CHAPTER 5 – GOOD DAYS, BAD DAYS
Horses For Courses
My season started in April with the weather ‘playing ball’. Lots of high pressure and warm fronts had been with us over the preceding couple of weeks. It warmed the air and water quite nicely. I made a trip to one of my West Sussex beach marks. The spring low tide was at 7.05am, which meant the ‘window’ was not open for long before increasing light levels made fishing less productive. After waiting away the winter I was keen to get out and fish. I arrived an hour before dawn but had to wait for the tide to drop so as to be able to reach the ‘hot spot’. I really like being at the water in the pre-dawn, because everything is so peaceful – a kind of lull between night and day. It is a ‘neither here-nor-there’ time. I inched my way out into the sea, and using a floating line with a sink tip, made exploratory casts. Incidentally, this was to become my main choice of line all through the summer. As I had chosen to fish shallow-water marks, where depth of presentation isn’t an issue, the fly was one of my home-tied Clouser Minnows with very little weight in the dumbbell eyes. The fly is three to four inches long and the colours are olive over white.
By 8.00am the tide had turned, I had reached the hot spot, and was now being pushed slowly back. I had not yet seen or heard signs of fish. At 8.10am I was slowly stripping the fly back when a big swirl appeared fifteen yards in front of me. In the next moment my fly line snapped tight between my fingers as a big fish hit. Turning instantly it ran out to sea. It had gone only a couple of yards when I saw a problem; my fly line had looped itself into a large knot and was fast making its way up to the butt ring. I could only stand there and watch helplessly as the inevitable happened. No words can describe my disappointment; it felt like a really good fish. I cast many more times that morning and had no problem with the fly line twisting. Fate deals some wicked blows. I carried on fishing for an hour or so, but my mind just couldn’t shake the image, and I kept wondering whether I could have done anything differently.
With one thing and another I didn’t get out as much for the rest of the month. When May rolled around the weather seemed to deteriorate. It was all wind, rain and down right cold. June was nearly as bad with only the odd schoolie seen and none caught. My season was fast becoming a nightmare. It would not have been so bad if I lived near the coast, but for me a round trip is about a hundred miles, and I had made a fair few trips for absolutely zilch.
It was with great relief when in mid July I finally broke my duck. But not on a bass; I had cast a small shrimp pattern to some swirls seen in otherwise flat calm water. It, obviously, was mullet. To my surprise the fly was taken almost as soon as it hit the surface. After a short tussle I brought to hand a one-pound golden grey mullet. Returning the fish, I put on a chartreuse over white Clouser Minnow tied on a size two stainless hook, and started to try for the bass. It wasn’t long before I took one, about the pound mark. It was a very welcome sight and a good confidence booster. Once again I was being slowly pushed back by the tide. At about one and a half hours after low water I had a good take from what felt like a slightly better fish. The bass had taken the fly as it sat in the water ‘dead drifting’ in the current. I had not intentionally fished the dead drift, but was sorting out a tangle in the line. Although not big, at 2lb 8oz it was my best fish for the year and caught with a style I had not before used in saltwater fly fishing. Once more fate had played a part, but this time it was kind. One further bass was caught that evening, but only a small fish around the pound mark.
On my return home I dug out a copy of an American book by Lou Tabory called Inshore Fly fishing. I went straight to the section on ‘dead drifting’. It is a method that is overlooked by many (me included) but is very popular Stateside. It is used very effectively for salmon, river trout, and sea trout, but I had not thought to use it in the salt. It takes some discipline to get used to because the norm is to cast out and strip as fast as you can, or at least use a fairly aggressive stripping action, in six to eighteen inch pulls.
