It’s not uncommon, on Hampshire’s sea trout beats, to see thirty or forty fat, fresh sea trout lying motionless in a hatch pool. Each indolently positioned to face all but upstream, as they point their noises into the complex eddies and vortices. With unfortunate regularity, I watch them slowly sink into the depths as I cast my artificial offering toward them in anticipation of a take. They are either up for it or they are not more often they are not.
At one such pool on the lower Test this summer, I sat on the bank to calm down after spotting the fish and formulate my plan of attack. The first cast counts, I said to myself. I opened my fly box and ran my finger over the usual weighted nymphs and wet patterns preferred locally. I stopped on a dryfly I was given in Newfoundland this summer, called a bug. What the hell, this might just work I mumbled to myself. I tied it on, greased the fly and rubbed a little mud on the leader. I roll cast to my limit across the old hatches and my bug landed beautifully amongst several whoppers snoozing in the slack water opposite me. I looked at the fly, the fish and at the increasing bow in my fly line pulled by the main flow. I watched in disbelief as a monster fish awoke and slid unhurried toward my fly. The moment its mouth opened, my time was up, my slack line drew taught and the fly moved. But instead of skating un-naturally, the line un-twisted and the fly span through 360 degrees like a whirligig beetle. The sea trout actually left the water as it ate my offering a millisecond before it began to drag. The ensuing battle has to be in my lifetime top ten fish fights. After searing runs and aerial displays that took me to the backing twice, I eventually slid the net under a near 10lb sea liced hen fish. Taken on a five weight Hardy outfit in mid afternoon on a summer day she was well and truly up for it and as I slipped her back into the current, she left me a quivering mess!
I continued upstream in Hampshire with my Newfoundland bug and took another two beauties that day. I also lost one of about 4lbs and actually rolled a grilse to the fly. As I filled in the book at the end of the day: 10lbs, 7lbs, 6lbs… I fantasised that I had discovered the new super fly, or was it the upstream, dead drift way I was fishing it?
Have you ever caught a sea trout on a dry fly? What about an Atlantic salmon? Both an ambition of most UK fly anglers I’m sure, but sadly the conditions and opportunities rarely arise for us to achieve this. Could this in part be down to our traditional techniques of fishing bombers and surface sea trout lures as wake flies? Maybe we disturb the pool with this un-natural surface movement more often than we induce a take? Salmon and sea trout par feed heartily on surface insects during the early stages of their life cycle in fresh water I’m sure as adults they still have this deep set instinct it is up to the skill of the angler to flick the switch and get them to rise to the dry fly.
River keeper Donny Dibden catches sea trout in spring on dry mayflies on his water at Nurstling on the Test and Geoffrey Dashwood, the sculptor induces a rise from sea trout on the Beaulieu River using similar techniques. Those rare, heart stopping moments when one fools a sea trout or salmon to take a dry, are to me, the absolute pinnacle of fly fishing. I seek to increase the frequency of these moments in my fly fishing career and, like many modern fly anglers, I’m prepared to travel to do so. The place to go is Canada’s Atlantic coast: The provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nova Scotia here the dry fly is actually the preferred and most successful method for catching sea run salmonids. I now know to just do as the locals do.
This July, I was told by a salmon fishing guide in Newfoundland that 80% of Newfoundland salmon landed are caught on the dry fly. Principally on the bomber and various bugs as all of these spun deer hair patterns are known locally. Bombers are so popular in Canada’s most easterly provinces that in Newfoundland and Labrador one sees them for sale in gas stations, corner shops and drug stores!
I was delighted to be invited to fish Newfoundland’s Atlantic salmon rivers this summer, but as a six footer, long-hall flights with knees on my ears are a mode of travel I dread. It was music to my ears to find Newfoundland is only a 5 hour flight from London’s Gatwick airport Canada’s premier Atlantic salmon fishery is actually the same distance from London as Cypress! Newfoundland is home to 60% of North America’s active salmon rivers and it makes the perfect destination for a long weekend of salmon fishing at a price that won’t break the bank I couldn’t wait.
