Feather vs Metal

Against the backdrop of impending byelaw changes to fishing methods in Wales, Wye fishery owner Stephen Marsh-Smith OBE gives a few thoughts on the old and never ending Spinner versus Fly debate.

When I start salmon fishing in the early ‘70s, it was during a celebrated era of early spring fishing.

Although changes to run timings were already underway, the great rivers of Scotland (Tay, Tweed, Dee and Spey) invariably started their season with spinners. So it was too on Wye, Dee, Severn and Usk. The wooden Devon Minnow and Wye lead accounted for great numbers of springers. In 1973 for example, over 2,000 fish were landed by the end of March on the Wye with a staggering average weight in excess of 20lbs!

When the heavy waters of winter and spring gave way to summer, other lighter spinners such as Mepp and quill took fish and….heaven forbid, so did worm, shrimp and prawn! But for an aspiring fly fisher and proud owner of a Sharps 12’ cane fly rod, attempting to heave a fly of any size into these great waters seemed wholly ineffective. Even the largest of my six flies often gave up the unequal struggle and skated back to base as quickly as possible. The fly rod was quickly set aside for my rotational favourite: the yellow and green Devon or the “Yellowbelly”.

Today we are at least blessed with good equipment, if not the fish numbers

Why was it that the productive rivers of the far north started and finished their season – some as early as January – with a fly only rule? Were the fish somehow different? There were other places where fly was king: certain (Aberdeenshire) Dee beats were fly only from mid-April, a few beats on the Tay and even the Wye had periods of fly only. The Tweed was fly only from 15th September onwards even in (gasp!) high water as well as during the first two weeks of February. Although not clear to a novice at the time, it is now obvious that the limitations were in the fly fishing kit, not a different race of salmon.

Northern rivers such as Brora, Helmsdale and Oykel could be covered with a cane rod and the silk lines of the day. Boating, for example at Islamouth (Tay) and Tweed made it possible to cover the water effectively with a small rod. The Dee and Spey had often shrunk to a manageable size by mid-April. There were a few heroes on the Ness who used Greenheart rods of considerable size and weight – the only way to cover this huge river.

Today we are at least blessed with good equipment, if not the fish numbers. Comfortable waders allow effective access; rods and lines enable flies of all sizes and weights to be fished in nearly all scenarios. The opportunity for very early fishing is not what it was but the Dee for example is now fly only from start to finish. So hats off to the tackle trade: they have had the final word on the spinner v fly debate by levelling the playing field with rods, casts and flies together with a complexity of lines that need a first class degree to choose and operate.

Spinners will always have their devotees but fly fishing nowadays offers so many variations to just casting across and down: stripped Sunrays, sunken Red Frances tubes being two of my favourite alternatives. Do I still have a spinning rod? Yes but it is kept for very occasional outings in one or two places of very deep water. It is a poor second choice to my lightweight and powerful fly rod.

Stephen Marsh-Smith

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