THE salmon is the king of fish and, sooner or later, the urge to try for one-of these silver beauties will arise within you. Don’t suppress it for fear of any supposed difficulties. If you can catch trout, you can certainly take salmon. There are differences in techniques but the fundamentals of catching fish on fly are unaltered. Trouting requires more delicacy, agility of mind, poise, deftness and neatness; salmon fishing is rather less demanding on these lines but asks a man for patience, persistence and control. In return, it will offer harder and longer struggles and more memorable, if fewer, battles.

Some anglers have completely committed themselves to either one or another branch of the sport but in so doing, they seem to me, at least, to limit the potential fun which angling – essentially a flexible sport – can afford. Although pressure on the limited salmon rivers of this country is already heavy, the cream of the beats very expensive and often booked up for years ahead, salmon fishing at very reasonable prices can still be obtained through association and hotel waters. For many anglers whose local fishing is for trout, the holiday season is the time when they can indulge the desire to try for a fish which could go upwards of forty pounds in weight and which might take them an hour or more to land. Although the opening and closing dates for the season differ in various rivers, salmon can be fished for somewhere in this country from the middle of

January until the end of November. Thus opportunities exist if you choose to make them and take them.

Life History

Before we go on to discuss tackle and fishing methods, a brief account of some of the peculiarities of this particular fish may help you to understand the terms used to describe them. Salmon are migratory fish, returning as adults to the river in which they were born in order to spawn. Although the breeding season is in November, fish enter the river from the sea at all times of the year.

The first to arrive may come in as early as January – indeed, the season opens on the River Tay on the 15th of that month – and these, together with other fish coming in until May, are all called spring fish. They make their journey upstream to the spawning grounds in stages and they may ‘hang around’ in the river pools until the reproductive season many months away. Why they are driven to arrive so soon remains a mystery. So also is the fact that, although they do not eat at all during this waiting period, they can sometimes be tempted to attack a fly.

Fish arriving in June, July and August are known as summer fish and fall into two categories: summer salmon which have spawned before and are returning to do so again, and fish which are going to breed for the first time. These maiden fish, called grilse, are commonly about four to eight pounds in weight and frequently afford excellent sport. Later arrivals, coming in September, October and November, are called autumn fish. Particular rivers may have the main bulk of fish coming through in the early part of the year and they thus have the reputation of having a good spring run; others may have an autumn run or even both an autumn and a spring run.

When a salmon has been in fresh water for some time, the fresh silvery colouration dulls and red tones begin to appear. Such fish are sometimes spoken of as ‘stale’ and are often difficult to tempt. Cock (or male) fish grow a characteristic ‘hook’ on their lower jaw and are easily distinguishable from hen (or female) salmon.

At spawning time, when redds are cut in gravel beds in much the same way as trout, the eggs are laid and fertilised. The spent fish then begin to fall back down the river but often take months to do so before they re-enter the sea. Some of them die but the survivors are known as kelts or ‘unclean fish’ and there may be many of them still in the pools in the early spring months. Hooking a kelt is common at that time, and, since it is illegal to kill them, this often results in a disappointment for the beginner. Kelts are, of course, unfit to eat. They can be distinguished from ‘clean’ salmon by the tail, which usually shows signs of wear; by the open vent; by the lack of the silver gleam in the colouration and by the absence of depth in the belly. When hooked, they usually fight sluggishly, but mistakes are sometimes made in the springtime with ‘well mended’ kelts. Once you have seen one, however, you should have no difficulty in spotting them.

The eggs hatch in the spring as alevins which grow to fry. As these increase in size they are called parr and these can be distinguished from young trout by the prominent finger-like markings which parr display along the sides of the body. When they are two, sometimes three years old, the colour changes to become silvery and the young fish, some four to six inches long, are then known as smolts. The smolts drop back to the sea during April and May and virtually disappear. After a year, sometimes two or even three years, during which they feed on the rich bounty of marine life and may undertake long migrations to Greenland and Iceland, the fish, now greatly increased in size and weight, appear again in shoals at the mouth of the rivers. These potential parents await such favourable conditions as a rise in the river level during a spate before starting to run up into fresh water. Artificial hatcheries help to maintain stocks by releasing thousands of young fish every year into our rivers.


