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Best Fishing Tackle & Techniques for Salmon Fishing in Scotland

Best Fishing Tackle & Techniques for Salmon Fishing in Scotland

Spey rods, Switch rods, Skagit, Short Spey (Scandi), Spey lines/ versileaders, poly leaders  explained.

This is a simple (not too technical) guide to the best fishing tackle, techniques and flies to use for Salmon Fishing holidays in Scotland, in addition an a definition and explanation of the differences between skagit, short spey (scandi), spey and shooting head lines.

If you are considering fishing for salmon on the River Tay, Tweed, Spey, Dee this will be a useful guide. For those anglers looking to fish the smaller rivers in the Scottish Highlands and the West Coast of Scotland, like the River Shin, Helmsdale, Conon, Alness, Gruinard, Thurso and others, there is a separate section below covering the best tackle and techniques for these spate rivers.

River Tay, Salmon Fishing, Fly Fishing, Spey Casting, Scone Palace, Best Beats, Tactics, Atlantic Salmon, Spin Casting,
The Lower River Tay – Double hand rods required!

The Big 4 Rivers in Scotland – Tay, Tweed, Spey and Dee

These Scottish rivers are world famous and anglers travel from all over the world to fish them.

Recent catch levels have been lower than usual, however if the conditions are right, then you are always in with a fighting chance. We get hundreds of requests a year to fish these rivers and our philosophy is simple. If anglers understand, the catch returns, and probability of catching a salmon, they can make a decision as to whether they want to take on the challenge from a position of honesty. This helps to manage expectation and avoids disappointment.

We will always seek to place our clients on beats of rivers that offer the best chance of a fish(for the clients budget), and for the conditions or time of year. We encourage guests to come fishing with a relaxed mindset. In other words, not to be anxious about catching a fish, but to enjoy the experience, stay focused, and try to the best of their ability. If a fish or two is caught, it’s a bonus, but the day should be enjoyed with or without fish. (and usually is) A salmon fishing experience has so many other elements, such as scenery, relaxation, a chance to reflect and restore, and time away in nature away from the noise of every day life. Then of course the interactions with the characters on the river, the art of casting, the stories in the fishing hut, the whole essence of a day is wonderful, if you allow yourself to focus on the journey, not the destination.

River Orchy, Salmon Fishing, Spey Casting, Fishing Guide, Argyll, West coast Scotland, Loch Awe, Grilse, Summer Salmon, Scotland, Scenic River, alba Game Fishing
SGAIC casting instructor and fishing guide River Orchy

Good fishing tackle is an investment…

Really there’s no right and wrong in what tackle you use. Some of the craftiest anglers I know, use very basic tackle. It’s what works for you and your budget. It’s what works for the river and conditions and it’s all about giving our anglers an enjoyable fishing experience. We are lucky in that we can offer our guests very nicely balanced gear from select manufacturers like Scott Mackenzie, Danielsson, Sage and Orvis, we’re not saying these are the best rods and reels, but they are superb and a joy to use. They also required great investment over the years, most of our rods are upwards of $700 per rod. We carry over 40 salmon rods and 50 trout rods in stock. I only hope when I die, my wife doesn’t sell it all for what she thought I paid for it! (old famous quote)

River Earn,Tay River, Salmon Fishing, Fly Fishing,
Scott Mackenzie G2 and Danielsson Eight Thirteen salmon reel

How to stay dry and safe in our Scottish Rivers

Waders are important too, we carry Orvis and Patagonia breathable stocking foot waders, All our boots have Vibram soles, and added investment of Tungsten studs to minimise slipping on the river bed.

We invested in 15 new auto inflate life vests for the 2020 season. Safety is of paramount importance as is comfort when fishing. Our guides will talk guests through how these vests work and how to wade safely.

If you want top read more on our tackle and clothing, go here.

Fly Lines Explained – Skagit, Short Spey (Scandi), Standard Spey

Standard Spey Lines

It can be confusing deciding what fly line to use on a salmon rod. What are the differences between Skagit, Scandi, Spey and Shooting head lines? This guide should help.

