An overview of spring salmon fishing
Spring fishing for salmon – on most rivers the fishing up to mid June - has often been described as the cream of the sport. A nice day with like minded colleagues on a salmon river in good fettle at the end of April or early May is as good as it is likely to get. The salmon at this time of year are in their prime, solid fish with short heads, dark backs and silver sided with hints of lilac and blue with white bellies. Comparing spring fish with autumn run fish would make one believe that they are a different race – well maybe they are!
The Lower Eden
Pre-mid sixties, prior to the UDN (ulcerative dermal necrosis) outbreak which lead to decimation of the Spring run component, many more rivers than today had a spring run of salmon. The disease has severely depleted or even made extinct, the spring runs on many systems. However with much hard work and patience there are signs that the spring runs are starting to return and increase in many rivers.
If a spring salmon is sought, the first question has to be, does the river still have a spring run?
On some rivers the salmon season can start as early as mid-January. At that time of year we are still in the deep throes of winter, although there can be some very nice and clement days. These early days through to June are classed as the spring salmon-fishing season on most rivers in the UK. In England and Wales all fish caught prior to June 16th have to be safely returned along with unclean fish i.e. Kelts and Baggots to try and enhance the stocks for the future. In Scotland, various measures are in place such as returning the first and only if needed keeping the second or in some cases full catch and release.
Distended Vent of a Kelt
And Gill maggots
Having found a system that holds a spring run the next question is, which part of the river?
Some of the more famous beats that are often advertised will seem incredibly cheap to fish in the early part of the year, many of these beats you will find are fairly high up the river. It will be highly unlikely that until around mid-April there will be fish that far up.
I have found on the river I fish and other rivers, that salmon are not willing to negotiate any serious obstacles like a weir or long fast runs until the water temperature has risen to a heady 42˚F. The reason is probably due to their metabolic rate being unable to function efficiently until this temperature is reached. This seems to be the case on most rivers and if we look at the sea temperatures at this time of year they are very similar at or around 42˚F. The water temperature in a river during January and February can be as low as 34˚F with ice in the margins. It is not so long ago the river used to freeze over at this time of year and the resulting snow melt produced slush like water called Grue. At altitude the water and air temperatures are a lot cooler than at sea level.
The sort of temperatures you can expect in spring
With all that in mind the choice of where to fish has to be the lower beats, or at least up to the first major obstacle in that river - this will be by far your best chance of encountering an early spring fish.
It has been observed that when fish enter a river, if there are already resident fish in the pools, that the newcomers tend to hang around with them.
This past late spring, summer and autumn with all the rain and high water levels, the fish have tended to travel upstream quickly, vacating the lower end of the river, and so with the new fish entering they also do not stop at the bottom end for long.
Carefully returning a Kelt
In spring although there will be a few fish in the pools the majority of the total population will be either Kelts or Baggots; the unclean fish, fish that have either spawned or not as the case may be. The presence of these spent salmon that have done their intended job is enough for any recently entered spring fish to be encouraged to stay for a while; they seem to like the company of other salmon. By mid-April the water temperature of the river and estuary are about right, and the majority of Kelts have all dropped down the system and left the river, this is around the time when the spring fish start to slowly migrate upstream.
In early spring the weather can be mild with light south westerly winds to a squally north/easterly gale bringing horizontal lashing sleet, rain or snow. If you have booked fishing and have to travel, you are stuck with whatever the weather gods may throw at you, on the other hand if you live fairly local to your river you have the luxury of choice.
A snowy River Eden
The best times of day in early spring are the warmest part when the sun is highest in the sky - from eleven in the morning to about three in the afternoon. The river ideally should be settled for a while and a little above summer level and running clear.
There are many guidelines in salmon fishing, and that is all they are, guidelines, there is nothing set in stone as many have found out on many occasions. Here are a few of those guidelines we often hear.
