Tips on Atlantic Salmon Fishing
If you have never fished for Atlantic salmon, you are in for a challenging and unique experience unlike any other fishing experience you have had. I have fished for most of the freshwater game fish found in the eastern half of canada, and am yet to find a more worthy opponent. Some say they can sum up Atlantic salmon fishing with four phrases: starvation, sleep depravation, frustration, and true adjulation. Salmon fishing was never a catch, catch, catch, type of fishery with gunny sacks of fish put to the beach. Atlantic salmon do not feed while in fresh water and why they take a fly is still not known and may never be scientifically tested. An article from Outing magazine published in 1904 (when most of Newfoundland was unexplored and unmapped) describes a scene at Big Falls on the, at the time, very remote Humber River. The anglers were amazed at the number of salmon rising around their canoes and trying to jump the Falls, but not a one was caught! Salmon fishing is an art and science that takes a lifetime to become well versed in. However, if you can go on a guided atlantic salmon fishing trip or suffer through the disappointments of adapting to a new sport and survive your first few seasons AND manage to land a few salmon; you're well on your way with fish coming to your hands easier and easier each year. Salmon fishing will teach you a plethora of knowledge of the natural environment while instilling patience, and respect for wildlife and fellow anglers. I have seen entire personalities change as a result of frequent salmon fly fishing (for either better or worse). However, be aware of the "seasoned river dog" who seems to catch salmon at will, as this individual is truly addicted, has spent a life-time of summers salmon fishing, and is the worst of fishermen for a stranger to pry knowledge from. However, I have found that even a small tip from one of these people is worth a whole summer of fishing experience! There is a lot of incorrect knowledge or "old wives tales" that float around most rivers but if you talk to an angler who is consistently out fishing the other anglers you'll be talking with the right person. Much of this article owes authorship rights to this type of individual. While I do have to admit that my greatest instructor was/is the fish themselves, there are many great atlantic salmon anglers that have willingly or unwittingly provided great assistance to me. This seems as good a spot as any (and in no particular order) to thank the local legends that have helped me learn how to effectively catch atlantic salmon (sometimes without even talking with me): Wince Farthing, Eric Cranford, Barry Carter, John "Bud" Cook, the late Arthur Barnes, Clar Wareham, Ches Loughlin, Brad Andrews, "The Goat", "Sports" from around the globe, and the many other anglers who never "reeled-up and left" when they seen another angler coming.
The following is a list of tips that I have either learned by trial and error or most likely have been taught by a great angler. Thanks be to all the "river dogs" that have passed this knowledge along for me to share. Anglers usually get so few takes in the run of a day it helps to make as few mistakes as possible and miss as few opportunities or takes as possible.
How Adapt are Salmon at Feeding?
One fine early July afternoon found me guiding at a place called Cabin Pool on the Upper Humber. The grilse were running hard and some anglers had caught their limit of 6 fish. However, one seasoned angler seemed to be having great difficulties. I watched repeatedly as he gave a quick snap on his rod as if setting the hook. This happened at least 20 times in a hour. Finally he bellowed "All Right" reeled in his line and changed flies. His first cast produced a grilse which he landed. He then waded back out in to the river to the lay he was fishing and his second cast produced a fish which he expertly landed. Amazed by all this I waded across the heavy current risking getting wet. The gentleman was packing up to hike home with his legal retention limit as I sat down next to him, introduced myself, and asked if he minded if I asked a question. With his permission, "What just happened?", I asked "I watched you striking fish and figured they were "short takers" to which he smiled and laughed." "No my son," he replied "they were hitting the fly all right." At which point he withdrew a #6 silver cosseboom with virtually no gray squirrel hair left in the wing. He continued "The little devils were targeting the white tip in the end of the wing and picking all the hair out of it! Finally, in frustration, I realized what was going on and switched to a brown squirrel wing with no white in it", and he held up the two grilse for inspection, "Guess it worked" he finished. Imagine how keen those grilse were to repeatedly swim up to a #6 hook and pick at the end of the wing and not eat the hook!
Can Salmonids Learn?
A hooked fish will take a fly a second time. Through my travels in Labrador's arctic and southern interior, and the Island of Newfoundland, I have seen many instances where brook trout, arctic char, and Atlantic salmon have taken twice, three, and many more times. Sometimes these takes were only minutes apart. This is very hard for most seasoned angler to believe, and even some seasoned guides. However, I have become personal with a few brook trout, salmon, and char. I was on a first name basis with these fish and the fishes jaw had so many hook scares in it by the end of the summer it looked like a pin cushion. A guest I was guiding hooked a late July jack salmon (male salmon) on the Humber river and upon landing the fish we removed an 8 foot tapered 0X leader, braided loop attachment, and a #4 royal Wulf dry fly that someone had previously lost while fighting the fish. This amazed a very seasoned local salmon guide with decades of more experience than me and he professed this was the first time he seen such a thing and he would not have believed it if he had not seen it with his own eyes. Some guides have a favorite fish for the slow days.
