Salmon Fly Fishing Tips
By Bill Dryden
It has been well said
that salmon fishing is the sport for Kings. Fox hunting is a noble pastime, and the first
burst from the covert side full of joyous excitement. Drawing on the wild red deer after
hours of careful stalking is no doubt an anxious and exciting second, but the bold rise
and first wild rush of a twenty pound salmon thrill through the frame as nothing else in
the nature of sport does. I have never known a man who has in him the true essence of a
sportsman, and who has for the first time felt and seen the play of a fresh run salmon in
his native river, who has not been a salmon fisher for life. I have known and heard of
scores of instances where other sports have been given up for salmon fishing, but never
heard I of one where salmon fishing was given up for any other; and many a skeptic has
been convinced of the truth of all this by having eighteen feet of greenheart and a
hundred yards of line put into his hands, with a freshly hooked salmon at one end of the
Francis Francis in the foreword of "A Guide to The Salmon Rivers of
Newfoundland" by C.H. Palmer 1928.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
I have had salmon and
brook trout take my flies and my guest's flies less than 5 feet from a running prop, 6
inches from a gunwale of a boat, and 5 or 6 feet from my boots while wading in waist deep
water. I have also seen guys walk in to a calm pool 20 yards from the nearest fish and
everything spooked. I have had salmon (3 to 40 pounds) lay in 3 feet of water using my
canoe for shade while others wouldn't let the boat within 60 feet of them. One of the
reasons for these conflicting behaviours is the lighting. I have successfully used
the sun to my advantage quite often. On a river I regularly fish it is easy to show guests
giant salmon laying in very shoal water from 11 to 1PM on a calm day. The sun is on our
backs as I approach the lay and the fish is blinded. Some of the fresh fish don't even
leave the lay as we approach to within feet. If I try this on a cloudy calm day they spook
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 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
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.
The article continues: part 2, 3
Newfoundland Guide, Eureka Outdoors Inc.