Very few salmon anglers use single-handed rods in the UK, which is a great shame. Lochs and spate streams are usually the extent of things, whereas in Ireland there seems to be a greater appreciation and in North America the roots run deep. There are many good arguments for double-handers and their place in the first team is assured. The real question is: should we make room for both? Can’t many of the limitations levelled at small rods be reversed and aimed at long rods, if the conditions dictate? As summer advances, it’s the right time to think again about single-handed rods and their techniques. I think it’s time for them to take on some of the salmon workload. Single-handers can take the delicacy and finesse of our presentation to a new level. They also encourage us to think and fish a bit differently than we would otherwise. Perhaps this comes from having to make peace with the fact that we can’t cast as far. We must relax into a more considered approach, doing what we can really well. In low water and particularly in late summer when the fish have seen it all before it’s hard to overstate the importance of stealth and great presentation. We have to change our approach by carefully trying to turn over the right stones – not all the stones, if you follow my drift. Single-handers are great tools for the job. I’m unreliably informed (by a good friend) that the late George Melly (a keen fisher) once quipped about the relationship between his advancing years and the demise of his libido. “I greeted it with the relief of a man escaping from the back of a runaway horse.” I honestly think this could sum up the relationship some contemporary salmon-fishers have with distance casting. When I pick up my single-hander I often smile and think about that man escaping the horse.
Matching tackle to the conditions
Trout-fishers and would-be or occasional salmon-fishers take heart. During the summer months and when water levels are low, most of our rivers can be very practically fished with single-handed tackle. You might need to endure a bit of leg-pulling, but that’s okay. Play to the strengths of your outfit and you’re likely to fish the water better than many fishers will with bigger rigs. Anyway, some of the old guard might be surprised by the capabilities of modern rods and lines, especially in the hands of crack trout men and women. Why not get out there and mix things up a bit? Converting from trout to salmon If you are new to salmon fishing in rivers and therefore double-handed rods, but an experienced trout-fisher, opting for a good single-handed salmon outfit will mean you can hit the ground running. I think this makes
a lot of sense: you can really focus on the challenge of tempting a fish to take and seeing how you enjoy it, rather than immediately jumping on to the steep learning curve of new casts with double-handed tackle. Which, let’s be honest, adds a lot of cost and complexity that you probably don’t want in your first few outings.
Why not play to your strengths? What are the advantages? The ability to fish small flies – and
the fine tippets they require – with confidence is a big advantage.
A balanced outfit greatly increases your chances of landing fish when small flies are the order of the day. It makes sense to balance your outfit in reverse. Start with the size of fly and work backwards from there. If fishing with size 12s or smaller, swimming them on an 8 lb tippet is going to feel much more practical on a single-hander than a standard nine- or ten-weight double-hander. The latter is more powerful but how can you deploy that power when it’s not in balance with the business end?
In these circumstances a stock double-hander is more of a liability than an asset. In exchange for this delicacy, you will trade some distance-casting potency, and gain accuracy in its place. The finesse achievable with a single-handed set-up is beyond what even the best casters can manage with regular British-style double-handers. Switch rods are trendy but they come with pretty chunky and aggressive lines (I believe one well-known brand even named one the “Chucker”). These switch lines are a bit of a compromise and I would argue that the out-and-out single-handed outfit has the edge when it comes to delicacy.
The tools for the job I favour a 10 ft seven-weight rod. However, any strong single-hander between 9 ft 6 in and 10 ft 6 in, rated for a seven or eight line, will do a good job. A six-weight will work at a pinch, but your fish-fighting technique will need to be good to avoid unduly harming fish as a result of a protracted fight or triggering a trial of the rod’s guarantee policy. I would recommend a middle-to-tip action rather than something faster. Roll and spey casts will be easier and if you want to fish a dropper at some point, you’ll not be wishing for tight loops. The reel is more of a consideration than with a double-handed set-up. I don’t worry too much about a fancy drag (that’s a bonus) but you will need rim control, a decent retrieve rate (to keep up when fish run at you) and decent backing capacity. I can tell you from personal experience that playing a fish by hand (not from the reel) is an accident waiting to happen, so please trust me and recover any slack line rapidly and play your fish from the reel.
