In salmon fishing, red-letter days are not only infrequent, but are also in proportion to the price you have paid for your beat. When the water is more expensive, fewer rods are fishing, there are heavier runs of salmon, and your beat is not too far from the sea. The salmon there are fresh in from saltwater – classic, deep-bodied silver beauties, still sporting the sea lice on their flanks that show that they have arrived only in the past 48 hours. The cost on such a quality water can be £500 per week or more.
Importance of the weather
But paying a lot of money does not in itself guarantee salmon. The weather plays an important part; and you will catch nothing if there is too much or too little water in the river, or the air is too cold or too warm. You need to use the cunning of an expert, and be able to identify the right types of He, or salmon resting places, known to ghillies and experienced salmon anglers.
Tackles and techniques depend on three main elements – the time of the year, location of the beat (par-ticularly to its distance from the sea) and weather and water.
Salmon fishing in Britain and Ireland begins in the early days of the new year, and on some rivers closes as late as the end of November. There are four main periods – early spring, late spring, summer and late summer autumn.
From January to mid-April, you not only have to catch your fish, but also identify whether or not it is ‘clean’. In the early months, many salmon will be fish which entered freshwater the previous year, spawned in November and Decem-ber, and are now dropping back to the sea as kelts. These fish are pro-tected by law, and should be returned carefully to the water. Many are thin, ugly specimens, with over-large heads for their bodies, and ragged fins, but, although thinner, several have returned to their silvery, pre-spawning colours, and are difficult to identify. If you wish to identify a kelt, you will notice it has maggots in the gill rakers, an extended, reddened vent in the hen fish, ragged fins, thin body, and an ‘enlarged’ head.
Hooking a kelt
A kelt will often give a good account of itself when hooked, especially the well-mended fish, and is therefore exhausted when returned to the water. To stop the fish ‘drowning’, hold it gently in the water, head upstream, and allow the current to pass through the fish’s mouth to activate the gills.
Tay, Spey, Wye 40 lb; Ness, Tweed, Nith, Dee 30 lb; Esk, Eden 25 lb; Scottish Islands 10 lb; Tywi, Teifi, Dee, Usk 20 lb; Avon 30 lb; Severn 20 lb; Eire 25lb.
Double-handed, 9ft salmon spinning rod
Salmon fly rod, 12ft-14ft
Spinning, multiplying, closed-face, fixed-spool
Line 9-12 lb b.s. (spinning) Fly lines: sinking, sink-tip, floating, to match rods Casts 912 lb b.s.
According to season and water conditions Baits
Spoons, Devons, plugs, flies, sprats, prawns, shrimps, worms, tube flies
Spinning (sink-and-draw, harling, trolling), fly head and gills submerged, and this will force water through the gills.
Apart from the springer (spring salmon) and kelt, you can also hook salmon which entered the river the previous year, but failed to spawn. These are ‘baggots’, hen fish which become spawn-bound. They are dark blue on the back, and have a good shape, the ripe eggs extending the belly to give a rounded appearance similar to many bigger autumn fish. Most come from the bigger class of fish – over 15 lb – and can fight hard when hooked but, being unseasonal, should be returned. On some Scot-tish rivers they are considered the ghillie’s fish.
In early spring, salmon move quickly through estuaries. The river is generally wide and deep here, and has few rocks and heavy streams or weirs to hold fish back and give you a chance of presenting your bait. It is just possible to catch fish but the odds are very much against it. Only in cold weather and low water conditions, when fish rest awhile in the lower reaches, waiting for rain and a rise in temperature before moving upstream, do you stand much of a chance of catching a salmon.
Even farther inland, on slower-moving stretches, fly fishing is not productive in early spring. In cold temperatures, fish lie deep, so that you need to fish slowly and carefully through the lies, placing a lure near the resting fish. The best places are downstream from obstructions, and in the slacker water found just above a fast stream.
