Saturday, August 11, 2007

On Failing the Test

A short stay in Hampshire, and an opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the sacred water.

A bridge over the Test - a rare opportunity to gaze in wonder at the fabled river.

As I walked out of the grounds of Mottisfont Abbey and on to the main road, the late afternoon sunshine reluctantly relaxed its hold on the day. Highland cattle lazed in the shade, paying me no attention. They must have seen a dozen worshippers pass by already that week. And just beyond the bend, the bridge: a rare window through which riff-raff like me can watch gentlemen flick fly-lines over the River Test.

As I stood leaning on the concrete railing, near the sign marked ‘Private’, an angler walked on to the stage. He slowly worked his way along the bank, peering into the depths, looking for trout within casting range. The minutes rolled by and I watched spellbound as his fly rod moved back and forth, dropping a short line and a weighted nymph into the glassy current. How I wished that I could leave my vantage point and join him in this most idyllic scene.

Our 'gentleman', generous with cash; miserly with respect.

And then the rod was bent, and a fish drawn close in. But the moment was ruined when I watched him hoist the trout out of the water, and crane it over the marginal reeds. A landing net remained attached to his jacket, unused. The fish was then grappled by dry hands, separated from the fly, and tossed from waist-height into the water below. A couple of minutes later another small trout was treated in the same way.

Saddened that this beautiful river had been abused in this way, I trudged miserably back to car, regretting that this ‘gentleman’ had paid the owner handsomely but then short-changed the river itself, and the fish that live there.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Review: So Many Fish, So Little Time

The first thing that strikes you about So Many Fish, So Little Time by Mark D. Williams is its size. It is large. If it were actually to strike you you’d be advised to take the full force of the blow on your non-casting arm, as these 860 pages of the ‘World’s Greatest Backcountry Honeyholes, Trout Rivers, Blue Ribbon Waters, Bass Lakes, and Saltwater Hot Spots’ would leave you at best with some rather nasty bruising.

When out in the field, it would double as a handy tying bench.

So much for its physical attributes then, but what of the insides? Turning to the contents, one finds dozens of US states and long lists of places to fish in them. From Alabama to Wyoming, Williams provides the US based flyfisherman with time, money and a camper on his hands with endless choices. But this isn’t only America. There are also entries for Canada, Europe, South America, Asia… the list goes on and on.

Is this, then, a book that one should make (significant) space for on an already overloaded angling-related bookcase? Well, for the travelling angler, this would be a useful, first-stop resource, though it might be one to consult at home, rather than put in your carry on luggage and mess up your baggage allowance. With a quick overview of the destination, what lurks in its waters, and who to contact when you get there, this is enough to get you started.

And on top of the impressive catalogue, Williams glosses it with a relaxed, humourous style, which makes the book fun to dip into, even in sections like that devoted to the Bikini Atoll in Micronesia, where most of us will never actually go. The writer also shows us his humility. When writing about England, which we are helpfully informed is located in Western Europe ‘off the coast of France and Belgium’, Williams is happy to admit to being intimidated (as many of us are) by the English chalkstreams:

“…[they] are different enough that I’m flummoxed and wherever I’ve fished them, I’ve come away with a few landed fish, and a healthy respect for those who fish them regularly…”

And one suspects that Mark D. Williams isn’t actually an American after all when he says:

“One thing I found (ed. thought?) when fishing Europe is that, in typical American bravado, I could catch fish in their rivers as well as they could. Nope. Wrong. Can’t do it. That’s why these guys from England and France and the Czech Republic and Poland and Portugal win these world fly fishing championships. They are damned fine fly anglers. If you think that on our home waters we’d whoop ‘em, well, you’d be wrong. They go to American waters and they kick our butts there, too”.

For the armchair-angler who likes to gaze longingly at glossy photos, the black and white artwork here is a disappointment. Money would be better spent on the sumptuously produced Fifty Places To Fly Fish Before You Die by Chris Santella. So, overall, unless you are planning the world tour, and especially if you are planning to visit the US, there probably isn’t enough here to grab Europe-based attentions. Despite the fact that, in Williams’ words, ‘Fly fishing was born here and if you fly fish, that ought to be reason enough to fish England’, we still get less than three of the 860 pages.

To be fair, the book is marketed at the American audience, and they will find rather more to play with. And of course, everything is bigger over there. They are bound to have bigger letter boxes to handle the book’s girth, so there will be no falling out with the post man. And inside their bigger houses, there is surely space to erect more accommodating bookshelves too.

Buy it from Amazon

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The most unpromising circumstances

Previously I've written about the signs of obsession, and one that I should have added to the list is the ability to bring flyfishing into even the most unrelated of subjects. I managed to do this a few weeks ago while attending a course in London on ‘Gathering requirements for software applications’. An air-conditioned room full of software developers, project managers, and IT consultants; a central London office block; four days of workshops on writing effective ‘use cases’, and how to elicit functional and non-functional requirements: a world away from the cool waters of a small trout stream, and hardly the kind of environment to give inspiration of the angling kind. Or so I thought.

