*As previously published in Fly Fusion magazine.
Ask the average angler today who Richard Waddington was and you will likely get a vague shrug and mumble about overpriced hook shanks that have recently been replaced by cheaper, more accessible alternatives.
But Waddington was not a piece of bent metal, nor was he deserving of any description short of innovative, thought-provoking, inquisitive, or dedicated.
Richard Waddington was an angler who resided in the UK. He lived from 1910 to 1999 and wrote nine sporting books. In 1948, he teamed with several biologists to write a revolutionary book titled Salmon Fishing – a new philosophy. I stumbled across the book during a conversation with Topher Browne: salmon enthusiast and author of Atlantic Salmon Magic, who had kindly given me his reading list to review and study.
*You can find my full reading list/reviews here.
Of the 30 book suggestions Topher sent my way, I’m sure he didn’t anticipate that it would be Waddington’s book that would capture my attention the way it did. Page after page I absorbed Waddington’s findings, theories and calculations — it was genius!
Although the species’ genetic makeup and migratory patterns differed from wild steelhead, many of the anadromous characteristics between the two paralleled, so I applied much of his theory to my steelhead fishing at home in BC. My brain worked overtime trying to decipher biologist jargon from over fifty years ago.
There were days I spent giggling to myself, delighted that I had tapped into a holy grail that surprisingly few people seemed to have read or discovered. My time on the water, specifically when it came to finding fish, was rewarded by an increased number of both steelhead and salmon, and I was more confident than ever to fish light line presentations.
Jennifer de Graaf photo.
Adrienne Comeau photo.
But as biological books do, the “printed in 1948” stamp served as an expiration date and it was important that I resurface the book to several biologists and specialists in the field to examine if Waddington’s information still held true.
I ran the theories by five different respected biologists and was dissatisfied when each of them frowned at some of the concepts but couldn’t offer any scientific explanations as to why. Truthfully, there was only one man I had met who had digested the content of the book as thoroughly as I had, and who had accumulated enough research and data to prove or disprove the viewpoints of the late Mr. Richard Waddington – that man was Topher Browne.
Jennifer de Graaf photo.
In this blog, I will identify and summarize six viewpoints from Waddington’s Salmon Fishing that piqued my interest (some of which have worked for me on both steelhead and Atlantic salmon). I have asked Topher for his insight and reasoning as to why or why not these theories have any sort of bearing.
1) Why Salmon Take?
When Waddington and his crew examined why salmon take, they focused on the following previous beliefs: fear, anger, curiosity, reflex action, habit, instinct and amusement. I particularly enjoyed his quirky view on fish behaviour and his distaste for certain biological lingo, where he defined instinct as “zoologist’s jargon for saying that we really don’t have any other explanation and so therefore we will call it instinct.”
Catherine Laflamme photo.
Hunger was left out of the equation upon discovering that the salmon’s stomach goes through a stage of atrophy where it eliminates the need for external food resources.
Through observation, science and experimentation, he concluded that the anadromous Atlantic salmon takes for one of two reasons: eating habits in the ocean, or irritation caused by discomforting oxygen levels.
He went on to document that in the early spring, salmon were prone to taking large, deeply sunk flies, while in the summer, smaller flies fished near the surface were more productive. He was confident that an angler presenting their flies mid water column was wasting their time.
In conclusion, Waddington believed there was a connection between the fish’s freshwater and marine behaviour.
Even today’s current fishing methodologies (large flies in winter, small flies in summer) share a similar practice and so I was eager to hear Waddington’s explanation.
He believed and concluded that due to the salmon’s particularity about the size of fly it ‘ate’, that the salmon must be mistaking the fly for some recognizable creature that it was in the habit of hunting – albeit under similar conditions of light, temperature, length of day, etc.
Catherine Laflamme photo.
He suggested that during the cooler periods of winter and early spring, the salmon lives in deeper waters somewhere off the continental shelf and, that during this time, it feeds mainly on fish or eels between 3-4 inches long; food not found near the surface.
When late spring/summer arrived and the warm current swept over the feeding grounds, he believed a smaller species was the primary food resource that inhabited the upper layer of the ocean. He further elaborated the relativity of the size of the eel during its lifecycle and how that might apply to the salmon as a predator.
“Territorial aggression and a latent feeding impulse explain the vast majority of taking behavior for salmon and steelhead. Amusement and anger are anthropomorphic terms when applied to fish and constitute an error of behavioral attribution. Fear is present in all species, but seems more likely to induce flight as opposed to taking behavior in salmon or steelhead.
Ultimately, salmon and steelhead fishermen are trying to “flip the predatory switch” of a species that is not feeding. There are many examples of species that are not actively feeding at certain points in their lifecycle—salmon, steelhead, bass, tarpon, etc.—and yet take flies. Game fish are predators. They do what predators do, which is put things in their mouths.
Fly size has more to do with water temperature and the speed at which you fish your fly. A diminutive fly imitating a small creature is unlikely to move quickly in very cold water. A larger fly imitating a more substantial creature will presumably move more quickly (than the diminutive fly) at the same water temperature (and so forth). You should fish your fly accordingly.”
Jennifer de Graaf photo.
2) When the salmon takes
Simply put, Waddingon believed that oxygen levels were a direct factor in whether or not fish would bite. Through his findings, he had decided that salmon are most likely to take when discomfort in their habitat irritated them into biting. He felt ‘settled’ fish would not willingly take a fly until they were ‘unsettled’, and that even a fish typically categorized as ‘held up’ or ‘uncatchable’ could be coerced into becoming ‘catchable’ depending on their (dis)comfort levels.
Studies had shown him that such oxygen levels ranged in the river, depending on a number of circumstances. For example, deoxygenated water occurred as a result of pollution, logged trees (and the consequent increase in the speed of surface drainage), animal & plant life, road construction, sewage, agriculture, and rainfall that flushed in oxygen-absorbing soil and organic matter.
Catherine Laflamme photo.
His statement that rain significantly lowered oxygen levels (in the upper two thirds of a watershed) came as a profound proclamation, especially as it did (and still does) seem to appear as though some of the best fishing, in steelhead and salmon streams, happens as the water begins to rise with rainfall.
