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Once in the tidewater pool of a Newfoundland river, I took a salmon that had the backbone of a capelin in its stomach, all that remained of the smeltlike fish that salmon feed upon in the salt. How long it had been there is the question. Salmon do move in and out of the tidewater pools, getting used to the fresh water before moving up the river. But aside from that one time I have never found anything but a brown slime in the stomachs of any of the salmon I have taken over many years. But whatever the reason, the Atlantic salmon readily hits a well delivered fly. Since earliest times salmon have been the fish that made sport fishing and flies tied away back then are still used and continue to be top strike bringers, as well as being the most beautiful ties known, and the most romantically named ... flies like the jock Scott, Durham ranger, blue charm, thunder and lightning, black dose, silver doctor, March brown and many others.
Classic Atlantic salmon flies have the feathers "married," intertwined rather than tied separately like trout flies, and this is such an intricate procedure that they are, of necessity, expensive. I remember one winter going over my salmon flies, sort of rubbing my hands together over them as salmon fishermen are wont to do, and figuring that in one small plastic box, three inches square, I had $ 150.00 worth of flies.
But all salmon flies are not so expensive and only recently some ties have been made with hair wings, like a small bucktail, and have found their way into the Atlantic salmon scene and are taking plenty of fish. These flies do not have the different kinds of feathers in the wings, nor the elaborate bodies that the classic ties do, but they seem to take their share of salmon. But even so, it's going to take a long time to convince gillies, old time salmon men, and fly tyers, that hair salmon flies are even worth the tying. To the real old time salmon man it is a sacrilege even to drop such a fly in his favorite salmon stream.
I can still see the look on the face of my gillie in Norway one summer when I tried on a big bucktail, a platinum blonde, and held it up for his inspection. Even after it had taken a 29 pound salmon, his nose still went up when he saw it.
Regardless of married feathers or hair wings, it pays to carry a wide assortment of flies with you. For instance, in high water bigger flies are needed, while in low, clear water a small fly is required, not only small in stature but skimpily dressed as well. And because many a salmon river changes overnight as a result of a heavy rain, a wide range of flies is often necessary for one and the same river. And again it pays to know the kind and size of flies suitable for the country in which you will fish for salmon.
In nine years of salmon fishing in Newfoundland, I don't recall ever using a salmon fly bigger than a 2/0. Yet in some of the bigger rivers of Quebec, anglers go as high as 7/0. And in Norway 8/0 and 9/0 salmon flies are used almost every day, and in that country of wild rivers a 4/0 is considered a very small salmon fly.
Until very recently it would have been hard to convince me that there is any real need for a salmon $y as large as the 9/0, or for that matter, for a two handed rod, but you live and learn and the more I fish the more I realize how much there is that I don't know. And that July, when I made my first trip to Norway, I found in the heavy, short rivers that drop down like torrents in less than a mile from mountains to sea, just the set of conditions that called for that big equipment.
In the Aaroy River the water was fast and heavy and we tossed our flies out from casting platforms. In order to make pools, many dams, called kjaerr (pronounced she-air), had been constructed. The ends of these dams protruded just enough to make a hazard which could lose you a fish in a hurry. It was those kjaerrs that finally forced me to the extra length of the two handed rod, but what first made me need one was the 9/0 flies. Trying to cast a 9/0 salmon fly with a 9-foot, 6-ounce fly rod, calls for Paul Bunyan wrists and also an iron hat to protect the back of the angler's head. One hit back there with such a hook and it's hard to say what would happen. You might end up in the river, or spend the rest of your days shadow boxing with emerging may fly hatches.
But the water was so heavy that only those heavy hooked flies would get down deep in that rushing torrent. And only the long rod would lift the line over the protuding arms of the kjaerrs.
Many of the older salmon flies were tied on double hooks, but, like the big, two-handed rods, except for very special circumstances, these are on the way out. I believe that the single hook drops more lightly and does a better job of hooking the salmon, as with the two-hooked flies the two prongs are apt to work against each other. Some anglers hold the opinion that a two-hooked fly rides better, and gets the fly deeper, but proper presentation can overcome the first problem, and I do not believe that there is enough additional weight in the extra hook to make much difference in sinking the fly.
Low water flies are used in low, clear pools where a heavily dressed fly would look like a bird falling into the river, far too big for anything but scaring the salmon off their perches. But the low water flies, with the dressing tied sparsely and only a bit more than halfway back on the shank of the small wire hooks, can be presented lightly and quietly and inconspicuously. For salmon are strange-acting fish in low water. They want small flies, lightly dressed, and carry their liking to such an extreme that they will even hit a bare hook.
