|I have never been one to rely solely on one type of angling to satisfy my urge for a fish fry, but in mid-May, I have to admit that the best, most enjoyable and most productive way to take landlocked salmon is with a fly rod.
I am not the greatest fly caster in the world and don’t pretend to be, but I’ve learned that even the most mediocre fly-fisherman can out-fish the average bait fishermen when the target is spring salmon. The reason, I think is simple enough. In spring, a wide variety of insects begin to hatch and hover over the water, and hungry salmon find it immensely easier to just drift and sip all day rather than chase big, bulky lures and baits all over the river.
I had this demonstrated to me one spring long, long ago when a fly-fishing buddy and I were probing the West Branch Penobscot toward the end of May. At the time, I had never even owned a fly rod, so the challenge was to see who could catch more fish. Well, after my friend caught and released his 10th salmon and I had not even had a hit, I wandered over for an education on the difference.
Surprisingly, my first lesson had nothing to do with fishing but a lot to do with watching. We got out of the river, sat on the bank and got our binoculars out.
“Watch for a rising fish,” my friend said. “There’s one! Let’s just sit here a while and see what he does.”
It was easy to follow the fish’s movement in the clear surface film, and in fact over the next 30 minutes or so we saw several other big landlocks enjoying the spoils of nature. Each fish would pick a position in the river that allowed it to hover close to and just below the surface. As insects hatched (or struggled to hatch), the salmon would simply tip up and sip the bug off the top, so smoothly that there was barely a disturbance above or below them. Each fish rose about 10 times a minute, and not one made the least bit of a splash.
“Now, watch this,” my friend said as he picked up a small pebble and tossed it into the river.
The instant the rock hit the water the salmon scattered, and it was a solid 20 minutes before the most aggressive one of all rose back to the top and began feeding again.
“That’s what happens when you throw a lure or bait into the pool,” my friend said. “When the salmon are in a finesse mode, you can’t throw rocks at them!”
I got the point, and the following spring I was on the river doing my clunkiest best to cast tiny flies to the patiently feeding salmon. Novice though I was, I managed to elicit a dozen strikes and even caught four nice fish, a great afternoon under any angler’s standards.
Since then I have taken my lesson to heart and, come mid-May, I hit the water with fly rod in hand and continue my quest for the perfect cast. I spook a lot of fish with my Viking approach to the gentler sport, but when the stars are aligned just right I can zip a 40-foot cast dead upstream and mend a perfect, drag-free drift just long enough for a fat, hungry salmon to take the bait.
There are a number of great salmon streams in our area from the Sebec River and Piscataquis to the upper Sebasticook and Pleasant River. If you want to travel, head for the Moosehead Region and try the Kennebec, the Roach and West Branch. All of these have more good salmon water than you can fish in a lifetime, so savor the moment and work the water around you well. You will never be able to do it all no matter how fast you fish!
For salmon, tiny flies, dark nymphs and colorful streamers are the rule. Matching a hatch of insects is a good approach at first (until the fish teach you otherwise). If they are eating tiny yellow flies, tie one on and see what happens. If the fish are into fat caddis imitations, start throwing them. To solve the ultimate riddle, catch a salmon and, using your handy-dandy stomach pump (yes, there is such a thing!) and see what that particular fish has been eating. You will be amazed at how many small, dark, nearly invisible bugs a salmon will have eaten while waiting for you to get there, and I’ll be willing to bet you have nothing remotely close in your fly box! It has always amazed me to find that even the biggest salmon will be filled to the gills with insects about the size of a grain of sand, occasionally bigger, but nothing like the giant flies and lures most anglers hurl at them (without success). There’s a lesson to be learned here, though most anglers prefer to ignore it.
Simply put, small is best when it comes to spring salmon. Trolling around all day with a three-inch Grey Ghost in tow certainly works, but that same fish will have a stomach full of miniature green, yellow, brown or black bugs that likely number in the hundreds! Why such a large fish would spend its time sipping such small specimens is beyond me, but the rule in any “take the bait” contest is: give them what they want! I don’t like fiddling with minute flies, tiny tippets and difficult lies, but if it means catching fish, I’ll surrender my desires for theirs!
The best times to fish for salmon are at dawn and dusk. In fact, when the afternoon is bright and clear, there may never be a better time to be on the water. Fish will be jumping all around you, bumping your legs and slashing at even poorly presented flies. This period of springtime salmon abandon is short lived and unpredictable, so get out there and make the most of it.
With luck, you’ll be the only one on the water with the right fly in the right place at the right time. You’ll catch a salmon on every cast right up until dark; big, silvery, lavender-hued fish that run like bulls and jump like rockets.
That, my friend, is what salmon fishing is all about, and the time to go is now!