An adventure to catch a Spring salmon from a small river 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

Spring salmon can be found anywhere that the conditions and spawning grounds allow, and there are a few special places where these early fish can be caught in the smallest of streams. In this post, I’ll recount a tale of fly fishing for Atlantic salmon on a small river in northern Scotland. I’ll also provide some tips and recommendations for how to get the most fly fishing in small pools and rivers.

These places are generally far from the beaten track. Areas where nature is still firmly in charge and you’re more likely to bump into a few sheep or a herd of red deer than another fisher. The fish can be hard to find and the walking can be difficult too, but the rewards are mighty. The fish that inhabit the big wide pools of the more famous rivers are the same that are found in these little streams. It’s not a case of ‘little river, little fish’. These fish are just as big and just as angry and will push all of your skills to the limit. As you can tell, I’m a fully paid up convert to the game of chasing springers in wee streams. 

View of a small river from a distance, with a man walking downstream.

This April I found myself in a very fortunate position of being on one of the north of Scotland’s finest small rivers. Although this particular river is limited in its availability, there are a great number of lesser known small rivers that offer both accessibility and a range of prices to suit most fly fishers’ budgets.

Which rod is best for fly fishing in small pools and rivers?

As you can imagine for this type of fishing, everything has to be scaled down. The 14-15 foot rods usually used in the spring are unmanageable for the smaller rivers, yet you still need something with a decent amount of backbone to cope with a powerful salmon. My personal choice are the Loop 4 and 5 weight 7x Switch rods. The Loop 7 weight Switch is also a great choice when the conditions are a bit more extreme and the water is higher.

Man's hand holding Loop 7x fishing rod

I generally fish with 2 rods as the pools are small but there’s lots of them. Having two rods rigged ready to go lets me fish two different flies, quickly one after another. I can also minimise time spent changing flies and potentially getting distracted. This is purely a personal choice though, and most people will fish one rod, changing flies to suit.

What type of fly is best for fishing streams and small pools?

The general rule of thumb is that depth of the fly is more important than pattern when it comes to Spring salmon. However, when fly fishing in small pools and rivers, fly choice is a little more particular than on large rivers. A slightly smaller fly than usual will work more effectively in these smaller rivers than an overly large one, even in the colder water of Spring.

Perhaps it has to do with the lack of any real depth in these small rivers. Consider also the salmon’s limited vision and the fact that the viewing window is much smaller so the fish doesn’t see the fly coming a long way off. From my experience (and that of people much more knowledgeable than me who have shared their experience!) a small mobile fly which quickly comes into and out of sight is much more effective than a bigger one.

As for patterns, it’s best not to get too bogged down. Changing flies is the enemy of the early season salmon fisher! Park shrimp, black and yellow 1 inch copper tube and a dee monkey would all make a great choice. We can be confident that one of these patterns will tempt the fish if he’s at home!

My chosen kit for fly fishing in this small river

On this day, I rigged up my 7x 11 foot 4 weight (roughly translates to a 6/7 weight single hand rod) with a 6 weight Loop Evotec 105 line with an 8 foot straight monofilament leader and a small rusty shrimp tied on a brass bottle tube. I used the weight in the small tube to get to the desired depth and stop the fly skating.

On my 5 weight 7 x Switch I put up my 6 weight integrated tactical salmon line and a dee monkey long tailed fly. Again this wasn’t as big a fly as you might usually use in the spring, with a 3 inch wing instead of a 6-8 inch wing. Confident in my choice I strapped the rods on the van and headed off well up into the moor for a series of little pools that had been allocated to me for the morning’s fishing.

Top tips for fly fishing in small pools and rivers

Fly fishing in small pools and rivers requires a few changes on the usual tact. Here are a few strategies that help me adapt to small rivers:

  • Fish light, stay back and don’t be seen
  • Keep trying the pools and don’t give up. I fished diligently on the way up, working my little copper coloured fly through every inch of the pool
  • Casting fairly square, I’d change between a fairly quick figure of 8 retrieve and longer pulls
  • I’ve not often had much success on little rivers just letting the fly swing as you do on the bigger waters, I nearly always work the fly in some way which seems to yield much higher success rates
  • Fish top to bottom, working the flies and covering every inch.

So, how did I fare fly fishing in a small river?

A good friend once said to me, “springers are the easiest fish in the world to catch but the hardest to find”. This has become a bit of a mantra for me over the years. Springers in the early season are reluctant to stop for too long in one place. Often they pause only briefly as they pass through for the safety of open water. So in order to make the most of these brief windows of taking fish you have to keep going.

I was into the second last pool of the beat when the line stopped mid swing and the rod began bouncing to the slow tune of a fish. A big black tail and silver flank showed. There was no mistaking what was on the end of the line and after a slow start he was soon charging around the pool. Not a kamikaze display, but deliberate and powerful runs around the flow. This salmon was flexing her strength and using every ounce of her weight.

By the persistent head shaking I knew she was slightly hooked, but I put that thought to one side and enjoyed the moment of being connected to one of these special fish. While she recovered I took a few quick snaps. What a marvellous and majestic salmon!

An atlantic salmon caught with a Loop fly fishing rod next to it in the water.
The hard fought salmon in all her glory.

There may be months, even years between fish as special as this, and I for one never take it for granted. She was off with a powerful thrust of the tail which left me soaked and laughing, all alone in the middle of nowhere. Just the dog and I, and a brief encounter with a special fish.