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Martin James award-winning fisherman consultant,broadcaster,writer


Go Catch a Coarse Fish on the Fly

Recently I got an e-mail from Paul Towers asking for advice about catching coarse fish on a fly. Most of the angling books pre 1950ís would usually have a chapter on catching coarse fish on a fly. Usually the author was writing about catching dace, chub, roach and rudd, occasionally pike and perch were mentioned. Today we know that itís possible to catch most if not all our coarse fish with an imitation fly or nymph.One of the nicest things about this great pastime of angling is the
different ways we can attempt to catch fish.

For me, some of the most enjoyable times at the waterside are with fly rod with an artificial dry fly or nymph after roach, chub, tench, carp, pike, barbel, rudd, dace, grayling and perchIn fact, all the coarse fish species can be caught on a fly. One summer when I was fishing for barbel on the river Teme I spotted a shoal of perch swimming to and fro beneath my rod tip. Some of these perch were good size fish, perhaps going two pounds. How I wished I had some worms or a small spinner, and thinking. all was lost in trying to catch those perch; I then remembered a film canister in my waistcoat pocket contained some nymphs. Taking off my weight and hook, I tied on a Richard Walker's Mayfly nymph. Fishing it sink and draw I had a delightful afternoon catching 20 odd perch up to about a pound and a quarter.

I suppose using imitation flies and nymphs for coarse fish species has taken place for the last 300 years, as already stated many of the coarse fishing books usually had a section on fly fishing. Even the biggest ever selling angling book - with two million sales to its credit - Mr. Crabtree Goes Fishing had such a chapter. Some of our greatest writers and anglers from the past, Francis Francis, H.T. Sheringham, J.W.Martin known as Trent Otter, William Senior, John Bickerdyke, Colin Willock, Bernard Venables and Richard Walker would go in search of the coarse fish species with a
fly when conditions were right.

If youíre already fishing for trout, you shouldn't have any problems going after coarse fish. You will already have the tackle and skill needed for most of the fish. Pike being the exception - unless youíre fishing the canals where fish are averaging 4 to 6lbs, then your 7/8 weight rod will be ok. But for fish over 10lbs and when your fishing bigger waters then you need a 9/10 weight rod, preferably the latter with some backbone to cast the big flies, some of which are ten inches in length on a 6/0 hook. Itís surprising how quickly you can beat a pike on a quality built ten weight rod with a 15lb leader. The minimum wire should be 20lb breaking strain. Donít use nylon or other material when pike fishing. It has to be wire.

I recommend you use a rod that has been designed for fighting hard battling saltwater fish. I use Thomas and Thomas Helix or Horizon!! rods which h are hand crafted in the United States from top quality materials, and built for the job, A rod has had to be capable of casting big flies in to a strong wind, with power needed to set the hook and stop a big fish from reaching the safety of tree roots, branches or other obstructions. I feel Thomas and Thomas are the rods. You will need a good size reel capable of holding 100 yards of 20lb backing with a good quality fly line. Buy the best. I use Wulff Triangle taper, Teeny and Scientific Anglers weight forward lines, I have a range of lines from floating to fast sinking to cover all situations. Between the fly line and tippet you need 7-8 foot of 151b to 201b tapered leader to which I attach 12 - 20" of 20-301b wire with an Albright knot. I use this knot for sharks, pike pose no problems. .

For chub, rudd and dace I use both dry flies and nymphs, A good chub will easily engulf a 5/0 pike fly. Chub love a big mouthful so choose a fly tied up on a size 6 or 8 hook with plenty of dressing with a leader of 61b bs. Big sedge pattern or muddler's are my favourite fished at dusk and into the darkness, the takes can often be very savage. Last week when trout fishing I caught a chub estimated at around 6lbs on a Greenwellís nymph tied to a 3lb tippet, using a five weight rod and floating line with a 12 foot tapered leader. Dace are the toughest fish I know to hook on a fly, if you hook two in ten takes, youíre doing very well. These little guys are like greased lightning. Hook size 14 and 16's are about right. A well greased Black and Peacock spider is a good all round pattern. This pattern is also good for rudd but use them on hook size 10's and 12's. When in search of chub and dace I usually use a nine foot leader.

Carp will take wet and dry fly patterns on hook sizes 6's 8's and 10's. One good pattern is a black or white leech fished on or under the surface, depending on the conditions prevailing at the time. Damsel, Dragon and Mayfly nymphs are deadly but you must fish them very slow for success. I reckon the best nymph is the Richard Walker pattern. You should move the nymph very slowly, they are not speedy creatures when crawling around on the bed of the river lake canal or stream. A good way to induce a take is slowly move the nymph off the bottom in very slow lifts of about an inch. The carp cannot resist a big nymph moving slowly to the surface. Chumming with bits of crust and fishing an imitation is another good way of taking carp. You will also excite tench in wanting to grab hold of nymphs.

