’t be in a rush to start ripping in the fly right after you’ve cast; and don’t be in a rush to lift your fly out of the water to recast. Fish the drop and fish the hang.
Next issue, we’ll look at various blind fishing retrieves themselves, and several more ways of increasing your blind fishing catch rate.