We are in the golden time of year when salmon come back to beaches, estuaries and into rivers. Here are some tips that may prove useful:
Fifteen pound leader. When the reality is 25 fish encounters in a day, it makes sense to use 15 pound leader because you don’t want to waste time dealing with broken leaders. When leader knots break at the fly line, then you will be putting together stepped down leaders, or low pound leader many times. Use higher test leader.
I use Snowbee’s XS 15-lbs that has a .3mm diameter because thinner diameter allows for more natural presentation in a higher-test line. On beaches and estuaries, use 15 foot leaders, because every time you tie on a new fly, about six inches of leader is used. Longer leaders mean less time spent tying on new leaders. And use an improved clinch knot that is drawn away from the hook eye, thus giving the fly more natural motion.
When fishing chinook in freshwater, consider 20 pound test, and thus flies that need less action, for example, ones made of marabou have action anyway; or use egg patterns that have no action.
Leader length. In saltwater or estuaries use 15 feet of leader. It leads to longer casts to those fish just out of reach and it places your fly farther from the fly line. In clear slow water you will receive fewer bites on short leaders because the fly line can be seen by the fish.
On the other hand, in rivers, you want a leader of two- to four-feet because fish compressed into their stations in a school that is not moving don’t see the fly line in faster flow, and because it is behind other fish. More importantly, shorter leaders keep flies at the same depth as the leader, making it easier to find the zone.
Fluorocarbon leaders. I don’t use fluorocarbon because it abraids, has wider diameter and thus less natural action on the fly. Also, knots often unravel at the fly, an improved clinch knot, for instance.
Surfing fish. When the fish has been played until it is tired, lift the head out of the water and surf the fish in, drawing it to your hand that turns over the fly. This means quicker release and back to fishing sooner.
Sideways rod pressure. In rivers and on beaches, it is standard practice to tip the rod flat to the water to put pressure on a fish going the opposite direction; this puts maximum pressure on the fish, tiring it sooner, and its head will turn toward you. A good technique to use when there are rocks, algae, eel grass or kelp in front of where the fish is heading.
Pass your rod over your head. When a fish circles behind you, hand your rod to your other hand, on the side to which the fish is running. You don’t need to turn around, and if you put sideways pressure on the fish in the direction it is running, you will have it beside you sooner.
Processing fish. When you are in those magical days of non-stop bites, improve your playing technique by bringing the fish to hand as quickly and efficiently as you can, and release it. It means you are fishing as fast as you possibly can, high adrenaline stuff, but not horsing the fish, only being efficient in the circumstance you face with each fish.
Flylines sink. Flylines wear out much quicker when you are constantly pulling on them with fish on the other end. And when your fly sticks to the bottom and you have no choice but to pull it to breaking, point the rod tip at the snag, bring as much line as you can into your hand, wrap your hand, and back up until a break occurs.
Flylines, even full floaters, used in this way wear out much sooner. They become water logged and then the neutral line starts to follow the tip or fly down into the water. If you are consistently finding the zone, that’s great. But don’t do what I once did: I bought a new line of the kind I was using, rigged it up, and threw the used line away. Mistake. The new line would not sink and I caught no fish. I should have kept the old line that was finding the zone, and brought the new line along in a different fishing venue until it found the zone with the right sink tip in salmon fishing.
Figure eight knots. I use figure eight knots on leader, and nailless nail knots for loops on fly line. Cut tag ends as short as possible. Get in the practice of doing the same process for linking up, for example, I put the loop of the higher line through the loop of the lower line, then draw the unknotted tag end of the lower line through the loop of the higher line, and tighten into a martingale knot. If you do it the same way every time, you will never have the problem of tossing the leader in front of you, and it watching it float away, and you have to start again.
I used to use surgeon knots, but I think figure eights, as well as loop knots, break less frequently.
Tag ends. Cut the tag end of the upper line, say the fly line, very short because in casting, your fly is heading directly at the upper tag end and sometimes gets caught on it. A short upper tag end solves this annoyance. Also put on some head cement to cover the tag end.
Rod tip in water. Put your rod tip in the water when stripping. This gives you maximum striking distance and you are in contact with your fly. With the fly tip up, there is line sag, and little striking distance, meaning fewer hooked fish.
Use Spey casts in single-handed rod casting. When you are casting in cross winds that come from the side you are casting, say from the right and you are right handed, use a single Spey off your wrong shoulder, to keep your fly from hitting your face all day. The deliberate nature of setting the line in a loop and snapping the rod tip high, sets up a nice D, partially from the wind, and you are casting much more efficiently than double-hauling off your correct shoulder.
Also adapted from Spey, haul your line out of the water, do a roll or single Spey, and set the line out in front of you, then lift the entire line (which loads the rod because of the water’s surface tension) up and back. Time your haul after the line has straightened – you will feel the tug – to coincide with the forward stroke on your rod hand, and your line has enough energy to cast properly in a nice long cast.
Don’t false cast. Every false cast you do – each of which includes a back stroke and a forward stroke – increases the chances that your cast will fail. I see people do 10 false casts, to lengthen line two feet at a time. At some point, the cast falls. It is better to work on your technique in the park, stripping in 12 one foot strips, laying the line over your pinky; stripping 10 and laying the line over your third finger; and stripping 8 strips, laying it over your index finger.
You also want to work on bringing the line back, stopping the rod tip at 1 pm, watching the line extend into a straight line to the fly behind you, and bringing the rod forward, stopping at 11 am, and having the line pull out from your line-managing hand. Once you have the timing on the forward stroke down, you will be able to bring the line back once, and cast it once. Or at most twice.
