For many freshwater game anglers the Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, is the greatest prize of all. Fresh in from the tide it is a magnificent fish. Bright silver flanks, occasionally flushed with a tinge of purple, are contrasted by a dark steely black. The body is muscular and streamlined, the tail pointed. Often the fish has sea lice still attached and, as these soon fall off once the fish has left the sea, they are a good indication as to how fresh it is. Its perfection slowly diminishes the longer the salmon remains in freshwater. Silver flanks dull and become colored, the fish lose condition, mid the males develop reddish-brown spots, red diagonal squares and a large hooked jaw, known as a kype. Fish like this are coming into spawning condition and if caught should always be returned. Although salmon spawn during October to December, they enter the river at any month of the year so one may have spent a full year in fresh- water, living off its accumulated fat.
Habitat and Location
Atlantic salmon occur from the east coast of the United States and Canada, across northern Europe and Scandinavia and into Russia. They are also found as far south as northern Spain and Portugal. In the UK they are found throughout the river systems of Scotland, AAtales, northern England, the West Country and the west coast of Ireland.
Behavior and Feeding Habits
Salmon are adromous, living and feeding at sea but returning to freshwater to reproduce. Once a male and female salmon have paired off, a depression or redd is cut in the gravel, the female lays her eggs and the male fertilizes them with his mill. The fertilized eggs take approximately a hundred days to hatch after which the tiny alevins stay buried in the gravel for several weeks. Once the yolk sac has been absorbed the baby salmon, now called fry, leave tine redd and begin to feed. As the fry grow they develop into parr and then eventually into silver-flanker smolts, a process which can take from two to four years. The young salmon are now ready to migrate downstream to the sea, which they do in May. After leaving the river of their birth most salmon feed in the ocean around Greenland and the Faroe Islands, returning to spawn one, two or three years later. Salmon that spend only one winter at sea are known as grilse, and return to their rivers during mid-summer. They weigh from 4-8 lb (1.81-3.63 kg).
The fish that return to their rivers after more than one winter at sea normally weigh from 6-20 lb (2.72-9.07 kg). Atlantic salmon can reach 70 lb (32 kg) or more, but fish this size are extremely rare and very few fish over 30 lb (13.6 kg) are caught by anglers. Salmon can be caught in both rivers and lakes. They are reliant on rain to trigger their migration into the river, and in smaller rivers in summer when the water is low, large numbers build up in the estuary. When the rain comes and the river rises and colours they pour upstream, resting every now and then behind rocks – in fact anywhere that provides protection from the powerful current.
This urge, to run is very strong, and salmon leap falls and other major obstructions such as weirs on their way to reach their spawning grounds. In the UK salmon rivers fall into two main types. The larger east coast Scottish rivers, the Tweed, Spey and Tay, do require reasonable amounts of water for the salmon to run, but even in normal summer conditions, fish will continue to enter them in limited numbers. The smaller spate rivers, on the other hand, are more dependent on rain for them to contain salmon. Many are fast flowing and rocky; the rain soon runs off, and -Lie peak times to fish can be only a few hours after the river level starts to fall, let alone days. As salmon do not feed in freshwater the angler has to try and stimulate the old feeding response in the fish, and good water conditions are very important for this.
Spring and autumn are the best times of the year to catch a larger fish and each year some salmon over 30 lb (13.6 kg) are caught both on fly and spinner. Unfortunately, these runs of big fish, especially the “springers”, have become increasingly rare, largely because of netting on the high seas, and on many rivers anglers now return these fish in an effort to maintain stocks. Fish are also held in hatcheries and stripped at spawning time and the fry returned to the rivers to increase the stock. Apart from when the river is in flood, salmon can be caught on the fly right through the season, although techniques need to be altered to suit the conditions.
When the river is still high and cold during spring, fishing a deep sunk line and a large fly is the most effective tactic. On smaller rivers and even on larger ones when the water is low it is quite possible to catch salmon on trout tackle. Indeed during very low water conditions a size 10 or 12 fly fished on a 7 weight rod can actually be more effective than standard salmon tackle. Salmon can also be caught in lochs, particularly in Scotland and Ireland. The usual method is to troll from a boat around rocky headlands and other well-known holding areas. When fly fishing the boat is allowed to drift side-on to the wind in classic loch style. A floating line and a team of three wet flies are used – patterns such as the Black Pennell, Peter Ross and Kate MacLaren are effective. Due to the size and power of the fish, leader strength should be 8-10 lb (3.63-4.54 kg).
Occasionally some confusion to whether the fish caught is a salmon or sea trout, especially when it is fresh and bright silver. There are a few pointers to help identification. For example, in salmon, the tail is forked and the wrist at the tail base wide enough to be gripped easily, whereas in the sea trout the tail is square or convex and the wrist too thin to be gripped securely. Also when the mouth is closed the rear edge of the salmon’s upper lip is level with the rear of its eye while in the sea trout it reaches beyond it. Additionally, the Atlantic salmon’s spots are X-shaped rather than round as in the sea trout.