Swedish version

Part 1, 2, 3

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

Part 2.

  The Ultimate Goal

Most people will agree that atlantic salmon angling is a very challenging sport that takes years to get good at even if you live on the banks of one of the worlds greatest salmon rivers with 3rd generation anglers living next door.  It seems that many are drawn to the sport by four factors: its hard earned knowledge, the extreme stamina, jumping abilities, and speed of an atlantic salmon. Everyone has their own opinions as to the premium way to catch a trophy anadromous (ocean going) atlantic. For some it is tiny flies, some a dry fly, some a fresh fish, some a big river without confining pools, etc. For many it is simple, a fresh fish, on a good sized river without confining pools....as this will produce the strongest fight and gives the fish the biggest advantage, if you can do it with a dry fly, light leader, or tiny hook....well then.... you have it all?  Note, I don't recommend trying this until you have gotten a few fresh 20+ pound salmon under your belt. No sense in making it more difficult than it already is.  Here is where a lot of guys from mainland Canada will get upset. Catching a huge very stale colored fish with a sinking line and heavy leader is probably the opposite end of the spectrum.  Finally, catching a huge "post spawn", "spent", "slink", "crimson visitor", or "black" salmon on spinning gear is truly a different sport than traditional atlantic salmon fishing.  Virtually nobody in Newfoundland and Labrador fishes for spent salmon.

  Gear and Stuff

Right,.... let's talk gear. Hooking an atlantic salmon of immense proportions and not being prepared is an unforgivable sin that will give you repeated nightmares and will break any guides heart. Sometimes, I have had to fish all week knowing full well that when we hooked the trophy we had a very slim chance of landing her because of a conflict of ideas with my sport....oh well....there are many things that I had to learn the hard way so why argue intensely?


Clean flies work better than old moldy flies. That is not to say an old "super deadly" is worthless - just keep it clean. You don't need to soak them in shrimp stock, just keep them clean. Remember salmon have noses and often chase flies with their nose an inch from the fly. Salmon like silver bodied flies with blue and red in them, they like dry flies, they like green, yellow, and red  flies, and black flies. They also like jungle cock cheeks (flat to the SIDE of the fly). Other than these few observations, I really could care less what pattern you tie on your leader - with a few exceptions.  We use a dry fly in calm water (its just so nice to see her rise to the fly), and use silver flies on bright and dark days (tubular mylar glints more than tinsel), Phentex (a wool company) recently stopped making a great color wool called kelly green that is worth finding.  Use synthetic wool rather than floss and paint your hook shafts white or tye in a first layer of white synthetic wool or tinsel to keep colors bright and true when wet, use fluorescent butts on flies (salmon see in the UV and flourescent light spectrums), and finally have a few with bright red heads. Borrowing your wife's home decorating "color wheel" will help you understand the concept of contrasting colors and also help the salmon see your flies! Tye your bombers with caribou body fur and use the most wrinkled calves tail you can find for the wings.

Finally, use very little hackle on bombers and make sure the belly of the bomber is flat or slightly concave so it sticks better to the water surface tension. A dry fly that is floating on hackles like a Mac Intosh, Wulff, etc, is too easily moved by a rising fish and some fish will actually move the fly too much when rising and miss it.  See below for further discussion. It is better to have a dry fly very stuck in the surface tension and a wet fly below the surface.  Short wings on dries will land more grilse and use a #10 to #6 - but no larger (grilse salmon have small mouths). For big fish this mouth size problem is not an issue. For trophy sized salmon, tye your wet flies with materials that sink easily; not hollow hairs such as moose. Again, see below for further discussion.

2038.gif (726 bytes) Traditional barbless or "wrinkle barbs" are very hard to find in hook strengths and sizes large enough for trophy class atlantic salmon. Please email me if you find a good source


First the hook. Size 6 to oversized 0/3. We shy away from size 8 and higher as the hooks are a little too small....unless you are really feeling sporting or plan to kill the fish and play it a long time.

We like stout forged hooks and extra strong tempered heavy wire hooks. We do not like to use hooks with more than a 3x shank length as they will pry free or  tear a large hole in the jaw of the fish from which it can free the hook. Sharp hooks catch more fish and stout hooks sink better. Wire bends while forged hooks tear. We like sproat bend hooks made of heavy wire with a very deep gap, but use various other hook styles. We like Mustad 3399 and 3906B hooks (but watch out for burred edges on the eyes), Bartleet tradition and Supreme by Partridge,  and for smaller fish Mustad 9671 and 9672. If you have to fish barbless for trophy sized fish then try and acquire some heavy tempered wire or forged size 4 and size 2 traditional barbless with a wrinkle for a barb......it will save some fish for you (good luck finding them ....you'll need it). Hint: find some big Mustad 3257Bs....good luck.... they are not in production and are like pixie dust.