Waddington believed that a fish deemed uncatchable, or lock jawed, might still be caught so long as that fish was irritated by way of a severe decrease in oxygen levels.
To be fair to his theory, in my own experience, the water does actually feel warmer to my hand after a substantial introduction of rain.
On the other end of the spectrum, an increase in oxygen levels was thought to have the same effect on fish. Waddington and his team of biologists found that while rain water decreased oxygen levels, melted snow water had the opposite effect and tended to increase them. He also claimed this additional oxygenation could be found in broken or rippled water, highly oxygenated tributaries, steep gradient, cool water flows, and several other natural occurrences. He noted that often times fish preferred to lay behind the ‘v’ of current caused by protruding boulders, as they brought about broken water and an increase of oxygen flow.
Tracy Moore photo.
“At this point in the scientific curve, I would say that there are far more elegant explanations than Waddington’s oxygen theory available to salmon and steelhead fly fishers. This is a nice way of saying that Waddington’s oxygen theory no longer ‘holds water.’ The oxygen content of water is more closely related to water temperature than it is to the factors Waddington lists. Activity levels in anadromous species (i.e., taking behavior) are more closely linked to river levels that are suitable for upstream migration than they are to finding ideal ratios of oxygen to water.”
3) Where the fish will hold
With a variety of contributing factors, specifically a steepening gradient in main stem river systems, Waddington felt that the oxygen levels in a river were heightened.
He demonstrated that with the addition of two tributaries into the main stem of a river (see the below chart), fish would be displaced as a direct result of the oxygen. He claimed that an angler might find fish easier with this knowledge and that this was the reason why certain sections of river held more fish than others.
Here, he charts a fast flowing mountain stream with a high oxygen content, with the other being a low oxygenated and stagnant drainage from agricultural slush and slough.
Waddington believed that fish were unlikely to leave an area rich with oxygen for one that was deficient. His observations showed that as the fish migrates up the river, it needs and seeks a higher O2 level, and that its journey is based around these fundamentals.
His chart showed that fish traveling below the low O2 stream would be sure to stop above the tributary entrance in an attempt to rest in the more oxygenated area of the stream.
On the contrary, where the high O2 stream pours in, his thoughts were that a fish, upon leaving the comfort of an oxygenated tributary, would not rest again until it had traveled far enough up the main stem river’s natural gradient, where the oxygen was higher than that of what it had last rested in.
“The oxygen content of water depends on its temperature. Colder water holds more oxygen than warm or very warm water. Salmon and steelhead will hold in slack flows when the river is cold as it satisfies their oxygen requirements. As water warms and oxygen levels decrease, they may change their lies to find a current speed that is more to their liking. The speed of that current can play a role in satisfying their oxygen requirements if they are unable to find cooler water. If the water is too warm, salmon and steelhead seek out springs or move upriver, where the water is generally cooler.”
Jennifer de Graaf photo.
Waddington was convinced that a water temperature of 48 degrees Fahrenheit was a watershed. When the water was below this temperature, he would use a heavy gauged wire hook with a large profile (around three inches long) to sink down to the fish. He fished temperatures above this point with light, small flies on or near the surface of the water.
Waddington believed that there was a direct correlation between the eating habits of salmon in the ocean and their taking behavior in the river.
Tracy Moore photo.
“Fish are cold-blooded. Their body temperature approximates the temperature of the water in which they swim. Different species of fish also have a specific range of temperatures inside of which they are content or simply not stressed. For our purposes, salmon and steelhead seem pretty “happy” in temperatures ranging from 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius) to the low-to-middle 60s Fahrenheit (approximately 17-18 degrees Celsius). I don’t generally fish a dry fly for Atlantic salmon until the water temperature hits 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), so I’d say Waddington’s watershed number of 48 degrees is pretty accurate. While exceptions to this rule abound, they do not fundamentally disprove it.”
5) Light and the sun
Waddington had some very interesting perspective on fish’s vision and the effects of the sun, refraction, and reflection. At one point, I even read that he almost guaranteed that an Atlantic salmon would not take a fly during a red sunset.
In addition to fishing theories, his team concluded that the pigment of the salmon’s scales is caused by the chemical effect of certain rays of sunlight, rather than the fish’s maturation. In a simple summary, he states that in low clear water, without the mask of the sun’s rays, the salmon’s body reddens faster.
Jennifer de Graaf photo.
“In very clear rivers, I find salmon color up (i.e., darken) more slowly than they do in rivers that are heavily stained (i.e., tea-colored). A bright salmon in clear water is hard to see. A darker salmon in stained water is equally hard to see. Salmon are not chameleons, but they do seem to be able to influence their coloration for purposes of camouflage.
As far as red sunsets go, if all salmon and steelhead fishers get out of the pool during red sunsets, they will catch no salmon or steelhead during red sunsets. Keep that fly in the water. It’s the only rule of anadromous fishing.”
Jennifer de Graaf photo.
6) Fly Profile
Historically, salmon flies (and even early steelhead flies), were dressed with a wing designed to keep the fly riding upright through the river’s current.
Waddington popularized the revolutionary Waddington shank, and was one of the first people to bring light to the benefits and usage of a wingless, 360 degree profile fly that had no predetermined “top” or “bottom”. He felt that this sort of fly looked more natural in the water and that it was beneficial to have the fly look similar regardless of which way it turned in the current – he was quickly criticized and mocked for his viewpoint.
Today, almost all of our common steelhead flies have this sort of profile and it is rather amusing to know that he was given such grief for what we so commonly regard as “the norm” today.
“The debate still rages. Lots of winter steelhead flies are tied “in the round.” Most summer steelhead flies feature a wing on top. Scottish tube flies are frequently tied “in the round.” Nearly all Scandinavian tube flies are tied with a wing on top.
Who is right? I suggest you fish both styles and let the fish decide. If you fish flies that inspire confidence, it probably doesn’t matter if they’re tied “in the round” or with a wing on top.”
As I pour through studies and books from both our past and present, my findings and viewpoints seem to vary as frequently as the copyright dates in my library.
So what’s my theory? My theory is that with time modern science will always either prove or disprove what we preached as gospel in days past, but my prediction is that we will always have just as much fun debating what the “right” answer is today.
For more blog posts like this, please visit April’s new website here!
