Sunday, 26 April 2015

Coarse surprises for spring

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I’ve enjoyed some really interesting sessions this past couple of weeks, despite much of my free time being squeezed, crunched or written off. This is definitely a huge benefit of lure or fly fishing though; you can be packed and ready to fish in seconds. Nor is a lack of time my problem solely- it’s the same for loads of my friends who lead equally busy lives and seldom manage to get a full day in. I strongly suspect this is part of the reason why the fishing world is changing, and light, mobile methods are the in thing at the moment.

Sometimes, admittedly, it can take me a good hour to forget my to do list and all the shit rattling around in my brain. But I know of no better place to throw it all into the depths than a little estate lake I’ve been frequenting for about a year now. Not the cheapest, for a skinflint such as I, but very pretty and very rich in insect life. A handful of others fish for the carp with bait, but I just love wandering about with the fly rod. I tend to take two set ups: a four weight for rudd and hybrids, plus a nine weight for the carp, which really take some stopping. On those days when nobody else is around to bother, I also sometimes take a little boat out.
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Perhaps the dry, hot days this spring are the culprit, but it hasn’t been all plain sailing due to quite coloured water- and the same goes for the canals. This makes spotting the fish harder, and also makes it harder for them to spot your flies. Bigger spiders have worked though (up to a size 12) along with red or claret buzzers with a little flash. Sometimes a tag team of two is better than one also, if only to double your chances in coloured water. If nothing else the rudd have obliged:

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Funny fish these. Shy, too, where they don’t see a lot of humans. Make a shit cast and they flee like a gun has gone off. Land it right, with the flies settling gently where they can see them and they’ll take with zero hesitation, making you wonder why you ever found it difficult ten minutes ago. I’ve yet to spy a really big one, but there are loads in the 6oz to 1lb class that kick very pleasantly on light gear- in fact, not even the lightest match rod gives a better buzz.

Other, stranger things are also stirring. I think they’re rudd bream or roach bream hybrids. I pick my words carefully because I’m not sure and I’ve never seen a true bream in this little lake. They do like forming a squadron a foot or two under the surface though, sometimes mixing with the better rudd. Sink a fly to one stealthily and they’ll often take at the first time of asking. Although a lot of anglers see them as not entirely desirable, they do tend to fight harder per pound than either rudd or bream. This one took a claret buzzer:
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The beauty of a natural, mixed fishery is that you're never quite sure what you'll encounter next. For some coarse fish, such as bream and tench, I rarely go all out for them but will usually fish for bites with an easier species like roach, rudd or perch, but always be prepared to have a cast at any bonuses that show up. The value of always being ready cannot be too keenly stressed either: when that surprise fish comes into view, you simply must be ready to make an instant delivery, rather than faff around trying to find the fly or untangle the fly line.

For the sake of my curiosity as much as anything else, I'm always scanning the water and dipping a net into the edge to see what I might be able to copy. Midges are a given, but there are also stacks of water boatmen, shrimp and -not to be confused- hog lice like this chap:
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When it comes to the actual fishing though, provided you pick flies that look naturally edible and present them in the right way, you have a chance. Hare's Ears, Shrimps and dark spiders are all useful staples that will catch various coarse fish.
The other conspicuous customers on the last session were the carp, but these can be harder to tempt. I blew it with a couple of nice fish that I got too close to, but also elicited a take from a solid looking mirror carp. Had I delayed the strike, rather than lifting too early, I might have had much bigger end to the session.
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In other news, I’ve also been mixing a bit of work with pleasure down on the edge of Cornwall. My day job is copywriting, but I also like to make the most of my photography skills to go with my words. The Jamaica Inn is one of those really quirky, genuinely different and historic places that I’ve been helping to promote. This particular photo shoot involved Murphy; not an Irishman, but a beautiful black and white-masked horse. Suitably gothic looking for one of the most haunted places in Cornwall.
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You can read all about an interesting session on Colliford Lake on the new Turrall Flies blog, which also comes with a chance to win a selection of my favourite flies for the venue. All you have to do is follow us on Facebook or Twitter and share the post.
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Monday, 13 April 2015

