Salmon fishing – Back to basics

11/04/2017 by James

As with any type of fishing the most important factor is understanding your quarry, and due to the salmon’s life cycle being very complex there is a lot to learn about these magnificent fish. In the last issue I gave a brief description of what these fish actually go through, and this time I’ll explain it in a bit more detail which will then help us to choose the correct and suitable equipment and locations to catch these silver tourists.

Once hatched from an egg high up the river system in the spawning grounds the salmon go through numerous stages of change before heading back to sea. Initially hatching as an alevin they gradually turn to a fry, then after a year into a salmon parr which resembles a small brown trout but can be identified by what looks like 4 finger prints on the side of them. After another 2-3 years of aggressively feeding a dramatic change of colour occurs turning them bright silver and into a salmon smolt, still very small fish of around 6 inches long. Something tells these smolt to go back to sea and a phenomenal migration towards the oceans and the rich feeding grounds of the Atlantic waters near Greenland begins.

After being at sea for between 1-3 years gorging on prawns, shrimps and small fish, instinct and an incredibly strong urge to return to their spawning grounds take hold and the incredible journey starts again – not only do the fish return to the same country and river of birth, but the same stream they were actually born in. It’s as if they have a built in sat nav, that allows them to actually smell their way back to water that they came from.

After migrating thousands of miles back to their river of birth they start a treacherous journey upstream avoiding seals, otters, cormorants and other threats whilst battling strong currents, rapids and weirs. During this time the salmon enter a fasted state by not feeding at all once in fresh water. The run of fish on most rivers is greater in the months ranging from June – October, and these months also see the greatest increase of anglers targeting these fish. The salmon fishing season varies thought different rivers within the UK, with some opening in January and finishing in November but the majority staring February 1st running until the October 31st. Once the season ends, the break over the winter is very important as it allows the fish to spawn in peace high up the river system, before heading back out to sea for the cycle to start all over again.

Now that we understand these fish, their lifestyle and their habits a little bit more it will hopefully help us towards our prize trophy, a stunning Atlantic salmon.

Before jumping in with two feet and buying any equipment it’s always important to do your homework and decide where you’re going to be fishing, particularly on which river as they differ so much in the size, colour and the runs of fish they see. Local knowledge is key to any river fishing and even after 20 years of salmon angling I still learn something new every time by reading the river as the water conditions and fish are never the same twice.

The equipment needed for salmon fishing can just about be covered by 2 set ups, first (and my favourite) a double handed salmon rod ranging from 13’-15’ depending on the river you’re looking to fish. A 14’ foot would cover most situations and my preference for this would be Grey’s, any of the GR models because you get fantastic build quality with a great action for reasonable money anywhere from £250 – £400 for a good quality rod. Second, you may think the reel is the most important part of the set up but it’s actually the line, and this is a mistake made by many as Spey casting involves no weights or heavy lures just the weight of the head of the fly line, so matching the weight of the line (#8,#9,#10 etc) is critical. For lines I personally use either a Cortland Spey or Rio outbound which vary between £50-£100, and for Spring time and back end fishing I also add a Rio sinking poly tip to help me get down to the fish, and this also saves on buying a whole new line. As for reels, as long as they have a good smooth drag and enough room for a few hundred yards of backing line you’re sorted and you definitely won’t break the bank with one. Lure fishing is also a very popular way of targeting these fish, especially when the water is high or fishing deep slow-running water, and for that I personally use a Rovex lure pro with a 22-50g casting rating matched with a medium sized fixed spool reel and 30lb braid. Again you don’t need to break the bank with spinning gear, I think mine totals £100 for the lot, light or medium pike rods would suffice.

One of the biggest decisions a salmon angler has to make by the river is what to put on at the business end, and the biggest problem we face is the characteristics of these fish, as they don’t feed in fresh water we have to get a reaction from them in some other way. I personally think there are a few reasons why the fish take a fly or lure, the first being that when you’re using an imitation shrimp/prawn fly or fish lure it reminds them of what they were feeding on at sea, and as their instinct takes over for a split second and they grab it. Another is annoyance and agitation – imagine travelling all those thousands of miles then finding a nice lye (resting spot) and all of a sudden your personal space is being invaded, they may even see it as competition and their natural aggression is triggered and in a instant they snatch at the fly. Last is that they are just inquisitive and being that they don’t have hands they use their mouth, which happens a lot of the time. Sometimes the slightest of tweaks, literally the lightest of pulls on a fly is salmon just mouthing it, how they don’t get hooked I will never know.

My preference for flies are always shrimp imitations, it’s advisable to have a good range of patterns and colours as like trout fishing one day it could be orange the next red and so on. Certain colours do fish better at different times of the year with greens and yellows working in Spring, oranges throughout most the year and red is a must in the back end as studies suggest that salmon can actually see red easier when it’s close to their spawning time. As for lures I love to use Rapalas, mainly floating ones ranging from 7cm – 11cm in bright colours as it’s only when the waters high and coloured, and age old favourites like Flying C’s and Toby’s still have their place and can be deadly.

Now that we are ready and set to target these fish we need to find them, and to do so it’s important to search out and find characteristics in the river like rapids, obstructions, rocks, pools and water seems. Fish will always have their favourite lies, holding pools and runs and in different heights of water these will change – in the Summer when oxygen and water is low they will sit high up in pools near the white water, and in higher water they will sit just off the fast water looking for the easiest route possible up stream. Always remember that local knowledge is key, you could spend hours and even days trying to find these fish so always get as much info as possible when fishing new water and always take advantage of a guide, it’s these guys’ jobs to know the water like the back of their hands and put you on silver.

Lastly. be patient and enjoy your fishing, it will happen and when it does you will never look back.

Tight lines.