On my next trip out I fished a different mark on an incoming tide. With high water at around 10.30pm this particular mark can be an excellent spot. It is a place that I have caught bass on fly to more than 9lb. My friend and I arrived at about 5.00pm, just as the tide was turning. We started fishing the ‘flats’ by making odd casts here and there to anything that moved or swirled. These swirls are usually mullet. One can quite easily become preoccupied with these fish, on the off chance they may take a well presented fly, and as described earlier I normally use a shrimp type pattern of a style known as a ‘Gotcha’ or a ‘Crazy Charlie. Both are intended to be bonefish patterns, but I have taken golden greys on them. There are thin-lipped mullet about as well, so these two patterns seem a good compromise. After a fruitless hour chasing the mullet I finally made a good cast to a surface swirl and got a take immediately. The fish shot off. I was sure it was a mullet. The fun was short lived though, as the fish threw the hook, leaving me cursing again. Mullet really are the most frustrating of fish to pursue, and I take my hat off to anyone who tries for them regularly. The tide was by now creeping up, so I left my friend to continue mullet chasing. I had decided to go to another area further up the beach.
On my arrival I could see someone else fly fishing from the other side of the small estuary. I took this to be a good sign, and, immediately began stripping out line ready to cast. The tide was, by this time, really running, and I remembered Lou Tabory’s description of the ‘dead drift. I made a cast across current at a forty five degree angle, threw in a quick mend and began to follow the line with the tip of the rod as it swung around in the current. Keeping the line tight so as to feel the fly. The take, when it came, was unmissable, a sudden thump came up the line and I raised the rod into the first bass of the session. This event was repeated many times during the evening. Each time no line, at all, was being stripped. Although none of the bass were big there were plenty of them and the style used to catch them was very satisfying. On reflection, I suspect that the type of fly I was using was irrelevant. The Clouser Minnow is one of my favourite flies, especially in blue/white or chartreuse/white colours, but I think, something else, such as a Deceiver, would have done the job just as well.
After my tenth bass I looked round to see where my friend had got to. With no sign of him anywhere I reached into my chest wader pocket and took out the walkie talkie. I know this sounds excessive, but these things have changed our fishing immeasurably. It means that one of us can fish an area whilst the other is exploring somewhere else. They have a range of up to about three miles, and are cheaper than mobile phones. In fact, once purchased, they are cost free. Incidentally, one also gets to hear some ‘juicy’ conversations on them, because of the limited bandwidths, but that’s another story! Anyway, I called him up and told him to get over to me pronto. He arrived five minutes later, and began fishing the normal cast and strip style. We were both using the same pattern of fly. Twenty minutes later a comparison of catches showed that the ‘dead drift’ was about three times more effective.
By now we were three hours before high water. This mark can be extremely dangerous because, if you are not observant, water gets around the back of you without you seeing it happen. It is always a tough decision to stop fishing when you are catching, but no fish is worth dying for. Needless to say we made it by the skin of our teeth. I think it scared the life out of my friend!
Two weeks later we returned to the same mark, but this time for a dawn raid on a falling tide. I think the experience of nearly getting caught by the rising tide had really shaken him. He felt that a falling tide was safer all round. I don’t think he trusts me anymore! We fished from 5.00am to 7.00am with no sign of a fish and no takes. I decided to try another mark about ten miles up the coast. I said, “If we are quick we can just catch the last of the fishable tide”. When we got there we rushed down the beach to be greeted by the sight of fish swirling everywhere. Some were mullet, but a lot more were bass. It wasn’t long before we were into fish. None of the bass we caught were large, but there were bigger fish in evidence, as occasionally one would leap out of the water, leaving my friend and me open-mouthed. One in particular looked to be a good double figured fish and unmistakably a bass. The reason for these fish being present was obvious; all around us were whitebait and other small fish. The water was thick with them. Even the normally shy terns were diving within fifteen feet of us. Looking across the estuary I could see another fly fisherman. It was while I was looking that I saw the occasional bigger swirl in the main current. “Time for the dead drift again” I thought. Once I had found a good-looking spot, I made a cast straight out across the falling current. I hardly had time to put in a mend before a savage take came rattling up the line and a fish was on. This one felt a bit better and it was using the current to its advantage. The rod took on an impressive bend, and after a short but stubborn fight I brought the fish to hand. At around 2lb, I felt a bit disappointed that it wasn’t bigger, nevertheless, it was a nice looking bass and I decided to take a photograph. I then realized that in my rush to get down to the beach I had left both camera and scales in the car! Luckily my friend had a disposable camera with him and a few shots were taken before returning the fish. Once again it was ‘dead drift’ versus cast and strip, because my friend decided to stick with his traditional style, and like the last time, I outfished him three or four to one. Virtually every time the fly drifted through the current it was taken. Although most of the bass were 1 to 1lb 8oz, it made for a hectic half hour.
