Fishing in Ireland, salmon fishing

Speed of the fly

The question of the speed the fly should travel through the water is one which seems to perplex beginners who are fly fishing for salmon. I know that many years ago when I was starting out with the double-handed rod I read avidly every scrap of information I could lay my hands on to build up my knowledge on all aspects of salmon fishing but the co-joined questions of speed and depth received little coverage at the time. Nowadays, there is a wealth of detailed knowledge available, indeed it could be argued there is too much! The advent of variable density sinking lines has opened up a new world of opportunities to the big river salmon angler. I am no expert on these wonders of modern technology. Old fashioned tapered fly lines are more my forte! Today I want to talk about fly speed on small spate rivers.

A long, slow pool on a west of Ireland spate river – how fast should your flies be moving? This is the wonderful Owenduff

Why is speed important? Most of the fish we are targeting on spate rivers will be grilse. These wonderful fish can be incredibly finicky about how fast the fly moves, some days they want something to chase while at other times a more sedate pace is demanded. Finding the speed can be as important as the pattern on some occasions so we need to understand how to control fly speed. The angler who develops that ‘feel’ for the river will catch more fish in the long run. Spate rivers tend to be small, intimate waters where every cast is slightly different to the last one. Angles and fly control need to be at the top of the anglers agenda when fishing the fly through the pools and runs of a narrow river. Let’s start by looking at fly lines and how they influence speed.

The straight run from below

The Bunowen river. Grilse hug the opposite bank on this stretch

The coming of modern heavy, fast tapered fly lines has made only small inroads into Irish spate river fly fishing. Specific lines which combine with specialist rods are not only available but are eminently suitable for some situations on the larger spate rivers like the Owenduff and Owenmore. Full floating skaggit lines work well and my only reservation is the large diameter of these lines but this is only a minor issue in all but ow water conditions. Floating lines of any profile will tend to skate slightly on the surface and this can be used to your advantage when controlling fly speed. Any sinking line absorbs more of the energy you apply when pulling the line because it is below the surface. The floater will respond more quickly if you draw in some line so there is an opportunity to control fly speed with more finesse. This can be important in tight corners such as in quick running water where small lies need to be covered. Think of streams where rocks provide lies and you want to fish the fly across them. A sinking line may be too ‘dead’ to do this effectively and the floater can be handled more deftly to meet your needs.

Floater, sinker, somewhere in between?

Sinking line have their place in our armoury too and controlling fly speed in high waters is a real challenge for us all. I like to use a slow sinker or fast glass line in most high water situations. I think many anglers see the sinking lines as a way of controlling depth and while this of course very true, the question of speed is also paramount. Water speed varies depending on a host of factors including height, fall, the bottom, weed growth, rocks and temperature. Of course every turn in the course of the river alters the speed of the water and creates back eddies. Sinking lines are good at keeping the flies travelling in a steady and level plane through the water column so in the buffeting of a fast flowing spate they make a good choice for controlling speed.

Deep slow, flat water means you have to move the fly with no help from the current. The River Ray in Co. Donegal

So how fast should the fly be moving? As anglers we are not going to get all scientific and measure fly speed. I am sure that any good inventor could devise a method of measuring fly speed, maybe incorporating a digital readout for good measure. Heaven forbid that we ever get to that stage and lose the essential tactile nature of our sport. For me the flies need to be moving slightly faster than water and our handling of the rod and line decides just how much greater that is going to be. On a short line the simple expedient of lifting the rod can be amazingly effective at times. This has the effect of speeding up the flies and I use this often on a short line to give the impression that the flies are trying to escape. While they do not feed in fresh water I harbour the suspicion salmon react to such stimulation. It has worked too often for me over the years to disregard it.

