Swedish version


Atlantic Salmon Fly Fishing Tips
Part 2
By Bill Dryden

Part 1, 2, 3


Hook....... and Release Them back to the Same Lay

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).

If you cast a dry fly straight up stream to a salmon or grilse you will either miss the fish, the fish will miss the fly, or you will lose a lot of fish you hook. The problem here is that the dry fly moved just as the salmon tried to eat it because the fish rose to the fly while the leader was laying over it head or snout and this moved or pulled the fly and prevented it from being taken deep into the mouth.

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.

Genetics and Fun Fish

Not all salmon or not all rivers are created equal. Two rivers that are of equal size and temperature, and have equal numbers of fresh fish can have very different catch rates for the same time by the same angler! The reason for this is the fish! In some rivers the fresh salmon takes a fly extremely well but in some other you will have to really work the fish. There are small streams locally where if there is a single fresh salmon in the lay; you will know in short order with a fly. While some others may have dozens of fresh fish that produce only a rare take! Whether this is genetic or habitat based seems unclear.

This is no different than the fact that on any given river there are stretches of water in which the salmon will fly very well, stretches in which they will be running too fast for many miles and not "fly well", stretches where they lay and rarely rise, and stretches where they will take a fly whether holding or running. Location, location, location. Similarly, different times of the season will require you to fish different stretches of the river for good results and different water levels different lays.


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 article continues on part 3 or back to part 1

Bill Bryden
Newfoundland Guide, Eureka Outdoors Inc.




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