I‘ve been combing through my assortment of salmon flies over the past week or so, an annual exercise which always turns out to be a lot of fun. I guess I’ve always had a thing for salmon flies. They have a certain classic character to them and there are few things as bold or as beautiful as a well-tied, full-dressed classic. Even though some are better suited to being displayed rather than fished, I’m always fascinated by them.
Part of it I suppose is the mystique that surrounds them. Salmon flies, of course, need things like mystique since by any ichthyological measure they shouldn’t really work at all. As every author who has ever written about atlantic salmon fishing will tell you (and there are many of them) a salmon doesn’t hit a fly for the same reason that most other fish do — because they’re hungry — since by the time the salmon has arrived in freshwater it has stopped feeding altogether. All we really know is that they occasionally do take flies even if there’s no consensus as to the reason why.
There are, of course, plenty of theories about this. Some say that a salmon will take a fly out of playfulness or curiosity. Others say that they’re mimicking behavior from when they were small parr before they headed out to sea for the first time. And there are still others who point to things like lunar phases, water chemistry, and so on. You could write a full book cataloguing these theories and a surprising number of people already have.
For me personally choosing good salmon flies — and I do believe that some actually do work better than others — has largely been a skill acquired through lots of trial and error. When you do it enough, you do start to notice that certain flies work better than others when measured over the long haul. This can be difficult to perceive if you don’t fish a lot since day-to-day comparisons tend too be pretty meaningless with all of the other variables that come into play.
I’ve also noticed, of course, that, as with trout fishing, the “hot” fly tends to change over time. One year everyone seems to be catching them on one thing, and the next year it’s something else. It could just be superstitiousness on my part, but I do think that flies tend to run their course a little bit too. When everyone up and down the watershed is trying the same tactic, the fish who will fall for it often get hit all at once and sometimes it pays to do something a little different and to try to stay ahead of the trends.
Despite how pretty full-dressed flies are, I’ve often found that very simple flies will catch just as many fish, something that I have to remind myself when going through my boxes. As with trout fishing, you needn’t use a fancy 47-step fly made with exotic materials in order to seduce a fish into taking. Often something drab and even ugly will work just fine.
I fish wet flies in the traditional downstream manner about 99% of the time, though once in a great while I’ll go ahead and tie on a bomber or some other dry fly just to mix things up. This seems to work better in certain areas — the Gaspe Peninsula for example — where it’s generally accepted that you can catch a good number of fish on the surface. When Junior and I had the good fortune to fish there several years ago we did manage a few fish this way, and I have to say watching a salmon race up from the depths to hit a dry fly was a heart-pounding experience. That said, on most of the rivers I fish in the Canadian maritimes wet flies are the order of the day and I happily fish them in the traditional manner.
The last thing I’ll say on this, is that, for whatever reason, I also believe in certain flies over others not necessarily because I can scientifically prove that they’ve caught more fish or will work better, but rather that they’ve gradually become my “go-to” fly, the one that I’ll turn to when all else fails. I guess in some ways it’s akin to having a confidence club in golf, or some other item that’s taken on talisman-like qualities, but I’ve been at this long enough now to know not to scoff at such things. I guess I’m just as superstitious as any other fisherman on this front. Call it luck, call it intuition, call it crazy, but I don’t know too many other anglers who don’t believe in this sort of thing.
If you’ve made it this far, you may be wondering what specific flies I use. Well I’m not dumb enough to divulge that before a big trip, but I do have a fondness for the classics as well as a few contemporary spinoffs. A quick google search will turn up a pretty good list of some of the better known ones (like this one here) but there are all sorts of non-classics which will work well too, and I suggest reading up on patterns as well as talking to folks who have been fishing salmon for a long time or folks who have a lot of experience in the area you’re heading off to. They may not tell you their secret go-to fly, but rarely will they lead you too far astray either. Well, at least if you’re not catching too many fish in front of them.