Wednesday 29 May 2013

Walking to the Water Part 3 - Tricky Pools and New Tricks

I suspect that on every river there are pools that scream 'salmon' at the top of their voices, yet then refuse to part with any, no matter how hard we try.  We know they're present because periodically they roll, splash and deliver two-fingered fishy salutes in our direction.  The longer we go on without connecting, the lower our morale and fishing confidence sinks.  As Murphy enjoys kicking a man when he's down, our chances of catching a fish sink even faster, with a couple of missed takes to help us on our way.  These are the tricky pools.

Freeburn Pool, Tomatin House

I'll get the confession out early.  This is my personal nemesis, the bogey pool, photographed in perfect condition.  In 11 years I've never had so much as a take here, despite it holding large numbers of big fish.  To make matters worse, you can actually see some of them directly under your feet in the foreground when the sun's over your shoulder after lunch.  Guilty of incompetence as charged, I can only offer 3 pathetic pleas in mitigation.  First, we're on the outside of the right-hand bend, fishing from the left bank.  On the rare occasions that anyone turns up on the other side they seem to do quite well (they always do, don't they!).  Second, wading this section of the pool is impossible because the water in the foreground is around 6-8' deep: you may have spotted that the photo was taken from about 6' above the surface of the water (the concrete slab is visible on Google satellite view).  With a steep bank, trees and a labrador directly behind, casting and generating any kind of oblique angle is difficult.  And third, and worst of all, the water in the foreground is actually flowing back towards you, so the fish are facing 180 degrees the wrong way.  As I'm dragged to the gallows, I'll offer a fourth.  This is the outfall from the Tomatin Distillery: all the salmon are pissed; and anyway, it's a cunning plot by Suntory to get you to seek despairing solace in their products (the single malt is great).

So how do we solve this awful conundrum?  Certainly I've got no concrete answers supported by evidence, so let's go back to basics.  The first step is to separate the resident fish in the foreground from all the others: they're different, deep and are looking the wrong way, so they need a unique solution.  You cannot present a conventional oblique fly to them and you don't have the room or the flow to riffle a hitched fly, so do something completely different (courtesy of the Silverleapers Newfoundland School of Fishing Tricks).  Before you fish the main body of the pool, go downstream to the third rock (with a small one sat on top).  Put on a long leader and something light like a Sunray Shadow with a small double or a floating Bomber.  Cast gently short of the fish and let the flow take the fly beyond them.  Then bring it back - strip, pause, wiggle, pause, strip and pause again.  Allow it to drift back and repeat; and repeat.  Don't give up too soon: dogged persistence is the Newfie secret (and it works).  Prevent the onset of boredom by inserting some variations like loops and left mends.  Don't worry about the fish: they're almost bomb-proof (Falkus has a neat paragraph on the subect).  Just stay awake and alert, because one might just drift gently upwards and do an idle head and tail take.  If you don't believe me, have a look at this clip from Newfoundland.  You didn't think salmon did that?  Nor did I, so give it a shot.

After you've caught all the resident monsters with this revolutionary new approach,  go back to the main body of the pool and apply the MCX formula and depth analysis.   The usual way of fishing this pool is first from directly upstream by wading along a shingle bar to a large rock just out of the shot to the right.  I don't like doing this if there is a risk of a rise, because there's only one way out, back the way you came, into the current.  Things can happen very fast on spate rivers like the Findhorn: I've experienced a 12" lift in under 3 minutes and so observe a golden rule of never wading without a downstream exit.

Your focus is now on the mid-blue 3-5' zone, where there is a succession of lies down the central flow line.  You're looking at a middle height (2), medium flow (2), and clearing water (2) at around 13C (2).  Taking off 1 for the bright day leads you to a score around 7, which suggests a smaller fly - #10 - and no more than an intermediate tip at most.  The fishing from the rocky bank is challenging.  There is the risk of falling into very deep water; you have to move from one boulder to the next; and you can't  cast a wide angle.  To balance those factors the prevailing breeze comes up the pool, which allows you to use single Spey, Snap-T or Jump Roll casts.  Nor do you have to cast far: do not cast into the shallow slow moving water as this will hold your fly back, create a big bow in the line and ruin your presentation in the critical zone, which is a classic novice mistake.  Avoid it and you more than double your chances.