Sometimes (but not nearly as often as many anglers think) the fly you use will make a big difference. The best example of this I can think of is stale or relatively stale (3-4+ weeks) holding salmon. Fresh salmon (especially running fish) are usually less concerned over what it is they are attacking/eating. I have heard the old joke that "the salmon in that pool can tye a "_______" ( insert the favorite local pattern here). Moreover, I have seen fresh but holding salmon that would not rise for an Orange Bomber (what every angler in the river was fishing with) as they had seen the fly a hundred times each. My fly of choice in this situation was a small Brown Wulf. I landed 3 grilse salmon in about 30 minutes (these being the only 3 landed all afternoon among a dozen salmon anglers). Those salmon knew what an Orange Bomber looked like and won't eat it but the little Brown Wulf looked like food! I repeated the "trick" later the same week during a slow down in the run of fresh salmon. I switched to trying for the holding salmon in front of me, this time with a small #16 nymph with a stripping retrieve; despite the high water. I had action on nearly every cast for about 10 minutes and landed the first fish of about 2-3 hours of fishing by our group. Stale fish (both trout and salmon) can get fussy and "educated". I have even watched salmon and trout spook from a fly because they had been "flailed to death" by flies.
The best example of fish intelligence or learning ability that I can find occurred at a fish growing tank. The trout had learned to use the dispenser to feed themselves at will! A device that hung over the pool and released pelleted food had a red press-botton switch that was on the food release chute and had to be held down to release a stream of pellets into the pool. As the well documented story goes, the farmer was working one day when he noticed a trout jump in the air and hit the red button which released a few pellets. In shock, he sat down next to the pool and after awhile the trout (thought to be the same fish) repeated the jump, button press, and feeding. With a chuckle the farmer passed it off as a lucky fish and the fact that the button was red. However, within a few weeks all the trout in the pool were "self feeding" and jumping at the red button!
I watched a guy one day step in a river a good distance up stream of a pool of fresh rising salmon on a relatively slow moving remote river. Within minutes the rises decreased and soon after stopped all together. The fish had probably both heard him and smelled him but had not likely seen him as he was a long distance up stream. I am convinced that smell was the greatest factor in this shut down.
I have often watched as salmon - both grilse and very large trophy salmon - "played" with flies. I have seen many salmon squirt water at a fly, smash the fly with its tail, roll the fly over its back or head as it rose to the surface, rise and pick at it or nibble the fly, charge/attack and jump past the fly as it rolled down the body of the fish, and many other strange things. But there is one thing that I seen many grilse do at Big Falls on the Humber River that made me think about the smell of my flies. I have watched many grilse slowly rise to a fly from nearly straight under it and then stop short of eating it. I watched fish that actually rose to the fly rather lazily and then started to open its mouth and then closed it and sunk back down to the bottom. Other fish would rise to the fly and then hover vertical under it with its snout and inch below the fly and tail walk down stream holding this position as it "studied" the dry fly. To this day, I think these fish were looking closely at and smelling the fly. If smell is a sense that helps most fish find food why should an Atlantic salmon be any different? Surely a salmon chasing a few inches behind a wet fly can smell any odor on the fly? How many times had a salmon that had made a "hard rise" for my fly gotten a good smell of my fly and not returned? Many hunters know about a protein in carnivore sweat that will alert or panic other animals. The ultimate demonstration of this was done at a large in store trout tank at a fly fishing seminar in the USA. The brown trout (the closest genetic relative of the Atlantic salmon) were feeding heavily when a single drop of this sweated out protein was dropped in the swimming pool sized tank. Within a minute or two all trout immediately stopped feeding.
Some old salmon anglers tell me to take a fly off if a trout was hooked on it as a salmon that gets a chance to smell your fly will not eat it. I am still testing this idea.
Sun and Water Temperature
The ideal water temperature for catching salmon and brook trout will vary between rivers found throughout the geographic range. Obviously a salmon from the Hunt River in Labrador (one of the coldest areas on the planet Atlantic salmon are found) will be more comfortable at a water temperature of 8oC than a salmon from Maine. Conversely, a salmon from Maine is more likely to be more comfortable at a warmer temperature. This north-south range of comfort zones is true for virtually all animals found on the planet. However, having said that, the experts say 56oF (12oC) is ideal for brook trout and 58oF to 62oF (13oC to 15oC) is ideal for Atlantic salmon. One fairly consistent level seems to be the temperature at which salmon have trouble reviving from a fight - 18oC or 64.4oF and even more so at 20oC or 68oF. Try fishing next to cold water inlets under these temperatures as you will both catch and easily revive more fish.
When presented with warm water conditions (>66-68+oF) try going subsurface with clear leaders and tiny wet flies that do not have hollow hair in the wings. Salmon often will rise from the bottom and hit the warmest band of water near the surface (top 6 inches to 2 feet) and turn back down to the cooler water. The fish may want a fly but are not willing to swim through the hot water to get to it. Moreover, the metabolism of the fish is in overdrive in the warm water and the oxygen levels are much lower (colder water dissolves more O2 gas).
These "awww the water is too warm" conditions can produce great fun if one finds a cold feeder stream or spring. Under these conditions you may even find a honey hole. Most of our rivers have salmon packed into these types of lays like sardines under the right condition. Virtually everything that affects salmon behaviour can be used to an anglers advantage.
Mind the sun on bright sunny days and fish subsurface if you can. Never cast to a lay such that the fish has to look at the sun to see your fly. You can use silver flies to your advantage in a situation like this. The silver mylar or uneven tinsel seems to glint the best.
Fresh large salmon will "sun bath" on very shallow shoals during mid day on sunny days. This might sound strange to someone who has not seen hundreds of fish in various rivers do this, but it is true. One might suggest that this allows the melanocytes (camouflaging pigment cells) in the fish's skin to change color to match the surrounding river bottom. None the less the biggest fish often takes the shallowest lay. This is usually only done in spots with deep water nearby - for example the edge of a shoal.
