Sea trout fishing with Steffan Jones
A good fly fishing guide can be the difference between blank and brilliant, says Marcus Janssen, particularly when you can’t see a thing.
For me, fly fishing is as much about the process of learning as it is about the catching of fish, which is one of the reasons why I fell so helplessly in love with New Zealand. The almost supernaturally clear streams of the South Island are a fly fishing classroom like no other, the perfect aquatic observatory in which to learn about one of our wiliest of quarries and how to outsmart them through trial and error. Indeed, for me, fly fishing has always been an inherently visual pursuit, which, I guess, is why sight-fishing destinations are so highly regarded by fly fishers the world over.
But what about when the lights are turned off, when the visual cues and stimuli are removed from the equation altogether? One might assume that the overall experience would be undermined, become less rewarding, or, indeed, less technical or cerebral. So you might think. But as I discovered with sea trout guru Steffan Jones on the Teifi recently, fly fishing for sea trout at night can be just as exciting and rewarding as spotting and stalking enormous South Island brownies in gin-clear mountain streams. And just as technical.
But, admittedly, before my visit to the Teifi, I had always assumed that night fishing for sea trout was vague and imprecise, a half-cock science that required little in the way of cognitive activity, a simple case of tying on a Stoat’s Tail and fishing it down and across, preferably a wee bit slower than you would during the day for salmon, and hoping for the best. After all, how precise can one be when you can’t even see the end of your rod tip?
On my second night on the Teifi, it was so dark that I couldn’t actually make out any discernible difference between river, field and sky. Worried that I might actually have gone blind, I waved my hand in front of my face and blinked repeatedly to no avail. And yet, Steff, who was stood in the river next to me, was nonchalantly changing my fly without the use of a torch. I’m not actually joking. “That’s looking pretty good,” he said as he double-checked his knots. I shook my head in disbelief, assuming that he was being ironic. “Steff, do you eat a lot of carrots?” I asked him in earnest. “Yes mate, bucket-loads of the things.”
A few minutes later, having completed another cast in the vague direction that Steff had stipulated (by physically grabbing my rod and pointing it at the far bank), he told me that I needed to lengthen my cast a little. “Strip another two or three feet of line off the reel, mate,” he said. “You want your fly to be landing no more than a foot or two from the far bank.”
“You’re having a laugh, right?” I asked, beginning to wonder if the man had actually been eating too many carrots. How on earth could he tell that my cast was short? Apparently, the Sea Trout Wizard of West Wales can also hear one’s thoughts. “When you don’t have your eyes, mate, you’ve got to use your ears,” he said, suddenly.
I could tell he was smiling. “Listen carefully for the sound of your fly landing on the water; the closer it is to the far bank, the louder the plop will be as it echoes more clearly off the vegetation on the far bank.”
The man uses sonar to fish for sea trout! Things were beginning to get surreal. But do you know what? It bloody well works! No, I couldn’t believe it, either. How he worked that one out is one of fly fishing’s great mysteries.
I have learnt over the years that a good guide or ghillie can be invaluable, particularly when you’re fishing water you don’t know or for a species you’re unfamiliar with. Their mere presence and the odd word of encouragement gives you confidence that you’re on the right track and doing the right thing. As a result, you don’t end up changing your fly every five minutes whilst wondering whether you’d be better off retiring to the bar. And in fishing, confidence counts for a hell of a lot.
But occasionally, you will come across a guide who gives you more than just confidence – they will make you see things in an entirely different light (excuse the pun) and, consequently, change your approach altogether. Steffan Jones is one of those guides. To say that the two nights my good pal Oliver Cox and I spent with him last year was enlightening would be an understatement. It really was like having the lights switched back on. Not only is the man a veritable walking piscatorial encyclopedia, but his passion and enthusiasm for all things Salmo trutta makes him an absolute joy to fish with.
But to be fair, it’s hardly any wonder that sea trout feature so prominently in Steff’s life. For starters, he was born and raised in deepest, darkest West Wales in a village that is equidistant from the Rivers Teifi and Towy. Secondly, he was never going to make it as a rugby player (he makes Shane Williams look like Victor Matfield), so it was perhaps inevitable that he would end up spending an inordinate amount of his spare time hunting sea trout in the summer and woodcock in the winter.
But it paid off. By the age of 15, he was already in high demand as a fly fishing guide on the Teifi, a career that was kick-started by some disgruntled anglers who returned to the Porth Hotel in Llandysul one night and described how some local kid no taller than a Welsh pony had nailed the sea trout while they had been left scratching their heads. The hotel owner nodded knowingly and duly rang Steff to see if, rather than piss his guests off, he would be willing to offer his services as a guide.
