Sunday 19 January 2014

New Year Resolution - Salmon on a Dry Fly

My salmon fishing resolution for 2014 is simple: to catch a Yorkshire salmon on a dry fly. The resolution is simple but the execution will be much more demanding owing to the perversity of salmon.  The chances of success are probably on a par with a New Year resolution for someone else to lose weight on your behalf.

The idea came from Canada - Newfoundland and Labrador - where dry fly is one of the primary tactics.  It lodged in my mind after watching some of the films posted by local guides on YouTube of salmon taking a dry fly on the surface and then going mad on the far end of a single handed rod.  The take was exciting and nerve wracking - there are lots of near misses and you see it all happening.  But the the fight was something else.  Unconstrained by the drag of 40 yards of #9/10 line the salmon seemed to spend a large part of the affair doing aerobatics, demonstrating that their sea trout and steelhead cousins don't have a monopoly on adrenalin.

While the dry fly demonstrably works very well on Canada's east coast rivers, opinion is divided in the UK.  Some say it won't or can't work.  Others point to the success of riffle hitched light tubes and by extension think it might work.  A very few are determined adherents of the dry fly, but mostly they accept that the range of situations in which it's a viable technique is quite narrow.  Hugh Falkus wrote about taking fish on the surface, but he viewed it as an interesting but limited tactic to be exploited in specific conditions, which he illustrated with examples from rivers in the very north of Scotland.  Indeed, one very experienced friend who's used every tactic in the book over the past 40 years considers that this is a phenomenon of the high northern latitudes, working well in Newfoundland, Iceland, North Norway and northernmost Scotland (yes, he's fished them all), but less well elsewhere. 

With little or no clear evidence or guidance in the British literature, I sought the wisdom of Bill Bryden, a well known Canadian guide and proponent of the dry fly. What follows is his thinking, not mine, and I'm most grateful to him for his tolerance of my ignorant and persistent questions.  In parallel I tested some of the assumptions and guidance on one of the days at Tomatin last September.  I didn't catch anything but the experience gave me insights into some of the practical challenges I'll need to overcome.

The Parameters

White Bomber
Technique  The resolution is for a floating dry fly cast square and fished on the drift, probably a Bomber or something similar.  It excludes riffle hitched tubes, skimmers, muddlers and wake flies fished in the surface zone, even if they might offer a better chance of success.  Last September's experiments taught me that Roll or Spey casting a Bomber rapidly drowns the fly; and that a Bomber carries a lot of water.  This means short exposures with overhead delivery and false casts to dry the fly between presentation. 

Equipment  Much as I love my 12' #7 DH Vision, I will get the best delivery and easiest casting with a single hander and a normal (i.e. non-Spey) profile line, albeit at a substantially reduced range.  My middle-aged 9' 6" #7 Hardy Viscount will match the task rather better than my late father's positively geriatric #6 Daiwa Whisker Kevlar sea trout rod.   It took 40 minutes to subdue a 10 pounder 31 years ago and like me certainly hasn't got any firmer since then.  The standard Cortland #7 line projected the Bomber adequately in the September trial, but it's now old enough that I won't feel guilty replacing it if necessary (e.g. to achieve more range with a constrained back-cast).  The leader will need thought and some experiment, but my opening bid will be 10 lbs Seaguar Fluorocarbon to avoid the surface effects that arise with floating tippet materials.  Being denser than water fluorocarbon sits below the surface film, but at 10 lbs not so far below as to risk drowning the fly.  Once below the surface fluorocarbon has the same refractive index as the water, so it does not appear as a shadow line when viewed from below.

Close Range   Self evidently you have to get near enough to the salmon to spot its movement and inclination to take; cover it with a single handed rod; be able to see the take clearly in order to react effectively; and present the fly with the required accuracy and delicacy.  In Newfoundland they often use a boat to get close to the salmon, an option that isn't available here, which also improves your ability to see where the fish is lying.  You're standing on the water, not in it, so the look angle is more favourable.  This means I have a planning range of around 20 yards, which will decline rapidly if I have to wade to any depth. 

