How to Introduce an Absolute Beginner to Salmon Fishing
In my eyes, and those of many others, the Atlantic salmon is regarded as the King of Fish and is the ultimate prize.
They’re an anadromous fish species, meaning they can live in both fresh and saltwater, and begin their lives in the former. From ova they transition to alevin, then fry, followed by the parr stage and then grow into what’s known as a smolt.
The smolts will then migrate to the open ocean, following pre-programmed routes to the rich feeding grounds off Greenland and the Faroe Islands. For one to four years they will feed heavily on herring, smelt, young mackerel and other small fish, including crab and shrimp. During their saltwater voyage they will take on a silver, almost chrome appearance, but when they return to the rivers of their birth they will begin to colour-up, becoming a mélange of purple, brown, and bronze.
What does a salmon take a fly?
During their time in freshwater they cease to feed, instead, living off their reserves of fat gained while at sea, sustaining them for up to a year. As a result, there are many theories as to why an Atlantic salmon will take your fly. They in include territorial behavior, annoyance, anger, curiosity, excitement or playfulness and more. The aim is to surprise them and not give them too long to make up their mind on whether or not your fly tempts them.
Unlike the seven species of Pacific salmon, who die after spawning, the Atlantic salmon can return to and from the ocean multiple times to spawn. A fish that returns after its first winter at sea is know as a grilse, and whilst they can grow to ten pounds or more they will generally weigh between one and a half and six pounds. More often than not a fish weighing over six pounds will be referred to as an adult salmon.
The journey of these magnificent creatures is a fascinating one, but due to the changing climate this journey is becoming harder for them and, consequently, that means fewer salmon in our rivers, making them even harder to catch. However, while they continue to return, anglers continue to be impressed by the power and beauty of this most elusive and saught-after of fish. If you’ve yet to fish for Atlantic salmon then I hope this blog will encourage you to do so and help you on your way.
You can fish for Atlantic salmon with a single or double-handed rod, but if you’re fishing on a wide river with high banks then Spey casting with the latter is the better choice. This traditional way of salmon fishing will increase your casting distance while keeping your fly from getting caught up in the vegetation behind you.
The length of your rod depends on the width of the river or rivers you will be fishing. I’d advise having a lesson or two, or borrowing some equipment to help determine what’s best for you and your situation. This way you’ll avoid spending money on gear you then find is unsuitable.
Usually a rod of 13ft or a 13ft 6in is a good place to start as it will cover most salmon rivers in the UK. I’d recommend an 8 weight with a floating line and 5 to 10ft poly leaders or a shooting head with 15ft tips. Either option is good.
My personal beginner rod setups:
- Orvis Mission 13ft6” 8# with a Battenkill V reel + Mission Scandi shooting line and 15ft tips
- Orvis Clearwater 13ft 7# with a Battenkill V reel + Orvis Spey floating line and 5-10ft polyleaders
- Orvis Clearwater 11ft 8# with a Battenkill IV reel + Rio Scandi Short, flat profile mono shooter in 30-40lbs + 12ft tips
Essentials: tippet (size 12lb – 15lb/ 0.30 – 0.40mm), polyleaders (floating, hoover, intermediate, slow sink, fast sink, super fast sink) and tips (intermediate, sink 3, sink 5, sink 7).
Other items you’ll need include: Chest waders, polarised sunglasses, a cap or hat, pair of nippers, forceps, and a large net with an unknotted, rubber-coated mesh.
To start with it’s best not to over complicate things as a beginner. Otherwise, you might find yourself trying to haul out a very heavy line or sink tip before you’ve mastered the casts.
Begin with a floating line as this is perfect for late spring/summer fishing and once you get the hang of this setup you can start adding some depth with an intermediate line and so on and so forth. Heavier sink rates can be especially useful in the early spring or autumn when the weather is cooler and the fish are sitting lower down in the water column.
So, when is the best time to go salmon fishing?
The answer to this question has been the subject of much debate and although you can catch them when the river is very high or low, the best time is when the river level is falling and the barometric pressure is rising. However, if you’re faced with low water conditions you’re best to target the fast, oxygen-rich water. If the river is high then the fish tend to be close to the banks, so target the margins rather than the main current. You should not fish for Atlantic salmon when the water is 18 degrees or above to avoid fatality.
Position and posture
You will want to face with at least one foot pointing at your target (where you’d like your fly to land), make sure you feel comfortable with your stance – wading can be tricky at times so you need to feel steady on your feet. Wherever you stop the rod tip your line will follow. Most of the time you’ll want to aim diagonally downstream at a 90-degree angle.
The rule of thumb is to cast and let the fly swing. Or, roll cast onto the dangle (parallel to the bank). Then move down two large steps and repeat the cast. It’s important to keep moving as you need to cover as much water as possible. However, if the water is coloured or cold you’ll want to slow down and perhaps move down 1 cast 1-2 steps. If the water is clear and at summer temperature then you’ll want to move fast through the pools and perhaps pick up the speed to 1 cast: 3/4/5 steps.
It’s very simple: if the wind is hitting your right cheek and shoulder then your anchor should be on your left and your D-loop should be off your left shoulder and vice versa. This prevents the fly from being blown into you during your forward delivery.
Top hand is your steering hand. You don’t use it to power the rod so you can relax your grip. Bottom hand is your power hand. It’s best to end your cast without extending your arms. Keep them close to you (T-Rex arms) as this will stop you from using your top hand to generate power. If you do use your top hand to power the cast the result will be to open up your loops, making them inefficient and vulnerable to the wind.
