I started coarse fishing with my father and quickly moved on to fly fishing for trout with my grandfather and father. I lived in Derbyshire for the first 10 years of my life, so the eclectic mix of coarse fishing and fly fishing was something that I could do while living in England and visiting my family in Scotland.
I really took to salmon fishing when I lived in the north of Scotland with my parents during my teenage years and reaped the benefits of fishing on many unnamed hill lochs and some of the more well known north of Scotland rivers, such as the Carron, Shin and Kyle of Sutherland. When I left home and had children of my own, I found that fly fishing was a great way to continue childhood adventures well into adulthood. I sought out new places to fish and met many interesting people. However, for me, fishing provided the solitude to concentrate on mastering the art of fooling a truly wild thing to take a man-made piece of fluff and feather that imitated an insect, small fry or aquatic insect. Or in the case of salmon flies, very rarely imitating anything at all other than something that induces the aggressive nature of the salmon to take your fly.
In the last seven years I found out that fishing for salmon was not an easy challenge but one that I refused to give up on. My stubborn side gave way to opening myself up to learning new techniques – double-handed rod casting and, ultimately, tying my own salmon flies. I also quickly learnt that ‘chasing silver’ referred to the ultimate prize in salmon fishing of catching a fresh run spring or summer run salmon (springer or grilse). These silver fish proved elusive for some time and I watched (very impatiently sometimes) as those around me had their fair share while my net stayed dry and my flies remained intact.
The challenge of fishing for salmon does become a passion for most of us salmon fishers. The fish itself does not feed in fresh water, and it undergoes an amazing transformation to often return to the river of its birth. It’s stomach muscle closes up and it desalinates its body while in the river estuary to make its transition from saltwater to fresh water a safe one that will not kill it while on its relentless journey upstream. Our passion comes from the art of catching that king of fish that can grow to huge proportions from its feeding frenzy during its years at sea before returning to spawn. It’s mystique and how difficult it is to catch is what drives that passion and respect for this magnificent fish. The size can often belie the fight that even smaller grilse can put up. They fight like tigers and will try all the tricks they have learnt to shed that hook.
Persistence and time on the riverbank was the key to success, alongside skill (which I will always try to learn more of), plus patience and humility, which were traits that would ultimately pay off. My first fish to really remember was not actually a salmon but a fine Scottish Borders River Tweed sea trout weighing in at 12lb! (I proudly display the photo of that fish on my wall above my fly-tying bench to remind me of the journey I’m on in pursuit of silver). From that moment I started to catch more fish as I relaxed into the experience and as confidence in my casting, fly choice and amount of fishing gear that I was buying too much of grew. I was hooked.
I practised relentlessly (just ask my long-suffering wife!) at double-handed casting techniques such as snap T, snake roll, perry poke, roll cast, Spey cast, double Spey, and, to be honest, I’ve still got a fair few years practice left in me.
The real breakthrough for me was tying my own salmon flies. I watched endless hours of YouTube footage, attended at open days in tackle shops, and threw out more fluffed (pardon the pun) attempts at what really looked like nothing that should ever grace any of Scotland’s finest salmon fishing rivers.
My wife by this time was sick of the dining table being used as a fly-tying bench and the dog chewing my discarded capes, buck tail and foxtails. This was the deciding factor behind me converting one of our spare rooms into a fly-tying room. My mess was now banished to an upstairs room, out of sight but very much not out of mind. I spend hours in that room with an iPad (endless pictures of salmon flies) and my newly fitted spotlights and downlighters to prevent me going blind during the many hours of tying at the vice. I decided to tie the most widely used patterns but incorporate modern and traditional products together to create even more new styles and variations of old-faithfuls.
Persistence paid off. I was invited to attend 2015 FlyFest in Penrith, Cumbria, by the larger-than-life organiser, Davy Newell. I had been bravely posting my attempts on Facebook and took the plunge to tying in front of a well-versed expert audience of like-minded fishers who had assembled at the Rheghed Centre for FlyFest. I loved the event, travelling down with my two good friends Ed Ford and Graeme Keir (excellent trout fly tyers – see them on social media) and made many new friends from Sweden, Finland, Denmark and all over the UK.
I continued to post my creations online and promote the great products I had been using from lots of new sources in Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, USA and Denmark. The support from the fishing community is overwhelming and very understated by those who have not experienced it. I have been lucky enough to be part of raising money for a breast cancer charity to support a treatment and support centre in Thurso. Our charity, called Pink Linda, was named after Linda Sutherland from Halkirk, Caithness, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. I was humbled to be among fly tyers who designed and donated their own pink-coloured trout and salmon flies for us to auction online and raise money for the local-based centre that Linda was visiting regularly during her treatment. Our last auction and sales meant that we were able to head to the centre in February this year and present them with a cheque for more than £2,700.
Pink Linda was a concept thought of by a keen salmon fisher in Halkirk who regularly fishes the River Thurso, Pat Quinn. Pat is very well known in the fishing community and best friends with the now retired River Thurso manager Eddie McCarthy. Eddie’s wife Isobel is a best friend of Linda and this is how the idea grew. Pat relentlessly drove the idea and I was honoured to be asked to support him, along with others, (there are too many to mention unfortunately), because he is one of life’s real gentlemen.
As my tying improved, my confidence in my salmon fishing grew and my catch rate improved. However, the real lesson that it taught me was about the experience of fly fishing for salmon. That experience was not simply about catching fish but the whole deal. I spent hours with friends on riverbanks, in ghillie’s huts, and, more importantly, I learned to enjoy my own company. I learnt that part of that experience was seeing others around me catch fish (it did take me a while not to take it too personally when they were catching and I wasn’t!), especially if I had helped them or even given them one of my flies that the salmon decided was good enough to allow itself to be caught and photographed with before being safely returned to hopefully be part of someone else’s experience.
I have made some amazing friends and will be fishing with them this year in Norway. Flying first to Stockholm to meet up with Jim Wennmark from Sweden and Olli Rautainen from Finland (Scandinavian United Fly Tyers – check them out on social media) and then a nine-hour road trip to a lodge in the northwest of Norway to chase Norwegian silver. We will be making a film of that journey to share the true meaning of the passion of salmon fishing. More importantly, I will wave my double-handed casting wands and chuck my salmon fluff around until I’m either lucky enough to catch the king of fish, or scare them onto Jim’s and Olli’s lines!
You can check out Ali's flies on our Facebook page where we feature our Friday Flies! https://www.facebook.com/totalflyfisher