Salmon Fishing in Scotland – Advanced Tips and Techniques
Salmon fishing in Scotland has much to offer any angler. In this article I will describe in detail the techniques we use to target salmon throughout Scotland.
I have fished our Scottish waters for over 45 years and have been a professional Orvis Endorsed Guide for 16 years. I am the founder of Alba Game Fishing, Scotland’s foremost provider of fishing trips. We offer tailored trips for all species throughout Scotland.
I decided in 2004 to quit the corporate world as CEO of a small software company in Edinburgh and swap my suit for a set of Tweeds and wellies. I pioneered the blend of fishing, photography and lunches all wrapped up in a premium service and we were the first company in Scotland to offer this. Since then we have fine tuned our offering, and constantly looked to improve both our venues, tackle and the team of guides and casting instructors we have.
- Choosing the right river at the right time
- Preparation for the day
- Get into the right mindset
- Reading the river
- What fly lines to use, flies and sink rate tips to select?
- Techniques and how to fish the fly
- Playing and releasing a fish effectively
Choosing the Right River at the Right Time
You can never truly predict what time of year the productive fish catching days will be for each river, but you can certainly make an educated guess. First, you should study each river and how it fishes at different river levels. Then, you can marry that with fish catch returns and conditions, which will allow you to draw conclusions. This is an ever changing equation and needs constant monitoring. Your finger needs to be on the pulse.
I often get asked “how much is a day’s salmon fishing?” which is similar to the question… “how much is a ticket at Wimbledon?” Or “How much is a car?” At this point, this is where you have to start asking the following questions, to try and narrow it down.
Ask the Right Questions
Where will you be based (if your staying in Fort William don’t ask for a day trip on the Tay)
What is your budget? (A champagne beat on the Spey, doesn’t cost lager money)
What experience do you have of Spey casting? (Often none is the best – this way you don’t have to undo bad habits)
What is your main motivation for booking a trip? (Believe it or not, some guests want to focus on scenery, service and the all-round Scottish experience rather than a guaranteed catch)
A client called me in July and asked for a day on the Dee. I asked him where he was staying. He said Perth. I asked why the Dee, he said because a friend in the States said it was the best. I explained the Lower Tay would be a heck of a lot closer, and more productive in August (and less expensive)and steered him to the Scone Palace fishings at Fishponds. Luckily the day worked out, he caught and released a grilse of 6lb and a salmon of 13lb both on the fly. It doesn’t always work out like that, but it’s great when it does.
Preparation for the Day
My Dad was a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy and one of his motto’s was “proper planning and preparation prevents piss poor performance.” This wisdom is embedded in my psyche. Starting a day ill-prepared often leads to failure and time spent planning is time seldom wasted.
I am obsessive about detail, and I like to spend time checking and preparing gear. It’s also trained into our team. I always have a well organized fly box, containing confidence patterns that are appropriate for the river you are targeting. The correct sink tip/ leaders, you wouldn’t want to arrive on the river Thurso in summer armed with only with 10ft/12ft poly leaders, when what you need are 5ft/6ft instead. Equally don’t turn up to the Tay with a 5ft leader for a 580grain line and a 15ft rod.
Spare life vests and sunglasses are a must in case guests forget theirs (they always do). Check all hooks, clip off excess nylon. Freshen up leaders. Check the rod and reel for damage, have plenty of tackle to cover varying scenarios.
We use a lot of tube flies on the Big 4 rivers, the Tay, Dee, Tweed and Spey. Tube flies, Collie dogs, Snaeldas and sun rays are a bit of a nightmare to store, they get damaged, tangled and lose their shape when they get bashed around in storage.
I learned a beautiful tip from John Richardson, one of our fly Tyers. You’ll need a box of clear plastic straws, 8mm and a cheap heat sealing machine. The whole set up can be bought for under £30.00 and it’s a game changer. Importantly, when you take the flies out of the tube, they are in a perfect shape with no damage and they also dry out on the straws too.
The Salmon Fishing Mindset
Often guest focus on tackle, and techniques too heavily. Whilst these are vitally important, you can throw everything in the bin if you don’t turn up with the right mindset.
