Every successful angler has his or her own methodology, their respectful approach to fishing for salmon. I first picked up term “playbook” from Antti Pirinen when interviewing him for my book ”Top Salmon Flies - stories and fly patterns from great anglers”. All the other anglers I interviewed in the book had their own playbooks too. Some acknowledged it better than others. This article is based on the book interviews and my personal experience.
Wikipedia defines “playbook” by referring to American football: In American football a play is a close to the ground "plan of action" or "strategy" used to move the ball down the field. A play begins at either the snap from the center or at kickoff. Most commonly plays occur at the snap during a down. These plays range from basic to very intricate. Football players keep a record of these plays in their playbook. Basically it’s a game plan preparing you for different scenarios. In salmon fishing the playbook consists of three elements: 1) overall fishing strategy; 2) fly choices and fishing techniques; and 3) reading the salmon’s reactions and learning from the opponent.
Overall fishing strategy
In all ball sports we can rely on our strengths, play against the weaknesses of the opponent and use the element of surprise. We’re always stuck with the surrounding conditions. If we’re getting heavy rains on the game day, we just need to face the elements and adapt to the existing conditions. Maybe we can get the conditions working in our favor. The salmon for sure is going to stay as an opponent that has the mental advantage on us. But fishing with a well executed playbook can increase the odds on our favor.
In salmon fishing we should have an overall game plan when entering the river. What kind of conditions are we about to face? Are we fishing in early season high water conditions with a limited number of fish (and anglers), or are we going to spend the week in the middle of high season fishing in highly crowded public water? Three factors play a major role in setting up the game plan-- the water level (and temperature), what kind of runs of salmon are happening, and how many other anglers are fishing the same waters with us. In every angler’s dream the river is flooded with salmon eager to bite the fly, and we have the whole river to ourselves. The reality is almost always something else.
If I enter a new river that I haven’t fished before, my first goal should be to cover as much water as possible. Here’s why: Going through several pools gives you an overall idea of the river and helps you plan the fishing for the following days. You can do some of the preliminary work with satellite maps, but the problem is that those satellite images represent one given water level. The actual conditions on the river might be completely different, changing the fishing of the pools completely.
If you start to see frequently jumping or splashing fish in some pool, it might be a good idea to stop for a moment. I like the basic principle that for example Antti Guttorm and Anders Neteland use when they are starting to fish a pool that they like or are fairly sure is holding salmon. (This principle is explained in the book as well) This approach works well on crowded rivers where you might find just a pool or two without other anglers. Antti and Anders follow the basic rule, starting from the top and working their way down to the bottom. Make your first go through the pool as subtle as you can with a floating line and light fly. Cast across and make the fly swim fast. You’ll have the element of surprise when the fish doesn’t see you and doesn’t hear water being splashed around the pool. Make the first go rather quick, and let the pool rest for a few minutes. If nothing happens, switch to a weighted fly and/or line and work the pool again. The last resort, many times a successful one, is to go deep. Switch to skagit line and a weighted fly and fish slowly close to the bottom. With this kind of approach you can keep the pool under minimum pressure and you’re most likely to get a hook up. In Iceland this approach is finessed to a way of fishing where they fish the pools with extremely small flies first. This subtle approach has resulted in higher catches. They’re now able to catch more fish in the same pool than in previous years when they started hammering the pool first with tungsten Snaeldas and similar type of flies.
Early season high water conditions require a different approach. The number of fish in the river can be low and, due to high water, your fishing limited to a few pools. Then it’s a waiting game. Go through the pool every now and then and hope that a fresh chromer has entered the pool without you being able to see it.
Fishing in a private pool requires a team effort working with the playbook. The first rule should be that you agree not to overburden the pool at any time. Casting one fly after another into the pool is hardly ever the winning strategy. Sure, this depends on the type of pool and number of fish. But you need to have ridiculous numbers of fish running through the pool for a six-angler massive simultaneous attack to be the most productive approach. Work as a team and apply the same principles you would when fishing alone. Start light, work your way down and remember to give the pool a good rest between every run through. If you’re fishing with strangers in a highly pressured private pool, your best chances to catch a salmon rely on doing things completely different. If all the other anglers are using floating lines and big flies, you might need to go deep with a small fly.
The most important strategy of the playbook is simply that you have one. You can just be casting a fly into the water or you can have an actual intention to catch a salmon. There’s a big difference between these two. Losers let it happen, and winners make it happen. It’s not a coincidence that some anglers catch more fish than others. Try to think two steps ahead all the time.
Fly choices and fishing techniques
I believe that the most successful anglers have just a handful of fly patterns they actually catch salmon with. These patterns have gained the trust of the anglers, and, more importantly, the anglers know how to fish with them. There’s no point in having the same fox haired tube in 59 different color combinations in your fly box. It’s like changing the color of the laces in your basketball shoes and thinking that it will result in you jumping higher.
Successful salmon angling is so much more than fishing with the regular wet fly and downstream swing. My advice is that you don’t start to fill your fly boxes with hundreds of different patterns before you know how they should be used. Go and have a look in your fly boxes now. If you find 4 boxes filled with regular double-hook hair wings, what are you going to do when you need to fish deep or how can you fish above the surface? Build your fly selection so that you can fish with them in all conditions and with several different fishing methods.
