Greased Line Fishing for Salmon

I’ve “reviewed” several older fly fishing books–Ray Bergman’s Trout, Knox’s Autumns on the Spey–over the last couple of years. I chose those books because they not only convey important information about the development of the fly fishing techniques and flies we use today, but because they provide vivid glimpses of angling in another era.  I also think they are especially well written, not something you can say about many books published on fly fishing today.

However, if I had to chose a single older volume that is most helpful in terms of technique and presentation for steelhead fishing–without concerning myself with the craft of its writing or its narrative quality–it would be Greased Line Fishing for Salmon. It’s not that the book is poorly written. It simply is very technical, nearly to the exclusion of the storytelling that enlivens many of the finest older books.

Indeed, if I were going to recommend three volumes to a novice steelhead fly fisher, in particular a summer-steelhead fly fisher, Greased Line Fly Fishing for Salmon would be one of them. The other two would be Steelhead Fly Fishing and Flies by Trey Combs and Roderick Haig-Brown’s Fisherman’s Summer.

Greased Line Fishing for Salmon doesn’t contain the wealth of historical information or   fly lore as Combs’ book, nor is it as gracefully written or with the warmth of voice or richness of anecdote as Haig-Brown’s. But, boy, if you are a steelheader, especially a summer steelheader, it sure can teach you a lot about presenting a fly.

Greased Line Fly Fishing for Salmon was assembled from the fishing papers of A.H.E. Wood by “Jock Scott,”  the pseudonym for Donald Rudd. An engineer by training, Wood was of independent means, and focused much of his considerable energy on the sporting life. A long-distance swimmer in his youth, he fished for Atlantic salmon, hunted antlered and feathered game, created a celebrated garden, and raised bees. He pursued salmon throughout the British Isles but from 1918 until his death in 1934 he maintained beats on the Dee River at Cairnton, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

The thing that sets Wood apart from other accomplished salmon anglers of his day was his method of presenting his fly to the fish. During the late 19th and early 20th century, the standard practice was to fish silk lines that sank and to swing the fly down and across stream as deeply as possible. However, on a trip to Ireland in 1903, Wood caught salmon on the surface with flies that imitated white “moths.” That experience was something of an epiphany for Wood, and he subsequently concentrated all of his angling on developing a technique that kept the fly close to the surface and floating naturally, without a whisper of drag.

He described the way he wanted his fly to work: “in a natural manner; wobbling, rising and falling with the play of the eddies; exactly as would an insect, or a little fish which was in trouble . . .”

The technique came to be called “greased line” because, like the early dry fly trout fishers of his day, he coated his line liberally with “grease”–actually lanolin–to keep in on the surface. But Wood’s method differed from the traditional downstream wet fly swing in more ways than just the use of a “floating” line. Rather than cast at a fairly sharp downstream angle, he usually cast across the current or even slightly upstream. He also used mends, as many mends as necessary, to keep the fly floating downstream at current speed, and he led the fly with his rod. His goal was to present the fly to the salmon broadside to the current.

“The basic idea is to use the line as a float for, and controlling agent of, the fly, ” Wood wrote; “to suspend the fly just beneath the surface of the water, and to control its path in such a way that it swims diagonally down and across the stream, entirely free from the slightest pull on the line. This idea, is, of course, entirely opposed to that of the normal sunk fly procedure.”

One of the most immediate and important results of the introduction of greased line fishing was that it extended the season when salmon could be taken on flies by several months. Until Wood pioneered greased line, nearly all fly fishing for salmon in Scotland was done in late winter and early spring–similar to winter steelhead fishing in the Pacific Northwest today. Once the water dropped and warmed up, the fish no longer responded to deeply sunk flies, and most angling was done with bait of lures until the water cooled and rose again in autumn.

“I am quite happy with fish which have been in the water a long time as it is then I think my method is the only one of much use, and I think it has been these stale fish which have caused my method to come so quickly to the front, as my neighbors soon found that I often had a very big bag of ten fish or more when none of them had touched a fish.”

So revolutionary was the greased line technique that Eric Taverner, celebrated author of the classic Salmon Fishing, wrote: “A new world is spread before one’s eyes.”

Greased Line Fishing for Salmon was published in 1935, a year after Wood’s death. According to Scott, Wood planned on writing a book on greased line fishing but died before he could begin it. He told Scott in 1933 that he intended to use the chapter he had written for the volume Salmon as the “hub” around which it would be organized. Fortunately for us, Wood’s son, Captain E.G. Wood provided Scott access to Wood’s papers and records. That allowed Scott to put much of the book in Wood’s own words.

