Beyond Tradition: The Rise of Nymphing for Scottish Salmon

Aug 15, 2023 | Best Practice, Blog, Conservation, Equipment, Featured

“There’s something special about catching a salmon on a swung fly. There’s something special about catching a brown trout on a nymph. But it doesn’t feel very special catching salmon on a nymph – it’s almost too easy.” Stuart Paton, Canterland Ghillie

Article by Craig Somerville of the Castabroad Collective, for FishPal.

Nymphing for Salom

The Rise of Nymphing for Scottish Salmon

Salmon fishing in Scotland has always been a sport steeped in tradition, with anglers casting lines using tried-and-true methods passed down through generations. However, in recent years, a unique technique has been quietly gaining traction among dedicated anglers in Scotland – nymphing, aka ‘bugging’ for salmon. This unconventional approach challenges conventional wisdom and has the potential to revolutionise how we view salmon angling, but it comes at a cost, a warning, even. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the art of nymphing for salmon in Scotland with Stuart Paton, Ghillie of Canterland Fishings on the North Esk. This article is meant to start a conversation about this technique and we’d value your constructive comments. 

Decoding the technique: the whys and hows of nymphing for salmon in Scotland

Nymphing, typically associated with trout and grayling fishing, has found its way into salmon and sea trout angling circles. The reasons behind this are, as always, influences from fisheries further afield like Iceland and Ireland, and the cross-pollination of the disciplines anglers are exploring. This blog post provides a breakdown of the technique, offering explanations of the gear needed, the role of nymph patterns, and the specific considerations that make nymphing a promising technique for salmon. This article also addresses concerns about fish welfare and ethical fishing practices when fishing upstream nymphs.

Strategies and tactics: when and where to nymph for salmon

Timing and location are crucial when employing nymphing for salmon. Stuart explained to me that he likes to fish “the bugs” when the salmon fishing is challenging i.e., he’ll fish them in low river levels in pocket-waters. He gets the 11ft nymphing setup out to fish for trout in his pools, and as an almost expected bycatch, he’ll often hook salmon. 

He says “I’ve got mixed emotions about bugging – if I had five guys turn up here with bugging rods and no salmon rods, I’d be annoyed, but it is very effective and can be done right at the right time. When I go bugging for salmon, I go tight-line nymphing and I catch what I catch – I’m not specifically fishing for salmon. I’m trying to catch brown trout and sea trout – salmon are actually a bycatch. If conditions are hard and the fish are switched off, you’re presenting a fly from the bottom of the pool up. That’s why you can get right up next to the salmon.”

Nymphing for salmon techniques

Mastering the presentation: the art of proper nymph presentation

Mastering the presentation is key to successful nymphing for all river fish. With the weight of his two nymphs, Stuart does well-using bugs with a method that can only be described as thinking outside the box. The reason he doesn’t add extra weight to the line to get the flies down is that a few years ago he was shown the method by Munro Reid and Brian Pender, and he has the T-shirt to prove it. With careful consideration of best practice, and in order to save himself the loss of lots of gear to the riverbed’s crevasses, he found he could tempt all sorts of species with this technique.

Grayling bugging alone comes with endless historical nuance when it comes to a clash of opinions between salmon and grayling anglers. So to have a salmon angler being taught by like-minded salmon, trout and grayling anglers how to grayling fish, the results were exemplary. 

Able to cover all the species in his beat, using an 11ft nymphing rod with a closed case reel on it, Stuart explained his setup: The backing is attached to a Rio Euro Nymph Shorty line, which is then attached to a 30ft carp leader. This starts at 30lb and drops to 12lb as it tapers to a leader ring and 5-8ft of 6lb leader/nylon. Then there are two size 16’s jig hook nymphs, one on the point and one as a dropper, about 50cm above it. The fish are 9 times out of 10 hooked in the top lip and because he uses barbless hooks, they slide right out without damage.

The reason for a closed-cage reel is to stop any of the fine line from getting under the shoulder/rim of a half-caged reel which will inevitably be the loss of your fish, or just a frustrating day. Stuart stressed that the closed-cage reel was essential. Also, you could fish without the level (untapered) ‘Shorty’ fly line, but trying to get a fish in quickly for best practice is key, especially in low water conditions. The line offers friction in the water and slows the fish down dramatically in comparison to what it would be like without the fly line and straight onto nylon or the backing. The carp leader is ideal because you can get five of these for around the same cost as one Euro leader and they work just as well. By using a nymph rod you can feel everything that’s happening under the surface, rather than using an 11ft switch rod, which has too much backbone to feel everything. The flies tapping the gravel every so often are almost impossible to feel through a heavy rod, so being in touch with the flies, knowing what depth they are at, and reacting to a potential take is the key to success. You don’t want to be dragging along the bottom, you’ll lose endless gear, so being in touch with what’s happening is key.

“Nymphing is a delicate, fair, and welfare-centric way to fly fish for nearly all the game fish in our rivers.” 

