Our Man In Canada
January 17th, 2000
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Greased Line Fishing


Paul Marriner

By Paul Marriner

Only the sky retained its colour as sunset robbed the spruce trees on the far bank of the Little Southwest Miramichi of their individuality. A fishless day was fading away as I stood on a shifting shingle bar in the middle of the river. Thirty yards farther on the placid tailwaters of the pool became agitated by a riffle. But I was more concerned with the swirling currents twenty feet downstream and the submerged rock they betrayed. Staring at the tranquil ease trapped between turbulent edges I felt a salmon's presence. Previous down and across casts from upstream had pulled the fly too quickly through the eddy so I cast straight out and mended line vigorously several times to bring the fly as slowly as possible into and out of the lie. On the second cast the size 6 Cosseboom took hold. The salmon was lost, but the lesson of its transient capture by the greased line method wasn't forgotten.

Cossboom Atlantic Salmon Fly

Today, 'greased line', identifies an angling technique. But this wasn't always true. During the early development of dry fly tactics for trout, practitioners kept fly and line floating by false casting to shed excess moisture. Someone soon realized that applying water repellent substances to the line would keep it up, hence - 'greased line.' Now, in the waning years of the nineteenth century, the essential tool was available for anglers like Percy Laming, one of the great British salmon fishers, to develop methods for catching salmon during summer conditions on a floating line/small fly.

Regardless, the term 'greased line fishing' is now associated with the style developed by A.H.E. Wood early in this century. For some thirty years his salmon fishing was largely confined to Cairnton on the Aberdeenshire Dee in the west of Scotland - although the genesis of the method was a chance discovery while angling in Ireland. More accurately, rediscovery, as the catalyst was catching several salmon by 'dibbling' a White Moth trout fly over their heads and then giving line on the take. This technique was centuries old but Wood was stimulated to modify and expand its application.

Wood wrote sparingly, leaving it largely to others to interpret his methods for popular consumption. Crawford Little, in The Great Salmon Beats, summed up the unfortunate result with, "And yet, what a host of misinterpretations it has been subjected to, time after time after time." However, Wood's words can be found. He was interviewed for the 1926 anthology, Fisherman's Pie, edited by W.A. Hunter, approved notes on the method for Hardy's 1926 catalogue, wrote a chapter for The Lonsdale Library volume, Salmon Fishing, issued in 1935, and left a great deal of correspondence. But these fragments would not become the bible. Particularly for post war anglers, the definitive text is Greased Line Fishing by Jock Scott (a pseudonym for Donald Rudd), first published circa 1936. Surprisingly, a modern edition from Frank Amato Publications is still in print.

Let's break from the gate by quoting from the latter, "The basic idea is to use the line as a float for, and controlling agent of, the fly; to suspend the fly just beneath the surface of the water, and to control its path in such a way that it swims diagonally down and across the stream, entirely free from the slightest pull on the line." More than anything else, it's those last nine words that have caused all the trouble. What's worse, they have frequently been condensed to read, 'without drag'. The phrase is nonsense. A fly swimming without pull from the line is heading downstream with the current and will shortly, how shortly depending on its weight, sink to the bottom. It must act under the pull of the line if it's to move across stream. A closer reading of what Wood says later almost clarifies the situation. He seemed to be saying that you must keep the line upstream of the fly.

Unfortunately there are so many contradictory statements in his correspondence that you wonder if he ever really did have a firm grip on what the fly was doing.

Why did Wood want to cast across stream with a floating line? Speculation is that he didn't like wading and wanted to use shorter than normal (at that time) single handed rods. A.J. Barry, a personal friend and correspondent, wrote in an appendix to The Floating Line for Salmon and Sea Trout by Anthony Crossley, "You will notice the reason why he never fished with a double-handed rod, which was simply that he was unable to throw any sort of line with one . . ." So, to cover the water from his bank and apply the Irish lesson of keeping the fly near the surface, the solution was virtually ordained.

Several modern writers have suggested that Wood wasn't advocating casts directly across or upstream but simply more upstream then currently popular. Although substantiated by identical drawings in Salmon Fishing and Greased Line Fishing, this theory is contradicted by his words. In Fisherman's Pie he says, ". . . but my fly is very often floating or just awash, especially during the first portion of the cast. If the water is suitable I cast across and slightly up-stream, leaving slack line and letting the fly drift down until the line begins to tighten; during most of this time the fly will be floating and I often get fish at that part of the cast. When the line tightens the fly will go under water, but as the line and part of the cast are still floating, the fly is only just under the water." And the Hardy's catalogue even specifies an angle of 25 degrees upstream. Many of us have adopted this approach to fishing Bombers and Buck Bugs for salmon and steelhead or soft hackled wet flies for trout.