Salmon fishing can be a frustrating business, and it’s not recommended for the faint-hearted. “Persistence beats resistance,” I hear my Dad say. Never a truer word.
I met a fellow angler on the river once, we’ll call him Bill. He had been to Farlows a few days before the trip, and splurged his credit card on the very best rod, reel, line and waders. Even his underpants were made by Patagonia (he told me). Everything on him looked brand spanking new. He charged into the water, like a buffalo sending shock wave out across the water. With a noise like that, every fish in the pool would have scattered. He then flailed away, thrashing the water into a foam, casting repeatedly in the same spots and clumping around the river bed with the finesse of an elephant. It was grim to watch, and we quietly went as far away from him as possible, making a mental note to avoid everywhere he had been.
When we arrived in the hut at lunch time, Buffalo Bill had ran out of steam. He sat in the hut, on his phone and trying to conduct business from the sanctuary and tranquility of the hut. It was everything we had all come to the river to escape from. The point is that it’s vital to treat fishing for wild salmon in a similar way to stalking a Stag. You have to move with stealth and with respect, and enjoy and the connection with your environment. You have to switch the devices off. Disconnect to reconnect.
Relax and Focus
Your mindset should be like a hunter, relaxed and focused. It’s almost a zen like state, with pure focus and a clear head. I promise you, if you try this, you will catch more fish. It gives you confidence and that is a vital component when salmon fishing. More than everything, you must quietly believe that at any moment, each cast might catch a fish. You must stay true to this belief. For every cast that doesn’t catch a fish—and there will be many—just quietly shift focus on to the next cast. Stay focussed, stay positive and treat the salmon with the respect it deserves.
Reading The River
Now we are starting to get into the nitty gritty. Reading the river is so important and this helps you understand where the salmon lies are and at what river heights. I fish the River Teviot in winter for grayling and whilst this is one of my great passions, I am also using this time to work out where all the salmon lies are. The Teviot is also a great salmon river in it’s own right and sometimes a worthy alternative when the Tweed is unfishable. The salmon lies are easy to spot in gin clear water and you can spot the depressions in gravel behind boulders, the resting spots that still offer good oxygen and the deeper channels where fish might run and get protection from predators.
I cannot stress enough the importance of gleaning knowledge from the resident ghillie. Treat these professionals with respect they deserve, and they will look after you too. Respect their knowledge, they live and breathe the river every day and they know where the fish get caught. A good ghillie will also understand where fish will be on differing river levels. Yes you can usually work this out if you’re a competent salmon angler, but there are always spots that will take you by surprise. The ghillie will know where they are. Equall,y if you have a guide who fishes a river regularly, he too will know the spots. With that said, you can be sure he’s also learnt some from his relationship with the ghillie.
What lines, flies and Sink tips to select for salmon Rivers?
It can be confusing deciding what fly line to use on a salmon rod. And knowing the differences between Standard Spey, Skagit, Short Spey (Scandi), Spey and Shooting head lines can be a challenge.
Standard Spey Lines
When I learned to Spey cast all those years ago (1980″s) my tutor insisted on using a 65ft head Spey line. This is known as a Standard Spey line in Scotland. In fact, in the 1980’s we were still probably 15 or 20 years away from the advent of Scandi, Skagit and Shooting head lines. Learning on a 65ft head Spey line is a great way to learn the basics, and a great examiner of your technique. These lines also offer the best presentation and land with more delicacy than the shorter and more aggressive head scandi, and shooting head lines.
Short Spey Lines (Scandi)
Spey Lines with a short head are sometimes referred to as Scandi Head lines, they have a shorter length head than a spey line. The weight of the head is to the rear of the line, for example 43ft in length (as opposed to 65ft) Scandi lines come integrated (better) and looped to a running line. The head as a longer more graduated taper and therefore better for presentation. However they are not ideal for throwing heavier sink tips, poly leaders leaders and heavy flies. They are also easier to cast than a standard spey and ideal for smaller flies.