Frodle Dub, Bolton Castle

This is where I recover my confidence.  A lot of people find fishing the top half of this pool very difficult: perversely it's one of my favourites and where I caught my best-ever salmon.  Like so many pools with a right angle bend, a fast entry and a slow broad exit, Frodle Dub has a tricky back eddy.  The flow at the head of the pool is very fast, which demands a heavy tip and weighted tube to get quickly down through the surface turbulence; and casts at a shallow angle to control the sideways speed of the fly.  At the bend it reduces to medium pace, and completes the last half of the length at a leisurely slow rate.  The key to success here is re-rigging 3 times as you fish down.

This shot shows the depth shading for the middle and tail with the river running at +16-18".  The river is high (3), clearing (2) (note that the head and middle of this pool are turbid and the water clears the further you go down), flowing fast (3) and at 50F/10C (2), total 10.  For the section marked 1 you will need a tube and a fast sinking tip.  The back-eddy poses a challenge for casting and presentation: as the fly swings down and left, the belly of the line is moving in the opposite direction, so you must be thinking continuously of the effects of this on fly presentation and the need for stripping to counteract the stalling effect of the eddy.  The Snap-T is the ideal cast for digging the tube and tip up out of the eddy and lining them up to fly the distance to the outside of the bend

Once you get to 2 the flow rate reduces to slow and the water is clearer and shallower (=8).  This means re-rigging for the third time.  At this level it will probably require a short slow sink or intermediate tip.  The back-eddy has petered out.  You need a long cast to cover the quiet lies on the far side, but must avoid treading on fish running up the light blue strip.

Frodle Dub Tail 31/8/2012
15lbs on Ally Shrimp #12
The reason so many people find this pool difficult is their reluctance to re-rig to match the changing conditions as they progress down its considerable length.  It takes me about 45 minutes to cover, so a couple of 5 minute breaks are easily absorbed.  And sometimes you have to wait the full 45 minutes for your fish if she's waiting for you right down at the tail of the mid-blue zone.

You will have noted that a couple of times I raised the issue of common novice mistakes.  In my next post I'll expand on them; why they dramatically reduce the chances of connecting with a fish; and how to avoid falling into their traps.

Monday 27 May 2013

Walking to the Water - Part 2

After using lots of words last week, this post will be mostly pictorial to set the theory into a practical context.  It's not as good as standing with you looking at a real pool, but my web skills don't run to a real-time fly-through experience.

Same pool, same level but different water

In Part 1 I asked you to look at both height and clarity.  The 2 photographs below show a pool at nearly the same height, but the fishing conditions are markedly different.  This is the Flesh Dub pool on the Bolton Castle water on the River Ure in North Yorkshire, which is highly productive throughout its length. The photographs are separated by a fortnight this spring: the common feature of both days was the wind, gusting 30+ mph straight downstream, which made standing up a challenge and casting something else again (thank you Skagit).

 In Picture 1 the water is at +24", rising and quite muddy.  It is flowing fast into the top of the pool.  The ambient light is low, and the water temperature is 47F/8C.  Using the scoring system proposed in Part 1, this rates around 12, which you will recall means a substantial tube and quite a heavy sink tip.

 In Picture 2, taken 2 weeks later, the water is about 6" lower, but the fishing conditions are markedly different.  The river is falling and clearing: you can see the bottom in the foreground.  The flow rate is still brisk, but closer to medium than fast.  The sky is clear and the ambient light average to bright for the time of year.  The water temperature is 50F/10C.  These conditions would score around 8, which is the realm of medium sized flies and slow sink tips, depending on the depth.

This exercise underlines the point that it is not simply a question of the height of the river, but rather a range of factors that you need to take into account.  The scoring system isn't precise or prescriptive: it isn't meant to be, because its aim is to inform judgement rather than taking the decision for you.

