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Rediscovering that Newbie Feeling- Atlantic Salmon

Steve Morrow

(the good photos are by Jimmie Pedersen!)

FUMBLING MY WAY IN

The fall steelhead season is our busiest time of year and theres not a lot of opportunity to get out personal fishing. When the perfect opportunity arrives, you’d imagine I’d jump at it. The reality though is I look at my waders and ask myself the tough question: do I really want to put those on… again?

I often hear people ask “why would you want to be a guide and ruin the love you have for fishing?” and it’s a valid question. The truth is putting people on fish is a passion of its own and a challenging game. I find it important to compartmentalize the two and approach them differently. It also helps to try new things!

There’s little more contagious than the jubilation when rookie catches his first steelhead on a fly. The pride and excitement is a shot of adrenaline that carries the day and it reminds you just how special these moments are. That’s why in the last couple of seasons I rediscovered that feeling chasing Atlantics.

Last spring I was fortunate enough to go to Sweden chasing salmon that swim up out of the Baltic Sea peppered in sea lice and ocean fresh. It was an incredibly challenging fishery involving long casts with little room and multi density shooting heads. Watching locals balancing on a high bank launching 100 footers out into frothing tannic lies had me feeling like a nube. Despite that, I loved every minute. I wasn’t meant to catch my first fish on my Atlantic Salmon debut but it definitely lit a fire in me.

This spring I was fortunate enough to go to Quebec on an invite from Logan Landry from Nam Rods and Einarsson Reels in search of early season monsters (and poutine of course). This trip checked all the boxes- big fish, big river, big flies, big rods, big casts… BIG.

After meeting my good buddy Jimmie Pedersen, of Morice Lodge fame, we drove from Halifax to salmon country. It was six hours of diligently watching for moose that can put a quick end to a journey. Jimmie regaled me with stories of Salmo Salar and no short list of antidotes for success. The major takeaway was this would be a challenge.

We crossed the border into Quebec and got our first view of the Matapedia. A couple of short miles from the ocean, a big broad river cut its way out of the hills upstream and broke into crisscrossing channels. Good looking water was everywhere and the runs had numbered signs and obvious pullouts. A far cry from bushwacking BC rivers, this fit into my expectation of a gentlemens fishery.

Hardly into our first day on the water and a call came across the radio that our friend Barrett was hooked up in the run below. This was even more impressive seeing as the early component of the Matapedia is a few hundred fast moving fish eagerly charging their way to a tributary up stream. We all jumped in our trucks, broke every speed record and flew down to cheer on the moment. After a spirited battle, a platinum 25 lbs Atlantic Salmon reluctantly slid into the net and was met by a chorus of cheers and high 5’s. All the more special is this was Barrett’s last day.

With the memory fresh in our minds we all went to work. It was 4 days of perfect swings in lifeless runs. Theories ranged from low water, to low returns, to the fish are in a hurry. There was a day where a friend landed an insane 35 lbs fish from a canoe and although the moment felt a million miles away, the photo was just the kind of inspiration that kept trickling back to the group to keep the drive high!

Finally one morning fishing a famed pool I saw a fish catapult 5 feet in the air way back in a tailout. This was the athleticism Dean steelhead were known to display in tidewater and suddenly the moment was charged. Another fish rolled and then another. Jimmie who was on the other side, concentrated on a bubbling boulder that seemed to be a happy place for one showy fish.

“There’s one!” he called out and the battle was on.

I sprinted to my pack raft and crossed the run. Net in hand I made my way down to Jimmie now in the final tug of war. Ten minutes later the fish hit the net and we were shocked by the shoulders on her. A pristine 30 lbs hen, this was his personal best after a lifetime of fishing and guiding for Atlantic Salmon.

She swam away unharmed, in a hurry to bolt upstream and avoid black and orange hairwings at all costs.

Day 8 and the second to last of the trip, I finally had my moment. Fishing a flat above well known run my line tightened up slowly on a bellied swing just the way they describe in the books. While not a monster by Matapedia standards, she put up a grueling battle all the way to the net.

I learned so much on this trip and the hard work paid off in spectacular fashion. Arriving as a novice and fumbling my way through the trip made for the ultimate culminating moment- my first Atlantic Salmon. It’s become a new pursuit where I’m ingesting as much information as possible and relishing being a rookie. Most exciting are all the newbie experiences yet to come!

A STEELHEADERS PERSPECTIVE: THE SAME BUT DIFFERENT

While I clearly don’t have the experience to make blanket pronouncements here’s some of my observations. These are from fishing the early season. Like stacked up steelhead the game changes dramatically as the season progresses.

Similarities:

  1. Water- the runs set up a lot like classic steelhead water. You look for similar pinch points, obstructions, head, tails, guts, boulders etc.
  2. Downstream wetfly swing- fished similar in a lot of ways.
  3. Covering water- early season, fishing where salmon are moving is a game of covering a huge numbers of spots.
  4. Cover effectively- while very aggressive fish well presented long swings in a methodical fashion.
  5. Casting- the same range of casts work well. Single, double, Snap T, Switch Cast, Snake Roll.

Any steelhead angler has the basic tools ready to go start trying to target Atlantic Salmon.

Differences:

  1. Lines- dry lines with long leaders and heavy flies or multidensity lines. On Matapedia floating, intermediate or sink 2/3 was what most anglers had.
  2. Hairwings and classic salmon flies- steelhead flies would likely work but when rome… Temple dog style or flies like the Usual, sunrays or the hair wings typical of scandanvian rivers. I used a black and orange hairwing tube.
  3. Leader- heavy flouro is the only thing you find here. I used the Nam 44 lbs flouro/mono hybrid.
  4. Rods- everything used there was generally 14-16 feet to accommodate the longer head used. You could get away with shorter (or longer).
  5. Water- although similar, early season fish seem to spend an extra moment in heavy heads or pinch points.
  6. Hangdowns- extremely important but keep the fly moving. It was echoed repeatedly from many sources. They want it on the go.
  7. Swing Speed- keep the fly moving across the swing. While extreme speed may be excessive, repeated mending will do a disservice so adjust your swings to avoid whipping at the start but don’t be afraid of a belly to maintain movement.

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