Rain - A Blessing and a Curse
This is the one single factor that will increase the migration rate of fish more than any other factor. Fresh running fish are usually much easier to hook than holding fish. There are many "old sayings" or adages, and "wives tales" about how water levels affect atlantic salmon. Here is my 2 cents worth. The day before the rain (fish feel barometric pressure changes) and the first days of the rising water usually produce great fishing. Rising water levels increase the thyroxin levels in migratory salmonids and thus increases the "feistiness", agitation, and general metabolic levels in preparation for migrating. This increase in thyroxin can be triggered by an increase in water flow rate alone and is genetically programmed into the fish. Hence the reason salmon take off up stream after dead low tide in many tidal pools. One old saying is catch them while it rises and AFTER it stops dropping. Another adage suggests that the second half of the drop provides good fishing. What I will agree with is that for a short time after the crest in the rising water the fishing seems to be slow (sometimes). Dirty or raging water is very bad for fishing and you might as well go back home and tye flies.
Sight and Sound
A shoal I often fish is called Bonia's Point (named after an outfitter who used to fish it often). Above the small shoal is a large, deep, and quiet cove and above that, relatively quite water. I have had great success in this spot but never while making a lot of noise. In other spots however, I have made tremendous amounts of noise and still caught fish easily and very near me.
As a young man, a remote river in central Newfoundland (West Arm Brook) taught me about being stealthy when approaching a pool on a small quite river. Once I learned to stay far away from the edge of the pools and cast from in the woods I began to catch fish on this river. In fact, I had made about 6 to 10 trips to that river full of fresh fish and didn't catch a one until I stalked the pools and stayed way back in the woods while casting. In later years, I had the best salmon fishing of my life from that river - 9 fish landed as fast as I could hook them! Ironically, that evening I was after one of the large 2 to 5 pound brook trout feeding in the river outlet and instead landed 9 salmon!!
Sound has also helped me catch salmon. Three incidences immediately come to mind. All occurred near Big Falls on the Humber River in the late 1980's and 1990's. I was guiding and the two guests in the boat were taking an afternoon break. Small schools of grilse had been migrating past us all day but hooking them was difficult in the bright sun and rising water. Another guide who was working with me had to park his boat right on an excellent mirrored up-well so the guests could reach another nearby lay with limited casting abilities. The fishing had been slow all afternoon and I had judged that me trying to hook a salmon on a dry fly (orange bomber) might both demonstrate and encourage as we had seen hundreds of fresh running and holding salmon that day. So, I picked up one of the rods (which is something I almost never do). I had decide to cast to one of about 30+ grilse that were rising nearby; except the one I choose was about 1 foot from the stern of the other guide's row boat. I made a few casts and moved nothing. Then, while half paying attention to what I was doing the line slipped during a cast and the fly struck the back of the wooden row boat and flopped back onto the mirrored up-well with a pop. The water opened up as a grilse smashed it. I handed the rod to the guest and he played it out and landed it. Quit taken by all this the two guests immediately started fishing, but to no avail. Finally, I suggested to hit the back of the other boat with the bomber and let it flop on to the water. Pow... we hooked another grilse and landed it. The next cast the other sport tried the mirrored spot but didn't want to hit the other boat with his fly......a short set of casts produced nothing. Finally, he pinged the fly off the boat and pow we had grilse number three! There were about 10 anglers in sight and no one had hooked a fish in a couple hours! The trigger was obviously the noise of the fly as it hit the boat. I'm guessing any and all fish laying under the boat looked up the instant of the noise and watched a fly land on the mirrored surface. I have repeated this trick two other times.
A similar incident occurred one day when the fish were once again being difficult to hook. I had tried various techniques, fly sizes and patterns, triggers or presentations etcetera all to no avail. After fishing all day, my casting was getting sloppy and I made a terrible cast to one rising fish and the large #6 orange bomber dry fly smacked the water hard. Pow instant grilse! I hooked 4 fish in short order after that and all were a result of smashing the water with the bomber. I was casting to individual rising grilse of various freshness and I'm guessing this time it was more than just a "numbers game" with the noise making a lot of salmon look up at the water surface and thus the fly found one from the school to be in a "taking mood". In this second instance, each time the fish I hooked was an individual I was casting to and I had seen rise many times.
In desperation one September day, a guest I was guiding switched to a sinking tip line to reach a somewhat stale salmon of about 18 pounds that was laying within sight on the bottom. I had watched the fish grab small bits of debris as it floated by its mouth over a span of about 45 minutes. The white flash of the interior of the mouth of the fish was quit visible. I was familiar with this fish having seen it in this lay for nearly two weeks and decided to try something new. I had the guest tye on a large silver bodied fly and then threw a little pebble in the water which pushed the fish out of it's lay. The guest positioned the fly right in the middle of where the fish had its body in the lay and gently moved it a few inches from side to side. About 5 minutes later I watched as the fish returned to the lay and took the fly aggressively as it swam in to the lay. The plop from the stone had moved but not terrified the fish.
The deadly mistake is to have both sight (casting, shoeing flies, etc), and noise (cough, bad line pick-up, banging a boat, etc).
If you think the fish are spooked just sit down and wait awhile (until you see one rise?). However, at times salmon seem to completely ignore a lot of stimulation that is around them.
