A battle with an Atlantic silver salmon is one of fishing's greatest thrills, says
THE SCENE is just before midnight at Harrt’s Island Pool on the St. John River, some five miles north of Fredericton, capital city of New Brunswick. A solitary figure prowls about the camp, bearing something under his arm which vaguely resembles a gun. He looks carefully at the adjoining camps to make sure no lights are showing. Then he peers up and dovm the river, his ears keyed for the sound of a paddle swirling through the water or the scrape of a pole on the river bottom.
He is about to break the law, and he has the look of a desperate man. But he’s no ordinary desperado; that thing under his arm is a fishing rod, not a gun. He’s a guide from the camp, and what he is bent on doing is proving, once for all, that Atlantic silver salmon will take the fly at night. He know's it’s against the law to fish longer than an hour after sundown. He knows, too, that the fish warden watches all the good pools for poachers and that, if caught, he’ll be fined and probably lose his license in the bargain.
It’s a bright moonlit night, so he is careful to keep in the shadow's until out of sight of the camp. Then he strides along with a bolder step, following the footpath that leads along the bank through mixed woods of maple and elm and evergreens, and over stretches of meadowdand. A mile and a half from the camp he reaches Macintosh Creek, and it is here that he stops and rigs up his rod.
He knows this pool like the back of his own hand. Swish ! His line whistles through the night air, and the fly lights on the water well above some submerged rocks. As it swings around in the current he retrieves it wfith brief, regular jerks. On the fourth cast there is a movement on the surface of the w'ater as a swell follows the fly; then the w'ater begins to boil and the line to tighten. Now it is tight, and there is a flash of silver in the moonlight as a fish smashes the surface in a savage five-foot arc, falls back with a loud splash and heads downstream. Up and down the shore the guide goes after him, giving him plenty of opportunity to run and wind himself, until finally he feels him begin to tire.
But what w'as that noise? It sounded like the bump of a pole against the side of a boat. Could it be . . . ? There it is again ! There’s no doubt about it now'; the fish w’arden is coming up the river, making his rounds.
Quickly, the guide strips some twenty-odd yards of line from his reel, and backs up into the creek. Here he detaches the reel, sets the rod down on the bank, and holds the line in his hands so that the reel w'on’t sing if the fish starts to run again. Then the thought occurs to him, “What if the warden runs into the line as he goes punting by?” In a near-panic, he shoves the hand in which he is holding the line well down into the water, and waits.
A shadow crosses the path of light and the warden goes
on up the pool. The guide doesn’t move. A few minutes later the shadow recrosses, on its way dowm again. The guide gives him a few more minutes and then stealthily picks up his rod, reattaches the reel and, almost immediately, the fish starts to run again. Five minutes later a twelve-pound silver salmon is glittering on the bank.
But why did the guide take such a foolhardy risk? Simply because the habits and behavior of Salmo salar, so highly prized by anglers, are such a seething mass of controversy that he wanted the satisfaction of proving this one fact for himself. For there are few subjects on top of the earth, not even excepting government and religion, about which there are so many erroneous, varied and confusing theories.
THE INNOCENT cause of all this contention is primarily a fresh-w'ater fish that migrates to the sea. When he is from six to eight inches long and ready to leave his native river for the great adventure, he has already begun to acquire his distinctive silvery beauty and is called a smolt. When he returns to the river he has developed into a grilse, and is now a five-pound silvery streak of fighting fish, lacking only the weight and strength of a mature fish to w'age as spectacular a battle. Adult salmon run larger
in some rivers than in others. Salmon weighing close to forty pounds have been taken from the St. John, but a tw-enty-pounder is considered a big fish.
There are anglers who will flatly declare to you that salmon don’t feed in fresh water, but attack lures only because the lures annoy them. To back up this argument, they will point out that very little food is found in a salmon taken from a river. “All right,” you say, “but if they aren’t feeding, then why do they break the surface so often?” And they readily reply, “Merely to shake the sea lice from their scales.”
