Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Spot the Lie

One of the most common novice errors is fishing at the wrong target - where you think the fish are, rather than where they're actually located - which inevitably leads to missed opportunities and disappointment.

Tomatin House Pool
Here's an example.  Many novices confronted with this view would assume the salmon are lying behind the obvious rock in the centre, and fish at its very visible 'tail'.  Quite apart from the challenges of presenting a fly realistically in that area, the bigger problem is that there aren't any fish there. "Why not?" they would say, "it looks perfect."  Actually it isn't.  If you look closely at the 'tail' behind the rock it's narrow and much longer than you'd expect given the modest pace of the water.  The reason for that length is turbulence, which makes it unfavourable for salmon, for reasons I'll go on to explain.  By the way, the two best lies in the photo are  one at 7 o'clock and 10 feet from the obvious rock; and the other is in front of you in the bottom right corner!

To help us identify good lies we need to understand 2 things: first, what the salmon needs; and second, how moving water behaves in the river's environment (but you don't require a master's degree in fluid dynamics).

What the Salmon Needs

Back in November 2012 I wrote a post titled "Where are They", which described the survival imperative that drives a salmon's behaviour.  The greatest threat to its fulfilment of its life mission to reproduce is exhaustion.  However, there are very few rivers in the UK that pose much sustained energy challenge to a salmon during its migration.  The fish to the left was caught a very long way from the North Sea in August 2011, and it certainly doesn't look even remotely depleted by the journey.

When it's swimming the salmon is extremely efficient and powerful.  The reserves of fat and protein layered in its muscles during the time at sea are huge in relation to the demands of its journey.  The energy challenge starts in earnest with the creation of eggs or milt; continues during the long periods waiting for spawning; and ends with the act of spawning.  If it is to survive this epic, the salmon cannot afford to waste energy holding its position in a lie.  Ideally it wants to be as close to motionless as possible, and it can only achieve this objective in a lie with a smooth low-speed flow of water of consistent density.  To that end the salmon will avoid turbulence - which demands effort to maintain stability and position - and excessive aeration - which changes density, causing unpredictable vertical shifts.  Turbulence and aeration are exactly what you often get in the 'tail' behind obvious 'lies', which explains the absence of salmon.  They also prefer to have a reasonable amount of water above them when they're static in daylight as protection against avian predators like ospreys.  I generally reckon around 30"/70 cm is a respectable assumption.  Salmon will tolerate shallow water and adverse conditions for short periods whilst running, but may not hang around long enough for you to catch them.

Here's an example of a good lie from a salmon's eye view 4 feet down.  The pale area ahead and right in Window 1 is aeration and turbulence - you will note the adjacent ragged edge to Window 2 indicating larger waves.  In the foreground the ridge of boulders is diverting the flow upwards into the wave forms at the top of the picture.  Down at salmon level, things are pleasantly smooth but well oxygenated in the pocket of slack water behind the ridge.

You don't always need rocks and ridges.  One of the best salmon lies I ever knew was no more than a depression in a bed of small pebbles and gravel about 4 inches deep, with a few medium-sized stones, perhaps 6 inches high, upstream.  It helps to remember that even a very big salmon is only 8-9 inches deep.  A salmon could hold its position in the lie by the simply expedient of rotating its pectoral fins to a shallow dive angle, which placed the main part of its body in almost slack water adjacent to the bottom.  As a result they were almost completely motionless and correspondingly hard to spot.  It was an educational treat to watch them through polaroids with the sun over your shoulder.  Sadly it won't be there when I return to Tomatin next month, owing to the immense volumes of stone and gravel shifted by storms FRANK and BERTHA in the years since 2013.  Nevertheless there will be others elsewhere in the beat for me to discover.

The other point to grasp is that apart from late season, testosterone-dosed territorial cock fish, salmon are very comfortable in close company.  Mostly they don't mind sharing a good lie.  One day I noted a large fish showing below the tail of Dalnahoyn pool near the Wade's Road Bailey bridge and resolved to catch it.  I found a place between the bushes to get down the bank and was about to descend into some slack water behind a large rock adjacent to the side, when I saw that I was about to put my foot into the midst of a group of perhaps 8-10 mature salmon in an area no more than 3 feet by 4, taking a pause before ascending the fast water.  In fascination I spent the next 10 minutes observing them from no more than 6-8 feet distant, by which time my target was long gone.  I didn't mind. But if a lie's good and you catch a fish from it, unless there's another angler coming down the pool, fish it again, quickly!

How Water Behaves

Dalnahoyn Pool, Tomatin
Running at +36"
If it looks something like this on the surface, with lots of 'standing waves' - the ones that stay in the same place - then you know that there's something on the bottom forcing the water upwards.  It helps, however, to understand what's going on down below.  By the way, the best lie shown here is the one at the far left of the photo.  The others are far too turbulent at this high water level.

Remember that the water near the surface is travelling much faster than that near the bottom.  The slower water piles up against the obstacle, forming a static wedge of water upstream and above (I've exaggerated the dimensions/proportions for illustration purposes).  The faster water above can't push it downwards or sideways and is thus forced upwards, appearing as a wave form at the surface.  If the current isn't too fast there may also be a quiet volume at the back, but this breaks down rapidly with increasing flow speed or reducing depth, especially if the obstacle is isolated or blunt-faced (a too-abrupt upward movement generates unwelcome turbulence).  You also need to think in plan view, with the near bottom flow being deflected outwards by the wedge.  In many cases the fish will lie in the front envelope; between the boulders; or by the sides.

