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Usually there is very good reason for the refusal of the fish in the first place. Either the fly zipped past his lie too fast, headed downstream by the bellying line, or it wasn't the right pattern or size, and so on. But once he has shown interest, it is usually possible to produce a fly that will get him.
This was the method I always used until some years ago when I read a book by jock Scott called Greased Line Fishing for Salmon. It was first published in 1895 and was a description of a way of angling with a wet fly for salmon, as advocated by Arthur Wood, one of England's most famous salmon fishermen. That book changed my whole way of wet fly fishing for salmon and I have never gone back to the old way. I am thoroughly convinced that with this method the angler will get more hits and hook more fish.
The whole thing boils down to the theory that the reason a salmon rises to a fly and then refuses is that the fly is not presented in the proper manner. Wood contended that when the angler cast the fly across current, the current caught the line and pulled the fly downstream too fast and in the wrong position for the salmon. His remedy was to grease the line so that it would float well, make the cast, then mend the line upstream and at the same time keep the rod ahead of the line so that the fly would proceed downstream broadside to the fish. He suggested that the reason the salmon hit when the fly was making its final swing below the angler was that the fly was then broadside to the fish, and that the salmon like the fly to be at all times in that position. He further said that a fly presented by the greased line method would hook the salmon on the first rise and that each strike would find the hook embedded in the corner of the salmon's mouth.
Let me tabulate the main points of the book before I go into my own first adventure with its theories.
I. The salmon likes to see the fly coming downstream broad.side. He likes to see the whole fly, not just a passing flash. Salmon often refuse a fly offered with usual fishing methods because the fly is going too fast or is presented so that only the tail of the fly is visible to the fish.
2. The fly should travel more downstream than across so it will have a natural float wobbling, swimming, rising and falling with the play of the eddys exactly as would an insect or minnow in trouble. To achieve this action, the fly must be fished on a slack line, so that there is no tension behind it.
3. On a slack line, the fly floats naturally right into the salmon's mouth and the current helps to push it farther back towards the throat. The slack line is swept downstream by the current, and this automatically draws the hook into the corner of the fish's mouth the most secure hold that is possible. A mere pull toward the bank, a "tightening" rather than a strike, is all that is needed to hook the fish.
4. The way to meet all the requirements above, is to cast a slack line and lead the line downstream with the rod tip slightly in advance, letting it drift naturally.I determined to give Mr. Wood's technique a thorough tryout, and so did my fishing partner, Charlie.
At Grant's Pool on the Serpentine, it was plain at once that it was going to be tough to make fish hit. The river was low and clear. When it's like that, the salmon have a habit of sitting it out, waiting for higher water, and disdaining even the best dressed flies. We needed rain to pep up the fish and put them in a striking mood. Yet it looked like a perfect proving ground for Wood's theories, because Wood first devised this method of angling for just such low, clear conditions.
But first I had promised Charlie a lesson in line mending, because the whole Wood method depends on the proper execution of the mend. And since it's practically impossible to mend a logy, sinking line, the line should be greased first. Hence the term greased line fishing. A greased line is lighter, more buoyant. You can cast it easily, drop the fly lightly. And it makes it simpler to keep the fly drifting just beneath the surface, where it should be.Most dry fly trout fishermen mend their lines to avoid drag and control the fly. I always mend mine wherever the current between me and the fly will belly the line. If the line is mended properly, you are ready to strike quickly, or to pick up smoothly for another cast. There's less water disturbance, too, and less chance of scaring the fish. I explained to Charlie that the mend is made by casting across the stream, pointing the arm and rod horizontally toward the fly, then, with a fairly stiff arm, rolling the line upstream with a half circle sweep of the rod. It's a sort of side-arm roll cast, across as well as upstream. The line flips upstream in an arc between the fly and the rod tip. Wood called it a "pick up and put down."
"But what do I do if the current between me and the fly happens to be slower instead of faster than the water out there where the fly is floating?" Charlie asked.