Dick Dub
Post spate, low and clear
Secondary holding lie area
Location  I need a holding pool with clearly defined lies within the 20 yard range; with the same clear space behind to allow square casting; and a moderate even flow (i.e. no back eddies to drag the fly).  Ideally the lies should be reachable without wading over everyone else's fish and making myself Public Enemy No1 of the trout fishing syndicate.  Given those factors, of the Thoresby beat pools the best option is probably the middle third of Dick Dub, provided I can overcome the back cast limitations.  The secondary lies are linear, well defined and within range.  Best of all it's not much fished and out of direct view. 

Flesh Dub is not viable because the lies are too far out.  There are some options in the tail of Frodle Dub that can be approached from the shallows below without disturbing fish further up, but this will involve casting upstream rather than the optimal square presentation. 

August Fish
Air 21C, Water >16C
but not on a dry fly!
Conditions  The advice is adamant that the water temperature should be at least 15C ( a figure only attained at Tomatin in our week during the drought and heat-wave years of 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2009).  However, that figure is reasonably common on the Ure in late summer.  The water must also be clear.  It remains to be seen whether these 2 criteria conflict with the size and persistence of water level rise required to pull fresh fish up from Goole and the 2-4 day freshness window.  Helpfully the Ure clears quickly after a spate and once settled is crystalline.  The air needs to be warm, still and overcast, in other words, classic olive fly hatch parameters, which can be commonplace on the Ure in August and September.

August Runner

Fish  The optimum targets are fresh newly arrived fish, not residents.  This presents me with something of a problem.  Whereas in Newfoundland they have bright silver fish and the requisite water and air temperature, in Yorkshire such coincidence is rare.  Last May we had silver fish in the Ure but snow on the tops.  If June and July are dry, then from August onwards we get fish that run the 73 miles up from the estuary at considerable speed and arrive with us in various shades of grey as a result of their extended sojourn in the Humber.  The August runners are much more numerous than their spring peers, which improves the odds, but it remains to
August Resident
be seen whether they are fresh and frisky enough to go for a dry fly. This criterion also sets a fairly brief window - perhaps 2-4 days - after each run-stimulating rise in water level before the salmon relapse into residence.

Inevitably a tremendous amount depends on the summer's weather.

The Plan

The analysis above suggests that the best chance of fulfilling my resolution will occur in August or September, within a 2-4 day window of opportunity after a run-stimulating spate.  There's no point block-booking a week because that will have dire repercussions for the weather (see The Countdown for an analysis of the meteorological effects of my eager anticipation).  Opportunism is the order of the day.  Work is quieter in August because everyone else is on holiday, and when they get back in September they need a full week to clear all the e-mails that accumulated in their absence and another week to process the work they requested other people to deliver by the first Monday (or others demanded of them).  This means I have a period of around 5-6 weeks in which I can snatch the odd day's leave without the need for a long lead time or coordinating with anyone else.

The Triggers

If the right conditions arise I'll have quite a good warning period because:
  • The weather system to bring the rain for the spate will show up on the forecast about 3 days ahead.
  • The rain should persist for 24-48 hours, long enough to generate a rise of about 1 - 1.5 metres.
  • Then the spate needs to run for long enough to pull fish through - generally 3 days.
  • The river will then need about 24-36 hours to fall to the optimum level and clear.  The Environment Agency levels are displayed on my phone and updated twice daily (yes, it's sad, I know).  Once the reading at Kilgram goes back down through +80cm the next 2 days will be just right.
  • And the average air temperature throughout needs to be between 16 and 21C, which Dales folk would regard as somewhat tropical.
Those parameters chime precisely with King William of Orange's description of an English summer: "three mild days followed by 2 of rain".  That will do me nicely Your Majesty.  Of course as a result of our Royal family being related to all the others in Europe our weather is anything but reliable in any direction.  In 2013 we had a Hanoverian summer with no rain;  in 2012, Swedish, all rain; but in 2011, classic English 3+2 mixture.  Who knows what 2014 holds?  Take your pick from Danish, Greek and Russian (courtesy of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh), but if I'm to crack the resolution, please pray for the full English.  Thank you.

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