Fish lie in front and at the side of this rock, a floating line helps to give you the control required to move the flies accurately

On narrow spate rivers the need to control speed as quickly as possible when the flies hit the water is something I don’t think is given enough attention. Lies are at a premium for the fish and some of these can be tight against the bank, just a matter of a few inches sometimes. These are tricky to cover and some thought needs to be devoted to how you present the flies effectively. Controlling speed is going to be decided by two main factors, angle and mending. I’m no mathematician so you will be spared a lesson in trigonometry, but the reduction in angle of casting downstream will slow the passage of the flies as they track across the stream. A cast square across the stream will result in the flies being whipped away from bankside lies far too fast and the rest of that cast will also be too quick until the flies slow as they get well below the angler. A word of warning here though – on a couple of occasions over the years I have caught fish using exactly this ploy! It just goes to show how varied the fish’s response can be but I regard the square cast/big downstream belly as a very minor tactic. So 99% of the time your aim when covering bankside lies your aim is to cast to within inches of the far bank at a narrow downstream angle. The speed of the flies is then controlled by hand-lining back some fly line. In fast water this can be very minimal while slow water requires a quicker retrieve.

The smooth tail of a pool, a downstream mend can sometimes work a treat on water like this

Mending is a fundamental skill you need to learn. This is the act of using the rod to re-position the fly  line after it has landed on the water (OK, I know there are ways of mending the line while it is in the air but I lack the writing skills to give this advanced technique full coverage). The normal mend is upstream, executed by a sharp sweep up-river just as the fly line touches the water this will allow the flies to sink briefly then begin to swim slowly away from the bank. The mend is also used on those windy days when the gusts force your fly line down in the wrong place altogether.

The angler on the far bank is spinning but these are great conditions for the fly

The obvious variation in mending is the downstream mend where the sweep of the rod is down-river and this has the effect of speeding up the passage of the fly made making it track squarely across the current. Some spectacular takes happen when using this tactic on slow pools or at the smooth tails of pools. Grilse will sometimes clearly show as they turn and pursue the flies before grabbing them – very exciting fishing indeed!

Back eddies need a mention too as they yield salmon as well. For some reason I have found that some back eddies are productive while other don’t seem to hold fish at all. The crease in the water which divides the two opposing currents is the best place to fish through and I like to pull the flies through that crease at a fair old lick. In saying that, I have taken my share of salmon with slow, steady pulls through the main part of the eddy itself, especially in very high water. Watch out for debris in back eddies, bits of trees etc. congregate in these spots making them traps for your flies and a fish you may hook.

Hanging flies at the end of a cast are a well-known way of catching salmon, keeping them virtually stationary in one spot at the end of the cast. Problems related to poor hooking from a position directly upstream of the fish are obvious. I have tried throwing a loop of hand-held line when I felt the fish but this did not make a whit of difference from what I could see. I now impart a gentle bounce with the rod tip when hanging the fly in the fervent hope it will encourage the fish to take more boldly on the dangle. Does this actually work – I don’t know. Plenty of fish still fall off when hooked but at least I feel I am trying something more pro-active.

To summarise, there is no single ‘right’ speed for your flies on a spate river and it can range from stationary to stripped fast. The successful angler should aim to try different speeds and depths until he/she finds the one that works. Just casting out and hoping for the best may work sometimes, but in general maintaining a pace slightly faster than the flow of the water is often more effective. Mending is your friend, so learn to mend the line with the minimum of fuss.

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Fishing in Ireland, fly tying, trout fishing, wetfly

Yellow Green Peter

I have written about this pattern before but since it has been working well on Lough Mask this year I thought I would give it another mention.

Looking towards Mamtrasna

looking out over the deep water on Lough Mask

An easy fly to tie, most experienced Irish tyers will have the materials in their collection of fur and feathers. No special techniques are required either, the only thing to watch out for is leaving sufficient space at the head for the wings, legs and had hackle. Now, let’s press on with the details.

Hook sizes I would recommend are 10’s and 12’s but if you take a notion to make some on bigger or smaller sizes they might do the job too. For tying silk I have often use brown in size 8/0 but this is a pattern which may benefit from using that lovely Fire Orange silk instead. I will leave this detail up to you.

Starting the silk at the eye and run it down to the point where the body will start, say about a third of the way down the hook shank. Here you catch in a prepared red game cock hackle, dull side facing upwards.

