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.

    1 comment:

    1. Your'e father was a very erudite thoughts exactly re the anticipation of a day's Shooting/Fishing.

      I've been doing both for over 60 years (I'm 67)and it does not diminish with age....bad news for wives !!!