In my last Fly Fusion column I expressed my determination to share the teachings, methodologies and philosophies of anglers before our time. It was with these intentions that I made mention of the late Arthur Wood of Scotland, and the greased line technique that he popularized over a century ago.
Grease lining was a 1903 revelation that Wood stumbled upon one day while observing the behaviour of salmon and their disinterest to the deeply sunk fly.
Jennifer de Graaf photo.
Across the world, anglers actively used water-absorbing lines and heavily gauged hooks with the desire to fish their flies deep in the water column.
Mr. Wood soon perfected and popularized a revolutionary change. He learned that if he could coat the material of the line in a substance that would stay afloat, he could then swing his fly in a subsurface and somewhat drag-free presentation.
At the time, the best flotation materials were variations of grease – mucilin, lanolin, and animal fat were all thought to be suitable.
As I personally own and fish a silk line on my single-hand rod, it is in my experience that silk lines cast as seamlessly and effortless as the fly lines of today.
But maintenance can take its toll on the most patient of anglers. I know that for me, having to remove the line from the reel, dry it out overnight, restring it in the morning, grease it, apply felt, cotton, paper towel, stay busy until it dries, fish for four hours, and then have to do it all again… basically ensures only occasional use.
Waiting it out – Jennifer de Graaf photo.
Traditionally fly lines were made from hair, but as time went on line makers progressed to the addition of silk to increase the strength of the lines and to tone down excessive roughness. Three threads were loosely twisted together and each strand was then braided to form a fly line. Prior to this, line had only been twisted but it found itself liable to kink. The braid helped to prevent this problem.
Soon it was silk that dominated the market. It was superior to hair, ordinary linen lines, lines mixed with jute, or lines comprised of scrap silk from dresses and stockings.
Two types of silk were used: raw and boiled. Raw silk was that which had been spun by the worm, with the gum slowly discharging to hold the filaments together (much like a cocoon). Boiled silk, on the other hand, eliminated this gum thus losing around 30% of its weight and requiring additional material which in turn made it stronger.
Stringing up the silk – Jennifer de Graaf photo.
So Mr. Wood, innovative and experimental, coated these same lines with floating substance and, while always watching his line, maintained control of it to ensure a natural looking swing. When done right, the fly was presented to the fish broadside, its position managed through delicate control.
Wood was most recognized for the time he spent using this semi-natural presentation on his Cairnton beat on the River Dee. By using the water’s current, hydraulics and speed, he played the eddies and used flies shockingly sparse in attempts to imitate fish or other small creatures in distress. He has been credited for “inventing the mend” and his skill in line manipulation was unparalleled.
He preferred a small belly of downstream line to form just several feet in the leader, where it would pull slightly to assist the fly in hooking the fish.
Adrienne Comeau photo.
I specifically chose to feature this methodology in hopes that I might enlighten others not only to participate in its success, but also to learn more about its efficiency (found by way of reading).
Truthfully, I first learned of the greased line technique when I was a teenager looking to learn all I could on the sport. I had been told that to “grease line fish” was to fish a wet fly on a dry line, but there had been no more elaboration.
Years of guiding and conversing with other fishermen showed me that I was not alone with my confusion. In fact, there seemed to be a clear line between those anglers who were familiar with the intricacies of the greased line practise and those who weren’t – a line that teetered uncertainly on what I can only sum up to being age.
Diving into books, written explanations, diagrams and charts, I began to unfold the true definition of the grease line method and hoped to blur what seemed to be such a crisp gap between generations.
It was inevitable that I would eventually purchase the book that started it all…
Victor Cooper photo.
The idea of the original greased line fishing book was conceived in 1933 when the elderly A.H.E. Wood discussed his concepts with writer and angler, Jock Scott. Aging and armed with years of grease lining notes, diaries and records based upon his own trials and errors, Mr. Wood allowed Jock Scott to take the reins on a book that would impact the history of fly-fishing “how-to’s” for centuries to come.
The book was a success in its day, and long after Mr. Wood had perished the pages of Greased Line Fishing for Salmon lived on in the lives of Atlantic salmon anglers. What Mr. Wood likely didn’t expect was that this book would reach the west-coast of North America where an abundance of knowledge-hungry steelhead fishermen were looking to enhance their skills.
That particular era of angler was accustomed to finding their way around the pages of peers and elders, and their desire to learn sparked a reprint and revision in the 1980’s when the book was introduced by Bill McMillan, appropriately titled, Greased Line Fishing for Salmon (and Steelhead).
But as equipment changed, books became less popular and immediate results became the expected norm. The greased line practise gradually lost much of its following and a simplistic approach was adopted: sink it, cast it, swing it, step down, repeat.
So this year I brought some of the knowledge I’d learned with me up to British Columbia’s steelhead mecca, and tried to make Mr. Wood proud. When I would manage a fish, I’d release it in silence and take a moment to connect with this man I had never met.
That connection made the effort all the more worthwhile and soon it was less the fish I sought, and more so an invisible force that bonded me with the ghosts who were silently leading me to my catch.
My floating line drew scepticism in runs (particular those with depth) but I stayed persistent with my presentation. There was an occasional fish caught behind me by friends with heavy tips and large flies, but the differences in numbers was neither abundant nor important. What was significant however, was the interest the method piqued by those who had never witnessed such an approach.
Adrienne Comeau photo.
Scepticism isn’t new when it comes this topic. Wood’s grease lining book was at times said to be biased, as he rarely left his beat on the river Dee in Scotland; a river well suited to the technique he developed. Long stretches of flat gradient provide a relatively consistent current, whereas the rivers of the west coast are often comparatively steeper, resulting in a more dramatic change in water flows.
Wood and cane rods up to fifteen feet long were used, but overhead casts ensured the stoic water wasn’t disrupted. Double hand rods originated in the UK, but it wasn’t until years later that most of the casts we now know as ‘Spey casts’ were developed.
Fear of water disruption was a genuine concern at that time. Within my own reading lists, I have read reports by the likes of Frederick Hill, Richard Waddington and Arthur Wood who had all expressed certainty that fish held either in the surface of the water column, or amidst the rocky bottom of the river floor. Whether it be true or otherwise, belief that fish did not sit mid-column was enough of a caution to use care when frolicking about on the water’s surface.
Tracy Moore photo.