The book consists of nine chapters. The first, “A.H.E. Wood: An Appreciation” was written by J.W. Hills, a friend of Wood’s. The remaining chapters were “compiled” by  Scott.

The book’s second and third chapters, “Tackle” and “Mr. Wood’s Casting Methods,” are concerned with the nuts-and-bolts of fishing at Cairnton. Among other things, they reveal what an iconoclastic angler he was. Unlike most of his contemporaries, who fished 14-plus-foot rods “Spey” style, for example, Wood cast a 12-foot rod single-handed. He also eschewed the gaudy overdressed Atlantic salmon fly of his day–and even the lovely strip-winged Dee flies of his home water–in favor of sparse “low water” dressings. He favored the Blue Charm and March Brown, but actually experimented with, and caught, salmon on bare hooks painted red or blue.

Focusing on presentation, the fourth chapter, “Greased Line Fishing,” is the real heart of the book. It examines in detail the techniques and strategies Wood developed to fish the wet fly near the surface. It also contains a description of how Wood came to create greased line fishing and an instructive item-by-item comparison of the traditional “Sunk Fly” and “Greased Line” methods.

Wood on his basic approach: “Even in February, except in flood water, I do most of my fishing with a greased line and a No. 1 Blue Charm. In broken water I cast rather more upstream than the orthodox cast of salmon fishermen then lift my line off the water and, without moving the fly, turn over a loop of line upstream and across to prevent any drag on the fly.”

Wood on mending: “The lifting over of a line is done to correct a fault, namely, to take the downstream belly out of a line and thus relieve the pull or pressure of the current on the line, which is communicated to the fly and exhibits itself as drag. But if the line is proceeding at an even pace and shows no sign of going to drag, there is no need to mend the cast. On the other hand, if the current continues to belly the line, but before it gets a drag, lift again and continue to do so often as you can see a drag forming.”

Chapter Five, “Asked and Answered,” consists of a series of questions from Scott to Wood on everything from weather to flies to playing fish. According to Scott, Wood always intended on including a question and answer section in his book.

The final four chapters embellish Wood’s ideas and touch on more peripheral issues. “The Sunk Fly,” examines the conventional approach of presenting a fly to a salmon and Wood’s refinements of it. “The Wood and Crossfield Methods,” contrasts the greased line with the surface stripping technique championed by Ernest Crossfield, one of the most celebrated salmon anglers of the day. The eighth chapter lists the records of the fish taken at Cairnton, including the fly, water temperature and date.

One of the most fascinating–and in my opinion, both prescient and quirky–sections of the book is its final chapter, “The Dry Fly at Cairnton.” It chronicles the visit that American dry fly innovator, George La Branche, made to Wood’s beats in 1925. La Branche regularly took salmon on bushy dry flies on New Brunswick’s Miramichi River before he traveled to Scotland, but only rose a few fish and didn’t hook any solidly on Wood’s water. La Branche attributed this to the extremely low river conditions, as well as nerves from the crowds that flocked to the river to see La Branche fish his dry flies.

Despite his clear discomfiture at not doing well at Cairnton, La Branche returned to Wood’s beats several times in subsequent season. And he was open-minded and gracious enough to study and ultimately embrace Wood’s methods.

“Having learned Mr. Wood’s greased line method, I became enamored of it and used it with great success in this country,” he wrote. “It has now become extremely popular with those skillful enough to master it, and is used supplementary to dry fly fishing.”

I don’t know if Wood would have featured the story of La Branche’s visit as prominently as Scott did, but its addition makes the volume even more historically relevant and compelling. With the floating fly included in the presentation mix, Greased Line Fishing for Salmon contains detailed discussion of all the major techniques used by steelheaders today–the downstream swing, greased line, stripped fly (a la California fly fishers) and, through La Branche, the dry fly.

While Greased Line Fishing for Salmon doesn’t contain many memorable passages or stories, it is, in my opinion, one of the best, most practical, and most enduring books on fly fishing ever written. Indeed, for the salmon fisher (and by extrapolation steelheader) it is a veritable Rosetta Stone, where all the fundamental fishing techniques rub shoulders and influence each other. If you are serious about fly fishing for anadromous fish, whether they are native to rivers that drain into the Atlantic or Pacific oceans, you really need to know what A.H.E Wood had to say on the subject.

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