Even when you find two who agree that a salmon takes the fly because he is hungry, the chances are they will discover some detail in the feeding habits of the fish to fight about.
Some will explain to you with a lofty, professorial air that salmon require more oxygen than other fish, and thus are in a depressed condition most of the time they are in fresh water, due to the pollution and acid content of the water. This, they argue, is the reason they sometimes stay down for long periods, only “going on the feed” when their oxygen requirements have been fulfilled.
Others just as loftily reject this explanation, preferring to put their faith in what is known as the Solunar Theory. They believe that the combined pull of the sun and the moon, which causes the tides and stimulates salt-water fish to feed, has a similar effect on fresh-water fish, providing conditions of temperature and barometric pressure are favorable.
Thus the poor angler who can’t take his theories or leave them alone, is apt to find his mind rapidly becoming a ragbag of misinformation. And as one New Brunswick guide put it, “That stuff don’t help you to cast or work a fly any better, so what good is it to you?”
Not Too Expensive
ONE OF THE most widespread illusions of all is that salmon angling is strictly a millionaire’s sport; a thrill far beyond the reach of the average angler, available only to the select few who can afford to pay fabulous dues to
exclusive clubs. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
If you can afford to fill up the old bus and take a jaunt into Quebec, New Brunswick or Nova Scotia, you can afford to fish for salmon. Because you can put up at one of the many sportsmen’s camps in these three provinces— complete with fishing license and a guide, a rod and a canoe —for very little more than it would cost you to stay a Continued on page 33
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similar length of time at a first-class hotel.
It is true that many miles of the finest rivers, like the Restigouche in New Brunswick and the Matapedia in Quebec, are privately controlled. But there is open water on many other famous streams— especially in Nova Scotia, where a law of the province prohibits the posting of waters—which may be fished at low cost. The St. John, which originates in the wooded areas of northern Maine and empties into the Bay of Fundy. is one of the most accessible rivers of them all.
Late in May, when the salmon come in from the ocean on their way up the St. John to spawn, there are streamer headlines in the newspapers, and excitement mounts throughout the countryside as the fish work up the river. It takes them from ten days to two weeks to negotiate the eightv-five miles to Fredericton, and by the time they get there the guides and sport, fishermen are as dry of mouth and uncertain of stomach as football players just before the kick-off.
But, meanwhile, the backyards of Fredericton are a very pretty sight. Here are the anglers, oiling their lines with deer fat and varnishing their rods, and then setting them out carefully in the sun to dry. The older the rod, the more the owner varnishes it. What if it is homemade or has splints on it? He values it every bit as much as if it were a Hardy “Greenheart,” fresh out from England with a $50 price tag on it.
At the camps the guides dust off their lists of patrons, watch the sun anxiously, and make many trips to the water’s edge. For the question, “Are these fish going to take the fly when they get here?” is what is worrying them most. If the water is too high or too warm, they may not. But the moment the fly fishermen begin to take fish, the guides go into action. By mail and telegraph and telephone, the word goes out to clients that the run is on. and presently anglers from all over Canada and the United States begin to arrive on the scene. They come bv train, by motor car, by boat and sometimes by plane. Professional men, clerks, students, athletes, Government officials, tradesmen, mechanics-all kinds of people, just brothers of the angle. President Roosevelt’s sons have heard and responded to the call from Harrt’s Pool, and so has Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor-General of the Dominion.
This spring run will last until the middle of June; then it will slacken off until July, when the summer run commences. The summer run will be at its best in the month of August, and will last so far into the fall that you can sometimes hear the duck hunters hanging away while the fishermen are still on the river.