The technique was best-suited to low water conditions where the fly could provoke enough action from the fish to allow the angler to see the disturbance, and in turn be able to drop line into the water for a thorough hook set.
While I am years away from perfecting the technique, I began to choose traditional patterns, cast cross-stream (or slightly up or down), and then manipulate my floating line in such a way that the fly was suspended just below or subsurface on a slow swing.
Adrienne Comeau photo.
The goal is to bring the fly down and cross stream so as to avoid any of the drag that speeds the fly in an unnatural manner to the current.
As the fly is presented broadside, it allows the fish to see it better. Wood argued that in addition to this, the materials were able to move with more motion and that the hook had less resistance in the event that a fish put its mouth around it.
“There are, of course, all sorts of eddies and places where the fish lie, and all have to be fished differently, so as to present the fly to the fish at the angle at which it is best able to see, most likely to be tempted and not come short.
Avoid any unnatural drag at all costs. As there is little a fish does not see, the fly ought to behave naturally all the time, as an insect or other live creature would do in the water, and try to let the fly move with all the eddies it meets as will any living thing that is trying to move in the water with the stream and across.
If you swim across a river, you have to swim at an angle to the stream and make use of all the eddies; but if you have a thick rope tied to your waist which someone on shore was holding, you would soon be in trouble. The current would get hold of the rope and belly it downstream, then you’d have to struggle hard and face more upstream, and in the end get pulled down backwards. No living creature behaves in that way, and the fish will wonder what a dragging fly is, and, even if they go for it, it will probably be dragged out of their mouths — “fish coming short,” so called!”
He did not believe in short strikes and was firm in his stance that it was only by the fault of said angler when this would occur.
By using the rod tip as his main hook-setting tool, he rarely set the hook on fish, quite certain that he could get a better set if the current and fish did the work instead.
Rather than striking, he would hold his rod low in slow water and higher in faster water, to allow a small downstream belly several feet in front of the fly to catch the current and adhere to the fish’s mouth with natural pull.
Tracy Moore photo.
In the ever difficult situation where the fly was taken on the hang-down (the ‘dangle’ in the Spey world), he would hold his rod tip high and then drop it low into the water to allow any available line to be aided downstream by the current, and hopefully, into the fish’s maxillary.
Chapters on gear and water conditions expose themselves on the yellowing pages of my copy of Greased Line Fishing for Salmon, and diagrams help to piece it all together.
Photos of the large man clad in his dressy attire ignite a spark of curiosity in my mind. What was he like? What would he choose to fish today? Would he have changed his ways?
Page upon page glows with an admiration for his beloved greased line technique. His words so full of vigour and enthusiasm that they speed my fingers to lace my boots.
Is this a way of fishing that is slowly being forgotten?
Is it because it catches less of the fish today?
Or is it because it’s catching less of the fishermen from tomorrow?
There’s only one way to find out and it costs a library card, 226 pages, a day of reading time and a season of experimenting.
I promise that it is worth every single second.
~ April Vokey
I am the owner of a 50 inch plasma television that sits perched on a storage unit shelf in a cardboard box. At least I think it’s still there – I’ve never taken the damn thing out of its wrapping.
I’m just not a television girl and, honestly, up until I got married I vowed I would never own one. An old movie theatre is one of my favourite treats to indulge in and the internet pretty much serves all my other curiosity.
So when the time came to write a television series, I would be bold-faced lying if I said that I wasn’t intimidated through to my core. In fact, the last fishing television show I watched was Mark Pendlington on one of his first seasons (I’m aging myself here for you.)
Truthfully, the dull lodge promo was hurting my head, the bikini babes just made me want to starve myself, and the “fish porn’s” flashing images edited to loud music just didn’t seem so cool anymore – I casually chalked it up to me becoming a grumpy old fart who would rather read and let my mind create accompanying images instead.
A part of me contemplated researching other series; learning how a show should be orchestrated. But I was elbows deep in a book called Blue Ocean Strategy and couldn’t bring myself to muddy my mind with other people’s visions. Through my company, experience, and reading, I’d learned that the world of business was appropriately referred to as a red ocean; businesses fighting each other for the same market with cutthroat strategies involving clawing and scratching to achieve success.
When I was eighteen years old, I had mapped out where I wanted to be in this industry and I had deliberately walked around the blood red ocean to step peacefully and creatively into the clear blue waters of my very own sea. I wasn’t willing to step out of the tranquil blue – even when it came to television. I refrained from trying to follow the trail, comfortably paved as it may currently appear.
And so the work began. I had a vision, a message that I wanted to share, and this message was what drove me to the planning (while trying to plan a wedding at the same time.*) The show was to be based around our history, conservation, elders, tricky steelhead and Atlantic salmon… basically, everything I had been told would never succeed in the high impact, drama driven world of television today. So with eyes on the road, I shut out the naysayers and just kept writing. We began the BC shoot two days after my wedding* – eyelash extensions*, patient husband, and all. We were on a mission.
* Not recommended
I will never be able to thank VP Media House enough for their continued faith in me…
I’d partaken in the occasional series before and realized that the average amount of time allocated per episode is 3 days – hell, I’d even done a whole series once in seven. Television business is based on $$$ and I get that, I just didn’t know how I was supposed to get to everyone I needed to visit in that amount of time. We finished the ten part episodic series in just under 50 days and it took months and endless sessions of writing, recording, submitting, editing, and fighting the “powers that be” to maintain our message as best we could.
In the peak of fishing season, I had to not only read the history but also try to track down my interviewees and commit them to several hours off the water – not an easy task. Let alone having to sacrifice fishing time of my own to make interview appointments and keep my subjects comfortable enough to open up to me (not the sort of thing that can be done in mere minutes).
Much of our footage will likely never be shown and unfortunately some of our interviews had to be cut out entirely. Before commercials, we get less than 24 minutes of actual airplay and it was just impossible to fit the amount of footage we had into this slot.
I plan to post some behind the scenes on my blog and hope that you will enjoy learning about our incredible sport as much as I have. Thank you to everyone involved in this series and to all of you who helped make this possible by following these adventures.
VP Media cameraman (and 100% gentleman), Yoshi Aoki.
I simply had to visit the Heritage Park Museum in Terrace. The history here is amazing!
