I don’t like willow grubs… Oh no.

I love them.

And if you try it, you’ll like it…  (With apologies to 10cc.)

I’ve read a lot of articles on willow grub fishing. Most promote a sense of excitement and report how good it is to fish for willow grub feeders. But is this reality? When the grubs are falling from the trees, the trout are onto them and happily scoff as many as they want. They are easy to spot, as they make a rise form when they consume the floating grub. And you get the hint they’re grub feeders, because the fish are often feeding in slack water under or behind willow trees, rather than the ‘normal’ places you usually see river trout feeding.

With a constant fall of grubs, it’s an easy feed for a cruising trout, which can suck down a grub without much effort or haste. The grub is not going to fly off or swim away! A bonus is, the fish seem to really fixate on the grubs and don’t appear to be as aware of their surroundings – or more importantly, an angler standing nearby. So long as you move slowly, the short-sighted trout simply don’t seem to see you in the trees.

A sign from above!

Through the fishy grapevine, I’d heard recently that there were some grubs about, so expectations were high as I strode along the Goulburn. The river had increased in flow, and this meant the water would be well and truly under a certain long row of willows which I was heading towards.

Once in under the trees and slowly walking along the bank, it wasn’t long before a disturbance and rings on the water gave away a feeding trout. Now, amongst the willows, it’s tight fishing. Creeping along the banks, under, over or around fallen willow branches, tree trunks, old fences and twigs. Ever mindful of slithery reptiles, but focused on stalking the trout, and getting into a position where some form of cast, usually bow & arrow, could be launched. It’s not always possible though, and after spooking this fish, I moved on.

Gettin’ grubby.

There were more trout in along the banks, but often in places where a cast could not be made, or I didn’t see them until too late and they were already moving away. Grubbers may be fixated on grubs, but too much movement too close alerts the fish, and they slink away. Not in a hurry, just slink away, and you know you’ve blown it. At least seeing these fish confirmed that the trout were in the area, and with the tell-tale tiny plips as they hit the water, that grubs were also present and falling out of the trees.

That day, I ended up having quite a few shots at fish, but either I spooked them (I spooked A LOT) or stuffed up the cast by catching a branch or twig. BUT, when I did get it all right, with a good cast, from a hidden vantage, I got either complete ignorance, or some interest but ultimately a refusal of the fly. After several hours of fishing, I’d had only three eats, and dropped them all, so no fish to hand. For the statisticians, I’d probably seen two dozen trout, and had shots at half of them.

A grub feeder at work – seeing doesn’t necessarily mean catching.

Although getting those few eats was okay, I thought I should have had more success. So, there was the usual conundrum: was it me, or was it the fly? I was pretty sure the trout hadn’t seen me with some of the shots, so at least in those situations, I felt justified in blaming the fly. It just didn’t seem to interest the fish like I thought (hoped) it should. The fly looked like a grub, it was a similar size and a similar colour, and it floated in the film, just like the real thing. Yet apparently, the trout knew better.

At home that night, I studied YouTube and Google, checked out the commercial patterns, and hit the tying bench to make some flies. Like I said, the grubs are just a small green grub: long, cylindrical and green. Hardly requiring a sophisticated pattern you’d think. They should be simple to imitate; how difficult could it be?

Good enough… surely?

Next day I was at it again. Same spot, same creeping and looking, similarly dressed in drab green and dull grey, and armed with my new set of grub flies. The trout were there doing their thing, but over the course of a couple of hours, I had no eats despite covering several feeding fish. I had cycled through my new ‘wonder patterns’ to no avail. I’d now blanked for two days straight, and I was starting to question those enthusiastic pro-grub articles.

Is there more to a willow grub than meets the eye? I snuck out after work on the third day and back to the same area, but it was hard to see fish with the low angled late afternoon sun. Despite a lot of searching, I located only a few. Blanked again.

But even after blanking three days straight, willow grubbing has me smitten. I can’t deny the huge appeal grubbing brings. Of stalking fish in tight surrounds, the technicality of the casting, the search for a confidence pattern, and the hand-to-hand combat needed if I’m able to hook a willow grub feeder (which I have done quite a few times in the past believe it or not)! Apart from the fishing challenges, I also think there is a lot of room for some fly tier to come up with a respectable pattern other than those available.

Despite what I’ve just written, there are times when you can catch willow grub feeders.

I know many people have success with the grub feeders, and there are days when it all comes together relatively easily. But that isn’t always the case, and my last few days have been frustrating, challenging… and totally absorbing. If you have never tried for willow grub feeders, I urge you to give it a go.  I’m not sure if it just early in the season and the grubs are a bit small, or the trout are a bit more picky than usual, or the flies I’ve used are inadequate imitations, or there is some other factor at play. But even with a lack of success, willow grubbing has me hooked.

Willow grubs present a great situation for the fly angler, with the easy-to-spot, freely feeding trout, a known food source, and the fish seemingly not as spooky as usual. Meanwhile, the grub – just a small green caterpillar-like thing – should be simple to imitate.  However, like a long black coffee or a margherita pizza, it’s often the simple things which are the toughest to get right.