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
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
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.