The old settlement was a hunting/fishing lodge from the early 1900’s. It’s believed to be the first fishing outfitter in the area. There’s even an old dance hall where women would travel from across the province to source out eligible bachelors!
The amount of work put into the homestead is astonishing.
Interviewing curator Kelsey Wiebe to learn more about the settlement.
Riverboats were a major part of Terrace’s economy.
The first store in 1912!
Imagine this driving through down these days!?
Kinda looks like my cabin on the Dean (pee tin included)!
Next we were off to visit with friend and long-time Terrace guide/resident, Noel Gyger.
Noel’s home is like a fishing museum. Books, albums, photos, videos, charts and graphs… Noel has been documenting fishing in the area for decades! Check out his report here.
Wondering what April is up to these days? Visit www.aprilvokey.com for more stories like this…
As previously published in Fly Fusion magazine.
Who did I think I was kidding?
My forehead rested heavily atop my hands; the cool river water from my stripping fingers helped to ease my heated discouragement.
My line slacked and bellied into my legs until the river’s current caught hold and pulled it taut on either side of my obstruction. It reshaped the flow into a broken ‘v’.
I stood in the middle of it all – fly hooked securely into a tall tree limb on the bank behind me, line rubbing against my legs like a florescent, unwelcome house cat.
The single-hand rod lay deceitful and light in my palm. For a moment I was tempted to donate it in shards to the rock bed beneath me.
Yes, I was frustrated.
The wind routed through the valley in one consistent gust and my lack of skill casting off my left shoulder had me ducking in an attempt to avoid contact. How absolutely embarrassing.
Ugh. One of those days. Alyssa Lloyd photo.
The cast finds its muscle memory, making itself comfortable in the bushes yet again – not the sort of habits I was looking to build.
My head remains stationary, eyes scanning from left to right beneath polarized sunglasses.
No laughing spectators. I unclench my jaw – we’ve all been there.
I was on a mission to prove a point, to prove a theory, to prove that tradition could be revived within my own angling practices. I’d committed to spending the day attempting a ‘greaseline’ presentation on said river with the use of a nine foot rod, delicate tapered fly line and lengthy, accurate cast.
But who did I think I was kidding? It was all I could do not to wish for my double handed rod, condensed shooting heads, and casts that didn’t matter to the non-judgmental current or the extremely discriminate wind.
Wind? Who cares? Right…
The cool water on my brow lightens the red in my cheeks and the situation broadens its spectrum.
Undeniably, long rods, short lines, heavy tips and large flies landed fish at my feet but I couldn’t help to feel as though I was robbing myself of specific methodology that required more skill – patience at least – and I was failing miserably at each of these right now.
It began close to three years ago when deeply sunk flies lost a great part of their appeal to me. The “out of sight” concept threw me into an “out of mind” state and I slowly lost the tranquility of silence in my head upon the mid-swing submergence of my fly.
I needed more – needed to see more.
Without this, too much noise emerged during a mindless, unfocused swing.
Dry flies were the obvious solution but upon facing an entire season of disinterested steelhead, my own enthusiasm was inevitably turned back towards my trusted wet flies. As compromise might suggest, I hoped a subsurface presentation would suffice to satisfy, so I purchased an old reprint of Greaseline Fishing for Salmon by Jock Scott (as per A.H.E. Wood).
The term greaselining is a method introduced in the early 20th century by the late Arthur Wood of Scotland. Silk lines and deeply sunk flies were a standard practise by anglers worldwide but it was Wood who popularized the greasing of lines with Mucilin, lanolin (or a grease substance of choice), resulting in a subsurface and somewhat drag-free presentation of the swung fly.
Wood sought to fish his Cairnton beat on the River Dee with a semi-natural presentation. By using the water’s current, hydraulics and speed, he played the eddies and used flies shockingly sparse in attempts to imitate fish or other small creatures in distress.
His casts varied but often angled on 90 degrees where he then mended regularly to ensure his fly presented itself broadside and at the same speed of the current. Wood cast a long line, the fly swinging slowly while maintaining a semi-natural drift. Low and clear water often meant difficult fishing, as increased water temperatures and changes in fish behaviour meant that the sunk fly could not be fished as efficiently as those on one that had been greased (a floating line by today’s standard).
As I turned each page with reignited fervour, the spine of my book arched in flexible delight; relieving its cramps from prolonged hibernation.
My right hand gradually gripped fewer pages and I dreaded the moment I would reach Wood’s conclusion – for he was gone and I had no where else to find him.
As Scott came to the final sentence of his masterpiece, I heard him clearly – “Very, very rarely have I known an angler who refused to succumb to the temptations of the greased line!”
And he was right. I was enamoured with the lost words of the art – a book so available yet so unknown amongst most of my peers in this sport.
But a subject with such facets would be poorly represented by merely one sportsman. Given the century of growth that the 1903 greaselining birthing entailed, it was only inevitable that revisions would find their way laced through the margins.
I turned to the likes of Hill, Waddington, Kelson, Haig-Brown, Wulff and just about anyone else passed whose literature sat dusty on the shelf.
The philosophies, techniques, theories, prophecies, equipment, innovations, stories and passions wove themselves into my heart and mind.
Late nights were spent reading – early mornings spent practising what I had learned. Mentored through their words, I felt a connection with them and a revitalized flame in my journey as a young angler.
I would catch myself holding my breath through almost an entire chapter, other times having to put the book down to regain composure. My stomach tensed with realization that these books had been here for me from the start – what had taken me so long?
The value I placed on the the old guard began to expand as quickly as my reading list, and upon reaching out to a few of its select gentlemen (and one special lady), I was kindly received and warmly engaged. Their support was genuine but their underlying message to me was clear – “Your generation doesn’t read books…” They would trail off as though lost at the concept.
Adrienne Comeau photo.
I couldn’t tell them that they were wrong – for the most part, I had no reason to believe that they were.
So dive to the depths of knowledge I did, and in tribute to the education they offered me, here I now stood red-faced and statued in the water of a steelhead run where there was sure to be a fish.
The longline presentation of my single hand rod was putting me to the test. The wind threw my backcast for the long grass to catch eagerly – an uninvited game of catch and I was the ‘piggy in the middle’.
