From a Chub in Fast River Water, to a Bar of Silver
Story and photography by Bob Salisbury
I grew up in the Midlands of England where many of the major rivers were slow moving, often badly polluted; waterways where the best that could have been hoped for was a keep net of small roach, perch, chub or gudgeon.
A day at the river meant setting up at a favourite spot with basket, umbrella, nets and bait and working the ‘swim’ in the hope that fish would respond. Tactics were very basic – a Nottingham centre spin reel loaded with very light line, small float, tiny hooks, a tub of maggots or chrysalis and a great deal of optimism.
The strip of water in front of the basket became the whole world and the fishing routines automatic. Cast the float upstream, watch it glide slowly by, trot it a distance down stream and repeat the process once its path began to impinge on the territory of the next angler. On good days the float would usually dip when it reached the middle of the swim where the ground bait had been placed and a small roach or gudgeon would come easily to the net.
As boys we talked about the ‘fighting qualities’ of the fish we caught but even with the delicate tackle we were using, in reality most of the fish taken were small enough to be lifted directly from the water, unhooked and dropped quickly into the keep net. Whether it was the effects of pollution, a lack of natural food in the water or our lack of expertise I know not, but the fish in these rivers never seemed to reach any size and on the odd occasion when a larger specimen was encountered it immediately attracted the attention and interest of fellow anglers.
Though I had read about fishing with an artificial fly no one I knew either owned a fly rod or had any experience of this kind of angling, so when an ageing neighbour died and the relatives asked me if I wanted his old fishing tackle I was astonished to find it consisted of boxes of salmon flies, trout flies, fly reels and fly rods. The collection was a veritable treasure trove and I couldn’t wait to find the opportunity to try it out.
Trout fishing in my area was, at that time, the exclusive province of the very wealthy so I knew that was out, but the books said some coarse fish would take a fly and I began looking around for a place to become a ‘fly fisherman’. The opportunity came a couple of months later when a friend said he had been walking along the river and had seen big fish taking black flies off the surface in a fast-moving stretch of water which was impossible to fish with a conventional float. He thought they may be chub and since they had never been fished for at this spot, might be less suspicious and could be fooled by an artificial fly.
The water where he had seen fish was indeed turbulent , shallow and fast moving and following instructions from the book ‘Fly Fishing for Beginners’ we tied up a cast, fixed on a small, black wet fly and in clumsy fashion, fired the whole lot into the heart of the current. We were certainly not convinced that the tactics would work but luckily for us, the moving water soon started to straighten out the bends in the line and on the very first attempt something gave the fly a quick tap.
“I think something had a go at that,” I said to my friend, “but the fly is moving very quickly and next time down I’ll try holding it a little longer in the current.”
Out went the fly again, the rod held high, the line given ample time to straighten and before I knew it, the rod was arching and bouncing and easily the biggest chub I had ever landed was coming slowly to the net. We could barely believe that the fish could actually see such a tiny fly in that fast-moving water but as we gained confidence and learned the knack of casting the fly line, more and more takes followed and fish came regularly. Looking back, our casting was awful, but luckily the fish were obliging and the success on that evening was the start of an obsession with the sport of fly fishing which has never left me.
The development of stocked reservoir fishing and the ‘put and take’ trout lakes brought the opportunity of game fishing with the fly rod to coarse anglers and many eagerly began to take part. New tactics emerged on the trout lakes as anglers, not versed in traditional approaches to fly fishing, explored the possibilities of taking these stocked still water trout. Affordable costs and a fairly reliable guarantee of success meant that using the fly rod in pursuit of rainbow trout was soon part of the repertoire of most fishermen and days out after either coarse or game fish became interchangeable.
In Ireland things were different. Most of the anglers I have met grew up here with fly rod or spinning rod and from a very early age hunted the native brown trout which occupied the lakes and rivers. Clean water and plenty of it meant that getting the chance to fish for trout was straightforward and the sport was certainly not regarded as an exclusive or elitist pursuit.
When I finally came to live in this country, like most anglers who have grown up along the route of coarse fishing, still water trout fishing and wild brown river fishing, there was always the ultimate ambition to try to catch a salmon with the fly. I assumed, quite wrongly as it turned out, that my experience of river-craft, handling of the fly rod, knowledge of entomology and skill at playing and landing sizeable trout would stand me in good stead when I finally encountered the first salmon.
In fact all of my previous fishing experience was as much of a disadvantage as an asset and in practice I actually found it was better to start mentally from a clean sheet. Initially the double-handed rod and heavy line felt clumsy and unnatural and getting the fly to cover the water without the line thrashing the surface took longer to perfect than I had anticipated. Finding the right rhythm and timing meant ‘unlearning’ every thing I instinctively knew about casting a fly with a single handed rod and light line and to begin with it was hard work. Wading in the current, trying to negotiate slippery boulders of every shape and size, whilst continually lifting a heavy line off the surface was physically tiring. Lift and cast, probe with the wading stick, slither down the pool a yard and repeat the process, seemed for the beginner to the sport a fairly monotonous and unproductive tactic.
Old hands who had fished these waters for years suggested trying different flies, fishing the pool with alternative sizes but one wise angler summed up the situation exactly.
“Salmon don’t feed when they enter fresh water so this one fact makes their taking habits, unlike trout, completely unpredictable,” he said. “On some days they will attack anything put past them on others nothing in the box will have the slightest effect. In these spate rivers the water may be too low, too coloured but even when it is just right there still needs to be a run of fish or you will be flogging empty pools. The secret of catching salmon is persistence. This stretch of water can be one of the best throws in Northern Ireland, but at times I have fished it every day for three weeks and have not had a single pull. You have to put the time in at this game and if you do, eventually you will catch fish.”
My first salmon came as a total surprise. I had fished a top quality pool for four hours, trying to remain positive, changing the fly sizes, stepping round the boulders and repeatedly shooting out the line in a respectable fashion with absolutely no result. The line was coming around the tail of the pool in a way it had done a hundred time before on that day when it gave a very slight twitch, followed immediately by a couple of tugs and a mighty run as the fish realised it had been fooled and hooked. The 15 foot rod and the heavy line now came into their own as the muscular jerks and the spectacular jumps made waves across the surface and in that single instance I understood the lure of salmon fishing. This was not your roach or perch or river trout, but a streamlined fighting fish which refused to be ‘bullied’ to the bank and was not going to give up easily. I hoped the hook would hold and after what seemed to be a lifetime (in fact only 10 minutes or so) the fish finally came to the net, a bar of silver and was hauled up on to the bank.
Fishing for salmon can be a very frustrating business but it is difficult to describe the thrill experienced when after days of standing up to the chest in freezing water, fruitlessly flogging away with the salmon rod, the tug of a fish finally comes.
Angling in all its forms is a fascinating sport which provides endless variation and pleasure for thousands but fishing for salmon does have a particular attraction for many people and what is certain is that few who take it up can give it up.
Those so called ‘blank days’ when no fish are caught are seldom ‘blank’ because an outing with good companions, in unspoiled places and delightful scenery is always pure pleasure. What keeps us coming back though, is the memory of the moment when a good fish finally takes.