Salmon Fly Fishing Tips
By Bill Dryden
The trigger I refer to is the
presentation that gets a salmon to rise, chase, or eat the fly. The trick in
atlantic salmon fishing is to get a salmon to become interested in your fly.
Sometimes this is also called the "presentation". Here are a few triggers
that not all Atlantic salmon anglers know about.
The Hop is a dry fly technique. It is
usually done from a boat with the fish straight down stream. The fly is allow to
drift down to just in front of where the fish would rise to take it. The line is then
drawn tight and then twitched such that the dry fly hops a few inches off the water
surface resembling a fly laying eggs. This is very hard to do if the fly is lightly
hackled and/or does not have a hairspun body such as a rat faced Mc Dougal, bomber, or
A similar technique is used on the Gaspe
Penninsula in Quebec when the fish is straight down stream of the angler, The rod is hung
horizonal in the hands and the fly is swung into position directly in front of the fish
using a typical wet fly swing and then the rod is tugged three times in quick succession
quickly moving the fly about two feet each time and then the fly is stopped or very slowly
let back to the fish. The darting tugs get the fishes attention and if this doesn't induce
an abrupt attack the fish will sometimes rise to the fly after it stops.
Dabbling a dry fly on the surface
directly over a holding fish in the same spot over and over again will sometimes trigger a
take. Try it.
The sink and rise is a technique we often
use on holding fish. Pick a stout hook tied with material that sinks well. Adjust your
leader so that it is long enough to allow the fly to sink to the needed depth. Add sinkant
such as Xink if needed. Cast down stream to the fish and observe where the fly is on the
surface. Next cast the wet fly upstream to see the sink rate as the fly passes by
your legs. Then cast directly upstream of the fish. The trick is to have the fly sink down
through the water "lifeless" and then have it spring to "life" right
in front of the fish and get pulled away as the current tightens on the line. This will
keep you from having to fish a sinking tip or line all day yet easily adjust the depth you
are fishing at. Fluorocarbon is brittle but sinks better than monofiliment.
The less mending of your fly line you do
when fishing a wet fly the more fish you will catch. This is not to suggest you should
never mend a fly line, just that perhaps one should refrain from it unless one has no
choice and it is needed; which is not often. I often fished with a chap who was
constantly mending his line to slow down the swing of his wet fly. He almost always caught
less fish than the rest of us. He was aggressively moving the fly when mending the line
and salmon were seeing this quickly darting wet fly that would be hard to keep from
evading an attack. It also made noise in the water. A salmon can see a wet fly from
a long way off. This brings me to the idea of rhythmic presentations.
As a general rule a consistent
presentation will catch more holding or stale salmon than one in which every
presentation is different in terms of speed, angle, and distance from the fish. A
consistent presentation allows the average fish to time its rise to the fly and attack.
Similarly, any quick and radical movements of the fly while in the fishes view
often reduce the likelihood of an attack by a fish. Stale, or lazy (warm water) fish
rarely try and eat things that they can't catch, but will try an easy target. A
fresh fish however, likes to chase things and sometimes stripping will produce a charging
attack. Remember that the deeper the water the farther away a fish can see a fly on the
Here is how I was told
this story to the best of my foggy memory....... The riffling hitch technique was
developed on the Great Northern Peninsula of the Island of Newfoundland. This
technique resulted from English sailors who first taught full time residents of
Newfoundland to fly fish in the 1800s when salmon fly fishing was enjoying surge in
popularity in Europe and was really "catching on". At this time, the wet
flies were all snelled as the hooks did not have an eye to attach silk leaders
to the hook. The local residents were used as guides by the British sailors to
explore and fish the inland reaches of the many salmon rivers. As partial payment the
sailors would leave the destroyed wet flies that had the snelling removed or
unraveling. The intact flies were too valuable to be given away. The problem for the
Newfoundlander was how to attach the fly to the leader so they could try this newfound
sport. The residents decided to use half hitch knots over the head of the fly to secure
the leader to the hook. This however, resulted in the fly running like a planer board in
the water and caused a small wake to trail from the fly when swiping across a calm but
moving pool common to most salmon pools. Much to the surprise of the returning British
sailors, the Newfoundlanders were now consistently out fishing them with this new waking
wet fly technique.
