There’s no better feeling than catching your food and cooking it on a fire you’ve started. Whether it be snaring a rabbit, shooting a pheasant or catching a trout, it all tastes excellent. This article talks about fly fishing, a little known sport that your average wild camper may dismiss as boring, snobbish, and expensive. We hope to demonstrate the exact opposite and in addition will show how a lightweight fly kit can be a valuable adjunct to your camping kit list.
Fact 1: Fly Fishing is Cheap
Fly fishing can take you to some of the most beautiful places on earth. Fish for salmon on isolated banks and islands whilst the kingfishers whistle past and birds sing in the rustling trees. On a sunny day there are few activities that bring man closer to nature
Unfortunately fishing for trout has a somewhat elitist, stuffy reputation and is considered an expensive hobby but it doesn’t have to be. You can pick up a rod, reel and tackle online cheaply and fish for free on some water ways, all you need is a rod license which costs about £27 for the year and can be easily bought from the post office or online. Here at Feisty Camping we often go fly fishing whenever we’re wild camping in the hope of catching dinner.
During the day we fish for brown trout and grayling, at night sea trout, and when the conditions are right the almighty salmon. There is something poetic and beautiful about fly fishing and if it results in a fish that you can cook over the fire that can’t be a bad thing eh?!
Fact 2: Fly Fishing is Lightweight
A big difference between coarse and fly fishing is you don’t need large boxes of kit; in its purest form all you need is a rod, reel, fly line, net and a small box of flies which makes it perfectly suitable for wild camping.
A glorious 3lb rainbow trout caught with a 5 weight 8 foot rod using a pheasant tail nymph. It was later gutted and cooked on an open camp fire. All the kit weighs around 2kg.
Fact 3: You can eat what you catch
Sounds obvious but could potentially save a lot of weight in food (but we always bring some food just in case!). Trout and salmon not only taste great but they are packed full of proteins and various minerals.
How to catch ’em
Once you’ve got set up you stalk the river staying low to avoid spooking the nervous trout. When you spot a trout try and work out what it’s feeding on, generally various types of fly or insect life. From your box of flies choose the appropriate imitation of what they’re feeding on, tie it on the end of your line (various knots will be covered in subsequent articles) and cast in the direction of the fish. Of course this takes some practice but once you’ve got the hang of it, it looks incredible and you will be amazed at how precise you can be. The key is to ensure you land your imitation fly exactly where you want to without creating a huge disturbance and scaring away all of the fish. Next you hope for the elusive bite!
Trout feed on various flies and insects at different times of day and year; our job is to work out which species they’re after and put the appropriate imitation on our line. We can do this in a number of ways. Firstly we see what natural flies are present around the river and assess their species. We then look at the fish behaviour to help us work out what to use. If the trout are aggressively jumping out of the water to capture the fly you know two things. Firstly they are after insects on the water’s surface and not the creepy crawlies that lurk beneath. Secondly the fly they’re feeding on is large enough to warrant a huge expenditure of energy. We have a look on the surface and replicate what we see.
If the fish rise but all you see is the tail slosh under the water it probably means they’re feeding on nymphs (a stage in the fly’s life cycle) just below the surface. Sometimes you won’t see fish rising at all which means they’re either not feeding or they are only taking food from much further under the surface, perhaps tiny shrimp or blood worms. Consequently we need to select an appropriate imitation and ensure it has enough weight to get down to the fish’s depth. If you find the fly isn’t sinking fast enough try tying very thin copper wire a couple of times around the hook to help it get down quicker alternatively you can buy flies with a gold head bead in built which helps weigh them down.
Setting up the rod and line
Once we’ve worked out what fly to use we attach it to an incredibly thin transparent line called the tippet/leader. The line comes in different strengths and thickness, the weaker the line, the thinner it is thus making it harder for the fish to see. However the more fragile the line the more susceptible it becomes to breaking. I tend to use the thinnest tippet/leader I can when I’m on the smaller streams and rivers of Dartmoor for instance, but if I’m on a chalk stream in Hampshire where the fish tend to be slightly bigger I might use a thicker line.
The transparent tippet/leader is attached to our fly line. We then cast towards the fish. Our aim is to be delicate and precise. We do not want to thrash the water and scare the fish, we want to land our fly with precision so that it looks realistic. Presentation is really important; if our fly looks wrong in any way the fish won’t go for it. Sometimes it can be as simple as the fly we have selected is a bit too big. If for instance you are getting a nibble from the fish but it doesn’t take it, try using a smaller version of the same fly. The fish are obviously interested but are being put off by some unknown imperfection in your large imitation. Remember a small fly can catch both big and small fish whereas a large fly can only catch big trout. All flies come in different sizes and a number system is used, the higher the number the smaller the fly, so a size 10 is a reasonable sized fly, whereas a size 22 is tiny.
Stealth is the Key
When you start stalking the river bank you must be a stealthy, covert ops style soldier. The fish really are nervous and if they catch a glimpse of you jumping about they will do the offski. Wild trout aren’t like the tame farmed trout you get on still water lakes, river trout are elusive and easily spooked so shouting to your mate on the river bank will probably give the game away. Whilst you walk along the bank look for anywhere the trout might be laid up. They particularly like spots where they can expend the least amount of energy as possible whilst still having access to food. For instance they might lurk downstream behind a submerged rock where the current is slack, from here they can nip out into the river’s main current, take food and dart back behind the tranquil waters of the rock. One technique for fishing this type of water is for you to use a large imitation fly – look to see what’s naturally around (although you don’t need to match too closely) and then get the largest hook size you have. From here just cast it onto the surface of the water behind the rock for a few seconds. Fish in these situations don’t have long to scrutinize food, a large imitation can be too good to be try and they can act quickly and aggressively and so don’t scrutinize your fly too closely.
They love the shade under a tree and the food which can fall from its branches. When fishing under trees, you may notice insects that have fallen into the find that a number of insects fall from the trees into the water, try and match these unfortunate fellows and stick something similar onto the end of your line. From here we work out at what depth the fish are feeding and then cast our line accurately to the trout. If we’ve got it right we will be blessed with the sight of the fish snatching our fly, at which point we raise our rods and play the fish until he gets tired and we pull them in.
If your fish are too small they go back in the river. If they’re a good size we dispatch them by striking them on the head twice with a small wooden baton called a “priest” but you could use a heavy multi tool or large stone. Gut the fish which is a very simple process and eat them that night. There are so many ways of cooking them, from wrapping them in foil and cooking them inside the fire, placing them on sticks and roasting them over the fire, or smoking them in your mess tin. We’ve detailed a few recipes you might want to try in the wilderness cooking section of our website.
There’s so much more to fly fishing than what’s detailed above but we hope it gives you a flavour. People have devoted whole books to the subject, from different casting techniques, ways to interpret what fly to use, how to tie your own flies, how time of day, weather, water temperature, clarity all affect how to fish. If you want a simple starter book that covers all of the basics we’d recommend Fly Fishing by Charles Jardine and for an invaluable guide on understanding what trout feed on we’d suggest reading Matching The Hatch by Lapsley and Bennett.
We hope this elicits a sense of excitement to have a go. It’s fantastic fun and can enhance a camping trip no end!