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Donkin on Fishing - Salmon


October 2006 - Up stream nymphing for salmon

For nearly a hundred years a debate has raged in chalk stream trout fishing over the acceptability of certain flies and approaches. Before G E M Skues began to discuss ideas on fishing the sub-surface nymph in his book Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream, published in 1910, chalk stream anglers had settled on the delicate presentation of upstream dry flies to rising fish.

The use of exact imitation flies had been advocated by Frederic Halford, who, if not the first of the dry fly fishers, was certainly the most prolific in his writing. Even today, there are waters that prohibit the use of nymphs at certain times of the year.

The Salisbury & District Angling Club, for example, does not allow nymph fishing on its best trout waters until the beginning of July. One member spotted recently fishing the American-style “Woolly Bugger” – a large gold-headed streamer nymph – was castigated in the club’s internet forum for what was viewed as a serious breach of etiquette.

Reared on too many Bateman cartoons, perhaps, I have a morbid fear of one day finding myself the man with the Woolly Bugger or some other proscribed fly. I just want to do the right thing.

The problem is that different clubs observe different rules so it’s easy to fall foul of regulations if you’re new to a water, something I discovered when salmon fishing in Canada this year. The Newfoundlanders have a rule forbidding weighted flies. Only natural fibres are allowed to dress the shank of a single barbless hook.

Trout fishing on chalk streams and salmon fishing have evolved quite different approaches. While the salmon fisher generally fishes downstream, often to unseen fish, the chalk stream fisher casts in the other direction, creeping up on a specific visible fish.

Nymph fishing broke with accepted practice by casting for sub-surface feeding fish, often, but not always, visible. It takes some skill to twitch a nymph in front of a fish in order to induce a take.

What works for trout, also works for salmon. This is an approach I mentioned – but did not disclose – last month since I know it to be extremely effective and worry that it might be banned as salmon fishing rules become ever more stringent.

The treble hook is no longer permitted on the Aberdeenshire Dee. Neither are barbed hooks. Sooner or later, as catch and release policies spread, no doubt the double will make way for the single hook. Then what? Will weighted and plastic tube flies go the same way as they have in Newfoundland?

While urging common sense I do think there needs to be some debate about what constitutes a salmon fly. If you are going to make a river “fly only”, banning the use of spinners, what should you make of the deer hair “spin doctors” that are being used in Russia? Are they flies? They can be weighted, just like metal devon spinners and have side fins, again like spinners. To apply the old McCarthyite doctrine, if it looks like a spinner and swims like a spinner it just might be a spinner.

In trout fishing, dry flies and nymphs are imitating the natural food of the fish. In salmon fishing it could be argued that while some flies are imitating food, many are simply designed to provoke an attack. The salmon does not eat during its up-river spawning migration but it does become aggressive and territorial.

Fly movement is important, hence the popularity of methods such as the “riffled hitch” that makes a fly jerk from side to side. But if a fly is behaving exactly the same as a spinner, the only differences between the two methods of fishing are the style of the cast and the thickness of the line.

I should have known that mention of a “secret method” last month would bring out the fishing instincts in emails from readers. Some of you employed the most subtle methods, dangling a juicy titbit of information, in order to attract an indiscretion. I’m told, for example, that the “black sheep” fly is a killer on its day. Others thought that I might have been talking about the riffled hitch with a “collie dog” or “sunray shadow”, bushy floating tube flies that can work well at the right time and place.

It was the reader – I will not mention his name to spare any blushes – who suggested the induced take from a leaded fly fished upstream who hit the mark. Since it’s clear the method is not confined among the friends who bound me to silence, I feel free to discuss it here, particularly since, as far as I can see, it is perfectly legal on waters that allow weighted flies and droppers.

The anglers I know who use this approach employ it sparingly but all have caught fish with it. In a method popularised in New Zealand trout waters, we use an egg pattern on a single hook tied to a length of line attached to the curved part of a weighted fly. With careful upstream casting it is possible to present the fly plum in front of the fish. If the line stops abruptly in the stream, it’s time to strike.

Like all methods, I would not claim it as foolproof but there is no doubting its effectiveness. It does not work everywhere or every time. But it has worked for me when other methods have not.

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