Salmon fly fishing techniques

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Fly fishing for Atlantic Salmon in America is now pretty much restricted to a very few streams in Maine, and to the rivers of the Maritime Provinces of Eastern Canada and Newfoundland.

Only a very small percentage of American anglers have a chance to cast a fly for this great game fish; but for those who do it, it is an experience they will never forget.

The utterly wild northern forest land through which the salmon rivers run, the romantic fishing from a canoe on clear, rushing, white-water streams.

And the interesting woodsmen who act as guides, all combine to give a romantic setting to this sport that sets it rather apart from any other fishing in the world.

Then, too, the leaping, slashing fight put up by this sleek, silvery king of the Northern Atlantic streams is something not paralleled by any other fly fishing except that for Steelhead on the Pacific Coast.

In spite of the tremendous amount of tradition surrounding Atlantic salmon fishing, the technique of casting, stream tactics, and the playing and landing of the fish is very much like that used for Steelhead. Atlantic salmon run larger in some rivers, and the fishing is usually done from a canoe; other than that, the methods used for Steelheads, and also very many of the standard trout tactics, apply to fishing for Atlantic salmon.

Technique 1

Dry and wet flies for salmon

Dry fly fishing for salmon is extremely interesting and will take fish under the right conditions—when the water is clear, the temperature is over 55° F. and the fish are not lying too deep. Except for the flies being larger and the fact that you fish the water rather than fishing the rise, dry fly fishing for salmon is done much as you do it for trout. The salmon stay in the pools and main current more than trout do, but just about the same as Steelheads.

As with their Pacific cousins, wet flies, bucktails and streamer flies, fished down-stream and across by the action method, is the way most Atlantic salmon are taken. The natural drift method with an underwater fly, however, is just as liable to solve your problems with salmon as with trout.

The hand twist retrieve and the rhythmic jerk retrieve are both useful. Because of the deeper water, it is a good thing to let the wet fly sink for a few counts before starting the action retrieve. If you are using the natural drift method with a wet fly in deeper water, cast so that the fly can have a chance to sink well before it reaches the spot where you think the salmon are. When fishing a wet fly for Atlantic salmon, don’t strike as fast as you would with trout.

A salmon takes a wet fly more deliberately and goes to the bottom with it. All you need to do is tighten up the line firmly and the salmon hooks himself.

Technique 2

Salmon leaders

Salmon leaders run from 7 ft. all the way up to 20 ft. I like a Steelhead leader tapered from .020 to .010 for Atlantic salmon, varying the length according to the water. The clearer and more quiet the pool the longer the leader should be. For murky or fast water, a shorter leader is better.

Salmon fly sizes run all the way from 2/0 to No. 12. For most purposes No. 4 and No. 6 are good sizes to use, just as for Steelhead.

A good variation in standard fly fishing practice for salmon is to use a bass bug. Fish it just as you would for bass. In some circumstances the salmon take a bass bug better than any other fly. Grilse go for bass bugs especially well.

All your trout lore will come in handy on some occasions. Skittering a dry fly, especially a bivisible, across fast current sometimes works, as do many other stratagems that have been proved on trout. After all, a salmon is much like a mammoth sea run trout, so why shouldn’t trout lore pay off?

Technique 3

Land-locked salmon

These beautiful and gamy fish are only found in a few lakes, and in still fewer streams, in Maine, the Northern New England states and Eastern Canada, especially Quebec.

In the summer, when the water temperature gets above 48°, Land-locked salmon retire to the deep water of the lakes they live in. There you can only catch them by deep trolling, as for lake trout, using a spoon, or spinner, and a smelt for bait.

For a few weeks in the spring, and a shorter time in the late fall, however, Land-locked salmon come into shallow water. While there they take both dry and wet flies. These fish are practically always cruising and should be fished for just as other cruising trout. Cast either a dry or wet fly well ahead of the way the fish, or line of rises, is moving. Never cast directly to a rise as the fish will have gone from there before your fly lights—and a fish can’t see straight backwards.