Do fly patterns matter? Sure they do, but you need to have the general idea of how and when to fish with them. Some fly patterns are easier than others. You just need to have them riding some way in the water column and you have a chance to catch fish. Others work with rather specific fishing techniques.
Limit your fly selection to a few patterns for every fishing situation. Have a couple of regular double-hook hair wings for situations where swinging downstream is the best option. Vary the few flies in three sizes and colors for sunny and cloudy conditions. Have a few light tubes for the same kind of situations. Then have some weighted flies, small and big ones. Almost always this means tubes since it’s easier to add coneheads or weight-bodies on them. Have the weighted tubes in a few different sizes as well. Then the heavy s**t. You can use the same flies as before but just with t-tips or grain lines to go really deep. But I like to have a few really heavy ones in the box also for a dead-drift presentation. And don’t forget hitches and dries. They’re fun to fish with, but from time to time they work better than anything fished beneath the surface.
An example all-round fly collection could look like this:
Hairwings for the regular swinging approach
Cascade sizes 4,6,8
Green Butt sizes 6,8,10
Olive Sarvijaakko sizes 4,6,8
Weighted flies fished with the swing
Heavy weights for down’n’dirty or dead-drift approach
I would just add a Sunday Shadow in this, which is a great searching pattern, and would happily fish with this or similar assortment always anywhere in the world.
Learning from the opponent
Catching salmon builds the knowledge base and the basis of our playbook. But what kind of information does catching salmon gives us? Any single event can be just pure luck, but when it happens dozens of times, there’s something we can start to rely on. To build your playbook you need go down the memory lane and try to figure out what have been the key reasons for your catches. Has it been the fly, the way it has been fished, or a combination of these both? In any case, we can only have best guesses. Nothing is, nor will be, sure in salmon fishing.
Learning from the reactions of the salmon is the most difficult part of developing your personal playbook. You need to get hundreds of rejections on well presented flies to get the hang of what might trigger the salmon actually to eat the fly. This is where the role of experience comes into play. Any angler can get rolls, whirls and nibbles on their flies, but the most successful anglers know what to do to actually get solid hook ups after salmon express gentle interests in the fly.
Different reactions need a different response. I think the easiest is the scenario where you know that there’s fish in the pool or even see them, but you can’t get them to bite anything. The only option left is to go really deep and get the fly in front of the fish. A salmon is just a fish, and in most cases can’t resist a lively looking bait swimming just past his face. The more difficult part of the game is the times when you’re getting some reactions from the fish but they’re not actually committing to the fly. In most cases the reactions can be seen only when we’re fishing with fly patterns and lines that swim close to or above the surface. If you haven’t seen the underwater footage from You Tube videos where salmon chase and bite the flies without the angler even realizing that something is happening, I encourage you to do so. It will help you to think differently.
The easiest example of a playbook approach can be explained when fishing with dry flies for salmon. Especially the bigger resident salmon tend to play with the dry fly without actually taking it properly. So you’re skating a dry fly in your favorite pool, and you see a big wave appearing behind the fly. The same thing happens on the next two casts and then all the activity stops. What do you do? Should you keep hammering that same spot for the next fifteen minutes or switch to something else? I would encourage you to do the latter. Try a much smaller dry fly or perhaps a hitch fly. The salmon showed its interest in a skating fly, so the hitch might be something he might actually take. If the salmon is a happy fish, he might show interest in the next four or five flies that you present to him and finally take one. But if the pool has been under heavy fishing pressure, you might have just the one shot to make it count. Happy fish like to play around, but the more careful (overfished) fish might realize that they’ve made a mistake by showing themselves on the surface, and you’re not likely to see them again. This time the next chapter in your playbook might include locating yourself below the fish and surprising him with a dead-drift presentation with a weighted fly. In overfished waters the fish might have a really small window of activity, and you need to shoot the goal when it happens.
Developing your personal playbook
Salmon fishing is a constant learning journey. The playbook isn’t written in one night, it develops over time. The starting part of writing the playbook is the most difficult one. There’s so much said about salmon fishing that it might seem an overwhelming job to filter that information to suit your purposes. My advice is that you listen and watch what other experienced anglers do. Watch especially carefully those ones who seem to have more than just one ace up their sleeves. And be careful of the self-made prophets who declare that there is only one truth out there.
Start building the playbook piece by piece. First try to learn where you can catch fish and what is the best approach for that specific pool. Has the pool been rested for some time and you’re seeing lot of fish there? Maybe after two passes through the pool you come to reconsider that the pool wasn’t so rested after all, and it’s time to try a completely new method or walk to another pool hoping for suitable conditions. It might be a good idea to actually limit the fly selection that you use and just try to use them the best way possible.
Try to transfer winning game plans from one river to another. In my favorite river and favorite pool I’m always catching the fish in the upper part of the pool when there are girls jumping. If I don’t see any fish, it usually means that they’re holding in the deeper water in the middle of the pool. Would the same strategy work on another river with a similar pool?
And most importantly, always stop for a moment and think what you are doing. If there are fish in the rivers and you’re not catching them, you need to do something differently. Maybe the salmon are just playing around with your flies and you’re not getting a single fish hooked. Then before presenting the same fly at them for the 800th time, think for a second and make the next cast count. Salmon is not a fish of a thousand casts. It’s a fish of a single cast. Start building your playbook and fine-tuning it over the course of the following seasons.