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Trophy Atlantic Salmon Fishing Tips
"Catching a Truly Huge Atlantic Salmon"
or "A Lower Humber Primer"
By Bill Bryden

Part 1, 2, 3


Many people suggest that Atlantic salmon fishing is the pinnacle in freshwater fly fishing.  Regardless of the truth in that suggestion, the goal of many fly fishermen is to hook a truly huge Atlantic salmon. Being a mere lad of my mid-thirties, I do not profess to know much about catching Atlantic salmon despite having caught hundreds of them and having spent thousands of hours trying to catch them. I suspect that at age 70 I will still be learning new things weekly if not daily (I hope).  Ironically, rather than counting numbers of fish landed I often tend to judge my success by the amount of new information and observations I make by the end of the day. Atlantic salmon fishing seems to be a dying sport and I hope that this essay helps encourage a few anglers to start their addiction or continue with it and teach others what they have learned. So, I humbly pass along information that was taught to me either the easy way (by a truly magnificent atlantic salmon angler) or occasionally the hard way (using my own limited brain power while getting very little sleep).

Many a trophy atlantic salmon has been landed by doing just the opposite of what I outline below. But here is how I see it.......today, that is. Some of the points listed below are STRICTLY adhered to by local trophy salmon anglers and guides that land in excess of a dozen trophy salmon annually......and in excess of 100 atlantic salmon annually.  Skunked days are indeed rare for these guys. Like the United Kingdom, atlantic salmon fly angling was developed in Newfoundland and our little Island has some truly great anglers - one or two of which you may meet in your travels with us. Take note of any subtle suggestions these chaps make. I hope in writing this short essay that you can learn from some of my mistakes and inherit some of the information that was granted to me by a class of anglers who are notorious for keeping secrets.

Photo: David Revill

The author (and guide) with one of five different 25+ pound Atlantic salmon that took two guests flies in less than 6 hours of fishing. We missed two takes as the fish came forward with the fly in its mouth and then ejected it. You won't have to learn that one the hard way after reading this article. The largest fish broke the leader during a typical "Big Fish" run.....below read how you can help prevent this from happening to you. Late July 2003.  
Photo: David Revill

Finding a Trophy and Then Catching it Every Year

First you have to find a lay that holds a trophy salmon. Notice I didn't say a trophy salmon but rather its lay. This is the single most important part of catching a trophy fish but will not make up for a lack of experience once you have the fish coming for the fly. A lay that holds a trophy fish for more than a few hours is likely to hold a trophy fish every year.  The Lower Humber has hundreds of these lays. Most lays will hold specific size fish and the biggest salmon will usually be in the same lays year after year unless the river changes. That is to say, some lays usually only hold grilse weight fish, others teen weight to 25 pounders, and still others 25+ pounders, etc. The trick is to figure out which ones the top 0.01% of the biggest fish use. Then, like a few locals here, you may put a 60+ pound fish in your hands (or at least the peduncle of the tail!).  Some lays are "permanent" and will be used for many weeks while others are only used during certain water levels, for a few days, or during a run of giant salmon and are temporary lays used for minutes.   The better lays will hold salmon for days or weeks, but the best lays are the running lays as the fish are fresh and active and take a fly much more quickly (the fish's hormone called thyroxin is very high and it is agitated and hyper). The trick is to guess when a run of large salmon is about to happen (hint: watch for rain).

Some rivers are small and some are large, but both can hold huge salmon. One thing that I have noticed about all of our prime fly fishing salmonids including: Atlantic salmon, Arctic char, brown trout, and brook trout is that larger rivers in general have greater numbers of trophy fish. However, this is a generality and everyone knows that some huge rivers never had any significant numbers of trophy fish historically despite the size, or an amount proportional to the population size of any river, while others historically were known for a high percentage of huge fish. One observation I have made is that the largest anadromous fish are usually found is the greatest concentration in the lower section of the river.

They come in to the river as a school most often as they sort by genetic strain and age class in the ocean and hold in the lower section and then gradually spread themselves out over the system. I have found this to be the case for all the salmonids listed above from dozens of rivers throughout Newfoundland and Labrador - south from the Torngats in the arctic of Labrador, east from Canada's eastern most point in Newfoundland and north of the southern coast of Newfoundland which is roughly 75% of the latitudinal coastline of eastern Canada. So, basically what I am saying is to look for them from large rivers or those traditionally known for big fish and close to the ocean.

Eventually I learned to chase grilse and teen weight salmon up river following a school as it migrated in a good sized river and have had great success in doing this on foot and in a boat. If a large school went by us we would move upstream to chase them. However trophy sized fish can sometimes, and most often do, migrate very slowly and may be in an area for days or weeks before moving and then may move less than 100 yards upstream unless a big rain has occurred. They do this even in rivers that are very large without any obstructions to migration. Once they find a lay they like and are ready for a resting period they will defend the lay against other smaller salmon.

