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It’s not often that I spend expensive ink on fly-fishing (after all, I’m old school and like to catch fish quickly and efficiently), but there is a short period of the year when flies are the way to go and what do you know, that time is now!
In fact, if you’re in the mood for a salmon feed, you won’t find a better time than the present to wade into a cool stream or river and start working nymphs or streams into slick pools or gurgling riffles in hopes that a plump landlock or two might be interested in your feathery offerings.
Most folks don’t know that we have several rivers in our area that contain good salmon fishing. The Sebasticook has pockets of fish, the Piscataquis, Pleasant and Sebec rivers all have salmon in them, and you can catch some nice ones in Wassookeag Lake and Big Indian as well.
For some reason I like smaller rivers that are easy to read, and the Sebec ranks as my all-time favorite. In the latter days of May the river will be full of fish (trout, too), but when the focus is on salmon it’s hard to ignore them. I remember standing in the first big pool below the water gauge, fumbling with flies and leaders, and having fish jumping all around me. One day I actually had one vault over my fly line and land on my rod tip as I stood there trying to tie on a No. 14 Cahill. It was the only thing I had that matched the natural flies the fish were taking, and in due time I had a limit of salmon on my stringer. The water was deep and cold but the fish were feeding right on top.
It was not my fault that I happened to skip work that day (a Wednesday, I believe) so there was no one else to share the river with me, but I made the most of it. Aside from innumerable black fly bites I called the day a success – any time you can take your limit of anything on a fly rod you’re doing well!
The old saw about waiting till the leaves on the poplar are as big as a mouse’s ear does ring true when it comes to salmon, although I’d still recommend that you go fishing when you have the time, mouse’s ears or not. Still, in late May, all the elements for a successful day of salmon fishing come together – lower water levels, stable conditions and water temperatures in the 55-degree range. Salmon can’t talk, of course, but if you pay attention they will tell you when they are ready to bite!
As always, the best times to be on the water are early and late in the day, primarily because the action of the midday breezes tends to make fly-casting a challenge. When the surface of the river is rippled by the wind it’s tough to cast, tough for you to follow your fly and tough for the fish to see it. Many anglers fish through the day and just work through the bad conditions, but a noontime siesta is worth millions if you’ve been fishing hard since dawn.
Though it’s easier to see streamers and the larger fly patterns, I prefer to go with weighted nymphs in natural colors. These are essentially bottom-bouncing bug patterns that look like real food to May salmon. Brown, black or gray seem to be the most productive colors, though last season a friend of mine caught a 24-inch landlock using a chartreuse Clouser minnow – a fly normally used for saltwater species weighing 10 times more! Certainly give the fish what they want, but I don’t normally have problems if I start out with a Prince or bead-head nymph. Dark woolly buggers work well, too.
I also enjoy casting upstream and drifting my flies straight downstream to me. This requires a bit of fast-handed stripping in order to keep the fly moving naturally through the water, but it’s a very productive technique. I also cast across and drift downstream, or cast directly downstream and strip upstream if all else fails. It’s fishing, after all, and only the salmon know what’s going to work from one moment to the next. Give them all you have and sooner or later something will click for you.
Because landlocked salmon are generally big-water fish (not normally found in jump-across streams in the dark woods), you can go with 5- or 6-weight outfits and 8- or 9-foot rods. I like sinking-tip line for nymphing in deep water, but a floating line is sufficient for streamers, dries and wet flies. I start out with a 10-foot leader but that soon gets chewed down to about 8 feet between changing flies and losing fish on every other cast!
These days, most of the salmon you catch will be just at or under the minimum length limit of 14 inches, so the sensible thing to do is use barbless hooks (easily accomplished by crimping down the barbs with pliers). When you catch a sub-legal fish, just lead him in gently, grip the hook near the eyelet with needlenose pliers and twist – the hook should slide easily out of the fish’s mouth with no stress, damage or loss.
If you’re going to keep your fish, I’d suggest bringing a creel with ice inside. Clean your catch immediately and place it on ice to ensure the best quality fish when you make it back home to the grill. If you leave your fish uncleaned and dangling from a stringer all day you’ll soon see the error of your ways. Salmon are fragile and their flesh is easily ruined by heat and wind, so plan ahead.
The salmon-fishing season in our area is short but sweet, so get out there now and make the most of it. Soon the streams will begin to warm up and turn to their shallow summer levels, of no interest to salmon (or trout, for that matter). The window of opportunity is small so get pack your gear, call in sick and get moving. Maine is one of the last places in the U.S. where landlocked salmon are common and accessible, so take advantage of this unusual opportunity. Work can wait!
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