Catch salmon on a single-hander
Never tried it? Jim Coates offers a no-nonsense guide to the tackle and techniques you need for thrilling summer sport
A no-nonsense guide to tackle and tactics from Jim Coates
“In low water and particularly in late summer when the fish have seen it all before it’s hard to overstate the importance of stealth and great presentation”
VERY FEW SALMON anglers use singlehanded rods in the UK, which is a great shame. Lochs and spate streams are usually the extent of things, whereas in Ireland there seems to be a greater appreciation and in North America the roots run deep. There are many good arguments for double-handers and their place in the first team is assured. The real question is: should we make room for both? Can’t many of the limitations levelled at small rods be reversed and aimed at long rods, if the conditions dictate? As summer advances, it’s the right time to think again about singlehanded rods and their techniques. I think it’s time for them to take on some of the salmon workload. Single-handers can take the delicacy and finesse of our presentation to a new level. They also encourage us to think and fish a bit differently than we would otherwise. Perhaps this comes from having to make peace with the fact that we can’t cast as far. We must relax into a more considered approach, doing what we can really well. In low water and particularly in late summer when the fish have seen it all before it’s hard to overstate the importance of stealth and great presentation. We have to change our approach by carefully trying to turn over the right stones – not all the stones, if you follow my drift. Single-handers are great tools for the job. I’m unreliably informed (by a good friend) that the late George Melly (a keen fisher) once quipped about the relationship between his advancing years and the demise of his libido. “I greeted it with the relief of a man escaping from the back of a runaway horse.” I honestly think this could sum up the relationship some contemporary salmonfishers have with distance casting. When I pick up my single-hander I often smile and think about that man escaping the horse.
MATCHING TACKLE TO THE CONDITIONS
Trout-fishers and would-be or occasional salmon-fishers take heart. During the summer months and when water levels are low, most of our rivers can be very practically fished with single-handed tackle. You might need to endure a bit of leg-pulling, but that’s okay. Play to the strengths of your outfit and you’re likely to fish the water better than many fishers will with bigger rigs. Anyway, some of the old guard might be surprised by the capabilities of modern rods and lines, especially in the hands of crack trout men and women. Why not get out there and mix things up a bit?
CONVERTING FROM TROUT TO SALMON
If you are new to salmon fishing in rivers and therefore double-handed rods, but an experienced trout-fisher, opting for a good single-handed salmon outfit will mean you can hit the ground running. I think this makes a lot of sense: you can really focus on the challenge of tempting a fish to take and seeing how you enjoy it, rather than immediately jumping on to the steep learning curve of new casts with double-handed tackle. Which, let’s be honest, adds a lot of cost and complexity that you probably don’t want in your first few outings. Why not play to your strengths?
WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES?
The ability to fish small flies – and the fine tippets they require – with confidence is a big advantage. A balanced outfit greatly increases your chances of landing fish when small flies are the order of the day. It makes sense to balance your outfit in reverse. Start with the size of fly and work backwards from there. If fishing with size 12s or smaller, swimming them on an 8 lb tippet is going to feel much more practical on a single-hander than a standard nine- or ten-weight doublehander. The latter is more powerful but how can you deploy that power when it’s not in balance with the business end? In these circumstances a stock doublehander is more of a liability than an asset. In exchange for this delicacy, you will trade some distance-casting potency, and gain accuracy in its place. The finesse achievable with a singlehanded set-up is beyond what even the
best casters can manage with regular British-style double-handers. Switch rods are trendy but they come with pretty chunky and aggressive lines (I believe one well-known brand even named one the “Chucker”). These switch lines are a bit of a compromise and I would argue that the out-and-out singlehanded outfit has the edge when it comes to delicacy.
THE TOOLS FOR THE JOB
I favour a 10 ft seven-weight rod. However, any strong single-hander between 9 ft 6 in and 10 ft 6 in, rated for a seven or eight line, will do a good job. A six-weight will work at a pinch, but your fish-fighting technique will need to be good to avoid unduly harming fish as a result of a protracted fight or triggering a trial of the rod’s guarantee policy. I would recommend a middle-to-tip action rather than something faster. Roll and spey casts will be easier and if you want to fish a dropper at some point, you’ll not be wishing for tight loops. The reel is more of a consideration than with a double-handed set-up. I don’t worry too much about a fancy drag (that’s a bonus) but you will need rim control, a decent retrieve rate (to keep up when fish run at you) and decent backing capacity. I can tell you from personal experience that playing a fish by hand (not from the reel) is an accident waiting to happen, so please trust me and recover any slack line rapidly and play your fish from the reel. USE ALTERNATIVE TACTICS For a stealthy, small-fly approach, dry-fly or riffling, most international fishers would make the single-hander their first choice. However, singlehanders can be used with more earthy techniques. From late August, as the nights start to draw in and the water begins to cool, it’s well known that Frances-style flies can be very effective. A single-hander and a specialist line (see below) can produce fantastic sport with otherwise uncooperative fish. The single-hander allows nymphing techniques, which are in my opinion the best way to fish Frances and Snaelda flies late in the summer. Carefully targeting known lies with stealth and an upstream nymphing style is incredibly exciting. If you equip your single-hander with a shooting-head, you can work longwinged flies over smooth glassy water or thin flows with a winning combination of controlled animation, stealth and easy water coverage. The shooting-head allows you to work the fly all the way back to you, and then you can re-cast easily without the need to first lengthen the line to load the rod.
TRY A RANGE OF CASTING STYLES
One of the great things about singlehanded rods is their versatility. Where space permits and there is room for an extended back-cast the overhead cast is easy, accurate and presents a fly with minimal disturbance. In tight spots, under trees or with high banks, improvised roll and spey casts can keep us fishing in places that are difficult with longer rods. If you are a competent trout-fisher, picking up spey casting with a familiar single-handed rod is much more straightforward than the change to two hands. Use your non-casting hand to pull back line during the back-casting stroke, just as you would with the doublehaul cast. This helps to load the rod and is a good trick if you need to find a few extra yards of distance.
With a single-handed rod you can fish small flies and lighter tippets with confidence.
Close control of the fly is needed on the intimate pools and runs of the River Finn in Northern Ireland, but that’s hard to achieve with a classic double-hander.
Jim Coates fishes a single-hander on the Dee in low, clear water.