Robert Gillespie: The Misuse and Misconception of the Floating Line

Instructor and guide, Robert Gillespie, debunks the salmon anglers’ common misunderstanding when fishing the floating line.

To float or not to float? Pic:

I find that the whole area of the use of sinking lines does tend to somewhat confuse salmon anglers. Mention a sinking line and many salmon anglers start to think solely in terms of fishing in deeper water or spring and autumn fishing only.

Perhaps the greatest general mistake in salmon fly angling is the belief that once the water warms up to over 48 or 50 degrees Fahrenheit then it is time for the floating line only.

This belief was forwarded and accepted over many years since the initial widespread popularity of classic greased line style fishing and its associated literature.

Combined with the availability of modern floating lines and their ease of use floating line fishing is practiced more extensively. Often in places and at times when the floating line is not the most suitable option at all.

Classical greased line style fishing with a floating line is one of my favourite methods of salmon angling and I use it regularly to fish for settled fish in low water.

It has its time and place but it is a very specialised technique for special times and places and rules about its use should never have been accepted as any widespread or general rule.

Influencing Factors

Water temperature is only a part of a number of complex external influencing factors on salmon taking behaviour. Some of the other factors are much more important such as water speed in particular or the nature or mood of the fish at the time.

Fresh running earlier grilse for instance are very often not in the slightest bit interested in taking small flies near the surface regardless of water temperature as they are so flighty and preoccupied with running. The same fish however will literally savage medium sized flies fished slightly deeper.

One of the many principles involved in fishing a very fast flow such as the stream in the neck of a pool, or any generally fast water, is that most salmon and grilse are usually not going to up end or broadside themselves across a fast current to take a fly which is very close to the surface or, in high water move a long way to get something small in the heavy flow.

This means the angler must go down a little in depth to enable the fish to more easily take the fly while still heading into the current and remaining streamlined against the fast flow, also to have the fly a little closer to the fish.

Sinking Lines

Sink tip or sinking lines have the added advantage of slowing down the sweep of the fly across the stream or current. As the fastest water is on the very surface of the river, once you cut through the surface the line will come across the stream more slowly.

The fly is not being pushed as fast across the fish thus allowing them slightly more time to see the fly, which again is giving them a greater opportunity to intercept the fly. These things often have much more bearing on the willingness of the salmon and grilse to take the fly in fast water than water temperature does.

The main use of sinking lines is simply to counteract water speed or the pressure of a heavy flow in the good taking areas which are generally the most productive shallower or medium depth areas of the river and that is how the angler should think of using them at any time of the season.

Know when and where to use your lines. Pic:

Despite using sinking lines to achieve some depth you will still usually not be striving to fish at any great depths. Deep water is generally unproductive even for sinking line fly fishing as there is seldom enough flow to fishing the line and fly around in a lifelike manner.

When using a sinking line at the appropriate places the pressure of water on the line and the sinking rate of the line means that very soon an equilibrium is reached between the two and the line is then carried round by the flow.

It will not keep sinking and the line used is often simply a means of enabling you to achieve a foot or two of depth for your fly.

Occasionally you may wish to fish slightly deeper than a foot or two and may wish to fish the mid water area or close to the bottom. Understanding the most suitable sinking rates for the different water speeds is all that is necessary.

It is an absolute necessity for successful salmon and grilse fishing to always carry a range of different fly lines and understand where to use them. The angler needs to select a type of fly line, a style of fly and an angle and speed of presentation combination including an optional hand line retrieve that will best suit the speed and height of water to be fished and specific nature of the fish to be fished for.

Not only water speed but also surface disturbances or smoothness may influence the correct line and fly style to use. Which style of fly will be most suitable to fish will mainly be due to its profile and streamlined-ness and sometimes even its weight.

As a general rule longer slim flies suit fast water and shorter more mobile flies will better suit more moderate flows. But we will look at flies later, it is enough to consider fly line choice for now.

For more expertise from Robert Gillespie on fly fishing for salmon and to book him for guiding and instruction, contact him here.