The Vulnerable Prey Image (Part 1)

The Vulnerable Prey Image (Part 1)
The big question that I often get asked is – What is the most important thing of all in fly fishing?. In my opinion it’s a close call between fly casting ability and the ability to create a Vulnerable Prey Image. Some anglers maintain that salmon fishing is completely different to trout fishing, and that pike fishing is even further removed again. While I can agree that we may use different flies, lures, rods, reels, lines, when targeting any one particular species, it is the ultimate goal of our fly presentations that we induce a fish to take. All things been equal, and without undermining the importance of all the many variables involved, I believe the single most important thing of all when we present our flies to Salmon, Trout, and Pike is creating a Vulnerable Prey Image

Mother lion had been yawning as she rested in the shade of a tree, watching her half grown cubs unsuccessfully chasing everything that moved until they exhausted themselves, but as soon as this unfortunate Vulnerable Prey Image limped past dragging an injured leg, she was in for the kill immediately. The most gain for the least effort, banking on the sure thing, minimizing wasted effort, that’s the name of the game if you are a predator. When we look at this picture of a lion swooping in for the kill most anglers would have no difficulty imagining a Pike in a similar attack scenario in some weed fringed lake or river. It is when we try to put trout and salmon into this picture that some fly fishers have difficulty in accepting that both trout and salmon are just as voracious, aggressive, and efficient as the lioness in the picture.

This bird is pretending to be injured by dragging its wing along the ground and is successfully enticing a predator (Fox) away from her nest. This just shows how strong an impact that creating an image of vulnerability can have on a predator.

Why is it that Game anglers find difficulty in accepting that salmon and trout are voracious, aggressive killers? One explanation could be that many angling writers down through the years have depicted trout as a highly educated, intelligent species only daintily nibbling down a succession of perfectly formed floating natural dry flies. Added to this we have some salmon angling writers offering no plausible explanation about salmon taking/feeding behaviour in freshwater except to seemingly through their arms up in despair at the mere thought that there could be any real logical explanation . The common reason given for their frustration is that because salmon are scientifically know not to feed in fresh water, and it all must be some huge mystery why salmon ever take our flies at all! . This must be very frustrating and confusing for beginner salmon anglers because depending on where they investigate to obtain a good basic understanding of the sport, they are offered either good sound advice at one end of the scale or some form of mystical wishy washy drivel at the other end, and everything in between. There is a logical reason why salmon, trout and pike take our flies and most of it concerns presenting a Vulnerable Prey Image.


The two main types of flies that we use when fly fishing for salmon or trout are small bait fish imitations and insect imitations. When we look at a famous salmon fly like the Gold Willie Gunn and imagine it under water in our favorite pool darting in short spurts as we strip it over the lies we realize that we are really imitating a little fish trying to evade capture. At the same time somewhere in the USA you will have a trout fly fisher fishing a very similar fly called a Mickey Finn in his favorite pool. In fact there is quite a lot of interchanging of bait fish imitating fly patterns between trout and salmon anglers. Many originally trout based imitations such as the zonker/minkie style flies have now been adopted fully into the salmon scene. I remember years ago fishing a falling flood on the river Easkey managing to land four nice fresh fish on a rainbow trout style minky fly. As I was unhooking my fourth fish a man approached me for a chat. As it turned out it was a client who I was going to be guiding the next day. He seemed to be very interested in the fly that I was using and when I showed it to him —well lets just say he nearly fell into the river!. “But it’s a rainbow trout fly” he said, “why would you dream of using such a fly”. His reaction to my choice of fly really brought it home to me that we salmon anglers are often too constrained by tradition and peer pressure to logically asses the prevailing river conditions and fish whatever fly we have at our disposal that gives us the best chance of a fish. That day on the Easkey the water conditions were more suitable for spinning than fly fishing and the only fly in my box that came close to imitating a yellow flying c spinner was a 75mm yellow Minky .