"Simple. Mend the fly downstream," I said. I left him then, executing a very capable line mend, and started for the Dump Pool, four miles below.
As I stripped line off my reel to make my first cast, I recited what I'd learned by heart the key to greased line fishing.
The old Scot's method is to let the fish charge ahead with the fly, keep the rod low, then sweep the line in sideways. "The line is used as a float for, and controlling agent of, the fly; it keeps the fly just below the surface and controls its path in such a way that it swims diagonally down and across the stream, entirely free from the slightest pull of the line... (Thus) the fly rides in a natural manner, and the fish, having taken, is soundly hooked."
Well, the line was well greased and would float as high as a balsa wood popper on a millpond. The next step was to get that natural float, free from the pull of the line. I'd have to throw a slack line. I could do that by throwing harder than I needed for the distance and pulling back with the rod at the end of the cast. The line would fall in a series of S's, with plenty of slack.
Then what? Lead the line downstream with the rod, Wood said. That way, any fish facing upstream would get a broadside view of the fly. And that's the way they like to see it not tearing across the surface a mile a minute, scaring the spots off every grilse and salmon in the stream. It's that long, diagonal float before the fly swings in below the angler that gets the fish. I soft-footed into position and made a cast. The line shot across the current and the fly, a number 6, landed, floated a couple of feet, and then the line started to belly. I mended it and again led it down with the rod tip slightly in advance. I knew as I watched, that any salmon seeing its downward journey would be viewing it broadside.
The fly swept on, apparently unnoticed. I mended line a second time as it started to belly again, and a moment later I saw a flash, down deep. I struck automatically, felt a mere tick of the hook on the salmon's lip, and then nothing. Ruefully I remembered the Scotsman's admonition not to "strike." That the fly is taken broadside by the salmon as he comes up from below to meet it, and the force of his rush invariably carries some of the line and leader upstream with him. This causes the line to belly and pulls the leader across his mouth and the fly into the angle of his jaw. As the fish takes, the pull of the current will be enough strike to send the barb home.
"Wait until you see the line being held or pulled on the surface of the water and then tighten by moving the rod in toward your bank, but do not on any account strike," is the way Wood put it. In other words, if you allow the fish plenty of time to take the fly and roll it around in its mouth, the hook will go home as a result of a mere "pull" towards your bank.
A few minutes later, in new water, I made my second cast. Once again I mended when the line bellied and a moment later I saw that familiar flash. Then I felt a shocking, thudding strike and saw 15 pounds of Atlantic salmon burst out into the sunshine, land 10 feet further away, and nip off downstream.
Wood was right. The salmon had taken on his first rise. And when I finally beached that seagoing powerhouse, I took the fly from the corner of his mouth. Again Wood had scored.
The Atlantic salmon's habit of taking a fly and rolling it around in its mouth was what made Wood realize the need for slowness in the strike. Occasionally he even went so far as to give slack line after he'd seen a fish take. It was his retort to the age old debate on whether or not salmon eat after they reach the sweet water. Wood claimed he had seen them take naturals at this time, and believed that salmon crush the flies, extract the juices, and eject the carcasses.
I apply this phase of the greased line method, slightly modified, to angling for bonefish. The bonefish has a peculiar mouth, equipped with crushers well back in the throat, and when it takes a fly it throws it back into these crushers. I give slack line at the moment of the take and wait until I see the line moving and actually feel the fish before I strike. Every fish taken that way has the hook in the corner of his mouth.
I landed four more salmon that day, using this new-found method, and Tom White, my guide, and I, were in fine spirits when we headed back to camp.
At the Admiral Pool, next day, I found a good chance to try another of Wood's theories. A fish was rising right out in front of me, just a little upstream. I'd always had trouble taking a fish that lay upstream from me like that. I usually ended by having to go above him to get a hit. Now I made a cast, mended the line at once, led with the rod tip, and so showed that baby the fly broadside. He hit hard and 15 minutes later I beached him. Within half an hour I landed three more salmon, and all had hit flies placed directly opposite me on the stream. That used to be a dead area for me because the line would belly as soon as it hit the water and pull the fly out of there too fast for a fish to get to it.
