CROSSING THE ATLANTIC OFF
By Colin Taylor
Atlantic salmon have eluded my fly fishing rods for the past 60 years for one simple reason - they live in the ‘wrong’ ocean.
Having lived in California for several years and having made four trips to Alaska, I have caught all the Pacific Ocean species except one - the Sockeye salmon.
- So, when my lovely wife Charmaine and I, decided to celebrate our 51st wedding anniversary by touring in a rental car around the east coast of Canada - having previously thoroughly covered the Canadian west coast - I was surprised to find there was the opportunity to fish for Atlantic salmon and cross them off my ‘landed’ list.
I had not factored in mentally that eastern Canada - Quebec, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia - offered Atlantic salmon fishing.
I had thought that in a year or so I might go to Iceland where famous Yardbirds and Cream guitarist Eric Clapton had caught successive record annual Atlantic salmon on the fly in the Vatnsdalsa River - the first weighing 28lb in 2016 and the second in the same river in 2017 hitting 25lbs.
However, Eastern Canada had simply not registered on my Atlantic salmon list.
So, in an attempt to delete the Atlantic salmon from my ‘not caught’ list, Charmy booked four days in the Salmon Lodge overlooking the Grand Cascapedia River in Quebec.
This was no mean feat, because, as we were later to discover, the fishing lodges on Quebec’s Cascapedia, Bonaventure and Petite rivers are highly sought after with bookings up to two years in advance.
In fact, regular Canadian anglers compete strongly for reservations at the lodge in the prime months of mid June to July; and they are moved up into the coveted ‘accepted’ date slots as older annual clients gradually die off - like a kind of salmon primo booking tontine.
We were therefore lucky to get a cancellation at the end of September - a week before the lodge closed for the year.
Unfortunately our booking dates also coincided with the arrival of Hurricane Lee which passed through Quebec and Nova Scotia dumping huge amounts of rain in the surrounding area.
As a result, the rivers didn’t clear until the third day of our visit and, even then, they were abnormally high and fast.
The lodge and its breakfast and dinner menus were great as were the house staff.
I had brought no gear - waders, rods, reels etc with me and hired everything at the lodge. This did not prove expensive with my salmon fishing licence, purchase of streamer flies and gear hire totalling $240 for the four days.
Atlantic salmon are not plentiful in Quebec so anglers at the Salmon Lodge are only allowed to land a maximum of two fish a day with compulsory catch and release. Also it’s fly fishing only - no spinning rods, or bait can be used. Yay!
Additionally it’s only one fly at a time tied on the trace.
What was sobering on our first night around the dinner table, was to learn from four experienced Canadian anglers, who regularly come to the Salmon Lodge each year, that they hadn’t caught any fish at all over their four day period.
Thankfully the Bonaventure River, I was allocated to fish, cleared from the Hurricane Lee silting by the third day - although it remained high in volume, a bit murky and fast running.
My keen 29-year-old guide Kevin Seguin explained that we would fish from a canoe and when he spotted salmon, I would stand up and cast several metres in front of the salmon using a size 9 heavy wet line wielded by a size 9 fly rod.
We would start higher above the salmon’s location and gradually move backwards until, with successive casts, the fly was transversing right across the salmon’s face.
Fly casting from a narrow canoe without a steadying keel in a fast flowing river is pretty unnerving for a 77-year-old geriatric like me! And especially when the guide stands up also in order to sight the salmon with his polaroids which makes the canoe decidedly top heavy, rocky and wobbly.
The Quebecois salmon fly fishing technique is to cast across the river and mend the line upstream immediately several times in the fast running water so that the streamer fly hopefully gets down to the salmon resting near the bottom of the river.
It’s not that easy to achieve this when the river is flowing high and fast.
Unlike wet fly fishing at the river and stream mouths of New Zealand rivers like Lake Taupo’s Waitahanui, Waihora and Waihaha Rivers, the method of fly retrieval is inconsequential.
Apparently the Atlantic salmon always hit during an across river downward swing and usually in the middle of the swing.
Once the line has straightened out from a cast there’s no point in doing any form of fast or slow or fancy retrieves. It’s simply a matter of retrieving line at speed and casting across again.
While most Atlantic salmon don’t feed at all during their time in the rivers to spawn, it’s thought they hit the flies out of feeding habit and automatic reaction to the presence of prey in the Atlantic Ocean; or out of territorial annoyance hyped up by competition for spawning space.
Unlike the Pacific salmon, including New Zealand’s introduced King or Quinnat salmon, Atlantic salmon don’t die immediately after spawning but swim back to the ocean and can return to rivers to spawn several times.
As a result they can grow to huge sizes with the largest Atlantic salmon ever recorded netted in 1960 in Scotland in the estuary of the Hope River - weighing in at 49.44kg (109lb).
On October 7, 1922, 31-year-old nurse, Miss Georgina Ballantine, claimed the world’s biggest salmon caught with a rod and reel on Scotland’s River Tay. It weighed 64lb and she battled for two hours to land it.
Well, back to my sought-after but much more modest Atlantic salmon, which hit my fly on the third day.
Just as Kevin predicted, it didn’t slam the fly, and just as Kevin instructed, I didn’t strike but I simply lifted the rod tip slowly upwards.
Kevin then guided the canoe quickly to the bouldered shore where I could battle the salmon with my feet fixed firmly on the shingle river bed.
The fish, realising it was hooked took off like an express train down the swollen river -
running off the fly line and two colours of backing before finally turning around to allow me to gradually garner back some line between a number of powerful runs.
Kevin instructed me to stay in the water above the knee and not to pull the fish towards the shore.
It seems Atlantic salmon will panic and get a renewed burst of energy to head back to the middle of the river if they get into shallow water and feel the river bed on their stomachs.
Kevin ran off downstream with a landing net and was led a merry dance - taking three attempts to net the fish after 25 minutes of dogged fighting.
The netting was different also. Kevin told me not to try and lift the salmon’s head up to allow him to net under it because they will again struggle vigorously if their nose gets out of the water.
Instead, I had to wait until he was directly behind the fish, which faced upstream towards me and then lower the rod. This had the effect of causing the salmon to turn around with relaxed pressure on the line and swim directly into the open landing net.
While it was no huge trophy fish, my Atlantic hen salmon of unknown weight provided a great thrill and was released immediately after being unhooked.
© Video of Salmon Release - Press To Follow Link
So now the only salmon species I haven’t landed is a Sockeye. Maybe next year?
Renowned Nelson flyfishing guide and me mate Zane Mirfin tells me that small, bright red, spawning, landlocked sockeye salmon of around 2lb can be seen from the State Highway 8 bridge over the Twizel River during Autumn - March to April.
But it’s illegal to catch them.
Ah well, I guess I need to start making a booking for Oregon, British Columbia or Alaska.
© Although not huge or trophy material, my Atlantic salmon provided a real thrill in a swollen and fast flowing river
© Standing up and casting in a rocking narrow canoe with no keel on a big fast flowing river can be pretty challenging for a geriatric angler.