Spring Fishing Lessons

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Is there anything better than picking a fine spring day to go fishing? You can finally expect to see moving and rising fish. Two layers will do. And even if it's rubbish, the sun is on your back and the whole summer awaits!
A little spring cheer tends to bring even occasional anglers out of hibernation. Ben, my older brother, is usually anything but a fair weather fisher, but having a new baby to think about, it was the first time he'd been fishing in a while. What a day we picked too; the water looked lovely on the Culm (we fished at Champerhayes on the Westcountry Angling Passport).
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More out of optimism than anything, I had tied some dry flies up too. For the River Culm fly fishing, it just has to be that classic quill bodied fly, the Beacon Beige. The original is a very simple fly, but I also added a pair of wings ("Reel Wings" to be precise). These not only look the part, but make a typically small (size 16) fly easy to spot.

It was one of those days when the whole countryside seemed awake. The blossom was out, as were bees and nest building birds. The water itself was teeming with minnows and shrimp, perhaps part of the reason the average size of trout is very healthy here for Devon. It didn't take long to see lots of real flies either, mostly large dark olives:
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The strange part was the lack of response at first. We had been running nymphs in all the right looking places, but without a touch. Eventually though, there was the odd rise form and so on went the Beige. At virtually the first time of asking, I managed to flick it under a high bank where rings had subsided only seconds earlier. A positive rise and it was fish on.
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Perhaps the recent winter was kind because the fish were in excellent condition. Some were really silvery for Culm fish too, and rather fat looking for so early in the season. It wasn't plain sailing, but by fishing lots of areas and covering any risers quickly, we finished with two trout a piece. In true brotherly fashion we also made some totally needless rules and turned it into a little competition. Ben can probably blame lack of match sharpness, but I pipped him by a couple of inches with slightly bigger trout!

Meanwhile, you can also read more of my exploits this month by grabbing the new Fly Fishing & Fly Tying magazine. A great little urban river in my article, along with news from the Fly For Coarse competition and an excellent perch which fell to my friend David West Beale.

In other news, I've also just finished another of the fishing sessions for kids that I run at West Pitt Farm, Devon. Again, we were hugely lucky with the weather as the best part of twenty youngsters descended on Kingfisher Lake for four sessions over two days. Some of the stars of the show from last time caught even better than before, while others caught their first ever fish:

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What I always love is the sheer, unreserved delight that kids show at getting bites and catching fish. Excitable, funny and imaginative to the last, it was a lot of work but a heck of a lot of fun to say the least. Everyone caught a few and I also laughed at how, just like my brother and me now in our late thirties, boys love to count their fish and greet every strike, catch and missed bite with a running commentary.
All excellent fun, and in spite of long hours and a crunched pole section, I would gladly run days like these forever. For any parents or young anglers in Devon, do keep an eye on the West Pitt site for news of the next one too- we're sure to have a blast once again in the summer holidays!

Friday, 3 April 2015

From Severn to Devon

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In the fishing world, you don't always get what you bargained for. It was my great pleasure to speak at the recent Fish the Magnificent Severn Conference, alongside Des Taylor, Dilip Sarkar, Tony Bostock and John Costello. But what I didn't expect was such a huge turnout of over two hundred! Merlin Unwin also joined me and it was an uplifting experience meeting so many passionate river anglers.
The talks were all so different. Des Taylor is always frank, robust and very funny- I don't think any fishing speaker has ever made me laugh so much. John and Dilip spoke passionately about River Severn specimen fishing, while Tony gave us an inspiring look at the work of the Severn Rivers Trust, an organisation that does a huge amount of good which I'd recommend all West Midlands anglers to join.

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As for me, I gave something of a whistlestop tour of UK canal fishing and fly fishing endeavours for coarse fish. It bought a lot of the journey back for me and just how much has happened in the last three or four years: of course, the Severn was a vital part of the journey made by the fresher faced, less hairy looking Dom Garnett who fished it for zander in the making of my first book. Three years on, numbers are growing and, I hope, realising that fly fishing is not only thrilling stuff but no more specialised or alien than lure fishing.