Depth - the critical factor

Here's the same pool, zoned for depth at a level 18" above summer low.  The deepening shade represents increasing depth.  Head to tail is some 300m/350 yds.

The lightest blue is water less than 3' deep: in the foreground and far tail it's as little as 15-18".  Salmon will happily move through this depth of water, but will not stop for long in daylight owing to their embedded fear of avian predators.  Takes tend to occur in this zone only when good numbers of fish are running from July onwards.

The mid-blue area covers the range 3'-5' deep, which provides ample security for non-resident fish (i.e. those taking a pause during running).  This is the most productive part of the pool because it is where running fish halt and rest in response to the hazardous shallow water ahead of them.  Remember that the salmon does not have our viewpoint or long range vision: in these water conditions they have a reasonable view out to about 8-10'.  They can sense the turbulence of the shallow water through their lateral line nerve endings at much greater distance and so will only approach it cautiously, if at all in bright conditions, especially early in the season (this is based on documented Norwegian research, not my opinion).  You can cover the mid blue zone effectively with an intermediate or slow sink tip and a medium sized fly around #8 or 1" plastic tube, presented about 1' below the surface.  The key driver here is water temperature: if it's cold you have to get deeper and closer to the fish; if it's warm a fluorocarbon leader may suffice.

The dark blue zone is the small part of this pool that is over 5' deep.  As I indicated in Part 1, if you are going to fish it effectively you will need to re-rig.  However, depth is not the only reason here, because in Flesh Dub this is the preferred sleeping quarters of 'resident' fish.  These salmon run to a particular spot and then for whatever reason, stop, switch off and go dormant (there's a fuller explanation in the earlier 'Where are They?' post).  In my experience these are the hardest fish of all to catch.  Some of them arrive as early as April.  To make matters worse, they tend to be big.  Periodically they wake up, become active for a short period, stretch their fins, tease us with a splashy roll and then retire to sleep again.  If you do not coincide with their short active periods, then to have any chance of gaining their attention you need to get the fly closer than normal and fish it at a speed that allows them to wake up and take it within the 'envelope'.  An alternative approach is to use a stimulating fly like the Sunray Shadow.  But remember that there are no guarantees in this business, and if the take happens you and the salmon will be equally surprised (as was the 15 lbs hen dozing behind the rock in the shadow of the big willow tree on the right hand side).

Another pool - same level, different water

Compare the 2 shots below of the Garden Pool on the Tomatin House water on the Upper Findhorn.  Again, the level is similar, but the character is different.

This shot is mid-September 2010, looking upstream in mid-afternoon, with the river at +18", falling and clearing, in pleasant sunshine.  The water temperature was around 52F/11C.  It looks absolutely perfect (and there were fish in the river) but I failed to connect, almost certainly as a result of the bright conditions gulling me into fishing too light and shallow with too small a fly.  In retrospect, if I had applied my own formula (score 8/9), the slow sink tip and a 1" tube would have been the choice.

The same week in 2011: the river is again at +18", but rising fast, albeit still quite clear.  Its character is fundamentally different, as was the technique - Cascade conehead and sink tip - guided by a score of 10.

For those who have spotted this photo sequence previously, please be assured that it was not the only salmon I caught in 2011.  But it's the only time I've ever achieved coincidence of salmon, wife and camera!


I hope that this post has underlined the value of thinking methodically and treating all the factors systematically.  Certainly my failure to connect on a perfect day in 2010 when other rods were catching plenty of fish delivered a sharp lesson (and blow to my self-esteem).  On that basis it's worth pondering why not as much as why, whilst always remembering that it's the salmon who decides.

In the next post - Part 3 - I'll look at some tricky pools that provide challenges to how we present the fly (and to my 3-D graphic skills).

Thursday 23 May 2013

Walking to the Water Part 1

You're going to fish a river that you haven't fished before.  There's no ghillie on hand to provide advice.  What do you do?

