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Specialist Magazine Article: Dace on the Fly

   written by Jean Turner
Published: FlyDresser, c2004/2005?

I thought that grayling were fast when they rise to take a dry fly off the surface of the water, but that was before I started fly fishing for dace.

At first when the slender 4-inch long fish took the smallest dry fly I had ever tied, I thought it was a tiny grayling. Then I realised that there was no large dorsal fin on its back and took a closer look.

I decided it must be a tiny salmon or trout parr, only to be confounded when I got home and looked up in one of my childrens' books. It looked nothing like those shown in the pictures. I was flummoxed by the little fish I had caught on the crystal-clear Wiltshire Avon.

Luckily our club river keeper is a nice man - now imagine the conversation:
'I caught a fish the other day, but don't know what it's called. Can you help me?'
'What did it look like?'
'Small.' Silence. 'Silver.' Silence. 'About this big,' showing about 4 inches long using two fingers. Silence. 'Not a grayling, I know what those look like.' Silence. 'Sort of smooth and it took the fly very fast.'

A glow came to his eyes and I recognised a man taken by the same type of fish. The answer was either a chub or a dace, except that chub have those itty bitty little triangles on them like Koi. So we settled for dace and I went home and told my husband that I was now a dace fly-fisherman. He, being a Brit by birth, knew exactly what I was talking about. 'They like maggots,' he said.

In the river near me where I fish most often, there lives a pod of smallish grayling. I had been targeting these for a couple of seasons, trying to deliberately catch smaller and faster fish just for the fun of it. Having caught the little dace, I started looking more closely at the fish in the area, trying to identify the different species. I found that the dace liked to rest behind a large clump of weed, just at the front of a pool about 4 feet in depth. They sat higher in the water than the grayling, which tended to go right down after taking their food.

Unlike the grayling's backward movement to take a dry or just sinking fly near the surface, these little fish simply changed direction and darted straight up and down, and quick as a wink, they were back in their normal position, waiting for their next tasty morsel. Boy, were they quick. And talk about fussy.

The grayling seemed to rise far more freely to take a drifting nymph than the dace did. The dace would rise slightly, take a look and then drop back down into resting position, and often I found a grayling on the end of the line that I really didn't want. I started paying attention to the type of fly the dace were interested in and after many sessions of tying small flies onto my tippet, I would go home and in the evening tie yet smaller ones in different shapes and colours and try again the next morning.

Eventually I gathered a group of tiny flies that worked and caught dace after dace, never tiring of their tiny perfection. I found they prefer nymphs to the dry fly, and found myself looking for ways to make really small (sizes 20 and smaller) nymphs sink fast enough to get them down to the dace before they were carried past. The problem was that because I had to cast way ahead of the fish to give the nymphs time to sink, they kept getting caught on the weed-bed. Because I had to use such fine tippet material, I lost fly after fly.

Tying small flies raises a whole new set of issues. Unlike grayling fishing, where you can just add on a gold bead to get the fly down, the beads small enough for the dace flies were so light they did little to help with depth. Tying them with lead wire or lead sheet helped, but this then made the flies so bulky and un-shapely that they were often refused by the fish.

The gold attracted the dace, and so I kept looking, sending my husband into all the fishing stores he could find during his many trips to Europe and the States. Eventually he found some tiny gold tungsten beans sold under a Swan product label from Danmark in the Orvis shop in Chicago, USA. Less than 2mm in diameter, they are right for a size 20 hook, and carry the fly down to the dace.

My hit rate improved dramatically after that, and I kept trying different combinations of colours and methods of presentation. Like grayling, dace are attracted to a nymph that floats toward them and then suddenly 'tries to get away'. For their size, they are remarkably aggressive hunters, and will look at anything vaguely edible, even if it is only just smaller than themselves. I once hooked one on a size 10 grub shaped red flexi-buzzer that was larger than half its body!

Frequently when grayling fishing, I have noticed that when a large grayling starts rising for a clearly visible food form, other smaller fish that have simultaneously started to rise will go back down almost as though there is a pecking order amongst them. With dace it seems it is a free-for-all. A group of dace will follow a suitable fly for ages until the bravest of them goes in for the kill. The furthest follow was about 8 feet, which was about 30 times their body length. Only then did he actually take the fly, and only because another dace rose from just below it to provide competition for the food.

