Some thoughts on traditional boat fishing
Casting and retrieving in traditional lough style. Now here is a subject we fly anglers can really get our teeth into! As someone who fishes a fair bit with other boat partners I get to see first-hand the wide variation of casts and retrieves employed. Experienced anglers find what works best for them but for beginners there is a whole raft of questions around casting and how fast should you pull the line in. Here are a few thought to consider.
- The first and most important point you have to grasp is the relative speed of the boat. This ultimately decides how quickly the angler draws in the line. Unlike bank fishing where any current is the main factor, it is the motion of the boat as it is pushed forwards by the wind which matters. We fish ‘out the front’ of a drifting boat meaning as the boat is pushed along by the wind we cast our lines downwind and pull them back until we lift off and cast again. This sounds very straightforward but there is actually a fair bit to be considered so I will go through some points a beginner needs to bear in mind. Speed of drift is the biggest factor and I will endeavour to explain some of the basic mechanics involved. Lets start with the casting platform, the boat itself.
- Imagine you are out on the lough and have motored to your preferred drift. You turn the boat so she is lying across the wind. This in itself takes a bit of practice as the boat will still have forward motion (called way) even after you shut off the engine. We will say that the boat is now at 90 degrees to the wind so you start casting in front of the boat. The wind will act upon the boat (and everything in it), pushing the boat along at a speed which depends on the strength of said wind. Basically a stronger wind will push the boat along faster. We will call this speed ‘X’. You cast out your line and pull it back and we will call this speed of retrieve ‘Y’. If X=Y your flies will remain stationary, sinking slowly down. To move your flies towards the boat and imparting life to them Y must be greater than X (Y>X). The greater the difference between Y and X the faster your flies are travelling back towards you. All of that is pretty straightforward but it is amazing how often I see anglers not adjusting their rate of retrieve to match prevailing wind speeds. This is most common in strong winds and a fast drifting boat when all to often I see an anglers line being almost run over by the boat as it charges downwind. The rule of thumb is the stronger the wind, the faster you need to pull your flies back.
- Boats don’t drift straight. I could be writing pages and pages on the reasons why boats do not track directly directly down wind. Weight distribution, wave action, currents and boat design all play a part. Some boats keep a much straighter line than others and as a generalisation a heavy boat will drift straighter than a light one. This is going to affect your retrieve as the speed will vary as the boat moves across the wind as well as in front of it. You need to take the angle of drift into account when you are casting and make slight adjustments to where you are placing your line depending on the movement of the boat. Imagine a 9 stone angler perched in the bow of a boat while a 17 stone boat partner sits in the stern. That boat is unlikely to drift true simply due to the unequal weight distribution and both anglers must cast at a slight angle towards the ‘heavy’ end of the boat so they can retrieve a straight line. (of course some times you do not want a straight retrieve and the fish want flies that are turning in the water, but that is a discussion for another day).
- The length of line you cast will obviously determine how much line must be retrieved. A longer line cast out equals more to be pulled back before recasting. That is broadly true and speed of retrieve matters because a slow retrieve allows the boat which is moving downwind is catching up on the flies all the time. Very long casts are not usually required in traditional style lough fishing and indeed can be dangerous in a wind. The increasing use of sinking lines has seen a tendency towards longer cast though. If the advantage of a sinking line is to be realised it needs time to sink and so a longer cast is needed to facilitate this. The increasing use of large lures such as the Humungus which has become an early season staple on Mask and Conn is an example of how a longer line is now favoured to allow the lure to sink near the bottom.
- The actual casts employed are simply overhead casting in its most basic form. In a small boat with one or two other fishers in very close proximity you don’t want to be trying out your latest double-snaky-underhand roll. I use a basic roll to pull well sunk flies up to the surface if I am fishing a sinking line but that is as fancy as it gets. KISS rules apply!
- The retrieve itself is another huge subject and one constantly up for debate. In my book there is no right or wrong when it comes to the retrieve, I have seen fish caught on just about all variations from static to stripped in a mach2. Does the retrieve need to be smooth or is jerky better? The answer is try them all and see what works. Oh, and what worked at 11am may not work at 2pm so never fall into the trap of thinking you have found the ‘right’ retrieve. If the fish are feeding on slowly rising nymphs they will probably prefer flies presented fairly slowly. If they are chasing fry darting around the shallows they will possibly want flies present in a jerky fashion. Note my use of ‘probably’ because this is not an exact science. The angler who varies his/her retrieves is often the most successful.
- Short-lining is something I see less and less of each year. I catch many trout each season very close to the boat by casting only a few yards and the only retrieve is by lifting the rod and not pulling in any line. I often fish alone and in a good wind I need to work the oar and cast at the same time so short-lining is a great way of covering the water while keeping on course. I am right-handed so I hold the rod in my right hand and flick the flies out maybe 5 yards. I pull on the oar with my left hand as I simultaneously start to lift the rod, drawing the flies towards me. Most of the time I aim to keep the bob fly dibbling on the surface. Just before the rod reaches vertical I flick the line into the air and make a new cast without letting any more line shoot through the rings. The flies are in the water for only a short spell each cast, maybe 5 or 10 seconds I suppose. This process is repeated as I progress down wind.
- Fishing a dry fly from the boat requires a degree of skill if you are to be successful. The issue I raised above in point 2 about boats not drifting in a straight line is the one which creates the biggest problems for the dry fly angler. The aim is (usually) to present the fly(s) static or with the occasional twitch. As the boat drifts off line a large bow develops in the fly line, dragging the flies in an unnatural manner. This brings me to the art of mending your line. At the risk of disappearing down an angling rabbit hole let me explain the basics of mending for any beginners. Imagine you cast your line out and the boat moves to the right. Your fly line will also move in that direction and to correct the resulting bow in the line you lift your rod and re-position the fly line further to the left. The actual motion of the rod is desperately hard to explain in written words but is easy when you see it being done. It is a gentle lift followed by a sort of flick to the side.
I hope my ramblings may have been of some assistance to those who are new to this style of fishing. In essence lough style is very simple but like all things in this life there is more to it than meets the eye. If you were to ask me what is the one thing a boat fisher could do to improve their catch rate I would say pull your line in faster. Practice will hone your technique and fishing in a boat with an experienced angler is a real opportunity to learn some tips and tricks.