Early Spring Salmon Fishing
By Jock Monteith 21st December 2018
As we are now fast approaching the 2019 Scottish salmon fishing season I've written a few paragraphs regarding my career based thoughts and observations as to what the best salmon fishing tactics are for this early Spring cold water period from mid January through to the end of March.
The River Tay Opening Day
The traditional River Tay opening day of the 15th of January is only a short burst of fishing tackle preparation away from being a reality. Personally I believe it's at least a couple of weeks too early to open the Tay as there's still too many kelts and sometimes even late run un-spawned salmon still in the river and a more sensible later opening date of the 1st or 15th of February would be better and for these fish to be left alone until nature reclaims them naturally or delivers them safely back to the sea.
Pomp & Salmon Fishing Ceremony
I understand our species has to take preference and the traditional mid January Tay salmon fishing season Kenmore opening day gains valuable river PR and used to generate fantastic sponsorship revenue for the Tay District Salmon Fishery Board which now gets diverted to another worthwhile cause. I'd previously heard that there is (or was) some lower Tay timeshare agreements that have to be honoured which scuppered the prior adjustment of this 'out of sync' river opening date the last time it was officially considered. It's a shame we cannot show deserved respect for our successfully spawned salmon kelts by moving the Tay opening day back 2 or 3 weeks to early or mid February which would assist with salmon conservation and still allow the 'ceremonial' day PR to continue.
River Tay Opening Day Boycott Party
Over the last 20 years this out of sync River Tay mid January opening day has always troubled me despite occasional personal fresh run Spring salmon successes. Ten plus years ago I remember boycotting a Tay opening day on the beat I was working as head ghillie on which both STV & the BBC simultaneously covered. I hosted and held the opening day party & invited our guests but we didn't fish and only celebrated which was a fantastic day to say the least! The BBC's environmental correspondent reporter who showed up was even 'slurring' her words just like the rest of us during the TV interviews which was no wonder given the bottles of sloe gin that were quickly 'scoffed' for starters before we went 'Highland Glen' hopping! That was one of the best fishing hut parties I can ever remember and no salmon were interfered with nor were they for the following 2 weeks until February arrived.
Spring Salmon Presence
There will be fresh Spring salmon in the River Tay system and other Scottish rivers right now and I've connected with them before even in early December while out searching for hatchery brood stock. While the kelt to fresh Spring salmon ratio will probably be at best about 50 to 1 because of the eagerness of a hungry kelt to take a fly or lure the 'elusive' early Spring salmon is a real Scottish treasure if you're fortunate enough to make contact with one. On the Tay there's usually always a few of these perfectly conditioned Spring salmon caught on the opening day which is not surprising given the thousands of lures and flies that are being presented to the river that day.
River Tay Salmon Stock Management
The reason I started off this news story stating that we are too early opening the Tay on the 15th is because for the half dozen Spring salmon we catch there's several hundred kelts hooked and played which really do not need the physical stress of that encounter as their energy levels are already heavily depleted due to the rigours of spawning. I'm hopefully making too much sense to fishery management but don't worry I'll lay off you for the time being as I know deep down you'll all know what I've stated here makes perfect logical river husbandry & stock management sense and it's other reasons that stop you from actioning the appropriate remedy needed to address these hard facts. Even if the 'guessed' estimate of successful kelts that make it back to sea wasn't higher than the 5% we are all lead to believe what could the 'positive' cumulative effect of 2nd time spawners be over even one decade if these already 'naturally' weakened Tay salmon kelts were not 'death sentenced' by being played to near total exhaustion before being released.
Warmth Is The Fly To Fish
Fishing in the very cold water is easy to understand and forget the super early start before the sun rises as these freezing conditions will shut a salmon down into a state of non responsiveness. The most effective fishing zone for the early Spring is primarily between the hours of 11am & 2pm where there's usually a very subtle lift in the air temperature which is 'big news' to a wild salmon in near freezing water conditions. The books say 'deep and slow' in the Spring but that's utter nonsense as any salmon will be holding high in the water column where the warmer water thermals are logically to be found until warmer conditions arrive later in the Spring. If you go to the Pitlochry fish ladder in January or February and look down into its concrete holding tanks (unless the SSE people have bothered to open the viewing chamber) you'll see the kelts absorbing the warmth of the sun on their backs while positioned 1 to 2 feet under the surface and never any deeper than that.
The Salmon Fishing Lunch Hour
The traditional mid day lunch at 1pm should be moved back to 2pm if the early Spring ghillies and fishers are thinking about maximising their chances of success but many anglers are too accustomed to the 1pm rule. If you agree a 2pm lunch you're in effect increasing the fishing chances by 33% during the early Spring fishing day's hot spot. Once the low positioned early Spring sun starts to dip again taking away that virtually unnoticeable mid day warmth the Spring fish will normally go back into sleep mode. The first time a Spring salmon sees a lure or fly is the best time so a more thorough beat coverage prior to 2pm beats showing a salmon a lure again after lunch when the temperature will more than likely be less favourable.
Fish Your Salmon Fly High & Slow
A high fished fly that's slowly swinging about one foot down in the water column will be the presentation that will stand you the best chance of an early Spring cold water salmon take. Many anglers think otherwise but none of them will have anchored up a boat and had an angler swing lures and flies past them while wearing polaroids to see exactly where sunk lines are positioning a fly in the water column or how deep that 30 grm Toby 'Salmo' has indeed dug in. If you ever try this experiment in a pool with even a slow flow you'll see your sunk line & especially the largely uncontrollable shooting heads type 2/3's are placing your fly only a few inches down due to the pull of the current even though you'd assume your fly is fishing much deeper. Mending a shooting head 'to the fly' at medium to long range is virtually impossible due to its thin running line & short bulky head section. Total 'depth and fly pace' control at short, medium & long range is easier to achieve with a properly designed Speyline that can take varying bulky long sink tips when required and that's why I've always stuck to this more 'traditional' even though 'slightly' more difficult to master salmon fly fishing approach.
Treat Every Salmon Take Seriously
The other important thing to tune into while salmon fishing the bitterly cold early Spring weeks of the Scottish salmon fishing is to treat every knock on the fly with total respect & suspicion. You may already have landed 6 kelts that morning and have convinced yourself that there's no fresh Spring fish in the pools and let your guard drop. With every kelt you catch you're reducing the odds of eventual contact with a Spring fish so stay focussed as the inevitable will happen if you fish well and often enough during these early Spring weeks. Don't get careless with any take as the next nudge on your fly may be from a serious fresh run brute who's swum all the way home from Greenland to fully work out your adrenalin glands!