Heavy Tackle Unnecessary
WHAT sets salmon angling apart from all other kinds of fishing are the peculiar rolling, head-and-tail rise of the fish, his apparent indifference to lures, and the unpredictable things he does when hooked. Sometimes he puts on an aerial circus, smashing the surface with a series of spectacular vaultings above water that make your heart move up higher in your chest. Sometimes he just bores down and sulks. Sometimes he makes a sudden bolt downstream with a hundred yards or so of your best line, and if you value your line and leader, you'll up-anchor and tear after him. And other times he races so madly in so many different directions that you won’t know his exact whereabouts until he soars above the surface, spraying water in miniature showers.
What the salmon, who is always working his way upstream, enjoys most is to find a spot where he doesn’t have to work to maintain his position. Where an overhead
current causes an upst ream pull or where a submerged rock, tree root or cleft in the river bed breaks the current into eddies, there is a likely salmon lie. Surface ripples indicate the presence of one or another of these conditions to the angler, but if he hopes to persuade the fish to leave his lie and follow the fly, he must offer it so that it will swing past in front of the fish. In the spring when the water is high and heavy, the salmon will take only large wet flies; later on, when the water is low in the river and the sun bright overhead, the dry-fly fisher has his innings.
One of the most accomplished and picturesque salmon anglers in all New Brunswick uses a trout rod exclusively, which proves that you don’t need heavy tackle and a punishing rod if you can substitute skill. He is Mr. William (Billy) Walker, of Fredericton. A little man. he usually fishes from shore in front of his camp on Harrt’s Pool, a cap pulled well down over his eyes and arrayed in big rubber hip boots. He is partially paralyzed in one arm, which is why he uses the onehanded trout rod and fishes mostly from shore, as it is difficult for him to manage a canoe. When there is a run of fish in the river, he may be seen doing an expert job of fly casting early in the morning and again in the evening, and it is very rarely that he doesn’t kill two fish a day.
“That Billy Walker,” his fellow citizens will tell you appreciatively. “Say. he’s been fishing so long he’s got so he thinks like a salmon. Those fish can’t fool him.”
A fish never carries him to the end of the pool; seldom indeed does he have to leave the seventy-five-yard gravel har in front of his camp. He knows intuitively when to give the fish full run and the precise moment at which to brake the reel, and he has forgotten more inside fishing lore than most anglers will ever acquire. The guides estimate that he kills about seventy per cent of the fish he hooks, whereas an average angler would kill twenty-five per cent less. But Billy is a real sportsman and if he loses a fish he has no regrets.
“I had my chance at him,” he’ll say, “and he licked me fair and square.”
Because so many salmon rises are false rises, on which the fish has no intention of taking the fly, some anglers declare that the salmon is endowed with a mental process. This is, of course, the bunk. There may be many reasons why the fish didn’t strike. After several such rises, an experienced salmon angler will rest the fish well between casts, try other sizes and patterns of flies and different methods and speeds of bringing the fly over him, and fish the fly at varying depths. Fish have been taken after being moved ten or twelve times.
When the Gaspereaux, a small bony fish, is around, the temperamental salmon stays down. A run of shad in the river also puts him off. The shad jump almost as frequently as the salmon, and it’s uncanny how the guides, sitting in their camps at night, are instantly aware of their presence and will prophesy no fishing on the morrow.
“There’s shad in the river,” they’ll explain. “You can tell by the sound they make when they jump; it’s a thinner splash than a salmon.”
Some anglers will tell you unblinkingly that they know several tricks about working a fly that will make the salmon literally shoulder each other for the privilege of taking it while other anglers can’t even raise a fish. They talk mysteriously about the Restigouche Twirl, a peculiar twitch given the fly in the water by a sudden movement of the rod tip. and the Indian Wiggle, which makes the fly tremble in its course as the angler reels it in. Most guides are sceptical about the efficacy of such magic. If you press them
for details, they’ll say something to the effect that you’re lucky to raise a fish, luckier if you hook him, and luckier still if you land him.