Gradually the incoming tide had started to make an impression on the estuary and the water reached a lull, as did the fishing. It was time to regroup and compare. After that mad half hour the takes had started to slow down so I changed flies. Anyone looking at the size of the fly I ended up using, wouldn’t believe a bass could see it in all that water. It was a small Clouser-type pattern tied with no more than twenty blue and white bucktail fibres top and bottom, four strands of ‘flash’ in the middle, and some small bead chain eyes, all on a size 8 stainless hook; ridiculously sparse. But the bass certainly liked it, because my take rate went right back up again. My friend had stuck to a bigger pattern with heavy eyes, and I don’t think it represented quite well enough the food they were taking.
By now the water was rising, and again, we were being slowly pushed back. I decided to change flies once again. I put on a home-tied size two Deceiver in olive/white, and reverted back to cast and strip. I didn’t feel that the tide was running fast enough to fish ‘dead drift. The fishing had really slowed down and no takes were forthcoming, partly I feel, because of the increase in light levels. Earlier a large cloudbank had hung around at horizon level thereby prolonging the dawn, but it now had started to break up as the sun rose higher, gaining heat. Fish can be unpredictable at the best of times, and just as we were thinking of calling it a day, I had a take whilst slowly stripping the Deceiver. A big swirl appeared where the fish had taken the fly and it powered off at quite a rate taking twenty or more yards of line. This was definitely a better fish. The fight lasted a full five minutes, gaining line and then losing it. At last I got the fish’s head up and drew it towards me. It was a good-sized bass, but having forgotten my scales, I could only guess its weight. I reckoned, from past experience, that it was about 4lb. We took a few pictures quickly before returning it.
I have learned that, some times, it is necessary to put a little more life into the fly if takes were not forthcoming by the ‘dead drift’ alone. An occasional strip or twitch can induce a take. It is also beneficial to leave the fly ‘hanging’ on a taut line, at the end of drift. This causes the fly to rise in the water and takes often occur at this point. Another ‘wrinkle’ is, at the end of a drift, rather than just strip the line in to recast, try stripping once but without letting go of the fly line, then let your hand return to its original position. This gives the fly a fluttering effect as it falls back through the current, rather like a struggling fish fighting a losing battle with the tide, or even release a yard or two of line then hold, giving a whole new motion to the fly as it falls and tumbles about in the current. All the time your fly is in the water it is in with a chance. The longer you can keep it there the better.
In conclusion, I do not say that ‘dead drifting’ is a better method than conventional cast and strip, nor that I am a better angler than my friend. I do think it is an insight to being more flexible. Had I not had a tangle in my line that fateful day I might still be fishing only the more conventional cast and strip, and missing out on the potential that ‘dead drifting’ offers. Every day is different, as is every mark. The bass is a fickle predator, but a predator nevertheless. Usually, a bass will face into the current waiting for food to be brought to it; picking off the weak as they are washed out by the tide. Then dead drifting is a killing method and, probably, will outfish other methods of fly presentation, but bass are also ambush specialists and opportunists. In these situations a well cast fly into a prime spot can take them with a more conventional cast and strip technique. No technique is right all of the time. Experimentation with both will, I believe, enhance your catch rate. As the old adage goes its ‘horses for courses’.
Author: Steve Binckes
Historical note: This article first appeared in BASS magazine no.105 Spring 2003.
© Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society 2008