Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Springtime - Swallows, Primroses and New Salmon Rods

(I have updated this post to reflect developments since the 2013 original)

Frodle Dub Pool
Thoresby Beat Upper Ure
Spring is here again, even if there's still snow lying in some of the higher bits of Yorkshire.  I saw my first swallows and primroses of the season in Wensleydale last week.  It's clear that their thermal insulation is much better than mine, because I was wearing no less than 3 layers of Simms thermal kit and a Goretex wading jacket to counter the effects of the wind.  The sunshine was delightful, if rather weak, and the river looked beautiful despite the lack of leaves on the trees.  And there were fresh run spring salmon in the pools - a slice of heaven on earth, even when I couldn't persuade the one that took my Cascade Conehead to stay on the hook.

Spring has two main effects on salmon anglers.  First, it causes them to fish in conditions that would otherwise have them certified as lunatics - "yes doctor, the line was frozen to the rings, but it didn't matter because I couldn't feel anything in my fingers" is a common quote in psychiatric journals.  Second, their frost-damaged brains turn to the idea of a new rod.  The manufacturers are familiar with this condition and time their new product launches to exploit this vulnerability.  Trout and Salmon bulges with advertising and its annual test of new rods.  The John Norris, Sportfish and Glasgow Angling Centre Megastore catalogues thump onto the mat to prompt happy hours of economically infeasible daydreaming.  The chat boards of the Salmon Fishing Forum hum with debate on the virtues and pricing of the new models.

When I started this blog some of my readers asked why I did not begin at the logical beginning with the selection of rod and line.  The simple answer is timing: I had to wait for the spring madness, otherwise the post would have been unread and so delivered no benefit.  After all, who even thinks of buying a new rod in November when the season has just closed?  So here is my contribution to the frenzy.

It's not my purpose to say that Brand A is better than B: I couldn't do that without having carried out lots of happy testing in the coldest March since 1963.  Rather I am offering a simple thought process for defining your requirement in terms of a generic rod and line combination.  The two are inseparable.  Armed with a defined requirement you can then find the solution that suits you best, whilst minimising the risk of emotional factors getting in the way of the decision.  But you must make the effort to try the options.  We're all different in terms of physique, timing and method, so while the T&S tests are a useful guide, it's vital to get the right 'feel'.  There's a lot of money at stake here: you wouldn't buy a £500 suit without trying it on, and regret does not earn cash discounts.

This model isn't designed to provide definitive answers: it addresses the major questions in order to eliminate the options that don't match your needs.

MCX Fisher's Rod & Line Decision Model
(back cast & line elements shown for 14' rod for illustrative purposes)

First, a quick explanation of what I mean by back cast space. 
The little diagram shows how the wind direction impacts the space available for forming the D-loop.  As you have no control over the wind, you have to take the worst case.  The space available for your left handed Double Spey or Snake Roll is less than half that you could use for a Single Spey.  The worst case is the limiting factor that you must take into account when identifying your line options.  If you're only 6-8 yards out from the bank you won't be able to Double a full Spey line without catching the grass.

When using the model, be realistic about how far you need to cast, allowing for the wading distance and rod and leader lengths.  As in other things, observe the 80/20 rule, which in this context has 2 aspects:
  1. You will catch 80% of your fish in 20% of the water width
  2. You will cover 80% of the distance with 20% of the effort and investment.  Striving for the last 20% of distance may break you and your bank account.  
Flesh Dub Pool at +24"
80% cast = 38 yards
Running Line & lies @ 27 yards
Only if you are regularly fishing big rivers like the Tay, Tweed and Spey do you enter the 40+ yard cast zone, which is a heroic effort by most people's standards.  This blog is aimed at folk fishing the more affordable second-rank rivers.  The longest cast I need on the Tomatin House water on the Findhorn is less than 35 yards, and the 80% case is about 20 yards.  This means a 14' rod does everything necessary and more, leaving me a bit in reserve for heavy sink tips, weighted tubes and adverse winds.

There's no virtue in being over-rodded, even if you do get the occasional opportunity on a big river.  You will be working excess weight and bulk, and an under-loaded rod makes casting inefficient, unsatisfying and tiring.  The headline weight difference of a couple of ounces may not sound like much, but at the end of 8 hours' fishing it will feel like a couple of pounds.  In any case, a new 14 footer with a modern line covers far more water than a 15 footer would 10 years ago.  Most of my friends started with 15 footers because that was the default solution recommended by the tackle shops: 10 years later all but one of them have downsized to 14 or even 13 feet.

A lot is written and debated about the action and 'speed of rods'.  Ten years ago the difference between fast tip-flex and slower through-action rods was easily felt and identified.  At the quality end of the market those differences are now very blurred owing to the advances in carbon cloths and bonding resins, and the better rods can cast most line options well.  The determining factors are your style of casting (traditional or modern); the type of fishing and consequent line head-length preference; and your experience.

Nailing my colours to the rod top:
  • For most people who fish for 'Just One Week', taught in the conventional Spey technique, the traditional through action is a better choice for a first rod.  It is more forgiving of defects in technique, especially 'trout fisherman's dominant top hand syndrome'; and it can handle most lines well enough.  In the early years the limitations of our technique tend to be more severe than limitations of equipment, and the traditional action is the lower risk option.
  • Only when you've got a reasonable grasp of the basics and some spare money should you consider something a bit faster (but you won't cast much further!).
  • Unless money is really tight, do not go for the bottom price bracket because the risk of disappointment is high.  The exception to that generalisation is the new Shakespeare, which is very good and excellent value for a first rod.  Otherwise it's well worth considering a used high quality rod about 5-10 years old for the same outlay.  You'll get a lovely rod for about a third of the new RRP, and there are even better bargains on the Salmon Fishing Forum.   I've only ever paid full price for one rod.
  • When I started I was putting children through university and subsidising their independence: hence my first  double-handed rod was a 25 year old inheritance built on a 13' Hardy blank.  The action was 'pint leisurely', but with a modern 50' head line I could manage a steady 20-25 yards.  That was good enough to catch 14 Tomatin salmon over the 3 years 2005-7.  (The 'pint' was the beer you could consume whilst waiting for the rod to load on the forward cast)
  • If you can afford it, go into the £350 - £500 price range, where the intensity of the competition between manufacturers delivers the best value for money in performance and build quality.  These are beautiful things that will last your lifetime and get your children started in their turn.  But they're not identical: each brand has a different feel, so do try before you buy.  After 5 years with the 'beer caster' I combined a 3 hour casting lesson with trying 3 different rods, which led me to spend £400 with confidence.  But once again, think about buying used and time your purchase to exploit end of season stock clearances and sales, where savings up to 50% are feasible.
  • Before you choke on my financial presumption, wait for a future post in which I explain why salmon rods are so expensive.
Finally, there's the line.  it's essential to consider the rod and line as two elements of a single system.  The line is 10% of the total investment but 50% of the casting system, so there's no sense in skimping.  However, I'm now going to break my whole-system rule, because this post is quite long enough already, and if you've stayed with me to this point I should not assume your further patience.  Accordingly, I'll look at line choices in my next post.

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