Monday 29 April 2013

Half the System - Thinking about Lines

(I have updated this post to reflect the development of new lines since the original)

As the third generation of salmon anglers in my family, I have never been short of wisdom handed down by my father and grandfather.  In his youth before World War I my grandfather fished the Ure in Wensleydale; and in his latter years the Exe and Torridge in Devon, accompanied by my father.  As Yorkshiremen they were not short of opinions or the readiness to express them.  One of their enduring aphorisms was "buy the best line you can possibly afford".  I have always followed that advice and it has stood me in good stead.  Skimping on the line really is a false economy and carries a high risk of deep disappointment.  I watched three of my friends fall into that trap and pay the penalties in degraded casting performance, frustration and fatigue, followed by buying a good line at a sensible price.

Since my forebears' time rod and line technology and performance have advanced almost beyond recognition.  Plastic lines arrived in my grandfather's seventies along with glassfibre rods.  If anything the rate of advance has accelerated in the past decade, but one of the consequences is that novices are confronted with a bewildering array of choices, names, brands, descriptions and jargon.  The purpose of this post is to offer a few simple signposts through the confusion.  Again, I won't be saying Brand A is better than B, because I haven't tried them all; I only know what I use (Rio); and I have no desire to be verbally savaged by the fanatical adherents of Brand C.  But I will let you into a secret: there aren't many companies out there making salmon lines for double handed rods.  A small group of manufacturers make lines for all sorts of brands, but are bound by confidentiality agreements to say nothing.  At the top end of the market the quality is uniformly high because the specifications and manufacturing processes are very similar, so there is little risk attached to your choice.

For simplicity let's consider Spey casting from first principles.  In the back cast the line forms the D loop.  The top part of the D loop comprises the mass, which when accelerated by the forward movement of the rod, creates the force that transfers to the rod as loading and bending.  The bottom part of the D loop, primarily the fly and leader, provides the anchor that prevents their acceleration and thus permits the formation of the forward loop.  At the stop in the forward cast, the energy stored in the bending of the rod is then transferred to the line, giving it the kinetic energy to carry the fly and leader payload to the salmon.  Line design is therefore a product of 3 factors:
  1. The 'back cast' space available for creating the D loop, bending force and subsequent energy transfer
  2. The mass and wind resistance of the payload
  3. And the distance required
This simple scaled picture shows an angler with a 14 foot rod with 3 different line types.

D Loop Sizes

The mass of all 3 lines is broadly similar: in this illustration I have used #9 rated 36gm/28' Skagit; a 34gm/38' Scandi; and a 37gm/55' Spey.  For simplicity I have excluded tips and leaders.  The Spey line is somewhat heavier owing to its more uniform weight distribution through nearly double the length, but presents the same loading to the rod.  The differing back cast spaces are clearly visible.

As an aside, I inserted the 2 coloured arrows to underline the essential physics of the Spey cast based on Newton's Laws.  As the rod tip accelerates forwards, the bottom half of the D loop is trying to move the other way, restrained by the anchor (which is why it flips out backwards and catches the grass if it's inadequate!).  The rod will continue to load and bend until the stop.  At this point applying further acceleration force is unnecessary, because the rod will do the rest of the job of converting its stored energy into the line's kinetic energy. Put simply, if a little paradoxically, it's the stop that makes it go.

Returning to the issue of line mass, this picture shows the relative thicknesses (and hence weights) of the 3 different lines.  The shadows create an illusion of additional thickness in the Skandi: in fact the Skagit has about 30% greater diameter.  Both are about double the dimension of the Spey.

The first point to note is that all 3 lines are profiled to have the majority of their mass embodied in the part of the head that forms the top portion of the D loop.  You don't need a lot of weight for the anchor, and the less mass you have on or near the water's surface the better.

The second is that the boundaries between the types are not clear cut.  For example, the Vision Ace Scandi shooting head has a short front taper and a profile quite close to the Skagit: as a result it is an excellent payload shifter at some compromise of presentation.  In comparison the Rio AFS shooting head has a long front taper (a bit like the Spey) that gives a lovely presentation of lighter flies and smaller tubes, but is less good at shifting heavy objects.  Its 2014 successor, the Rio Scandi, has greater weight shifting power at some compromise in presentation, although it remains markedly different to the Skagit.

In fact, ever since Rio introduced the first Windcutter to the UK in the late 1990s, most anglers have migrated towards designs that have shooting heads as their primary feature to some degree.  As a result, agreeing a definition of a 'Spey' line is becoming increasingly difficult.  Because this blog is not aimed at heroic casters, I have not considered the 'full' or 'power' spey lines with head lengths of 70' and more (and anyway, I've never used one since giving up on the inherited Aircel double taper in 2002).

The flow chart attempts to bring some simplicity to a very complicated area of decision making.  As a result it's necessarily rough and approximate.

I define heavy throw weight as big metal tubes, very fast sink tips and their combinations.  Light is normal doubles (up #6) with floating or intermediate tips; and medium everything else in between.