Salmon rest in lower reaches only for short periods and you should watch for a splash at the tail end of the pool which indicates that a new fish has entered from the stream below. Splashing elsewhere in the pool seldom means a take, but the ‘head and tail’ rise of a running fish suggests a possible chance if the bait is cast from above the he, working quickly down to where the fish was seen. The salmon will only hold its position for a few minutes, so be quick to get your bait or fly across.
Fish which throw themselves clear of the water, or rise in a splashy manner, rarely take, and most experts prefer to see just a few fish showing quietly. Salmon coming out across the pools in a series of ‘tail-walks’, skittering sideways out of the lie, indicate diseased fish. UDN has been in our rivers for more than a decade, and a serious outbreak not only puts the diseased fish off the take, but disturbs fresh salmon moving into the stretch.
You should also avoid the slower, quieter eddies, as this is where you are likely to find kelts. Grilse kelts, in particular, turn up in fast water, causing some exhilaration, but followed by disappointment.
The most successful method in early spring is spinning. For baits you have a bewildering variety of spoons and Devons to choose from, plus the natural sprat – my favourite. I weight the cast with a spiral lead above the lure to allow the sprat to fish deeply. Being light, it swims slightly higher in the water than the lead. Vary the rate of retrieve to make the lure respond in a life-like manner over the lies, rather than mechanically like many spun baits.
The wooden Devon has a similar action to a sprat, moving enticingly over the salmon, slightly higher than the weight, and picking up the variations in the currents. When a fish takes, the strike is a double pull, and you should delay raising the rod until the firmer second pull from the fish, when the salmon generally hooks itself. Later in the year, the fish hit the bait faster and harder, requiring a different response.
On bigger rivers such as the Tay and Tweed, much early spring fishing takes place from boats. The method here is called harling. It is similar to trolling but instead of the boat pulling the bait through the water the ghillie holds the boat in the current, which works the baits, and the boat moves backwards and forwards across the river, slowly working downstream over the known lies.
Much of the success of this method depends on the ghillie, who knows exactly where the best places are and at what depth to work the baits. Sometimes he uses three, but never less than two, rods with different baits, as salmon can be very choosy.
Tempting the salmon
The skilled ghillie flutters the bait enticingly ‘on the nose’ of a fish, until the salmon makes a grab, whereas the bank angler covering the same lie has a restricted time to present his bait. Harling baits include sprats, devons and spoons, with the addition of plugs. My favourites include the Abu Kynoch and Scandinavian Rappalla. These baits dive and wobble, working deep ‘ and slow over the waiting fish at a seductive pace. The salmon strike can be violent as it wallops the plug bait, which can lead to even an ex-perienced angler pulling the bait from the fish before it is hooked.
Harling is an effective method, but comes very much second best in terms of sport as it denies the angler the excitement and anticipation of the take when covering the lies from the bank.
On the lower river, much of the best of the early spring fishing is found where there are major obstructions to the flow of water. There may be bank constrictions forming powerful runs and deep holding pools, or man-made obstacles such as weirs and dams, where fish hold downstream of the white water, resting before running the stream. The shallowest, very fast water holds few fish, but it is always worthwhile trying the edge of the stronger runs, where the odd spring fish may linger.
Middle reaches best
For the heavy, deeper streams, metal Devons or spoons are best. Select the correct weight of bait for the strength of current, cast across and slightly downstream, and allow the pull of the water to bring the bait round and over the lies.
It is rather like harling from the bank, with the fisherman holding the rod slightly above head height, without reeling in until the bait has come across the pool and is im-mediately below him. All that is needed is an occasional raising of the rod and a few turns of the reel to impart extra movement to the bait.
Although big fish can be obtained in the lower reaches, you can expect the best value out of early spring fishing in the middle reaches. Fishing costs less than in the lower beats, but you are still near enough to the sea to catch fresh-run salmon. The water also has more character, increasing your enjoyment of reading streams and pools.