The idea of catching
salmon on dry flies is still a strange thing in much of Europe. After tying on a wet fly
with your favorite knot try adding this knot. Tie a half hitch or full hitch so that the
line comes off from the posterior of the head cemented region of any style wet fly.
The knot and line should be on the side of the fly head facing the shore you are fishing
from when the hook is in its proper bend down position pointed up stream as it is normally
fished. This point is important as it is this knot placement on the fly head and the
leader line coming from it is what cause the fly to riffle in the water
surface film and form a small wake from the fly head even while the fly runs in the normal
correct position in the water. The fly now acts like a planer board with just the eye of
the hook (up turned works a little better than down turned eyes) breaking through the
surface film. This should be a staple technique in all fresh water fly fishers bag
of tricks. Try it, you'll catch more trout, salmon, etc. Note that this is not
recommended for 20+ pound salmon as it weakens the leader and causes the fish to break the
surface tension on the water to eat it (see trophy atlantic salmon fishing tips section
streamers and nymphs is a common technique used by trout fishermen; especially with
sinking tip lines. However, it is almost never used on Newfoundland salmon pools as sink
tip lines snag fish and weighted flies are illegal and obviously snagging or jigging is
illegal. However, this technique is common on the salmon rivers of Iceland. After you've
run through your normal presentation and flies try a small size 10-16 nymph or size 8-12
2x shank streamer. Then cast the fly such that it sinks in the water right in front of a
laying salmon then with EVERY bit of speed you can muster strip in the line straight up
stream and away from the fish. Repeat for a half a dozen times, then wait 5-10 minutes and
try again. This technique works well on stubborn fish and low, warm water, conditions. The
take is always ferocious and sudden. Making sure the fish sees the fly and that it is
stripped as fast as possible is the key. Fast or slow water makes little difference. Be
careful not to snag the fish with a hook that is too large or under a fish. A heavy hook
will help in sinking the fly to be presented - but be careful.
The following technique
(suggested earlier by Lee Wulf and others) became evident after watching some frustrating
videotape we filmed of some rather large salmon which shook our barbless hooks. Barbless
hooks are now the law in our Province (as of 1999). This "shaking free" was a
common problem with fish in the 20+ pound class that often shook the hook while doing a
running jump from the bottom of a pool or run. The same is true of any fish but the
anglers tended to keep more strain on the smaller and more common grilse as they rose for
a jump and less fly line was in the water. In slow motion the videotape showed the
problem. The large salmon invariable started from deep in the water from a slowly moving
or motionless lay with some of the fly line under water in the current or dragged under as
the fish ran forward for the jump. Then the fish would start to run away from the angler
and rise to the surface for a jump. Virtually every salmon fishermen quickly learns to
feel when a running jump is about to happen and many of us get a knot in our stomach each
time as we know we often lose fish during the jump.
Often the problem is
that the fly line is still slightly under the water as the fish breaks free of the
surface. When the line finally breaks free, some time after the fish, it forms a loose
S in the line as it pops from the surface tension of the water at a single
point and sends a wave down to the end of the line like a whip or rolled
garden hose. One potential way to solve this, while a large fish is still peeling out fly
line, is to put tension on the line with rod up and try and get all, or as much as
possible, of the heavy sagging fly line free of the water prior to the fish leaping into
the air. Only then should you give the fish the line it wants and relax pressure on the
rod as it jumps free of the wtaer. Moreover, having the fly line fee of the water prevents
the heavy sagging line from acting like an elastic snapping back at the fishes mouth once
the line finally breaks the surface tension. Put some pressure on the next big one you
have on a fly line and is about to break free of the water with fly line dragging under it
and see what happens. Once the fish has all the fly line in the water little can be done
and the rod can not always act as an effective shock absorber. At this stage (200-300+
feet of line on the water) it is, by far, mostly the leader that prevents the fish
from breaking the line by providing (we hope) the needed stretch.
