In 1884, the rainbow trout first found its way from America by way of the new steamer ships and the newly found way of preserving fish eggs. UK trout fishing has never been the same since. The rainbow has proved to be a real survivor, a real doer, a fish that can knuckle down, roll up its shirt sleeves and make a living in the water that would frighten the life out of any self-respecting brown. Indeed, today, there’s barely a half-suitable country in the world that hasn’t got a stock of rainbows, Uganda, India, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Hawaii and the Isle of Man. In the scores of countries that I’ve fished, possibly the only one not to have stocks of rainbows is Mongolia… and somebody could easily surprise me there. I wait to be corrected here but possibly in the freshwaters of the world, only the stickleback can match the rainbow trout for all-round flexibility, doggedness and refusal to give up quietly.

In the UK it’s very easy to underestimate the rainbow trout. Go into any pub and some fairly miserable farmed stuff will be for sale in baskets buried in chips. Some of the stockies used in some commercial fisheries do the species any justice either. We’ve all caught those sad, badly finned, anaemic, gasping, stunted, malformed 12oz fish that inspire pity not pride. That’s a tragedy, the fault of man and in no way the fault of the fish.

In truth, rainbows are magnificent, noble and as fantastically sporting as you can get. It’s popular in 2007, to get all prissy over browns. They’re lovely, but they’re moody and if it’s a scrap that you’re after it’s a rainbow you want to be hooking. Ernest Hemingway – he of the ‘Old Man And The Sea’ – knew what

The wilds of North America – home of the rainbow trout.

he was talking about and liked a bit of a punch-up himself: “Rainbow trout fishing is as different from brook fishing as prize fighting is from boxing. It’s a wild and nerve-frazzling sport.” Trust Hemingway to recognise a fellow fighter.

For some of the most exciting rainbows that swim, you’ve got to look to the North American west coast. Steelhead are rainbow trout that go to the sea and return to freshwater to spawn – much the same relationship as sea trout have with browns. Believe me, a fresh-run, silver, female steelhead of, say, 18lb or so is arguably as fine a fish as you will ever see on the end of your line. No wonder the North American’s are quite potty about steelhead – those great chiselled fins, silver-bullet shapes, the arcs of colouring and the crimson gill flaps that simply make you gawp. But rainbows don’t have to be steelheads to be magnificent. I saw three rainbows in a feeder stream of Lake Taupo, on New Zealand’s north island, some years ago and they’re fish that are likely to come back into my mind any time I’ve got an idle moment. They were hanging in crystal water under cloudless sun and they were just about as gobsmacking a trio of fish that I’ve ever seen. They were big, yes, well into double figures but it was their sheer bloody majesty that did for me. They swam about as though they were the lords of creation. And, believe it or not, here in the UK we’ve got rainbows that might not be as big – but they’re just as good. But more on that later.

It’s ‘trendy’ for UK fly anglers to moan of the ‘stockie rainbows’. Don’t blame the fish, blame man’s influence.

The best advice I ever picked up on when it comes to rainbows was in Brian Clarke’s classic book, ‘Stillwater Trout Fishing’. The whole thing changed my life and directed my passion for stillwater rainbows throughout the 1980s. But it was the instruction to learn to cast 20, 22 and even 24ft leaders that probably did me the biggest service of all. There’ve been so many times when that much nylon has been essential to catch spooky fish in clear water at depth. And it’s a lovely, sensitive, touchy-feely way to fish. In truth, I’ve never much been one for stripping back a lure, exciting as it can be in early April when the wind is raw and the water rough. No, I’ve always been one for something a bit softer, a bit more girlie perhaps!

And that’s why I’ve always worshipped buzzer fishing and nothing takes buzzers better than a rainbow. And, for my money, there isn’t a better buzzer fisherman around today than Howard Croston. It was Howard who reawakened my interest in fishing the buzzer, reminding me of how important it is to track the feeding fish and interpret its behaviour and predict its patrol routes. I love Howard’s way of fishing: he puts the fish above tackle and technique and that’s what makes him so good and that’s what makes rainbows respond. The stockie might be daft for a day or two but that won’t last for long.

