Is it the fly line or the fly that catch salmon?

In this article I will attempt to put the focus on the abilities of fly lines, in order to catch more salmon during all conditions encountered throughout a season. Most fishermen will attribute a catch to the fly used, and I also agree that the fly is important. However, perhaps we could catch more fish by increasing the focus on the fly lines.

General advice on fly fishing for salmon.
I am often surprised to find that what most fly fishers talk about online, at trade shows, casting classes and demonstrations in terms of what people focus on when discussing fly casting. There’s a lot of talk about casting lengths and which line is better to cast with, but isn’t it more important to consider when the different lines are best for the fishing? My point is: What about the fishing? Today there is a large generation of fishermen that have more experience casting than actually fishing, it is time to focus on the fishing again. If I were to create a list of the most important factors for catching more salmon, it would look like this:

Local knowledge: Get to know everything about the salmon run patterns of the river. Find out where your beat lies in relation to the ocean, and when during the season you will fish it, this is important in terms of the salmon run behaviour. I have positive experiences with having a base of sorts at a beat where I will hold a season license, so that I can get to know the different salmon behaviour throughout the season. This will give me valuable information so that I can move around to different beats and areas on the river. It is always smart to have several beats on which to fish, the river valley terrain varies all the time, and seeing a whole area as one big area as opposed to distinct, separated beats in terms of understanding where the river might slow or stop salmon running during different conditions. This is more important than all the 40 meter casts in the world.

Practical fishing experience: How do you become experienced? You will have to fish as often as possible on the same river in all kinds of conditions during the season, especially when the river conditions are tough. This will give you the experience necessary for you to become an experienced salmon fisher, only then can you choose the right gear, and really make use of all those hours spent on casting practice.

Learn from the trout fishers: Us salmon fishers can learn a lot from the trout fishers; their behaviour along a river is totally different from ours. They spend a lot more time observing everything around them, and this is something salmon fishers are not very good at. Often we ruin our fishing by “fishing the pools to death” with thousands of casts angled at 45 degrees, fishing each cast in exactly the same way throughout the whole fishing trip. At some stage the salmon will be totally immune to our flies. Rest the river! Make time for observing, and talk to each other throughout the day so that you update each other on the conditions, and make salmon fishing a team sport, this will increase the excitement and the effectiveness of the fishing.

These factors are the most important ones that we should possess a lot of knowledge of. It does not help to be a skilled caster if your experience with these factors is lacking.

WF fly lines.
I use lots of different lines for my salmon fishing. When using a floating line I normally use modern weight forward (WF) lines, these are better suited to the fast rod actions than the traditional WF lines. The modern lines are also well suited to spey casting. My floating line fishing equals nymph and dry fly fishing. The flies I use for this include Riffling Hitch tubes, and of course deer hair flies such as Streaking Caddis and Bombers, but also Rakkelhanen and Goddard Caddis are exciting salmon flies, I normally use these flies when the river is low and warm and the fish are spooky. I believe that a WF line offers better precision than a shooting head. This dry fly fishing is taking place using short and medium distance casts, this is why the WF line is easier to work with than a shooting head due to the loop system of the shooting head. I almost never use a floating line when fishing tube flies or other wet flies tied on a single or double hook. The exceptions are when fishing extremely low rivers or the typical grilse rivers. Thus, I usually switch to shooting heads with some sort of sink rate during most conditions when fishing “normal” salmon flies.

Shooting heads.
These are the lines that are mostly used for modern salmon fishing. This is because most people use rods with a fast rod action, and use modern casting techniques. Mostly, when casting techniques are discussed the focus is on the casting ability of a line. This is obviously important, but I call for a discussion around fly lines as “fish catchers”. There are three different categories of shooting heads in terms of practical fishing. These are: 1) floating lines, 2) floating/sink lines, and 3) sinking lines. Category 1 and 3 include the lines that receive the most attention, i.e. floating lines for low water summer conditions and sinking lines for high water, be it during a spring or summer flood. Category 2 lines are best for fishing rivers flowing at normal to low water levels. There are three variants: floating/sink 1 - floating/sink 3, and floating/sink 6, these lines are often my favourites.

These fly lines possess fantastic abilities helping to provoke a take from the salmon. The floating/sink3 line would be my favourite line. Shooting heads are totally superior all other lines when it comes to modern salmon fishing using sinking lines. A shooting head is so much easier to cast than a long WF line when the fly is supposed to get down deep. The modern shooting heads with double sinking rate functions offer many advantages, both fishing and casting wise. Compared to the “older generation” of sinking lines and shooting heads this kind of fishing has become comfortable even when using lighter gear.

General fishing tips for using different fly lines.
- If you mostly use a floating or intermediate line you will only fish the upper layers of the river. In terms of depth you will never be able to fish the whole river. Many salmon will only see your fly as a shadow far above them! The old attitude of “well if it will take, it’ll take” will just not do, our spare time is too short and valuable.

- Speed is a key word: often fishing the fly slowly will work, and other times a speedy presentation is what will give you a great salmon fight. Only the fly line can help you alter this, depending on if the river conditions demand one or the other.


- If you use a floating line too early in the season on the big rivers your fly will fish too high up in the water column and too fast in the current. This will happen even when using a sinking leader at the end of the floating line. The salmon swims deep and slowly upriver, affected by the low water temperature and swift surface current. The floating line located in the surface current will create too much upwards pressure on the sinking leader, so that the fly fishes too high up in the water. For smaller rivers the floating/sink 3 line will often suffice.

