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Anglers Resort To Small Flies To Catch Big Fish

Atlantic salmon fishing can hardly be described as predictable. The fish first must arrive. After several years of feeding on the ocean’s bounty, salmon return to their natal river, often to the same spot where they were hatched. This is an incredible feat of navigation, a miracle performed by the smell of the water, which

Atlantic salmon fishing can hardly be described as predictable. The fish first must arrive. After several years of feeding on the ocean’s bounty, salmon return to their natal river, often to the same spot where they were hatched. This is an incredible feat of navigation, a miracle performed by the smell of the water, which usually begins in late spring.

The water level and temperature play roles in providing freedom for the salmon’s migration upriver, and their willingness to take a fly. Atlantic salmon do not return to their parent river to feed, and authorities claim they do not eat after entering fresh water. In fact, their digestive system shuts down. The sole purpose of their extraordinary journey is for reproduction.

Then why do salmon strike a fly? Theories abound: aggression, curiosity, inducement (fly color, style, or movement), irritation, or recollection. The latter is based on the belief that an adult salmon has a certain feeding instinct; a habit fixed from their years as parr (juvenile salmon) spent in their birth river when they fed on insects. Whatever induces salmon to strike — the fish do come to the fly.

An Atlantic salmon’s reluctance to take a fly can be quite frustrating. To accommodate uncertainty, an angler must make every cast with confidence. Even after a salmon takes, their motives for doing so are not always positively determined. The reason, and any definitive conclusion, are held in the mind of the angler — molded by influences and experiences.

Salmon flies number in the thousands. Fisherman must often wage a campaign to encourage a salmon to take. Artificial flies (pattern, style, and size) are usually chosen believing they are appropriate for the water (velocity, depth, clarity) and weather conditions. Selection is also based on past successes, a particular river’s productive patterns, or a recommendation from a guide or fellow fisherman.

There is an old adage in fly-fishing, “Big Flies, Big Fish”. In many instances and for many fish species this holds true. It typically takes a substantial offering to tempt large fish. But there are always exceptions to the rules. At times, such is the case with Atlantic salmon.

On a September trip to Quebec, Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula, a small fly came up big. My Irish buddy Jim Finn and I were off to fish the Petite Cascapedia and Bonaventure rivers. The day before departure Jim received a phone call from one of our guides. He mentioned that a Tiger Ghost pattern was working. Jim relayed the information to me and I whipped up three in the prescribed size.

Our first day was spent on the Petite Cascapedia, a river of continually changing characteristics — a succession of surging rapids, swift runs, and placid pools. The Gaspe was experiencing a drought — the rivers were low. The guide suggested a small fly, prompting me to tie a size 12 Tiger Ghost to my leader.

Fifteen minutes into our fishing a 16-pound hook-jawed male salmon took the sparsely tied one-half-inch long fly. While small flies did not account for all the salmon we caught, they were responsible for several fish.

The lure of the rivers and the love of Atlantic salmon make each fish caught very special. The right cast, the right fly, and a little luck might mean the salmon of one’s dreams. Sometimes, “Small Flies Catch Big Fish!”

Mike O'Brien
CONTRIBUTOR
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