I've been so synonymous with the whole "Fly for Coarse" movement, it sometimes feels like trout are an "alternative" quarry for me. Silly, because I do also love them and part of the battle is the same: to convince anglers that fly fishing can be simple, cheap and hugely enjoyable. It's true there's some free, urban fishing in Devon, but at prices starting at a very meagre five quid, you can also fish some extremely pretty, wild rivers with the Westcountry Angling Passport scheme. I picked up some tokens from my pal Ian at Cullompton Carp and Coarse, who now sell tickets and are very easily reached (just off J28 of the M5, and near to some ace trout fishing on the River Culm).
On this occasion though, I headed for an afternoon on Beat 15, a cute tributary of the River Torridge:
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The river was a little up on this occasion. In spite of air temperatures never exceeding 9C and a bit of drizzle though, I did spot the odd hatching upwinged insect. In fact, the only fish I hooked on a nymph was an early salmon parr- both of my trout came to small emergers. Lovely sport on a short 4 weight rod and I missed a few more too:
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While it's not exactly vital, I also like to have a quick bug hunt when I'm on the stream and I had an enjoyable half hour turning stones and playing with the macro lens. Not so many caddis larvae showed up, but there were loads of dark coloured agile darters and also a healthy head of heptagenids or "stone clingers" like the little chap below. A little beauty- if you like that sort of thing:
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For any budding photographers or those who simply like angling pictures, do check out my current galleries on Pinterest and click follow!
It's all part of my current involvement with Turrall, who I will be working closely with in the coming weeks and months. Lots of cool things happening, including regular news, tips and free content- so do keep an eye on Twitter (@TurrallFlies) and give a peek and a like to the brand new Facebook page. There'll be a blog with some interesting angles on fly fishing too; the first instalment is already out and gives you some thoughts and tips on UV flies and fly tying materials. Read it HERE.
As a final bit of news, there are still also a few places left for my Easter Fishing Class at West Pitt Farm. This was a great event last time, and while Thursday is now fully booked, I still have some slots for Weds if you're quick:
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In the meantime, have a great extended weekend. Don't drink too much and make sure you go fishing!

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Early Season Trout Fishing

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After a fairly indifferent winter for fishing, spring couldn't have come sooner for me this season. A fair weather fisherman I am not, but by early March I've usually just about had my limit of dour days. Perhaps I set some tough challenges of late, but I have to admit I've been unsuccessful with efforts to catch both a big grayling and also a flounder on the fly. Time to move on.

The very thought of a sunny afternoon on a small river awakens a happy sort of naivety in me. I had planned on a trip to a shallow local canal earlier in the week, chasing rudd on the fly. But with the water disappointingly brown and few fish showing, I took a detour to Tiverton's River Lowman instead. It's a place that brings back a lot of happy memories in spite of its location, running through the dog-eared edges of Tiverton. It was here I captured the cover shot for Theo Pike's wonderful book on free fly fishing "Trout in Dirty Places." The curiously named Paradise Fields area also spawned an article for Trout and Salmon. It must be a couple of seasons since I last walked its length however.
I'm always a great one for early season naivety. I kid myself that it'll be warm, the fish will be rising and the water will be clear. But early season trout fishing is more often a recipe for pragmatism. Big insect hatches are not common and I often find that rather than copying nature, the best way to get off the mark is with a nice visible nymph in the right place.
The Lowman was still carrying some colour, making it tricky to spot the fish. But running a gold bead nymph through the tumbling tail of a pool by Amory Park, I had solid take on just my third cast and a pretty trout to open my account.

