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, salmon fishing

TxE=S

Met Eireann forecast

Met Eireann forecast

Rain is a-coming! The weather gurus are sure the heavens are going to open over the next day or two, meaning I will be out and about chasing the silver tourists with the fly rod. There are lots of posts on this branch of our sport already on this blog but here is a quick refresher on the do’s and don’ts of river fishing for grilse.

Big spate on the Bunowen river

Big spate on the Bunowen river

Rain is everything to the summer salmon angler. While it is not impossible to winkle out the occasional fish in dead low conditions a shot of water makes a huge difference to all the rivers. Here in the west of Ireland many locals turn to their spinning rods or worming gear when the spate eventually arrives but I firmly believe that the fly will do the business on most days. So my first piece of advise is to stick to the fly.

Timing is all important and is probably the one thing that the visiting angler finds the hardest to achieve. Spate rivers by their very nature rise and fall quickly, much quicker than many visitors realise. Peering over the bridge in the morning and seeing a raging, mud coloured flood the angler suspects there will be no fishing until the next day. Wrong! Depending on the catchment area a small west coast river will probably be in fine fettle by that evening and may well be back to its bare bones within 24 hours. On all the rivers I fish I have these ‘markers’, some are stones, others are trees or fenceposts. Whatever they are I look to see where the water has reached in relation to them. I am also looking for one more vital clue – is the river still rising or (joy of joys) starting to fall. It is the falling water we want because that is when we can expect some action with the grilse.

perfect for backing up

Backing up a pool can be productive for summer salmon, especially on those long, deep, normally stagnant stretches so common on west coast rivers. A strong wind to ruffle the surface improves your prospects no end. Even if the wind is blowing up the river that a normal cast across/down and across is not possible (or safe) simply angle your casts upstream and allow the line to settle as you take a couple of steps up the bank. You may be surprised how effective this is.

Water colour is an issue that some anglers seem to get hung up on but I have seen salmon caught in absolutely filthy conditions and I am less concerned about colour and more worried about the fact the river is dropping. I happily fish in very high and dirty water, safe in the knowledge that the salmon will take in those conditions.

Small grilse on the floating line

Due to the small size of my local rivers I use either a full floater or a slow sinking fly line for all my summer salmon fishing. If I want to fish deeper or counteract a strong current I switch to a small brass tube fly to give me that bit more depth rather than reaching for a fast sinking line. I carry a sinking poly leader too just in case I really feel the urge to go deep.

The Bunowen river in Co. Mayo at a nice height

The Bunowen river in Co. Mayo at a nice height

What about fly patterns? If you restricted me to some form of a cascade, a black and gold shrimp and an Eany tailfire it would not bother me too much. A Hairy Mary is always reliable and a Wilkinson is good on sunny days. Every year there are new, brighter and more complex patterns to pick from but don’t get into the bad habit of constantly swapping flies.

Black and Gold Shrimp

Black and Gold Shrimp, a favourite of mine for the grilse

Eany Tailfire

Eany Tailfire

Fly fishing for grilse can be a mixture of long periods of inactivity interspersed with short bursts of high octane action as a small pod of them pass by. As with all salmon fishing the angler who spends the most time with their flies in the river will catch the most fish.

T (time on the river) x E (experience) = S (success) when it comes to summer grilse fishing with a fly rod!

3 pounder

 

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Fishing in Ireland, fly tying, salmon fishing

Spate river fly design

What makes a good spate river fly?

I tie hundreds of flies every year. I used to tie much, much more but these days a few hundred come off my vice and most of those are tied during the quiet winter period. Due to the nature of the fishing in the West of Ireland these flies fall readily into groups, trout: river dry, wet and nymph, lough trout dry and wet and finally salmon river and lough. I have never really thought too much about the distinction between the salmon flies I use in flowing water as opposed to the ones for the loughs but they are fundamentally different and here is my reasoning.

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Hairy Mary, classic pattern for spate rivers

A large part of my reasoning for using differing lough vs river patterns is due to the movement of the flies in the water. On rivers there is a flow which acts on the hook and materials and causes the fly to move both in the current and within itself. Lough flies have a different role in that they will be moved largely by the angler drawing in the line and also in the ‘Z’ axis as the waves in the lough rise and fall.

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Shrimps and Cascades

Perhaps the greatest difference is the hooks I use. On the river I still favour trebles and doubles with a small single occupying the dropper position on the leader. I like the weight of the trebles and doubles and the way they ’grip’ the water much better than singles which travel much higher in the water.

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An Eany Tailfire tied on those lovely Loop doubles

 

Fly design for spate rivers

I normally fish with two flies on the river and accept I may lose the occasional fish when the trailing/dangling free fly snags on a bush /tree/bottom (in practice I find this happens so rarely that it can be disregarded). I like to be able to offer the fish two different patterns on the same cast and will take a lot of convincing that this is more effective than the normal single fly approach. The only downside of fishing a dropper for me is the inevitable tangles suffered when casting into high winds.

Now picture the scene on a typical west coast spate river. Small, often deep pools, occasional long deep canal like stretches and short fast runs connecting these features. River width can vary from 3 to 30 yards and there will be lots of obstacles like trees and bushes. All in all, a world away from the beautifully tended, wide, smooth running ‘classic’ rivers of the Scottish East coast. As you can imagine, this has a big bearing on the flies I use here.

high water water on a spate river

deeside

The Dee at Cairnton, a world away from my local spate rivers

There is very little in the way of spring salmon fishing here, so grilse are the target from May to September. Always on the move, these fish are often encountered is small groups and sport can be brisk when you bump into these pods of fish. Your flies need to be presented at a level in the water to attract their attention and the received wisdom is that needs to be in the top foot or so of the water column. There are minor tactics like skating flies but generally speaking you present the flies sub-surface. This is why I prefer my river patterns dressed on trebles and doubles. These flies sink immediately they hit the water, unlike single hooked patterns which have a nasty tendency to skate on the surface due to their much lighter weight. I have experimented with weighted flies and even adding weight to the leader but met with poor success so far.

Sinking lines or sink tips are useful to a degree and I admit a fondness for homemade sink-tips. My argument against them is based on that critical first few second after the flies hit the water when I need them to sink instantly instead of waiting for them to be dragged under by the line. On narrow, heavily overgrown spate rivers fish are often found lying hard against the bank, so casts need to be accurate and the fly simply must sink immediately it hits the water. I have experimented with small brass tubes in the past and found them to be pretty useful but I still prefer trebles or doubles for this work.

So my preferred set up on spate rivers when fishing for salmon is a small treble on the point, usually a size 10 down to a 14 with a small single hooked pattern on the dropper. Dropper length is roughly 4 to 6 inches. I will talk about patterns in another post.

no.5

A small,coloured grilse from a spate river about to go back

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Fishing in Ireland, salmon fishing

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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