With my nose pressed to the plane’s window, we flew in over mile after mile of beautiful wilderness. I saw little sign of human intervention, the odd remote forestry camp and perhaps a logging track. I was amazed by the myriad of lakes and rivers I saw they all looked so fishy, fuelling my excitement and expectations. Armed with Spey rods and modern salmon flies, I arrived at Steady Brook airport on Newfoundland’s west coast, hoping I had discovered the new Kola. If not, I was sure I would show these Canadians the proper Scottish way to cast to and catch a salmon how wrong I was! It was I about to ride on the steepest learning curve of my thirty years in fly fishing.
I was promised by my host and friend, Joe Dicks, that if conditions are not right for taking salmon in one Newfoundland river, there is another within an hour or so where the salmon will be taking. Joe, owner of one of the largest outfitters on the island, proved this first hand during the hottest summer for years and the most testing of conditions. That’s not all; we took most of our fish that week on the dry fly!
Joe is based on the banks of the Lower Humber River, near Corner Brook. The Humber is a beast of a river. As I first set eyes on her, I realised how much I had underestimated sheer size and volume. Its no wonder this river produces fish to over 40lbs each season.
I set up my 15 footer and spent the best part of two days Spey casting from bank and boat. I found it difficult to get the fly to fish in this volume and speed of water. I worked my way through lines and tips of various densities as weighted flies are unfortunately not allowed. Try as I might, I just didn’t feel in control and my confidence started to wane. The locals all fish with a single handed 8 or 9 weight 9" rod, they cast a very short line and dead drift a bomber as we would fish an upstream dry fly on a chalk stream. Using a short line they are in constant control of the fly and as soon as it starts to drag in current, it is re-cast upstream and the process repeated over and over the same water. This intrigued me as I have to say it looked a little daft. Surely one needs to work the pool? I asked Joe. Not if you are fishing for running fish. Running fish aren’t takers are they? Well it works for us. Our conversations continued in the boat, over dinner and at the bar. We argued Scottish against Newfoundland techniques. When I explained the wake fly methods used in Britain and Russia for example, I was told in no uncertain terms that this is the fastest way to ruin a pool and put the fish down. Distance casting? Not a bit of it, You’ll catch salmon ten feet off of the gunwales, why cast to the opposite shore? I had watched as the locals took fish and I ate a large chunk of humble pie as I relented and assembled my 9" outfit the next morning do as the locals do.
The following days were hot and bright weather conditions rarely seen in Newfoundland, even in the heights of summer. Although on the same latitude as Paris, Newfoundland lays outside of the warming Gulf Stream. Newfoundlanders are used to a short summer season and long crisp winters with lots of snow, skidoos, skiing and ice fishing. The T-shirts and sun cream used during my stay are a rarity here. After consulting the internet and the guides grapevine, Joe suggested we leave the Lower Humber for other catchments. We fished several rivers all within an hour or so of our base at the Marble Inn. I saw and photographed plenty of salmon on their lies in the beautiful clear waters and leaping waterfalls, but failed to tempt a fish as water temperatures soared to reach 19 degrees Celsius in the higher catchments. Joe’s promise ran through my mind.
The following day we headed for Main River, guided by John a close friend of Joe’s. John reminded me of Clint Eastwood, a large framed, softly spoken and sure footed mountain man, with whom I felt very comfortable, especially in the grips of wilderness. Both are professional guides and between them their knowledge of nature, salmon fishing and wilderness survival was very reassuring I could not have been in better hands and I felt confident we would find taking fish. Rather than take a helicopter or floatplane, we opted to hike into this remote location. We left the highway and drove for an hour or so in Joe’s 4×4 along dirt logging roads. We parked, inspected our kit and bouldered our way upstream, staying below the high tide mark of this spate river, carefully traversing the rock lining in the sharp conifer lined valley of the Main. We stopped and dabbled in a couple of small pools enroute. After hiking for a couple of hours we turned a bend in the river to unveil the most beautiful of salmon pools. Headed by a wondrous waterfall and tailed with a bottle neck of water that flowed between two enormous boulders, I could just smell the salmon. I framed a shot with my camera and a silver fish leaped on cue to completely overdose me with anticipation.