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One saving grace of fishing in March is that the undergrowth is still quite bare, making it easier to get at those swims that will be a bit of a jungle by summer time. Most of the river can be fished from the bank too, although with a high sun you really have to duck and kneel into position to avoid sending the trout scattering. I've said it before, but there are days I curse being a conspicuous 6'5" tall. In a public setting it's not just down to you however, as there's always the chance that someone's dog will jump into the pool, or a misplaced clearance from someone's kickabout will send the trout packing.
On this occasion, I had the best of the fishing by taking a decent walk and getting beyond a couple of little inflows that were bringing muddy water into the mix. I didn't see a fish rise all afternoon in the end but another handful of trout, all in the 6-9" stamp, intercepted a small Hare's Ear or Copper John and gave some excellent sport on a four weight outfit.

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It was only a couple of days later that I found the first hatch of the year, on a different stretch of urban river nearer to the east Devon coast. I say hatch, but a measly number of large dark olives never seemed to persuade the fish to rise. A beaded PTN fished under a Klinkhamer worked a treat however, anywhere I managed to get a clean cast without spooking the fish.
Quite a low water level and bright sun made them hard to fool at times. Perhaps the best areas were the shady edges of walls and boulders, or simply letting a nymph tumble through the headwaters of each little weir.
I might have had even more hits, had every dog owner in east Devon not decided to let their mutt go swimming. But you can't grumble at six beautifully marked fish from a free stretch of river, including a couple of spirited half pounders that had me convinced something much bigger had taken hold:

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I'm well aware that some blog followers won't be into fly fishing, but if you've yet to try your hand at it I would highly recommend it. It's such an interesting exercise, you don't need much kit and there is a wealth of cheap or even free fly fishing these days. Fishing the fly definitely teaches you use the flow of the river rather than avoiding it. It also teaches you a lot about how to approach fish on clear waters and just how easily they can spook. For the sake of a few quid (my half day sessions for beginners start at just £80, with all the gear and flies provided) it really could expand your horizons. The site has more info:

In other news, I'm also going to be contributing lots of new and exciting material for Turrall this season as part of their online presence, with news, fly patterns, tips and more on the way. Do give them a like and a follow on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest, or check out Pinterest for photographic highlights old and new.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Saved by the Perch

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I've spoken before of my love for perch, but this week I have more reason than usual to feel grateful for these fish. In simple terms, they are life savers. They give a focus to that fag end of the late season when everything looks flooded, frozen or bordering on hopeless. The bait is often free too, while even the smallest day ticket lake can yield proper net fillers with a bit of effort.

It's funny how our attitudes shift during the season. After lashings of rain and general punishment on natural waters, the very commercial fisheries you weren't so crazy about last month suddenly seem very tempting. Hence after three blanks on the trot with pike, I was relieved to forget the rivers and join Chris Lambert for a crack at Viaduct fishery, Somerset.

Out of sheer naivety perhaps I expected plain sailing as we loaded up my motor. Closed roads and squeaking windscreen wipers removed this illusion before we ever got near the fishery. I'm no fair weather fisher, but even I wondered what we were letting ourselves in for as the wind started to howl and we crossed high, muddy rivers. I was determined not to blank though and we got ourselves well set up for the day. Besides waterproofs and a giant flask of tea, I watched Chris Lambert assemble a lunch with more calories than a Glasgow chip shop.

The fishery itself was wind and rain hit from the off as we skirted round a match on Carey Lake to set up on Campbells, which is opened for only a limited period each year to perch anglers (it's usually match only). Chris was gunning all out for a big perch, hence prawns would be his main attack. I wanted to simply catch before worrying about any figures, so I dug out my pole and a good supply of worms.

I often find the textbook advice is next to useless when it comes to the iffy late season perching. One thing to note is how changeable the typically shallow commercial lakes are. It can be a real game of hide and seek. A cold or warm spell can totally confound expectations too, but my first port of call with perch in an unfamiliar lake is to establish where the deepest and snaggiest water lies. Most of these pools have a "dam" end, often with a concrete structure or overflow which can be a decent feature in its own right. Snags are more misleading in my experience. They can look great, but without sufficient depth beside them they can be mere eye candy (and sadly this is real life, not "Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing").