If you're not very experienced, you can't rely on memory, intuition and automatic judgement.  This leaves you with 2 choices: doing something completely random in a state of near panic; or following a logical system that will guide you to take actions that will greatly improve your chance of taking a fish.  It will also reduce the impact of the twin killers of the fishing brain - indecision and doubt - by giving you the confidence that you're doing something that's sensible. It won't be perfect - nothing is in salmon fishing where there's so much fluke in play - but the chances are that it won't be downright stupid (and nobody will think you stupid for doing it) and you'll fish more confidently as a result.

Before you leave home

The anticipation of going fishing is a big part of its pleasure.  My father always said, "if the prospect of a day's fishing doesn't excite you and interfere with your sleep, give up" (he said the same about shooting).  Because salmon fishing is a rare privilege for me and most others, I get excited and thereby become vulnerable to being teased by my wife.  Nevertheless there are some useful things you can do well before you leave home to increase your chance of success. They are all blindingly obvious, so enjoy the taste of the eggs:

  • Look at the weather forecast: the BBC's as good as any, to see what's likely to happen between now and your day.  Will the river be rising, falling or just a trickle of warm water?  Have a final look before you leave because there can be big differences of temperature and you can't put on kit that's left at home.  The first time I fished the Ure it was 22 at home, so I thought shirtsleeves and tackle vest.  Fifty miles away and 450' higher the temperature was 12: my teeth only stopped chattering when I hooked and landed a 16 pounder.
  • As the day approaches, watch the river level - in England on the Environment Agency site; in Scotland SEPA.  
  • Scan the relevant Fish Pal pages to gain an idea of what's happening.
  • Put up a question post on Salmon Fishing Forum to draw on the members' knowledge and experience of the water.
  • Go onto Google Maps and have a look at the pools you will be fishing using the satellite view.  You'll find a discussion of this in the 'Rod, Reel, Flies & Satellite' post.  If you're really keen you can make a sketch of each pool in a small pocket book, to which you can add notes during and after the day.
  • Change all your tippets if they've been fitted for more than a month.  The degradation of tippet material over time is remarkable.  I don't know the physics and chemistry to explain why it happens, but the results can be alarming.  This week I tested some 15 lbs that I had fitted last October: it snapped under an 8 lbs shock load.  Spending a few pence to be sure is far better than feeling a complete idiot when you lose the first springer of the season (I haven't landed one yet, and quite soon they'll be summer fish).
  • Check and throw away any flies with hooks that are damaged in any way.  Look especially closely at the points.
  • Recharge the batteries in your camera and transfer it to your wading jacket, whilst pitying the poor chap who caught a huge fish on the Dee last year - possibly 50 lbs - who had left his camera behind.

When you first reach the river

Pause, because this is the point at which the whole day can go wrong.  However keen you may be there's no reason to rush.  Clear thinking now will get you off to the best possible start.  If the car parking is close to the river life is much simpler: on the Thoresby beat of the Ure the closest I can get is 400 yards and 150 vertical feet away, which is a serious incentive for good personal organisation.  Get your waders and jacket on, then go to look at the water.  What do you need to know and in what order do you see them?  What's the score?  (note the numbers in brackets).
  • Height.  The EA/SEPA websites will have taken away the surprise, but now you have to convert bare numbers to observation. Is the river high (3), medium (2) or low (1)?  Does the wetting of the rocks and gravel suggest that it's rising or falling?  How far is the line of debris left by the last spate from the water's edge?  Height is in addition to depth, but because the depth will vary between and within pools, we'll look at it later.
  • Colour.  Look down into the water near the bank.  Is it muddy (3), cloudy (2), or clear (1)?  Be guided by the depth at which you can see the bottom and how clearly.
  • Speed.  Is the flow in this pool fast (3), medium (2) or slow (1)?  If in doubt it's Pooh Stick time: go about 1/4 of the way down the pool and toss a stick into the middle.  Fast is a good walking pace.
  • Temperature.  This factor will critically impact the way you fish.  If it's below 10C, score 3 and be prepared to work hard; 11-14, score 2; and 15 and above 1.  But if it's above 19, you have a serious problem, so retire to the pub and wait for the evening.
Now add up your score.  If you see the river's falling noticeably, knock off a point.  If it's bright and sunny, take another.  Your thinking needs to run from the fly back through the leader and line to the rod.