Sit on the bank and
watch the river for as much time as you fish. You will see many "old river
dogs" do this and it is usually NOT because they are getting tired! Even if you know
the river/pools very well; sit and watch. Salmon fishing is a "keep your eye on the
ball" type of sport and while actually fishing the angler only sees the fish that
rise very close to the fly. You'll catch more holding fish by watching the river for a
constantly rising salmon that you would have missed by "blind casting" to known
locations of holding fish. Blind casting is never as effective as watching for a
hook-able, active fish. Hunt holding fish by sight/number of rises and get a fly on them
seconds after the rise and you'll catch more. All good guides will be intently watching
your fly so as to help you notice a rise or movement by a fish, but if you are a seasoned
salmon angler, a great guide will trust you enough to notice the fish close by and will
watch for other active fish in the water away from your fly. Watch you friend's jaw drop
when you calmly watch him flail the water for an hour with no luck and then you walk out
and almost instantly hook a salmon for the third time that day! Watching and
fishing a river is the only way to learn how to catch good numbers of fish from it. This
is not to say you should watch the river while a run is on, fish like crazy as it may only
last 30 minutes! Don't be the angler that stopped for lunch just as the fastest action of
the day had started and a good sized school of fish was passing by, this is not the time
for studying the river or eating - have a snack handy while wading.
Common Errors We Have Almost All Made
at One Point
If you even think you may have a wind
knot then stop and check. A figure of 8 knot will reduce your line strength by about
20% but are not terrible so you can cinch them tight (after wetting the knot) if need be.
However, an overhand or half hitch knot is deadly and should be removed as it can
reduce line strength by as much as 85%.
Hold your line tight while your fly is on
the water and make sure your wet fly lands with the leader straight. A wet fly that
does not have a tight line attached to it will not swim in the water. A good wet fly
cast has the fly starting to swim across the current at a moderate speed and at the
desired spot - usually as soon as it hits the water.
Make sure your line is
not crossed under itself when you take it off the reel to string it through the guides.
Have you ever had your backing suddenly stop coming off the reel and bind tight?
A closer inspection reveals that it is crossed under itself on the spool.
This happens because when you first started to take the line off the reel it was crossed
over but it came off the reel easily enough to go unnoticed until all the fly line was
stripped off the reel and the backing started to unspool.
Many anadromous fish
including atlantic salmon, arctic char, and brook trout will enter a river more than once
in a summer. This has been shown with the use of radio transmitters. I have
caught many a colored salmon, char, and brook trout that was headed back out to sea after
weeks in the river. These fish take 24 to 72 hours to adjust to the change in
salinity and thus sit in the tidal pools or surface freshwater spill in a Bay or estuary
to adjust (freshwater floats on saltwater). Watch the tide cycle in the areas you
fish. The highest tides in our area are during the period of two days before and on
the full moon. These high tides sometime bring large runs. Moreover, some pools will
have fresh fish a certain time after the tide reaches dead low or dead high tide. The fish
often move in the river on the change of tides or when new fish move in to a pool. Make
some notes on fish activity in regards to the tide cycle - even if you are fishing miles
upstream from any tidal water.
If you are fishing a
large enough river, stop fishing after a school (run) of salmon has passed and head up
stream. It amazes me how few anglers chase a migrating school up river. I once
chased a school of salmon up our Lower Humber and hit a fish at every spot I stopped.
However, on a number of other occasions I was behind the school the whole way up
river. I got greedy and wanted to hit them in every major fishing area as they headed up
stream. Once they got past me I should have skipped a couple spots and waited for them to
arrive. Instead, I chased behind the school the whole way up river!
Salmon migrate very
fast during the early spring runs then slow during the middle of the season and speed up
again in the fall.
Grilse increase in size
as the season progresses but decrease in numbers. The later ones have fed in the Ocean
longer and grow very fast.
Salmon often turn
bronze colored in the fall even if they are somewhat fresh, however many of the very fresh
fish will still have the counter shading of bright white bellies and slate blue/black
backs found in spring fish.
Large male salmon can
be difficult to hook in the fall as the kype may prevent the fish from completely closing
Tease stale fish.
Present flies that are too far out of reach but are visible to a fish. Then after a period
of time try a real presentation. Use small flies and clear light leaders on stale fish or
in warm water.
