Written by Hans van Klinken
Fly fishing for Atlantic salmon with dry flies is a little different from trout fishing, but has several similarities with fly fishing for big grayling. I learned a lot of my fly fishing skills and experiences from grayling fishing, and many tricks that I used to catch grayling worked very well for Atlantic salmon also. To improve the number of catches, I don't use or follow any rules, but instead I can give you some tips that might be very helpful when you have problems catching fish. Many of these tips I learned by experience, but also by very good observation. Learning and developing the fly fishing talents are very important for a fly fisher, and even very experienced fly fishermen can learn a lot from a beginner, even when they sometimes just show certain things that you never should do. I often use mistakes from my early days and from other people in my workshops and classes. One of the most common mistakes that people make with fly fishing for salmon is walking into the pool right away.
In Newfoundland, the salmon sometimes can have their lies very close to the riverbank, so my first tip would be to very closely observe the pool that you want to fish. Explore the water with polarized glasses so you can see the rocks and holes a lot better, and perhaps even spot some salmon too. Try to think like a salmon and search for the easiest ways to travel upstream. What route would you take if you were the salmon, what rock you will pick to take a break behind after you just have passed some real turbulent water? They will try hard to find the ways that cause them less effort. While you gaze into the pool, also try to find and discover the places that are most welcome to them for a good lie; lies that give them both shelter and protection. Don't run, don't stamp you feet and just behave very quietly.
The sun has a huge influence on how fish see the fly floating on the surface. This is why I lecture about the fly's silhouette instead its shape. Direct sunlight changes the fly's silhouette quite a bit, and when the sun disappears, the silhouette completely changes again. That's why changing flies is so important when direct sunlight hits the pool or disappears again. Direct sunlight always increased my numbers, and I personally caught most salmon and grilse during day time as well.
Another tip: when I can see the fish, they can see me also, and I mostly act like as if they can see me ten times better then I can see them. When casting, start with very short line, and don't make any false casts when it's not really necessary. I never do, and even fish out a cast I wasn't really satisfied with. So if you understand my words well, you'll start your fly fishing next time without your feet in the water and with gentle short line casts first.
Polarized glasses have lots of benefits, but also a huge disadvantage. You often can see the salmon a lot better when it is rising to take your fly, and that creates a huge problem for many. I never actually face this problem myself because I always set the hook with some delay, exactly as I do with grayling. A big problem in dry fly fishing for salmon is that many people set the hook much too soon, thus removing the fly before the salmon is able take it. Best solution for those people who are striking too fast is to count loudly 21-22 before you set the hook! My delay techniques are not advisable for anybody because I really grow into them by time and experiences. All I can say is that I delay more feelingly and actually using the slack in my line to create my delay. This makes things really hard for people watching me because for outsiders it clearly looks as if I set the hook extremely fast!
When I use dry flies for Atlantic salmon in Norway I succeed most when I present my flies 100% drag free. Exactly the same I do for grayling fishing. With trout, I am using many variations in my presentation and the drag while using dry flies. In Newfoundland, it is quite amazing. One day, even at some daily hours I would not recommend any drag at all when using dry flies while in other moments you just need to do exactly the opposite. I am pretty sure with head and tailers that keep coming up over and over again at the same spot. I always present my flies dead drift and totally drag free. The same I do with very small flies. In general, salmon in Atlantic Canada just love skaters, wakers and even water walkers, and they also love wakes around dry flies. It even is a rule for many to create a wake around wet flies and present them on the surface. The Newfie salmon love a wake around the fly! It is probably the wake or fly's action that attracts them, or makes them more aggressive to take the fly from the surface. If you lose sight of the fly, just let it go. It is not very strange that a salmon or grilse will hook themselves, especially when the fly starts to speed up in the swing and last part of the drift.
I can't repeat it enough - always keep the number of casts as low as possible. Rivers in Newfoundland are not that deep, fish can rest very close to the bank and false casts really scare them or refuse them to come up. When a fish seems interested in the fly but doesn't take it, swap your fly immediately and when you see fish coming up taking your fly very clearly, delay the setting of the hook at least a second. When fish start to play with Bombers by just nosing it or pushing them away, swap the Bomber for deep hanging surface flies, or simply use curved hooks. You will not regret it.