The session required quite careful feeding and fishing in the end. I fed three pole lines, one with chopped worm and ground bait in the deepest water, plus two marginal swims fed less often with a mix of chopped prawns and worm. Other than nearly getting blown into the lake, the only excitement was with a handful of skimmers.

The margin swims took somewhere in the region of three hours to signal any interest, but I kept switching over to each in turn every so often, just to see if anything was showing. Meanwhile, Chris was busy catching tench that kept stealing prawns intended for perch. He also tried right by the legs of the nearest platform for a bite or two- an often overlooked area for perch.
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The weather got so horrible at one point that we seriously considered packing up. I had abandoned my box for parts of the session, if only to avoid a drenching by huddling under Mr. Lambert's shelter. As the weather got a bit less nasty though, I finally managed to hook a fish that clearly wasn't a dead-hearted skimmer but something very possibly stripy and spiky.
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By trickling small helpings of chopped worm into the swim I just about managed to keep a few bites coming, finishing with four perch over the pound mark, the best of which I'd guestimate at a little over a pound and a half (above). Not exactly earth shattering fishing, but a big improvement on nothing and an enjoyable day out.

I never like to get too techy in this blog, but a few questions are still swimming in my head. One is the behaviour of perch on really wild days. Does a strong wind put them off I wonder? It's not the first time I've struggled to get a bigger fish on a blustery day. The only thing I can say for certain is that ugly conditions make every job slightly harder. I'm pining for the spring, as it happens, and being able to swap the tub worms for a box of flies.
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Sunday, 22 February 2015

Rewards after the Rain

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Winter fishing can be a hit and miss affair in the changeable late season. But I'm glad to report that in spite of some fairly damp, difficult sessions, the fish at least came out to bite for my recent guided guests, Michael and Raphael Pryor.

I had endured a tough, biteless session on the Wye just before and one or two hard lessons. A rising, increasingly brown river beat me in the end. I found some great looking spots, trying both a large, classic slack and dropping baits close to cover in several flooded holes. But where were those pike?
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I'm still scratching my head over that one. An influx of cold water seemed to have put both predator and prey into hiding and I couldn't even get a bite on the worm. My only great consolation in the end was a pint of ale and an evening of live folk music with an old friend in the Black Swan, Much Dewchurch, one of Herefordshire's oldest pubs.

A relief, therefore, to make a weekend return to Somerset with Michael Pryor and his son Raphael (above), whose enthusiasm was undampened by a cool, breezy morning. We fished a cute stretch of canal where I knew there would be sheltered water even on a day when the Somerset Levels would be flooded. Even with a little additional colour in the depths, we found jacks willing to take a shot at a well aimed fly or lure. It's always nice to see old friends as a guide, and it was great to see Raph catch his first English pike at the grand old age of eight, while we also watched others follow or miss the lure.

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We had a great mobile session along the Bridgwater to Taunton Canal, where the pike seemed to really come alive when cloud cover moved in and a breeze rippled the water. On several occasions, we saw sudden disturbance at the surface and fish leaping clear. In spite of a troublesome side wind, Michael kept faith with the fly and after a couple of near misses was also off the mark. It took after he'd slowed down his retrieve a little and fished the fly a bit deeper.

It was to be an eventful little day in the end. Raph spotted a kingfisher, while none of us could miss the clumsy raft being paddled by a bride and hen party, that had a dodgy looking male appendage sticking out of the front! And people think anglers are peculiar.

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Shallow waters such as a classic narrowboat canals really are lifesavers for winter pike fishing. They remain sheltered when other waters flood. We also had a quick glance at the nearby River Tone, but it was hopelessy high and brown for lure or fly fishing. Hence it was back to the canal for a last try with some of my "emergency" sprats, to see if we could find a better fish or two. A wise move, because in the last hour, our duo rounded off a fun day's fishing with two better pike of around six and ten pounds respectively.

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The other encouraging sign were several nice roach and rudd showing during sunny intervals, which will be catchable on the fly in a month or so with a bit of luck. Should you want to book a day's guided fly fishing for some late season pike, or indeed a day in search of roach, rudd or trout this spring, do drop me a line: Whether you want to catch a new species, discover some of the best places to fish in Somerset and Devon or just brush up your casting skills, I can provide an enjoyable day out.