  • 12-11-10 - you're in the domain of tubes and big flies; sinking tips; and your biggest rod.   The higher the score, the bigger and heavier the fly.
  • 10-9-8 - these are usually the best conditions for catching fish.  You will need smaller tubes or medium sized flies; probably slow sinking or intermediate tips; and any rod down to 13' #8.
  • 8-7-6 - these can still be good conditions.  Reduce your fly size by another step, but you may need an intermediate tip to get it down through the flow at the heads of the pools.
  • 4-5 - undoubtedly the most challenging conditions, in which salmon tend to be inactive apart from short periods.  When the weather is very bright they will tend to retire into the deepest water they can find and switch off.  This is the realm of small flies (down to #14), long leaders (12-14 feet), light rods (mine's a little 12' #7 Vision GT4 Lite) and nice gentle presentation.  If that doesn't work then it's worth experimenting with stimulation flies like Sunray Shadows or Collie Dogs, especially in the top and bottom thirds of pools.  A tip: when fishing light, try holding with your upper hand with just forefinger and thumb.  You'll be delighted by what the reduction in force does for your loop shape and the gentleness of the fly's arrival; and surprised by the improvement in straightness and distance.


You've now forming a clear idea of what you're going to use in terms of fly size.  The final factor you must take into account is the depth of the water.  This will vary within pools as you fish down them; and between pools as your progress down-river.  At this point, please re-read the 'Deep Thinking' post to help understand what follows, because there's no point me repeating the entire post.  Remember that the aim of the operation is to get the fly into the 'taking envelope' around the fish.  In ideal conditions it extends about 4' 6" upwards from the bottom.  If the water's cold, dirty or fast the envelope is smaller, so you must get deeper and closer to the fish to compensate by putting more weight in the sink tip or the fly.
Now look at the pool at estimate the likely depth in the head, middle and tail.  Most people over estimate depth: many smaller and medium sized salmon rivers are comparatively shallow, and 7-8' is deep.  Take 4' 6" off your estimates and that tells you how far you have to get down.  Inevitably it will vary down the pool: do not expect to fish with the same set up all the way down.  If it's going to take you 40 minutes to cover the whole pool, why not take a 5 minute break to re-rig for the tail?


With a few minutes thought and a methodical approach you have reached a decision on the size and weight of fly you will apply; the density of sink tip (if any); whereabouts you will take a break and re-rig; and the make-up of the new rig.  You have a plan and you've removed a lot of the doubts and indecision, which will encourage you to fish positively.

None of this is about applying a formula to the salmon, but rather to yourself.  When you're more experienced all this will flow automatically because the reasoning process is embedded.

In the next post I'll run through some practical examples of the deduction in action using some pictures and diagrams.

    Wednesday 15 May 2013

    Rod Value - Where the Money Goes

    Salmon rods are extremely expensive items and their cost becomes a major issue when related to their limited use - perhaps as little as just one week per year, the focus of this blog.  On the other hand they have a long service life: with due care twenty years is easily achievable.  As a result the per week cost of the capital invested in the rod is insignificant when set against other outlays such as travel and accommodation.  But the purchase of the rod is the biggest single investment we make in our pursuit of salmon, so it merits careful consideration.

    This article is not about making the choice between specific rods or the virtues of one brand against another.  Those are deeply personal decisions: each decision is unique to you and the weighting that you give to the influencing factors.  Nor is it a detailed description of how rods are made: I've included a couple of links to cover that area.  The purpose of this post is to clear some of the smoke and dust raised by the debate, argument and emotion on the subject of the price of salmon rods in order to ease your path to your decision.

