Simon Robinson has fished over 30 times for England in all disciplines. Here he reveals some of his top tips for practising in competitions on still and running water.
Most anglers who fish competitions will also practice for the upcoming match. As with any sport, having a solid game plan is often the difference between success and failure. Practice allows the angler to prepare methods and flies in advance of the match and hopefully cut down on any time wasted during the competition looking to find the successful method or locate the fish.
Most matches in England are divided into three categories – loch style from the boat, stillwaters from the bank and rivers. Each discipline is very different and has its own methods, tackle requirements and competition format. To be consistently successful in each discipline it is important to understand the best ways to practice to maximise your chances in the match.
Loch-Style Boat Matches
On the big-water matches location is one of the key factors to being successful. Find the fish and then fine-tune the tactics.
Most loch-style matches are held on the UK’s well-known major fisheries such as Rutland, Chew Valley or the Lake of Menteith. They are normally fished over a single eight-hour period. Anglers fish in pairs, which are drawn randomly, and can fish anywhere on the lake (unless out-of-bounds areas are in place). Most major competitions usually take up the vast majority of the available boats and with most anglers practising the day before, if you intend to practice it is vital to book a boat well in advance!
It may sound obvious but the key to success in boat matches is almost always fish location. In loch style you are not restricted to pegs or beats, so you will have the whole area of the lake or reservoir to fish. This can, of course, create issues because our larger reservoirs, such as Rutland, are too big to cover in a single practice day. For this reason you may wish to practise for more than one day if time and cost do not become too prohibitive. It is also a good idea to share information with others anglers. If possible, structure your practice by splitting the lake into sections so that you cover the whole venue between you. This is particularly useful in team events.
Depth is probably the next critical element of practising for a loch-style event. Because you are likely to be practising with a boat partner, it makes sense to fish different lines at all times. I usually opt to fish a line at least two sink rates either higher or lower than my partner. For example, if my partner is on a floating or intermediate line I will use a Di3. If fish are deeper and my partner is using a Di3 or medium sink I will opt for an ultra-fast-sinking line such as a Di7 or Di8. I feel that is important because there are significant differences in sink rates to cover as much of the water column as possible. Only when we are happy that we have the taking depth should both anglers begin to fish similar lines and experiment with flies and retrieves.
Teams Of Flies
While I do not feel that flies are as important as depth or location, you do need to have a selection that you have confidence in. In most loch-style matches you will be fishing a team of flies. Generally, the fish will show preferences for lures, nymphs or dries. When this is established, I believe that the exact pattern is usually of little importance. If lures are the most successful method it makes sense to fish a bright one such as an Orange Blob or Cat’s Whisker on the dropper and a drab lure in black or olive on the point. If you are drifting over fish and varying the retrieve you should quickly be able to establish the methods that they prefer.
When I am practising for boat matches I like to locate fish and initially spend time working with my partner to establish the best methods to catch them. When you are confident in the methods you can then move around the lake searching for fish with confidence that if you cover some you will get takes.
Keep Your Eyes Open
When practising it is always a good idea to keep an eye on other boats; they can provide a lot of valuable information. If you are struggling to catch and you notice other anglers catching it is worth taking time to observe their methods, even if they are not in the match. Look for telltale signs such as the colour of fly line. Is it dark or light? What angle is the line entering the water during the retrieve? While you can rarely identify the exact line being used, these observations will allow you to establish if successful anglers are using floating, slow or fast-sinking lines, countdown time and speed of retrieve. It is often worth taking a pair of binoculars to observe other anglers without getting too close!
Practising in pairs allows you to try different lines and flies until you find the method that works. As a guide, Simon likes to fish two line densities different from his partner
Bank matches are certainly growing in popularity, especially in the northeast of England on waters such as Chatton Lakes...
Bank matches have been one of the few growth areas in competition fly fishing, particularly in the north of England where there are many, as well as a popular winter series. Increasingly, we are seeing anglers who specialise in this discipline. Small-water bank matches have also given anglers the opportunity to fish during winter when the reservoirs are closed to boat fishing and the smaller stillwaters are often at their best.
... and these are the best place to start for anyone fancying getting into the competition scene.
Cover The Pegs
One of the key differences between bank and boat matches is that bank matches are almost always pegged. A standard pattern is that you will complete a full lap of the lake and in the process usually fish four pegs in the morning and four in the afternoon. It is also worth noting that competitions are often scored on the number of pegs you catch from, so it is vital that you can catch off as many as possible. Another factor is that catches on each peg are usually limited to five fish in a session, again making it important to catch in as many areas of the lake as possible.
The fact that you are pegged means there is nothing you can do regarding your location. Therefore, it can be argued that there is little point in looking for the best areas because you will not necessarily be fishing there on the day!
There are, however, definite merits to moving around a lake during practice, particularly if it is not uniform in depth and shape. You also need to take the wind into account; the methods that work in the calm water at the top of the wind may not work on the downwind bank and vice versa. To do well in most bank matches you will need to employ a variety of methods to suit different areas of the lake. For example, you may need to fish small nymphs or dries in a shallow area and then change to a sinking-line approach in deeper areas. To prepare for bank events I find that it is best to simulate the competition format when practising. Completing a full lap of the lake will allow you to see and fish all of the different areas and plan your strategy in terms of fish behaviour and successful methods as you go.