I have followed large salmon, char, and trout up various rivers in Newfoundland and Labrador. These fish had unique scars and were unmistakable. Most trophy salmon locally that come into the river in summer will do one of two things: return to the ocean after a short stay in the lower stretch of the river and then return later, or they will hang around in the lower stretches of a river and only make the dash to the spawning grounds with the fall rains. It may take them a month to move a few hundred yards or less than a couple kilometers.

"Home pools" are usually named this for one of two reasons: because it is next to the lodge or home or a small town or more often because they have a large concentration of holding fish that are resting before the next stage of the migration and it is thus the "home of the salmon". This can be at the very upper reaches of a river near the spawning beds or "home", or at the outlet of a large lake or steady that salmon hold in and become concentrated.   If the pool was named after the fish and not a door step, which is usually the case if the name is very old, then take note and scout around. Trophy fish will hold there if the river has any huge salmon in it. Try fishing in the very late evenings and windy days in the river mouth after you learn the lays the monsters use. They will use the same lays each year unless something changes the river flow or structure.

Most often the biggest fish will not lay with a grilse or teen weight fish in a small or tight lay. If they are forced to, as rarely happens in some home pools, then you have a slim chance of hooking the fish and one of the smaller ones will likely grab the fly first as they will likely out number the trophy fish. If this is the situation I have found it good to wait for a good rain and fish the pool when it is nearly empty of fish....except the biggest ones that didn't move. Once it is full of fish again, you may wish to more to another spot to fish for huge fish.

Most salmon rivers globally have had the runs of trophy 2 sw 3sw and 4 sw virgin spawners wiped out years ago due to commercial fishing management and politicians (gotta love the people responsible for that one!....the sad thing is they continue to do it to this day but with new species....seems it takes them 4 to 20 years to wipe out a species after a price tag is placed on the species head.....sad.) So little money is spent globally on wildlife research that calling the harvest of some wildlife a "managed" approach is laughable.... Luckily, a few rivers had very large runs of huge salmonids and enough survived the onslaught or the runs occurred after the close of the commercial fishing season and thus escaped. This is the case for our Humber River. The winter fishery in Greenland was almost the last straw though. Thanks be to the conservation groups and individuals that helped stop the slaughter!

I have had the pleasure of spending many hours sitting in a boat or on a high bank watching salmon and arctic char in a pool or running along a migration route in both small and large rivers. It is quit interesting to watch the migration of the fish through successive lays at various water levels and the interaction of the fish. Watch where you see large salmon jump or show on the surface - try and mark the spot. Salmon often come to the surface after leaving a lay or being disturbed by another fish entering the lay (usually the smaller fish jumps). You may not see another large fish show in that spot for days but where you seen the fish take note. Large salmon don't show on the surface every hour or even every day. Some lays I have figured out took me 3 to 5 years to pin point and I might only see one trophy fish show or jump from the lay in a season while the fish was in the lay for a month or more or the lay was used by nearly half the trophy salmon swimming up river! Set-up close to where the salmon is laying and wait and try and get a better idea exactly where the fish is laying (warning....this may take days!). The other option is to scan for the fish with a fly. This almost never works well unless the fish is very fresh and eager for a fly (it happens).

Casting over her tail all day is of little use.  Scanning sweeps on holding large salmon are probably ok on very fresh fish but make it difficult to catch staler holding fish. Lining a fish with a fly line or a noisy pick-up from the water surface while scanning for the fish doesn't help either.   However, if the lay is in shallow water you can float down over it very quickly in a boat and see exactly where the fish is laying on the bottom and drop a small bright marker right next to the lay. Then go back and position another marker to present a fly from. Once, you have this lay marked and set up correctly you can look for other lays which hold very large salmon. I have had to move some markers to an optimal position to reach as many as 5 or 6 lays from a single spot, but some had to be fished with a dry fly from far down stream. Next mark all observations in a small "black book" that is kept in a safe spot. I started an "outdoor journal" at age 18 when I first started guiding and have the same small tattered 8" ring binder today. Trappers often do this, but many fly anglers don't. Eventually one learns the position of the lay well enough in various water levels to remove the markers. However, remember that casting over her tail or lining her doesn't help so you had better know the exact square foot her head is in.

I have seen many things used as markers but I try and use something natural such as a brightly colored rock or a rock with a lot of algae on it that shows bright green from a long way away, or I'll plant some bright aquatic vegetation (eg. eel grass) in the bottom at one side of the lay, etc. Try to avoid placing a marker right in the lay or slightly upstream as it may change the flow of the current and disrupt the lay so much that salmon can't comfortably lay in it anymore. In our rivers I have seen many types of markers some of which looked rather odd and included: white skeet targets, white and yellow tent pegs, fluorescent orange gloves, birch bark and white dead wood pinned with rocks - even a hub cap.