The flow chart emphasises the point that nothing shifts weight from a tight back-cast space like the Skagit. It isn't pretty and it can arrive with an awful crash, so don't use it in quiet or clear water.  But there are circumstances when nothing else will do.  It's the only fly line you can cast with smile on your face in a Force 6: it goes out like a javelin; and as a sustained anchor device it's very safe in tough conditions.  As a result I always have one in my pocket.

You will see that the Scandi is extremely versatile.  In the last 2 seasons it's become my line of first choice over the trusty Windcutter (which gave 10 years' excellent service until it died in an accident).  Once you get the hang of handling all the running line you can cast a good way with minimum effort and a light rod.  For many novices it's a good learning line with which to establish the basics. But it has some disadvantages: managing the running line is a skill of its own; and stripping it in can be a real time-consuming bore if you are fishing a wide flow at a consistent line length.

The next option is the weight forward 'short' Spey line with a head length in the range 45-50 feet.  It's a sound option, especially if you have a 15 foot rod.  It's very flexible and can perform all of the major cast choices.  It's less good for novices with shorter rods, for which the Scandi remains my recommendation.

Beyond that I won't state any brand preferences - they all have their loyal devotees - but at risk of boring you, do please buy the best you can afford.

Finally, two money saving tips:
  • Do not be seduced by the attractions of the very expensive multi-tip packaged lines.  I was in 2008 when I bought my new 14' rod, and I've regretted it ever since.  With experience I've found that a pocketful of Polyleaders and a couple of T11/14 tips is much cheaper and more flexible.
  • Don't invest in a sinking line or shooting head until you've mastered the floater.  By their nature sinking lines are harder work and demand very good technique.
In a future post I'll look at choosing a reel, but it will be short one.  As a small boy and fishing fanatic I was captivated by the beautiful engineering and craftsmanship in good reels.  I saved avidly to match my dreams until paternal wisdom intervened: "put your money into the line; if the reel goes round it'll do".  It's tough being a dreamer in a Yorkshire family, so I'll just put on my cap and pop out for the Hovis.

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.

Thursday 4 April 2013

Rod, Reel, Flies & Satellite?

An old military adage says "time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted".  The Staff College trained purists would argue that It's not wholly true, because the phrase 'well-planned' is missing.  In salmon fishing we have rather more planning time than soldiers: indeed the anticipation of the day or week is  a big part of our enjoyment.  I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only sad fisherman who has nailed to his browser favourites bar at least 3 weeks before departure the websites for the BBC weather forecast for Inverness; the Fishpal latest catches report; and the SEPA river levels.  Hope rises as each low pressure approaches, then falls as it gets swallowed by the vast and seemingly immovable area of high pressure over Murmansk, leaving the water level unmoved.  This emotional roller coaster accelerates as we traverse the A66 and M74 in pouring rain; enter the blazing sunshine of the great Perth Desert; and kid ourselves that there is water in the Tummel and Garry.  As we cross the Upper Findhorn on the A9 Tomatin Viaduct I can hardly bring myself to glance down upon reality.  Well sometimes I can convince myself that there's a little water.  Or is my wife right that I am uniquely and very sadly daft?

At least low water has one consolation - the opportunity to look closely at every pool to find the hidden boulders and otherwise invisible dips in the  bottom that become fish-holding lies once the water rises.  Any disturbance of the fish is useful, because things can't get worse - or that's what we thought in 2002, until 2003 and 2009 came along.  Actually, in those ultra clear and bright conditions the salmon tuck themselves away in the deepest and darkest places they can find and switch off until their noses tell them new water is coming.  Only that stimulus, excruciating boredom or a nuclear weapon will wake them.

If, however, you are going to a beat for the first time, without a ghillie and in moderate water, how can you conduct this well planned reconnaissance?  Help is at hand, in the form of technical wizardry that costs you nothing - Google.  Almost all of their satellite imagery is taken in summer when the sun is highest and the water lowest and clearest.  This allows you to view the bottom of all but the deepest pools in remarkable detail.

This is the Churan pool at Tomatin, shown at one level of magnification below the maximum for clarity.

Image by Google
Churan Pool, Tomatin House
Submerged rocks show as light grey spots; gravel banks light brown; and deeper water in progressively darker shades.  The mid-water running line is in the upper half, just beyond the middle of the pool.  Even at this lower magnification you can spot the likely lies, some of which are highlighted on photograph below.

Image by Google
When the water level is in the range +10" - +20", those 4 lies account for the majority of the fish that our party have caught in this pool over the past decade.

This Garden Pool, which was the basis of the 'Reading Railways Maps' post, again at one level of magnification below maximum.

Image by Google
Garden Pool, Tomatin House
The tell-tale signs here are the large boulders on and near the centre line, which are lighter in colour on their lower/southern side, and cast a shadow northwards.  You can see a series of groups are you progress down the pool (the flow is north westerly).  You will observe from the changing tone that the water shallows towards the tail, so the last of the groups only really comes into play as a holding lie once the water is above +12".

It's not infallible, and of course it doesn't work so well on rivers that are heavily treed like the Allness or Upper Exe, or have beds with a uniform colour.  But I suggest it's worth a look when you have an idle moment, even if only to concur with my wife's opinion.  Anyway, we need all the help we can get, even when it wears a white coat, so beam me up Scotty.