Memory stick - relationship to flyfishing: tenuous.

On day three our attentions were turned to software tools. The course instructor struggled to the keep the attention of delegates looking forward to the lunch break. ‘The installer for the free software is on the your computer’s desktop. You can copy this on to the memory sticks that I will pass around’. Somewhere in my subconscious, the usual routine:

Brain: Man referred to free, repeat FREE, memory stick. Memory sticks are useful hardware for file storage.
Me: Ah, excellent. Free hardware. That is a good thing. But tell me, can this be related to flyfishing?
Brain: No. Association with flyfishing is tenuous.
Me: Oh well. Still, free is good, and, anyway, it’s nearly time for lunch.

Ah, but the box - now that has possibilities...

Meanwhile a memory stick had arrived, nestling in foam, and housed within a metal case. Having ruled out the hardware, my attention moved to the casing: silver, sturdy, and a lid with a window. And at five inches long it could easily fit into the pocket of, say, a fishing jacket, and given the responsibility of storing, just for instance, some wet flies and nymphs. A rather dull morning had suddenly become full of promise and delight.

And so, soon after, a new piece of fishing equipment had been born. And better still, it had come from the most unpromising circumstances.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Naughty little nymphs


Google seemingly prove successful at all they touch. Perhaps they could develop leader material that cannot become entangled in trees.

By using the website statistics software Google Analytics, I can monitor the laughably meagre traffic that finds its way onto the Windknotter blog. You can always rely on Google can't you? They've created the world renowned search engine; allowed us to see aerial photographs of our favourite fishing spots; they can also tell us all about the visitors to our websites. With a few mouse clicks, I can find out all sorts of information: which sites they were referred by; how long they stayed; what type of computer they have; how they voted in the last general election; and whether they bought the last Coldplay album.

But one of the most interesting reports shows the search terms that visitors typed into search engines before ending up on the blog. Here are the top five:

  1. "Accidental Angler" - 19 searches
  2. "Charles Rangeley-Wilson" - 5 searches
  3. "River Chess trout" - 5 searches
  4. "Airflo Comfort Zone waders" - 3 searches
  5. "Flyfishing Cambridgeshire 'the Cam'" - 3 searches

For a flyfishing blog, there are few surprises here. But every now and then a few search phrases sneak in under the radar. For instance, there have been a couple of occurrences of 'naked flyfishing women'. It sounds like a pretty unlikely search, which makes me think it's the same person each time. I could probably find out if I wanted to. And in the Google search results, Windknotter doesn't appear until page nine, so this person was clearly keen. But at least it has a general flyfishing theme to it. I'm less confident about 'naughty little nymphs' which led someone or other onto the blog back in January. And for the person, presumably male, who searched on 'michaela strachan naked' last month, the Windknotter must have been a profound disappointment. No doubt they quickly left and diverted their attention to an altogether different type of website.

So, if you're here after searching the internet for 'michaela strachan naked' or 'john craven in underpants', just watch out because I'll know.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Spotting the signs of obsession

While, for some, flyfishing is just an engaging hobby, a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, for others it is an all-consuming passion, a lens through which all else is viewed. And at this time of the year, when some of us have been away from the water for four months, the signs of cabin fever start to show through. Over at Tamanawis, Mike has been cutting his equipment to the bone, and has tried replacing his fly jacket with a piece of shoe lace. If I had to guess, I'd imagine that Mike is in the all-consuming passion camp.

So what about you? If, like me, you've done anything like the following, then I think you have your answer...

  • You've sewn extra straps to the outside of your rucksack so that you can carry your waders around
  • You're annoyed that 'A River Somewhere', now out on DVD, only seems to be available for Region 4.
  • While travelling down for a holiday in the New Forest, you've suggested to your other half that it might be pleasant to stop off at the River Itchen Country Park (for light refreshments, and the stretching of legs, you understand) and then spent the best part of an afternoon trying to get near that glorious piece of chalkstream
  • You post fishing related musings on one of those blog things... [Ahem.]
  • John Craven

    John Craven talks to someone else about something that is nothing to do with fishing. Damn.

  • In the hope of even the briefest glimpse of a river (and someone fishing in it), you sit through whole episodes of Countryfile, enduring endless pieces on GM crops with John Craven, and Yorkshire rambling holidays with Michaela Strachan.
  • You've got RSS feeds set up on eBay to search for occurrences of 'grey's missionary', 'orvis frequent flyer' and 'oliver edwards'
  • You've wondered whether the fluff that comes out of your lounge carpet might make a suitable dubbing material for fly tying

Any of this sound like you? No? Good. Then quick, get out of here and take up golf while there's still time!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Fishing hats off to the Accidental Angler

It's not often that I get excited during trips to Tescos. A visit a couple of months ago started like any other, until I found myself standing next to the magazine rack. While Mrs Windknotter busied herself in the ladies clothing aisle, I took a look at the month's magazine offerings. FHM's cover had a girl who used to be in Hollyoaks pouting and holding her breasts, while an East Anglia focussed publication had yet another interview with local 'celebrity' Rory McGrath. So far there was a clear winner. And then my eye found the Angler's Mail. Inside I read about a forthcoming BBC series, The Accidental Angler, presented by angling writer, and former Wild Trout Trust Chairman, Charles Rangeley-Wilson. Things in Tesco were looking up.

