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March 2006 – Salmon flies

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 time.

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 different materials.

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 my favourites.

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 enough.

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,” he says.

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 ( 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.

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