Monday, 9 February 2015

A Buzzing Fly Fair

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In a sport that can be as solitary as fishing, it's always great to reestablish that brilliant sense of shared enthusiasm that a big meet up brings. The BFFI (British Fly Fair International) is always one of the best of the whole lot. Every year I turn up with boxes, bags and displays but leave with things you cannot put a price on: fresh ideas, new plans and most importantly of all the chance to meet lots of old and new friends.

What was the biggest impression this year? Apart from a show as busy as it's been in a few seasons, I'm struck by a current crop of anglers who represent new blood and ideas. Uplifting stuff, because fly fishing needs it. I hope the golden oldies will forgive me for saying so, but it is vital. A couple of years back at the event I heard a telling conversation between two anglers in the gents at the show: "Decent turn out but let's be honest, it's a bit of a bloody SAGA day out again!" Not so long ago you could have described fly fishing a bit like Frank Zappa described jazz (i.e. "not dead, but it smells funny").

This year felt rather different however. We have thinkers and anglers catching some cracking fish and really making some waves; whether it is young blades like Lewis Hendry and Alex Jardine, or fly innovators like Glen Pointon, Markus Hoffman and Joe Ludkin I got a real sense of optimism. For any sport to be healthy you need youth as well as experience, and progress as well as tradition.

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To take just one area, I think I saw more predator and saltwater flies at the event than at any previous occasion. Dougie Loughridge (above) is just one of a new breed going boldly beyond the obvious and traditional. This year I met anglers tackling zander on the canals, bass on the coast, with designs on barbel and all sorts of other targets. How bloody refreshing, is all I can say. I also have to say that in refreshing contrast to the specimen coarse scene, where too often it turns into a "who has the biggest balls/sponsorship deal/ fish" contest, this feels like a community of enthusiasts who are all about creativity rather than competition. Exciting times- but if you couldn't make it, do keep an eye on Glen Pointon's fishing podcast, which will include a cast of various fly fanatics from the show in the next instalment or two.

Even in the traditional world of dry and wet flies for trout and grayling, things are shifting. Just when you start to fear that the old cynics might be right that there is "nothing new in fishing", new ideas and materials emerge. Like cooks bored with the same old fare, fly tyers discover new ingredients. The BFFI is a celebration of this, which is why I always leave with a selection of new things to try. We've never had it so good in terms of materials. From jig hooks to an ever expanding range of UV materials and various heathen rubbers and synthetics, it's all out there. Like John Horsfall, who travelled up to the show with me and now has more spare capes than Batman, I left with a new goody bag with various additions, including some of the "Reel Wings" made by Joseph Ludkin.
Very lifelike, but also practical and designed to not bugger up your leader on the cast, I'm going to have some fun with these.
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While I'm on the subject of new and innovative stuff though, one canny fly tyer who has an equal fascination with fishing history is Chris Sandford. I always like to pester him with questions and ponder his curiosities, one of which was this truly novel cased specimen stickleback:
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Perhaps this should serve as inspiration for this year's "Fly For Coarse" contest, where there will be a special mini species trophy (probably a really small but highly coveted one), with some top notch materials to tie the really tiny stuff from Turrall Flies. Watch this space for more details.

In fact, the only thing that wasn't awesome about the weekend was my sneaky morning pike and perch fishing on the Somerset Levels on the journey up. Expecting clear water following the recent freeze, I was instead met my really muddy, crappy looking water on a couple of the drains. Bizarre, but perhaps dredging efforts or opening gates scuppered that particular plan.

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On a brighter note though, I'd also like to give a big shout to Fallon's Angler. Issue two is just out and a must for anyone who likes a great fishing story. Or several. There are tales from Ireland to Israel, with carp, crucians, trout, grayling and more making up another cracking issue of what continues to be the most exciting thing to hit the world of fishing writing for some time. The only thing not included is the pint of beer:
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