by John Bailey
EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT FROM JOHN BAILEY'S FISHING ENCYCLOPEDIA
Summer salmon fishing on smaller spate rivers presents a great challenge. The fish tend to run during periods of heavy rain when the river rises and colours. As it falls and fines down the fishing can be excellent but the time window is brief and the fish soon wise-up. An angler really has to strike when conditions are hot but this doesn't mean to say that the usual rules of fishing go by the board. There's no room for the impetuous here.
I was fortunate to meet up with the renowned Irish angler, Ken Whelan, on one of his favourite rivers when it was just a shade past its best. However, watching Ken was an object lesson in how anglers should approach these smaller, broken salmon rivers all over the world.
"If only we'd been here yesterday. I was actually. I got here last evening and walked a mile or two of the river, just soaking it in, thinking how lovely it all was and looking out for fish. I helped a couple of lads land one and we all enjoyed seeing it swim away again. There certainly were plenty of fish in the river just fifteen or so hours ago so we've got a chance, I guess."
Ken's gear was really just heavy trout kit. A nine-foot rod, an eight-weight floating line, a twelve-foot long ten-pound breaking strain leader, a sea trout fly on the dropper and a small shrimp on the tail completed the outfit. He would, he said, probably scale down the size of the flies steadily throughout the day.
And off we went, first of all stopping at a deep, slow piece of water that looked dead, dark and lifeless, the sort of place you usually associate with spinning. "In places like this, you've really got to work the fly because you can't get the current to do that for you. It'd be my advice to search out the tree line and to cast as far as you can under the branches on the far bank there because the fish like to hang in the shade. Look really hard for your fish because you'll sometimes see them hanging in mid-water and keep your nerve when they come after the fly. Don't strike or pull it out in your excitement. Wait for them to catch it, turn and move the line before you lift into them. Water like this is frequently overlooked and it shouldn't be because a lot of fish like to rest up out of the white water."
From there we moved down onto a perfect pool. The flow was channelled between the far bank and a rock outcrop on our side that served as a very tasty fishing platform. A line of alders and oaks hung over the main current and Ken flicked his flies downstream under the branches. He fished the killing point as the flies swung round in the current and hung for an instant with devilish intensity. We both sensed the moment when a take was most likely and tensed. The sun was out, glistening off the dancing water, piercing the tree canopy with darts of light. Squadrons of damselflies crisscrossed the river. A perfect day.
We came upon a very quick little run, really nothing more than a thimbleful of water bubbling between two rapids. It was the size of a small sitting room, about three feet deep and quite, quite probably a holding pool for three or four fish. Ken decided on a single fly on the point for such a tiny little pot, coloured orange to suit the still peat-stained water. And then he fished it beautifully. You'd have to say he was flicking the line out rather than casting it, just bouncing the flies down with the flow and twitching them back, searching intently. The retrieve was all done with a neat figure of eight action - it's not good to have a lot of loose line out in a situation like this in case a hooked fish manages to make the downstream rapid and you've got to follow at a canter. I noticed, too, that he put a lot of rod top work into the retrieve, constantly jiggling the fly into life. He mended the line continuously, keeping in direct contact throughout the entire cast and then right at the end of the retrieve, he held the rod high and skated the fly hither and thither in the current. You just never know when an intrigued salmon might be following to your feet.
Ken gave everyone of these small pools around about fifteen minutes of very hard, concentrated fishing. Every nook was searched: these small river fish aren't big and they can literally melt into the tiniest pocket of water. You've got two chances: a new fish could enter the pool and be instantly vulnerable or a resident fish could finally be needled into making a mistake. So whilst it's tempting to keep on the move don't sacrifice thoroughness on each and every pool.
On the next pool downstream an alder craned helpfully over the river and I climbed it to watch. That orange fly certainly had a life of its own, flicking across the current like a small anguished fish looking for sanctuary. And as my eyes grew accustomed to the water, I sensed the presence of salmon. Two of them. One was around six-pounds and almost certainly not a taker. Its head was down and its body language was all dullness and sulkiness. The fly passed just a foot or so away from its head but its fins didn't even flicker. You might just as well have been fishing to a log. The other fish, however, seemed for minutes in half a mind to take. There's no doubt it could see the fly for whenever it got to within two or even three feet the head would come up and the body angle provocatively. The fins would work and you could almost sense the muscles flex. On one occasion the fish even moved forward in a short burst towards the fly before easing off and dropping down in the water. There was obviously a third fish in the pool because Ken had a strong, solid pull on the far side of the run where the tree shadow divided the water into light and dark. He was unlucky to miss it. Damn.
Anyway, another pool, slightly larger this time. "There just has to be one at the tail there." We looked and just knew it had to be so. Ken waded more deeply, fishing the tightest possible line, determined not to miss another take. In reality, he was just dibbling the fly back over where salmon had to be lying. "I'll be flabbergasted if there's no…and the water's just perfect…" Ken was a magician of action and movement, making his fly seemingly impossible to resist. But nothing.
At last we reached the end of the stretch and found a proper pool by normal salmon fishing standards. It lay around eighty yards long and Ken dibbled his flies over the neck and then worked the main body of the water, moving fast. He cast at forty degrees or so downstream, the flies all but kissing the far bank and then pulled them slowly a foot at a time across the flow. There was nothing mechanical about this. He varied the retrieve rate and action constantly. Watching his hands was a revelation: sometimes fast, sometimes slow. A pause. A twitch. A jab, and then a long, steady heave. He worked quickly: a cast and then a good pace down river. The process repeated again and again with cautious, heron-like concentration. It was a lovely pool - all moving water with no big slacks or back eddies and not too deep. Once again, from the high bank, I could see salmon here and there whenever the sun broke through the cloud and glinted off their bodies.
He was done. Fishing like this is absolutely exhausting because you're not only working hard physically but your mind is riveted to the job. He decided on a couple of hours break and then he'd fish the dusk when salmon are always more active, stimulated by the coming night. We walked back upriver towards the fishermen's hut, fishless but happy after a hugely satisfying day.
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