The Best Flies
rT'HE MOST popular types of flies with salmon anglers are the Silver Doctor, Silver Wilkinson, Jock Scott, Black Dose, Brown Fairy, Silver Grey and Lady Almherst. Dry-fly fishermen have varying luck with most standard trout flies, but the light and dark Cahill, Royal Coachman and March Brown have all been used successfully. Perhaps the most effective killer of the lot, day in day out, is the Silver Doctor.
There are times, though, when the fish seem to grow bored with the same old offerings and will rise to none of them, which gives anglers plenty of opportunity for experiment.
During such a spell, two anglers were fishing stoically one evening from the same canoe, and making random pessimistic comments on the psychology of the fish. While looking through his assortment of flies, one of them discovered a Green Drake, a cheap little twenty-five-cent fly he had bought as a lark one day because something about its coloring had attracted him. Just for fun he substituted it for the Silver Doctor he had been using. Wham ! On the very first cast a fish took the fly savagely, and for the next half-hour the angler had all the fight he was looking for. Before sundown he took two more fish in quick succession on the same fly.
Both agreed to keep the Green Drake a secret between them. But by ten the next morning, which was the earliest the other could get around to the sporting goods store, the store was completely sold out of Green Drakes and every angler on the river was using one. Both anglers swore they had said nothing to anyone about it, and how the secret got out is still an unsolved mystery. Maybe the fish told on them.
For some undefined reason, most salmon anglers are natural-born kibitzers. At a well-known pool like Harrt’s, there are often five or six canoes on the water at a time, and the angler who hooks a fish is likely to find himself receiving more advice than an expectant mother. The interference may even come from an authoritative source, as was the case with a boy who started to fish on his birthday with a brand-new grilse rod, the gift of his fond papa.
The fish were supposed to be down that day, and things were quiet at the pool until the boy unexpectedly hooked a fish on a short line. Immediately the air exploded with advice. For a moment the boy’s dad watched, saying nothing, but the temptation to take control of the situation quickly overpowered him.
“Here, Harold,” he said. “Let me take the rod now, before you lose him. I’ve landed a lot of fish and I know how to handle him better than you do.”
But no. Harold didn’t want to part with the rod.
“Come on now, son,” the father said sharply. “You can tell your mother and everybody that he’s your fish, and that'll be true. I’ll just reel him in for you and you can have all the glory.’’
Poor Harold knew by this time that he was listening to a command and not an entreaty, and he reluctantly handed over the rod. But while the rod was changing hands the fish fouled the anchor-line, and away he went. The look that passed between father and son at that moment was almost indescribable, but never since that day has Harold received any advice, at least on the water and within listening distance, from his father.
IIow to Lose Your Fish
INCIDENTALLY, many fish are lost •*while being landed, through carelessness, overeagerness or sheer clumsiness. Guides customarily gaff your fish for you if you are out in the boat with them, but if you are alone you must land your fish by beaching it. This is done by playing it to a standstill along the shore, then stepping out of the canoe and walking straight up the beach and sliding it out.
Anglers being what they are—“funnier than the fish” —there are many of them who wouldn’t give a nickel to fish a convenient or well-known pool. They are happiest when propelling a canoe, packed tight with a twoto three-hundred-jxmnd load, over new and unfamiliar water. These are the purists who have only to hear a salmon splash in a remote pool and the fish is as good as grassed. River trips of almost any length are possible in these provinces, and that is what these ambulatory anglers go for, though the mosquitoes and black flies may make hamburger out of them.
Salmon angling is post-graduate work, if you have had experience at fly fishing for trout or bass. Once you get the feel of the larger rod and the heavier tackle, you will pick up the casting technique in a jiffy, and from then on you will enjoy hugely the challenges presented to your ingenuity and resourcefulness by the respective problems of raising, hooking, subduing and finally landing a salmon. There is a big thrill in store for you the day you first venture out by yourself, handle your own canoe and hook, play and beach a fish independent of anyone else.
The final payoff will be at the dinner table. Your fish will taste better than ever that night, though there is no finer food fish in the whole wide world than this same Atlantic silver salmon.