by Steven Neely


How to Fish A Sunray Shadow – Go Different

A ghillie pointed out to me recently that in his experience, most fishers do not ‘go different enough’ when salmon aren’t co-operating. Merely dropping or increasing the size of fly slightly or changing from one pattern to another isn’t enough. When you learn how to fish a Sunray Shadow, correctly, it is not only a different fly. But a very different technique – a good call for when the conventional has failed. 

Fishing a Sunray Shadow Fly effectively requires a combination of various skills. When watching a polished performer, in the zone on a big river, you will see a masterclass in various techniques. All working together harmoniously: effortless, long-distance casting, pitching at different angles; the smooth drawing of shooting line, always connected and always working with the flow; faultless line management, and ultimately total command of the rod, line and fly.

An angler casting in a river showing How To Fish A Sunray Shadow

How to Fish A Sunray Shadow – Square Angles

Fishing the Sunray differs from traditional techniques in two ways. To put it simply, anglers cast the Sunray Shadow fly at square angles. Anglers sometimes cast it even upstream and fish it at a faster pace than what is considered the norm. When learning how to fish the Sunray Shadow fly you need to impart extra speed into the fly. You can achieve this by retrieving the shooting line during the fly’s swing, rather than allowing the fly to swing using the available flow.

Generally, in salmon fishing, we cast across, swing into the dangle, and then strip back shooting line while taking a few paces down the pool. We repeat this process until we cover as much of the pool as we desire.

How to Fish A Sunray Shadow – When to move?

The thing about stripping line on the swing that people struggle with is once they have fished the fly back to where they are standing, they haven’t moved down the pool. So when do we move down through the pool? Obviously, we aim to avoid crunching gravel, moving down while retrieving the fly, and the risk of snagging the bottom is present when walking down with the fly on the dangle after it has been fished out. The trick here is to learn to walk down whilst performing a roll-cast. Moving through two or even three roll casts before firing the Sunray again.

A picture of a fly perfect for explaining How To Fish A Sunray Shadow

I use the term stripping line simply because most fly fishers can relate to this. However, I’m not keen on the word as it suggests a snatchy, yanking or tweaking of the line. This is often associated with salt or stillwater fishing. In my experience, salmon seem to respond better to longer, smoother accelerated pulls of line and ‘drawing’ the line sounds more apt. Whatever the term used, super slick shooting line is a must and rough line is to be avoided.  High floating shooting line also makes life much easier than line that sinks. Coils of shooting line need to be high floating. So less drag is encountered and casting distance is enhanced rather than hampered.

How to Fish A Sunray Shadow – Line Systems

Certain line systems and spey casts are better than others for when you are learning how to fish a Sunray Shadow fly. Long-headed lines are not ideal for a few reasons. Firstly, we need a short head and lots of available shooting line to fish the fly back with – not the other way around.

Payload or turn over capabilities can be limited with Spey lines. The Sunray Shadow can be a big fly. Often a 1 1/2inch aluminium tube with a wing of 5 inches, or longer, and sometimes with a cone head.  A shooting head such as the RIO Elite Scandi Outbound Body matched with RIO Replacement Tips has the necessary payload to turn over bigger Sunrays compared to Spey lines, and will also make it easier to achieve bigger angles and changes in direction. The integrated running line also gives you the opportunity to draw the fly even closer to the rod tip without the rattle of joining loops in the guides. 

Owing to their shortness, Skagit heads such as the RIO Elite Skagit Max Launch or RIO Skagit Max Gamechanger are also good with big-angled spey casts. Their turnover capabilities are second to none. However, Skagit heads to match 15ft rods (650-750grain) can be a bit of an overkill with this method. This is because in my experience it is in medium to low water conditions when sport with a Sunray seems most likely. Lighter Skagits used with shorter rods of say 14ft-13ft, or even Switch rods, would be a good choice. To understand more about using Skagit lines click here.

Some spey casts are better than others for assisting square-angled deliveries. The Snap T easily out-performs the Single Spey in big angle changes. While the Snake Roll is quicker to perform than the Double Spey in downstream winds and also has the edge where 90 degree-plus cast are required. So these are two casts I’d recommend practising with this method.

A picture of a salmon perfectly showing How To Fish A Sunray Shadow fly

How to Fish A Sunray Shadow – Leaders

Consider the leader’s length and diameter. A 9ft RIO Fluoroflex Salmon Leader with a breaking strain of 16 or 20lb seems about right. If it’s much longer, it can compromise the turnover, and if it’s much shorter, I sense that the fly is too close to the fly line/sink-tip.  I’m a great believer in using a sink tip line or sinking RIO Versileader. If using a full floating shooting head, between 3ips to 7ips depending on the speed of current. The takes seem more positive when the fly is dug in. Rather than fished just under or in the surface where the salmon can just smash at the fly and often miss it. 

How to Fish A Sunray Shadow – When To Deploy

Recently, someone asked me why we don’t fish the Sunray most of the time? A good question. Firstly, the fish must be willing to chase a faster moving lure, which tends to happen further into the season when the water warms. Anglers find this technique much more suitable for faster water rather than slow-moving currents.

It involves a relatively fast-paced form of fishing, and anglers move through pools much more quickly, which can sometimes be advantageous. Being brutally honest, I’m often Sunray-ed out after a couple hours if nothing has happened. To be fair, when there are fish about, if it is going to work it does so quite quickly. To not have at least a couple of Sunrays in my fly box would have cost me fish over the years, fish I’m positive I would not have caught otherwise.

Is it then a minor technique? It possibly could be, but at times it may be the only method to winkle out the prize. Learn how to fish a Sunray Shadow and, undoubtedly, you will have a genuine blank saver in your armoury.

View The Full Caledonia Sunray Range


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