When I learned to Spey cast all these years ago (1980″s) my tutor insisted in using a 65ft head Spey line. This is known as a standard Spey line in Scotland. In fact in the 1980’s we were still probably 15 or 20 years away from the advent of Scandi, Skagit and Shooting head lines. Learning on a 65ft head Spey line is a great way to learn the basics, and a great examiner of your technique. The sage like advice imparted from the old spey casters are gold! They had simple and effective way of explaining the mechanics and rod and line paths. They painted pictures with words, and were concise and free from bullshit.

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A young Ian Tenant, one of Scotland’s best gillies and a master at explaining a Spey Cast

Spey lines take a long time to master. Imagine though you are coming to Scotland for just one well- earned day of fishing, as part of your vacation and want to simply enjoy a day on the river without going on a Spey Casting masterclass?, well read on, there are easier lines to use.

Short Spey Lines (Scandi) Spey Lines with a short head are sometimes referred to as Scandi Head lines, theyhave a shorter length head than a spey line. The weight of the head is to the rear of the line, so as an example 43ft in length (as opposed to 65ft)  and these came integrated (better) or looped to a running line. The head as a longer more graduated taper and therefore better for presentation. However they are  not ideal for throwing heavier sink tips, poly leaders leaders and heavy flies. They are also easier to cast than a standard spey and ideal for smaller flies.

Skagit heads have a more aggressive taper and a lot more mass at the tip of the flyline. The Skagit head is ideal for heavier sink tips and Skagit Heads of varying sink rates can be attached loop to loop, (similar to polyleaders, but balanced to the Skagit Head)  and large weighted flies.

In simple physics mass moves mass, therefore a heavier head Skagit will turn over heavier tip and your fly with a lot more easier than a Short Spey Line. These are also easy to cast, and your guide can get you up and running safely and quickly for an enjoyable day on the river.

Shooting Head is a short, denser section of fly line attached to a thin running (shooting) line offering minimal resistance, and drag on the head in flight. Once you get the head outside the rod tip,(get the right level of overhang) send the cast and the heavier shooting head pulls the thinner running line through the guides. Chosing a running line can be as important as the head. Ideally pick a running line that is easy to handle and does not suffer from too much memory. 

Here are some benefits of a shooting head system:

  • Quick loading, requiring minimal false casting.
  • Effective in confined spaces or when back cast room is limited.
  • They punch well through the wind.
  • Like a Skagit, Shooting heads provide more mass, handling heavier or larger flies easily
  • Basically a shooting head allows you to cast further, with less effort.
  • Flexibility of loops to loop different heads quickly, without changing over spools / reels.

Disadvantages – These lines can be clunky and land with little finesse compared to a longer tapered line like a Speyi or Short Spey Line. In addition mending the line is impossible, as the running line has no mass and ability to mobilise the head. Finally it can be a bit of a pain retrieving the line back to the head each time, and I know of some anglers who suffer from a repetitive strain injury from doing so.

salmon fishing, river Tay, Orvis, Alba Game Fishing, Hidden Gems Vacation, Scotland
The Tay, a wonderful salmon river to try various line and rod combinations

There are derivatives of these lines, that sit somewhere between Skagit and Scandi. The Airflow Rage has been designed to simplify the transition between casting sink tips and heavier flies and then perhaps looking to switch to casting lighter intermediate tips on smaller flies. . . it has been designed to offer at the best of both worlds, in that it?s flexible with both scenarios. It?s also excellent for beginners to very easy come to terms with Spey Casting.

Our team of professional fishing guides include SGAIC casting instructors, so if you want to try various combinations fo rods and lines and learn various Spey casts, we can help.

Switch Rods, Spey Rods – Lengths and Applications

Switch rods came out in the early 2000 and generally are under 12 foot in length. These can generally be cast with one or two hands. This is where the term switch comes from.

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The River Alness – Perfect venue for this 11ft 8 Mackenzie switch rod

A double hand rod over 12 feet in length is generally a spey rod and requires both hands.

A few years ago switch rods evolved to become lighter and lighter, now there are #2, 3 and 4 weight switch rods and these are referred to as trout Spey rods. Generally with the smaller rods, a rule of thumb is that you double the rod weight to calculate the maximum size of fish that you will catch, in other words a #4 weight is ideal for any fish up to about 8 pounds in weight.