Always check your leader or tie on a new one if you have time. If you even think you may have a wind knot be sure to stop and check it.  A figure of 8 knot may not be terrible but a half hitch or over hand knot is deadly and may reduce line strength by 85%.  Twenty cents worth of nylon has broken many a heart.  Hmmmm....here is where I'm really going to ruffle some feathers. We dislike tapered leaders and we have learned this dislike from experience. Yes, they roll the fly over in the wind and are great for the large flies we use on the giant salmon, BUT they cause more wind knots if they are not knotless, and if they are of the knotless variety they generally have poor quality control in the manufacturing or are too brittle with only the last foot or so providing any stretch. If you want a tapered leader make your own from Maxima or a similar stretchy nylon using double surgeons knots or blood knots. Forget about Super Strong, Drennan, Ostger, and similar abrasion resistant non stretchy nylons, various braided leaders, copolymers, and fluorocarbons,... oh, and kevlar lines like Fireline.......you want stretch in your leader for atlantic salmon.   Forget about virtually everything you learned while fishing the pacific versions of salmon.  Fresh Atlantic's are fast and sudden and brittle leaders will cost you fish.....you'll just have to trust me.

Now that you have loads of stretch in your leader you're almost there.  Now the only problem with Maxima and other "old fashioned" nylons is that they like to float and show a large surface dimple on the water. Fish dislike this and it is magnified by the time it reaches down through the depths to the fish (just watch a shadow from a leader on the bottom). So, use some Gherke's Xink on it ( only after tying the fly on ) or soak it in water for a while prior to using.  Beware the Xink on synthetics as it is an oil based product and will melt some synthetics that flies are sometimes tyed with. Monofiliment floats on top of the water when dry but it will soak up water like a sponge. Of course, always wet you knots prior to cinching them tight. Next, what pound test to use. We use 10 pound Maxima "brown" or Chameleon on trophy fish.  If you go above 10 pound test you risk breaking the backing off if it is only 20 pound test.

Try this experiment with a friend.   Have your friend peel all your fly line and 100+ yards of backing off your reel and head straight across a current of about 3 to 5 knots on a  good sized river.   Now, attach a set of scales to the leader, and slowly move 30 yards down river and then the same distance up river from your rod and you'll be amazed at how much strain is on the line while the fish is merely meandering up stream or simply laying still in the water!  Next bind your drag tight, have the "leader end" head down river, and pull on the rod and watch your 20 pound backing break before the 10 pound leader!

Fly lines can produce a tremdous amount of drag.  Maxima test weight on the spool is always a lot lower than the actual breaking strength....10 pounds breaks at 13 pounds. Never use Maxima if you are after an IGFA record you'll be sorry (like one of my sports was one day). If you lose a trophy salmon on 10 pound Maxima then either the hook broke or straightened (it happens) or something bad happened that is likely either your fault or the guide's. Sometimes however, the leader simply breaks. Always check your leader prior to casting it at a fish of a lifetime. I have had to throw away two entire commercial sized boxes of brand new Maxima (20 spools in a box)... all of it was rotten. The quality control is also very bad in Maxima and test strength is based on 3 meters of line (I was told). Many times there are weak spots in the line.

Fly Lines

Fly lines,.....hmmmm what to say....We hate to use a heavy sinking line on Atlantic salmon and literally stick the fly in their mouths, but in times of desperation, people do desperate things.  Most guests refuse to fish like this and suggest that you might as well snag them like a king salmon.   Some suggest that the thrill is in getting the fish to chase after the fly.   For the most part a full floating CORTLAND 444 line is used but we also use intermediate lines, and the Rio Versi-tip systems with floating, intermediate, and class I to III sinking tips.  One has to be EXTREMELY careful when using sinking lines so as to avoid snagging the fish.  Moreover, sinking lines increase the drag and strain on a large salmon that is hooked and this drag is very uncontrollable.

Many rivers that hold trophy sized salmon have deep spots with fast current.  If the current is above 4 or 5 knots you will have a much slimmer chance of landing your fish.  If you are fishing in an area that has some deep moving water of 2 to 4 knots then by all means try using just the shooting head only from your Versi-tip system or a cut off 20 to 25 foot long front section of a weight forward floating cortland fly line (be sure to seal the cut off end) and then attach this to backing or similar very fine diameter running line. This is a common steelhead technique but I have never seen anyone fish big atlnatic salmon using this method. Try it, you will land ALOT more of those huge salmon.  If deep water (more than 4 or 5 feet) and above 3 knots in speed is handy then a salmon will likely make a down stream run and without you being aware of it the fish will change directions 50 to 200 yards down stream and head upstream or across the current at terrific speed and after coming up from the depths at an angle jump into the air or surface slash. This is the time when most big fish are lost.  The problem is that the fish has induced a large bow in the line across the current and is travelling upstream very very fast. The thick bowed fly line induces an extreme amount of drag and the fish is able to break the leader or tear the hook out of its relatively soft jaw bone. God help you if you are fishing with a 10 or 11 weight Spey line!