The body hackle has been tied in, now keep running the silk towards the bend and catch in the rib

Keep winding the silk down the hook shank, catching in a length of fine oval gold tinsel on the way. Stop the silk opposite the barb of the hook (if it has one!) and dub on some light claret fur, sufficient to form a tag of perhaps 3 turns. Once that is wound on dub the tying silk with the fur which will make up the body of the fly. This is pea green seal’s fur with a small pinch flash dubbing mixed through.

light claret for the tag

Don’t over do the flash

tie down the body hackle with the rib

I make the wings from paired slips of hen pheasant secondary wing feathers which I have dyed yellow. Keep these low down over the back of the fly. I have used slips from the tail feather of the same bird (also dyed yellow) when I could not lay my hands on the secondaries.

A bag of Hen Pheasant dyed yellow

Next I add some legs on each side of the fly. These are made out of knotted cock pheasant tail fibres and they extend to about half the length of the fly past the bend.

The tricky part – getting the wings just right!

legs next

Finally, tie in a wind the head hackle. Use a grizzle cock hackle dyed yellow. I have a favourite cape for this, an old Indian cock cape of poor quality. It is soft and the dark bars are indistinct, making it pretty much useless for dry flies. I dyed it a dull yellow by adding the merest touch of golden olive to the yellow dye to the bath. I don’t want a vibrant, buttercup yellow for this pattern, the shade is muted and the markings faint. This is very much a case where those of you who dye their own feathers will be at an advantage. Those who don’t will need to rummage about in those bins of ‘seconds’ at fly tying fairs!

soft golden yellow grizzle hackles

A neat head followed by a whip finish is all that is now required before you snip off the waste end of the tying silk.

This is a fly which works well over the deeps on Lough Mask. I confess that I am not a big fan of this way of trout fishing but it is effective and anglers who persevere bring in good bags of fish some days. It seems the brown trout shoal in deep water, feasting on daphnia. Sinking lines are used to get to the right depth (the clouds of daphnia rise or fall depending on light levels) and the anglers who work on finding the right depth as well as the right patterns will be more successful.

The Yellow Green Peter works on any position on the leader and is a reliable performer from June onwards until the end of the season in September. I have used it to fool trout on Lough Conn too and I suspect it could deliver the goods on Scottish lochs.

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Fishing in Ireland, sea angling

Del Mar drag

A calm morning on the quay at Westport.

I can’t recall exactly how old this reel is. I do remember picking it up at a house clearance in Beith, North Ayrshire and even then it was attached to an elderly glass boat rod. Until this evening I had never separated the two. You see this unpretentious combo have been my Mackerel outfit for many’s a long year. I figured they would last me one or two seasons and then they would be consigned to the bin or I might strip the reel down for spares. I confess to treating them terribly, a quick spray with fresh water when I landed ashore after a day on the boat but nothing else. ‘Ah sure, I’ll get one more season out of them’ was my oft repeated motto. Each summer they had the cobwebs blown off them and I’d use them for the messy business of feathering Mackerel for bait. Covered in scales, slime and salt water they only ever received that short, cold blast of fresh water before being chucked, unloved, in a corner until the next trip.

So it was the same procedure this evening. I fetched the rod and reel in preparation for a trip out in the bay this coming weekend. As always, I spun the handle and tried pulling the line to see if the drag was still working. Nothing. Pull as I might that drag was absolutely solid. A frown wrinkled my forehead, the last thing I wanted to do now was strip down an ancient reel! I had in mind a glass of red wine and my feet up in front of the telly. But no, this task had to be done now.

So let’s get down to the basics. The reel in question is an old Penn Del Mar. These were workhorses of reels which were well designed and built. Penn’s suffer from poor metalwork in my opinion and the Del Mar was no different. The gears are very good and the metal spool means they handle any type of line with ease.

The drag obviously needed to to taken apart, checked and lightly greased if all the washers were in good condition. After removing the reel from the rod with the aid of  a big wrench (yep, that is how long it had been on there), I removed the screws from the side plate taking care to keep the shorter ones which secure the reel seat to one side. WD40 was required in liberal quantities to aid the removal of the screws.

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Next, I removed the handle and spun off the star drag. out popped the spacer which lives under the star drag

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The main shaft pushed out and I grabbed the tiny ratchet spring and kept it safe. With the main shaft on the bench the problem became obvious, the drag washers were seized solid into one mass of fibre and brass. It took some careful prizing to split the drag washers. Close examination showed the soft washers were still in reasonable condition for the kind of work I wanted this reel for. A light greasing of the washers was all that was required then they were put back on the shaft in the right order. Re-building was straightforward with just the positioning of that tiny ratchet spring to look out for (I put a blob of grease on the base plate and stick the spring into it). I double checked all the screws were tight and tried the reel – it all worked fine, including the drag!