A typical pool has streamy lies in relatively shallow water, where your fly rod will find sport even in very low temperatures. On smaller rivers, where winter temperatures can freeze pools from bank to bank, you first have to clear the pool of ice, but even in such extreme conditions fish can be caught on the fly.
Many salmon fishermen are turn-ing increasingly to tube flies, par-ticularly the Garry Dog, because of their proven success in catching some of the very first of the season’s run of fish.
While large flies fished slowly and deep will kill early salmon on most rivers, most salmon fall to spun baits. Many experts recommend a silver lure when there is snow on the ground, or when the river is suffer-ing from ‘snow bree’ (melting snow which gives the river a ‘pea soup’ appearance), but I have found that a Yellow Belly (a Devon painted yellow and green) can be effective during such conditions. As the temperature rises, brown and gold or orangered combinations can be more effective.
In the upper reaches of most systems, there is little to attract the salmon angler in early spring. Association water produces few fish, and most activity is with kelts. But on the larger rivers, where spring salmon can start running as early as the previous October, there are always clean fish to be taken from the upper river and tributaries, even from opening day. Winter fish, like springers, will not spawn until the following autumn, and are fair game.
The tributaries, being smaller, require a stealthier approach, and baits should also be smaller. The river source, usually a loch or lake, produces early sport, mainly on trolling lures from shoreline boats.
By April, fish are generally well settled, and most beats produce sport. Lower reaches offer reduced catches, but the middle stretches give peak catches for the spring run. Weather is all-important, however, and if still cold, with little rain, fish will tend to hold in the bottom reaches of the river.
As the temperature increases, smaller baits are more successful and the fly becomes more productive. On a bigger river, you can fish either from the bank or from a boat, using a sinking line or sink tip, with flies from l-2in long. Costly built-wing patterns on single and double hooks have now given way to tube flies, especially for spring fishing. My favourite is the hair-wing pattern Black and Yellow.
In late spring in the reaches, fish start moving into the heads of streams, looking for faster water and more oxygen. The fresh-run fish are the best takers, but beats holding the earlier-run springers can do well. The early fish may remain for weeks at a time in some lies, and batches of fresh salmon moving through tend to hold where they meet these ‘residents’. Thus it is quite common for a bait to produce several fish a day from a He where there was a single resident. You can imagine the disappointment when a spate moves the residents on. Or the ‘stale’ fish may be caught and thus the next batch of fresh fish then moves straight through.
Spinning baits should also be reduced in size in late spring, and wooden Devons and smaller spoons become very effective. Fish them upstream and spin quickly back through the faster runs. This can be exciting. The salmon often show before taking the bait and can follow the lure right to the angler’s feet before a final grab.
Trolling for salmon
If the spring weather is warm, it is worth while thinking about worm and prawn baits. These methods are usually employed in summer and autumn, but can be effective in a warm spring, in low water.
A further altenative is trolling. Lochs and lakes offer some of their best trolling in the late spring. While it can be laborious, a methodical covering of runs along the shoreline needs an expert touch if the baits are not to stray over barren ground. Even the biggest loch or lake has its known salmon runs, and local advice is needed to find them. There is little above the water to tell the angler where the fish are likely to be. Points of bays and banks of deeper water adjacent to gravelly shallows are good, but there is no substitute for local knowledge.
Summer can be a frustrating time, as the specimen hunter has to contend with low water, high temperatures, bright sunshine, sudden spates, thundery conditions and stale fish. But when the conditions are right – fresh water which moves in clean fish and stirs the residents, mild weather and a light breeze – the rewards can be great. It is the time to use floating line and tiny flies, some of them a fraction of the size of reservoir lures used for trout.
The spinning rod can also be used with prawn, shrimp or worm. Use a longer rod with reel lines as light as 9 lb b.s. Lighter baits like prawns, shrimps, worms or smaller spoons under foz, are better on a fixed-spool reel than a multiplier favoured for the heavier early spring techniques.