Use alternative tactics
For a stealthy, small-fly approach, dry-fly or riffling, most international fishers would make the single-hander their first choice. However, single-handers can be used with more earthy techniques. From late August, as the nights start to draw in and the water begins to cool, it’s well known that Frances-style flies can be very effective. A single-hander and a specialist line can produce fantastic sport with otherwise uncooperative fish. The single-hander allows nymphing techniques, which are in my opinion the best way to fish Frances and Snaelda flies late in the summer. Carefully targeting known lies with stealth and an upstream nymphing style is incredibly exciting. If you equip your single-hander with a shooting-head, you can work long-winged flies over smooth glassy water or thin flows with a winning combination of controlled animation, stealth and easy water coverage. The shooting-head allows you to work the fly all the way back to you, and then you can re-cast easily without the need to first lengthen the line to load the rod. Try a range of casting styles One of the great things about single-handed rods is their versatility. Where space permits and there is room for an extended back-cast the overhead cast is easy, accurate and presents a fly with minimal disturbance. In tight spots, under trees or with high banks, improvised roll and spey casts can keep us fishing in places that are difficult with longer rods. If you are a competent trout-fisher, picking up spey casting with a familiar single-handed rod is much more straightforward than the change to two hands. Use your non-casting hand to pull back line during the back-casting stroke, just as you would with the double-haul cast. This helps to load the rod and is a good trick if you need to find a few extra yards of distance.
Fighting salmon with a single-hander
With catch-and-release, prolonging the fight is an argument against using a single-hander and I think this concern is valid – up to a point. Modern seven- or eight-weight rods are powerful and with good technique it’s possible to land fish quickly. In my experience the same fundamental aspects apply to fighting salmon on a single- or double-hander, however a single-handed set-up will expose the issues more quickly and leave you feeling undergunned. Watching Alaskan guides subdue large Pacific salmon taught me much about how to carry the fight to salmon on single-handed tackle. Here are some suggestions:
1 Get level or downstream of the fish whenever possible so the salmon battles the pull of your line and the current. Try to prevent the fish getting far downstream of you in a strong current – you will be forced to work it back against the current and this gives the fish a free ride. It’s hard work for you and easy for the fish. Whenever practical, walk downstream and wind quickly to recover line on downstream runs. If you can get level or downstream of the fish in the same manoeuvre, the fish will often respond by making an upstream-and-across run, which will give you much more control.
2 Use side-strain to keep the fish off balance and moving. Letting the fish pause allows it to rest and re-charge. Keeping the fish off balance makes it work much harder. As long as the pressure is firm and steady you can angle the rod (as you want/need) parallel to the water and apply pressure towards your own bank (or in any direction to try and move the fish away from obstacles). You don’t need to hold the rod vertically all the time.
3 Use the power in the rod butt by lowering the vertical angle. As you lower the angle the powerful butt section does more work with less cushioning from the tip. The strength of your tippet will determine what’s sensible. As a test, set up your rod and tie the tippet to some scales or a weigh net. Then get a friend to pull as hard as they dare with the rod at various angles while you take a reading. I think you will be surprised how little pull you can muster with the rod vertical. Either way, it’s handy to have a sense of how hard you can pull before your tippet is at risk. Think about how you can use the angle of your rod to apply side-strain and access power from the butt section.
4 Take every opportunity to recover line. Use a pumping action (lifting the rod and winding down) to recover line when a fish pauses or holds station. It’s tempting to just cling on and have a breather yourself in these situations but always try to carry the fight to the fish.
5 Use a net. Netting a salmon on your own with a long double-hander is pretty tricky, but with a single-hander it’s much easier and will usually shorten the fight considerably. Once the fish is netted, you can let it recover while you organise a quick photo. This minimises the time the fish’s head is out of the water, and that’s the key to it recovering quickly and swimming away strongly.
On small and medium-sized salmon rivers, single-handers are under-utilised and offer lots of practical fishing advantages. On big rivers during periods of low water, they also enable a new level of finesse and balance with small flies and delicate tippets, and allow nymphing techniques with flies such as a small red Frances. Let’s not dismiss single-handers as toys or novelties. They’re great fun and many fish are to be caught with them