That was more than 20 years ago, and in the interim, Steff has well and truly established himself as the guy to fish with if you’re serious about catching sea trout on the Teifi (or the Towy, for that matter).
Funnily enough, as we wandered our way back to the car after our first night on the Teifi – having landed a number of incredible fish up to 8lb, thanks to Steff – we came across another angler who was also heading home for the night. “Any good?” asked Oli as we crossed paths in the middle of a field. “Nope,” he responded downheartedly. “My second blank night on the trot. The sea trout just don’t seem to be on the take. The conditions are all wrong. I am told, however, that there is a chap in Llandysul who can catch sea trout in all conditions. Maybe I’ll give him a ring and see if he’s available tomorrow night.” Once out of earshot, Oli and I started laughing. “Good luck with that one, mate,” said Oli under his breath, “I think you’ll find the Sea Trout Wizard of West Wales has plans for tomorrow night.”
And to be honest, even after a second night with Steff, both Oli and I agreed that we had barely scratched the surface, despite learning more about sea trout in 48 hours than I had in the previous 34 years. But that’s the thing about Steff – as tends to be the case with people who are very good at what they do – no detail is too small, no effort too great. For example, he advocates changing your flies (he fishes a team of two), as well as your polyleader or sink tip numerous times through the night as the light and conditions progressively change, despite the effort and kerfuffle involved. Mind you, he does do it all for you. Without a torch.
“You have to think about every cast,” he explained as he made yet another little adjustment to my leader. “There is no quicker way to fail than to fall into monotony. This is a thinking man’s game, and the more you think, the more you are rewarded.” Indeed, if there was one lesson I took away with me, that was it. Simply going through the motions and hoping for the best won’t bring home much bacon.
And in terms of fly choice, Steff has firm views in that regard, too. He believes that people tend to get too transfixed with specific patterns and that the main, overriding factors should always be length, depth and silhouette (for night patterns). Colour and overall pattern hold little significance – far more emphasis, he says, should be placed on the speed you fish your fly, a point that was illustrated perfectly on our first night when Steff had me follow him across a deep channel and up onto a ridge in the tail of a long, slow pool on the middle reaches of the Teifi.
Once there, Steff then spent the next five minutes or so describing the pool to me in great detail, including exactly where the sea trout would be lying. “There is a gravel bar about 15 yards upstream from us,” he said. “The fish will be lying on the left-hand-side and near-edge of that bar, so you want to land your flies at least six feet upstream and two to three feet to the left of them. But, as you will be fishing upstream, the key is to keep in contact with your flies all the time, and to keep them moving. But keep your retrieve nice and slow; you need to give them a decent chance of finding your flies. Oh, and don’t expect an aggressive take; strike as soon as you feel any resistance at all.”
Later that night, as I lay in bed going over everything that Steff had told me, I realised that there is no way that I would have either hooked or landed what turned out to be one of my biggest ever UK sea trout without his guidance. In fact, I very much doubt I would have even got a cast to that fish without Steff’s help. Oh, and when the take came – in the exact spot that he said it would – it was hardly a take at all, just a slight tightening up of the line as though my fly had snagged a single strand of ranunculus.
Having learnt so much in the past 48 hours, I also couldn’t help but wonder how many more sea trout I would have caught over the years if I had known then what I know now. Of course I will never know the answer to that question, but one thing I do know is that the Sea Trout Wizard of West Wales and I will be fishing together again soon. And in the meantime, I’ve started eating more carrots. Bucket-loads of them.
Steffan’s top five tips for sea trout success
1. If you have never fished for sea trout before then don’t make life difficult for yourself and start too early in the season. Wait for the main run to enter the river and you will find your learning curve to be less steep.
2. Learn which water to fish when. Certain water should definitely not be fished until it’s dark, but then other water should only be fished before it gets dark. Leave glassy pools alone until you cannot make out the colour of bankside foliage.
3. Strike! The quicker you strike the more chance you have of success. This is, however, easier said than done at night and does take practice. The bigger fish can give the lightest of takes, so strike regardless of whether you think it’s a tiddler or a monster.
4. Seek local advice on run times etc. This cannot be stressed enough. Run times vary dramatically between rivers and you may have a wasted trip if badly timed.
5. Keep the flies moving; most anglers new to sea trout fishing approach them as salmon. However, they are more like trout in many ways and it’s always better to fish slightly too quickly than too slowly for sea trout, unless you’re fishing cold and/or coloured water.