Salmon Fly Fishing Tips
By Bill Dryden
Hook....... and Release Them back to the
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
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
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
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
Newfoundland Guide, Eureka Outdoors Inc.