So you are probably thinking why bother with the drag on a reel which is used for Mackerel fishing? The shoals of Mackerel can be found at any depth ranging from just below the surface all the way to the bottom. When you are feathering near the bottom you are just as likely to catch Pollock a mackerel so I want to be able to give line if I bump into a reasonable sized Pollock.

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Fishing in Ireland, salmon fishing

Dog days of August

Hallelujah, it finally rained here yesterday. Real rain with proper, fat raindrops that splattered on the tarmac. Precipitation of a quantity we have scarcely witnessed for many weeks. Farmers and horticulturists rejoiced but the anglers in this neck of the woods were the most happy. Now there was the chance of a salmon!

Every opportunity was grabbed through the course of the morning to keek out of the window to check on the downpour. It fairly hammered down until noon when it eased off somewhat, but the drizzle kept up for the rest of the day. Humid, murky weather, just what we wanted! Back at home after work I grabbed the gear and chucked it in the back of the car. Dinner was consumed in a rush and I was on the road heading West by 7pm. The small Bunowen river at Louisburg was my target for the last couple of hours of the day.

The first thing I noticed as I reversed into a parking space on the river bank was a young collie. She looked to be less than a year old and was very nervous, holding some distance from me while still curious about this newcomer on her patch. I suspected she belonged to the farm a little up the track. I tackled up with the dog for company, darting forward to sniff at the net or rod or my waders as they appeared from the back of the car. I shooed her away as I strode off down the lane which leads to the long pool but she stayed close to me until I got to the style which led into a field. Ducking under the style she shot off for a lap of the field. Memories of how Nessie loved to run in that same free-flowing way rushed back to me.

The river was dropping but was still very high so I fished my favourite lies diligently but with half an eye on the dog as she chased around behind me. She was fascinated by my casting and clearly thought I was throwing something for her to chase. Every time I moved to another pool she would follow me like a black and white shadow. I didn’t really mind, in truth it was nice to have some doggy company again. The fishing was slow though and I was approaching the little pool where I was sure there would be a taker so I drove the dog off. It slunk away, obviously unhappy our little game was over for the night. Changing flies I surveyed the pool and decided that backing it up was my best option. Entering the cool, brown water I felt the power of the flow and the excitement grew as I lengthened the line. A slow strip in, the hang at the end of the cast, the long draw to shorten the line in readiness for the next throw. All practiced thousands of times on rivers across Scotland and Ireland. Watching the creases in the flow for any signs of life or underwater obstructions which could provide refuge for a salmon. The next step upstream against the flow, gravel shifting under my feet. Line slippery in my hand, rod lifting to reduce the drag, aiming casts to within inches of the far bank. Utter concentration.

KERSPLASH!!!!!!!!!!!

From somewhere on the high bank behind me the dog had launched itself into the pool, landing a couple of yards downstream of where I was wading. In that tree fringed, near silent, ethereal world the effect of a Collie dog hitting the water from that height was akin to George Wubblu Bush’s ‘shock and awe’. It took me a few minutes to compose myself and gather my thoughts as the pooch swam back to the bank and shook herself vigorously. She seemed to be highly delighted with her belly-flop. I, on the other hand was not impressed as the tranquillity of the pool had been shattered and any salmon that may have been in there were by now in the next parish. I fished the pool back down to the tail, swinging the fly temptingly across the current and hand-lining it back through the smooth, flat water at the lip of the pool. Nothing stirred. Except for the dog rushing and yapping in the field behind me. I packed up and made my way back to the car, my new ‘friend’ (and I use that term very loosely) darting around me in the fading light.

Duffy’s fine establishment was calling so I dropped in for a very quick drink to round off the day. Traditional music filled the warm, moist air in the main street as musicians played their hearts out in the busier pubs. It was altogether more serene in Duffy’s where the talk was of the weather and the fishing and the farming. I heard of only one tiny grilse being taken that evening with a couple more having been caught the previous day. Next time………………………………….

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