Streamer flies and bucktails are good wet flies for Landlocked salmon, as are the smaller standard wet salmon flies. Long leaders, from 12 ft. to 18 ft., work best. They should be tapered from .020 or .019 diameter down to .010 diameter with some smaller tippets, tapered down to .009, .008 and .007, for clear water and scary fish. Fly sizes from No. 4 and No. 6 down to No. 12, 14 and 16 are useful.

In wet fly fishing, if the regular hand twist or rhythmic jerk retrieve at ordinary depths doesn’t bring strikes, try letting the fly sink clear to the bottom and then retrieving slowly by the hand twist method. Land-locked salmon put up a beautiful fight—leaping and making long runs as do their close relatives, the Atlantic salmon.

Lake trout

Lake trout are like Land-locked salmon as to fly fishing—only more so. In the summer, they are found so deep in the lakes they inhabit that deep trolling with copper line is needed to catch them.

For about two weeks after the ice goes out of the lakes— with a water temperature of 35° to 45° F.—lake trout come into shallow water from 3 ft. to 12 ft. deep. They like 40° to 45° water and will be found wherever that temperature prevails.

The fact that water temperatures rather than calendar dates are the governing factors in fish habits is nicely illustrated by the shallow water fishing for lake trout in Great Slave Lake, North West Territory, Canada. In water flowing into this far northern lake from the Barrens, C. C. Plummer and his fishing companions have been catching big lakers and entering them in Field and Stream’s Fishing Contests each year. These fish were caught around the first of August. Water temperatures, however, were from 35° to 45° F., the same as are found in lakes farther south in the early spring.

Lake trout, when in shallow water, like boulder-strewn shoals close to the deep water where they live in the summer. Rocky shoals along islands with lots of boulders and rocky pockets, close to deep water, are ideal places.

Streamers and bucktails and regular wet flies, fished by the action method, are most successful for lake trout. A spinner-and-fly works very well, too. A wobbling spoon is good if you can use it on your fly rod.

In this condition, bait casting, with medium-depth and deep-running bait casting lures, is a very effective and sporting method of taking lakers. A wobbling spoon is usually the most effective bait, probably because it looks like a wounded minnow to the trout. This is entirely natural because the major food of lake trout is a form of minnow, called Lake herring or Ciscoe.

Technique 4

Chinook salmon

Except that he doesn’t take a fly, the greatest fresh water game fish in America is the Chinook or King salmon. By far the largest of Pacific salmon, the Chinook, fresh run from the sea, fights with all the speed and aerial acrobatics of the Atlantic salmon. In addition, the average Chinook is about twice as big as his Eastern cousin; his deep, chunky build gives the King a driving power that the Atlantic fish doesn’t have.

In the estuaries of Pacific Coast streams where so many Chinook are caught, there is plenty of room in which to play the fish—much as you would in the ocean. BUT—if you tie into a forty pound Chinook fifty miles up one of these coast trout rivers, you have about the greatest battle on your hands that any fresh-water fisherman ever runs into.

Story of a great Chinook

Maybe it doesn’t belong here, but because it is so interwoven with the very warp and woof of Western angling, let me tell you of a day’s fishing for King salmon.

It was spring in Oregon. The alarm went off in the darkness; a friend and I climbed out of bed—rubbing the sleep out of our eyes. We pulled on our blue-jeans, gathered up rod, reel, tackle box and gaff, and crept quietly out of the house so as not to wake the family. It was misty and grey outside with the odor of fir trees in the air. The dark mass of the mountains loomed up on both sides of the canyon and the grass and fern slapped wetly against our legs as we picked our way down the rocky path to the bank of the Umpqua River.

The smooth-gliding water always startles you a little— coming to it out of the shrouding mist. There is a frightening power to these big, fast moving rivers of the West—a power emphasized that morning by the full-throated roar of the rapids a quarter of a mile below.

On the gravel shore we clumped into the flat-bottomed boat that we had made out of Douglas fir lumber from father’s sawmill. The tops of the hills to the East were just getting clearly outlined against the sky as we shoved the oars into the oar locks.

