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The carrot and the stick

Malcolm Greenhalgh says that every cast for salmon should be slightly different to be more successful than most

Stand well back from the water so as not to disturb the fish.
Stand well back from the water so as not to disturb the fish.

I will say little about the weather other than it has been the worst trout season I can recall (and my diaries go back 67 years to 1961). But in August there were days and night of torrential rain that resulted in short-lived spates, spates that brought out to the rivers the long-suffering salmon fly-fishers and up the rivers some silver travelers.

The arrival of the current issue of Fly-Fishing & Fly-Tying through my letterbox coincided with one of these spates and the superb article by editor Mark Bowler on the English disease of mending the fly line when salmon fishing brought back memories. And while I can no longer fish for salmon I have, on four occasions and two rivers (Lune and Ribble), recently watched others casting their long lines down and across the river for dear old Salar.

But let me go back to the late 1980s, for up to then mending the line was an integral part of my fish-fishing for salmon. Down-and-across cast….big upstream mend…..hold the rod out and let the line and fly come round on the dangle, pull in a couple of yanks of line and make the next cast. It was at this time that I got to know Hugh Falkus well and with Bill Arnold fished ‘his’ Cumberland Esk. He argued strongly about making a mend as soon as the cast is made. At that time he also was arguing of the virtue of making the downstream stride after making the cast rather than before and after the cast is fished out, on the grounds that it put more slack in the cast. Through Hugh I met and talked with Arthur Oglesby, doyen of the post world war 2 salmon fishers and writers. He too was a mending man. And both of them were ardent, ‘don’t strike or tighten when a salmon takes the fly’, men. So I did as they said and had written.

It was at this time I stated to fish for salmon in Ireland with John Todd, who worked for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and remains a great pal. For fifteen years I was privileged to fish most of the northern Irish salmon rivers with John, with c/o Bord Failte, the Republic of Ireland’s tourist board, some of the best waters in the south. And because of this I rapidly gave up mending a salmon line.

The second visit with John was to the Strule, a lovely tributary of the Foyle system. My wife Yvonne was with us and, as John headed into the water to demonstrate how to fish it I said to her, ‘It’s a slow ditch…It’s even got water lilies! No one will catch a salmon on a fly in that!’ In less than five minutes Yvonne said, ‘Look! He’s hooked a fish!’ and sure enough John was playing a nice grilse that I netted out for him. I watched again. Out went the fly, a second after the fly and line had landed on the water John immediately started a very slow retrieve…little pulls and tweaks in of the line, working the fly. ‘Bang!’ Another grilse took the fly. We talked. ‘The English disease,’ John called it, as did many Irish gillies. And in the several weeks each year that I spent on the Emerald Island with john I became cured of the dreaded disease.

I had a week on the Mourne, in June, in very low water. There was no significant obstacle between my Mourne beat and the tide, so salmon could run as far as the top of the beat but no further. Consequently silver salmon accumulated in the beat, about 400 yards of mostly slow water with the deepest and fastest under the trees on the far bank. My 10’ Sage with a 7 line was more than adequate, with a size 14 treble bearing my little Orange Mallard Shrimp.  The fly was cast, it landed, and tweak-tweak-tweak. I caught lots of salmon that week, but my most vivid and hilarious fifteen minutes was when some old pals came to see how I was going on. In those fifteen minutes I failed to land a fish, but every cast had some response from the salmon in the pool. Swirls, tweak, pulls, quick on-and-offs. Every cast. Had I cast out and mended I would have had nothing.

I brought the Irish Cure home with me to my rivers in northern England and I believe that it increased my catch rate on Ribble and Hodder, Lune, Derwent and North Tyne. An instance was on the Derwent, fishing a lie close to the bank in a pool neck just below extensive shallows. The trick was to stand well back from the water so as not to disturb the fish, for usually the water in the Derwent is pretty clear. [I once watched an angler wade through that lie and cast as far out as he could into dead water!] Cast down and across so that the fly lands in midstream (use a sinking fly line). Now let the line and fly come round, increasing the rate of retrieve as the fly comes into the lie. ‘Whallop!’ I had three big autumn salmon from that lie in less than an hour.
The faster the water the more downstream the cast, and the slacker the water the more square the cast. One lie on the Hodder was so slow that a cast and mend would have been stupid (but some did that). Now I cast directly into the lie, let the fly sink for a couple of seconds, and then tweak it back.

My August observations were of fly-fishers who cast out and made a mend. One made three mends one between three and five so that, as the fly started to move nicely across the river they killed its movement. One made a long cast down and across, then made a big mend before sticking the butt  of his 15’ rod in his gut as the fly came round. Every cast was identical, no matter where and what was the flow as he made his way down the pool.
Were Hugh and Arthur wrong when they said that a mend should be made after the salmon cast, and that a loop of slack line should be gently held and released when a salmon took (or the reel be left to spin with the clutch switched to soft)? Yes, I think that they were.

But, I can hear you yelling, they caught a lot of salmon!

Of course they did, for they fished the best beats of the best rivers at the best time of the year, in their pomp in the 1950s and 1960s when runs were so prolific. I fished the Lune as a guest in June 1967 having never fished for salmon with a fly previously. I fished an old fibreglass sea trout rod and because I had no salmon flies I called as Gough’s tackle shop in Lancaster. I had read about Thunder & Lightenings and Jock Scotts and I got Mr Gough to sell me some huge ones (probably on size 2 irons). A kind man, Mr Gough. After taking cash from my hard-earned student grant he gave me two Jeannies, size 10 and told me to use them. That afternoon I lost a fish and landed two silver salmon. Today, with the salmon runs as they are, that would be impossible. Then it was so easy. Was it not Arthur who said that then, salmon would take a carrot with a treble stickling out of the end?

Today every cast should be slightly different, with different angles, distances and some form of working of the fly. That is, if you want to catch more salmon than most.

Tight lines

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