Duncan Kirkham: Thanks for your advice and help. Having landed a few fish in the Campbell, it seems my style didn’t work as well as it might have: seven-weight, slow sinking, clear casting line, 4- to 6-foot leader, bead head fly in red, blue, and green -- and on the last day, lead shot on the leader to get me down. What struck me is that the fishers on the Campbell had adopted many of the styles that go with European nymph fishing: short line with sinking tip (like a Skagit sinking tip), many frequent casts, long rod held high with no short retrieving, then a quick jerk back if they felt a movement at the end of the line. With that they caught more fish than I did. Does that sound right from what you have seen?
Answer: Sounds like they were flossing. That would explain the quick jerk at the end of the ‘drift’, the purpose being to set the hook in a possible fish. In flossing, the line, with its weight above the ‘fly’ is intended to put the fly, on a shortish leader, on the bottom where the fish are, in freshwater. It requires the angler to have a good understanding of the structure in 3-D terms and where, in it, the fish will sit, and, where one’s fly will be at any given moment.
Salmon in freshwater often hold for weeks before spawning or moving on. With nowhere to go, and not interested in food, they are only trying to keep a small inconvenience out of their space, hence, a passive bite. This happens most frequently with chinook, pink and chum in that order.
But in flossing, there is no bite. The leader is stretched out horizontally, and it passes into the mouth of a salmon, with the fly extended horizontally past the mouth. The jerk, pulls the ‘fly’ into the outside of the mouth on the opposite side of the fish, setting it. A floss is always evidenced by a fly stuck in a fish this way. Look for it in the operculum on the side away from you.
What fly you use becomes irrelevant because the fly is not catching the fish. But the Campbell has some regular favourites and you should pick some up from River Sportsman. A sparse, conventional Muddler Minnow is a stand out, as can be ones in pink, or blue (which can be useful in other northern rivers), and there are pink, blue and green short streamers, too. These flies the fish intends to bite and does so.
Flossing is not uncommon in salmon fisheries on beaches, estuaries, and in rivers. All that is needed is a current, proper structure, fish stopping at this point, or moving through in high numbers, and the angler understanding all this and setting the hook. In a day of pink fishing you may release a flossed fish or two, without intentionally flossing.
Nymphing, on the other hand, is a method using larval stages of insects, dead drifted (meaning no tension on the line between angler and fly). You keep your rod tip high and fish directly in front of you, meaning the fish are not below you, they are beside you. The rod tip follows the line downstream so that it keeps the nymph dead drifting at all time. A skated or swung nymph is not nymphing as nymphs do not have the ability to swim faster than the current that washes them from their rock and down stream.
In a passive bite, the fly could be dead drifted through the fish zone, and the fish stops it and then lets it go. You have to recognize the stop and strike it. If you don’t, you will not catch fish. A high rod tip allows the fly to dead drift (however, this is poor technique in most freshwater fly fishing, where you want the rod tip in the water to give you maximum strike distance). Both pink and chinook primarily are passive biters in freshwater, meaning they stop the fly. Chum, when new can have snappy periods where you recognize the strike as pulling the fly line past your rod’s line-finger. Sockeye seldom bite and thus are prime candidates for flossing, while coho actively move to a fly, whack it and take off.
The reason flossing is allowed is that the sockeye fisheries where it is used are meat fisheries: Paper Mill Dam on the Somass and the gravel bars of the Fraser. If a conservation officer came upon someone flossing in the Campbell, it would technically mean a ticket, but the angler could claim they were not flossing or didn’t know what flossing was and thus not be ticketed. And, of course, the Campbell is complicated by having gear, artificial fly and fly-fishing only stretches unlike most other rivers.
As for how you were fishing. I would guess you needed a line with a quicker sink rate and a shorter leader. As always, the purpose is to put the fly on the bottom where the fish are, and the Campbell is a fast-flow river, meaning more sink is better. The reason for a shorter leader is that you want the fly at the same level as the fly line rather than floating above it.
A clear intermediate line would allow you to run a shorter leader but not have enough overall sink rate. Do remember that where you need greater sink, the fly zips by the fish quicker and thus it has less time to see the fly line, decide and whack the fly, even though a black or brown line is close behind, which it evidently does not see.
The reality is that you need to match sink rate with fishing spot. These days lots of people fish below River Sportsman fly shop and below the bridge leading out of town, north to Sayward. These waters are bigger and have more current than some others, both factors in concentrating fish. I would not fish in these spots because the fish have so much space to move around in. They are not concentrated. Having said this, I have landed fish, having accessed the parking lot just below the fly shop, but that was a day of oodles of fish.
The Sandy Pool at the logging bridge, the Quinsam mouth and the Island Pool are other spots. At each, you figure out the structure, where the fish are, how to put the fly through at mouth level and once you are successful, you repeat the same cast all day long. Get yourself a tip pouch and keep all tips you buy in it. I must have 25. Over time, you will come to have a tip for all circumstances, even if it was intended for, say a Spey rod, and you are slinging a heavy rig on a single-handed rod.
Lastly, the Campbell, with its large rocks and controlled flow, is much the same as it was in the days that Haig-Brown fished it. The Island Run, has rocks more than 100 pounds, and a controlled winter flood doesn’t move them, thus the run stays the same year after year. Many other rivers, the San Juan, for instance, is still spewing logging damage gravel a hundred years after the clear-cut, burying rocks and features for decades and then blowing them away. The Campbell shows you its fishing history today. It is a treat to take pinks, standing on rocks that Haig-Brown might have stood on to catch them, too.