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Westcountry Salmon Tactics

December 8 2008

Salmon fishing in the westcountry is like no other place on earth. Many river valleys that have evolved over millions of years descend from the highest of Tors across the moors toward the Atlantic and the English Channel, each cutting deep scars through the hidden countryside and providing some of the most rugged yet the most enchanting fishing one can imagine. Others flow unhurriedly through lowland farmland that by their nature produce a much richer flora and fauna than can be found anywhere in England.

From the Avon to the Fowey, Torridge to the Tamar, many of the rivers of the westcountry boast a significant run of salmon during their season, making it possible to fish for the king of fish during almost every month of the calendar year. There are lots of hotels, clubs and association waters that can be found throughout this book, all offering excellent fishing and all at a reasonable price. Many offer the opportunity of fishing a variety of methods, including fly-fishing, spinning, and bait fishing. However it is worth mentioning here that many rivers are now implementing a variety of conservation measures to protect salmon stocks, so one should always check with the fishery owner or association for any anomalies as well as any byelaws that may be implemented on the fishery in time for the 1999 season.

My own preferred method is fly fishing, simply because I find it the most challenging and after 15 years as a ghillie and fly fishing instructor I still find it fascinating that having dressed a hook with a wisp of hair and feather one can deceive and catch a wild creature that has for all intents and purposes stopped feeding.
It is because the fishing in the westcountry is so varied that it would be impossible for me to discuss tactics for every river, each have their own favoured methods and adaptations that can only be procured by fishing them for at least a couple of seasons.

During the spring and autumn the South West can see some of the heaviest rainfall in all of England and as many of the spate rivers descend from the big sponges of Exmoor, Dartmoor and Bodmin moor, many will fall almost as quickly as they rise. In order to maximise your chances you should try and time your trip to coincide with such spate conditions. Whatever the conditions you can guarantee a salmon will be caught on most days on most rivers.

Our spate rivers will often see a run of fish both during the rise and the fall, and providing the water is not too cold, salmon will often keep pushing on upstream until the last drop of rain has fallen. Given these circumstances fish will not settle in the pools for any length of time and it is best to reflect this in your approach, so keep moving. Fishing for running fish in a swollen river can be very exciting. Once on the move they will often only pause for a few hours in places that in low water would barely carry enough water to cover their backs.

Large boulders and white water mark the areas that are most likely to hide your quarry, small pockets of water or ‘pots’ that boil from one lie to the next, in what can appear to the untrained eye to be just a raging torrent.

The technique of ‘pot-holing’ or ‘fishing the pots’, as many locals would call it was first demonstrated to me by my good friend and expert salmon fisher David French. The object is to fish the fly close to the surface and just on the edge of the white water. The technique is quite simple, imagine the white water is frosted glass with the fish submerged and hidden from view. The clear water-window running parallel to the rapids is where the fly should be held for as long as possible. Having cast a short line, slowly lift the rod and draw the fly across the lie. It is possible to hold the fly in position for some time, especially if the lie isn’t too far out from the bank. Once the lie has been covered with half a dozen casts or so, move down to the next big rock and try again. To see a salmon suddenly burst from the torrent is simply heart stopping even more so when you realise it’s got your fly in its mouth.

Large flies or tubes are best, used on fairly short leaders, say 6ft, remember the water is now quite peat stained and at best the colour of Trophy bitter. This method does require repetitive and accurate casting but keeping the fly dancing in and out of the flow is great fun in itself.

It should be remembered that when fishing in such conditions it is best to use a leader of at least 18lbs breaking strain, once hooked the fish will undoubtedly give you more than a run for your money so don’t say I didn’t tell you so. On the lowland rivers the Taw, Torridge and Tamar it is a different story. Here especially in the lower reaches the rivers rise much slower and fall a little slower than those of the moors. The colour that comes with the rise can be best described as Cadburys chocolate and can be a little off-putting especially if the rain is set for a few days. Even so, I have estimated that as little as 12 inches of water visibility is needed to catch a fish and the best place to catch him is where the river is barely 12 inches deep. The glides and the back eddies are just that little bit clearer, at least they seem to be. So avoid fishing a long line and concentrate on fishing your own half of the river. Put on the biggest and brightest fly in the box and who knows he might just be waiting for you.

Given a wet summer most of the rivers produce good numbers of salmon and grilse and providing you keep at it you will be in with a chance. In reality, most of the season you are more likely to find the river either low, high, coloured, cold or too warm, come to think of it there are more reasons why you might not catch a fish than those that you will. I could count on one hand the number of days in a season when I would consider each the rivers to be in perfect condition, it’s rare.