Dry flies are very effective for Altantic salmon. They are generally tied on number 6 hooks, making a good big fly that will ride well in heavy water as well as smooth. But it is in the slick parts of the pools that the dry comes into best use.
Casting a dry to salmon, when the water has dropped and the fish can be seen in the pools, calls for a cast which will put the fly ahead of the leader on the water. Many times with an upstream cast with a straight leader, the salmon will rise to the floater only to bump the leader with his nose and so knock the fly away. A slack line S-cast, or a curve either to the right or left will overcome this, and give enough good float to overcome the drag problem.
A good stout hook is essential in dry fishing for Atlantic salmon and of course, the smaller the size of the dry fly, the thinner is the hook. But a size 8 or Io hook will take salmon, especially if there is plenty of room to fight the fish, and many times I have resorted to dries tied on a size 12 hook. The only place there is danger of the salmon giving you trouble by straightening out the hook is when he gets downstream from you in heavy water or strong current. Then a light hook seldom holds a big salmon and the only recourse is to run downstream or go by canoe, following the fish until he has stopped in a pool and the angler has a fair chance to fight it out with him.
It's always a moot point whether it is the size of the fly or the color or the pattern that is of most importance. But the list below should get an angler through most circumstances, if they are carried in a wide assortment of hook sizes, and a stock of the same patterns is carried in the low water flies.
WET FLIES, hook sizes 12 to 9/0;
FLY FISHING FOR ATLANTIC SALMON BLACK DOSE MARCH BROWN BLACK DOCTOR SILVER GRAY BLUE CHARM SILVER DOCTOR COSSEBOOM THUNDER AND LIGHTNING DURHAM RANGER LOGIE DUSTY MILLER JOCK SCOTT GREEN HIGHLANDER BROOKS SILVER TIP-HAIRWING MAR LODGE BROOKS SILVER TIP-REGULAR TIE
DRY FLIES, hook sizes 6 to 12;
GRAY WULFF GRAY BIVISIBLE ROYAL WULFF BLACK BIVISIBLE WHITE WULFF BADGER BIVISIBLE BROWN WULFF PINK LADY BROWN BIVISIBLE
All the salmon flies in the world will not help the angler if his trip does not coincide with the run of fish in the river to which he is going. Salmon are anadromous that is, they are born in the fresh water, live there for a couple of years, go to sea for various lengths of time (from one or two to five or more years) then return to spawn in their native river. Usually the date of this spawning run into any given river, be it in Newfoundland, Maine or Norway, varies only a day or two from year to year, but occasionally natural conditions will hold back the run as in 1954, for example, when an unusually large number of icebergs along the Newfoundland coast delayed the season there as much as ten days in some rivers.
Part of the joy of salmon fishing is the thrill of being in on that spring dash to the spawning beds far up river. I know of no wilder, more fascinating or more thrilling sight than that of a salmon run passing through a pool, the fish jumping clear of the water, cutting the surface, dashing, darting, and going on up. They come in waves, bucking the relentless rush of the river, and while they are on the move it is no use to offer them a fly.
Then it is important to know the spot that is their first stopping place on that drive upstream. For instance, in Newfoundland, salmon enter the Humber River and don't stop, or at least don't come within the angler's reach, until they hit the Big Falls Pool, 20 miles above the town of Deer Lake. Once they reach that pool, however, the fishing is fabulous.
Occasionally, if the water drops during this upstream run, the salmon will be confined to pools, patiently waiting for rain, and the consequent rise of the river, before moving again to pools farther up. In such "staying pools" salmon will rise like a rocket to a fly.
While the first run salmon usually head for an upstream pool some distance from the mouth of the river, later runs will stop lower down, too, probably because the water is lower by that time. The Humber is an example in point the early run goes straight to the Big Falls Pool, but later on, in late July, salmon begin to stop in all the pools. So to get in on first rate fishing, the salmon angler must know all the details about the river where he plans to fish.
There is a big difference in the way a salmon fights when he is hooked in the shallow water of a staying pool, and when he is hooked in heavy water. In the former case, he will seldom leave the pool. I remember one time on Harry's Brook, Newfoundland, hanging a salmon that weighed 15 pounds, in a pool the size of a tennis court. He tore that pool into bits, zipping across and back, catercornering. He was in and out of the air, throwing water high and wide. It was unleashed fury, turned loose on a pinpoint. But he wouldn't leave that pool, even though a dash through the shallow, rock-strewn rapids below would most certainly have resulted in a cut leader.
On the other hand, when the water in the rivers is fast and the salmon comes upstream in the spring run-off, he goes like a shooting star. A run of two or three hundred feet is nothing, and in such water the angler must often follow a big salmon for a mile before landing it.