March 2006 – Salmon
Fly fishing is a fairly straightforward
pursuit. If the cast and presentation are good enough you
do not need to vary your fly too much between maybe half
a dozen designs of various sizes and weights.
So why do my fly boxes tell a different
story? Inside are scores of different styles and hues yet
there are days when not one pattern among all of them seems
right. The problem is that fly designs are supposed to focus
on the habits of the fish but in fly selection irrational
human behaviour is still so often the dominant influence.
Little wonder then, that some commercial
fly designs have proved better at luring anglers than fish.
Back in the late 18th century when Scottish salmon fly fishing
was in its infancy the most common flies were drab patterns
reflecting what was locally available in fur and feathers.
As Britain extended its empire and the
traders who followed the explorers began to feed a new vogue
in taxidermy, all kinds of exotic species lent inspiration
to the fly tier’s art. Some of the greatest enthusiasts
for a new range of so-called gaudy flies were Irish fly
tiers who began exporting their patterns to England.
In The Complete Salmon Fisher, Vol
II, Malcolm Greenhalgh writes that some of the most
elaborate flies were being sold to London’s game fishing
gentry in the 1850s for as much as half a guinea each, the
equivalent of a week’s wages for a labourer at that
As Scottish salmon fishing progressed with
the opening of railway links, so did the flies. Dressings
became increasingly elaborate and flies began to assume
the status of works of art. Perhaps the most famous of all
the classic salmon flies was the Jock Scott that used 28
Modern salmon fly designs have taken their
lead from observation of fish reactions. Few have been more
successful than the Ally’s Shrimp, created in the
late 1970s by Alistair Gowans, a professional game angling
instructor. Another of his flies – a bright yellow
and orange pattern called the Cascade - has become one of
When returning to spawn, salmon do not
feed in the river and, while a shrimp pattern is clearly
a food imitation, I am sure that the reason a salmon snaps
at a fly is less out of hunger and more out of a combination
of instinct, habit and irritation.
Anyone who has tried to interest a cat
in playing with a piece of string will have seen how the
cat will not always react. But something that rustles like
a ball of paper tied to a length of wool, pulled in little
jerks past the cat may tempt it to pounce in the same way
that it would attack a mouse or a bird. The cat just can’t
help itself if the artificial “quarry” is lively
A salmon can be tempted in the same way
through fly movement. Gowans recalls a fishing trip over
a few days last year with friends when he caught many more
than the rest of the party. “Three of the fish I caught
when I was allowing the fly to swing in the current. Eighteen
of them were caught when I was hand lining the fly back,”
Flies that create a commotion, like the
Pot Belly Pig that has a stiff bristled tail, the Muddler
Minnow with thickly bunched deer hair around the head and
the Irish shrimp patterns, can all work well if you can
make them move.
One of the latest ideas for imparting movement to the fly
is the “magic head”, a funnel-shaped piece of
plastic that is tied in to the fly behind the eye of the
hook. It can be pushed forward to make the fly vacillate
or it can be peeled back to create a streamlined profile.
I came across it in the March edition
of Fly Fishing and Fly Tying magazine which also
featured instructions for tying Gowans’ Cascade pattern.
The magic head was created by Marc Petitjean, a Swiss born
fly-tier who has been one of the most innovative figures
in fly fishing over the past few years. He it was, who pointed
out the merits of using cul de canard (soft feathers from
the duck’s bottom) in some trout fly patterns.
What about marrying the Cascade to the
magic head? Would this work? A Google search highlighted
some US suppliers and a few in the UK including one (troutcatchers.co.uk)
that also stocked some things called “wobbler blades”,
little shovel-like accessories you can tie on to the front
of your flies to help them sink and move at the same time.
Maybe this is taking innovation further
than it needs to go. But for spring salmon fishing, where
the fish tend to lie deeper than they do in the summer,
anything that can help a fly get down, while, at the same
time, imparting lifelike movement, may be worth trying,
particularly in slower water. I have some reservations over
their casting potential but will give them a go in Scotland
next month. Flies aside, it will help to have a few fish
in the river. I almost forgot about that.