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Fly Fishing – Using the Sawyer Killer Bug
Frank Sawyer’s Killer Bug is deadly on chalk streams. Although designed to catch large numbers of grayling, it can also be effective against trout. The Killer Bug technique is unique, but can be learned quickly by anyone willing to learn.
As far as I know, no one is sure why the killer bug is so effective. My grandfather, the late Frank Sawyer, originally designed it to imitate the freshwater shrimp Gammarus pulex, but it is just as effective if it is constructed in water without the crustacean or several times larger than natural. A killer bug is usually taken when ready to ‘swim’. Most of the time it will be in the ‘shrimp zone’ but it can sometimes be taken above this area when apparently ‘swimming’ at the surface. As shrimp only live on the bottom of chalk streams it is hard to see why fish would misplace artificial shrimp. Pigs can fly, but who’s going to eat a bacon sandwich if it’s floating several inches above the table? My grandfather suggested in ‘Nymphs and the Trout’ that a swimming bug resembles a hatchling sedge that moves to the surface. Some well-known fishermen claim that the killer bug looks like a maggot or grub lying in the water, while others say that it looks like a food pellet to stocked fish. I’ve even seen a small pike follow a killer bug through the water (though never take it) so it probably looks like a small fish in some situations.
The widely reported disturbance of chalk currents and decline in fly abundance is a definite cause for concern, but we sometimes forget that up to 80% of a trout’s food is taken sub-surface. Unless lucky enough to be fishing between hatches, trout may not be interested in a dry fly. This presents a problem. Like most fishermen, I fish when I have the time, hatch or not. Fortunately, fish have to be eaten. If there are no flies on the surface, or they ignore any flies present and hatch nymphs are visible, they may be feeding on something else. It is often a freshwater shrimp.
It is always surprising how often fishermen fail to find large numbers of clearly identifiable fish in the water. The first step in killer bug fishing is to try and operate where the fish will be seen. This is not necessary, but it makes the technique easier and more interesting.
The Upper Avon, where I enjoy my fishing the most, has a greater population of grayling than trout. It is too tempting to ignore the grayling and continue upstream in search of trout. My grandfather had a phrase for this: “Giving gold to fish for tinsel.” Grayling is a true wild fish and a joy to catch. Not only do they provide fair game, but they taste better and are more plentiful than trout. On many occasions I’ve been fishing for grayling and a previously hidden trout has come out of cover to take my killer bug. For the inexperienced angler or those of us who rarely fish, an ideal way to start the day and polish those killer bug skills is before tackling a big trout a few hundred meters up. My father and I sometimes spend the day grayling fishing with killer bugs. The goal is to catch every grayling in the shawl before moving on. It is not unusual for us to land well over 50 grayling in 3 or 4 hours of fishing.
The most important part of killer bug technique is getting the bug to swim in the right place in the right way. To achieve this, the bug must be allowed to sink to the bottom of the river and then swim to the surface in a smooth, natural manner. Where to start the swimming movement will depend on the location of the fish and the current. The point at which the swimming motion begins is known as the activation point. The cast has to be made far enough upstream of the activation point to allow the bug to sink to the proper depth before the swim begins. This point is known as the cast area. Here’s the good bit. As long as there are no weeds or obstructions, the bug can bounce for some distance on the bottom before beginning its swimming motion. This reduces the need for precise and delicate casting as the cast will be satisfactory anywhere upstream of the area. All fishermen have to do is allow the bug to bounce along the river bank until it reaches the activation point and then begin a swimming motion by slowly lifting the rod tip and maintaining a tight line. Weeds, obstructions and current characteristics can occasionally prevent the angler from performing this technique, and fish tend to feed in awkward places, but there will be many places on a chalk stream where this technique can be used. Trout can sometimes be spooked by bugs moving along the river bed but grayling are not bothered much.
Calculating the activation point is easy. To be most effective, the bug should start swimming 1 to 2 feet in front of the target fish. It creates an activation point 2 feet in front of the target fish if it is on the bottom of the river, or further upstream if it is feeding near the surface. The cast area will depend entirely on water depth and current speed. Unless it’s a particularly deep pool or very fast current, 4 feet is a good starting point, but trial and error will ultimately be the deciding factor. If it is clear that the bug has not sunk to the bottom before the activation point, move the cast area further upstream.
The hardest part of killer bug fishing is undoubtedly knowing when to strike. I have seen fishermen reel in their line and re-cast with glee not knowing that many fish have been killed and then spit out the killer bug. A strike is easiest when the angler can clearly see the bug and the fish, but can also be done when only the fish is visible. It is also possible to use the line at the point where it enters the water as a strike indicator, and the best killer bug anglers can succeed by simply striking on instinct.
With good light conditions and clear water, it is very easy to see bugs in the water and also easy to see fish. What could be easier than watching a killer bug crawl into a fish’s mouth? Unfortunately, fish spit out bugs very quickly and the act of killing can take a relatively long time, especially if the fish is too long or the line has too much slack. This is why killer bug fishing has become more successful; This eliminates the need to predict the fish’s actions. If the fish are more than 15 -20 feet away, the time between the fish striking and the hook setting will require the strike to begin before the fish hits the bug. Fish very rarely get hooked on killer bugs.
It is also relatively easy to determine when a bug has been taken by looking at the fish. This is the most common technique because it is very difficult to see the tiny killer bugs when they are sinking several feet away. Even if you can’t see your bug, you should have a reasonable idea of where it is in the river. Any fish that runs to that rough spot and then stops is probably taken. It’s time to strike. If your cast is accurate enough, the fish won’t have to travel as far to get your bug. In this case, watch for a flick of the tail, a sudden movement of the head, or a slight upward tilt. Ironically, miscasting, which leads the fish to your bug, is sometimes more successful because it can make the take easier to spot.
Sometimes it is not possible to see fish or killer bugs. Maybe the river is too dirty or the light is wrong. In this situation it pays to watch the line at the point where it enters the water. When the bug is swimming, look for a small, almost imperceptible check or movement where the line sinks below the surface. If you see such signs, strike. Occasionally a fish will choke and there will be no mistaking the action, but this is rare.
Fishing on instinct alone is one of the most difficult techniques, but really it’s just common sense and experience. Common sense dictates that the killer bug is most likely to be in the ‘shrimp zone’ within the first few seconds of the swim action. Experience tells us that grayling and trout are predictable; Most anglers know where they like to eat. Combining common sense and experience creates an instinct for where and, more importantly, when the fish are most likely to be caught. Striking at this point can lead to success. It is definitely worth a try if no other technique can be used.
No matter how you catch your first fish, it’s important to ‘slime’ the bug, nylon cast and leader. Fish slime has many properties that make killer bugs extremely useful for fishermen. First the slime makes the bugs taste more natural. This causes the fish to spend more time artificially spitting, killing precious extra milliseconds. Slim the nylon on a ‘wet’ cast and it glides more easily through the water. This causes the bug to sink faster and force the line with less water resistance. Finally, the slime mask masks overtly human odors, like soap or tobacco, that linger momentarily on everything we touch.
There are no guarantees in fly fishing but a competent killer bug technique on a chalk stream is about as close to a guarantee as you can get while following club rules. The technique is simple, effective, a lot of fun and once mastered is never forgotten. One of the biggest appeals of the Killer Bug is its versatility. In today’s hectic lifestyle, the associated pressures on precious fishing time and the significant decline in fish life and surface feeding, this is perhaps more relevant to modern fishermen than ever before. After more than 50 years of distinguished service, the killer bug remains a deadly mystery, and long may it remain.
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