There’s something I need to get off my chest. I’m worried that Scandinavian and North American influences are shading out traditional British styles. Fly-lines seem to embody this. For many fishers, shooting heads have transformed their casting capabilities and confidence – me included. I will admit: this is a good thing. I’ll also concede that for sinking-line work, skagits and shooting heads make much more sense than full spey lines or double tapers (remember those?). I can’t see a time that I’m ever likely to revise my views in the early months. But much as I like a shooting head, I’m increasingly bothered that I’m losing touch with the classic floating-line approach with which I grew up. Somehow, casting feels as though it’s overtaking the fishing.

Sometimes I feel a bit like I’ve defected and I’m not doing things properly; that somehow it’s just not quite cricket. I blame some of the gillies. They haven’t said anything, but occasionally I see it in their eyes – a faint look of disappointment that says something like, “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed. Wouldn’t you rather catch one properly?” or “It’s a pity you’ve loaded that lovely Hardy Perfect with that bloody awful line.”

Even by British standards, fly-fishing for salmon is pretty eccentric. Contradictions and paradoxes abound. We fish because we enjoy it. Yes, it’s silly and eccentric, but we like it like that – that’s what makes it fun. Perhaps the real cause of the nagging doubts is a sense of loss, a loss of identity… something to do with upholding the traditions that make Britain such a special place to fish. Holding the line, so to speak.  

As I sit writing this in early April, the wettest of winters is now fading into the record books; the clocks have gone forward; the grass is growing again (mixed blessing!) and the blossom is out. The high-point of the season is just around the corner.

As far as I’m concerned, the last two weeks in May and the first two weeks of June make the loveliest month of the salmon season. It’s just a wonderful time of year to be out and about in waders, especially in the soft light of the long evenings. These weeks provide a beautiful backdrop, but the most interesting thing from our perspective is the rising water temperature. These are the magical floating-line weeks when the water temperature will be in the high 40s to mid 50s (deg F).

This is our moment, our time to shine. Without taking ourselves too seriously, the next few weeks represent our best chance to show that traditional techniques and simple tackle can hold their own. And it’s fun making the point.

The high 40s to mid 50s is a very comfortable temperature range for salmon. They can be highly active, in terms of running upstream and also rising to intercept a well-presented fly. Yes, we can expect to catch more salmon later in the year, but a big fresh salmon visibly taking a small fly just under the surface – that’s the champagne moment of the season.

You don’t often see a river-trout fisher stalking back to the car to change his line. But trout-fishers do put an amount of thought into their presentation; each cast carries a level of focus and expectation. When targeting rising fish, the trout-fisher will strive to make every cast count. In this case, less is more: fewer false casts, less splash, and a plan to reduce drag. Poor execution will spook the target and it’s back to square one. The intensity is nicely balanced with plenty of sitting and waiting for the right moment, walking and watching the water, waiting for and identifying the hatch. I like to think of this as watercraft.

In my opinion we need to carry much of this mindset into our floating-line salmon approach. Many good lies are 4ft-5ft deep and we should expect the salmon to be sensitive to poor, splashy casting.

The early-season ploy of covering the water makes sense when flows are heavy and the fish are hunkering down. Then, our primary concern is to locate a potential taker and get a fly down to it. Now, by mid May and certainly into June, we should see decent stocks of fish settling into known lies. The game has changed. The challenge now is to tempt them up to our fly, and not scare them. The pools have a real intimacy and our approach needs to reflect this.

I know a few gillies who would cheerfully ban chest waders on many of their pools. If the gillies’ union made an “imaginary greatest hits album” comprising the most common mistakes they have to watch us repeatedly make, I think inappropriate wading would be in their top five. Think about it: how often has a gillie pointed out a fellow fisher in the distance, “Aye he’s walking on the fish again”. It won’t always be the other members of your party, either; we’ve all been guilty. Constantly casting for the far bank also makes the album. These two mistakes will cost many fishers dearly over the next few weeks.