Can you replace the pike in the photo above and imagine a salmon taking a fly in the same situation and for the same reasons.  If you can then you are well on the way to understanding the major part of  salmon taking behavior

Getting back to the Vulnerable Prey Image – what’s the difference between what normal prey look like and what vulnerable prey might look like? . I would think that normal prey try to look as inconspicuous as possible using their camouflage and any available cover when possible. Normal prey likes to blend into the background of their underwater world, and not draw any attention in any way from the local predators. Vulnerable prey are just normal prey that stand out from the crowd. This standing out from the crowd, or if you like, looking different from the norm, is a strong trigger for predators like salmon, trout, and pike to attack. Our poor unfortunate prey may be injured, may have been washed away in a strong current, may have been separated from its shoal and be alone, may be diseased, may be diseased and this may have changed its coloration making it more conspicuous, may have been feeding on insects at the surface over deep water leaving itself vulnerable to an unseen attacker launching from below and I am sure you can think of more. Salmon , trout, and pike all feed on both normal prey and vulnerable prey from a young age but as they grow and their bodies need proportionally more return in nutrition than they are expending in energy accessing this food, then they gradually develop the vital ability to spot weakness and take advantage at every opportunity. In fact salmon, trout, and pike are hot wired to instantly react and attack prey that is displaying symptoms of vulnerability. I suppose you could call it an automatic natural reflex action. Salmon lose their sea teeth before entering fresh water on their homeward journey. If you were to see a salmon with their sea teeth then you would fully realize that they are supreme predators and the next time one comes to your fly you can admire one of natures most lethal and efficient killing machines.

Mr Dave Anglis putting it all together on the Ridge Pool, river Moy

We can incorporate mobile materials such as rabbit or mink fur strips into our salmon flies along with many other modern synthetics to help us make our flies look more alive in the water. Is this necessary? — well in some situations it will be important but lets not forget our Gold Willie Gunn mentioned earlier . Our Gold Willie Gunn is not tied with very mobile materials but still continues to fool salmon every season. This is because it’s what a salmon thinks it sees that really matters and its up to us to manipulate our flies and offer up a Vulnerable Prey Image.

Skilfully presenting a fly that drops back erratically as it enters, and swims across a strong current gives the strong impression of a creature unable to hold its place, and is struggling to survive. This impression of weakness makes the fly look like an easy target for a trout, or salmon. When we fish artificial flies that are supposed to represent prey fish over trout, salmon, and pike there are a variety of things we can do to help create the required illusion of vulnerability. We can incorporate weight in the fly tying process that if positioned near the head of the fly will help to give it an undulating swimming action mimicking the action of a distressed fish. Another way to achieve the same action without adding the weight in the tying process is to add a heavy split shot to the leader just up from the fly. There a variety of plastic lips, discs, vanes, and cones etc that can be added to our flies to make them dive, wobble, pulse, stutter, and if combined with various floating/sinking fly lines, we can then add different styles of retrieve, varying from short strips to full hand over hand, and all the variations in between, helping us to adapt to any given situation. Remember we can also make use of various river currents to control the angle and speed of our flies along with various presentation casts to help mimic the action of Vulnerable Prey.


How does the Vulnerable Prey Image apply in this situation?

In the second part of this study we will take a close look at the Vulnerable Prey Image and its relevance to fish feeding on insects.