Before continuing with Wood's methods it's worthwhile to fill in a little of the background against which they were developed (I apologize in advance for the generalizations necessary to keep the commentary flowing). Atlantic salmon fishing in Britain is largely a Scottish affair. Early in the century the best runs were in late winter or early spring and the icy waters dictated a large and deeply fished fly. This suited the braided silk lines (which sank) of the period. Once the water warmed and levels dropped, the salmon rejected these tactics and so many beats were abandoned or leased for much less until the fall run appeared. Persistent summertime anglers offered sacrifices of worms and prawns.

Wood received considerable attention because he offered a successful way to dispense with bait (and co-incidently increase the value of summer leases). But his was not the only path to a better life. Alexander Grant, a formidable angler, cast the equivalent of a modern intermediate line (heavily oiled silk) tremendous distances (120 to 140 ft.) at a shallow downstream angle. This presentation fished small flies at a uniform speed and close to the surface. Another celebrated salmon fisher, Ernest Crosfield, threw an undressed silk line across stream and stripped the fly in quickly to keep it near the surface. Finally, Percy Laming, developed floating line techniques, much like those detailed in Trey Combs' book on steelhead, to effectively deal with all types of water.

Back to Wood's methods. To cast across or up stream and then control the fly's speed (read, slow down, in most circumstances), it's necessary to reposition the belly of the line, perhaps several times, during the swing. Wood called this mending. Some say he invented this technique, but they're wrong. Major John P. Traherne, in Fishing (1885), wrote, "There is a way of taking the belly out of a line, which was taught me by an old fisherman when fishing the Kirkcudbrightshire Dee in my younger days. ... It was Jemmie that pointed out to me the evil of allowing a belly to remain in my line, and who taught me how to rectify it." There follows a diagram and description of what is unmistakably mending. Of course, because Traherne used sunk lines, only one mend is shown. To be fair, Wood may have been the first to employ multiple mends with a floating line. Regardless, hundreds of newly enlightened salmon fishers flocked to Wood's home to watch the master roll thirty or more feet of line up stream.

To contribute to the controlled movement of the fly, Wood suggested that the caster lead the line slightly with the rod. This adds to the length of down stream float and slows the fly's overall progress. Ostensibly, the fly should pass somewhat broadside to the fish. In Wood's words, "Perhaps the chief point is that you can control the angle the fly swims in the water. I prefer the fly to be at an angle of, say, 60 degrees." This is a touch rich. The angle of the fly is subject to the currents unless leading very strongly.

A lightly dressed fly was also an integral part of the system but Wood was certainly no pattern junky. Blue Charms, Silver Blues and March Browns sparsely tied in a wide range of sizes were sufficient. He even experimented successfully with undressed painted hooks.

Wood believed in feeding slack to a salmon that has taken the fly. He wanted the current to pull the fly into the corner of a salmon's jaw and then he would tighten. Over the years he modified his views on how the slack should be given, sometimes suggesting a loop of line, sometimes maintaining a high rod position for the shock absorber affect. This hooking problem seemed to perplex most of the thinking anglers of the period and is still the subject of controversy today. About the only point of general agreement is that striking immediately upon seeing the rise (except for the case of dead drifting dry flies) is likely to lead to considerable frustration. [1999 Note: my views on this have changed with additional experience with the riffle hitch; salmon taking a riffle hitched fly should be struck quickly upon seeing the rise, likely because the angle between the fly and leader doesn't allow the fly to be drawn into the scissors.]

Wood's final dictum was not to fish with the greased line unless the air is warmer than the water. This equates to the homily that time spent on the river before the morning mist lifts is wasted. I suspect this has more to do with the angler's desire for a late breakfast than salmon behaviour.

Modern Atlantic Salmon Flies

What role is the greased line method to be assigned in the modern salmon and steelhead angler's arsenal, particularly in North America? It's certainly useful in subduing unruly currents by putting control of the fly's speed back in your hands. Skillful use depends on your ability to mend delicately, especially substantial lengths of line; a facility which can only be acquired through practice. Still, in my opinion, it's when we are fully exploiting the dry fly/damp fly characteristics of Bombers and Buck Bugs that we owe the greatest debt to the ideas of A.H.E. Wood. ~ Paul Marriner

About the author

Paul Marriner is a regular columnist for the Canadian Fly Fisher and author of the book Modern Atlantic Salmon Flies, published by Frank Amato Publications. Paul makes his home in Nova Scotia, Canada.

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