Peter McLeod has spent much of his life guiding around the World for a multitude of species, but one of the tactics and species that stick in his mind is Surface Fishing for Atlantic Salmon. Here he gives his account of this wonderful method from around the globe…
In times gone by Surface Fishing for Atlantic Salmon was a technique used for trout but rarely for salmon, bar a few adventurous souls. The first time I witnessed it I was a guide in Norway in the 1990’s. One particular client pulled out an 8’6” 6# rod which he proceeded to set up with a large bushy dry fly. We scratched out heads a little, but sure enough, throughout the course of the week he caught fish casting upstream and watching them come up and hit a dry fly was mesmerising. In the right conditions, Atlantic salmon can become very aggressive and will often take flies from the surface. Generally, the water needs to be over 12 degrees C, and it helps if the river is clear. The four types of surface fishing I want to concentrate on are the stripped sunray, the Riffled Hitch, skated or dead drift dry fly and the dibble.
The stripped sunray has proved an extremely successful technique of not only locating fish in a river but of producing some incredible takes. I have seen it used effectively in Scotland, Russia, Norway, Iceland and the east coast of Canada. You need a Sunray Shadow tied on a plastic tube, which can vary in length from an inch to as large as four inches, the ones from Fulling Mill are excellent if I do say so myself. The fly is cast very squarely, or even slightly upstream and as the belly of the fly line picks up the drag you begin to strip the fly back with quick 6 inch strips. I think this appeals to their aggressive instincts and often a fish will charge out of a lie after it, often broaching the surface in its effort to grab it. I have also had fish come clean out of the water to then hit the fly on the way down. Hooking them is not so easy, but if missed clean they will often come again or be so riled up they will then take a smaller subsurface fly on the next pass.
Related article: The Sunray Shadow; versatility and simplicity personified
The Riffled Hitch originally came from Newfoundland but is probably now used more in Iceland than anywhere else. Originally the leader was quite literally half hitched around the head of the fly so it pulled at an angle causing the fly to skate across the surface. Speed here is the key, the fly must be moving fast enough to create a slick V-wake behind it, but not too fast it will create a foamy splash which does not work. If it is moving too slowly the fly will sink. Check out the Hitch Sunray here. These days most use a plastic tube and punch a whole in the side of the head bringing the leader straight out the side of the tube. This is easier, and also removes the hitch knot that can decrease leader strength. For some strange reason, salmon find this little V-wake irresistible (or extremely annoying!) and will slash at it, grab it aggressively, or often just rise and sip it like a dry fly. On a light single handed rod, this method takes a lot of beating and can become completely addictive.
Dry fly fishing for salmon has been around a long time, although not widely used in this country. On the East coast of Canada in Gaspé and New Brunswick, it is one of the normal ways to fish. Here they developed a particular style of salmon dry fly called the Bomber. The bomber is tied with clipped deer hair as the body, calf or bucktail wing and tail with a palmered hackle. They are practically unsinkable and a perfect fly to fish upstream or downstream. On the Kola Peninsula in Russia, they are normally fished downstream where the surface disturbance causes the aggressive reaction we are looking for. I have seen salmon come clean out of the water to attack bombers, and they will often chase two or three times before taking. Heart-stopping stuff! In Canada, they are normally fished upstream on the dead drift just like a trout fly. In this instance, the salmon will often just sip the fly down and can be difficult to spot sometimes – surface fishing for Atlantic salmon this way can be super exciting.
Lastly, there is the dibble. Surface fishing for Atlantic Salmon using this technique is ideally suited to rivers with boulders and whitewater areas. Some rivers like those in Norway often have boulders at the head of a pool with a whitewater chute charging in. Although not fishable in a traditional sense what many are unaware of is that often salmon will sit under the white water in the calm below. Dibbling requires patience and a long dark fly. On a very short line, the fly is “dibbled” over the white water, paying special attention to the clear windows that appear at the back ends of the current. With some persistence, it is possible to annoy a salmon into attacking the fly through the foam which can completely take you by surprise. I have seen some very large salmon hooked and landed in Norway using this method.
There are many other methods to use when it comes to surface fishing for Atlantic salmon, but these are my favourite that has produced fish for me when more traditional methods have not. If you have not tried it I would urge you to do so, as once you hook a charging salmon on the surface and have the visual image imprinted on your mind, you will want to try and recreate it as soon as possible.
If you would like to discuss surface fishing for Atlantic salmon or receive further information on destinations or tips, please contact Peter McLeod. Alternatively, please contact the office on +44(0)1980 847389.