It pays to practice around the lake beforehand because tactics may well be different on the downwind bank to what they are in the flat water.
Three rods are the norm for bank matches. This allows you to change tactics quickly, which is important when you may have only 30 minutes a peg.
In boat matches, you are usually only permitted to have one rod set up at any time. However, in bank matches, you are usually allowed three. Consequently, you need to be able to chop and change methods to suit the peg. This is where practice really counts because most anglers can quickly work out a method to catch the easy fish. It is, however, anglers who can turn to effective methods on their second and third rods and keep catching, particularly on difficult pegs, who will usually come out on top.
"I have lost count of the number of times I have known anglers catch lots of fish in practice (and usually let everyone who will listen know!) only to perform poorly in the match"
Fly Choice And Setups
Small-water matches usually require a far greater selection of flies than other competitions because it is likely that you will be setting rods up with lure, indicator, nymph or dry-fly tactics. I would advise that you don’t go overboard with too many patterns; stick with tried and trusted flies in each category. One thing that is worth noting is that as small-water fish are usually subject to far higher fishing pressure it is often worth trying nymphs and dries in smaller sizes, as well as finer leaders on difficult pegs.
River Competition Practice
Unfortunately, we do not have the same number of matches on the rivers as we do on the stillwater scene. Nevertheless, we do have several regional qualifiers, a national final and an international event between the home nations. One interesting fact is that we do not fish to the same pegged format used in all World and European championships. River matches are fished within certain boundaries or sections, but all of the anglers competing are free to roam anywhere within the same section. The only restriction is that they must not go within 30 metres of another angler who is fishing.
Study The Section
The format of most river matches in the UK means that it is important to look for water where you feel you can catch the most fish, as opposed to catching the most fish from a given stretch of water, which is the aim of events with a fixed peg for each angler. To do this it is well worth walking the full competition section and mark down the likely areas. I usually look for an area that is likely to hold a lot of fish combined with the possibility of fishing a variety of methods in a relatively small area. This means that even if there are other anglers in the area you can spend time fishing the same water and hopefully pick up a good number of fish.
If I could pick an ideal stretch of water it would be a nice fish-holding run with fish moving on the tail. This will allow y me to start with the dry fly before changing to a variety of nymph methods.
Work On Methods To Suit The Water Type
In river matches, you are allowed to set up a spare rod. This means you can have two methods ready and it is important to establish the correct ones for the sections of water you intend to fish.
If you are going to target rising fish then dry fly is the obvious choice. When the correct fly is discovered you can be pretty sure that it will work on any other rising fish in the competition sections.
When it comes to practising nymph fishing it is again worth observing the water and working out the weights of nymphs you are likely to need. Obviously weight will vary in different parts of the river depending on depth and pace.
Time Of Day And Competition Sessions
A very important consideration is time of day, particularly if you are fishing a match early or late in the season when fish will often feed at certain times. I have witnessed anglers practising taking fish on dries in the afternoon then drawing the morning session and struggling because the fish are simply not rising! It is therefore important to prepare for both morning and afternoon sessions, particularly if fish behaviour and hatches are likely to be different in each session.
The time of day you practice needs to be taken into account. What might work in the morning may not in the afternoon. It pays to have methods for both sessions.
Methods To Use After A Section Has Been Fished
Because you may be fishing an afternoon session on water that has been fished in the morning, and also sharing the section with other anglers, it is very likely that at some point you will be fishing water that has already been fished. This means that the easy, active fish will probably have already been caught. You therefore need to look for other ways to catch and this is often what separates the top anglers from the rest of the field.
Various methods can get you a few fish, including fishing finer leaders, smaller flies or adding extra weight and targeting deeper, faster areas where other anglers may not have reached fish holding close to the bottom.
To practise this I will often deliberately target water that I know another angler has fished to simulate a competition situation. Another option is to practise with another angler and alternate or swap sections and compare successful methods after the water has been fished, or simply fish the same small area yourself with different methods.
In river matches you can have two rods set up. Again this allows for two tactics to be employed, such as dries and nymphs
That is a basic summary of practising for matches across the disciplines and some of the tips to help you prepare.
There are several other general factors that apply to all competitions for me, the two most important by far are to not overfish the water you plan to fish on the match, so discipline in practice is particularly important. I have lost count of the number of times I have known anglers catch lots of fish in practice (and usually let everyone who will listen know!) only to perform poorly in the match. These big catches in practice are usually by anglers who continue to fish in productive areas with a successful method and then seem confused when the fish are not there to be caught on that method in the competition.
The second is the flies. Despite many rumours of ‘secret’ or ‘magic’ flies, very few actually exist and the majority of competition anglers fish basic, simple patterns available to all. So do not be worried about flies; stick with basic patterns such as those below and concentrate on preparation, presentation and approach when practising! Good luck!