Spate river tactics, part 1

Fishing the tiny streams for summer salmon and sea trout are the mainstay of my angling year. I don’t particularly enjoy elbowing my through the crowds for the chance of chucking worms or ironmongery into the slow, deep water of the River Moy so I tend to avoid that prolific system. The Galway Weir is a fabulous fishery but the crowds hanging over the parapet of the bridge put me off fishing there. I like my angling forrys to be secluded affairs, removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life. That means Galway is not an option for me either. So for river fishing for silver fish I opt for the narrow and overgrown spate streams which abound in the West of Ireland. Here is how I go about it….

small weir on the Bunowen

The first, and by far the most important stipulation for success is water. Plenty of water. I would go as far as to suggest that height of water contributes to about 90% of the success when fishing spate rivers. No water – no fish (well, not many anyway). The streams in the West are in general VERY spatey. With short and steep catchment areas the rain which falls in the early morning will have swollen the river by lunchtime and then returned it to summer low levels before the sun has set. Timing your trip is the most vital element in spate river angling. Too early and you just get a soaking and a big, dirty flood. Too late and you can walk across the best lies in wellies and not see a single fish. But time it right with the water falling after a couple of feet of a rise and sport can be brisk with both salmon and sea trout. A word about the fish before we go on. Grilse are the target these days since the sea trout were decimated by sea lice from the salmon cages offshore. The sea trout are trying to make a comeback but numbers are still pathetically low and all sea trout should be released by the angler.

A nice sea trout about to go back
A nice sea trout about to go back

Grilse numbers vary greatly from season to season but they are usually present after a good flood any time after May. Size wise these fish range from tiny 2 pounders right up to nicely proportioned fish of 5 or 6 pounds. Summer salmon are also around in small numbers and the odd springer which entered the river back in April can sometimes be landed. These fish are in no condition for the table and should be carefully returned to the river of course.

lovely small grilse

Locals often sling Flying ‘C’s and other similar metallic delights into the river and these certainly catch more than their fair share of grilse. It is only in exceptionally high water I resort to the spinner, not through any altruistic reasoning, I simply find the fly more productive. When a spinner hits the water the fisher must begin to retrieve immediately. It is very hard to ‘hang’ a spinner in such small pools so the spinner is retrieved briskly and the next cast is made to repeat the process. Using a fly rod I can ‘hang’ my flies over every lie and give the fish a better chance to decide to grab it. I often see spin fishers work through a small pool in 10 or 20 casts, whereas I can spend 30 minutes trying different angles and patterns in the same pool. The ability to roll cast is essential for small, overgrown streams. This, coupled with wading deeply allows you to cover the water effectively. Why deep wading? Although the rivers are small the banks are a profusion of trees, bushes and reeds. Getting into the water is often not just desirable, it is very often the only option. I make a point of figuring out where my exit from the river is going to be before I launch myself into it. Trying to wade back upstream against a strong flow is not pleasant, so make sure you know where the appropriate gap in the bank is situated ahead of any excitement. Tackle for this type of fishing is simple and every UK stillwater angler already possesses a rod and reel which will do the job admirably. A 10 or 11 footer rated for a no.7 or 8 line is perfect. I never bother with a double hander, the size of the anticipated catch and the short casting ranges mean a single handed rod can do all that will be required.

hardy sirrus reel

Don’t over-burden yourself with a vast range of lines of different densities. I only ever use a floater and a slow sinker. The floater covers pretty much all my needs and I only resort to the slow sinker in very high water or when fishing in a high wind on flat pools. Weight forward is the profile to go for as you want to load the rod quickly for the short casting which is the norm.

Leaders are also very simple. A heavy butt (to aid turnover) of about 18 inches is attached to the fly line by your own favourite method. I whip a loop on the end of my fly lines and then a bight loop on the heavy butt section to make the join. Leaders are 10 or 12 pound nylon straight through. I usually fish with two flies so I add a dropper to the leader which has a total length of about 9 or 10 feet.

I will discuss flies for spate rivers and some tactics which can make the difference in my next post


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