To sneak or not to sneak? Those of you with a little knowledge of physics will be familiar with at least some of the following tip. The angle of incidence for smooth surfaced water is 47.5 degrees. This is the angle at which light starts to bend straight down to the river bottom. Below this angle you will be invisible to the fish even in calm water as your image will not penetrate the water but rather bounce off the surface. When approaching a calm pool full of fresh fish, sneak in without pounding foot steps or kicking rocks and stay low (below a 47.5 degree angle to a point in the river straight above the holding fish). Start fishing the water close to very close to shore unless advised otherwise by a guide or learned through experience. Conversely, for very stale fish, a small commotion and visual stimulant followed by a brief rest and then angling; can be successful where legal. Running dogs through a pool and throwing rocks is illegal everywhere and is rather poor form. Although, at times, a properly thrown pebble will make a fish move out its lay and you will see it move and know a fish is in the lay and you are not wasting time fishing the lay.
Orange and especially red attract salmonids more so than any other colors in the rainbow - this is a proven scientific fact. Some fellows buy or paint their boat crimson red and wear fluorescent Mustang floater jackets. Watch Terry Madore on our lower Humber River if you visit......you'll see him coming a long way off in the pitch dark (with stories about huge salmon and trout!).
Silver works well under virtually all lighting conditions, but color seems to make little difference on calm clear water. Salmon have very keen eyes. The extreme extent of this was witnessed by me in the late 1980's on South West Brook when I seen a grilse jump from a deep lay in rippled water, in the dark, and grab a black gnat wet fly (an all black fly) in the air! I have never doubted the atlantic salmons eagle eyesight since.
Try painting your hooks white or tye silver tinsel or white wool under your synthetic wool body flies. This will help the colors stay bright and true. Silk or floss often darkens once wet and much more so than wool. Tinsel bodied flies slip through a fishes mouth better than floss or wool and doesn't tangle in the teeth on the tongue or jaw..
Wind (the guide's second rule of survival....cower in the bottom of the boat or otherwise stay clear)
Re: learning to cast over both shoulders while wearing a heavy cotton hat and tight sun glasses!
A wind coming into the mouth of an inlet or outlet of a lake will allow the salmon to lay in shallower water in the river. The wind can lessen the flow rate of the water and provide cover for the fish via the waves. Similarly, a very clear and calm pool will sometimes fish best on a windy day. I believe the fish are more relaxed and they are far less scared by birds flying over head and other sound stimuli drowned out by the noise of the wind/waves.
The best overall fishing is in the evening and morning when it is CALM. Calm weather virtually always produces more fish unless the fish in the pool are very spooky. Not a little calm.....I mean oily flat calm. If you see parr rising and feeding heavily the salmon are more likely to take. Similarly, large or stale fish are best fished very early or very late in the evening.
There is a theory suggested by some very seasoned anglers that a hooked fish often temporarily stops migrating. In my experience this is very true if the fish was very tired or a little hurt when released. There are a few popular pools on most rivers where these crippled fish increase in numbers as the season progresses. However, these fish can be hooked again for a lesser second fight. Most seasoned anglers pass on these fish or areas.
He Missed It!
A very large salmon can push a fly out of it's mouth while rising for the fly. This can happen with a slow rise or a lightning strike. The problem is that when a very large fish (20+ pounds) rises for a fly it produces a wake in the water that can move the very light fly in the water just as the fish hits the surface and opens its mouth to eat it. With a dry fly there is little that can be done to prevent this and one has to be careful not to foul hook the fish in the gill plate or head after the salmon misses the fly. I watched in horror one day as a truly magnificent salmon (30+ pounds) a guest had been trying to catch for three days finally rose for and chased the wet fly and tried to eat it. The wet fly was on the surface as the salmon rushed the last two feet of river surface for the fly the fish pushed the water and the fly with it around its head on the take. However, if your wet fly is at least a few inches below the water surface while the very large salmon tries to eat it; it is less likely to move the fly out of its mouth and more likely to suck it in. Thus, never use the riffling hitch technique on very large fish as it will keep your wet fly in the surface film. This knot also weakens the tippet and can cut a line if the eye has a burred edge (beware Mustad hooks).
Many times a fish will chase a wet fly and engulf the fly by swimming over it with its mouth open as is the case during an aggressive attack on either a dry fly or wet fly. However, most times (if not everytime) a salmon chases a quickly moving wet fly it is swimming with its mouth closed and pectoral fins tucked in for fluid dynamics and friction reasons. It then has two basic methods to eat something. First they can open the mouth and swim over the food item or they can swim up to the item and then flair the gills and literally suck in the food item in to the mouth. It seems to me that there are two correllations that can be made from the anglers point of view. First they tend to attack a dead drifted dry fly by moving the mouth over the fly far more often than sucking it in. Usually they either rise, lifting the jaws and head slightly above water, open the mouth and swim over the fly with the mouth open as the current drifts it down river. Or they rise quickly and aggressively hit it mouth open and swim over it. Only rarely do I see a gentle sip like that from a trout where you don't see the fishes head and the fly is literlly sucked under the water surface quietly. Usually these trout-like takes are from stale fish packed in warm calm slow moving pools. However, there seems to be a correlation between the size of the fish and the likelihood that the fish tried to ingest the fly by sucking. My guess would be that as the fish gets larger the vaccum action by the fish gets more effective at drawing in food. Hence, trophy sized salmon tend to chase after a wet fly and then try and vaccum the fly into the mouth more often than an attacking grilse or teen weight fish. This is a problem for the angler as a wet fly is fished with a tight line. The fish is expecting the fly to be drawn in to its mouth but we have it attached to a tight leader and fly line with little or no stretch such that can be stretched by the vaccum from the mouth of the fish. The fish tries to inhale the fly but it doesn't move and continues racing accross the current in a normal wet fly swing.
