It is when the drought breaks up and the long-awaited rain has come that the angler has his chance and makes ready his tackle, against the period of a few days (on some short streams only a few hours) during which the water will be right; right is a very exact term on some rivers, meaning not only that the colour of the water is suitable to the fly, but that its height shall be within an inch or two of a given mark, prescribed by experience. As to the tackle which is made ready, there is, as in most angling matters, divergence of opinion. Salmon fly-rods are now made principally of two materials, greenheart and split-cane; the former is less expensive, the latter is more durable; it is entirely a matter of taste which a man uses, but the split-cane rod is now rather more in favour, and for salmon-fishing it is in England usually built with a core of steel running from butt to tip and known as a "steel centre." How long the rod shall be is also a matter on which anglers differ, but from 16 ft. to 17 ft. 6 in. represents the limits within which most rods are preferred. The tendency is to reduce rather than to increase the length of the rod, which may be accounted for by the adoption of a heavy line.
Early in the 19th century anglers used light-topped rods of 20 ft. and even more, and with them a light line composed partly of horse-hair; they thought 60 ft. with such material a good cast. Modern experience, however, has shown that a shorter rod with a heavier top will throw a heavy dressed silk line much farther with less exertion. Ninety feet is now considered a good fishing cast, while many men can throw a great deal more. In the United States, where rods have long been used much lighter than in England, the limits suggested would be considered too high. From 12 ft. 6 in. to 15 ft. 6 in. is about the range of the American angler's choice, though long rods are not unknown with him. The infinite variety of reels, lines, gut collars and other forms of tackle which is now presented to the angler's consideration and for his bewilderment is too wide a subject to be touched upon here. Something, however, falls to be said about flies. One of the perennially fruitful topics of inquiry is what the fish takes a salmon-fly to be.
Beyond a fairly general admission that it is regarded as something endowed with life, perhaps resembling a remembered article of marine diet, perhaps inviting gastronomic experiment, perhaps irritating merely and rousing an impulse to destroy, the discussion has not reached any definite conclusion. But more or less connected with it is the controversy as to variety of colour and pattern. Some authorities hold that a great variety of patterns with very minute differences in colour and shades of colour is essential to complete success; others contend that salmon do not differentiate between nice shades of colour, that they only draw distinctions between flies broadly as being light, medium or dark in general appearance, and that the size of a fly rather than its colour is the important point for the angler's consideration. Others again go some way with the supporters of the colour-scheme and admit the efficacy of flies whose general character is red, or yellow, or black, and so on. The opinion of the majority, however, is probably based on past experience, and a man's favourite flies for different rivers and condition of water are those with which he or someone else has previously succeeded.
It remains a fact that in most fly-books great variety of patterns will be discoverable, while certain old standard favourites such as the Jock Scott, Durham Ranger, Silver Doctor, and Thunder and Lightning will be prominent. Coming out of the region of controversy it is a safe generalization to say that the general rule is: big flies for spring fishing when rivers are probably high, small flies for summer and low water, and flies medium or small in autumn according to the conditions. Spring fishing is considered the cream of the sport. Though salmon are not as a rule so numerous or so heavy as during the autumn run, and though kelts are often a nuisance in the early months, yet the clean-run fish of February, March or April amply repays patience and disappointment by its fighting powers and its beauty. Summer fishing on most rivers in the British Islands is uncertain, but in Norway summer is the season, which possibly explains to some extent the popularity of that country with British anglers, for the pleasure of a sport is largely increased by good weather.
Two methods of using the fly are in vogue, casting and harling. The first is by far the more artistic, and it may be practised either from a boat, from the bank or from the bed of the river itself; in the last case the angler wades, wearing waterproof trousers or wading-stockings and stout nail-studded brogues. In either case the fishing is similar. The fly is cast across and down stream, and has to be brought over the "lie" of the fish, swimming naturally with its head to the stream, its feathers working with tempting movement and its whole appearance suggesting some live thing dropping gradually down and across stream. Most anglers add to the motion of the fly by "working" it with short pulls from the rod-top. When a fish takes, the rise is sometimes seen, sometimes not; in any case the angler should not respond with the rod until he feels the pull. Then he should tighten, not strike. The fatal word "strike," with its too literal interpretation, has caused many a breakage. Having hooked his fish, the angler must be guided by circumstances as to what he does; the salmon will usually decide that for him. But it is a sound rule to give a well-hooked fish no unnecessary advantage and to hold on as hard as the tackle will allow.
Good tackle will stand an immense strain, and with this "a minute a pound" is a fair estimate of the time in which a fish should be landed. A foul-hooked salmon (no uncommon thing, for a fish not infrequently misses the fly and gets hooked somewhere in the body) takes much longer to land. The other method of using the fly, harling, which is practised on a few big rivers, consists in trailing the fly behind a boat rowed backward and forwards across the stream and dropping gradually downwards. Fly-fishing for salmon is also practised on some lakes, into which the fish run. On lakes the boat drifts slowly along a "beat," while the angler casts diagonally over the spots where salmon are wont to lie. Salmon may also be caught by "mid-water fishing," with a natural bait either spun or trolled and with artificial spinning-baits of different kinds, and by "bottom-fishing" with prawns, shrimps and worms. Spinning is usually practised when the water is too high or too coloured for the fly; trolling is seldom employed, but is useful for exploring pools which cannot be fished by spinning or with the fly; the prawn is a valuable lure in low water and when fish are unwilling to rise; while the worm is killing at all states of the river, but except as a last resource is not much in favour.
There are a few waters where salmon have the reputation of not taking a fly at all; in them spinning or prawning are the usual modes of fishing. But most anglers, wherever possible, prefer to use the fly. The rod for the alternative methods is generally shorter and stiffer than the fly-rod, though made of like material. Twelve to fourteen feet represents about the range of choice. Outside the British Islands the salmon-fisher finds the headquarters of his sport in Europe in Scandinavia and Iceland, and in the New World in some of the waters of Canada and Newfoundland.