Many gillies and experienced fishers will operate much more like a dry-fly fisher when it comes to floating-line time in May and June. Each cast has real purpose and thought behind it. I often think it’s a good idea to offer your gillie the rod and watch carefully as he approaches a given pool. Rarely does the scene start with him wading in up to his delicates, stripping yards of line from the reel and then launching a heroic cast, just to show off. No, it’s almost always a short, delicate cast just ahead of that rock followed by “It’s amazing how many people wade through that lie”.

I’ve been watching and assimilating these tips as often as possible. My Grandpa used to call it a good coat of looking at. I think he summed it up well. I try hard to carry as many of these observations with me each time I reach the head of a pool. This watercraft takes a long time to build up, so it’s vital that we watch and listen as much as possible.

The prime floating-line weeks are ideally suited to keeping tackle simple and fishing thoughtfully. My set-up and (assimilated) approach to these next few weeks will be something like this. I like a 12ft-13ft eight-weight rod, balanced with a nice noisy reel. In terms of lines, a short-head spey line offers a great balance of control and delicacy. Shooting heads are so common these days that I have noticed quite a few fishers struggling to adapt back to longer (65ft head) spey lines. A good-quality shorter-headed (45ft-55ft) eight-weight spey line is very easy to cast quietly, turns over a polyleader comfortably and has much of the familiar usability of a shooting head. These lines are ideal for average fishers and 13ft rods. Beware of being sucked into a long-head line for advanced casters. They don’t work as well on shorter rods, and even if you are a brilliant caster they will be harder work at shorter distances, so perhaps not ideal for the next few weeks. Don’t worry: buying a short-head line doesn’t make you any less of an angler.

Adding a  fastish sinking polyleader is a good ploy in a strong current.
Adding a fastish sinking polyleader is a good ploy in a strong current.

As you know, a selection of Polyleaders or Versitips makes it easy to quickly adjust your set-up. On any given day I will often use a 6ft fast-sinking tip in fast water and a 10ft floating, intermediate or slow-sinking tip in steady glides. I go to the small amount of trouble for the fast water, because I find it helps with purchase: a bit of bite to mend against. This helps me to fish much more of the swing.

Controversially, perhaps, I like a leader that might be a bit longer than average. This seems to be an area that really divides opinion. You’ll draw your own conclusions, I’m sure. I like 10ft-11ft leaders on a 13ft rod for use with floating to slow-sinking polyleaders. I’ll shorten this considerably for fast water and a faster-sinking polyleader. The choice to use a longer leader is purely to minimise the impact of shadows and splash from the line, particularly in clear, shallow water. Why risk it? A lighter leader material of 10lb-13lb makes sense with flies of size 10 and smaller. This helps with natural movement and will help you to pick up bonus daytime sea-trout. I favour a Rapala-type knot over the traditional Turle. I think it’s safer with fine leaders (particularly if you use fluorocarbon). Again, free natural movement is the driver. If you are unsure, why not try a comparison in the water?

A full spey-taper line means the speed of the fly can be beautifully controlled. You’ve traded some distance for control by selecting one. Intelligent and repeated mending is the key to floating-line control (you don’t have to mend once per cast; little and often as required is best – just do it quietly). Outward mending reduces the pace and helps to drift the fly naturally. This style was popularised on the Dee by Arthur Wood and his friend Sherriff Dallas. It’s a wonderful and challenging way to fish. You can also mend downstream if you would like to add a burst of pace or movement at a particular moment, or to help swing the line right round. Gentle hand-lining to keep the fly swimming as it leaves the main current is also one of my favourite ploys. Sometimes the fish will prefer a faster-moving fly, so don’t hesitate to vary the speed. Many people think that a floating line should be cast at 45 degrees or so. Wood suggested that 80 degrees was best. Some people find this surprising. Wood used lots of mending to slow down the first part of the cast to his chosen speed and then inside mending to keep it moving at his desired pace. The latter part is often forgotten. A full floater with a 6ft intermediate or 6ft slow-sink Polyleader is, in my opinion, the closest set-up to a greased silk line with the last yard ungreased.

