Fly fish for Atlantic salmon in spring
- the ultimate challenge?

spring salmon fishing for salmon salar

Spring salmon fishing (article and pictures by Ally Gowans)

spring salmon fishing
Spring salmon fishing

Despite the scarcity of springers and the lottery of weather during the early months of the season spring salmon fishing is still my favourite sport. Often days go by without seeing a salmon, winter can return at any moment but still there is that movement, however slowly creeping towards longer and warmer days and the anticipation of the countryside once again bursting into life. Then eventually comes that deep throbbing sensation of the first contact with a springer, then the glimpse of a glistening deep flank shining from the depths. With luck a deep silver fish is brought to hand, pristine, strong and fit. Carefully it is kept in the river recovering from its latest ordeal. The hook is removed, perhaps a quick photo is taken to remind me of the moment before it glides off into the depths again free to continue its epic migration. I sigh a sigh of relief and grin broadly, today I leave the river with a new spring in my step. For me spring has arrived at last!

In UK spring fishing starts in January and extends through to May. Clearly we can expect a vast difference in climate between the start of this so-called spring and a fine warm day in May. In between times almost any type of weather is possible, freeze up, flood, snow and in between perhaps a share of these balmy spring days when the water is perfect and the weather looks promising. There are times that fishing is impossible due to floods or (less common nowadays), freezing. And so the salmon angler has to be prepared to fish at with almost any combination of fly and line to suit the conditions. But how do you go about choosing?

Thankfully there are a few guiding principles, generalities that narrow the margin for error when choosing lines and flies. Starting with really cold water, it is important to get down deep, close to where the fish are lying and offer them a fly that will switch them on. Their blood is cold and their senses are dulled so a fairly large and colourful fly will not be out of place. A smaller sober pattern may not be sufficient to awaken them. Yellow is possibly the best colour in really cold water, Tadpole, Yellow Dog, Black and Yellow and Green and Yellow are good combinations. Give the fly a swim in the river if you can see it clearly a couple of feet down, then it should be all right. The size of the fly chosen is partly conditioned by the speed of the water, in slower water the fly will hover near the fish for longer and a size smaller may be more productive. It is fairly safe to say that with the addition of Willie Gunn dressed with copious quantities of yellow hair you don't have to change flies much until April. Up to that time a selection of tubes between inch and half and three inches is usually sufficient.

Choosing a line boils down to either local knowledge or trial and error. A balance has to be struck between snagging bottom and loosing flies with all its inherent frustration and riding high and fast with little chance of catching fish. The answer is to experiment. If the line is swinging at a nice not-too-fast steady speed presentation may be perfect. If you really want to know whether you could safely fish deeper put on a faster sinking line and try again, if it snags regularly or hangs dead in the water, the first choice is probably best, if however it swings nicely but deeper keep it on. Should it touch bottom now and again without causing too much trouble then you know that you can't do much better. Type 2 and Type 3 sinking lines are probably the most popular during springtime. On heavy flows a type 4 is useful in smaller rivers or during low water a Type 1 (intermediate) or fast sink tip line is handy.

The angle of the cast and whether or not you endeavor to get more depth by allowing the line to sink further before tightening up and starting the fly-fishing correctly also influence speed and depth. The more squarely that you cast, the faster the fly will traverse the drift, conversely the longer that you cast downstream, the slower it will swing towards the bank. Altering the angle of the cast is commonly practiced as a pool is being fished down. In the fast water at the head the line is put steeply downstream and as the pace slackens the angle is increased to keep the fly moving. In really slow water the line may be cast slightly upstream so that the belly pulls the fly around. Extra depth can be obtained by holding the rod tip high as the fly lands to create slack line. Then an upstream mend is made before the line gets a chance to sink and then the slack line is allowed to tighten before the fly is fished round.

Usually sometime in April conditions start to change. Water temperature rises and once it reaches the magical band between 6 and 8 degrees salmon become much more active and it is unnecessary, even counter productive to scrape the bottom for them. Now a smaller fly fished mid water to top is attractive and my favourites are the long tailed shrimp flies such as Tummel Shrimp, Cascade and Ally's Shrimp. My own choice is not to use larger than size 4 dressed flies, when a bigger offering is required I use tubes rather than large hooks. Size range 4 to 8 is usually sufficient to keep me going until the end of May and I tend to use 6s and 8s more than 4s. The Type 2 sinking line can still be useful in faster streams but as the water warms I increasingly shift towards sink tips or intermediate lines with sinking attachments.

I started by mentioning the vagaries of spring weather. Salmon anglers can do nothing about conditions so they have to adapt to them. If the weather gets warmer early, tactics must change. Similarly an April freeze up put you back to down and dirty with large bright flies. Success is sometimes luck but usually it is a case of assessing the conditions and casting the combination that gives the best chance, a case of playing percentages.

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