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Fish Where You Live, Part Two

Fish Where You Live Part 2: Small Rivers

Following on from his look at tackling day ticket stillwaters for coarse fish, Flyfishing for Coarse Fish author Dom Garnett turns his attention to running water and species including chub, dace and roach.

One of the best things about broadening your fly fishing diet is the sheer variety of low cost sport out there. Stereotypes aside, you certainly do not need access to a sparkling, exclusive chalkstream to enjoy the thrill of tempting fish on an artificial fly. In fact, your existing tackle is likely to be fine for “coarse” venues too.

In this second instalment of our mini series, I want to shift the focus to small rivers. These include waters run by fishing clubs, as well as urban waters and those that quite often provide free fishing. Ok, so the surroundings might not be quite as idyllic, but there are several species to try for, and a fresh challenge around every corner.

Typical small to medium coarse rivers

If I told you that I had just been for a short session in which I landed a dozen fish to over two pounds, with half on the dry fly, you might quickly wonder if I was telling porkies or had access to a stocked game fishing beat. Until I mention that these were coarse fish! Should it matter, though? Personally, I fail to see why a chub, roach or bream are unworthy of our attention or in some way inferior. On the contrary, they add a whole new challenge to your fly fishing, and often at a tiny fraction of the price of trout fishing.

Not the prettiest location, but many urban rivers offer free fishing.
Not the prettiest location, but many urban rivers offer free fishing.

There are stacks of suitable running waters all over the country to try going for coarse fish with a fly rod. Some are better suited to the fly than others, of course. Big, muddy rivers are tough. Ideally, you want clear water and relatively shallow depths where you can get fairly close to your quarry. Casting space helps, but isn’t always a luxury you can depend on- so a shorter rod or waders can also be handy.

The main species I would try for over the summer and autumn months would be chub, followed by dace and roach, which will sometimes rub shoulders with trout, too. There may also be perch and pike- but these are another story and species I avoid when it’s hot (on most waters it isn’t fair to catch pike in hot weather, as many simply won’t recover).

A mobile approach with light gear and polarising glasses is key on a small river. The fish like a good flow of water, especially in the summer. You’ll find dace in the quick, shallow sections. Chub like the flow too when it’s hot, but will also hug features such as weed rafts and overhanging cover. Both can be caught on wet and dry flies alike. Roach, meanwhile, tend to like steadier, slightly deeper water and are mainly a wet fly target, unless there’s a good hatch on or they are basking in hot weather.

Really small rivers can favour shorter rods; but most of the time, Dom likes a 10ft 3 to 4 weight rod.
Really small rivers can favour shorter rods; but most of the time, Dom likes a 10ft 3 to 4 weight rod.

Typical gear

My weapon of choice for most small rivers is a three or four weight rod, a floating line, and a rod length of leader tapering down to 3-4lb tippet. You can get away with heavier gear, but you’ll spook more fish with heavier tackle and fly lines.

For the tiniest, most cramped rivers where you might need to wade, a rod as short as 7ft can be handy. Most of the time though, I like the extra reach and control of a 10ft rod. Slower-actioned rods seem more forgiving with light lines.

In terms of other kit, I am never without polarising glasses and a decent net. A trout scoop is fine for wading, but for bank fishing my landing net is a long-handled model of at least 3m. With typical rivers not always well manicured, this item can be the difference between landing and losing a good fish!

For the tiniest, most cramped rivers where you might need to wade, a rod as short as 7ft can be handy. Most of the time though, I like the extra reach and control of a 10ft rod.

Tactics for coarse fish on smaller rivers

A typical small river chub; this one willingly grabbed a big terrestrial.
A typical small river chub; this one willingly grabbed a big terrestrial.

Tactic 1: Dry fly

As simple and exciting as it gets, you can catch plenty of fish with a simple dry fly approach. Just like trout, fish like dace and chub tend to face into the flow, so you are best approaching from behind their position and casting upstream (with the flow coming towards you).

Dace are an obvious target that will slash at most dry flies. They can be infuriatingly hard to hook, though, unless you scale down your flies and strike rapidly! I would think nothing of going right down to ultra fine tippets and size 20 patterns (we’ll look at some options later). You’ll also catch bleak and small roach on these tactics.

Chub are perhaps the most obliging fish of all, but a very different prospect on dry fly. They are cautious by nature, but their greed and curiosity are legendary. For these fish, I scale right up to big, juicy terrestrial flies such as hoppers, beetles and even grasshopper and wasp imitations.

“Dead drifting” a big fly is our first line of attack, but waking or twitching the fly can also make a big difference. They are often much more likely to respond to this than trout! Do be willing to take a risk or two as well. A fly that lands within inches of cover such as trailing branches, that resembles a terrestrial fly falling into the drink, will often be hit without a second thought.

A slightly dirty parkland river. If few fish are visible or rising, the New Zealand method is a good place to start.
A slightly dirty parkland river. If few fish are visible or rising, the New Zealand method is a good place to start.

Tactic 2: New Zealand dropper

The use of a dry fly and nymph combo is very handy for situations where we’re not sure which tactic to start with, or perhaps the fish are not right up on the surface or the water is a little coloured. 

For those newer to fly fishing, or too shy to ask, all this method entails is using a buoyant dry fly and then attaching a nymph directly to the bend of the dry fly hook using a little finer line (say 30-60cm of 3lb tippet material).

There are few flies better than a small Klinkhamer for this method- although if you keep getting hit by dace or small roach, you’ll hook more fish on a small fly without any tail or turns of hackle; just a buoyant wing post is better.