I was desperate for the shallow backcast of a short line on my double handed rod and was kidding no one other than myself. The double handed fly rod (commonly referred to as a Spey rod), has been around for several hundred years before my time. Though not originally from North America, double handers were in fact deemed traditional and I cursed myself for leaving mine behind. Even Mr. Wood himself would have asked me what in the world I was doing.
As obsessions tend to do, soon I’d committed to writing a book on the sport and history of fly-fishing as it migrated and evolved from the UK to the west coast of North America.
My workload exploded – I had just taken on the most ambitious project of my life.
Interviews, gear comparisons, copious reading, travel and experimentation all consumed my time and soon I was analyzing temperature changes, oxygen content, aquatic life cycles, fly size and just about every other technicality that I had never actually needed before to catch fish. It was only natural to question why I was bothering at all – fishing for me was always based around fun and awareness. Beyond that, was all of this just overthinking? Were the ghosts of the past leading me by way of disproven theories and solely emotional connection?
But then the fish came. Upon applying my findings from the books that I’d read, my fishing productivity increased and I finally had some understanding of why!
Today, every book that I read inspires me to further preserve some sense of our history within this sport.
My studies are showing that remarkably fewer books are being read by young people. While that argument is offset with theories that we are actually reading more (only by way of the internet and tablets) when it comes to fly-fishing, much of this knowledge is still only found over a crackling campfire or amidst the yellowing pages of a good old-fashioned book.
Adrienne Comeau photo.
Several years ago, I agreed to take on this column with Fly Fusion. The agreement was that I would inspire the reader and possibly evoke an excitement for them/you to get outdoors.
Naturally, I still aspire to do exactly this but I am a thirty one year old woman – excitement and inspiration can’t help but sparkle in my eyes. So what would it hurt to add an element of ‘yesterday’ into our rapidly transitioning ‘tomorrow’ – time taken to help us understand more about a sport that draws us closely together? For the next while, this column will be taking a soft turn on a backtracking road and I hope that I may share my reading list with you here as a preview to your own library.
True, evolution exists only with progression and there are no rights or wrongs – but there is invaluable information that seems to dim over time. It would be a shame to smother a flame that once gleamed so bright as to light a whole village.
Our community today thrives in the light of immediacy, but there is not one of us who can deny the warmth or appreciation for the slow burn of a campfire glow – sometimes flames are exactly what is needed to bring people back together.
Thank you for reading,
***Note – April has moved her more personal blog entries to our partner site www.aprilvokey.com/blog – feel free to have a look!
Last week at our Patagonia meeting, we were informed that Patagonia was having a hard time getting the last 10,000 signatures for an extremely serious proposal to crack down on deadbeat dams.
They informed us that they had 30,000 online signatures & 10,000 written ones and that if we could just get 10,000 more, we could fight this!
I couldn’t help but volunteer you. I am asking (begging) that you take all of ten seconds to sign this online petition so we may move forward. If you could share and sign until we hit that 40,000 mark, it would just prove that, together with social media, we can make a serious impact.
Please help – it’s so little to do so much!
Peace and love, April. xo
The first Spey line that I ever purchased came packaged in a box as thick as an encyclopedia.
Like a book cover designed to culminate my curiosity until relief by purchase, the word “Spey” prominently highlighted the box’s crisp edge and sold me on the promise of its contents.
Encyclopaedic is not far off from what I held in my hands.
Rich with knowledge and the possibility of growth, the comparisons were evident; the difference being of course that with an encyclopedia, I had an idea of where to start.
At the time I had just become a proud owner of the easiest Spey line to cast on the market; the Windcutter at fifty-five feet long.
The kit included the mid-belly line (already fused to an integrated running line) and a series of fifteen foot sink tips in a compact wallet with a cardboard cut-out to explain the different sink rates.
As a new caster, my casting stroke was unsightly and I imitated a flailing backwoodsman while chopping liquid wood with a piece of graphite. It was horrifying.
It was soon thereafter that the popularized Skagit shooting head hit the scene and nothing was ever the same.
Half the length of the Windcutter, the short condensed head allowed anglers the option of turning over heavy sink tips and large flies with ease, especially in areas with limited back-casting space.
This particular line was developed in the Pacific Northwest and was specifically made to be cast with a tip on its thickly tapered end to avoid having its anchor ripped from the water’s surface before allowing the rod to completely load.
As a general rule, a sink tip should not be longer than the rod being fished, making most tips somewhere between eleven to fifteen feet long.
The Skagit line, while deemed the more simple of the line categories to cast, is one that is a blessing to many of us who guide. New casters easily adapt to the stroke of the short line and are able to keep their time on the water more efficient as their fly remains in the water and out of the bushes behind them.
With this sudden casting aid, I dusted off my old lead-core lines and began to make my own cost efficient systems. I was not alone in my ventures…
Shops were soon selling tips in various sink rates/lengths in either a home-made tungsten fashion (labeled as T7, T11 or T14) as well as the RIO pre-made tip systems (labeled as Type 3, Type 6 or Type 8).
To many customers, the differentiation between the two was unclear. For some, it was the simple matter that both systems were named with words that began with the letter ’T’. For others, it was expressed confusion regarding each’s relation to depth and density.
Enter the MOW tip, T17 and fused looped tungsten systems and we had widespread befuddlement.
With four tip systems available through RIO, the confusion only seems to grow within our clientele. While the systems are rather self-explanatory to those who use them regularly, to some customers, this gave them the impression that they were outdated; intimidation set in.
While many of our guests come from overseas equipped with a variety of Poly or VersiLeaders, we are left to explain that as a standard rule of thumb, such leaders are best cast on a Scandi (or longer line) due to the inefficient energy transfer from the diameter difference between the thick front taper of the Skagit line and the butt of the aforementioned leaders.
With that in mind, I had thought that a clear explanation of the very basics of Skagit sink tips would be a fresh change to this column.
I reached out to Simon Gawesworth of RIO to clarify the mystification and have simplified it here for you in hopes that it may make your time on the water carefree.
Option 1 – 15 Foot ‘Type’ Tips
The original fifteen foot tips, come with a color coded welded loop that indicate the tips’ density (or in this case, sink rate) and the weight of the rod/line weight it should be used on. One will note that the heaviest tip (type 8) is thinner than the lightest tip (type 3), thus explaining how the system works.
