Swedish version


Atlantic Salmon Fly Fishing Tips
Part 3
By Bill Dryden

Part 1, 2

The Trigger

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 bug.

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 surface.

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 1800’s 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 below).

Stripping with 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.

Migrating Fish

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!

Seasonal Changes

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 its mouth.

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 possible.

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.

Tight Lines

Bill Bryden © 2003
Newfoundland Guide, Eureka Outdoors Inc.




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