These heads have a more aggressive taper and a lot more mass at the tip of the flyline. The Skagit head is ideal for heavier sink tips and Skagit Heads of varying sink rates can be attached loop to loop, (similar to polyleaders, but balanced to the Skagit Head) and large weighted flies.
In simple physics mass moves mass. Therefore, a heavier head Skagit will turn over a heavier tip and your fly with a lot more ease than a Short Spey Line. These are also easy to cast, and your guide can get you up and running safely and quickly for an enjoyable day on the river.
This is a short, denser section of fly line attached to a thin running (shooting) line offering minimal resistance and drag on the head in flight. Once you get the head outside the rod tip (get the right level of overhang), the heavier shooting head pulls the thinner running line through the guides. Choosing a running line can be as important as the head. Ideally pick a running line that is easy to handle and does not suffer from too much memory.
Here are some benefits of a shooting head system:
- Quick loading, requiring minimal false casting.
- Effective in confined spaces or when back cast room is limited.
- They punch well through the wind.
- Like a Skagit, Shooting heads provide more mass, handling heavier or larger flies easily
- Basically a shooting head allows you to cast further, with less effort.
- Flexibility of loops to loop different heads quickly, without changing over spools or reels.
What flies and Sink Rate tips to use?
You will sometimes hear guides and ghillies say that fly presentation is more important than choice, and whilst this is true, it shouldn’t be ignored that fly choice can be the game changer. Let’s start by asking why a salmon takes a fly? After all, as soon as they enter freshwater they do not feed. So why would they feast on a bunch of thread and feathers? Here are a few reasons we’ve worked out:
A salmon has no hands, so if something interesting appears in front of it it might be tempted to ‘mouth’ the object out of curiosity.
Spawning fish are territorial and aggressive at times. A fly might just piss off the salmon enough to force it to grab the fly out of aggression.
Pavlov’s Conditioned Response
A salmon fly might resemble a food source that it fed on in the ocean, I.e. a sun ray (sand eel) and Shrimp pattern Red Francnsnaelda.
Nobody can explain this one. Your client completely flops a cast, the fly lands in a heap with the tippet like a bowl of spaghetti, the salmon takes the fly!?
Consider also which color flies work well in what water colors. If the water is peaty and dark brown like some of the West Coast spate rivers, then the patterns may differ from those for the clearer rivers.
Selecting the right Versileaders, Sink Tips or poly leaders is as important as fly choice and presentation. If you’re not fishing the flies at the right level, you’re not in the game. These are essentially tapered leaders which are either coated with a tungsten material of varying densities, or a plasticised material for floating. A sink tip is generally a faster sinking tips, looped on to the end of a fly line.
Common sense applies to what tip to use with what rod and line. For example a # 8 weight Scandi line is going to struggle to cast the very heavy sink tips or Versileaders, and there will be some hinging on the cast stroke. This is because the Scandi head tapers and there is no mass at the end to move the heavier tip.
No one tippet is the best, as it depends on the tint of the water you are fishing and the topography of the river. In most cases I use Maxima as its tried and tested and has a degree of stretch/ elasticity, which in my opinion is better than fluorocarbon tippet which is brittle and more likely to snap under sudden strain. I use 15lb breaking strain for the bigger rivers (0.37mm diameter) and 10lb (.30mm) for the smaller spate waters. It comes in clear, Chameleon (brown) and Ultragreen. Fulling Mill also carries a copolymer that is good for the smaller rivers. Here are some scenarios to help understand the thought process into what tippet to choose.
Open Bankside with no trees, clear day light cloud cover and water running clear = Maxima Clear or Fulling Mill Copolymer.
Closed bankside surrounded by trees, water running peat colored = Maxima Chameleon
Sunny day, clear water= Maxima Aquagreen
What you are looking for is the line most invisible in the water and against the skyline. Be tactical, think it through and don’t be a one trick pony.
Techniques to fishing a Salmon Pool
Now assuming you have all the aforementioned in place, you’re approaching a pool and are ready to go.
Approach the pool with caution and stealth, think very carefully about where the salmon lies are. Stay quiet and stealthy. You are stalking a wild beast that has made an incredible journey and is a miracle of nature, so show it the respect it deserves.
