FFF logo


Federation of Fly Fishers Master Casting Instructors offering private and group lessons in One-Handed and Two-Handed Fly Casting

Simply the best!

Two great grilse and salmon flies

Grilse (Atlantic Salmon) on the fly:

Ally Gowans - Scotland

Going for Grilse

At the mention of grilse, the first picture that comes to mind is of sparklingly bright, energetic small salmon showing at the heads and tails of pools as they charge upstream the like torpedoes, hell bent on reaching every part of the river system.  Those that are hooked usually do their utmost to struggle free with more vigour, energy and aerobatics than many a larger fish and for this reason they are highly prised as a sporting quarry.

What are grilse? Grilse are the first salmon of any generation of smolts to return as adults, having spent one winter at sea, growing from a few ounces to small adults of several pound's weight. They first appear at the end of May and continue to arrive throughout the remainder of the angling season.

Anglers usually think of grilse as the small fish arriving between May and July most of which are clearly identifiable and are largely unaware of their later brethren, several pounds heavier that are mistakenly classed as salmon. Knowing a little about the habits of grilse helps explain their reactions and to predict when are they more likely to be caught. Even in the lowest water some grilse are likely to enter rivers choosing their time carefully to minimise danger. Large tides, wind and darkness are all bear influence on their behaviour.

Local knowledge is of tremendous benefit if you are trying to plan fishing at the best times and as always the chap who can pick and choose when to fish has a huge advantage over someone with a fixed let. Grilse are not likely to run very far up small rivers during low water. Large rivers, for example the Miriamchi in New Brunswick, Canada and the Margaree River, Nova Scotia, Canada, are different and lower beats can provide good sport during low water conditions.

Once they have committed themselves, grilse in large rivers move upstream with much less restraint than larger fish. Dusk unsettles them and gives them confidence, encouraging them to leave their daytime lies and go prospecting into faster, oxygenated water before trying to make progress during darkness. The most productive time to fish if the water is low is for a couple of hours before darkness and a couple of hours just after first light.

Daylight migration takes place usually when rivers are above summer level but on the larger rivers grilse may push on if the weather is dull under any conditions. I have often heard tale of someone fishing a pool thoroughly for nothing, only to see the next angler step in and catch two or three grilse one after the other. Ah! You might say the first angler must have been doing something wrong. Not necessarily so say I, grilse can move through beats very quickly. Often it's not long after a shoal of fish is seen entering a pool that one is caught. Now is make your mind up time, having caught what you think is a running fish, do you continue fishing there or head for the next good taking spot upstream? It's a gamble. If the pool I'm fishing is a good one I normally give it another chance, should nothing happen I would have no hesitation in moving upstream to try to intercept the running fish again if possible.

Small rivers are a different kettle of fish. When they are low, virtually nothing goes far past the sea pools. Given a spate at the right time however it's a completely different matter and the river may fill with them.

Fly-fishing at grilse time produces something of a dilemma for the salmon angler. Do you fish "normal" salmon or fish lighter? Much depends on the size of river you have to cover and what you expect to catch. Make no mistake, salmon and grilse are the same fish and fish of any size can be caught on tiny flies. On small rivers this is not too much of a problem. I am quite happy to fish with a #7 or #8 single-handed rod knowing that if a large fish gets hooked I can follow it and shouldn't run out of backing. Fish of 10lbs or even larger can be comfortably handled and even small grilse give a good account of themselves on such light tackle. Last season whilst casting to a grilse with a little fly I was amazed by the strength and power of the fish that I hooked. It turned out to be a fresh run summer salmon close to 20 lbs that handled relatively easily on my #8, 9ft. 6ins. rod.

On a large river, a single-handed rod might cope with a decent grilse that behaved itself but one that goes berserk or a large salmon will be a real problem taking either a ridiculously long time to land or ending in disaster. Using a 15ft rod and #10 line certainly copes with anything hooked, but it doesn't necessarily produce excitement with a small grilse attached. Best solution for typical medium sized rivers is I think, a rod of about 13ft for a #9 line. This gives good water command, enough "backbone" to handle a big fish and is perfectly suitable for grilse and summer salmon in any size of river. It will also cope with any size of fly likely to be needed in high water conditions.

Fly sizes and types for grilse are identical to those for salmon but because rivers are often low and warm at grilse time smaller sizes are more likely to be used. I always like to make sure I have in my box a few small tubes' 1/4 & 1/2 inch long, armed with number 16 hooks, a selection of bugs including Green Machine and Shady Lady sizes 8, 10 and 12 and a variety of dressed flies from 6's down to 12's. My favourite patterns are Ally's Shrimp, Silver Ally’s, Cascade, Tummel Shrimp, Ally’s Yellow Shrimp, Stoats Tail (preferably with jungle cock cheeks), Executioner, Pearl Stoat and Blue Charm. The faithful Collie Dog or Sunray Shadow are musts for when all else fails and for when you want to show them something completely different. It’s surprising how often a fast fly works after all else has failed.

One final point about grilse, they are not the easiest fish to tail because their tail area is not strong and it compresses easily in the hand. One wriggle from a lively grilse and chances are that it will slip from your grasp. Beaching is always the safest method but it can cause damage to the fish and perhaps there are no beaches so it is best to use a knotless landing net.  Like most anglers I hate carrying a net but at grilse time it is foolhardy to go without. In terms of salmon stocks, grilse are the most numerous component and therefore harvesting a few does little to dent the spawning effort. Tight lines and safe releases.

Ally Gowans