As for our nymph, you cannot go too far wrong with a small beaded fly. The classic Hare’s Ear or PTN will work, but I tend to prefer a beaded spider. Why? Well, aside from the fantastic movement of the “legs”, I suspect that coarse fish like the soft feel of these flies and will hang on for a split second longer. Chub will take any sensible sized fly, but roach, dace, bleak and others can quickly spook at a big flashy pattern, so don’t be afraid to use tiny beads and scale right down to a size 18 or 20.

The business end of a three-pound chub. On this occasion, the fish didn’t want a small or floating meal and a bigger fly with an imparted twitch did the trick.
The business end of a three-pound chub. On this occasion, the fish didn’t want a small or floating meal and a bigger fly with an imparted twitch did the trick.

Tactic 3: Nymph fishing

I’d argue that this is perhaps the most skilful method of all. You can use a nymph and indicator combo for shallower water, or just cast a lighter, slow sinker and watch for takes if sight fishing is an option. Of course, if you own a long rod the French Leader method is also a good option; but bite indication is key and you must strike at any twitch because takes are seldom as aggressive as you’d get from trout.

Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” with fly patterns. For chub that won’t rise to dries, for example, I will often use a size 12-14 fly, such as a bead head spider with a soft partridge or CDC hackle. For dace or roach, though, I wouldn’t hesitate to use a size 18 or 20. If you’re struggling to get down to the fish, tiny tungsten beads are a godsend.

Most takes tend to be on a natural, “dead drift” and the depth is crucial. Chub will sometimes shift several feet for a nymph, for example, but roach will tend to hug a particular level (usually a bit deeper) and refuse to come up. If you are struggling to win bites, you can always experiment with the “induced take”. However, this must be subtle- most of the smaller common coarse fish dislike any jerky or exaggerated movements.

FLY PATTERNS AND FURTHER NOTES

I hope this quick guide has provided some useful hints for your fishing. The art of catching all the different species is a complex one, however, and each of our common coarse fish has its idiosyncrasies. Chub are probably the most obliging of the river fish and your best chance of catching a net-filler, provided you are stealthy. Fish of one to three pounds are common on many rivers.

Of course, we don’t have space here to cover everything- and once you get the hang of things, fish like barbel, bream and others are also an exciting challenge, but that’s another story. Flyfishing for Coarse Fish makes ideal further reading, with tactics and fly patterns for all the major species.

Dom’s Grasshopper

Hook: Long shank sedge/ larval 6-10
Thread: Brown
Body: Cut foam (lime green & yellow)
Legs: Turrall rubber legs
Wing: Deer hair
Hackle: Yellow grizzle cock

This is perhaps my favourite out and out chub catcher, purely because it’s such good fun to watch it get clobbered. The occasional big trout will also assault it, though! A good fly for when a bit of extra incentive is needed, the legs come alive when given a twitch.

Chopper
Hook: Sedge 6-10
Thread: Black
Body: Black floss
Legs: Black knotted pheasant
Wing: Deer or elk hair
Hackle: Black cock

Another good choice for chub. Don’t be afraid of large flies for these greedy fish! Quite often a tiny natural will be refused, while a size 8 is taken instantly, even by quite a small chub. This fly ticks most of the boxes. Very durable, and with those straggly legs I like it fished half drowned, with just the wing above the surface.

F-Fly
Hook: Barbless dry, size 12-22
Thread: Black
Body: Any suitable dubbing
Wing: Natural CDC

Such a simple but incredibly versatile fly. The soft materials make this a winner for fish like dace, rudd and roach. Don’t be afraid to tie right down to sizes 18-22 for the smaller species.

Klinkhamer
Hook: Emerger dry fly, size 16-20
Thread: Tan
Body: Dry fly dubbing
Wing post: Bright pink antron yarn
Hackle: Grizzle cock
Thorax: Peacock herl

Emergers like this are ideal fished solo, or indeed for New Zealand style fishing. Keep sizes small and avoid long, bushy hackles and extra details like tails, as these will only make the fly harder for a small mouth to inhale.

Beaded Flashback PTN
Hook: Nymph 14-20
Thread: Brown
Rib: copper wire
Tail/ body/ legs: Pheasant fibres
Thorax cover: Mylar tinsel/ any suitable flash material
Thorax: Peacock herl

Like the classic Hare’s Ear, this fly is an excellent all-rounder, provided you can find it in smaller sizes. An 18-20 is ideal for roach and dace. For chub, try going up to a 14.

Micro Pink Shrimp
Hook: Grub or buzzer, size 16-20
Bead: 1.5-2.5mm brass or tungsten
Thread: pink
Tail: Patridge fibres & hint of krystal flash
Shellback: strip of polythene
Body: Pink flash dubbing
Legs: Partridge

This is a brilliant little fly for coarse fish and especially useful for roach. Particularly useful for slightly coloured water.

Dace Ace
Hook: Nymph 18-20
Thread: Tan
Rib: Fine silver wire
Body: Light hare’s ear, dubbed sparingly
Bead: Micro tungsten bead, hot pink
Hackle: Brown grizzle hen or woodcock

I love beaded spiders for coarse species. The movement of soft, traditional materials not only attracts fish, but encourages them to hang onto the fly longer than a hard-bodied pattern, I suspect.

Find flies for coarse fish & Dom’s bestselling books

Many of Dom’s successful flies for coarse fish are produced by Turrall and can be found at his site: dgfishing.co.uk along with his various books. These include the Amazon Bestseller Flyfishing for Coarse Fish, which has a wealth of tactics, flies and advice on all the major coarse species, along with his recent collection of angling tales Crooked Lines.

You can also read Dom’s column “The Far Bank” every week in the Angling Times along with regular blogs for the Angling Trust and Turrall Flies.

Finally, do also look out for the “Fly For Coarse” website and competition, judged by a panel including Matt Hayes and John Bailey: www.flyforcoarse.com

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