Go only deep enough to give you an anchor point for your spey cast. Avoid deep wading and disturbing fish. I see it all the time, anglers almost standing as deep as where the fish would run. If you can fish a pool from the bank without wading I would always recommend this. If you do need to wade, go slowly and easy, like you were sniper approaching a vantage point. Also never wade somewhere you can put your fly through first.
Be your salmon fly
Imagine in your minds eye the fly swimming under the water. It’s vital that you are swinging the fly with control of the fly at all times, and that there are no bellies in the line nor drag. The fly should swing even and true and you should target the pool with precision and optimism. On occasions, a skated fly or a fly cast across the stream and ripped back quickly will work if fishing a sun ray or a hitched fly, but be aware of the technique you are fishing and the method you are using and stay in control.
After each cast, take a gentle step downstream and allow the fly to swing approx 3 ft below where it was before. Casting a fly repeatedly in the same spot will not convince the salmon to take the fly and this also allows you to cover more water and search out those “taking fish”
When good tactics induce a take, you have to discipline yourself to react in the correct way. This can be harder for trout fishers, as they are used to “Striking” when they feel a take.
It can take a lot of investment in time and money to create the moment when a salmon takes. Don’t mess it up at this stage! Let the fish take, turn back to its lie and then set the hook properly with side pressure and a grip of the line on the handle or by holding the reel. Once you have hooked a fish like this, let the clutch take over and play the fish. You have a very good chance of landing it because the hook is set properly.
This includes being alert to how to land the fish. Adrenaline will be coursing through you, and senses are working overtime. Stay calm and focused and take as much time as the fish needs. It sounds silly to say this, but play the fish, don’t try and rush it into the net. Some fish come quickly, and others fight like demons. Its not often size related and some of my best fights have been smaller fish. When retrieving line back on the reel try to do so in a smooth efficient manner, pump the rod smoothly and retrieve on the way down.
It pays to plan ahead and look for slacker water to land the fish. Side pressure is more effective than the rod raised to the sky, and this helps steer the fish to where you would aim to land it. When shallow gravel is nearby, netting a fish is impossible so beach the fish instead. If you have a bit of depth, net the fish, then keep it in the net under water while you compose yourself and unhook the fly and plan for a quick photo.
If you’re fishing catch and release, then you would want a good photo. Photography requires planning. So, ensure your camera settings are correct and in place before you cast a line. There’s nothing worse than fiddling around with your camera while the poor fish waits, and is put through more stress.
Wrap your forefinger and thumb around the knuckle of the tail and avoid bending the tail against the body. This will put less strain on the tail muscles when you lift the fish up. Rather than gripping the tail you are simply forming a sold loop with your finger and thumb and avoiding squeezing too much. It’s worth also washing your hands in the river prior to handling, do this when the fish is resting in the net, it will help remove bacteria from your skin and transferring it to the fish.
All too often I see fish in November with skin disease and the areas of the fish impacted are where hands of anglers have been during grip and grin photos. Finally cup your hand gently under the belly of the fish and find the centre of gravity, again do not squeeze the belly of the fish, simple lift it up from the net and minimise the time out of the water. I can rattle off a few photos in a matter of seconds with good planning and then be looking to release the fish.
Releasing the fish
Finally, feeling elated and bursting with excitement, the final act of kindness and respect, is releasing the salmon back to its environment safely and without fuss. Using the same method of holding the fish you adopted for catch and release, hold the fish under water in the stream so that oxygenated water runs through its gills. Allow the fish time to recover. You’ll know when this is, and it varies depending on how long the fish was played out and how strong the fish is. When the fish is ready, it will kick to get away from you. Seeing these magnificent creatures swim safely back to their element is one of the most rewarding aspects of angling. Salmon are the King of fish.
So there you have it, front to back. The process of preparing for a day of Salmon fishing, which includes approaching the water and fishing a pool, catching and releasing. I hope 2021 presents many exciting salmon fishing opportunities for us all, and we can get out on the rivers again and enjoy freedom, open space, camaraderie and good sport. Tight lines and have a great season.