Waiting for it to come right is a sure way to go home empty handed, better that you take a little time thinking-over where you might catch a fish and then set about it. There is one exception to this rule and that is wading the rising river. This is where I draw the line, no pun intended. It may seem safe enough at the time, but then I remember one such day, wading down a long deep pool. The river was colouring up and just as I was thinking of coming out I was swept off my feet by a large branch that had suddenly appeared from nowhere. I remember feeling fed up by the fact that I had to go home and change but nevertheless it could have been more serious. Take heed, if the river starts to rise it would be wise to concentrate your fishing from the bank. Or at least be sure to wear some form of buoyancy aid and be ready with the spare clothes.

If the water is cold, less than 450 F, then it is likely you won’t see a fish show all day. Equally if the river is very warm, 650F+, the fish will feel lethargic. Don’t be put off by this, it won't be that they aren’t there, it’s just that they will be quite happy sat on the bed of the river and less keen to move any great distance, especially to your fly. Fish are poikilothermic, that is their body temperature is the same as the water that surrounds them and as such become more active as the river warms. In cold and very warm water, flies should be fished deep and slow. I prefer to use a sinking line with a fairly short leader and a long but relatively light fly, so that I can cast just that little bit further than I would with a heavy fly. This allows the line to sink and the fly to balloon above the riverbed.

As the river warms throughout the summer the fly can be fished nearer the surface and the size of fly reduced, providing the water is clear enough. This is when the fishing is usually more productive and where the fish themselves are much more active. No longer are you fishing blind but often casting to a fish that has just risen or possibly has been spotted by you or your guide. Fishing the fly for a salmon in low and clear water is I feel the ultimate challenge in game fishing. From the moment you arrive at the pool you are detectable, the slightest wrong move and the fish will go down. You will effectively need to stalk the fish. Your tackle will need to be light, a 9-10ft rod rated for a 6 or 7 floating line, fitted with at least 12 ft of tapered leader treated with leader sink. Attach a lightly dressed size 12 single or double, preferably the one that has the most natural and dull appearance.

If you can reach your fish from the bank then fine, if not you will need to wade but do move slowly, and try to pick your feet up. Many a fish has been disturbed simply by stirring up the silt whilst wading in a back eddy. Avoid the back eddy and wade where the water is flowing cleanly over gravel. Once in position, pause for a few minutes and wait for things to settle. Start by fishing under the rod tip, they don’t all lie on the other side of the river. Fly presentation is the real key to success and it is worth mentioning here that you would do better to cast a short line accurately rather than cast a long line that lands in a heap. Often discussed at length on the riverbank is the speed that the fly should be fished. On my own river Tamar the consensus of opinion is to fish big and gaudy flies, stripping the line, sometimes quite furiously and getting the fly to surge through the water. At times this technique can be deadly especially when fish are fresh into a pool, but I can’t help but feel it is almost like spinning with a fly. This is a rather sweeping statement but on the whole I feel that the closer things are to the natural the better, even if they are lures and not imitations of insects.

I much prefer to use the flow of the river to gently draw my line and fly across the lies. The animation of the feather on a lightly dressed fly can often produce the most ferocious takes. Varying the speed of the fly can be achieved simply by allowing the current to bring the fly across at a steady pace or if fishing in slack water a gentle mend downstream might be all that is needed to bring the fly around on a belly of line. Pulsing the fly by figure-of-eighting the line or bouncing the rod tip can animate the feathers beautifully but try to vary the speed of at least every third cast. Floating lines with sink tips or intermediates are good all-rounders but if you can run to the expense of two lines then go for a fast sinking line for the colder months and a floater for the summer. If need be, attach a polyleader to the floater during low slack water. This will take the fly down just enough to stop it skating.

With catch and release now very much part of salmon fishing conservation it is important then, that every effort is made to return the fish unharmed to the water as quickly as possible. Probably most important is not to take the fish out of the water. If necessary keep the fish in the net and put the rod down on the bank. This will give you two hands to free the hook and return the fish. Better still go fishing with a friend who can net your fish and take a quick photo for you.

If you are fortunate to catch a salmon, treasure the moment, it really is the icing on the cake. Especially if you have shared the day with a dipper, a kingfisher or an otter or two. If you don’t then go along to your nearest Advanced Professional Game Angling Instructor and spend a few hours perfecting your skills, We have some of the countries finest Fly Casters down here in the westcountry who I’m sure would be more than happy to show you their rivers and how they like to catch the elusive salmon.

Tight Lines!

Bob Wellard APGAI