Fly fishing Atlantic salmon in autumn
- often a plentiful time

Fishing instructor, fly fishing tuition and fishing trips based in Scotland. Salmon and trout fishing advice, flies and articles.

Autumn salmon fly fishing (article and photos by Ally Gowans)

River North Esk
Autumn salmon fishing

Autumn for the United Kingdom fly-fisherman starts in September and runs through to the end of November or even December for a few rivers in the south west of England. It is a time of great change and often it is the highlight of the salmon angler's season. During summertime low, warm water is commonplace, even when it rains it takes a lot of precipitation for the extra water to get past the growing herbage and lift the river level and so unless conditions are exceptionally wet what spates there are tend to pass by very quickly. As the days shorten and cool and the harvest is gathered, nature has no need for vast quantities of water and so the river's turn comes around. Salmon, sea trout and brown trout know well that the cool autumn rains will raise the rivers and allow them to seek out their native pools and spawning riffles. Although salmon and grilse will enter many of the rivers before autumn, those fish that belong to small, short rivers or that spawn in the lower reaches of large rivers have no need to return to freshwater early and expose themselves to all the attendant risks that low water brings. Instead these fish families have adapted to returning later in the season, arriving bright, fit and strong from the salt during the autumn months. It is these fish that are the legitimate quarry for the late season angler, not the darkly coloured remnants from earlier runs that are best left to spawn in peace.

More than any other time of year autumn requires the angler to be adaptable. There are times when low water will require all the craft and delicacy of a mid summer's morning. Conditions can change quickly however and a sudden pelt of rain high up on the hills may cause a raging spate within 24 hours. Heavy rain falling on parched ground runs straight off the surface for a start, until the ground dampens and becomes absorbent. During this period the water carries all the debris of summer before it and more so if fields have been ploughed. If there has been a fall of leaves conditions may be even worse, as you can imagine! Needless to say whilst a spate is rising and the water is filthy, fishing by any method is hopeless. Once it begins to fall and clear however, a sudden improvement is likely and the fish, now in high spirits are keen to move and are also susceptible to a well-presented fly.

I know it should to be absolutely obvious that a fly has to be seen by the fish before there is any chance of catching it but its surprising how often in highly coloured water anglers choose flies that are too inconspicuous. Sediment that stains the river reduces the amount of light and also, due to filtration changes the appearance of colours. Generally speaking yellow and orange are most visible in these conditions. Fluorescent colours I think are particularly useful. Too often I have witnessed greater success by anglers using flies incorporating fluorescent yellow or orange and I am convinced that it makes a substantial difference to your chances. Concealed by the high, coloured water, fish prefer to take the easy routes upstream, avoiding powerful flows they travel close to the banks sometimes in comparatively shallow water. Water between two and four foot deep is often favoured and smooth glides, pool tails or popply water adjoining streams offer prime fishing opportunities. Often fish will be found where you might stand in low water conditions.

A falling spate is always a great opportunity. There are a surprising number of rivers where water levels between 150 and 450 mm above summer level produce excellent catches, possibly due to the amount of extra water that becomes fishable at those levels. Of course as rivers fall the angler has to adjust his tackle and flies to suit. Fast sinking lines may have been necessary at the peak of the flood, now slower sinking lines, and intermediate lines, sink tips and the like play an important roll to present the fly at the correct depth and speed. Large tube flies might suit high water conditions but as it drops smaller tubes or dressed flies in slightly more sombre colours are likely to prove more attractive to the fish. Flies that combine movement and suitable colours are best. In stained water Ally's Shrimps, Cascade, Garry Dog, Junction Shrimp and Willie Gunn (with a gold or silver body) are ideal choices. As a general, sort of basic rule fly sizes reflect the river volumes. Big flies are commonly recommended on large rivers such as the Tweed or Tay, whilst on medium to small waters like the Stincher or South Esk flies as small as 10's or less may be required as the water fines and clears.

There is a tendency towards more red or orange in autumn fly patterns, a factor that finds some favour with the fish and a number of theories why this is thought to be effective. In autumn many of the fish themselves are heavily coloured. Male salmon become highly patterned with reds and olives and perhaps the red fly relates to them as a threat of some description. Perhaps as part of that reason or maybe for entirely different purposes, salmon's eyesight changes during its stay in fresh water to move its visible spectrum from blue towards the red and this has the effect of sensitising their eyesight to red objects. Therefore maybe red flies are just more obvious to salmon than we judge from our own vision. Whatever the reason, flies that have a bit of red about them are very successful at the end of the season. General Practitioner is a typical example.

Another useful colour is white, particularly during those late autumn days when light is scarce and almost any key target on a fly is helpful. Hence the popularity of "white wings", that whole family of successful flies that emanate from the Border rivers. Jungle cock cheeks are very good because they have natural white fluorescence that shows up under most conditions and especially so in poor light.

One of the problems of late season fishing is the possibility of landing fish that are well advanced towards spawning. Male fish with well-developed kype, red flanks, distended depth and narrow shoulders or females heavy with spawn. Neither of these fish are fit for consumption, their table value is low to nonexistent. However fish that have reached that stage are the most valuable stock for the river and must be carefully handled and returned so that they survive to spawn.

Autumn is a great time to be on the river, fish are at their most plentiful and sport can be excellent. Nature's dress is colourful and of course we have to make the very best of these shortening days because winter always seems such a long period for the game fisher. I enjoy autumn and hope that you will also. Tight lines and safe releases.

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Copyright 2007 Alastair Gowans AAPGAI and FFF Master and THCI, APGAI. All rights reserved.