The dedicated salmon fisherman is likely to have more than one rod: a 13-14-footer with which he fishes a heavy sunk line and very large flies for deep-lying spring and autumn fish; and a lighter 11-12 foot rod which is used in late spring and summer with a floating- or greased-line technique. This places the beginner in a dilemma as to what he should buy. The first thing is to discover what sort of salmon fishing is available to you, the rivers you are planning to fish and how often you will be able to indulge in the sport. It may be that you are uncertain, or perhaps you are thinking primarily of combining salmon with sea trout fishing when on holiday.

For general purposes, a compromise between the longer, heavier, sunk-line rods and the shorter, greased-line types can be made by purchasing a rod between 12 ft and 12 ft 6 in which will carry a ‘B’ line. With this you will be able to fish all but the largest spring flies, and it will also be satisfactory for summer work. Salmon rods are available in glass or in cane, and, in my opinion, there is little point in spending a lot of money on an expensive cane rod unless you are going to be able to give it plenty of use. The fibre-glass rod may, perhaps, offer better value in terms of the number of times you will be after salmon during the year. On the other hand, if you are able to fish largely, or solely for salmon, the arguments in favour of a good-quality cane rod are as valid here as they were for trout rods.


The choice lies between the oil-dressed silk line, the plastic floater and the plastic sinking line. A sunk line is mostly necessary for spring and autumn fishing; a floating one for greased-line summer fishing. An oil-dressed line can, with difficulty, be made to serve both purposes. If you can afford it, separate sinking and floating lines will save you much trouble. Make certain that you purchase the correct AFTM line which is suited to your rod. Most anglers use a double-tapered line and this is certainly the best buy for you. Forward-taper lines do not offer the advantages in salmon fishing that they do for trouting.


A 3f in. or a 4 in. diameter salmon reel will hold your line and about eighty yards or so of backing. Since you may expect longer, fiercer runs and considerable strain on the check mechanism, a good-quality reel is a sound investment. If you have two lines, a spare drum can be purchased, which facilitates changing over from sunk-line to floating-line fishing. Buy a spare spring for the rachet when you are in the shop. Should the tongue of the spring break – and very occasionally they do – you could find yourself miles from the nearest tackle shop and quite unable to go on fishing.


On the smaller rivers, it is possible to make do with the ordinary thigh-boots of the trout fisherman. On larger waters, breast-high canvas or rubber waders with special wading brogues are used. Whether you will require these depends entirely on the nature of the river.


Most salmon fishing is done with a single fly. You can either purchase made-up casts or adopt the simple system of carrying two reels of nylon – one of 15 lb breaking-strain for sunk-line fishing and one of 10 lb breaking-strain for greased-line work.


Salmon flies are dressed in a wide variety of gaudy and sombre patterns and are available on a variety of hooks and sizes. It is all very confusing, but with the help of the coloured plates found in some of the fishing catalogues, it is possible to pick up a working knowledge of the names of the more popular patterns. Let us make a start by considering the hooks.

Single hooks

Very large single hooks are used in the early part of the season to sink a fly well down in the water. The biggest, size 10/0, is about 3£ in. long. As they become smaller, they are graded progressively downwards, e.g., 9/0, 8/0, 7/0 to size 1/0 which is about 1£ in. long. When they are smaller than this, they are numbered from 1-12. Thus, size 1 is approximately 11 in. and the smallest, size 12, about -& in. The change to the smaller patterns takes place as the water warms up. At the height of summer, in low water, relatively tiny flies are used. As the colder weather of autumn sets in, larger and larger hooks come into use. A special design of single hook, which is linked in the middle of the shank, is known as the ‘Cebrit’ and is claimed to be very difficult to dislodge once a fish is hooked.

Double Hooks

Flies dressed on double hooks are often used, and there are arguments both for and against them. They sink more readily than singles but the objection that one hook tends to lever out the other is sometimes raised against them.

Treble Hooks (a) Waddingtons

These are specially-designed flies with treble hooks linked to the end of the shank. Long, streaming hackles are used and they have proved very successful in practice. (b) Tube Flies

Within recent years, flies dressed on hollow plastic tubes, through which the nylon cast is passed before tying on a treble hook, have become extremely popular. (c) Drury Trebles

Another recent innovation has been the introduction of special treble hooks which have a longer shank than usual. This allows the fly to be dressed directly on to the shank. The complete fly is thus in a single unit. In the smaller sizes, these have proved to be good killers.


There are two main types of dressing: the standard pattern and the low water. The standard salmon fly on a double or a single hook is fully dressed along the length of the shank and conforms to the specifications of a particular design.

