Fishing: If you want to catch salmon it sometimes pays to be a bit fly

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The Independent Online
FINALLY, I have caught a salmon, and not just one but three. All fell to a Silver Doctor on a size 9 hook.

The Silver Doctor is a beautiful and very complicated fly since it is a "fully dressed" pattern (like a fly in its Sunday best) which was originally made of feathers from such birds as swans, toucans and Indian crows. Sadly, it is not often used these days as it is deemed too fiddly and time consuming to make, but in the last century it was a very popular fly indeed.

The first salmon of the day also ended up being the biggest of the bag, at 6lb 4 oz. This was a bit disappointing - one always hopes one's first salmon will be a stonker. And all were kelts (salmon that had spawned and were on their way back to the sea) so they had to be put back, because, the thinking goes, if they have spawned once they may do so again.

However, there is a certain disagreement as to whether fish that have already made it all the way back to the redds (spawning beds) from the sea and have then fought like fury when caught are in any state to do anything other than give up.

All this on an empty stomach, too, since salmon do not eat when they re-enter fresh water - this is one of the reasons why catching them is so difficult for they do not take a fly out of hunger. But by the time salmon have spawned, got the new name of kelts (it is so complicated) and are heading back to the sea, they are so ravenous I'm not surprised they like to snack.

Alas, all of this happened on computer. I was playing "Fly Fishing by JR Hartley on CDRom". You begin the game by selecting various beats on either the Spey (for salmon and sea-trout), the Blackwater (also for salmon) and the super posh Test, a hallowed chalkstream habitat for trout and the currently very trendy grayling (glorious silver fish with dorsal fins as big as Spanish fans which you fish for in winter when the ground is crisp with ice and the air heavy with cold).

Then you choose a fly and your fishing position and cast away. Casting on computer relies on your dexterity with the mouse or track pad and is - just like real casting - quite tricky although you pick up virtual casting in about 10 minutes and real casting takes more like 10 years.

When you get a fish you have to strike at just the right moment, play him and then net him. If you succeed the computer tells you about your fish, the weight, sex and condition. If you fail, it tells you what got away.

It was while playing this game that another similarity with real fishing became apparent: how many rules there are. I'm not talking here of perfectly sensible rules that are there to protect both fish and folk, but of other things. Let me explain. In this computer game, as I scrolled through the flies available to fish with there were cries of "Don't use that fly, you won't catch anything".

This sort of retort, especially when it is delivered by a seasoned ghillie on the river bank, makes me as shy as a sea trout. Gosh, I think as I blush to my waders, my choice must be so stupid, so gauche that not even the Mr Bean of fish would deign to nibble it. But what if nobody broke rules and tried funny things? We would have no Ally's Shrimp now for sure.

When Alistair Gowans first invented this fly (made from white tail deer hair, grey squirrel, the neck feathers of a Chinese chicken and golden pheasant tippet) 18 years ago, it revolutionised salmon fishing. With its unusually long "tail" (representing the shrimp's feelers), some anglers laughed.

"When they first saw it," Mr G told me, "most anglers swore the fish would pull the tail and not get hooked. They obviously believed that salmon grow big by catching prey by the tail. Not so. Some also said that it would only work in autumn because it's orange. Not so." The Ally's Shrimp is now one of the most successfully and widely used salmon flies. Hah.

Fish do not care a hoot about what they should or should not do. They turn up in nooks and watery crannies that defy logic and experience, they may shun the most theoretically correct fly but take a clump of... grass and stranger things yet. Yes, Alistair Gowans caught a salmon on a bunch of grass once - on his back cast the hook caught a tuft of the stuff - and plop into the water it went and a fish bit.

And fish do not care how fancy your rod or equipment is either. In the excellent Women and Salmon by Wilma Paterson and Professor Peter Behan (Witherby), there is a charming little story of a 15-year-old girl who caught a 30lb salmon with a "light salmon rod, an old reel with a brake that didn't work and last year's line with a knot in it".

Of course, these quirky catches are rare. Most "rules" are borne out of experience and they are used for the simple reason that they work. But sometimes, fish turn their fins on rules and logic, which is why a little childish experimentation is always a good thing. Next time someone tells me a fly or a tactic won't work, I think I'll gently ignore them and try it out on the fish first.