By mid-May, salmon fishing is most productive early and late in the day, especially during clear, warm spells. By June, the first of the early grilse arrive, and through July and August these fish provide the bulk of the sport. They average 5-7 lb, and are spectacular fighters, leaping clear of the water in their efforts to escape. The rod has to be flexible and long enough to withstand these jumps, the angler dropping the rod top to the pull of the salmon.
In the middle reaches, June is the best time for specimen salmon, and on the River Tay in Perthshire, salmon over 40 lb are often taken.
Occasionally they fall to the fly, but more often to spun prawn or worm.
Prawn can be fished drop-minnow-style, sink-and-draw fashion through the deeper holes, float fished (popular on Irish and English salmon rivers), or mounted on a spinning vane and fished in the same way as a wooden devon or sprat. Alternatively, the smaller shrimp is deadly when working in streams and shallower rocky holes on light spinning tackle or a fly rod and can produce alarming results in early morning among shoals of fresh-run grilse.
Sometimes, both prawn and shrimp upset the salmon (although no one knows why), so if you have little positive response to them within half an hour, stop and try spinning or fly fishing. If you do not, you might disturb the fishing on the stretch for several hours. For this reason, prawning and shrimping are banned on some fisheries which allow normal spinning methods. Other rivers operate fly-only fishing.
In summer, a lighter fly rod is preferable, and many enthusiasts are adopting the American single-handed-rod techniques when fishing low water flies and tiny hairwing tubes. Patterns need not be complicated, and I usually fish simple hairwing patterns such as the Stoat.
On Highland rivers, and many of the west coast streams of Wales and Ireland, dibbling with a fly in very fast water can be both productive and exciting with summer grilse.
Similar to dapping for loch trout, dibbling uses a salmon fly rod of 12-14ft and a short floating line, generally with two flies, size 8-10 for single or doubles, or tiny tube flies of §-£in lightly dressed with hair. The nylon cast should be 9-12 lb b.s. Slightly shorter than the rod.
Dibbling is designed for narrow, broken streams where boulders break the fast flow into white water and small pockets of gravelly stream 3-5ft deep. The grilse lie in these pockets, where the fast, broken water gives them the added oxygen needed when temperatures are high. Hold the rod high, and bound the flies over the broken water, skipping the dropper through the waves.
To be successful, the angler must conceal himself. The grilse will show when they take the fly, sometimes leaping clear of the water in their attempt to ‘drown’ the fly. Often they will come to the fly several times before taking hold. You must never strike, or you will miss the fish or snap the cast. If the salmon times the rise properly, it will have the fly, and hook itself on the plunge. ‘Backing up’ is another technique of the Scottish Highlands, used especially on smaller rivers. Instead of progressing down the pool, casting across and downstream, handline the fly or flies back slowly to the bank as you walk up the pool. This imparts more action to the fly.
Backing up is well worth trying if the more traditional approach of working upstream fails to take fish. Often if a salmon moves to the fly as you work down the pool but does not bite, it will take firmly when you ‘back-up’ over the lie. It suddenly sees the fly in front of its nose, and makes a quick grab.
Once again, never strike straight away. Instead allow the fish to pull the line tight, hooking itself as you raise the rod. Hold a small loop of line in your fingers above the reel to delay the strike.
The big build-up of salmon begins in early September, as late-running fish move in from the estuaries to join the spring and summer fish prior to spawning. Spinning, worm-ing and prawning can all be deadly at the end of the year, to such an extent that many fisheries restrict the final few weeks of sport to the fly rod. If the water is low, early sport comes from the lower reaches, where even inexpensive tidal stretches give an excellent chance of success in dry weather. But if there is rain, the fish will run quickly, even through the middle reaches.
Big autumn fish require heavy tackle and strong lines. Flies too should be bigger. As the water cools, return to sinking-tip or fast-sink lines and bigger tube flies. By November, 2-3in tubes are common.
At the end of the year, salmon are found in all reaches, but especially in gravelly streams of 3-5ft deep – ideal for fly or lighter spinning tackle.