Such tips are tapered and allow for a much better presentation than their level tungsten relatives.
They come in the following:
- Intermediate (1.5 to 2 inches per second)
- Type 3/Yellow (3 to 4 inches per second)
- Type 6/Grey (6 to 7 inches per second)
- Type 8/Green (8 to 9 inches per second)
To ensure consistency as a balanced outfit, each tip is given a standard weight (measured in grains) per weight class of rod.
For example, all #10 weight tips weigh 150 grains regardless of which of the above ‘types’ they are, so as to allow the angler the option of changing their tip density (depth) without losing the line weight necessary to load the rod efficiently.
(#8 = 109 grains, #9 = 129 grains, #10 = 150 grains, #11 = 166 grains).
Option 2 – 10 Foot ‘Type’ Tips
These are simply a shorter version of the fifteen foot tips. They are ideal for shorter rods, tight casting situations or smaller rivers. The density options are the same as the fifteen foot tips listed above.
Option 3 – Level ’T’ (stands for tungsten) Tips
These tips are level (non-tapered), fast sinking and designed to be cut to a desired length. Their lack of taper delivers them with a “punch” and large flies roll over without much effort from the caster.
Quite opposite to the density of the ‘Type’ tips above, these lines sink as per the amount of grain weight they have per foot. In the case of ’T’ tips, this equates to the amount of tungsten impregnated into each foot of the tip (example, T8 weighs eight grains per foot).
- T8/White (6 to 7 inches per second)
- T11/Green (7 to 8 inches per second)
- T14/Blue (8 to 9 inches per second)
- T17/Black (9 to 10 inches per second)
- T20/none (+10 inches per second)
Option 4 – MOW Tips (stands for McCune, Ward and O’Donnell)
Available in ten and twelve foot lengths, the Mow tips come in “light”, “medium”, “heavy” and “extra heavy” ratings. They are of the same tungsten material as the ’T’ tips and translate to:
Light = T8/White
Medium = T11/Green
Heavy = T14/Blue
Extra Heavy = T17/Gray
So what’s the difference between the MOW and the ’T’ tips you ask?
There are times when an angler is looking to specifically sink their fly into pocket water or behind rocks/structure without the use of a full tip. At times, just a mere two feet of sinking line is required to get the necessary presentation to catch a fish.
The dilemma here is that a two foot sink tip wouldn’t allow the short compact anatomy of a Skagit line to anchor in the water without “popping” itself from its loading sweet-spot.
The MOW tips feature six different tips with differing lengths of sinking sections seamlessly fused to a floating line. Each of the below blended tips is available in the light, medium, heavy or extra heavy as mentioned above.
10 ft Floating
7.5 ft Float/2.5 ft Sink
5 ft Float/5 ft Sink
2.5 ft Float/7.5 ft Sink
10 ft Sink
12 ft Sink
When trying to determine whether your rod will cast best with a light, medium, heavy or extra heavy class, the RIO recommendations are that:
Light tips are ideal for Skagit lines of 475 grains and lighter
Medium tips are ideal for Skagit lines between 475 and 575 grains
Heavy tips are ideal for Skagit lines between 575 and 700 grains
Extra Heavy tips are ideal for Skagit lines heavier than 700 grains or for when large heavy flies are used.
Personally, even after gaining an understanding of the above explanation, I still find myself favouring the same sink tip I once did as a bright-eyed Spey hopeful; a 15 foot, faded grey to white type 6 fifteen foot tip (now slowly nipped down to about 13 feet).
Fishing it differently depending on the situation at hand, there are times where I high-stick it, times where I dump slack into it, times where I walk it through a seam with side-drifted tension and the frequent occasion where I just let the pushy current fondle it as it sees fit.
Like all things casting, mathematics and physics are the sole components of the efficiency of proper rod load. Both are equally as essential for comprehension of how objects of various densities/materials sink with varying current speeds or hydraulics.
Truthfully, one could spend a lifetime trying to analyze every factor that plays a role in a presentation that they feel the fish prefers to see… or one could find something that simply works for them and just go fishing.
Several years ago I spoke with steelhead expert/biologist Bill McMillan while collecting data for a column I was writing. I recently stumbled upon the article in my folders and thought it would be worthwhile to share…
Five steelhead facts worth knowing:
1) It is no secret in the world of steelhead fishing that there are two distinct runs of steelhead. Appropriately termed “winter-run” and “summer-run” steelhead, it is a fair assumption that winter-run fish enter the freshwater system during the winter months, while summer-runs begin their migration earlier in the year during the spring and summer.
Beginning as early as November and continuing through May, winter-run fish enter the system at a relatively developed stage of maturation. Their bellies are robust; their time scarce and their attention concentrated.
Upon entering freshwater and undergoing the transition from saltwater to freshwater, winter-run fish have a limited time to spawn before their reproductive systems are ripe with sperm and eggs.
Conversely, summer-run fish begin to venture into freshwater as early as April, entering in abundance through the warmer months before beginning to trickle off by November.
Sexual maturation in these summer fish differs substantially from their winter-run counterparts. Reproductive organs in summer-run steelhead do not begin to mature until after their transition from salt to freshwater. Historically harvested, it is documented that the entrails of retained steelhead were not only immature, they were near barren.
Mild weather and comfortable water temperatures increase the metabolisms of summer-run steelhead and their aggression is anything but subtle. These differences make summer-run fish a sought after quarry for many angling enthusiasts.
Despite the differences in their migration timing, both winter and summer-run fish typically spawn in the spring/early summer time frame.
2) Naturally, given the above data, timing is a vital factor of a steelhead’s migration pattern.
Maturation inevitably drives both summer and winter fish towards a schedule – one which is presumably more lax than the other.
Winter fish, swollen and up against Mother nature’s clock, primarily dominate tributaries within 100 miles of the ocean. Summer fish on the other hand can spend up to a year in freshwater, historically traveling as far as 800 miles away from the salt. Both races of fish have been known to survive up to one year in freshwater without feeding in abundance.
Battling long journeys and major obstacles, summer-runs often require the extra time allowance to ensure a punctual arrival to their spawning beds. Fish venturing further inland must factor the increased number of barriers into their journey so that they are able to time their travels accordingly.
