The Magic of Small Water

Story and photography by Bob Salisbury

In my part of County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland, there are a wealth of small rivers and streams which eventually drain into the Foyle system by way of the rivers Strule and Mourne. These water courses have, in places, open stretches where the stream is easily accessible as it meanders slowly through pasture land, but in others, are lined with over arching alders and willows which make casting a fly much more challenging. They generally contain surprising numbers of wild brown trout, but even more surprising is that very few anglers seem to fish for them. True, that on either side of the stone bridges, in the places where a car can be parked and the river is accessible, the trodden grass shows evidence of some fishermen visiting the river, but go a few hundred yards down or up stream and the vegetation is unmarked and it is clear that no one has recently walked the banks.

Knowing that you are the first angler to explore the river that season is pure joy and a real privilege, but the thing which really sets the heart beating is the realisation that none of the trout in that section of the river will seldom, if ever, have seen an artificial fly.

The Strule and the Mourne are good salmon and sea trout rivers and most local anglers concentrate on catching these magnificent migratory fish from the main river once the season starts. Small tributary streams are largely left undisturbed until autumn when the fish are moving further upstream to their spawning grounds and the odd salmon can then be found in some of the deeper holes.

Fishing for salmon is of course highly exciting. That unexpected pull, the sudden dead weight on the end of the line and the hectic run which follows, is fly fishing at its best, especially when the end result is one in the net.  However, it can also be tedious. Sometimes the river is virtually empty and no fish are running. In spate waters like these Tyrone rivers, levels can be just right, too low or too full and conditions during the season will largely determine the quality of the fishing. Working a 15 foot rod for hours on end requires considerable effort, however skilled the fisherman and battling a strong chest high current does demand a degree of hard physical effort. So when the pursuit of salmon becomes a little less attractive, I turn to the small trout streams.

My passion on these small waters is up-stream nymph fishing and I like to use a number 5 or 6 floating line on an eight and a half foot rod. Small imitations seem to work best on these streams so a hook size of 18 with a 2lb tip is my preference. Favourite flies are a pheasant tail nymph, a stick fly or something similar.

Banks of these streams are tree lined or covered in lush vegetation so slithering down to the water and wading quietly upstream alongside the reed margins, is generally the best option. Running water never disappoints and standing quietly in the edge of a stream which winds gently through unspoiled countryside is the essence of what real fishing should be all about. After a time, the wildlife which uses the river seems to forget the presence of the angler and it is quite normal to see herons or otters  going about their business in an unconcerned fashion. Catching fish is only part of the fun of fly fishing and feeling at one with nature, enjoying an outing alone or with a companion in water courses which have changed little in hundreds of years, is still the real thrill of the sport.

Good water craft is vital for this kind of fishing and it is a matter of searching the water, deciding where a fish might be lying and softly casting the nymph upstream and letting it run with the current down towards the fish. Some anglers, and I am one of them, like to move the nymph upwards or sideways by raising the rod tip and pulling the line as it nears the spot where a trout may be lying. This imitates an insect trying to escape and can induce the trout to investigate and hopefully to take.

The shallow runs on these small streams are generally not too productive but the deeper holes or places where slow currents merge can produce really good trout. It is about stalking the fish, moving as quietly as possible upstream, trying to gauge where a fish might lie and putting the nymph slightly above the chosen spot. Long casting is generally unnecessary on these small streams and short but very delicate, gentle throws seem to bring the best results.

In this upstream fishing, knowing when a trout has actually taken the nymph can sometimes be difficult. Occasionally in very clear water the flash of a turning fish will give the game away but often the take is almost imperceptible. The golden rule is if anything unusual happens to the tip of the line, if it twitches or moves in an unexpected direction, or if there is any kind of disturbance on the surface of the water, it is time to lift the rod and strike. Experienced upstream fishermen always work on the maxim that it is better to ‘strike first and ask questions afterwards’ rather than waiting to be certain because many trout will release the fly the second they realise they have been tricked.

These small, often overgrown streams are superb to explore but they are not easy fishing. Dense vegetation, ancient tangles of discarded barbwire and overhanging hawthorns lie in wait to trap any wayward fly and on windy days especially, retrieving the nymph from these obstacles can be highly frustrating. Parts of my favourite river are totally covered by alder and ivy-covered ash trees and form a green canopy. Traditional casting is not possible in many places and using a roll cast is often the only way to avoid trouble. Any slight lack of concentration and another fly is hooked up or lost. The trouble is, it is in these ‘hard to reach’ areas that the best trout often lie and a few pheasant tail nymphs left hanging on the bushes is perhaps the price one has to pay for finding a memorable fish.

Nymph fishing in these small rivers also has the advantage that, unlike the traditional dry fly, the artificial can be fished down stream to good effect, should a fish move below the angler. This change of tactic can be carried out instantly without having the trouble of changing the fly or applying floatant and can often result in connecting with an unexpected fish.

For me, these small under fished streams are the hidden gems of Ireland. They quite frequently contain superb wild trout, many of them grown to a good size because few anglers fish for them. The fishing is often free or very cheap and when a good fish is stalked, tricked in to taking the tumbling nymph and battled to the bank on light tackle, it is sport which is truly, very hard to beat.