The low-water dressing, introduced by A. H. E. Wood, is designed for greased-line fishing. The hooks are light and the dressing extends only about halfway along the shank. These are much used for summer fishing.

Choosing Flies

Salmon flies are very expensive and very expendable. You will find that you will crack them off at first with mistimed casts or break the barbs on stones behind you. So before you rush to acquire a large and varied stock, it is as well to pause a moment for consideration.

Nobody has any real understanding of why a fasting fish should choose to snap at any particular passing bauble of feather and metal. Feeding reflexes retained from their time in the sea, aggressive impulses, curiosity, even ‘anger’, have all been advanced as theories. Angling literature is full of speculations, hypotheses and some frankly ill-advised nonsense about the whys and wherefores of salmon flics. Special merits are sometimes attributed by individuals to special patterns which appear to do well on certain rivers. Undoubtedly, in the beginning, you will be influenced by what you read and by what you hear, but the best counsel I can give you is to retain an open mind and let time and experience mould your own ideas for you.

I am more and more convinced myself that, given the necessary modicum of skill in casting, some knowledge of where fish are lying and a reasonable choice of hook size for the water, less depends on pattern than is commonly supposed. In short, when fish come on the take, they will accept almost anything of a suitable size. All that is necessary is to be in the right place at the right time. This is a matter of good fortune, but the longer you persist in delivering good casts, working your fly correctly and covering good fishing water, the greater the chance that a salmon will eventually move to you.

Confidence is a splendid stepping-stone to an enjoyable day’s fishing and, for the beginner, this is largely a matter of fishing with a fly which he knows has recently been successful on a particular water. Seek local advice at first. This will help your morale by removing any niggling doubts about the choice of pattern and size. As you develop as an angler and catch fish for yourself, you will come to rely less and less on the recommendations of others and more and more on your own observations and experiences on the water.

The Gaff and Tailer

Very large landing-nets are used for salmon but they are difficult to manoeuvre on one’s own, and a nuisance to carry around. The gaff, a large metal hook, is frequently employed instead to lift fish out of the river. It is, however, forbidden on some waters lest its use should kill kelts which would otherwise have been fit to release. Where it is permitted, it is the easiest alternative if beaching a fish is impossible. Telescopic gaffs, in which the handle extends to several feet, are popular and can be comfortably stowed away in a fishing-bag or carried on a clip like a net. Since the hook is large and sharp, it is wise to fit a piece of rubber tubing over the point as a precautionary measure when the gaif is not in use. When a salmon has been played out, the gaff handle is extended and the hook is clipped through the belly or shoulder of the fish. It can then be lifted directly out of the water. In skilled hands, the gaff is an extremely effective instrument.

A tailer is a mechanical device with a running noose rather like a rabbit snare. When a fish has been tired out, the noose is pushed over the tail and pulled tight, and the fish is drawn backwards on to the bank. Although it is a little more tricky to use than the gaff, it has the advantage of doing no permanent damage to a fish should it turn out to be a kelt.

Greased-line Fishing

Many beginners feel the first urge to try salmon fishing in the late spring or summer, after an introduction to trout. At this time of the year, the greased-line method serves as an excellent way of making a start. With a floating line, the pick-up off the water is easier and casting with a double-handed rod simplified. We can start off by glancing briefly at some of the main points.

When resting or awaiting a rise in the river level before continuing upstream, salmon do not distribute themselves hap- hazardly but tend to choose special lies where the current is favourable to them. When one fish moves on, the same spot is again picked by the next oncoming fish. Obviously, a knowledge of these lies, occupied by temporary tenants year after year, is of great value to the angler. Unless you can see the fish, however, these lies may be difficult to spot and much time can be wasted in covering water which appears promising but which, in fact, contains no salmon. On a strange river, the best course is to make a preliminary reconnaissance. Fellow fishers are usually helpful with advice and will point out the well known ‘taking spots’. In fishing hotels, you will normally have no trouble in obtaining information from the proprietor about his water, or you may be able to enlist the services of locals who act as gillies during the summer season. With their assistance, even for a single day, you can locate the known lies and the best pool. Make a few rough sketches for future reference.