If you have found this article interesting, please share it with your fishing friends on Facebook

All the best



Hooking Salmon On The Fly (part 1)

Marko Feltes playing a salmon on the river Moy


If there is one aspect of salmon fly fishing technique that causes frequent frustration, spoiled holidays, frayed tempers, and missed opportunities then it must be the inability to properly hook the fish that take our flies.  There are many reasons why this lack of what is basically a simple technique should be so prevalent, and one of the main culprits is conflicting information in angling books, or sources such as some internet fishing websites/forums.  Fishing forums are occasionally the source of confusion and unsound advice as some of the persons offering advice in their posts are inexperienced but this does not stop them offering their wisdom to all, even though they may have personally caught few salmon.  The inexperienced contributors to these forums don’t fully realise the inadequacy of their experience and to be fair they probably think that they are helping some other beginner along the way.  The new visitor posting on one of these forums looking for advice will usually get some very good advice from one of the really experienced members, but he may also get many other replies from novice anglers, so which advice should he take? .  Well the reality is that he or she will not usually know which advice is good and which is unsound as there will be so many conflicting opinions offered and the good advice often gets lost among all the various contributions.  The old boy’s years ago used to say that one shouldn’t be giving advice on salmon fishing to anyone until they had landed at least five hundred fish and better still to wait until after they had landed a few thousand. When an angler has landed about five hundred salmon you can say that he or she has acquired a reasonable or good level of experience and when that figure increases to a couple of thousand or more then one can be sure that a high level of skill and experience has been achieved.  The key word in all this is experience.  In an earlier article we looked at the creation of a vulnerable prey image as been the most important thing of all, but actual fishing experience built up over a number of years runs in a very close second.  A total beginner can cast his fly haphazardly across the stream and by pure chance actually create a good presentation, and if by chance there happens to be a taking fish near the fly it may rise and take.  Our beginner then strikes immediately, hooking his first salmon eventually landing it, and then fishes on for the rest of the day without another take.  In this case our beginner was lucky that his haphazard presentation still created an attractive image, and that luckily there was a taking fish in the vicinity, with the final bit of luck being that despite striking too soon he still managed hooked his fish.  Let’s put our experienced angler into the same scenario and look at what might happen.  Our experienced angler makes a cast that lands in a similar fashion to our beginners cast and immediately realizes that his line hasn’t lain out on the water as he had planned, but rather than cause extra disturbance through recasting he lets his fly fish around. The salmon rises and takes the fly while our experienced angler doesn’t strike immediately but allows adequate time for the fish to take properly hooks the fish and eventually lands it.  The experienced angler was fully aware that his line landed at a different angle across the stream than he had originally intended but he let his fly fish around as it was still fishing reasonably well.  After getting a take at that angle of presentation the experienced angler had a little review of the situation,and his strategy, maybe the current here is slightly slower/faster than first calculations suggested, and maybe it might be a good idea to continue with this angle of presentation.  He then proceeds to hook two other salmon lower down the pool landing both as his hooking technique had been perfected over many years.  For the beginner luck played a major role, but for the experienced angler it was his well practiced keen observation that allowed him to realize what had actually transpired and to take maximum advantage.

A lot of effort to get into position and hopefully a calm reaction when the fish takes


Luck is of course a factor in salmon fishing, but for experienced anglers the luck that is most important to them is to be in the right place at the right time, and when a salmon takes their fly they will successfully hook the majority of them.  Experienced anglers that hook a high percentage of the salmon that take their flies have either been taught a correct hooking procedure or through trial/error, and the heartache of many lost fish have developed a style that definitely does not include any form of rapid lifting or striking as the fish is in the process of taking.  I have used the word process as this is the best description of what may happen or develop when a salmon takes.  This process maybe over in a split second or it might take anything up to ten seconds to complete, and this is all very normal as salmon can come to our flies in many different ways.

A salmon may take our fly in a variety of ways such as, take in arcing movement and then continue to circle right or left back downriver from us, take and back directly downstream for a considerable distance before turning, take and then continue forward a little before either turning or just gradually tail back as it returns to the river bed, suck in the fly and hold station whilst shaking its head savagely eventually turning left or right back downriver, Bow wave directly to the fly from some distance and take with a dramatic swirl, among others. With such wide scope for individualistic taking behavior in certain situations it is obvious that no one hooking technique will be one hundred per cent successful all the time, even the correct application of two or three well adapted hooking techniques for various situations when used wisely still wont give us perfection, but why should it, salmon are wild creatures and we are after all only human.  The real question should be-what hooking technique works best most of the time?