Saeter Pool
GFF Water, River Gaula
So far so good - the fish are upstream of the standing wave - but it's essential to develop an appreciation of what this looks like in practice.  Here's a nice standing wave on the left side of the picture, but can you see the rock creating it?  On the far bank there are 2 small rectangular white stones at the water's edge: come straight down at 6 o'clock to a light streak, which a flat boulder about 4 feet long, in about 4-5 feet of medium-paced water.  The standing wave is almost 7 feet behind the boulder.  So if you cast to the wave you'd miss the fish just ahead and on the far side of the boulder by about 12 feet.  Ideally you want your fly to be above and ahead of the salmon at about 45 degrees elevation, which means it needs to be at least 15 feet upstream of the wave.  That's a long way.

The clue as to why the fish is lying on the far side of the boulder is in the photo - my shadow in the foreground.  Given an option, salmon will generally favour the shadier side.

Sverre Run
GFF Water, River Gaula
Here's another example, this time in shallow very fast water. Indeed, wading calf-deep I was having trouble keeping my footing whilst taking the photo. You can see the wave easily enough, but where's the origin?  No, it's not the swirl at the right side, but about 5 o'clock from the little bush, about 8-10 feet upstream.  The shallowness and speed of the water make the wave formation more violent.  If there are any fish in the picture they would probably be between the upstream swirl, caused by a small boulder, and the larger rock generating the wave, at about 4 o'clock from the bush.

Saeter Pool
GFF Water, River Gaula
 Running +4' 6"
It's also important to remember that turbulence can be very persistent in fast water.  Not only does it get carried quickly downstream, the motion can also maintain or even increase its effect.  The photo, taken at 0100 hrs on a dark rainy night in Norway on a longer exposure, emphasises the light scattered by turbulent water and air bubbles.  Its extent is about 25-30 feet.  There may well be quiet areas underneath the turbulence that will hold fish.  Your problem is getting your fly down through it, behaving sensibly and into the salmon's taking zone.  In this case the water is about 6 feet deep and flowing strongly, so I wouldn't bet on achieving all 3 steps without a lot of weight in the leader and fly in such an extreme case.

For interest, here are the same rocks in 2016 with 5 feet less water.

Practical Examples

Upper Netherdale beat
Deveron 2014
Nearer to home on the Deveron, here's an example of the lateral spread of turbulence from a relatively small boulder in medium paced water.  Because the water is deep relative to the speed of flow, there's insufficient force to generate a standing wave.  In this case the salmon can easily lie near the bottom under the swirl, but it's difficult to fish your fly well in that space.  The better option is to concentrate on the sides of the vee-shape and the fish on the outer edges, casting from well upstream to achieve a nice narrow angle.

Upper Kirk pool
Waterside & Ferrar beat River Dee

In this photo, taken on the Dee in lower water, there are lots of lies similar to the one above.  The best is immediately to the right of the red tape on my rod.  Again, it's best to fish ahead of the rock and down the sides.  Casting into or fishing through the swirl will lead to poor presentation of your fly.  In this case another angler hooked and lost a large fish on the edge of the swirl about 6-8 feet back on the near side (but lost it).  You can see the relatively narrow angle from which I am fishing the lie.  From here I could use small upstream mends to hold the fly close to the lie for much longer than a conventional 45 degree cast and swing would ever achieve.

Between the Caulds pool
Rutherford beat
running at +16" March 2017

Here's a nice choice of standing wave lies on the main flow-line on the Tweed.  The flow is strong, so the lies are well upstream from the waves.  When you're faced with a view like this, don't just progress mechanically down the pool, casting at a fixed angle.  Think ahead and work out how best to address each lie before its's in range.  If you're casting 25-30 yards - the case in this example - then you need to be looking 50 yards ahead.  A shallower angle and consequently slower fly is essential to give the fish more time, especially when the water is cold, fast or both (as it was here).

Garden Pool, Tomatin
River Findhorn
running at +24" September 2011
Sometimes I practice what I preach!  The lie was about 2 o'clock from my right hand, between the two small standing waves on the flow line.  I cast quite square to give the conehead and polyleader time to get down in the fast water, then put in an upstream mend to slow it down.  That week I caught 3 fish from the same lie, but this was the only one hooked with someone available to take the picture.

The advantage of height
Flesh Dub Thoresby beat
running at +18"

Often you have to look really hard, but it's well worth the effort.  Disregard the foreground here, because the water's too shallow. The clues won't always shout at you, so look from the elevation of the bank before you get into the water. Don't rush,take your time, scan and think first.  In this case you may have spotted these three: the first about 20 feet straight out from the tree on the opposite bank.  The next is about 15 yards downstream, just over the centreline.  And the third is on your side, about 40 yards downstream

Anne's Bank, Rutherford beat
River Tweed at +12", May 2016
And sometimes there are no clues whatsoever, so you just get on, cover the water methodically, and fish. Dull perhaps, but never, ever, be surprised by salmon.  Just after I took this photo I hooked and lost 2 fish in quick succession from the same lie.  It was probably no more than a slight depression in the gravel in less than 3 feet of water.


  • Scan the pool from the height of the bank to spot possible lies
  • Make an outline mental plan of how to fish them
  • Think ahead by 50 yards as you go down the pool
  • Remember how far the lie may be upstream from the standing wave
  • Don't be snared by the downstream swirl!
  • Fish the edges of lies from a narrower angle to keep your fly in play
  • If you catch a fish, cover the lie again as soon as possible

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