From earlier lessons and experiences, I have learned that as soon the air temperature got higher than the water temperature, that is when you can start using dry flies for salmon. It is even used as a rule of thumb by several of my close friends, but when air and water temperature gets too warm it doesn't work anymore, of course. When in mid-summer, the water temperature gets too warm and the oxygen has dropped to critical level, most salmon hiding in deep lie with their nose down at the bottom and prevent any activity to save their strength for their upstream journey and spawning.
I don't like rules for salmon fishing, and I always have to keep in mind what Lee Wullf once told me: "The only definite thing that you can say about salmon, is that you cannot say anything definite about them". I really believe in this rather strongly.
Another striking lesson that I learned well in Atlantic Canada was that fishing rising water was not so good across the Atlantic, but from the time it has peaked and started to drop, it is prime time for many rivers. (In Norway however, the best wet fly fishing for salmon I experienced was exactly the opposite, and caught most fish during rising water.) In both places I found dry fly fishing the best at normal and low water levels.
To fish a dry fly, you do not have to see fish move to be successful, and if you are in a pool that you know holds fish, you can cover the water in a general way just as effectively as with any wet fly. I often fish a good looking pool with the picture of an empty chess board (or blank spreadsheet) in my mind, which I place over the pool. I only number the rows, and use the columns for when I start moving in the water. The nearest row I give number one, and I make the rows as long as the fish can have their lies. I don't walk through the pool right away, but just fish it from the most upstream position first, and try to cover as many rows and squares as I can by casting slightly upstream and working my way downstream through my invisible grid.
Every time I fish for salmon, I see lots of people getting in the water as far and deep as possible, and take their position exactly at the place where the salmon have their lies. The next mistake they make is casting too far out, and letting their flies cover water that actually holds no fish at all. Therefore in small rivers, I even try to not get in the water at all when I begin with this useful and very powerful trick. When I have a pool all to myself, I always will start as much upstream as I can, and try to cover as many rows and squares as possible. Each square I imagine about eight steps wide and long. This makes the fishing both much more effective and well organized. If I have finished all the rows within my casting range, I make eight steps downstream. I do exactly the same process, starting from my second column and by starting, covering row number one first. This is how I work myself through the entire pool, with casts sometimes not much longer then 10-12 ft.
I am a big fan of long drifts, but I also discovered that in some waters, too many long drifts scare the fish and keep them down, so in those rivers, the above method is a powerful trick that works extremely well.
By other experiences and observations in my dry fly fishing, I discovered that there isn't so much difference in fishing large or small rivers, as long you know the places that hold fish. However, a smaller river has my preference, and personally I love fishing rivers that are about 40-50 ft wide, because you can cover all the water from just one bank.
In spite of this preference, I have had some great experiences with fly fishing in estuaries, sea pools and brackish water in Norway, I hardly have had any in Atlantic Canada, and my recent experiences have led me to believe that it matters not how far you are away from the sea when using a dry fly in the rivers in Newfoundland.
I really don't like coloured water for dry fly fishing, and I absolutely don't mean the brown tannic acid colour that you see in many rivers in Atlantic Canada. It was a huge link to my successes in Norway, because most rivers in which I succeed all had concentrations of tannic acid. Unfortunately, I never performed any serious testing with regard to the correct concentration of tannic acid, which I really regret nowadays.
On both sides of the Atlantic, I discover that when rivers are getting low, and fish stay longer in the pools, they come up for much smaller flies. I strongly believe that the longer salmon stay in one pool, the better or stronger their old feeding memory returns. I remember very well how I did my fly fishing in three huge pools directly below a big waterfall in the Nordelva river in Norway. At the time, this place did not have any road access at all. It is one of the few rivers that I know of, where salmon first start to run upstream when the river is extremely low, because the only way for them to get up this waterfall was at very low water. The pools are deep and hold hundreds of fish, but I only succeeded when fish started head-and-tailing, and while using small flies presented with an absolutely drag free drift. The fish only porpoise for about 20 minutes, and only once every four hours or so, but each time I caught fish, and that has been going on like that for many years. I have had exactly the same experiences in several of Newfoundland's rivers too. The most extreme example of any small fly success is my catch of four grilse in the same day on a #16 dry fly in the Salmon River, and all fish were head and tailers.
Article written by Hans van Klinken
All Photos Courtesy of Hans van Klinken