It is rare to observe masters up close. Rarer still, to see methods and skills that go way beyond the boundaries of the sport and begin to scale heights that have seldom - if ever - been achieved. Welcome to total fly-fishing, welcome to the Czech Republic.
It is rare to observe masters up close. Rarer still, to see methods and skills that go way beyond the boundaries of the sport and begin to scale heights that have seldom - if ever - been achieved.
Welcome to total fly-fishing, welcome to the Czech Republic.
This particular episode was billed succulently enough as the World Youth Fly Fishing championships, a fiercely contested fly rod skirmish between various European countries - England, Wales and Ireland included, and the USA. Perhaps it is the fact that the contestants had to be aged 18 and under that makes what follows all the more remarkable - young Daniels and 'Danielesses' venturing into an aquatic 'lion's den'.
Well, our lads did us proud, but it was the utter commitment and mastery of two nations, the Czechs and the French, that left most of us in awe. Sadly, I was unable to watch the Gallic way up close and personal: I'm told it was dry fly and delicately done. Having fished in the Lozere region recently and been under the very watchful eye of their astonishing guides, I can believe that many a Czech trout, grayling, dace and chub (yep: if they had fins and ate flies they counted!) fell to the French deception and the dry fly. There are few better dry fly fishers at the moment other than, perhaps, the Spanish at this particular river art. I suspect that long rods, long leaders and precious little fly line was their hallmark - as it is on their home waters. I digress, it is total fly-fishing that we are concerned with here.
There seems to be a great deal of debate as to what constitutes Czech or Polish nymphing. I guess that a Czech fisher does one type of similar fishing, and a Pole does the other: I think it is as simple as that. Sure, styles of fly vary, and from what I can gather, the Poles are far more likely to opt for maximum weight and an almost 'touch ledgering' process. I did come across some purpose-made, pre-formed caddis bodies fashioned purely from lead on the Jan Siman stand at the Danish Fly Fair - my thoughts turned to Barbel in a flood water using bait runners, rather than the delicate art of fly-fishing as we have come to know it. I would love to see how one of these cylinders of lead is actually cast in a conventional fly-fishing way (from the safety of a Anderson shelter that is!). This whole thing is beyond the scope of this particular piece, so instead, I want to dwell on a week or so spent in a delightful area in Bohemia.
More precisely, the rivers around Rozemberk and Vlatvou, particularly the river Vltava. This river is a fast, often cataract water, that sweeps around wide boulder-strewn bends and through hills cloaked with pine, rowan and birch and, mercifully sprinkled with a very enviable amount of trout - rainbows, browns and brook also grayling, dace (I think they were dace) chub and so on. The sad thing was the lack of fly life. Apparently, May is the month: but then isn't it everywhere? Although a few caddis came out to play in the evening, sub-surface was littered with cased caddis, Rhyacs and Hydropsyche larva, the odd stonefly and a few olives, and that was about it. But the fish were there and for the taking.
Even before the first line was cast the chasm between angling thought processes was being made abundantly clear: the Czechs with their customary zeal, ingenuity and thoroughness have begun making hooks to suit their needs. I am fine with the boast the no one hook (and we are talking individually here) is the same. But it is the way the Czechs. have addressed the problems of points, shape. penetration and the barbless principal. Unhindered by past baggage, they have looked at what might secure a hook hold in a barbless way and gone for bumps near the point (actually, these are reminiscent of Norse hooks dating back to the days of Thor and Odin), offset bends (perhaps snecks and crystals were not so far from the perfect hook) in all cases the designs are being made in the Czech Republic and seldom seen outside; which is a shame as they are fabulous hooks and have persuaded me (the dyed-in-the-wool, firm advocator of barbed hooks) to look again at the entire principal.
Then there is their whole approach to the sport itself: if the Dutch have total football then the Czech's have total fly-fishing. Each angler I saw (bearing in mind, it was under championship conditions) took with them a minimum of three outfits, with two being exactly the same. This enabled the swiftest continuity if a tangle was encountered. The penchant was, as one might expect, for long rods, 9ft 6in, #5 being the favoured length.
The one outfit which was much in evidence, and which truly surprised me, was 9ft or 9ft 6in #7. Hmm ... a curious one that - until I saw it action and what they did with it.
However, before going there, I would just say that even after the fixed line styles that Ollie Edwards (and boy, did he give me a telling off at Chatsworth for holding the line in my non-rod hand. Sorry Ol) and others have done so much to bring to UK anglers' attention, it seems that the creative juices of the Czechs remains undiminished.
I guess all of us are pretty conversant with Bugging styles by now. The cast up, driftdescend, keep in touch, hold and then a lift-quasi strike that is now so familiar. Well, the Czechs have moved on.
All the anglers I saw - and this could be just a feature of the water they were fishing at the time - were casting upstream: still a very short line, perhaps a rod and a bit, no more, but upstream nonetheless. It was actually very similar to upstream spider fishing where the water is almost caressed and stroked with the fly, leader and line in a continuous, tensioned arcing movement. And I think therein lay the secret. But before exploring that avenue, what struck me was the variance of leader make up they were using. It was very long way away from the classic straight section of Stroft (or similar) nylon that we were - are - used to. Instead, most - if not all - the anglers I saw used a section (perhaps 140cm) of tapered braid leader - clear or a very soft fluorescent yellow - attached to a braided loop at the fly line, then down to a tiny metal ring which, in turn, carried the droppered tippet section (see diagram) as usual.