Banks are always referred to as Left and Right. To determine which side of the riverbank you are on simply face downstream. Now the Right bank is on your right and the Left bank on your left.
The anchor is your fly, tippet plus tapered leader and the first few feet of your fly line. Your anchor should be placed a rod to a rod and a half length away from you on either your left or right hand side, depending on whether your D loop – before delivery – is off your left or right shoulder. Your anchor should kiss the water before delivery. Once the anchor is in place, and you have stopped your rod on your casting shoulder, the D-loop is formed behind you.
Most importantly you must have a straight anchor and not develop a “bloody L.” To ensure you avoid it, check out this video: Spey Casting With Jon – Fixing The ‘Bloody L
This gets its name from the line forming a capital D shape in the air off your casting shoulder. The D-loop forms before you deliver your fly. If you have roll cast with a single-handed rod then this too is a spey cast. The D loop will blow out behind you like a parachute, the bigger the parachute the faster you will fly, so make sure it expands as far as it can before going forwards into your delivery stroke. Remember the bigger the D-loop, the more power you generate. If you’re too fast and don’t allow the D loop to form properly you will hear a horrible whipping sound. If you’re too slow the D-loop will collapse, leaving too much fly line on the water followed by an almighty “slurp” as you try to drive this excess line forward. This is why you should always try to have the line kiss the water, creating the right amount of water traction at the anchor point which, along with a good D loop, will load your rod and generate the power to accurately deliver your line and fly.
Casting with a double-handed rod should be timed to the waltz count of 1-2-3, 1-2-3. No matter, each and every cast should start with a lift. Lift the rod straight up as if you are drawing a line up a tree trunk.
When I’m taking students for their very first lesson I always start with the roll cast. This is the most important cast to grasp and is what I refer to as The Preparation Cast, as it sets you up for the main cast.
The roll cast helps draw a heavy fly or line up through the water column to prevent you getting any water suction when you make your main cast, if you’re using an intermediate/ floating setup with a light fly and it has swung with the flow parallel to the bank then you might not need this preparation cast. The roll cast also helps to straighten and remove slack from your line (the fly fisher’s worst enemy when not done intentionally) and sets your line parallel to the riverbank prior to making your main cast. This is especially useful when the flow is slow and hasn’t brought your fly around properly.
Let’s start on the right hand bank with our right hand on top and with the wind blowing downstream. If you were on the opposite bank – with the wind blowing downstream – you would then place your left hand on top. You can also cast off the wrong shoulder, but it is advisable, and preferable, to learn with both hands on top.
I prefer to teach the Snap T/C/Circle Spey to beginners rather than the single Spey, but if my student is struggling I will teach them a few casts, see which one they feel most comfortable with, and then stick with their preference.
If you are on the right bank and the wind is coming upstream you will now have your left hand on top and you will have your anchor and D Loop on your left hand side. If the fly is positioned downstream – parallel to the bank – you can now perform a snap C.
Mending upstream: slow the fly down – fast flowing water
Mending downstream: speed the fly up – slow flowing water
*Mending upstream can be great if you want your fly to hover in certain taking zones or lies.
Most of your salmon flies will be either dressed (tied directly on the hook) or tube flies.
Here is a list of flies you might want in dressed (size: 8, 10, 12) and tube flies (size: 1 & 1.5 inch), it’s important to have an array of colours in your fly box for different times of the year. If you get a selection of the below you can then keep adding to your fly armory depending on which rivers you fish:
- Cascade Willie Gunn
- Ally Shrimp Cascade
- Junction Shrimp
- Red Francis
- Sunray Shadow
- Stoats Tail
- Green Butt
- Black & Yellow
You can learn an awful lot in a short space of time by reading a few books; here are a couple of suggestions:
‘Spey Casting’ by Simon Gawesworth
‘Salmon & Women’ by Hugh Falkus
Top Salmon Flies’ by Spey Brothers
‘Atlantic Salmon Magic’ by Topher Browne
Fish Welfare – Catch & Release
As a note before I finish up this piece, I’ll say that we can always improve our catch and release technique. If you’re planning to take this information and target salmon, this is extremely important.
Last season I received a message from someone, which said: “She (an Atlantic salmon) was out of the water for two minutes max, unhooked on wet grass and swam away strongly.” In reality, a fish shouldn’t be out of the water for more than a handful of seconds. Just long enough for you to take a couple of photos as a memento.
Here are a few things, which I practice:
- Get in the water—whenever it’s safe to do so—and, ideally, unhook the fish while it’s still in your net.
- If your catch has swallowed the fly deep don’t take the fly out, cut the tippet, as they have a higher chance of survival this way. This goes for any species.
- Get low down to the water, kneeling if possible. Fish are slippery critters and susceptible to injury, especially when you take them out of their natural environment.
- When taking a photo lift the fish just above the water, but only for a few seconds – if they begin to wriggle before you have your photo I prefer to let them swim away.
- If you are by yourself a picture of the fish in shallow water or resting in the net is good enough and can often make for the very best shot.
- Don’t squeeze the fish tight; you’ll very likely damage it internally. In fact, the more gently you cradle a fish the less stressed it’ll be.
- Before releasing, gently hold the fish with its head pointing upstream and when they’re ready they’ll begin to ‘kick’, at which point simply let them swim off home.
If you’re interested in learning more about salmon fishing, you can check out a recent piece on the blog by Stewart Collingswood.