In my experience you can forget about manuvering the boat to prevent this from happening like they sometimes do with saltwater big game fish. Its all going to happen in seconds and once you are fighting the fish on the backing it is hard to even know where the fish is in the river let alone if it is headed down stream or up stream! The solution is simple, use fine diameter backing and a shooting head sans a fly line.  The drag induced by the backing is much less than if it were a fly line. This large bow in the fly line has cost anglers more trophy salmon than any other reason I can think of.  Cortland makes the most supple flyline for our cold water; while Orvis and Scientific Anglers are terrible and have bad memories and Rio is not much better.

Rods, Reels and Backing

First make sure you have taken the fly line off the reel and strung it through the guides correctly.  We have had a number of horrible experiences where 150 yards into the backing the line bound tight.  The line was crossed when it was first taken off the reel and strung through the guides but it went unnoticed.  Ever try and hand line a fresh huge Atlantic salmon with the backing......all I can say is wear thick gloves.  We like a medium-fast or fast action rod of 9+ feet in length and generally dislike very very high modular graphite rods IM8+.  They break too easily.  Beware if you strike the rod with the fly while casting or have to haul ashore a huge fish.  The disadvantage of a super stiff rod is that when the fish comes for the wet fly as it swings across the current the line is tight and the rod has little flex in it. As the fish tries to suck in the fly there is no give in the line or rod and the fly doesn't get sucked deep into the fishes mouth.   This has caused more misses than I care to remember!  Mind your fly line if your rod has a fighting butt that doesn't snap on/off - ever try screwing in a fighting butt or unwrapping a line from one while attached to a 20+ pound salmon?  Spey rods are nice but are difficult to cast without making a lot of noise, use heavy fly lines, can easily produce too much strain when fighting fish, are hard to cast using short lengths of line and tend to result in anglers fishing too long a line (which will cost you fish), so basically we dislike them.

We like large arbor disc drag reels that have simple or no extra moving parts.  The bigger, the better.

Make sure you have AT LEAST 200 yards of 20 pound backing (400+ yards of 30 pound gel-spun backing is recommended) and have a motor boat very handy if fishing a navigable river.  A large arbor reel is recommended as this will circumvent having to constantly adjust the drag of a small arbor reel as the fish blisters 200 yards of backing from your reel and the arbor size changes dramatically during the run and thus the amount of drag per turn of the spool.  It also allows for a faster retrieval of the line. Right, so you have a huge reel which is up to the task and fully loaded with tightly wound backing.  Note that: loose backing can allow the fish to countersink line that is coming off the spool as it runs so be careful to wind up the backing TIGHT both before fishing AND as you play the fish.

My Hardy Viscount 10/11 has 625 meter of 30lbs gel spun backing and there have been times I wished I had more. Many of us who have fished the Lower Humber have seen blistering 700+ foot runs. We generally leave the drag set lightly until the 20 minute mark in a fight at which time we start to really work the fish hard. If you put too much pressure on the fish too early you will likely increase the hole size in the fishes jaw while it is fight and moving very fast and hard and then loose the fish on a jump or late in the fight. Let them race around dragging fly line and back for awhile and hope they tire a little before making them work for the line. Usually (but not always) you can tell when to really start putting pressure on the fish.


Never use a riffling hitch on a huge salmon. Yes I know the technique is deadly on grilse and was developed here in Newfoundland, but it will cost you a big fish one day (see above notes about having a wet fly in the surface tension of the water). Besides, many hooks (esp. Mustad) have flawed eyes with burred edges and if the hitch slips the line will be weakened or if on a burred edge cut. Use a needle nail knot whereby the leader or backing has penetrated the dacron core of the fly line - sometimes hauling ashore a tremendous salmon that is completely played out takes a tremendous amount of strain and I have seen rods broken during this part of the battle so tie your lines fast to each other. Other than that, let the guide tie a few of them - he/she may know a funny version of a figure eight knot and a few others not found in any books.  Never use a knot or gear a competent guide dislikes. An old outfitter used to say to me "It's hard to beat a man at his own game", or he is the man with the "X-perience".

The article continues here: Part 1, 2, 3

Bill Bryden
Newfoundland Guide, Eureka Outdoors Inc.




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