The total length of the leader was still only a rod length 9-l0ft, but it was the variation at the top that struck the unfamiliar chord. You better believe that if a Czech angler does something, then it is because it is a darn site better than the previous efforts. What the Czech gurus were adamant on, was the use - or rather non-use - of bright fluorescence in the leader make up. The soft yellow was fine but the stark bright orange solid braid being used by our lads was particularly frowned on in the prevailing conditions.
To give you an idea of the background to the whole thing, I watched utterly transfixed as one of the young Czech maestros went about a section of water that looked OK'ish. He maybe held the odd fish but it certainly was nothing to write home about. It was a small stream-like section not too dissimilar to the Lowther in Cumbria or the upper Wharfe or Nidd, indeed the upper Severn or Wye: a jocular, boulder-studded fusion of pools, slacks and tumbling, boisterous, tongues of water, whipping round obstacles. Add canopies of rowan and banks washed with bracken and hollyhocks and the attraction was complete. I watched as the angler set about his task working from the very bottom of his section with a sort of surgical precision that covered every vestige of water. His cast was a flowing, methodical, rhythmic blur of controlled economy. Not one bit of water was wasted and un-fished, not one extra movement was made.
Gradually, I slipped from an envious glance to a more analytical view and began to see what the fly fisher was doing. At any spot that even hinted at a fish possibility the short upstream cast was made, but the tensioned loop of line arcing conclave to the water was continually kept under the very closet scrutiny - the braid, effectively was the indicator - an elongated aerial swing tip - if it darted straight, dropped back or so much as flickered, the strike was made. But there was something else and had I not looked very closely I would have missed it. The top dropper, instead of the traditional second heaviest nymph was in fact a dishevelled looking dry fly cum emerger allowed to sink. Odd? I thought so, too.
But when I noticed it being fished I suddenly realised that whilst it may have been taken by the odd trout as the flies drifted toward the angler it was there for other reasons. One: it was used as a sub-surface indicator. If it moved or twitched oddly, they struck. And second: it was used as an attractor when the angler wanted to re-fish some water but did so by casting down stream and twitched the flies in a streamer style strip - through runs and riffles felt to still hold a fish or two. And there's more to the mystery ... the heaviest fly was on the point and not in the middle. I know, the plot further thickens. Believe me, in the water that was being fished the style was deadly - and the point and second fly were not that heavy either. Heresy. Still, you can't argue with 28 trout in three hours of fishing, especially off a 400 yard section. I kid you not: 28! Or was it 32 ...?
It appeared this upstream approach style and the flies I'd seen used seemed to be the 'bedrock tactic' throughout the victorious team members and the third placed 'second' Czech team. Certainly, there were lessons for us all to learn from. And certainly, having just returned from a trip to the western United States, I can report that trout there like the tensioned looped leader style a great deal (and also the flies), just as much as their European kith and kin.
However, Buzz, the river warden on DePuy's spring creek just outside Livingston Montana, is still hurt, baffled, bewildered and in utter denial that one actually it was more - of his celebrated and legendary fastidious rainbows had the barefaced audacity to fall to the rather unique charms of a somewhat oversized Czech nymph oressed in shrimpy clothes - he called it a scud (not the missile, mind you). The size I used to overcome a particularly boisterous chute of water was an 8, the usual, apparently, is about a 16. As I have often said, no one bothered to chat to the trout. Just as well really: bad for a reputation, having a chat with a trout.
The total approach
I thought I had been through this 'combat' fly-fishing when my son Alex and I were in Italy a few weeks prior to going to the Czech Republic. I caught a truly lovely trout from a divine crystalline jaunty stream in the Mozzarella region, and as soon as the fish so much as waved a defiant fin I had three anglers buzzing around me pinging their fly-lines in the general direction of where my trout took. It was a truly bizarre and odd experience. However, this was a different 'combat': this was sheer, full fly-fishing immersion. Not only did the young Czech fly fishers wade to the very extreme of their waders, the carefree speed that they took the veritable white water on - and fished through - was amazing; utterly fearless competence. They almost danced along the bottom.
Our lads got through breathable waders like a child goes through candy bars, and when someone said, "What a shame some of the teams, especially the youngsters in the Czech team, didn't have breathable waders", I suggested it was far from a shame: it was tactical, and a slice of sensible and thoroughly-thought-through logic. Given the buoyancy of neoprene (which they were wearing), the insulating qualities if they did slip in some water and the sheer practical abrasion resistance of neoprene that allowed full reign of the river, no matter how malicious the subsurface obstacles might prove - and there were certainly a fair few of those!
I suppose the consummation of this total approach was, with five minutes to go in the championship, I witnessed a member of the Czech team run along his entire section and literally run into a rip of water that was pelting through a boulder-strewn corridor, and ford the confused and fractious current, and fish like an angler possessed. No matter that he had a minute or so to go. No matter there was little chance of a fish, there might have been. It was enough. What commitment.
This creative bunch also had another cunning plan to employ if the usual methods that I have outlined here failed to work. I have to build up sufficient courage to divulge that one. Perhaps in a month or two, eh? Streamers were involved, I can say that.
But please don't form an impression the Czechs had it all their own way: they didn't. The English lads did well, especially on the last day, when Scott Nellins and James Armstrong and many others kept the home flags waving very high indeed. Special mention must also be made of young Welsh dragon, Sean Jones, who I watched fish with the sort of skill and passion way beyond his years and who thoroughly deserved his fourth individual placing in the world. These young folk-and others on the home teams - roared as young lions and dragons, and I see the gap between fishing nations narrowing. Next year will be interesting when the spotlight turns on Portugal.
I asked Alex what he thought we should do in order to compete on the same level in future competitions. "I think we need to get in the gym," he said.
Drawings by Charles Jardine, photographs by Milan Hladík.