Fishing with a floating line will help you see even the smallest grilse coming as it chases your fly across flat surfaced water during a wet fly swing. One can simply slowly lower the rod tip from a 45o angle to horizonal as the fish meets the fly, you feel a gentle pull, or you watch it flare the gills to suck in the fly. Then lift it back straight up.
I have met many good salmon anglers who were rather unskilled with a fly rod, conversely I have met some truly great fly anglers that made poor salmon anglers. The best atlantic salmon anglers are great at both, so learning what a fly rod is for is the first challenge, then you can work on the angling skills. Poor or new fly casters can expect to catch less fish even with a local guide. Doug Cook (a 3rd generation salmon angler from a local legendary family) once said to me "atlantic salmon fishing requires three things: opportunity (to have a fish take the fly), presentation, and patience". The critical term being presentation. A poorly presented fly may catch a salmon .....eventually (pack a BIG lunch). Some locals new to atlantic salmon angling fish for 2+ seasons before they land their first salmon. The best anglers can reach a fish at 70+ feet, on a strange angle, in chaotic currents, and still present the fly to the fish correctly and in precisely the right spot. Learning to cast accurately and laying your leader out as needed is critical to becoming a good atlantic salmon angler.
One of your first challenges should be to learn to cast over your opposite shoulder. Being able to cast over both shoulders will allow you to cast in the wind without hooking yourself or having to change sides of the river. There will be times you can not or do not want to change sides of the river because of sun, shade, or lay structure, and being able to cast over both shoulders will be a great asset. Besides, its easier than you think.
Next learn to side arm cast a dry fly. This will put a terminal mend in the line as it lays down on the water surface in areas where the faster water is closer to you or at the end of your fly line (a common situation).
Dead drift bombers! Yes, you will catch salmon while fishing a bomber as if it were a wet fly and while it is moving against the current in some form or another. However, you will catch more salmon by letting any dry fly drift naturally with the current over the salmon. Don't be afraid to very very gently twitch the fly on occasion, but this can be detrimental if the line disturbs the water too much or moves the fly too much. A theory that explains this behaviour might be that a salmon spends much of its life catching flies from the water surface, even more so than brook trout or char. Parr will very eagerly rise to a dead or busy fly that is laying eggs or otherwise busy on the water surface, whereas it is less likely to come out of hiding to chase fast moving flies that skate along. Many times I have hooked a salmon soon after I stopped skating the fly and presented it by dead drifting the fly with the current. I have seen this happen with 4 pound and 40 pound salmon. Similarly, a dry fly that is half submerged will catch less fish so keep them well ginked or otherwise dressed with floatant.
The main problem people have when fishing a dry fly is presenting the fly by dead drifting it over the fish while having enough control over the line to set the hook quickly enough. Learning to do this will a full fly line in the water is very challenging.
Don't fish bombers that are two big for the mouths of small grilse. A #2 is a bomber for a big fish - not a grilse. Big bombers attract the attention of grilse but result in many misses. Similarly, a bomber can be used to "move" a big fish and locate a fish that may take a properly presented wet fly. We use a burnt orange color hackle for fresh grilse on stained rivers.
Not all flies are created equal. Bomber dry flies are not all created equal and if you buy/make a dozen of the same flies; one will always work better than the rest. The reason for this currently eludes me but it is VERY true none the less. Some say it is the float of the fly, some say the dimple pattern on the water film, some say color, some say shape, etc. When you find one that works well take care of it. The same is true of wet flies.
If your wet fly is not running correctly in the water you will generally catch less fish. Return the knot to the center of the eye on large hooks and re-cinch or simply re-tie the knot.
Do not cast directly upstream with a dry fly. It is very hard to keep the line tight enough to set the hook and the rising fish will often hit the leader with its head and the leader with stick to the fishes skin with water tention and move the fly thus preventing it from being taken deep in to its mouth. You will lose more fish that are barely hooked, foul hook more fish, or the fish will miss the fly completely.
Change flies after the fish loses interest or change speeds or the angle of the presentation.
As a lad of 11 to 15 years of age I used to watch the legendary Art Barnes on his fishing missions. Often the elderly Art was accompanied by one of his son-in-laws which are great atlantic salmon anglers in their own right (Reg Nichols, John "Bud" Cook, Ches Loughlin, etc). I watched keenly everything he done and where he stopped to fish. Mr. Barnes had often stopped to fish the top of a spot called Big Rapids (the heaviest rapids on the Lower Humber) and to my delight one afternoon he came ashore next to me right after he had finished. While sitting at the back of the boat Mr. Barnes had a habit of moving his rod tip from side to side perpendicular to the side of the boat. Finally one day after a few years of this I got a chance to talk with him outside of his sporting goods store. The boat landed by me and I nervously said hello and asked if I might ask a question. "Sure boy" came his jolly reply. "Mr. Barnes, how come you don't cast your fly while fishing out there". "Well boy", came his simple reply, "you can't catch'em with your fly in the air". Mr. Barnes was simply swinging his fly back and forth in front of the lay by moving his rod tip back and forth and waiting for a grilse to pop out of the rapids and stop in the lay for a seconds rest. He knew it would only last seconds so he didn't want to miss a fish by casting. I learned an important lesson that day. Running fish do not need a fly cast to them. One can simply place the fly in the spot a take is likely to occur and gently moving it back and forth. Many a salmon has since fallen to our flies by using this simple technique especially in spots that they hit the surface as they swim past and never actually stop. The inside eddy of Shellbird Island has two "sweet spots" that nearly every grilse that swims through rises to. Similar spots are found at nearly every major fishing spot on the Lower Humber. These are not lays, but spots the fish pick the surface of the water as they swim by. Strong up-wells can also cause this.