We tackled up and put on our waders. John asked me to follow him into the bottle neck at the bottom of the pool. The wading was a little tricky. I was extra careful as we really were an awful long way from anywhere. He tied on a small bomber or bug as he called it and pointed to a seam in the dark peaty water. I cast upstream but the fly landed with a bit of a splat. He patiently explained to flick the wrist up at the end of the cast to parachute the fly onto the water. The fly landing naturally stimulates the salmon to take, he said. He was dead right, third cast rose a fish just like a brownie taking a sedge at home. That silver bar left the water as I struck and torpedoed downstream making my reel sing. Joe tailed this cracking silver grilse of about five pounds my first salmon on a dry fly. It doesn’t get any better…
Oh yes it does…We moved to just below the falls and I flicked the bomber upstream into the pool’s eddies, a fish rose and I struck. It felt different, diving deep and giving those horrible thumping headshakes that often prelude a slack line and stream of expletives. As Joe landed the fish for me he yelled “sea trout". It was a beautifully coloured sea run brook trout of about three pounds another first for me. I didn’t even realise brook trout ran to the salt and again, taken on the dry. We took a total of nine salmon and three sea run brookies that day before we had to hike back down the valley with enough daylight to spare.
Not only had I made some super new friends in a stunning country, I had been taught a method of fishing that I took back to England with great success, enabling me to achieve fly fishing ambitions I thought were almost impossible both salmon and sea trout on the dry fly. Roll on next summer, I can’t wait to return.
Although I’m fairly unpractised at dead drift bombering in the UK, or anywhere else for that matter, I plan to continue to pursue this most spectacular method of salmon and sea trout fishing well into the future. I would challenge anyone fishing a salmon or sea trout beat to give it a go. Once one has witnessed a big fish inhale your dry offering from the surface, wet fly fishing just isn’t the same again. An old Test river keeper said to me, Nipper, one on the dry is worth five on the nymph, and as far as I’m concerned he’s dead right although I’d probably up that ratio a little in relation to salmon and sea trout.
I have had most success in water where I can either see the fish or they have given away their presence by rolling on the surface and I can make a pretty accurate cast. The clear mill pools on the salmon beats of Hampshire’s chalk streams are a classic example. If approached stealthily, one can see the sea trout before they see you and a pin point cast can be made. On larger spate rivers like the Dee and the Upper Tay for example, a similar principle applies although the bug is best fished over salmon lies, perhaps where fish will hold nearer the surface or in shallower water. That said, I have seen salmon come shooting up to take a bomber in over fifteen feet of water. This attractor pattern sparks a deep set memory or instinct within the fish to feed from the surface. I’ve witnessed adult sea trout rise to take moths and mayflies twitching on the surface many times. Although we are told they do not feed in freshwater, they still retain that urge to do so. For sea trout, also try flies like a foam bodied blue damsel, a large G and H sedge or a big mayfly pattern. These work, but I find the Newfoundland bug the best and my favourite is one I tie with spun dark grey deer hair, a tail of white calf’s tail, and a palmered ginger cock hackle the fly is about an inch long tied in a strong hook. The first cast is always your best chance as the fly gently lands, it often sparks a take on or soon after touch down. If it drags, mend or re-cast upstream immediately, as a wake seems to put the fish down. I urge you to give it a try if you have not done so, you can then tick the box of having taken a salmon or sea trout on the dry fly in my book the ultimate piscatorial challenge.