Far Bank Fixation - or Standing on Fish
As novices our attention is magnetically drawn to the far bank. The water there unfailingly looks darker, deeper and more promising. If the far bank is lined with interesting rocks and features, the attraction grows even stronger. For men, the fact that it's a long way away makes it almost irresistible: why commit just one sin when you can do two? Or even more? So off we go, happy sinners, casting to our maximum and beyond, tempted to wade ever deeper to reach the salmon nirvana under the far bank. But despite our best efforts and the expenditure of enough testosterone to make every hen fish in the river have a hot flush, we don't get so much as a take. Our failures spur us on to even greater efforts: if we try harder, put on a stranger fly and cast more often, we shall surely succeed. Sadly, we don't. Why not?
Here's a good example of a magnetic far bank, the highly productive Garden Pool at Tomatin House. The main flow runs down the far bank for most of its length, past an array of interesting boulders until it reaches the shade of the wood on the left. The water under the far bank is deeper, darker and far more attractive than the shallower clearer foreground. The middle is just plain boring. For years I assiduously cast my fly to land as close as possible to the attractions on the far side, whilst wading down a line 1/4 to 1/3 of the way across.
Now let's look at the results.
Here are the locations of 20 salmon taken from this pool during my regular week over the period 2007-11. Just one, or 5%, was taken close to the far bank, and she was a special case. Note the 2 fish taken from under the near bank. The majority were in mid-stream lies on the near edge of the flow. The upstream group is significant for 2 reasons: first, it is in a triangle of quieter water in which salmon seem to muster before running the fast water at the head; and second, it is on the line that one would wade when casting to the far bank further downstream! In 2007 I took 2 fish out of this triangle with consecutive casts of less than 15 yards.
Churan is the most popular and heavily fished pool on the Tomatin House water on account of its productivity and easy casting and wading. The fast water up against the rocks on the far bank is literally bombarded with flies from every angle throughout our week. The number of fly presentations is so huge that probability should yield more far side fish, but it doesn't. The proportion of far bank fish to middle and near remains around 5%, within a sample size of over 100 salmon taken by various rods.
None of this says that there are no fish at the far bank, but rather that there are fewer than you imagine; and that they are much harder to catch than the others owing to the difficulty of presenting the fly well. After all, if the salmon is close to the bank it sees less than half as much of the fly as a fish lying in the mid-stream (which benefits from the full extent of the lateral movement). Furthermore, that 'half view' largely comprises a fly that is going further away, rather than approaching, crossing and then receding. Then there is the question of depth: a fly that spends a relatively short time in the target zone is less likely to get down to fish depth before departing. Putting all those factors together, you probably have less than half the chance of catching a fish lying up against the far bank compared to one in the middle; and let's remember that even for those in the middle the odds are pretty wide.
Of course, it may be that some fish from the far bank follow the fly some distance before taking it nearer the centre, thereby adding to the size of the middle group. This is certainly a viable hypothesis, albeit one that is impossible to prove or disprove. While I have seen cock salmon follow or attack a fly from considerable distances - up to 6 metres in one case - in my experience the energy conserving hens appear to have a smaller radius of action. Moreover, as most of the fish in both the Garden and Dalnahoyn samples were hens; and the distance from the far bank to the taking clusters was between 8 and 15 metres, it is arguable that the 'follow and take' cohort is probably quite limited.
Succumbing to the magnetic attraction of the far bank will cause you to catch fewer fish whilst wasting time and casting effort. Where the salmon lie is determined by the running line, not the banks, so spend time working out where it is and the location of the adjacent short halt lies that contain the most alert and catchable fish. Use the width of the river to get your fly fishing well by the time it passes through the running line.
There are pools where the fish most definitely are along the far bank. Here is a classic case, Wade's Pool at Tomatin in mid-height water, in perfect conditions, with fish lying along the running line within 3-4 metres of the far side.
The water in the foreground is much too shallow to hold fish. You can therefore wade through it to position yourself best to cover the holding lies under the far bank without the risk of treading on otherwise catchable fish. The trick here is to cast downstream at a much shallower angle than normal, say 20 degrees, and then apply 2-3 upstream mends. This keeps the fly in the narrow fish-holding channel for as long as possible and thus gives the fish the best chance of seeing and being stimulated to take. Even so you will be quite close to fish, so wade carefully and don't go too far downstream as the holding area widens as you approach the lower croy. The important point is that you should choose your casting angle on the basis of what you want the fly to do in terms of placement, motion, speed of traverse and sink rate relative to the fish, and not some set formula.
The next post in this series involves a very long sin - anthropomorphosis - which might come in handy in a pub quiz about 100 years hence. Until then, tight lines.