Some of the successful flies I have used for dace during the last few seasons:

Greymouth Nymph
I saw this fly on a Paul Young programme, where he was fishing a river near Greymouth on the South Island of New Zealand. I don't know its proper name, so am calling it the Greymouth Nymph. Their version for a 4lb wild brownie was about a size 6!
Hook: Max Size 20
Body ends: Black tying thread over copper wire
Weight, shaping and centre 'bar': Copper wire
Varnishing this fly seems to help it sink faster, but the dace don't like it as much.

Richard's Mixed Fur Nymph
A few magazines ago, Richard Vipond of our branch (Wilts Chalkstream), published a fly he makes out of a mixture of hairs with a gold head. This is my adaptation of that fly, using a tungsten bead as the weight. If I can't find my fur mixture bag, I use rabbit fur instead. It works just as well.
Hook: Max Size 20. Grub shape works well with this pattern too.
Bead: Tungsten gold - 1.7mm diameter
Thread: anything really fine that doesn't bulk up the shape
Tail: Fluorescent orange Antron
Dubbing: A mixture of grey squirrel, hare, Glister (pearl) or similar very fine, chopped up pearl tinsel, or just plain old rabbit, using a variety of colours of the fur.
Rib: Pearl tinsel stretched until it is blue in colour A very small GRHE works as well here if you add the tungsten bead head.

Peacock herl nymph
At last - a use for those spindly short-fibred peacock herls!
Hook: 18, 20 and smaller, grub shape or regular wide gape
Head: Gold bead, either normal brass or 1.7mm tungsten gold
Body: Peacock herl, very short in herl length
Tail: Fluorescent orange Antron
Rib (optional): Stretched fine pearl tinsel

Red Flexi-buzzer
When red lycra Flexifloss came out - I tied a fly I called my Red Flexi-Buzzer. Some time later I saw a similar fly published under another name. As with many good ideas, some develop independently but simultaneously.
Hook: 18 and smaller grub hook, nickel finish
Bead: 2mm brass or smaller gold tungsten
Thread: Black
Body: Red Flexifloss.
Underbody (optional - or use a silver hook) Silver tinsel - flat
The body is taper-wound from single thin layer of Flexifloss at the tail to multiple layers the width of the bead at the head. The thread is tied in at the collar behind the bead, and NOT taken down to the tail, as it shows through the Flexifloss. The Flexifloss is then tied in immediately behind the bead and taken down and up the shank to form the body. If an underbody is desired, tie in the tinsel immediately after tying in the flexi-floss and go down to the end and back again. Tie off and trim end. Tie the Flexifloss off just behind the bead and whip a thin black collar between the bead and the body. Tied in larger sizes (16 - 10), grayling readily succumb to this fly when feeding on bloodworm. It works well for stillwater and river trout too. <

Small Gnat- type dry fly
Publicised by Louis Noble In about 1975, this pattern is the easiest small fly tying method I have come across. It takes seconds to tie, and boy does it work if you choose the 'right' colour. Larger sizes work well on both grayling and trout.
Hook: 18, 20 or smaller
Thread: Black, white, cream, brown, green or grey (to suit rising insect)
Hackle: To suit thread - flue size about 1.5x gape width
Tie on thread behind eye, take down to bend and back again, tying in hackle about one third down. Wind hackle forward approx 5 times, then tie off. Using the tying thread, make figure of eights underneath the hook shank to force the hackle upwards to form a wing above the hook shank. Finish with a small head behind the eye. Use silicon/mucilin as floatant if necessary. I usually don't bother. I flick the fly a couple of times before recasting. That seems to dry it enough so it just sits in the film. This pattern tied really small is the best way I have found to represent caenis and the tiny black gnats.

Catching fast little dace on the fly is as exciting as you can get. A 2-weight rod allows you to feel every bump of the fish - if it is short (mine is 6'6") it makes it possible to cast from under trees. A really light tippet is essential - any heavier than a 2lb breaking strain will not fit through the eyes of the hooks. I use 1.7lb - an overkill. Be prepared to lose lots of flies before you get accurate in your casting. Your net is mostly redundant as the fish are small enough to be lifted straight from the water on the line. Using a pair of pliers, I usually just grip the barbless hook and gently tip the fish off about 6 inches above the water. Easy release is essential.

Sometimes a nosy grayling or even a trout may come to swallow down your fly. After catching a few dace you may find, as I did, that you become so 'trigger happy' that you are able to pull the fly away faster than the trout can catch it - and there starts another exciting game - called 'Where's the food gone?

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