McMillan made note of a stream paralleling that of an obstacle course – complete with fourteen waterfalls and other contributing hindrances.
When I asked him how these fish know? His response was, “genetics”.
It makes me wonder how well our hatchery fish will fare in the ‘time management’ category.
3) Steelhead have otoliths or “earstones” in their head between the ears and behind the fleshy part of their brain.
An otolith is solidified calcium carbonate that serves as part of the hearing and balance system in fish. This calcium carbonate is primarily derived from water and, as its host grows older, new calcium carbonate crystals form allowing trace elements of water to bind with the otolith (causing layers to develop).
All of this composition and build-up play a very important role for biologists.
From the otolith, a scientist is able to determine the age of the fish and the properties of water bodies that fish have previously occupied. In addition to being able to determine the specifics of the river system each fish has visited, the otolith plays a key role is showing how long a fish spent in both fresh and salt water. It also identifies individuals who’ve returned to freshwater to spawn more than once.
While scales also tell biologists specifics about fish age (they have rings on them similar to trees), scales can become damaged or misconfigured during spawning migration. Scales also have a tendency to reabsorb during times of weakened or decreased energy levels, thus securing analysis of the otolith as an extremely significant research tool.
4) As steelhead are anadromous rainbow trout, their spawning habits are inevitably very similar. A unique fact unknown to many is that rainbow trout have the ability to fertilize steelhead eggs and vice versa.
John McMillan (Bill’s son) is a biologist who is currently conducting a major study on such data. He specifically takes note of the amount of lipid body fat within individual fish. An interesting find is that fish who are already healthy and not in desperate need to gain body mass are more likely to remain in the freshwater, avoiding the perils of an ocean commute entirely and indefinitely.
Comparatively, a fish low in body fat is much more likely to seek saltwater where it will feed heavily until it has reached a substantial size.
High body fat content is often related to water temperatures, and cold water is a contributing factor to finding fish with higher lipid reserves.
The further down a river system one will venture, the warmer the water becomes and these fish become much more inclined to partake in anadromy (return to the ocean) as a result of lower body fat reserves.
Research has shown that male juvenile steelhead (often assumed to be resident rainbows) have a higher inclination to remain in freshwater, as they have less demand to gain bulk than the egg-bearing females. In addition to the advantages of security and fertile stream-beds, these male fish are able to spawn with the large ocean-run females and are in fact even more efficient than many of their anadromous counterparts in that they often spawn multiple times with multiple females.
5) Steelhead are a species with an adaptivity beyond our comprehension. It is their wide array of life history choices that explain why they have been such a successful species through the years. Seeming to break all of the rules in areas of consistency, steelhead in some parts of Russia have been documented to spawn as many as ten times!
Regardless it is undeniable that, try as these fish might, their survival rate is increasingly plummeting.
Smolt to adult return rates (SAR) historically varied between 10-20%. Now, present day data shows an alarming decrease with return rates as low as 1-2% (and sometimes even lower).
Equally as disconcerting is the misconception that all steelhead return to spawn again throughout their life cycle.
While it is true that a great number of steelhead do not decay, as the Pacific Salmon do upon spawning, it is an incorrect assumption that all steelhead survive their migration route after leaving freshwater.
Contrary to public belief, the majority of post-spawned steelhead do indeed perish as they attempt a migration back to the ocean.
Weak, spent, battled and debilitated, steelhead bear the marks of exhaustion brought on by competing fish, angling pressure, reverse osmotic chemistry and biological fatigue. Their poor condition makes obstruction all the more lethal.
Male fish have a very low respawn rate as they eject sperm multiple times while spawning, resulting in severe fatigue. Females only drop eggs once, thus slightly increasing their likelihood of survival.
Additionally, the respawn rate is lower on summer-run fish as they spend so much time in the system without food and travel longer distances than winter fish.
Historically, the percentage of respawners in the northern and southern steelhead ranges fared higher than that of the central basins. In places such as Kamchatka, steelhead reached respawn rates as high as 70%, and southern ranges (like northern California) once averaged between 25-60%.
Presently, the average return spawning rate finds itself somewhere between 5-20% – with central regions like the upper Columbia tributaries ranging between 1-2% (largely in part due to the excessive damming).
All in all, it makes me wonder about my own contribution to the decreasing numbers of our steelhead stocks. Data indicates that in some systems steelhead are caught an average of 4 times during their commute (twice on their way up and twice on their way down). If the catch & release mortality rate ranges from 3-10% on a steelhead caught once, is it a relatively fair assumption that a quadruple capture might raise the mortality rate to 12-40%?
Such numbers cannot help but demand the attention of those who will listen. It’s a scary thought for a wild steelhead advocate, isn’t it?
Thanks for reading!
Co-hosted by April Vokey and Adrienne Comeau
These fish are some of the largest in British-Columbia and April & Adrienne will also be offering Spey casting lessons, fly tying courses and hearty laughs. We have teamed up with the Skeena Spey Lodge (click on the logo above to visit their website) and their gorgeous accommodations located directly on the river.
Dates: September 14th – 20th 2014
Rate: $5200 CND (plus tax)
Includes 5 days of guided fishing, all meals and 6 nights accommodation.
Guests also have the option of fishing Sunday afternoon after arrival.
The famous American author/angler Zane Grey described New Zealand as an “Angler’s Eldorado”. He was right on the mark – especially when you look at the trout fishery.
April Vokey Seven Night Hosted Fly Fishing Package
Includes 7 nights of 5 star accommodation, all meals (i.e. a three course dinner, cooked English breakfast, picnic lunch daily), use of our fly fishing equipment and 6 days of expert guiding with one of our senior fly fishing guides.
o Twin share accommodation & share guide NZ $6,400 per person
o Single occupancy accommodation & sole use of guide NZ $9,995
What is not included: Alcohol, fishing licences, airport transfers, helicopter flights (All available at ORL)
Deposit required 50% of package tariff, the remainder of the package must be paid a minimum of 90 days prior to arrival date @ ORL
Arrival date: 30 November 2014
Departure date: 7 December 2014
Guided fishing: 6 days – December 1 – 6
For more information contact Fly Gal Ventures at 1-888-359-4259 or email@example.com