Expert insights: learning from seasoned anglers

It is an obvious point of conversation, that using an 11ft nymphing rod with a method that is likely to catch not just trout and sea trout, but also grilse and salmon, is questionable for the welfare of salmon and other larger fish. I am inclined to agree with what Stuart says about this:

When I hook a salmon, I don’t care if I lose it, because I get the opportunity so often to get another one. I am very hard on my salmon during a fight to get them in and released with as little exhaustion as possible.The fish comes first, not my enjoyment. Anything under 5lb is lovely, anything over that, fish welfare comes first in my eyes. So I’m as hard as I can be on it without pulling the hooks out. At the same time, if it comes off, it comes off.”

So here we are drawing from the experiences of a seasoned angler who lately has successfully employed nymphing for all the fish species in his river, with best practice top of the priority list. 

“I landed a 12lb sealiced fish earlier this season a lot quicker than most of my clients would on a 14ft rod and a swung fly. I like to shed light on how to do it properly, and no it’s not throwing a skagit with T18 upstream and ripping; nymphing is a delicate, fair, and welfare-centric way to fly fish for nearly all the game fish in our rivers.

Balancing tradition and innovation: preserving the essence of fishing

As with any new technique, the balance between preserving tradition and embracing innovation is critical. We also need to address concerns about responsible angling practices and etiquette. A nymphing setup in the hands of the wrong person, or poorly taught person is deadly, and it can often be the case that people are seen to be fouling the fish. This is a hot topic for ‘Bugging for Salmon’ and a valid conversation to be had. 

Snagging fish and bugging are so regularly confused, and for good reason. It would be a mistake to illustrate in this article how using a bugging technique can be employed as a method to foul hook fish, but instead, means of best practice should always be offered. How Stuart likes to do it is explained here:

He starts at the bottom of a gravel run and fishes upstream, making sure there’s nobody on the far bank to avoid the opportunity of fishing into each other. He doesn’t like fishing a bedrock run, “you’ll lose your gear on the bedrock”, he says. By casting a maximum of 20ft at a time with a tuck cast, he essentially allows the nymphs to dive over the top of the line and plunge deeper, faster. He will segment the pool in front of him and fish each section with sometimes as many as six casts in different slevers of the pool. Stuart will then take one step upstream and repeat. Because this movement upstream is slow and gentle, you can end up right on top of the fish and Stuart claims to have seen a salmon take his nymphs under the rod tip, they were that close. 

Stuart has experimented with so many ideas, and he likes to use SKAFARS neon wax at the tippet ring as an indicator, not just for acknowledging the take, but to help him acknowledge how deep his flies are. So, quite obviously, and simply beautiful, as with many things fly fishing, if the leader Stuart has between the ring and the point fly is 6ft long, then he knows how deep his flies are as they ‘tick’ occasionally over the gravel below. If his leader is 8ft, then again he knows the flies are 8ft down, give or take, with a 45-degree angle where the line leads the flies downstream. 

If the flies are not getting down because of faster water, he’ll go up from 3mm beaded nymphs to 5mm beads. Leading the nymphs with the line is essential, and not swinging the flies – Stuart explains that the indicator should be in a dead drift but slightly slower than the surface current. This way you know that the flies are in the slower water beneath the faster surface and that your line is directly downstream of your flies. Another point is that if the strike indicator moves off its current track or lifts, it’s likely a fish. A good hookup will normally follow and as indicated before, 9/10 times in the top lip, as pictured. 

What works best with flies seems to be a myth, but Stuart has his favourites, as do many that employ bugging techniques, and the answer seems to be different amongst everyone I talk to. Stuart is more interested in what’s in the pool, it seems, rather than how many salmon he can get out of it.

“Nymphing is not necessarily a method to promote as a salmon fishing technique, however, it has a time and place for salmon. When a fly can’t be presented from upstream, down into a gorge, or below waterfalls, this is a great example of what can be done using an upstream cast. A great article is this one by Katka Švagrová in Iceland, she makes some great points.” link

Conclusion: embracing the future of salmon angling

In conclusion, nymphing for salmon brings a fresh and modern perspective to the world of Scottish fly fishing. This innovative technique challenges anglers to rethink their approach and adapt to changing conditions. With proper guidance and understanding, nymphing for salmon can be a game-changer that enhances both the angling experience and the conservation of fish populations and their habitats. Whether you’re a novice or an experienced angler, exploring the art of nymphing opens up new possibilities for engaging with Scotland’s magnificent rivers and their elusive salmon. 

However, and there’s a great big ‘but’, many anglers, including those that do it with best intentions, will see bugging for salmon as a risk, and the very best etiquette and observation of how one employs the method should be considered before stepping into the bottom of the pool to make a start. Embrace the future while honouring the past, be considerate of other anglers, and for goodness sake know how to play a fish into the bank fast, with light gear, ready for a swift and unblemished release. Watch as this evolving technique leaves its mark on the tradition-rich world of fly angling in Scotland, and saves the day on many a blank day otherwise. Be it a salmon, a sea trout, a grayling or a salmon, they’re all stunning creatures, and it is now apparent, they all like this method equally. 

Tight lines,
Craig Somerville  

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