Buy fly line with longer heads. Today, most lines come with shorter heads of 30- to 40-feet because that is the length most fly fishers can cast most easily. The downside is that such heads hinder your being able to cast farther because you cannot transfer energy to line that has no body – this is the running line behind a contiguous head. Once the head is out of the rod tip, the line hinges, just like a heavy fly put on a too long leader.
I use another Snowbee line because a longer head makes for longer casts: Snowbee XS Extreme Distance Floating because it has a high body head that is 60 feet long. It is a thing of beauty to watch someone roll casting 70 feet all day long with this high body, long length belly, which uses much less energy than double-hauling all day, particularly when you are hauling sink tips out of the deep.
These days the Skagit approach has shortened Spey heads to 20- to 30-feet. They are small, efficient, high density, but also neutral density and will take those ugly sink tips of winter. So it seems counter-intuitive to use a longer head in fly fishing. But you will learn to cast longer, using a line with a longer head. I use a sink tip, poly leader, or even 20-foot heavy Spey sink tips – in rivers – because the long head of high body, will pick it up and, waiting for the line to straighten out behind you, immediately result in a cast 20 feet longer.
Fighting butts. I used to dislike fighting butts because they made the rod heavy, and unbalanced – you should be able to balance your rod, reel and line on your rod hand’s first finger, in its natural casting position. But fighting butts come into their own when you are in high winds and using heavy sink tips. You let the butt rest against your wrist and inside of your forearm so you have much more leverage and power to lift heavy tips from the water and cast them behind you. This more easily sets up the line with greater energy, in a parallel line trajectory, rather than falling. Thus you are more set up for your forward cast, which is the meat of the matter after all.
Clean fly line regularly. When fishing salt water and brackish water, which is even more scummy, soak your fly line on its reel in fresh water every night, with a drop of dishwashing soap added. After every third day, clean the line with line slick.
Hold your rod under your arm when releasing a fish. This is one of those dead simple things that come to you after fishing fifty years. If you hold the rod high over your head, and reach for the fish with the other hand, you are setting yourself up to break the tip of your rod, when you pull the fish in, or it thrashes, bending the tip too far.
Instead, put the rod under your rod arm, and deal with the fish with your other hand. You won’t break a rod again, but do notice that your rod tip may tend to drag bottom when you lean in to release the fish.
Magic marker on fly lines. Mark the end of the head with magic marker so that you can see where the body ends, and so deliberately pull that mark a foot or so within the rod guides, then lift the line for casting. Alternatively, get your fingers to feel where the back taper ends. I also put magic marker 20 feet into the running line. This is particularly useful when trying to make very long casts after pulling line off the reel to a set mark.
Aim to hit a mark every time. Be bold in your casting. Aim for a specific spot and cast there. This is much more useful in freshwater because you have opposite banks and logs to aim at. Don’t shy away from a cast for fear of snagging, because you will never learn to get distance right until you do. Aim to land your fly within one foot of where you want to cast and put up with losing some flies until you get the distances in fly fishing down. Days when you get within one inch of your target, you will savour your own greatness.
Use your mouth. When fish run very quickly toward you, lift your rod to head level, and pull your line hand out as far as you can, then take the fly line in your mouth, reaching your line hand right over top of your mouth to grab the line again. Then pull your line hand out as far as you can. Repeat and repeat until you have caught up to the fish. And, at some point, you want the line on the reel so you can use its drag to tire the fish.
Spandex finger gloves. Make a spandex finger glove for your rod hand’s second finger, the one you strip over. Because it is slippery, it allows you to feel fish far more quickly, and set the hook quicker. You catch more fish. Also, without the spandex glove, your fingers get wrinkles like being in the bath too long, so you make incorrect strikes that are only the line bumping over your finger. You also waste the cast, pulling the fly out of the water.
You can buy four inches of one metre wide spandex at cloth shops, and make fifty of them. Measure the circumference of your finger, add a quarter of an inch for a seam, and then slice the spandex into strips. Sew a seam, or have someone do it on a sewing machine, turn the glove outside in and slice each four-inch glove into two two-inch gloves.
Move to the fish. We all know that jumpers are not biters, they just tell you where the fish are. Move to jumpers and fish for biters beneath them. Look for dorsal fins, tail fins, porpoising, and shimmer. The last happens when fish are just beneath the surface but their presence sends off very small disturbances that move across the water in a direction inconsistent with the natural wave pattern. Shimmer is most frequently found with chum and pink salmon. Chum tend to drift by in schools of several hundred that shatter when disturbed. So don’t disturb them.
Long casts. Beaches can require your longest cast. Work on your fundamentals in the park before fishing, because you will never be able to practice when the veins in your teeth drool over fish. Do the old four part rhythm: with rod tip in the water and connected to the fly, lift the rod up with increasing speed and snap to the top at 1 pm, then let your rod drift back. When the line straightens out, begin your forward cast, bringing your rod with increasing speed to snap to a stop at 11 am, then when the line moves past your rod, let the tip drift down to the water.
Fish points, not inside curves on beaches. There are two reasons for doing so: points on beaches are shallower than the water on either side, thus it is easier to find the fish zone; and, points have the greatest concentration of fish. This one is simply a statistical thing. If there are three fish sequentially out from shore on an inside curve, when they come to the point, all three fish will be the same distance from shore, or triple the concentration.
Improve your karma. Release all fish in the water, at thigh deep. That depth makes it easier to get the fish in your hand and let them go – particularly chum that thrash and thrash. Don’t pull fish up the beach, pull out the fly and kick the fish back into the water. The Gods of Fishing don’t want you harming fish, getting grit on them, and making holes in their slime, a route for infection.