A Hot Day in Tyrone
Story and Photography by Bob Salisbury
Last year, the month of April was amazingly dry in Tyrone, Northern Ireland. Almost no rain had fallen the blue skies and unusually high temperatures prevailed for weeks on end. Springtime rivers, normally in full flow at this time of year, became very low and water meadows which always squelched to the step began to bake and crack. For weeks, smoke billowed from the crests of the Sperrin mountains as wildfires raged through the tinder-dry heather and the pale Irish complexions of the people in the local town had been transformed by the heat wave into boiled lobsters.
“If this is global warming I’m all for it!” said the optimists. ”For once we’ll get a decent summer.”
“This is our summer” countered the pessimists.” You mark my words, it’ll rain all June, July and August”.
They were right as it turned out and 2012 did eventually become, for the whole of the British Isles, the wettest year since records began. But for the fisherman, the unseasonal heat wave in the Spring brought an unexpected bonus along the river banks and my son Ed and I decided to take full advantage of it. Hawthorn blossoms were magnificent everywhere and hawthorn flies hatched in huge numbers. Clouds of these ungainly insects, with their characteristic hanging legs hovered over the stream and the trout were quick to take advantage whenever they were blown on to the water and carried downstream. Fish were clearly enjoying the feast and as we watched from a bridge on the road, slashing rises and gentle ‘dippling’ trout disturbed the surface almost continuously as they hoovered up the fallen hawthorn flies.
Most fishing outings start as dreams. In the minds eye we will be the first anglers to visit this stretch, the water level will be perfect, fish will be rising everywhere and the wind will not play tricks with our casting. On this particular day the dream was also the reality and we both hurried back to the vehicle to don waders and bags.
We try to travel light when dry fly fishing and all we carried were eight and a half foot small river rods, floating lines, spare flies and landing nets. Hawthorn flies were attached and we set off up river in buoyant mood. The day was very bright but we hoped that on this small river it would be possible to take advantage of the shade created by the overhanging trees. Almost immediately Ed spotted a good trout rising regularly close in to the bank about thirty yards up stream and he began to move cautiously forward, short casting first to the centre of the river , then to the left and right in turn. Hawthorn flies actually sink below the surface film as soon as they hit the water but on this river, trout seem to take all dry flies the minute they land, so keeping the fly buoyant, delicate casting and quick reactions when the ‘take’ comes is the order of the day. Ed hooked a good half pound trout with his third cast and played it quickly downstream so as not to disturb the better fish we had seen rising.
These wild browns are all muscle and even a smallish fish such as this has to be played with care. This one dashed everywhere, leapt high out of the water , plunged for the side reeds along the banks and really tested the quality of the light tackle and fine line. Eventually he was successfully landed and released and Ed dried his fly, applied a little more floatant, waited a few minutes to let any disturbance to the river settle down and continued his progress up stream. The good trout rose again and we caught a fleeting glimpse of a thick tail as he took a fly and turned back down to his waiting station. Finally Ed was in position for a cast and he took extra care to get the fly on to the current a couple of feet above the spot where we had seen the fish.
Though hawthorn flies were clearly the main item on the menu on this occasion, I am convinced that trout will often take any offering even a totally different fly from those they are actually feeding on, as long as the cast is sufficiently delicate and the fly alights on the water in a natural way and appears over the spot the fish is patrolling. All anglers know that at times trout can be incredibly single- minded about what attracts them and will totally ignore all but the most precise imitations of the actual insect. On other occasions they will take anything which comes their way provided that it is presented properly and does not spook them.
The fish came immediately, not with the kind of explosive rise we had watched earlier , but with hardly a disturbance of the surface as it sucked the fly down. Ed raised the rod neatly and the fish was on. Trout which have lived all of their lives battling strong currents in these spate rivers are powerful creatures and this one was no exception. It jumped well clear of the water on several occasions and its strong rushes made the reel sing. He moved the fish gradually down towards shallower water but the light tackle and a very determined fish made the contest enjoyable. It was seemingly worth watching by an audience of cattle drawn to the commotion and now peering down at the action from the top of the bank.
Eventually the fish tired and came to the net. It was a perfect wild brown which was quickly released and we moved to the next undisturbed stretch of the river. Hawthorn flies were so numerous that in places they swirled about like veils of black lace and the trout continued to pick them off with gusto whenever they touched the water. A veritable feeding frenzy began at one point and the whole river seemed to boil with fish as they gorged on the fallen insects. We both caught fish every few minutes. Cast over a rising trout, a good take , a spirited fight, fish released , dry the fly, cast again. Sport was spectacular and we lost count of how many had actually come to the net, been lost in the many encounters or simply missed through poor fishing. There was one point when Ed caught three excellent trout in three successive casts – a memorable event for any angler.
At one stage, I had lost a fly on the overhanging branches and was standing in the current quietly fixing on a replacement when I looked down in to the clear water and was amazed by the sheer volume of activity taking place below the surface. Shoals of small trout, salmon parr, hundreds of minnows and an abundance of the usual aquatic life could be seen and at one stage a half pound trout took up station alongside my waders. Clean healthy rivers such as this are joy to behold and it came as little surprise when we later saw upstream, heron and otter footprints along the softer margins.
Angling textbooks frequently say that blue skies and bright warm weather are not the best for dry fly fishing for trout but thank heavens the behaviour of fish does not always abide by this general theory. We expected a reasonable outing, we always do, that’s the dream of being a fisherman, but neither of us would have predicted that this would be a day when the wild browns decided to feast on the hawthorn flies with such enthusiasm. There are memorable days in this sporting life and sometimes tremendous sport, a perfect river and a great companion, come together to create an unforgettable time.