    Let's begin by looking at the economic and industrial factors that drive the cost and price of a salmon rod:
    • The first thing to grasp is that the market for double handed salmon fly rods is miniscule in industrial terms.  Market research suggests that the total market for premium rods - defined as retailing at £450 and above - in the UK and Ireland amounts to no more than 1,000 units per year. There are 5-6 major players in the UK premium market (e.g. Hardys & Greys, Sage, Loop etc) and 10 or more smaller companies, which all compete fiercely for market share.  The market for rods in the £250-450 range is larger but I do not have specific data (I apologise for this, but copies of the full market report cost £1500).  But in any event, for all the companies involved, the costs of design, development, marketing, sales and supply chain stocking bear disproportionately upon a tiny turnover.  To put this in context, Hardys & Greys sold 80,000 rods last year, so at best their UK sales of salmon fly rods amount to no more than 1% of their output.
    • The small size of the market means that it is uneconomic to automate, so salmon fly rod building is a bespoke operation.  You can see this in the Loomis film: bear in mind this is one of the bigger US manufacturers.  You will also see the high value of the capital facilities in relation to the limited output of rods.  The pursuit of economies of scale has led to the concentration of manufacturing capacity in the USA (to meet the big domestic and Canadian market demand) and especially South Korea.  The latter is nothing to do with low wages and everything to do with scale; concentration of capital, skills and expertise; and the vertical integration of processes and products.  South Korea is not a low wage economy: Kia and Hyundai find it cheaper to make their cars inside the EU; Samsung smart phones are certainly not made on low skills, low productivity and consequently low wages; and all 3 companies operate at the highest quality levels as evidenced by their extended warranties.  As a result, several European rod 'manufacturers' might be better described as designers/developers/product managers/integrators/marketeers.  For example, Guideline of Sweden outsources rod manufacture to both the USA and the Far East.  Conversely, the highly skilled bespoke nature of rod building has allowed several smaller UK producers to both survive and thrive: Harrisons (whose linked website carries a nice explanation of manufacture) and B&W come to mind.
    • The third element is the carbon fibre and the bonding resin.  At the top of the range you are dealing with extraordinary technologies.  The finest carbon thread is around 6-10 micrometres (hundred thousandth of a millimetre) about 1/15th of the thickness of human hair.  Seeing it is a challenge, let alone fabricating it into cloth form.  Fishing rods are made from somewhat heavier materials but they are still very expensive: the span per square metre runs from around £60 to thousands of pounds.  The world-leading 3M Powerlux (TM) resin is engineered at the molecular level (millionth of a millimetre) and is correspondingly expensive.  3M licence the use of Powerlux to a very limited range of companies who use it in their premium rods around the £950 price point.  A high quality rod priced around £500 will embody 3-6 different types of carbon that are laid directionally to achieve specific design purposes of flexibility, rigidity, strength, uniform behaviour under load and the widest performance envelope.  The bonding is probably the resin used in the previous generation of top-line rods.  You get what you pay for: there's no free lunch in carbon fibre and resin:  cheaper inescapably means more compromises.  This does not necessarily mean bad, but the compromises usually manifest themselves in a narrower envelope, for example in a smaller choice of line profiles or cast types in which the rod will give its best performance and user satisfaction.
    Having endured the lecture in industrial economics, let's now look at what this means in practice by chopping up a 4 piece salmon rod.

    The diagram is intended to be indicative rather than absolutely precise.  It is reasonably consistent across the price range.  The manufacturers do not disclose their commercial information, nor will I disclose my sources.  Mostly I have engaged in research, analysis and deduction.  The sectioned rod does, however, illustrate some very important points:
    • Only half of the value is in the realm of the 'manufacturer', and most of that involves input costs.
    • The VAT man takes almost all of the top section.
    • The retailer has a whole section to himself.  But his margin is not the same as his profit, because he has to carry a lot of costs - premises, staff, stock and overheads - before he even sells the first rod.  Furthermore, the salmon rod business is largely seasonal: he sells most salmon rods in 7 months but carries the staff, costs and stock all year round.
    • About 50% of the manufacturing cost and 25% of the overall price is in the blank, which is the bit that determines the rod and its performance.  The margin here is the blank maker's or rod sub-contractor's, depending on the business model.  It is a sobering realisation that a cheap rod may be based on a £40 blank and you don't get a lot of sophisticated carbon and resin for that sum.  You get what you pay for in this business.
    • I based the fittings on a modest selection.  If you wish you can spend £200 on a set of titanium rings and a further £100 on a reel seat decorated with rare wood and some fancy engraving.  There's a strong market in luxury: the demand for Hardy's Sintrix Artisan at £1,600 currently exceeds their capacity.
    • The reality of the manufacturer's margin is very difficult to assess.  There are also the issues of the sunk costs such as prototype development that apply specifically to the salmon element of the product range (e.g. write off 10-15 bespoke prototypes at £2,500 each and you have to sell an extra 250 rods to cover the cost); and others that are spread across all products.
    • But make no mistake, after crawling through company financial information files in the UK and USA I can assure you that nobody is getting rich making salmon rods.  The mathematics speak for themselves.  Take the example of Hardys and Greys, who made 80,000 rods last year.  I don't have visibility of their internal operating accounts (who does?) but overall they lost an average of £5.20 per rod.  If you weight that average by rod price then at best the Sintrix is breaking even, or at worst losing £100 per unit.
    It is this economic logic that led me to recommend in last month's 'Springtime' post that you should look at the £350-500 price range, new or used, to get the best combination of value and performance.  The start-up, sunk and premium technology costs were carried  by the early movers in the premium market.  Their wealth works in your favour.