We always took turns rowing and fishing. He had caught the last salmon, so he took the oars while I rigged up the rod. It was a Bristol steel muskalonge rod with a Vom Hoffe reel and 600 feet of 24 lb-test silk line. I’d earned the money for it working in father’s mill and was very proud of the outfit. A big, fluted, silver Skinner spoon, painted red on the end, completed the tackle.

Dawn was bringing a lighter grey to the mists over the river as we shoved off into the current. He kept the bow upstream and I played out line from the reel. In this type of salmon fishing you row upstream but the current is so fast that in spite of the oarsman the boat zig-zags stern first down stream.

I could feel the throb of the spoon. My friend kept the light boat breasting the fast-moving water back and forth across the current as we worked down the pool. The memory of those fir-covered mountain sides rising up in the dawn five or six hundred feet on both sides of that wild rushing trout river is something I never forget. I can close my eyes and almost feel the river mists right now.

About half way down the pool I got a vicious strike— but missed him. We then went through a shallower piece of water, not really a rapids but only a rocky bar, and my friend rowed hard to hold the boat just to the south side of the current-tongue below the bar. This brought the spoon about a hundred feet downstream at the tail of the main current where it went over a rock ledge into the deep pool below.

As the spoon swung down over the rock ledge I got a lunging strike that pulled the rod tip down into the water. I didn’t have to strike back because the fish tore down-stream so fast he made the leather drag on the reel smoke as I thumbed the spool.

We were used to playing big salmon in the Umpqua because we had been getting good ones nearly every day of the spring runs; but this fish surprised us by the amount of line he got out before we could follow him down the river. He went straight into the big rapids. We went right in after him. The spray from the two foot waves spilled over into the boat; I thought we were going to be swamped.

We got through all right and, in the deep current below, the salmon went down to the bottom and sulked. That gave me a chance to get back a lot of line I had lost while my friend swung the boat towards the south bank where there was less current. We got a little below the fish and I pumped hard to bring him out of the fast water. For about five minutes I worked without moving that fish an inch. Every time I’d pump on the rod, the boat would move out into the river but the salmon didn’t move at all. He said he thought I was snagged on a rock, but I could still feel the fish “chugging” against the line.

As far as we could tell, that salmon might have stayed there all day; but suddenly he started a run upstream. I shoved down hard on the leather drag and we had a regular “knock-down-and-drag-out” fight there in the current for another four or five minutes. This time the full power of the Umpqua was on our side. The salmon got about half way up the big rapids before he gave that up.

He made a smashing run downstream and, when he reached the deep pool, went into the air in three tremendous jumps, one right after the other. He was so big he had both of us almost ready to give him up.

After the three jumps, that salmon plowed straight down the river, through the next rapids, along a smooth slide on the north bank and straight through a third pool and another rapids. We hung right with him and were now farther down the stream than we’d ever been carried by a salmon before.

This fourth pool was a wide, deep, rather slow stretch— almost still-water. It was the best place yet for a tough battle, and I was glad that the salmon was sulking again. We got below him to make him pull against the current.

He began to take wild runs all over this big pool, jumping repeatedly clear up into the air. I’d lost track of time but I think it must have been about forty minutes before this wild-horse of a fish finally calmed down to a more orderly sort of fight. At last my friend worked the boat into a shelving gravel bar on the north bank, beached it and got out the gaff.

I climbed carefully, and wearily, out into the shallow water and backed up on the shore. That salmon looked like a submarine corning into dock. He made two desperate lunges into the current again before my friend gaffed him—and dragged up on the beach the biggest salmon we ever saw. That was 83 pounds.

Dawn and dusk for Chinooks

In the Umpqua River fishing, we found that between dawn and sunrise and again between sundown and dark were about the only times salmon would hit. Once in a while, they would strike a spoon on cloudy days, but in the full sunshine it was practically useless to fish. This, however, doesn’t apply to fishing at the mouths of the rivers, where they flow into the ocean.

Chinook pick the same kind of water as do Steelheads; in fact, we caught both species in the same spots. The main current in the big pools, deep fast water along rock ledges, current-tongues below big-water bars, and places where the current sweeps full along and against canyon walls are favorite spots for this great fish. Here’s hoping you tie into a big Chinook—and have the thrill of your angling life!