There are several advantages to a light balanced outfit: improved presentation; it’s less tiring; and it’s fun to fish with. Going about with noticeably light tackle, I often get pulled up on two points in particular: “What are you going to do when you hook a monster?” and “Doesn’t it make it hard to land fish quickly to release them?” Well, happily, while minding my own business one day, fishing with a size 13 fly, I did contact a monster (31½lb). So I’m not going to die wondering. Given the small hook and 12lb leader, I was delighted not to have been using a big 10-weight outfit. I wouldn’t have been able to deploy any of the extra power without breaking the line or pulling the small hook, anyway. Given some of the dramatic jumps and head-shakes, I was grateful for the forgiving rod, which cushioned things nicely. The point of a balanced outfit is that everything works together. Once you have made the decision to use a small fly and light leader, you have already forfeited the opportunity to crank up a disc-drag and try to bully a big fish. Anyway, who thinks they are ever likely to say to themselves “Ah! An unusually large fish, I’d better get stuck right in and give it some teddy”? It doesn’t happen; the precautionary instinct not to lose the fish kicks in strongly.

Fly choice is hugely personal and all about confidence. In May and June, I like a fly with a light dressing – just enough to give a tantalising silhouette, a suggestion, without being too obvious. I feel that if it’s too obvious then the need for the fish to rise up and investigate is diminished.

The Park Shrimp, lightly dressed on a size 13 Partridge Salar, is my favourite. I start small and work up in size if things are not working or stop working. Rather than go up gradually in size, I’ll tend to jump right up to a Sunray Shadow or a similar long-winged pattern. This is only after I’ve had to admit defeat with the Park Shrimp and Silver Stoat, mind. Some of the upper Dee gillies tell me this is back-door spinning! It’s interesting how often both approaches work on the same day, but how very different the takes are.

I once asked Dee gillie Ian Murray about his favourite patterns for late spring and early summer for a traditional floating-line style. In clear shallow water, Ian favours a Silver Stoat, or a Blue Charm in bright conditions. Ian said that dressing flies lightly was absolutely critical. His biggest concern was having confidence in the choice and avoiding the nagging doubts that mean frequent changes. He likes to focus on the fishing. So a lightly dressed size 12 fished carefully is Ian’s starting point. Simplicity itself.

I’ll leave you with a final thought. Innovation is great – tackle, flies, it’s all good and a rich part of our sport. Tradition is also a major part, however, and we need to be conscious to maintain a healthy balance. Ian Murray told me that some of his longest-serving clients once spent an evening going through the catch records, as far back as they could for their week. They decided to research and tie some of the long-forgotten patterns, which had proven themselves one or two lifetimes before. Lightly dressed in small sizes, I hear they worked superbly. The tackle, fashions and river may change but the salmon is the same instinctive creature it has always been. That’s why I’m going to spend the next few weeks keeping it simple and enjoying the challenge of the floating line and small fly. I’ll be watching each cast, waiting for a big grey back to arch over my fly, all in heart-pounding slow motion.

Jim Coates’s low-water fly selection

Silver Stoat’s TailSilver Stoat’s Tail

Hook: Size 10 Ken Sawada Low Water Double  
Thread: Black  Tag: Oval silver tinsel  Tail: Golden pheasant crest  Butt: Yellow floss  Body: Flat silver tinsel  Rib: Oval silver tinsel  Hackle: Black cock  Wing: Black squirrel or similar  Cheeks: Jungle Cock

Jeannie StoatJeannie Stoat

Hook: Size 10 Ken Sawada Low Water Double  Thread: Black  Tag: Flat silver tinsel  Tail: Golden pheasant crest  Body: Yellow floss  Rib: Oval silver tinsel  Hackle: Black cock  Wing: Brown squirrel hair or similar

Park ShrimpPark Shrimp

Hook: Size 9-11 Partridge Salar  Tag: Oval gold tinsel  Tail: Mix of orange and yellow Arctic runner  Body Rear: gold lite brite; front: black seal’s fur  Rib: Pearl tinsel  Wing: Black Arctic fox with jungle cock each side  Hackle:Orange badger over yellow cock  Head: Red thread

Glenmuick SheepGlenmuick Sheep

Hook: Size 10 Ken Sawada Low Water Double  Thread: Black  Tag: Oval silver tinsel
  Tail: Yellow cock hackle fibres  Body: Pearl tinsel  Rib: Silver tinsel  
Throat: Blue cock hackle fibres  Wing: Black squirrel or similar