If there is one fish designed for the nymph fisherman it has to be the barbel. The great thing about barbel is they often live in beautiful English rivers, where the water flows over clean gravel with plenty of water weeds such as water-crowfoot (Ranunculus) with its white daisy like flower. We also have that delightful water plant Starwort in a delightful shade of green that will often harbour a crayfish. Chub love to lay under it popping out to grab an item of food that passes by. Other plants are Mare's tail, Water-mil foil and in the slow stretches you will find Potamogetan. A river rich in plant life is rich in animal life that fish eat naturally, and a weedy river is a river that usually holds some good fish.

The banks of my favourite rivers will often have a profusion of wild flowers and plants. Adding a touch of gold to the riverside scene in the cold month of March will be the Marsh-marigold, usually one of our first colourful flowers to brighten a cold day. Then we have the Yellow and Purple-loose strife, Red campion, the various parsley's, Cow, Hog weed, Sweet Cicely and Hemlock to name a few. You will often see that delicate flower the common forget-me-not.

Today you can sometimes see Foxgloves at the waterside and of course you will see the Himalayan balsam growing in profusion. Youíre now probably asking what have water weeds, plants and wild flowers have to do with barbel. Itís because these are often the conditions on my barbel rivers. Barbel is a fish that have had my attention over the past few years. In the past couple of years or so, I along with several other anglers, have said barbel were a fish that could be taken on a nymph. Is not the barbel a bottom feeding fish for most of its life? Then surely its main diet will consist of various nymphs and caddis crawling around on the bottom of our rivers, or under the fine sand gravel or silt. If they are daft enough to eat meatballs and luncheon meat why not an artificial nymph which is far more natural.

I well remember being at a Barbel Society Conferences and talking to Mike Burdon, who told me he had caught 5 barbel from the river Windrush on a pheasant tail nymph when trout fishing. Had not that excellent writer and angler John Bailey talked about seeing anglers in Eastern Europe catch barbel on a nymph? All this information made me even more confident. Catching a barbel on an artificial fly had become a big challenge though I knew it wouldn't be easy. The conditions I wanted would be a low clear river where I could see and stalk the barbel.

Casting to fish I could see would make the chances of success greater, I would also be able to see the reaction of the fish to the artificial fly. My first success happened on a Monday morning in early summer on a low clear river Teme in Worcestershire, Conditions were near perfect, cloudy sky, warm and close weather with a light westerly wind. A few mayflies were coming off which was even more encouraging. Seeing the mayflies made me choose the mayfly nymph as probably the most natural offering at that time. Even the finely tied nymphs that I showed to Tony Farquharson of Southport looked like the real thing. I thought today's is my best chance yet of success

In some 2 foot of water I spotted a group of six barbel avidly feeding on nymphs I could see them sometimes come up to mid water to grab another food item. I went off to collect my tackle saying to myself "Itís now or never" I chose a 9 foot seven weight rod, floating line, 12 foot fluorocarbon leader with a tippet of 61b breaking strain then attached a size 8 weighted Mayfly nymph. Creeping back to where I had seen the feeding barbel I noticed that the half a dozen had increased to eight. Kneeling down, I pulled off some line, made one false cast and shot some forty feet of line dropping the nymph some twenty feet ahead of the feeding fish. I allowed the nymph to bump its way down stream retrieving line in my left hand within three or four feet of the feeding fish. I allowed the nymph to sit on the bottom then noticed a fish move across the stream towards the artificial. I lifted the rod very slowly making the nymph rise. As I did so, the fish moved upstream towards my artificial. Lowering the rod tip I let the nymph sit once more. After a second or so, I moved the nymph slowly then let it come to rest again. The leading fish moved over the fly as I very, very slowly dragged the fly along the bottom. It disappeared from my sight - the barbel had just and ate it with confidence. I tightened. My first barbel was hooked. After a brief struggle this, my first ever barbel on a fly, was netted.

That first barbel really wanted to eat that nymph, as it was way down its throat. It weighed in at 4lb 11ozs. A couple of quick pictures were taken by Tony and the fish was released. In the next hour I had 2 other barbel weighing about 4lbs. Not the biggest barbel to be caught on a fly but to the best of my knowledge, the first caught by design. I have had many fish since that first day with fish to 8-4-0.There are two methods of fishing, upstream and downstream both work.

I have noticed no difference in my hooking rate when fishing up or downstream. The secret is finding your barbel, and then present the nymph on the bottom about two feet ahead of the fish. As it approaches I lift the rod tip causing the nymph to rise slowly from the river bed. The barbel will grab hold with relish, in fact they are very aggressive when chasing and feeding on nymphs. These fish are really determined to eat your nymph. With trout fishing costing on average £30-00 a day on rivers and most anglers practising catch and release, why not go out and fish for the coarse fish species? I feel pike are designed for the fly rodder on Canals Rivers and still waters, barbel are a super fish in our rivers. There are a lot more wild fish that eat flies other than the stocked rainbows and browns trout.

Martin James Fishing