Salmon fishing & fly tying on the Miramichi...

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Why I fish for “Black Salmon”, “Spring Salmon”, “Kelt” in New Brunswick

During my short 10 years involved in the pursuit of Atlantic Salmon, I’ve noticed that there are many avid salmon fishermen who opt out of the spring fishery for various reasons. Some fishermen do not enjoy the high, cold and often dirty rivers that are the norm between mid April to mid May.. Others prefer the increased challenge posed by the tight lipped, fresh-run, bright silver fish of summer. Others still find this to be a pursuit less worthy of their skills, as the methods and presentations used appeal to the hunger of a salmon that’s overwintered under the ice after spawning the previous fall -- as opposed to “annoying” or “aggravating” a summer fish to the point of taking your fly. However numerous the reasons people have for NOT fishing black salmon, there are as many, if not more reasons TO fish for them.

What is a Black Salmon?

First thing’s first,  black salmon, spring salmon, kelts or slinks are all the same species of fish. “Salmo Salar” is their latin name but they are most commonly known as Atlantic salmon. These fish return to their native rivers in summer & fall to spawn. Some of them descend the river once their biological obligation to spawn has been fulfilled, while others remain in the river over winter to return to the ocean the following spring. These over-wintering fish are the ones that become known as Black Salmon. In appearance they have a slightly darker back extending down their sides about a 1/3 of the way and look skinnier or slinkier (hence the term ‘slink’) than fish fresh in from the ocean. It doesn’t take long for them to begin to regain their more silvery colour and rounder shape once they begin to feed on the smelt that enter our rivers in April & May.

Angling for Black Salmon
(boat fishing)

In the high, cold and fast waters of spring on the Miramichi there is one method of fishing that tends to dominate the period between the middle of April to the middle of May and that is boating. Some anglers will ‘troll’ flies behind their boats while others will anchor their boats and cast. When boating I prefer to do the latter as it seems more like salmon fishing but trolling, at least in the Blackville area, seems to dominate. Both methods use either full sinking lines or sink tips as the name of the game is to get your fly down to where the fish are. Flies are always large in size, tied on barbless or pinched barb hooks 1/0 and larger. The patterns tend to be very brightly coloured, for example: GoldenEagle, Renous Special, Green Slime, Mickey Finn, etc. When the water begins to drop and clear up, fly sizes can move to the smaller side of the scale and more natural coloured patters like the Gray Ghost can be very effective. Fishing from boats has many advantages but where I see it shining through is accessibility. You can take a new fisherman out in a boat and he or she doesn’t need to know how to cast to catch a black salmon. This can be a big advantage when trying to get someone into salmon fishing for the first time. It can also be a good way for younger, older or handicapped people to access the sport who may otherwise be unable or intimidated to wade and cast from the slippery and often ice strewn shores of spring.         

"Nick's" fly:

"Double J Smelts" and "Black bunny strips":
The story and recipe behind the "Double J Smelt": Double J Smelt

A "Golden Eagle" variant:

A bunny strip Zuddler for kelts:

Angling for Black Salmon
(casting from shore)

The other method of pursuing black salmon is casting from shore which very much resembles summer & fall fishing. The main differences are the lack of greenery and the different gear that’s used. Wading anglers, at least the smart ones, get good use out of their neoprene waders as water temps can range from the high 30's up to 60 Fahrenheit. Personally, I like when the water hits around 48-50 as hooking and catching becomes much more frequent. The gear of choice for the majority of shore fishermen remains a single handed rod with sinking tips or full sink lines. I would recommend using either a full sink line or a floating line with a built in sink tip as these types of lines cast MUCH smoother than a sinking tip looped onto the end of a floating line - which tends to "hinge" and not transmit the casting energy properly or efficiently. Using a single hander from shore can be very frustrating because with high spring water your back cast is often limited and you need room for a back cast to move those big flies. Some argue that most of the fish are tight to shore and you don't need a long line and while I agree you can get fish tight to shore, not ALL fish are located there and a little longer cast is going to put your fly over more of them and increase the number of fish you hook ... and this is where the BEST way to shore fish for kelts comes in -- using a 2 hander! Spey rods in 8 & 9wt have enough backbone to handle whatever sink tip and fly size you want to use and all with ZERO backcast. It takes a little bit to get used to but I could show anyone how to outcast their best efforts on a single hander within a half an hour on a well balanced spey rod. For spring we rig up with skagit heads matched to our particular rods which are designed to lift a sink tip and a heavy fly clear of the water without any back cast. The efficiency and ease by which these rods and lines work is nothing short of impressive. And the best part is you don't wreck your arms, back or shoulders like a lot of single handed fishermen do. Another advantage is rarely hooking up in the pucker brush or alders behind you which makes for a much more enjoyable day on the river. I'm no expert on running a 2 hander, but I'd be happy to share the little bit I know with anyone interested - just leave a comment below.  