The trigger I refer to is the presentation that gets a salmon to rise, chase, or eat the fly. The trick in atlantic salmon fishing is to get a salmon to become interested in your fly. Sometimes this is also called the "presentation". Here are a few triggers that not all Atlantic salmon anglers know about.
The Hop is a dry fly technique. It is usually done from a boat with the fish straight down stream. The fly is allow to drift down to just in front of where the fish would rise to take it. The line is then drawn tight and then twitched such that the dry fly hops a few inches off the water surface resembling a fly laying eggs. This is very hard to do if the fly is lightly hackled and/or does not have a hairspun body such as a rat faced Mc Dougal, bomber, or bug.
A similar technique is used on the Gaspe Penninsula in Quebec when the fish is straight down stream of the angler, The rod is hung horizonal in the hands and the fly is swung into position directly in front of the fish using a typical wet fly swing and then the rod is tugged three times in quick succession quickly moving the fly about two feet each time and then the fly is stopped or very slowly let back to the fish. The darting tugs get the fishes attention and if this doesn't induce an abrupt attack the fish will sometimes rise to the fly after it stops.
Dabbling a dry fly on the surface directly over a holding fish in the same spot over and over again will sometimes trigger a take. Try it.
The sink and rise is a technique we often use on holding fish. Pick a stout hook tied with material that sinks well. Adjust your leader so that it is long enough to allow the fly to sink to the needed depth. Add sinkant such as Xink if needed. Cast down stream to the fish and observe where the fly is on the surface. Next cast the wet fly upstream to see the sink rate as the fly passes by your legs. Then cast directly upstream of the fish. The trick is to have the fly sink down through the water "lifeless" and then have it spring to "life" right in front of the fish and get pulled away as the current tightens on the line. This will keep you from having to fish a sinking tip or line all day yet easily adjust the depth you are fishing at. Fluorocarbon is brittle but sinks better than monofiliment.
The less mending of your fly line you do when fishing a wet fly the more fish you will catch. This is not to suggest you should never mend a fly line, just that perhaps one should refrain from it unless one has no choice and it is needed; which is not often. I often fished with a chap who was constantly mending his line to slow down the swing of his wet fly. He almost always caught less fish than the rest of us. He was aggressively moving the fly when mending the line and salmon were seeing this quickly darting wet fly that would be hard to keep from evading an attack. It also made noise in the water. A salmon can see a wet fly from a long way off. This brings me to the idea of rhythmic presentations.
As a general rule a consistent presentation will catch more holding or stale salmon than one in which every presentation is different in terms of speed, angle, and distance from the fish. A consistent presentation allows the average fish to time its rise to the fly and attack. Similarly, any quick and radical movements of the fly while in the fishes view often reduce the likelihood of an attack by a fish. Stale, or lazy (warm water) fish rarely try and eat things that they can't catch, but will try an easy target. A fresh fish however, likes to chase things and sometimes stripping will produce a charging attack. Remember that the deeper the water the farther away a fish can see a fly on the surface.
Here is how I was told this story to the best of my foggy memory.......The riffling hitch technique was developed on the Great Northern Peninsula of the Island of Newfoundland. This technique resulted from English sailors who first taught full time residents of Newfoundland to fly fish in the 1800’s when salmon fly fishing was enjoying surge in popularity in Europe and was really "catching on". At this time, the wet flies were all snelled as the hooks did not have an “eye” to attach silk leaders to the hook. The local residents were used as guides by the British sailors to explore and fish the inland reaches of the many salmon rivers. As partial payment the sailors would leave the “destroyed wet flies” that had the snelling removed or unraveling. The intact flies were too valuable to be given away. The problem for the Newfoundlander was how to attach the fly to the leader so they could try this newfound sport. The residents decided to use half hitch knots over the head of the fly to secure the leader to the hook. This however, resulted in the fly running like a planer board in the water and caused a small wake to trail from the fly when swiping across a calm but moving pool common to most salmon pools. Much to the surprise of the returning British sailors, the Newfoundlanders were now consistently out fishing them with this new waking wet fly technique. The idea of catching salmon on dry flies is still a strange thing in much of Europe. After tying on a wet fly with your favorite knot try adding this knot. Tie a half hitch or full hitch so that the line comes off from the posterior of the head cemented region of any style wet fly. The knot and line should be on the side of the fly head facing the shore you are fishing from when the hook is in its proper bend down position pointed up stream as it is normally fished. This point is important as it is this knot placement on the fly head and the leader line coming from it is what cause the fly to “riffle” in the water surface film and form a small wake from the fly head even while the fly runs in the normal correct position in the water. The fly now acts like a planer board with just the eye of the hook (up turned works a little better than down turned eyes) breaking through the surface film. This should be a staple technique in all fresh water fly fishers “bag of tricks”. Try it, you'll catch more trout, salmon, etc. Note that this is not recommended for 20+ pound salmon as it weakens the leader and causes the fish to break the surface tension on the water to eat it (see trophy atlantic salmon fishing tips section below).