- If you use a sinking line that is too heavy when the river is too low, the fly will drift too slowly for the salmon to show any interest in it, as the salmon will see the fly from far away in these conditions when the water is clear. When you then cast over and over again while fishing down towards the salmon’s lie it will have lost interest ages ago when the fly finally drifts past it. You will snag a lot when using a sinking line that is too heavy for the river level.

- When fishing a low river it is often important to be able to use a line enabling you to fish both deep and fast. The answer here is a floating/sink3 line! This is a line that will fish deep and fast even when the river is flowing at a medium high level. The reason for this is that this line has a floating butt section, then two meters of intermediate sink rate and finally the tip with a sink 3 rate. You will rarely snag using this line. The floating butt section will help you achieve a good speed aided by the surface current in comparison to standard sinking lines, this line is also better to cast than a floating line with a sinking leader. You adjust the depth of the fly by altering the length of the leader, by using a fluorocarbon for the leader butt section you will avoid any imbalance when casting.

- It is important to get the fly down to the fish during most conditions. There are several reasons for this: firstly, the salmon are often lying deep down, and are more likely to take a fly fished right in front of their noses. Secondly, most people use either a floating or an intermediate fly line, thus it is important to do something different, as according to the “opposite theory”.

- Remember to try a sinking line both when fishing medium high and low flowing rivers; many pools should be fished using a correctly adjusted sinking line, in terms of current speed and depth.

Summer - low water.
Are there any fly lines that will catch large salmon more often than other lines in these conditions? My highest average weight of salmon is not achieved using a floating line. During low water summer conditions most people use a floating line fished on a light double handed rod or a single handed rod. Many fishermen don’t even fish until the river rises to at least a medium level ,or when it is low and warm later in the season, because a floating line is easier to cast. When using a floating line on a low and warm river will mostly result in you catching grilse, however the larger ones lurking in the deeper parts of the river will also be tempted by a fly fished in a strategic and suitable fashion for low river fishing. Even when nymph fishing low rivers I often use a fly line that will get the fly down; the floating/sink 3 line. Here’s a good advice: think outside the box, if you don’t catch salmon after changing the fly several times but using the same fly line, then swap to another line and fish deeper. Fishing deep and fast is often better than yet another change of fly using the same line. Strip the line – create fly movements deep down there in the pool, and any other spots where you know salmon will hold during these conditions. And here’s another useful advice: if you do what I just described, hold that rod tight, or else….!

Medium sized river.
This water level is often the best level for salmon fishing, during such conditions most pools and beats will fish well. The salmon does not have to worry too much about too much or too little water and can do whatever it wants to do without using too much energy. Its main goal is of course to get to its spawning grounds, its childhood pool. Very high or very low water will to a much larger extent create areas that will stop or slow down any salmon running upstream. In terms of the choice of fly line during these conditions local knowledge will count for a lot, and then there is the water temperature. We can assume that salmon can swim upriver fairly easily and will only stop when it feels like it, and not because certain river conditions are stopping it. In other words, salmon can swim pretty fast during such conditions. Thus, we mostly fish for running, so a relatively large fly and of course a sinking line working the area between intermediate and a sink 2. The floating/sink 3 line is also a good choice now, depending on the depth of the pool and the speed of the surface flow. This line will fish as deep as a sink 1/sink 2 line (S1/S2), but your fly will fish faster as the floating part of the line will be working with the surface current. This difference in speed might often mean the difference between frequent fights with large salmon and no fish at all.

High water river.
When it comes to sinking line fishing, I fishermen often ask me which lines to use, and normally the choice is between a S2/S3 and a S3/S4. I normally reply that I have both these lines and all the other ones too, which means everything from Hover/intermediate to sink 7 lines. You never know how the conditions might change during a fishing trip; big changes might occur during a week long trip. Based on all the different conditions occurring during a season, all these lines will/should be used several times. One thing is that the water level will change based on the weather conditions, but most people don’t consider the fact that the terrain will differ from one part of an area or a beat to another. This means that the flow and depth of the river will change, so that two different lines might be needed for fishing the same beat in the same conditions. If you fish a large beat, or several beats, then perhaps even more different sinking lines should be used during stable conditions in order to fish as efficient as possible.

“If I buy a S2/S3 line I guess I don’t need a S3/S4 line?”, many people ask me. I just say that the S3/S4 is the one I use the least out of these two, but it is the most important fly line I have. If I can’t get deep enough using the lighter line it is just so great to be able to put on the heavier one and then be able to fish the fly even deeper on a high, swift and cold river. Several times I have experienced a salmon take right after changing to a heavier sinking line. When I used the lighter line I didn’t feel a thing, often using the same fly too. Another similar question I often get is that when people have bought a floating/sink 3 line then they surely won’t need a S2/S3 line? Again I will give them the not so popular answer; they need both these lines too. The full sinking line will get through the surface current and as such fish deeper and slower than the floating/sink line, which will be pushed upwards due to the floating part being in the surface current.

General fishing advice for fishing high flowing rivers.
Remember to use short leaders when using sinking lines on a high, cold river. When fishing a sinking line on a summer river in flood the leader can be a bit longer, as the water will be warmer. Fluorocarbon leaders are outstanding when used in conjunction with sinking lines, they will turn over large tube flies more easily, and the flies will sink faster and deeper with the sinking line. Large tube flies are often the best flies to use when fishing for the large, silvery salmon that we dream of throughout the long winter, the patterns will differ from one river to another.

In a later article I will elaborate on my fishing theories for fishing medium sized and low rivers.

Jan Erik Granbo.

jørem vald namsen

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