Fly Fishers' Republic

Give them the turning flee

May 12, 2006

by Bruce Sandison

Give them the turning flee

When all else fails, give them the “turning flee”. This technique is best practised whilst seated comfortably in the stern of a loch boat – the blunt end to those not accustomed to the nuances of nautical phraseology. Whilst the boat is rowed forward at normal pace, the angler casts at right angles to the moving vessel.

Cast as long a line as you can comfortably manage. When the flies land on the water, feather-light, of course, bring the tip of your rod down until it is parallel to the surface, about two feet above the waves. Keep the rod at right angles to the boat. Do not retrieve the flies. Let them be.

Fish will rise to the flies almost as soon as they touch the water, or, and more often, at the precise moment when the flies begin to “turn”; compelled to do so by the forward motion of the boat. There is no need to strike. The fish hook themselves. Watch the flies constantly and be ready to take control the moment a trout grabs.

I was introduced to the technique many years ago by a wonderful Ayrshire gillie who also introduced me a splendid variation of one of Scotland’s most popular trout flies, the Black Pennell. His version was tied with a yellow tail, rather than with the traditional golden pheasant tippets and it has been a good friend to me ever since.

Less comfortable was the gillie’s habit of setting the boat into a drift and then, a moment or two after my companion and I had started fishing, restarting the outboard motor. At least, that is what it sounded like to me and it took a few such experiences to get used to the fact that he was only having in his early morning heavy-smoker’s- cough. But it sounded exactly like an old Seagull engine trying to splutter into life.

The turning flee technique works well in virtually all weather conditions, including that angler’s curse, a dead-flat-calm. I once had splendid sport on a hot summer day on Sweethope Lough near Otterburn in Northumberland fishing the turning flee. This was in the days before it was developed into a commercial fishery and within the space of an hour, I took half a dozen nice trout whilst most of the other boats returned ‘blank’.

When Clan Sandison lived in Caithness I often caught my first trout of the season whilst fishing the turning flee on Loch Watten; in early May, at about 7.30pm, as my son, Blair, rowed me past the broken fence post at the south east end of Factor’s Bay. Blair constantly reminds me about this, claiming that it was only his ability on the oars, rather than my casting skills, that brought about the desired result. The lies that some anglers tell.

But like everything else in our sport, nothing is certain. I remember fishing Loch Caladail, one of the famous limestone lochs near Durness in north west Sutherland, when, because my companion was not allowed to row due to doctor’s orders and a congenitally ‘bad back’, I was on the oars all day. To take as much advantage as possible of the time I spent rowing back up the loch, into the wind, I tutored my friend in the art of fishing the turning flee.

Fishing conditions were difficult, with a near gale-force wind, watered by frequent showers, but by close of play my partner had taken four splendid trout; each weighing between 2lb and 2lb 8oz and all caught on the turning flee. As he hooked, played and landed fish after fish, I found it hard to keep a fixed grin of supportive pleasure in place.

Consequently, a few months later, when I had my annual outing with a young friend from the village, a mere stripling of 40 summers, I hobbled about a bit on the way down to the boat. “What’s up, Bruce?” he inquired solicitously. “Oh, nothing, really, just a bad back this morning.” “No problem,” he replied courteously, “I’ll row.” At last, I thought, I would be able to show off my turning flee prowess.

When the boat was drifting and we fished traditionally, casting in front of the boat, he rose and caught trout whilst I remained stubbornly fishless. When he rowed back up to the start of another drift, I lashed away at the turning flee, but to no avail. By the end of the day I had little need to invent a sore back. Mine was on fire, my neck was blazing, my bum was sore and my heart ached. If I had caught just two more trout I might have had a brace.