A high rod tip provides a nice shock absorbing droop of fly line

The hooking technique that I use for the vast majority of my fishing is very straightforward and easy to execute.  I was shown this style by the late Tommy Byrne from Swinford when I was teenager and it has worked well for every angler I have passed it on to since.  While my fly is swimming across the river I keep the rod tip well up and by this I mean the rod should be held up at least at 45 degrees if possible.  This creates a drooping curve of fly line from the rod tip to the water acting as a shock absorber against sudden takes and also it acts as a visual indicator of a developing take as the fish pulls line starting to straighten this curve.   We will often see the take with this visual aid even before we start to feel the take at hand.  The actual initial feel of the take at hand can vary from the sensation of the fly line feeling almost imperceptibly slightly heavier right up to the slamming take that warps the rod around and the fish taking line off the reel immediately. The majority of takes start with a tap or a tug, this can follow a variety of sequences such as, tug tug, tug nothing for a couple of seconds then tug tug, three or four fairly evenly spaced tugs that develop into stronger pulls, the important thing is that if we give the fish enough time these tugs will get stronger and start to feel more like really positive pulls rather than taps or relatively gentle tugs. The taps or tugs are caused by the salmon shaking its head as it tries to crush and kill the prey it has captured and as the fish progressively starts to add more body movement to this killing action the tugs get stronger eventually culminating in the salmon trying to return to its lie.  When I get the first indication of a take whether it is the line starting to straighten or a tug I drop the rod a little and wait to see what develops.  I hold the rod completely still in this position until I get more tugs and then I drop my rod tip a little more. While these tugs continue to remain fairly gentle I gradually continue gradually dropping my rod tip and only stop dropping the rod when the tugs develop into really strong pulls.  When the fish starts to pull strongly I clamp the fly line while calmly and progressively raising the rod back up to about 45 degrees

At this stage I have the line clamped against the weight of the fish with the rod back up at or slightly above 45 degrees and I hold everything tight for a few seconds to make sure the hook is well embedded.  Our salmon is now hopefully well hooked and we unclamp the fly line, ease off the pressure and play the fish.

A shorter version of the strategy outlined above would be – as we get the first tug drop the rod tip a little, as the tugs gradually get stronger we keep dropping the rod tip in gradual increments, when the tugs change into strong pulls stop dropping the rod tip clamp the line tight for a few seconds as we smoothly raise the rod back up as this sets the hook, then ease off and play the fish.

David Anglis stayed calm and hooked this nice fish on the Ridge pool River Moy

The main points to remember are- try to keep the rod tip well up as the fly fishes around, drop the rod tip in gradual increments as the tugs get stronger, when the gradually strengthening tugs change to strong pulls where you are really starting to feel the weight of the fish then clamp the line and smoothly raise the rod to set the hook.  I get to see a lot of salmon hooked successfully or lost because of incorrect technique, but one of the most enjoyable hook-ups that I have witnessed in quiet a while happened as Andre Babik was fishing a pool on the Moy a few years ago.  A salmon took Andre’s fly with a tug tug, Andre dropped his rod tip a little in response, but he had to wait about five seconds before he got another single tug and he dropped his rod tip a little more in response, then there was a lapse of about three or four seconds before he started to get a series of gradually stronger tugs, he continued to drop his rod tip a little with each successive tug and when the transition from gradually stronger tugs to strong pulls came he clamped the line and set the hook.  The whole taking sequence took about eight to ten seconds, but Andre had the patience to remain calm and wait to claim his prize.  The real secret is waiting until the tugs change to strong pulls, and as an experiment just hold the sleeve of your shirt with two fingers and have a few tugs, then grasp a good clump of your sleeve with all your fingers clenched tightly and have a few pulls, I hope you will feel the subtle difference.

All the best