Pet Peeves of Black Salmon fishing  
(poor fish handling)

Not everything is rosy in the spring or with black salmon fishing. My biggest beef is with the few examples of poor fish handling I've witnessed. Most of these examples come from boat fishermen who take too long to land a fish - one time I saw a couple lads in a boat take 20 minutes to land a grilse. Another example of poor handling occurs once the fish is netted and brought into a boat and allowed to flop around the bottom of it for several minutes. Often times this would be followed up with the fish being thrown back in the river without being properly revived. I have also seen veteran "guides" hold fish up vertically by the tail... Just because the water's cold is no reason to abuse these fish. Studies have shown that up to 30% of Black Salmon can be repeat spawners and a portion of those can be *consecutive, repeat spawners (* spawn 2 falls back to back) so they should be treated with the same care as a bright, June female full of eggs. These examples highlight an opportunity for education on proper fish handling and hopefully we'll see something official from the province or feds in the next year or two - in the mean time, here's a link to the Atlantic Salmon Federation's most excellent video on proper fish handling:

Pet Peeves of Black Salmon fishing  

My other issue with Black Salmon fishing is the occasional lack of consideration and etiquette. When fishing from shore you gain a unique perspective on the parade of boats that troll by. Most of these fishermen respect your 'personal space' and leave a good buffer between you and them. I look at 'personal space' as being the distance a shore fisherman can cast out into the river. A small minority of other fishermen think that the river belongs to them and that you should reel up so they can troll to within 5 feet of shore. I've had to nearly bounce my 2/0 bunny strip off their hulls a time or two before a few of them got the message. Another time I had a procession of kids out in plywood rocket ships buzz the shore so close and fast and that I didn't have time to reel up and they actually caught my line and nearly spooled me before my leader broke. Please people, have a little respect and give the folks with a limited area in which to fish just a little bit of space? I mean you have the whole REST of the river to play sea captain or go out on maneuvers with the Blackville Navy on. And while among yourselves, boaters & trollers, ya'll should keep in mind that the folks you're following also have 100 feet of line behind their boats - so give them a little space as well!    

The last 2 paragraphs may sound like things are terrible out there but that's really not the case - these are isolated and rare events, witnessed over a number of seasons. With a little education and common courtesy these examples would be even fewer. 

Black Salmon fishing - the PROS!

Finally, we get to the "WHY" part of why I fish for Black Salmon.. 

After a long winter of ice, snow, shoveling, slipping, snow blowing, plowing, white-outs, frigid temperatures, sleet and noisy studded tires there's nothing better to get rid of cabin fever than a day on the river. When everyone starts thinking about fishing, their spending habits change and local river economies get a much needed influx of cash from anglers eager to feel that pull. Outfitters, flyshops, guides, gas stations, grocery stores, liquor stores, hotels/motels all benefit from black salmon fishing. The best part is, this is as close to zero impact on the species as salmon fishing gets as very few people (if any) ever tag a black salmon (Note: Absolutely nobody will be tagging a fish during 2015 in NB, NS, PEI). And because the water is so cold, the survivability of released fish is as close to 100% as it gets - even if occasional mishandling occurs. Another important plus to the black salmon fishing argument is the ease by which they're caught.. this presents an INCREDIBLE opportunity to take a young person out and get them hooked for life on salmon fishing ... let's face it, if we don't take our kids fishing, they'll never care about what happens to our rivers or salmon. The future of our sport is in their hands and it's up to us to show them the way - now if I could only pry Ethan's hands off his gameboy! Another ease-of-catch related bonus of black salmon fishing is that it provides us with many opportunities under perfect conditions to practice our fighting, landing, netting, tailing and handling skills - which is something we should ALWAYS be trying to improve upon. As important as these reasons may be, my personal favorite for black salmon fishing is for getting out on the river with good friends and family doing what we love, and it just doesn't get any better than that!