    You'll be relieved to know that in my next post I'll get back to some fishing!


    Tuesday 7 May 2013

    Reel Value

    In the world of salmon fishing there are few more seductive items than a beautifully engineered premium reel.  The temptation to spend one's hard earned pounds on a future family heirloom (that's another justifying argument!) is immense.  This is not about form, function or fishing quality, but more about the lasting joy of possession of quality.  The makers of high grade sporting shotguns know all about this psychology.  Of course, unless you fish for tarpon and permit in the crystal oceans to experience 300 yard runs and melting backing, you are unlikely ever to test your reel to any sort of destructive limit.  I've been there just once: when bass fishing as a teenager, a tope or small blue shark ate the fish that had just taken my sand eel and thus became attached to me for long enough to remove all 250 yards of line from my reel whilst doing horrid things to my thumb.  And all of that pleasure and pain was achieved without spending thousands on flights, hotels, guides or an Abel reel.

    My father was so successful at drumming into me that the reel was only a small part of the system that I suspect I'd feel really guilty buying an expensive reel, even if I could afford one.  A recent bequest from an aged aunt allowed me to climb a few steps out of the bargain basement, but otherwise my entire salmon reel buying life has been spent in the cellar.  Down there I've learnt a bit about what works and doesn't; what lasts and doesn't; and what's value for money.  Without doubt the most important thing I've learnt, or re-learnt, is that if you have a little bit of extra money, put it on the rod, not the reel.

    When I inherited my father's and grandfather's kit, it included a hefty Young's reel of great antiquity and even greater weight.  I didn't like it, and as I'd got 2 rods for nothing, felt I could justify buying a new reel.  From this point onwards I have no choice but to breach my usual 'no brands' policy, because I can't see a way of doing this article generically: I can only talk about what I know.

    Vision Koma

    I took advice from several experts.  Brian at Farlows was adamant: for people like me fishing one week per year, the Vision Koma represented the best combination of design, function, durability and price (then around £70).  After 12 years he's been proved absolutely right: this trusty die-cast workhorse has been dropped, bashed, dunked, drowned and fished stupid.  The soft grip handle is a thing of joy.  Koma has played and landed lots of fish, still works perfectly and has never let me down.  However, the price of reliability has been conscientious maintenance, based on a good understanding of the intrusions of value engineering in the design.

    These centre on the braking system and its enclosure.  You can see that the enclosure comprises a push-fit plastic cover, which is protective but not waterproof or sealed.  This means that as soon as you get home after your week, a full strip, dry, clean, lubricate and re-assemble is essential.  If you don't do that, within 2 years the clutch and brake assembly will solidify (ask Philip - that's what happened to his Grey's of similar design and price).  Please do not try improving the sealing with Vaseline or silicone grease because it will surely wind up in the brake and render even a stickleback unstoppable.  So if you're buying a budget reel, always look at the enclosure and keep the bit of paper that shows how the bits go back together!  The Koma is very simple to strip and assemble once you've got the hang of the circlip that holds the clutch on the spindle, which in free flight will cover the width of the kitchen and disappear into the only gap in the units.