Try a shrimp pattern or red/orange flies
in the fall.....you'll catch more fish.
Go subsurface with sinking lines in the
fall. Salmon rise to the surface less often in the fall.
Wire hooks bend and
flex and tear free less often when fishing barbless as they do less damage to the fish's
jaw. I do not use hooks above 2x or 3x shanks as they act like pry bars.
If you use Mustad hooks
(3399, 3906B, 9671, or 9672) try and make them look like a Bartleet Traditional or Supreme
hook by bending/curling the entire point down slightly so that as it sinks into the fish
as it buries deeper into the flesh instead of straight in.
When fishing a single
handed rod, fish with a medium length of line (20-50 feet) whenever possible. Very very
short lines miss more small and medium sized fish when setting the hook. Casting a full
fly line takes a little skill, but setting the hook on fast rising grilse is very
difficult with so much line in the water. Moreover, it unnecessarily depletes the spool
and adds drag to the rod when fighting fish. You'll miss less fish with a medium length
line and impress you friends with your catch rather than your casting prowess.
Purchase a bottle of
Gink or Silicon Anhydrous dry fly powder for dressing your dry flies - accept no
imitations on the greasy Gink! Or mix vaseline and silicon, and keep the "Do Not
Eat" tiny packets from clothing. Try mineral oil for sinkant. The higher you can get
your dry flies to float the better. Those that read the Portland Creek hitch section below
or fish with muddler minnows may wonder about the truth of this. I refer to dry flies as
those that cannot be effectively fished wet.
Fish with small hooks
during the later part of the season and try the ugly/weird looking flies you almost never
use on fish.
Always dress your lines
before or after fishing. You'll find a big difference in the smoothness of the casting and
the speed of the line (speed equals distance when casting).
Wear tight fitting sun
glasses and a heavy cotton but breathable hat with a neck strap. The cotton will not
dissolve in your fly dope but most synthetics will. There are a few salmon fishermen
around here that are blind in one eye and many with salmon fishing "battle
scares". Have a spare pair of glasses with a floating neck strap left in your
vest. Most importantly you should learn to cast over your opposite shoulder and do so if
the wind demands it or switch sides of the river.
If you go to a fly shop
and see flies sorted by pattern, look to see if there is one a little different than the
rest and then buy it. Tyers often put a single unique and slightly different but deadly
pattern in with a bunch of "regulars".
If your rod has a
fighting butt that screws in leave the butt home while fishing. A snap in/out butt is find
but the long screw in ones are very bad for having the fly line wrap around it and POW the
fish breaks off when hooked.
Watch for stretches of
river that run parallel north/south and then visit them just prior to them going in to
shadow. If the river has a canyon or banks all the better. You can look for these pools on
a map and then fish them in the evenings and mornings.
If a bend in a
river has a shoal or obstacle on the inside then scout for lays there.
If you moved a fish a number of times but
can't get it to eat the fly then try presenting a fly from the opposite side of the river.
Keep you prop in gear when fishing from a
boat...it makes less noise and will not eat your fly line.
Never wade down stream on a point of
shallow bottom in heavy current whereby you have to turn around and wade back upstream
unless you don't mind getting wet. Avoid wading directly upstream of the fish or too close
especially with metal spikes or studs on your wading boots. Stand on shore to fish if
Salmon often migrate very close to shore
in the early morning and very late evening. The shoreline is a natural boundary to the
fish and they regularly follow the shore. If you camp next to a very shallow area you will
see and hear fish swimming right along the beach at night. I mean in less than a foot of
water. Sometimes some of the fish may not even be submerged. Mink must love this but I am
yet to see one tackle a salmon. However, others have see mink catch and make a meal of a
very healthy grilse salmon.
Watch where and when (seasonally) otters
fish and then scout around.
Here is a challenge ......get a grilse to
grab a dry fly that is not touching the water. Force the fish to take the fly in the air.
Simply dabble and dangle the fly above the fish. It works and makes for great video.
Back to part 1, 2
If you liked this article please feel
free to view my other article: Trophy Atlantic Salmon Fishing Tips.
Bill Bryden © 2003
Newfoundland Guide, Eureka Outdoors Inc.