horses and unicorns

I'm writing this at 5 am, I can't sleep. Horses and unicorns are riding unbidden again through my waking dreams.  The rivers of the Derbyshire Peaks, and the fish that swim in them - well, they get under your skin. 

Back-wind a day and  I'm fishing the river Wye with brother of the angle Geoff Hadley. There are the most beautiful golden coloured wild brown trout here - including some real horses, and only in the Wye, unicorns play amongst them.  Some will know and others will not, the Wye holds the only wild, breeding population of rainbow trout in the British Isles. So exquisitely marked, they are a wonder to behold and I'm hoping to put right the loss of last autumn and touch my first Wye 'bow.

We're fishing around Bakewell and there are rules. Dry fly only, no wading. It's easy to understand the reasoning. As a result, for the most part the river here suffers but a light touch from anglers. This regime has made the beat something of a place of pilgrimage for dry fly enthusiasts and therein lies my dilemma. Tenkara is not primarily a dry fly technique and neither to any great degree is 'matching the hatch'. 

In fact, since the fixed line fly bug bit me, I've done very little pure dry fly fishing. Sure, my lightest kebari start off on the surface but often I'm looking to fish them in the film or downright wet. There are times when I hold a fly on top of the surface film but even then not with high-riding floatant on any long drift. And my fly patterns are definitely only loosely suggestive, not imitative - designed for the method they will be fished rather than coded to any fly hatch. Planning this road trip north I almost give in and leave the tenkara gear aside - it would be easy to go native and join the locals with a DT line, 3 weight wand and a Richard Wheatley fly box crammed with seasonal confections. In the end the tenkara rods stay but I don't want to transgress any local rules (even emergers like Klinkhammers are banned) so I put together a few classic English dry flies - iron blue duns, olives, hawthorn flies and my own take on sedges, but a little box too of small and light stiff hackle kebari..

So I'm on the water, an hour or so before Geoff, giving me time get my eye and my cast in. I soon find that I'm struggling to turn over the wind-resistant dry flies with my level nylon line. The need to constantly dry my fly and apply floatant I'm finding frustrating after the simple fluidity of casting kebari. But I persevere and soon Geoff arrives and generously shares some expert knowledge on patterns and holding spots. We're looking for feeding lanes and slacks near to the current seams and here often the better fish hold station. Geoff points out an almost indiscernible shadow under the far bank, too far away for my current set up, but possible with his western gear. A big rainbow, and he puts out a lovely cast that unrolls and settles just above the trout's window. The fly drifts a short while and just before drag snatches it away, it's nailed. But a brief commotion and the hook pings free and I share Geoff's pain - on inspection the hook has partly straightened out - these 'bows have bony mouths. I swap up from my beloved Karasu to my Hellbender - a beefier rod with a bit more reach, and on goes a furled casting line, ginked-up to make the front section float. Now I'm fishing dry fly pretty effectively, although it's going against my instincts to have casting line laying on the water.       

As the morning flows past we are both surprised by the absence of any real hatch and the sparsity of rise forms. We see plenty of fish but pulling them up to take a dry fly is a challenge today. I ring the changes and swap this fly with that, but only succeed in reminding myself how much I prefer my simple box of kebari and the may ways I can normally fish them. We are both struggling and a skunk's rear end will begin to resolve itself in the near distance if I don't switch my game. I'm looking at my kebari box, but even ginked-up these patterns will fish like an emerger, and so strictly speaking they are not permitted on this water. But then I see a little size 16 kebari, grey and with very sparse, stiff hackle.  I can hold this on the surface film, fly only, and better still I can manipulate this fly to groove the surface film. I experiment with allowing the fly to drift down stream, holding it in the flow on the surface and pulsing it  with regular movements of about half a fish in length. Now I'm stalking visible fish under the near bank or using back eddies to take my presentation out further.

It's a game changer today. My first fish - a baby 'bow, takes the fly in a little pocket of opposing flow and skips across the water. Perfection in miniature and my first little unicorn!

Mummy 'bow is holding deep but hurtles up to take my fly off the top as its drifts and grooves above - I can't believe the hook stays put through the ensuing trout ballet.  This is a good fish and strong, and leaps two feet clear of the water several times, before streaking off downstream. I turn her and she's coming back towards me when a final leap takes her up and over a willow branch. She's now tethered in the water with my line tangled interestingly in the low branches. Geoff slips the net under and she's quickly photographed and safely released.

Daddy 'bow is amazing looking fish holding in the highly oxygenated water beneath a weir sill. He's in a group of rainbows of similar size, with one fish larger still - which hits my fly, hoops the rod over but only sticks for a couple of seconds. For a few moments the group are competing for the fly and I'm struck by how quickly this aggressive feeding behaviour seems to be triggered by my presentation. The rainbow I do catch from this group hits the fly and falls off three times before I set the hook properly. He runs upstream against my pressure and looks for all the world like a salmon, tail thrashing against the flow, but I pull him downstream to the net. A proper unicorn says Geoff, and we rest him in the slack because my hands are shaking too much to take a photo and I'm grinning like a village idiot. Such wonderful markings, like the ink spatters from a fountain pen splashed from head to tail.

We push on expecting a hatch to start at any moment, but as the afternoon draws on it never materialises, at least not before we have to leave. We arrive at the same spot that Geoff lost his big rainbow this morning and it's still here, on station. Another deft long range cast from Geoff, another take and another hook adrift - this time a fish is just not meant to be. I know Geoff will be back to put it right though. Time to head back to the vehicles and along the way we spot a group of lovely brownies, not on the fin but holding near the river bed.

Wondering if the dry fly manipulation will work here too I make a few casts, looking for a line that will let me groove the surface within the trout's cone of vision. I'm struck by how much presence the tiny fly has, moved in this way. Caught in the surface mirror this manipulation must be greatly amplified, and today it continues to prove irresistible. A lovely brown rises from the bed and takes aggressively. Another powerful fish but competently handled by the Hellbender. I think Geoff is surprised how effectively Tenkara techniques have winkled out some good fish today in challenging conditions. And now I've found a fine horse among the unicorns.







  1. Great stuff David. Could I tempt you to try a Fujino tapered nylon line (in the 5m to 7m ballpark length) with 8ft of tippet and the last couple of metres of the casting line stroked over with Loon "Payette Paste" for your dry fly fishing where you need to lay line on the water? The Ice blue or green ones would be good on the Wye...

    1. Cheers Paul, yes I've got the midi but in shorter length.. I would be worried keeping those rainbows out of the willows.. Will definitely try your set up on the Derwent where I can wade! :)

  2. Great adventure! I enjoyed your story.

    1. Thanks for dropping by Adam, glad you enjoyed! :)

  3. Девид, отличный рассказ


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