    Loop CLW

    For my second reel I experimented with composite construction.  I'd just bought my first new rod - a Loop Classic Spey 14' ~9/10 - and the seller was keen that I should match it with one of the new Optis.  In the event he didn't have one in stock, so I saved nearly £100 and bought the CLW.  It's not pretty but it's the closest thing to indestructible that I've ever owned.  Test 1 involved shutting it in the door of a pickup truck; Test 2 involved a drop from height onto concrete; and for Test 3 the kitchen scales fell upon it whilst dis-assembled.  There's now one small chip on the spindle support while externally it's still unmarked.  The brake is first class (probably derived from a much more expensive model) and fully sealed: I've done no maintenance beyond basic cleaning on this reel in 5 years.  The easy grip handle is great.  My only complaint is that the CLW doesn't have any 'feel' or character: it just works perfectly in a very bland Swedish sort of way (the Volvo estate syndrome - I had 8 of them when the children were growing up).  If you don't like maintenance or fiddling with kit, and have never lifted the bonnet of your Volvo, then this is the reel for you.


    Some years ago I felt the need for a small rod for lesser rivers and low water conditions.  The Switch rods then on the market didn't impress, so I bought a little 12' #7 Vision GT4 Lite, which has proved to be one of life's gems, 6 ounces of peach essence.  There's a bit of a gap in the budget reel market in the #7/8 range (note a #7 Windcutter doesn't fit on a normal #7 reel because it's much longer).  The seller pointed me towards the Vision Konic, which he described as having all the virtues of the best Lamson reels without the cost.

    He was absolutely right.  The Konic is value engineering at its best.  It's well cast, minimally machined and economically finished with a bullet-proof coating.  The brake and bearings are beautiful and completely sealed.  Maintenance is limited to the annual light smear of grease on the spindle.  It's not without flaws: the handle is too slim and smooth for my taste; and the brake adjuster shown in the next photo (on a Guru) is not easy to grip with cold wet fingers.

    We need to remember that even at this economy level, the Konic is twice the price of the Koma or CLW.  The next step up the Lamson scale, the Guru, is double that again.  Putting the Guru and Konic side by side is instructive, because under the skin they start as the same reel.

    Here are the 2 frames.  The underlying design is identical.  The differences are the metal that has been machined away to produce the Guru's slimmer spokes and frame; the much finer surface finish; and the clever protective coating.  There's a golden rule in engineering: cost is directly related to the weight of metal that winds up on the floor.  Here you see it in practice.  Otherwise the brake and spindle assemblies are the same very high quality.

    You see the same features in the spools.  If you look closely you will note small differences in the spindle mounting and the click device, but these are owed to size rather than design.

    I bought the Guru because my aunt's generosity allowed a certain uncharacteristic extravagance in the form of a 13' #8/9 custom built by Charles Burns in York to match the fishing on the Ure that is occupying more of my free time.  It seemed only sensible to memorialise her spending habits!  It is indeed a very pretty reel, a joy to own and behold, but in truth it works no better than the Konic from which it was born.


    So what do I draw from all this:
    • The Koma is hard to beat on every score.  Any reel that's cheaper has had some significant material quality and engineering taken out - spindle, bearings, clutch or brake - which will come back to haunt you after 4 or 5 years.  But you must look after the Koma if you want it to last a decade and more.
    • If you're a very rare non-fiddling angler with a streak of clumsiness and bad luck, then  a composite reel with a fully sealed brake is just right for you.  However, I see no sense in having composite construction and an unsealed brake, which negates the advantages.
    • The Konic stands out for its real value engineering, with top quality components where they matter.  This is a premium design engineered down to a price.  Although that price is double the Koma, the overall package actually rivals the Koma for value for money.
    • The Guru is the cheapest way of getting something that looks like a £500 reel for half the price.  But it's not great value for money, and in the absence of gross charity from my readers I'll stop at one.
    • Always keep spare circlips.
    • Father and grandfather were right: the reel is the least part of the system.