Stripping with streamers and nymphs is a common technique used by trout fishermen; especially with sinking tip lines. However, it is almost never used on Newfoundland salmon pools as sink tip lines snag fish and weighted flies are illegal and obviously snagging or jigging is illegal. However, this technique is common on the salmon rivers of Iceland. After you've run through your normal presentation and flies try a small size 10-16 nymph or size 8-12 2x shank streamer. Then cast the fly such that it sinks in the water right in front of a laying salmon then with EVERY bit of speed you can muster strip in the line straight up stream and away from the fish. Repeat for a half a dozen times, then wait 5-10 minutes and try again. This technique works well on stubborn fish and low, warm water, conditions. The take is always ferocious and sudden. Making sure the fish sees the fly and that it is stripped as fast as possible is the key. Fast or slow water makes little difference. Be careful not to snag the fish with a hook that is too large or under a fish. A heavy hook will help in sinking the fly to be presented - but be careful.
The following technique (suggested earlier by Lee Wulf and others) became evident after watching some frustrating videotape we filmed of some rather large salmon which shook our barbless hooks. Barbless hooks are now the law in our Province (as of 1999). This "shaking free" was a common problem with fish in the 20+ pound class that often shook the hook while doing a running jump from the bottom of a pool or run. The same is true of any fish but the anglers tended to keep more strain on the smaller and more common grilse as they rose for a jump and less fly line was in the water. In slow motion the videotape showed the problem. The large salmon invariable started from deep in the water from a slowly moving or motionless lay with some of the fly line under water in the current or dragged under as the fish ran forward for the jump. Then the fish would start to run away from the angler and rise to the surface for a jump. Virtually every salmon fishermen quickly learns to feel when a running jump is about to happen and many of us get a knot in our stomach each time as we know we often lose fish during the jump. Often the problem is that the fly line is still slightly under the water as the fish breaks free of the surface. When the line finally breaks free, some time after the fish, it forms a loose “S” in the line as it pops from the surface tension of the water at a single point and sends a wave down to the end of the line like a whip or “rolled” garden hose. One potential way to solve this, while a large fish is still peeling out fly line, is to put tension on the line with rod up and try and get all, or as much as possible, of the heavy sagging fly line free of the water prior to the fish leaping into the air. Only then should you give the fish the line it wants and relax pressure on the rod as it jumps free of the wtaer. Moreover, having the fly line fee of the water prevents the heavy sagging line from acting like an elastic snapping back at the fishes mouth once the line finally breaks the surface tension. Put some pressure on the next big one you have on a fly line and is about to break free of the water with fly line dragging under it and see what happens. Once the fish has all the fly line in the water little can be done and the rod can not always act as an effective shock absorber. At this stage (200-300+ feet of line on the water) it is, by far, mostly the leader that prevents the fish from breaking the line by providing (we hope) the needed stretch.
Sit on the bank and watch the river for as much time as you fish. You will see many "old river dogs" do this and it is usually NOT because they are getting tired! Even if you know the river/pools very well; sit and watch. Salmon fishing is a "keep your eye on the ball" type of sport and while actually fishing the angler only sees the fish that rise very close to the fly. You'll catch more holding fish by watching the river for a constantly rising salmon that you would have missed by "blind casting" to known locations of holding fish. Blind casting is never as effective as watching for a hook-able, active fish. Hunt holding fish by sight/number of rises and get a fly on them seconds after the rise and you'll catch more. All good guides will be intently watching your fly so as to help you notice a rise or movement by a fish, but if you are a seasoned salmon angler, a great guide will trust you enough to notice the fish close by and will watch for other active fish in the water away from your fly. Watch you friend's jaw drop when you calmly watch him flail the water for an hour with no luck and then you walk out and almost instantly hook a salmon for the third time that day! Watching and fishing a river is the only way to learn how to catch good numbers of fish from it. This is not to say you should watch the river while a run is on, fish like crazy as it may only last 30 minutes! Don't be the angler that stopped for lunch just as the fastest action of the day had started and a good sized school of fish was passing by, this is not the time for studying the river or eating - have a snack handy while wading.
Common Errors We Have Almost All Made at One Point
If you even think you may have a wind knot then stop and check. A figure of 8 knot will reduce your line strength by about 20% but are not terrible so you can cinch them tight (after wetting the knot) if need be. However, an overhand or half hitch knot is deadly and should be removed as it can reduce line strength by as much as 85%.
Hold your line tight while your fly is on the water and make sure your wet fly lands with the leader straight. A wet fly that does not have a tight line attached to it will not swim in the water. A good wet fly cast has the fly starting to swim across the current at a moderate speed and at the desired spot - usually as soon as it hits the water.
Make sure your line is not crossed under itself when you take it off the reel to string it through the guides. Have you ever had your backing suddenly stop coming off the reel and bind tight? A closer inspection reveals that it is crossed under itself on the spool. This happens because when you first started to take the line off the reel it was crossed over but it came off the reel easily enough to go unnoticed until all the fly line was stripped off the reel and the backing started to unspool.
