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.
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 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 low 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.