Killer fly – The Frances
In red, black or fire orange, this remains one of the simplest and deadliest weapons in the salmon-fisher's armoury, says Matt Harris.
More than any other genre, Atlantic salmon flies have an almost mystical lore attached to them. While modern-day steelhead fisherfolk are cheerfully irreverent about their flies, choosing them with a disarming whimsy and rarely obsessing or even remembering the design of a successful pattern, salmon anglers still seem to believe that the fly pattern is the key to why they caught – or didn't catch. Look in the catch book: does it mention the type of line or sink-tip the angler was using? Was he/she retrieving the fly? Or fishing it with a downstream mend? Was the fly big or small? Was it a single, a double, a treble or a tube? Was it plastic, brass, copper or tungsten? Did it sport a conehead? I don't know! All it says is “Cascade”.
Most of the time, I'm with the steelheaders – I would much rather know how you caught your fish, and I'm not that bothered about the precise pattern. I don't worry too much what's in the book and I'm not too worried if I don't happen to have the local killer. But make sure you don't steal my selection of Frances flies – then I might just get cranky. Very cranky.
The Frances is a singular fly; even with fashionable and highly effective “Johnny-come-lately” homages like the Pot-bellied Pig and the Frank'n Snaelda crowding up an already over-stuffed box, the original Frances in red, black or – my favourite – fire orange, remains one of the simplest and deadliest weapons in the salmon-fisher's armoury.
Many anglers reserve its use for a last hurrah, only after they have flogged the pool with more conventional patterns, believing the old myth that a Frances will either result in a strike or put every fish in the pool down. This is nonsense – unless, of course, the fly is huge. In which case, what else would you expect from any self-respecting salmon? Believe me, the Frances in all of its many incarnations – from near invisible size 16 trebles to ludicrous great carrots on three inches of brass – is one of the deadliest salmon flies ever devised.
Indeed, my first question in an Atlantic salmon lodge is almost always a desperately affected throwaway variation of: “Er, do you ever use a Frances?” And the answer I crave is not “yes, great pattern!” but “no, we never use them here, they don't seem to work”. Sweet music! I can't tie one on quick enough.
The truth is they do work. Everywhere.
Despite being some of the best Atlantic salmon anglers on earth, the Norwegians, for some reason, seem not to have embraced the charms of Peter Dean's murderous talisman. On the hard-fished public waters of most of Norway's salmon rivers, you can bet your bottom dollar that the fish in your pool have seen at least a dozen Templedogs and Sunrays in various colours and sizes, but here at least, they've seldom seen this bristling little prawn-freak, waving its spiky whiskers in a brazen little fandango that is surely an effrontery to any self-respecting salmon.
The Frances just seems to radiate an infuriating audacity: look at it! Who does he think he is? A wretched, puny little shrimp, flexing his pathetic little muscles, invading Salmo salar's space and belittling his manhood, while our hero is trying to whisper sweet nothings into that sleek silver hen's ear. No wonder so many salmon seem to wrench your arm off for a well-presented Frances.
One quick word of warning, though. Many Frances flies are simply not built to last and I have lost count of the flies I have had to bin because they have simply fallen apart. The best and most durable Frances flies I have ever used are tied by Jon Ingi Agustsson and his team, and they are utterly murderous. Jon's new UV Frances patterns are also lethal, and have already helped me catch six clonking great springers from Norway's magical but ultra-tough Reisa River. Meanwhile, my experienced fishing partner insisted on fishing traditional Templedogs and Sunrays like everyone else. And he caught just the one fish all week.