No matter what time of the year, it is sometimes a good idea to hang around just before the darkening if you can still feel your appendages, always worth a cast then.
Air temperatures can be very important on some/most days, as a rule of thumb the air needs to be of a higher temperature than the water, although it is not impossible to get a response when the opposite is happening.
North and east winds can be disastrous, on some days yes, but not impossible, we feel a lot more confident with a southern or westerly.
An early April fish, note the short head and how it is supported
Most of the salmon in early spring tend to occupy the slower deeper sections of the pool, the main belly rather than the faster necks and tails, which they favour a little later in the season. Look at the pool and try and work out where the faster currents meet with the smooth slower ones; turbulent flows with backwash are not good. Casting into the fast water to let the fly swing into the slower flow is ideal, and always fish the fly as far as is possible into your own bank.
Sinking lines fished deep and slow are the order of the day at this time of year and will normally give the best results, but we have had fish on a full floater in January, and the Spey ghillies often fished early in the season with a heavy tube on a floating line a method which controls the speed of the fly much more easily.
Hold the fish head into the current until it kicks away strongly
A good compromise is a multi-tip system, one that is purpose built to carry tips and allows for the longer sinking tips of around fifteen feet, at least with that several mends can be made to slow the fly as it swings round. With a full sunk line once it has landed on the water, unless an aerial mend or quick mend is made on touch down one cannot do any more to affect the speed of the fly. Sunken lines on the whole in any sort of pace of current have to be cast at more of a downstream angle to get the slower swing. With a multi-tip the angle cast can be a lot squarer and with several mends made, the fly is covering more of the water.
Getting the sunken line or the tip sink rate right along with the angle of cast is important, early in the year the fly needs to be swimming fairly close to the bottom. This can be a trial and error thing unless you have good knowledge of the pool; ideally the fly should just touch the bottom occasionally.
Big colourful flies with plenty of yellow up to three inches or more, as a rule it is not a bad idea, but then again we have had fish on small dark doubles, size 12, in fact a twenty two pound fish was caught on a size 16 wet fly early March intended for grayling a couple of seasons ago!
The stamp of fish you may encounter, make sure all your kit is sound
On medium to large rivers a fifteen-foot rod with a progressive action (it is a fallacy for sunk line work to choose a fast tip action rod) is adequate plus a reliable reel with plenty of backing. With the use of longheaded heavy sunk lines a sixteen-foot rod will make the job a little easier. I tend to use the shorter Scandinavian size heads for my sunken line fishing these days, they are easier to manage and control. A good multi-tip will serve where the depth to be fished is not over 5 feet.
Flies tend to be double hooked as they cause less damage to a fish that is to be returned than a treble, in sizes four to eight with long tails. Not so fussy about pattern at that time of year as long as there is plenty of yellow and orange if the water is slightly tinged, if clear then yellow and black. The same colours apply with tubes, an inch and a half to three inches of aluminium and copper or brass. Leader material tends to be at least fifteen pounds and sometimes twenty, from six foot to two foot; it all depends on the weight and size of fly to how long and thick the leader needs to be. Nylon will carry a heavy fly better than fluorocarbon for its comparative B.S as it is thicker, but does not have the same abrasion resistance.
An average spring fish
Dressing correctly for the occasion is of paramount importance, plenty of warm thin layers that wick moisture and neoprene waders is the order of the day. A good solid wading staff with lanyard connected to your down steam side, wading jacket and automatic life jacket on top with hat and glasses . The importance of having a pair of forceps for
removing hooks quickly to minimise stress to the fish at this time of year is vital. Wading boots need some consideration, felt soles will slide around on the mud and also pick up snow to the extent that you end with platform soles. Cleated soles are good on this terrain but not so good on slippery rocks, aqua stealth with studs seems to be a good all-rounder. You will need to wade quite a bit if using a sunken line to narrow the angle with the current and keeping warm and dry is essential.
Beaching is the best option, if you can