Then I started to miss strikes. I was striking too soon and taking the fly away from the fish. I remembered the "pull and tighten" instructions given in the Wood method, but still I only nicked fish or missed them altogether. I began to grow frantic, started to throw the fly any old way, and then noticed that my guide was looking at me.
"Slow down, old boy," I said to myself. "You're slipping up somewhere in this new technique."
I finally decided that I was holding too tight a line to begin with, and wasn't keeping the rod high enough so that when I saw the fish start to take I could drop the rod tip and give more slack. So I tried that. I watched the next fish come for the fly, fed a foot of line through the guides to be sure of slack, and as the fish took, I just pulled the rod in toward the bank. It worked and business began to pick up.
Then something happened. I saw a fish rise about 40 feet across the pool. I cast a couple of times, but while I mended the line twice before the fly reached him, it didn't seem to go over that fish properly. The fly would drag over that spot, zipping downstream headfirst, much too fast.
I soon discovered why. A strong breeze was blowing my leader and fly straight downstream, and I was getting plenty of belly even before the current got in its deadly work. To avoid that upstream drift, I brought the rod tip down hard at the end of the cast to within a couple of feet of the surface. That sent the fly out under the wind and right to where I wanted it. One mend was all I needed and that salmon went for the fly like a kid for his Christmas presents.
Wood even adjusted the quickness of the strike to the size of the hook he was using. For example, he used large number 1 flies in the cold, heavy run-off of early season. In the summer months he turned to the sparsely tied low water flies on little number 10 and 12 hooks. The warmer the water, the smaller the hook used. Anyone who has fished salmon in low water and has resorted to clipping the feathers even from low water flies will understand Wood's crowning experiment with flies and hook size ... he fished hooks without any feathers at all, merely a little color painted on. Jock Scott saw the great Scotsman use these flies and take salmon with them, and in his dour manner named them baldly, the blueshank and the redshank.
Wood contended that salmon feel and eject a large hook, number 1 to 4, in a hurry, and when he used these sizes he tightened up very quickly. That's what I call putting the finger on the salmon.
If I had not been thoroughly convinced of the efficiency of the greased line method by my own experience while using it, I certainly had to be by the experience I had on the last day of the trip. We started upstream early in the morning for the 20-mile stretch to the main camp. About halfway up, at the Falls Pool, we saw several other parties ashore, "boiling up" for their mid-morning cup of tea. We joined them and it hasn't long before both guides and anglers were swapping figures. We soon learned that on the whole stretch of the river from the home pool to the falls, the high rod among those other parties had taken only eight fish in the past 10 days.
In our party, the two men who were using the regular methods of fishing had scores of 12 and 14 fish. With the greased line method, I had 69 ... mighty good fishing, thanks to Jock Scott and Arthur Wood.
Dry fly fishing for salmon comes into its own after the first run-off of water through the rivers. Then, when the pools are low and clear, a dry fly is tops. There's nothing in fishing quite like the rise of a salmon to a dry fly unless perhaps it's the roll of a 100-pound tarpon to a popping bug.
Generally the dry is fished just as it would be for trout, up and straight across. Some dry fly anglers allow the fly to float down below them, sink it, and then retrieve it in short jerks, just under the surface. This method will take the odd salmon, just as it will take the odd trout, but it's more or less an accidental catch and a wet fly properly fished would take more salmon.
In small streams salmon fishermen must go into very fine tackle and fish with extreme quiet and care. A I5-foot leader tapered down to a four-foot section of 6-pound test nylon will fall lightly and not scare the fish. For, although salmon may stay right in plain view of the angler, so that they appear not to have scared, once they have been put down by carelessness or sloppy casting, they're down and just lying there staring at him, with no intention of hitting.