The Gentle Art of Dapping

  Story and Photography by Bob Salisbury 

Some years ago I went up to fish a mountain lake in the Navar Forest which overlooks Lough Erne in Northern Ireland. It was my first visit to this particular water and a friend suggested I call and ask advice from his elderly uncle, Joe Donnelly, who lived locally and had fished these lakes since boyhood. He agreed to accompany me and emerged from his cottage carrying what looked like a small ferret box.

“I collected some daddies last night from the cottage wall using a lighted bulb but we will need a few more. Best place to look is that rushy field by the stream side,” said Joe.

We crisscrossed the meadow, which was alive with insects and his small carrying box was soon packed with a tangle of moving wings and legs. Back at the cottage he produced an enormous 16 foot split cane rod, a ragged landing net that had clearly seen plenty of action and a battered willow creel which he hung over his shoulders.

The Navar lakes are high up. When we reached the shoreline a strong breeze was blowing and I knew casting my team of wet flies would be quite tricky. It didn’t seem to bother Joe, who simply impaled a live daddy on to his hook, lifted the long rod high into the air and allowed the wind to carry out the insect over the water.

“Plenty of good trout close in. They’ll come up from deep down once they see the fly flicking about,making a disturbance on the surface,” he said as my line snaked out. “No need to cast too far.”

Watching his live insect lifting and falling on the surface a few feet from the shore, I must confess I was more than a little sceptical about its effectiveness. I continued to cast the wet flies out and strip the line back in the normal fashion. Within two minutes my companion was landing his first fish and a few moments later his rod arched again and he was once again reaching for his net. I strolled over, intrigued to find how he was being so instantly successful and was given my first lesson into the delicate art of dapping.

This must be one of the oldest methods of fishing a lough, especially when using a natural insect and here in Ireland it is still highly effective during the Mayfly time, or in August when the daddies or grasshoppers are plentiful. At first glance the art of dapping looks deceptively simple and merely involves a good breeze, long rod , a natural insect or artificial and the patience to let the wind move the fly in a random , haphazard manner across the surface until a trout shows interest. Dapping undoubtedly takes fish, often very good trout because no part of the line touches the water. But for several reasons  this approach has become less popular in recent years. The old style rods were very heavy to use in strong winds and holding them steady could become tiring after a long day on the lough. The introduction of modern fly rods has also had an impact and the preference of many anglers to ‘drift’ fish from a boat with a team of wet flies has made the practice of dapping much less fashionable than it once was.

One renowned local angler in this part of Tyrone, Ronnie Chism, thinks that today’s fishermen are ‘missing a trick’ and the practice of dapping a fly is highly effective not just on large loughs, where it was traditionally practised, but also on rivers and stocked fisheries. Ronnie has made an extensive study of the techniques and equipment involved and argues that, if it is done properly, it will bring results. He says it is an art form that should be expanded and revived.

We recently went out on Lough Erne and on a blustery, overcast day, Ronnie enthusiastically explained his techniques and the potential of this form of fishing.

“This first thing you need is the right rod. Those heavy, old rods were often not balanced and with a wind blowing on your back all day, wrist and arms soon tired,” he said. “It took me a long time to develop a rod with the right action and which was light enough to use all day and I finally settled for a four piece, 14.6 ft,  8oz rod which takes a size 5/6 line. I never use floss as even in a modest breeze the fly lifts off the water and is very difficult to control. For me a 5 or 6 lb nylon attached to 10 or 12 lb nylon on the fly reel and a Kamasan B983 size 10 hook is the ideal set up and works extremely well.”

Before we started to fish we tramped through the damp meadows, kicking the reedy tussocks and placing the daddy long legs in to Ronnie’s improvised collecting jar.

“Doesn’t look much”, he said, “ but the rubber triangles on the top of the jar enable me to reach in for another insect without the others escaping. We’ve plenty of artificials if we run out.”

Dapping is a relaxing form of fishing and it gave me the chance to look around at the local wildlife during our slow drift down the lough. A young cormorant surfaced near the boat .

“Becoming very common, even inland, but they are strange looking birds,” I said. “Always regarded in the past as creatures of ill omen and since 1967, when legal protection was brought in, have become hated by most anglers. How much damage they actually do to fish stocks is still under debate but when they are about it usually indicates something under the surface.”

Ronnie kept his eyes firmly fixed on the dapping fly. Concentrating hard, and watching the fly at all times, is essential in this form of fishing because the take comes almost without warning. The angler has to act in different ways depending on what the trout is doing. If fishing a natural daddy the approach of a fish can be leisurely and at the take the angler drops the rod, lets it sit for a second or two and then lifts to set the hook. Striking too quickly will simply make the fish release the fly as it feels resistance, or will pull it clear of the mouth before the trout has time to turn down. Some fish will chase the fly as it skids over the surface and go for it when it stops at the end of its journey near the boat. Others will head and tail and come down on the fly, but in each case a short hesitation before lifting the rod usually pays dividends. At other times trout will arrive with a splashy rise as in wet fly fishing and an instant strike is then necessary. So keeping a close eye on things and deciding what the particular fish is doing, helps greatly.

Ronnie believes it is possible to dap with artificials such as a bumble or large sedge hog, as long as the fly is bulky enough to skip over the waves. He argues that in traditional wet fly fishing the drifting flies are cast out and retrieved in a straight line, whereas in dapping it is possible to cover the whole width of the boat by dribbling the fly backwards and forwards.

“I find this works because a lot more water can be covered with minimal effort and there is much less disturbance on the water from continual casting,” he said.

Ronnie said on windy days dapping can be productive on rivers and stocked ponds as an alternative to traditional dry fly fishing. He intends to experiment further next year with a whole range of smaller dry fly patterns.

“This approach opens up a whole new avenue for the angler who likes to experiment and for me, tempting a big trout on a dapped fly is about as good as it gets!” he said.