The best tackle for smaller salmon rivers in the Scottish Highlands and West Coast

In Scotland we are spoiled for choice for smaller, spate rivers and they offer an interesting alternative to the vast size of the big 4 rivers in Scotland. Generally as a rule of thumb, we fish switch rods.  Why? Often there is little space on these rivers to cast, and your casting requires deftness and precision, not long distance. Fish tend to lie in seams and pockets that call for accuracy and subtle casting. A smaller switch rod like the excellent 11ft 4 #8 weight Scott Mackenzie Atlas is an excellent small river rod. Ideal for the Rivers Shin, Cassley, Alness (below), Gruinard, Inver, Luce, Stinchar and other small rivers. It’s also powerful enough to cope with a salmon between 7 – 16lb, which is a common size in these rivers.

When fishing slightly bigger rivers like the Findhorn, Conon, Garry, Lochy and Thurso, a 13, 14 or 15ft Spey rod is a better option. Why? Because you will need to cast further and because there is more flow, the flies sometimes need to be deeper(heavier sink tips) and sometimes bigger fish are found in these rivers. The Lochy spring salmon average 15-17lb and bigger fish in the 30-35lb  class have been caught in the past.

Polyleaders, Versi Tips, Sinking Tips

Here is a short guide to versileaders, Sink Tips and poly leaders and how they apply to different rods and lines. Lets define the name firstly, that’s easy. Versi leaders refers to the Rio range of tips, and Poly Leaders are the Airflo brand. These are essentially tapered leaders which are either coated with a tungsten material of varying densities, or a plasticised material for floating. A sink tip is generally a faster sinking tips, looped on to the end of a fly line.

Common sense applies to what tip to use with what rod and line. For example a # 8 weight Scandi line is going to struggle to cast the very heavy sink tips or Versileaders, and there will be some hinging on the cast stroke. This is because the Scandi head tapers and there is no mass at the end to move the heavier tip.

Here is the range of Versileaders and sink rate offered by Rio for Salmon/ Steelhead:

Rio Versileaders, Salmon, Steelhead, Rio Products, Salmon Fishing
Rio Versileader Salmon Sizes (also avail 6ft lengths)

Skagit lines benefit from the addition of a Poly Leader and generally as there is a lot of mass at the head of the fly line, they can cope with most weights and sink rates of additional leaders.

Rio have also introduced the MOW tips. These are ideal for Skagit lines and offer incredible sinking tip versatility, with a tips for any fishing situation. 

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Mow Skagit Tips – versatile and effective

The Extra Heavy MOW Tips are the heaviest with T-17 for the sinking section and with a sink rate of nearly 10″ per second. Each of the tips either have a gray floating section, or if full sinking are a dark gray colour, for easy identification. These tips are ideal on Skagit lines of 675 grains and more.

The Heavy MOW Tips feature T-14, with a sink rate of 9″ per second, for the sinking material. Each of these tips has either a light blue floating section, or if full sinking are a dark blue colour, for easy identification. The Heavy MOW Tips are designed for the large flies and are ideal for Skagit lines of 575 grains and more. There are six unique tips that make up the series. 

The Medium MOW Tips feature T-11, with a sink rate of 8″ per second, for the sinking material. Each of these tips has either a light green floating section, or if full sinking are a dark green colour, for easy identification. The Medium MOW Tips are designed for heavily weighted flies and are ideal for Skagit lines between 475 and 575 grains. There are six unique tips that make up the series.

Grain, Grams, Line weights and rating explained

It can be so confusing when talking about line ratings, grains, grams, Line weights, head lights, sink rates…lets try and simplify this.

Fly lines are usually rated by weight rather than breaking strength.

How is a line rated? The first 30-feet of a fly line is weighed in grains (minus the short level tip section) then are assigned a numbered “weight” rating based on this measurement.  And sinking lines the measured section can vary depending on head length.

As an example, a floating line weighing between 134-146 grains in its first 30-feet would be classified a 5-weight line. As a general rule this chart may help.

fly lines, grain, line rating, line weight, AFFTA rating
Line weights and grains chart

It?s good to understand that this rule of thumb laid down by the American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA) is not always followed. Some fly lines actually weigh more than their corresponding weight range indicates. The first 30-feet of a certain 6-weight line may weigh 180-grains which would seemingly classify it as a 7-weight line! Many modern fly rods being faster in action, a heavier line can be a good match for these stiffer high-performance fly rods.

Generally as a rule of thumb, line manufacturers will advise as to what type of rod rating a certain lines works best with. Then of course there is always trial and error.