The Accidental Angler

The Accidental Angler book. One for the Christmas list

But when I scoured the Radio Times, I could find no trace. The Angler's Mail had got the date wrong. So I posted an enquiry over on the Fly Fishing Forums. It wasn't long before the thread grew. Clearly there were plenty of others out there who shared my anticipation. After a bit of schedule shufflement, the first episode finally aired in late November, and found Charles sweltering under a cruel Indian sun as he attempted to catch Mahseer. In the following weeks we followed him to Bhutan, Brazil and then finally back home to London, where, with infectious enthusiasm, he sought elusive wild brown trout.

Back on the forum the jury were quick to pass judgement. Some complained that there wasn't enough actual fishing time clocked up. But then we could hardly expect a prime time BBC slot to be devoted to the kind of thing we expect (and enjoy) from Matt Hayes and Paul Young over on Discovery Home and Leisure. The Accidental Angler was a subtler blend, placing culture, travel and environmentalism into the mix. Of course, as someone who likes to fish, I would happily have sat through an hour of beautiful fly casting. But I'm in a minority. For me, this was a nicely put together programme, and, like any successful performance, it left me wanting more.

Eighty years ago, Arthur Ransome recorded his fascination for watching other men fish:

“I am never likely to do any netting, but I cannot see a net without waiting to see what is in it. How much more difficult do I find it to move on when I have come across a fisherman using rod and line. Another man's float will satisfy me for hours. Most interesting of all is to watch the fly fisher”. Arthur Ransome, Rod and Line, Oxford University Press, 1980, p.53

This was how I felt when watching Charles Rangeley-Wilson. With my fishing season over, I devoured each minute. Like Ransome, I was happiest when a fly rod was in use, so imagine my delight as a nymph was worked through a riffle in Bhutan, or as a bushy klinkhammer was flicked around the river Chess. So thank you, Charles. Your programmes will help me through the close season.

And now I see that The Accidental Angler book is available. The Fish and Fly website has a review, and even gives a telephone number where you can purchase it at a reduced price. So if you'll excuse me, I need to make a phone call...

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Casting at grass

Once the season is over, you'll need to work harder to think of reasons why your fly rod needs to be removed from its case. You can tell your other half that fishing equipment needs to be cleaned regularly, but if you've used that excuse to admire rods already that week, you might need to think of something else. An alternative is to stress the importance of regular casting practice. If you state this in a matter-of-fact way and then stride purposefully from the room, you stand a reasonable chance of getting away with it.

Photo of cows

The 6.38 to Kings Lynn. Commuters stare in disbelief.

And so I've been visiting a local field recently to get my casting skills in shape. But standing in the middle of a field holding a fishing rod doesn't go unnoticed, and isn't for the timid. Where I practice there is a train track nearby. The London commuters on the 6.38 to Kings Lynn stare in disbelief. Did you see that man there? What in hell was he doing? Strimming grass? And as you flick the line back and forth, try to ignore the growing number of dog walkers who have stopped to watch. At least adults have the decency only to stare; it's the teenagers you have to watch out for. "Caught anything yet?" they jest. Best not to say anything. "What you after? Grass carp?" quips another, to their friends' obvious delight. Ignore them. Concentrate on your double hauling and they might eventually move on.

Photo of cows

For cows, consider stepping up to a heavier tippet.

Yet despite all this, there is much to be said for flycasting in a field. Firstly, the practice is good for you. By the time the new season comes around, your casting will be sharp, and your loops sexy. But there's more to it than this, and I'd like to put field casting forward as a worthy hobby in itself. We all like to watch those beautiful curves arc through the air, and it is nice to do this without risk of losing your footing at the vital moment, and plunging into five feet of icy cold water. And of course you don't need to fork out any money. You can consider yourself very unlucky if the local landowner arrives and charges you for a day ticket. And if the landowner isn't in sight, you can always make a presentation to nearby livestock. I haven't had a cow grab the piece of wool yet, but if one does you can guarantee some thrilling sport (though if you want to land one you'll need to use a heavier tippet and plenty of backing).

Overall then, field casting has a lot going for it. For a while I thought I'd invented a new pastime, but then I found that just up the road in Huntingdon the British Fly Casting Club had beaten me to it, and taken things much further. So it looks like my contribution to the angling world will have to be something else. Perhaps a landing net which clips to the back of my jacket, but that doesn't crack me in the back of the head every time I bend forward. Now that would be something...