Many times I have seen very large fresh fish up to 35+ pounds hooked from lays that were only 2 to 4 feet deep when water that was 10+ feet deep was nearby and regularly used by trophy fish. Fresh large salmon will "sun bath" on very shallow shoals in mid day.  This is no different than when  fresh smaller fish move to the tail end of a pool in mid day.   One might suggest that this allows the melanocytes (camouflaging pigment cells) in the skin of the fish to change color to match the surrounding river bottom. Perhaps very large salmon have little to fear from avian predators such as ospreys.  Nonetheless, the biggest fresh fish sometimes takes the shallowest lay available during mid-day with the smaller fish taking what might be considered less desirable and deeper lays.  I have often seen a group of fresh trophy fish start to "fight" for lays during 11AM to 2PM. This is usually only done in spots with deep water nearby - for example the edge or corner of a shoal that provided a deep water escape route. However, they will sometimes forego the protection of deep water as I have also seen them in lays 2.5 feet deep 100 feet up on a shoal with a deep pool with other staler trophy fish 100 feet away in nice deep pools.

The converse in regards to daily movements is also true. Fresh and stale large salmon often lay in deep water lays during early morning and late evening. However, they may start to migrate (if the water is rising hard) or travel around a small area or pool to familiarize themselves with the various lays available so in late evening and early morning large fish may be caught in very shallow water if they just came into the areas.  Finally, stale fish will often set up for spawning weeks in advance on a very shallow shoal and become very territorial which can help with hooking the fish with a sinking line.  Most anglers will not fish a pre-spawn or paired fish.

Many trophy fish will use 2 or even 3 different lays throughout the day, so if she is not in the lay it may not mean she has migrated up stream. She may (and more likely if it didn't rain) have moved to another nearby lay. A lay that holds one of the largest fish I see every year is usually empty after about 11AM (many times she'll jump or high rise when she leaves) and the fish moves to a lay about 80 yards away on a shoal, then before nightfall she moves again to another lay about 80 yards upstream in the deep water below a shoal on a break line. The following morning she is back by the original lay at "Skinners"!. If you doubt this, buy one of the new castable fish finders.

The best lays are those that hold a single or only trophy fish. Ever try and catch one huge fish mixed into a school of dozens of smaller ones? The lay you want is a trophy lay that virtually only trophy sized fish use. Moreover a very shallow lay seems to be harder to actually hook the fish in ie less than 3 feet deep. This is also true for smaller fish. Ideally the lay should be 4 to 8 feet deep. To catch them from very deep lays requires a very long drift and consistent timing of presentations. This allows the fish to time the rise and enough water over which to chase the fly.  As one might expect, the lays vary in structure.  Some are merely currents meeting in the middle of the river, some are in the out wash of a cold feeder brook, others are pocket lays behind a series of upwells which lessen the flow rate along a migration route, others are alcoves along drop-offs, some are behind or in front of shoals or points, etc.  Major obstacles often have lays below them that hold very large salmon.  The best locations allow you to present to multiple lays for trophy fish from a single point. Our Humber river has many spots like this.  Next you have to read the water and figure out if a dry fly or wet fly will work best. Then you can adjust the fly line to suit the lay and fly being presented.

So, you've gone and done it..... you have found a trophy lay ..... shhhhhh...... I don't even tell the other guides that work for me or my best friends....I don't brag about it, fish it every day, or give them away like favours.  Even letting everyone in town know what you are truly capable of is a mistake.  I once knew a guy who came home with 5 geese one day (a real trophy around here and something he regularly done) and desperately tried to sneek them into his hunting buddies house. The next weekend one of the neighbors followed him at 4AM to the "secret spot". 

Most anglers fish a lifetime of summers and never land a 25+ pound atlantic salmon...even if a river that produces hundreds of them is in their back yard.....if you have found a lay nobody else fishes then all the more reason not to brag...?  I once directed a local hunter who was after a moose with his little boy to a "gimme" spot at which he would have a near perfect chance to harvest the cow moose he told me he was hoping to kill on his either sex license. He was having such a hard time I felt for him and wanted the boy to get his hands on his first moose stalk. I told him I was chasing a trophy bull that was with the "lord" of the valley, and after reassurances by him that he only wanted a dry cow for meat I told him where to sit and when. The next day he shot my trophy bull and my sport went home empty handed.  I had filmed the trophy bull moose since the first of July and it was shot in November. I still wince about that one. Many of the trophy salmon anglers in our area will not even fish a lay that holds trophy fish if someone is around.   And if the lay is one "everyone" knows, then the trophy fish that lays there has likely already been hooked and released within a short period of it entering the lay. Some lays that a handful of local trophy salmon anglers all know; I do not fish. Repeatedly hooking trophy fish is not very sporting or conservation minded.

The article continues here: Part 2, 3

Bill Bryden
Newfoundland Guide, Eureka Outdoors Inc.




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