A. H. E. Wood, a famous salmon fisherman, originated the greased-line method at the turn of the century, having come to the conclusion that salmon would take a fly fished close to the surface much more readily than a sunk one provided that the air temperature was warmer than the water. In order to keep his fly from sinking too far down in such conditions, he started the practice of greasing his line. His original theories, and the lightly-dressed low-water flies which he used, have stood the test of time and have been proved under practical conditions over the last sixty years. Modern salmon fishers now change over from sunk-line to greased-line fishing when the water temperature is above 48 degrees Fahrenheit.

Let us suppose then that you are on a suitable stretch in late spring or early summer. The first task is to select a suitable fly – a No. 4 Blue Charm, a favourite pattern on many rivers, will do very well if there is a fair amount of water. A smaller size, say No. 6, can be used if the level is lower. Attach it to three yards of 10 lb breaking-strain nylon. The principles involved in working the fly are very similar to those of downstream wet-fly trout fishing. Your aim is to cast across and down, to avoid drag by mending when necessary, and to swim the fly slowly and steadily over the known salmon lies an inch or two below the surface. You will find a tendency for a small fly to ‘skirt’, that is to slip, skid or skate along the surface of the water without sinking. If it does so, you must take the appropriate remedy by either mending or casting at a greater angle downstream. The art of salmon fishing lies in the correct presentation of your fly over the fish in every possible combination of slack and fast water. Your floating line will help you to see what is happening. Always fish your cast out completely and try to let the fly dangle or ‘flutter’ downstream.

You will quickly become used to the longer and more powerful double-handed salmon rod. The principles involved in casting with it are very much the same as those we have discussed with the overhead trout cast. In the double-handed cast, the right hand is normally on the top of the grip and the left at the bottom near the butt. Its function is only to support the rod. Power is applied by the right arm and shoulder. As no wrist break is required, you will find that the cast is easier to manage. Track the rod backwards a few degrees from the vertical and remember that it is just as important to bring it forward in the same plane. Beware of the heavier line falling below the horizontal on the back cast. Check your fly frequently for damage.

As your cast falls on the water, quickly retrieve a foot or two of line with your left hand and hold it at the grip with the right index finger. The reason for this slack line is to provide you with a safety measure and to delay your instinctive reaction to a take. In trout fishing, you are keyed up to make an almost instantaneous response to every offer – in salmon fishing you must forget all about striking and endeavour to avoid any speedy reactions. The salmon takes a fly much more slowly than a trout; if you strike at the first sign, you will pull the hook from its jaws. You are going to find this a troublesome business, especially if you have been practising striking on your local trout. Try to keep in mind that the majority of salmon, given the chance, will hook themselves – all that is required of you is calmness. At the first sign of a pluck, pull or offer to your fly, let go the slack line you have been holding. This may help you to delay the strike you are longing to make. Give the fish time to take your fly and turn – these agonising seconds are vital – then tighten sideways with the rod almost downstream. It’s an unnerving process, and almost certainly you will be tempted to strike, especially if you see a fish turning in a ‘head and tail’ rise to you. In such a case, the old advice of shutting your eyes and doing nothing until you feel a tug, is particularly good. Fortunately, many a salmon hooks itself despite the efforts of the angler.

Let us hope then, with a bit of luck, that you hook your first offer. A fresh fish will afford you all the excitement you have been led to expect. Give it line as it runs, and recover as soon as possible. Be prepared to follow your fish. Minute by minute, you must fight it out between you. The beginning of the end is signalled when the fish rolls over on its side. Now you must take the final decision whether to beach, gaff or tail it. If you are by yourself and the beach slopes gently, your best chance will lie in beaching. Allow the fish to fall below you, steer it towards the bank by moving your rod sideways, but keep the rod up and the tension on. In this way, work its head ashore; its own struggles and tail sweeps will assist the process. Walk forward, still with the pressure on, until you can grasp the fish by the tail and lift it ashore. A good salmon takes a bit of killing and may twist and turn in your hand. Watch your rod. In your excitement, it is easy to run the point into the ground and break the tip. Your first salmon will give you a thrill which can never quite be attained again. Sit down and savour the sensation.

If the pool is steep and rocky, beaching may not be possible and the gaff is then the only solution. There is nothing difficult about gaffing provided that you wait until the fish is completely played out. Shorten your line until the fish is within your reach and keep the rod well up. Wait until it is rolling on its side, and then extend the gaff with the hook pointing down until it is only a few inches above the fish. Now draw it firmly into the body and lift the salmon out of the water and on to the shore at once.