My memories of rainbows are countless. But perhaps it was Chew Valley back in the 1970s that really did it for me. One of my mates, Tubs, had taken a job teaching English at a Bristol secondary school and as often as I could I’d get down there. We’d drink until dawn – hence the nickname ‘Tubs’ – and we’d get out on the water at first light with hangovers that would crucify you. But those rainbows made the pain redundant and forgotten. Until then, a one or two pound rainbow had been the ceiling of my ambition, fish that I could land on two or three-pound tippets. Not these creatures. Over and over, Tubs and I blanked.

Steelhead. The rainbow trout’s migratory form is America’s most-revered game fish.

Not because we didn’t have fish on – we did, again and again – but we simply couldn’t land them. Nearly always we were fishing from the bank– too drunk to go afloat – and those Chew fish would hit and run and break us with sickening inevitability. They were just turbocharged fish like we’d never hooked into before. Of course, at last, we learnt to up our tippets to five or even seven-pound breaking strain. We learnt not to hold them too tight and how to control the line with the fingers of the rod hand. It was a new and fantastic way of fishing and I thank reservoir rainbows for some of the happiest memories. Okay, our fingers got line burn again and again but when you were looking at a fully finned four-pound Chew rainbow, do you think we cared?

Best places? There are scores of them. I like the starkness of Kielder. I love the quality of the fish and the panoramic views at Coldingham Loch. Wimbleball takes some beating simply because it’s so pretty. The Isle of Man – yes! I’m told by Phil White has some incredibly hard-fighting rainbows in both Sulby and Ingebreck reservoirs. As he says, “Two wild, windswept waters where the fish hit hard and fast like they used to at Chew. Brilliant on the Daddy Longlegs in September.” Over in Ireland, in County Mayo, there aren’t many places better than Ballinlough, 55 acres and crystal clear. Good spring olives. Great buzzer activity and great dry fly fishing, and rainbows to absolutely die for.
Whenever I get the chance, I love also to visit Lockwood Beck, a nearly 100 year-old dam not far from Saltburn in the northeast. Although the place was man-made 80 or 90 years ago it’s as near a natural water as you’ll find anywhere. My introduction to it took place on an oppressive, lightning-streaked evening a couple of years back. The air was heavy with rumbles of thunder around the hills. Lockwood, which is generally beautiful, was menacing and the swish of our rods cut the atmosphere like knives. But it was the method of fishing, too, that so grabbed at my imagination. I was there with Dave Marshall, a truly valued friend and he pointed us towards 5-wt rods, light lines, three-pound tippets and the smallest dry flies that we could tie on the end. The plan was to cast way, way out and let the little dries work their way through the fractional ripple. Rises were big and bold and the hooked fish simply powered off, often jumping into the leaden air. Later, at the car park Dave, I, and all the regulars gathered around to chat through the events of the evening. The rain was hissing down by now but none of us cared. We all had something to say, a comment to make, a good wish to pass on. It was homely. It was almost like a small club, the very best that a commercial rainbow trout fishery can be.

I know it’s fashionable to knock the stocked rainbow trout in the chalkstreams, the Test in particular, but there are times when I’ve caught them and been totally blown away. For one thing, they’re great to watch these big, splendidly coloured rainbows in such clear water. Of course, we’re meant to drool over flawless, perfectly formed wild fish but a big rainbow that’s been in the river for some months or even a year can become a fully mended, magnificent creature that will fight like a thing demented. There , have been more days than I can count when the wild, chalkstream browns have driven me to distraction and a big, bold, bustling rainbow has saved the day for me. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit it, but I don’t care.

But, just perhaps, best of all, are the wild, naturally breeding rainbow trout of the Derbyshire Wye. Quite why rainbows don’t breed widely in the UK in the wild we’re not quite sure, but they do here and the results take your breath away, believe me. A wild rainbow might not be the size of a fish from Taupo or even Chew but that doesn’t matter. They’re exquisite. They’re steelhead in miniature. You look at one and you’re ashamed you ever used the word stockie. These are fish to make your heart sing. To make you realise that there’s at least something perfect to have come from America.

Total Fly Fisher