Many anadromous fish including atlantic salmon, arctic char, and brook trout will enter a river more than once in a summer. This has been shown with the use of radio transmitters. I have caught many a colored salmon, char, and brook trout that was headed back out to sea after weeks in the river. These fish take 24 to 72 hours to adjust to the change in salinity and thus sit in the tidal pools or surface freshwater spill in a Bay or estuary to adjust (freshwater floats on saltwater). Watch the tide cycle in the areas you fish. The highest tides in our area are during the period of two days before and on the full moon. These high tides sometime bring large runs. Moreover, some pools will have fresh fish a certain time after the tide reaches dead low or dead high tide. The fish often move in the river on the change of tides or when new fish move in to a pool. Make some notes on fish activity in regards to the tide cycle - even if you are fishing miles upstream from any tidal water.
If you are fishing a large enough river, stop fishing after a school (run) of salmon has passed and head up stream. It amazes me how few anglers chase a migrating school up river. I once chased a school of salmon up our Lower Humber and hit a fish at every spot I stopped. However, on a number of other occasions I was behind the school the whole way up river. I got greedy and wanted to hit them in every major fishing area as they headed up stream. Once they got past me I should have skipped a couple spots and waited for them to arrive. Instead, I chased behind the school the whole way up river!
Salmon migrate very fast during the early spring runs then slow during the middle of the season and speed up again in the fall.
Grilse increase in size as the season progresses but decrease in numbers. The later ones have fed in the Ocean longer and grow very fast.
Salmon often turn bronze colored in the fall even if they are somewhat fresh, however many of the very fresh fish will still have the counter shading of bright white bellies and slate blue/black backs found in spring fish.
Large male salmon can be difficult to hook in the fall as the kype may prevent the fish from completely closing its mouth.
Tease stale fish. Present flies that are too far out of reach but are visible to a fish. Then after a period of time try a real presentation. Use small flies and clear light leaders on stale fish or in warm water.
Try a shrimp pattern or red/orange flies in the fall.....you'll catch more fish.
Go subsurface with sinking lines in the fall. Salmon rise to the surface less often in the fall.
Wire hooks bend and flex and tear free less often when fishing barbless as they do less damage to the fish's jaw. I do not use hooks above 2x or 3x shanks as they act like pry bars.
If you use Mustad hooks (3399, 3906B, 9671, or 9672) try and make them look like a Bartleet Traditional or Supreme hook by bending/curling the entire point down slightly so that as it sinks into the fish as it buries deeper into the flesh instead of straight in.
When fishing a single handed rod, fish with a medium length of line (20-50 feet) whenever possible. Very very short lines miss more small and medium sized fish when setting the hook. Casting a full fly line takes a little skill, but setting the hook on fast rising grilse is very difficult with so much line in the water. Moreover, it unnecessarily depletes the spool and adds drag to the rod when fighting fish. You'll miss less fish with a medium length line and impress you friends with your catch rather than your casting prowess.
Purchase a bottle of Gink or Silicon Anhydrous dry fly powder for dressing your dry flies - accept no imitations on the greasy Gink! Or mix vaseline and silicon, and keep the "Do Not Eat" tiny packets from clothing. Try mineral oil for sinkant. The higher you can get your dry flies to float the better. Those that read the Portland Creek hitch section below or fish with muddler minnows may wonder about the truth of this. I refer to dry flies as those that cannot be effectively fished wet.
Fish with small hooks during the later part of the season and try the ugly/weird looking flies you almost never use on fish.
Always dress your lines before or after fishing. You'll find a big difference in the smoothness of the casting and the speed of the line (speed equals distance when casting).
Wear tight fitting sun glasses and a heavy cotton but breathable hat with a neck strap. The cotton will not dissolve in your fly dope but most synthetics will. There are a few salmon fishermen around here that are blind in one eye and many with salmon fishing "battle scares". Have a spare pair of glasses with a floating neck strap left in your vest. Most importantly you should learn to cast over your opposite shoulder and do so if the wind demands it or switch sides of the river.
If you go to a fly shop and see flies sorted by pattern, look to see if there is one a little different than the rest and then buy it. Tyers often put a single unique and slightly different but deadly pattern in with a bunch of "regulars".
If your rod has a fighting butt that screws in leave the butt home while fishing. A snap in/out butt is find but the long screw in ones are very bad for having the fly line wrap around it and POW the fish breaks off when hooked.
Watch for stretches of river that run parallel north/south and then visit them just prior to them going in to shadow. If the river has a canyon or banks all the better. You can look for these pools on a map and then fish them in the evenings and mornings.
If a bend in a river has a shoal or obstacle on the inside then scout for lays there.
If you moved a fish a number of times but can't get it to eat the fly then try presenting a fly from the opposite side of the river.
Keep you prop in gear when fishing from a boat...it makes less noise and will not eat your fly line.
Never wade down stream on a point of shallow bottom in heavy current whereby you have to turn around and wade back upstream unless you don't mind getting wet. Avoid wading directly upstream of the fish or too close especially with metal spikes or studs on your wading boots. Stand on shore to fish if possible.
Salmon often migrate very close to shore in the early morning and very late evening. The shoreline is a natural boundary to the fish and they regularly follow the shore. If you camp next to a very shallow area you will see and hear fish swimming right along the beach at night. I mean in less than a foot of water. Sometimes some of the fish may not even be submerged. Mink must love this but I am yet to see one tackle a salmon. However, others have see mink catch and make a meal of a very healthy grilse salmon.
Watch where and when (seasonally) otters fish and then scout around.
Here is a challenge ......get a grilse to grab a dry fly that is not touching the water. Force the fish to take the fly in the air. Simply dabble and dangle the fly above the fish. It works and makes for great video.
Bill Bryden, B.Sc.
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