How I discovered the difference between an Atlantic Salmon and a Steelhead
by Willy George
It was one of the few remaining species on my bucket list -- the Atlantic Salmon. It’s funny how some of my fly fishing trips come together. I met Ernie up on the Babine last Fall fishing for steelhead at the wonderful Babine Norlakes camp. He had chosen a different week on a one-time basis due to a personal commitment. We hit it off instantly and by the end of the week he was talking about coming back to the Babine during that same week next year and he had offered me a chance to fish for Atlantic Salmon in his home waters in Eastern Canada. Sweet!
In the last week of June 2014, I flew from San Francisco through Montreal to Bathurst, New Brunswick arriving at midnight. We drove 3 hours through pouring rain to the banks of the Restigouche River. At three in the morning, I climbed into a 26 foot canoe and motored across the river to Downs Gulch camp. Atlantic Salmon camps are a little different than the steelhead camps that I was used to in the Pacific Northwest. Camps have their own private pools, which are rotated through the camp guests during the course of the week. Wardens police the pools to avoid poaching. On the Restigouche, most fishing is done out of an anchored canoe and the majority of fishermen use single handed rods. I had my quiver of Burkheimer Spey rods and easily adapted my Spey moves to cast out of the boat. Many of the guides are second or even third generation fishing guides. They describe how they sometimes still cast the rod for their clients and even hook the fish for their “sports” before handing the rod to the client, just like in the old days. The camp “oozed” with such traditions. I ran into another Burkie devotee named Keith from Charlotte, North Carolina. We fished some familiar steelhead-type flies like the Undertaker, but more often used local patterns like the Picasse (loosely translated, it means “anchor” in French).
The Restigouche River faces challenges like many of the other Maritime Province salmon rivers such as gill netting at its mouth and large scale commercial fishing off shore. The local salmon experts were debating whether the run was going to be late this year or whether it was just going to be a low number return. I couldn’t wait for the final decision since I was on my way to another famous Atlantic Salmon river up north. I left the Restigouche after four days of fishing with no fish landed.
New Derreen Camp on the Grand Cascapedia River has hosted Atlantic Salmon fishermen for over 130 years -- Royalty and nobility, two U.S. presidents and celebrities galore. The Cascapedia flows south across the Gaspe Peninsula in the Quebec Province. I admit I needed to brush up on my North Atlantic geography before my trip. The Gaspe Peninsula forms the southern bank of the St. Lawrence River. Both the Restigouche and the Grand Cascapedia flow mostly through heavily timbered remote areas but each empties into Chaleur Bay, home to some of best lobsters and snow crab I have ever eaten.
Fishing in the dozen or so pools reserved for New Derreen guests was all walk and wade fishing. The only time we used a canoe was to pole across the river to fish water on the right bank. My education on how to fish for Atlantic Salmon began in earnest on the Cascapedia. My steelhead habits needed to be quickly unlearned. The time honored tradition of mending upstream to slow the swing of a steelhead fly was quickly replaced with either “no mend” or a more cross current cast to actually speed up the fly’s swing. The guides and experienced Atlantic Salmon fly fishers had a specific “swing speed” that they were targeting. The ideal swing speed changed in different types of water. Once a fish swirled or rolled on the fly, the game was afoot. Similar to steelheading, we worked these “players” with multiple casts slightly above and below the spot where we saw the swirl and often changed flies to try to entice a grab.
Besides learning to gauge the proper swing speed, the biggest change for me in Atlantic Salmon fishing was the hook set. My respectable “hooking to landing ratio” in steelheading is largely due to letting the steelhead hook themselves. I accomplish this by having a 30” coil of line between my rod hand and my reel which the fish peels off before coming tight to my anchor finger. In Atlantic Salmon fishing, the guides all direct their clients to raise the rod to a vertical position, essentially a trout set (can you believe it?!?), as soon as you feel the weight of the fish. I am big believer in trusting your guide and doing whatever he/she says. I was having some second thoughts about my unwavering commitment to “doing it the guide’s way.” But I stayed with it.
It was Day 3. I was fishing on the upper section of the Cascapedia, on one of the two branches that eventually form the main stem. I was using a Burkheimer CF-7134 lined with Ballistic Vector 7/8F 500 grain 52’ head on a Saracione Mark IV reel. We had seen fish roll in the run as we were working our way downstream so we knew there were active fish in that section of the river. The swing speed was perfect and an aggressive fish lunged for my fly. I waited to feel the fish’s weight and when I did, I simply raised the rod (all 13’4” of it) to the vertical position. Fish on!
Another thing different about Atlantic Salmon fishing: usually the angler stands his ground and fights the fish from where he hooked up. This is a bit different from steelheading where often we work our way downstream to keep side pressure on the fish. So I stood my ground and fought this beautiful fish into a stillwater area below a rock ledge where the guide netted her. My first Atlantic Salmon was a gorgeous chrome bright 14 pound hen.
The fishing reports from other camps matched our own experiences; it was a low number year. Each day fish were landed but it was not a banner year by any means. But we had to keep our fly in the water. The next swing could be the one.
It was Day 6. A slow week without question. Oh well, I had caught an Atlantic Salmon on a Spey rod and I was happy. Not every angler had caught a fish that week. We fished that last morning in a light but steady rain. Back at the camp, our bags were already packed for the drive out after lunch. We were fishing Caribou Pool, a new run for me. I had my Burkie CF-8134 with a Hatch 11 Plus Finatic reel lined with a Ballistic Vector 8/9F 570 grain 55’ head. During the course of the week I was really getting grooved on this rod/line combo. As one of my fishing buddies remarked, “you can really hawk that thing out there.” I think that is a technical term. Anyway, I was swinging my fly, a Green Highlander, along a seam a long ways over on the far side of the river. As I worked my way downstream, the guide reported that earlier he had seen a fish roll in that same far seam. Sure enough, I saw a big boil, felt the weight, and set the hook straight up. This was a big fish. She jumped once and the guide screamed to his buddy, “big one.” The fished made a sudden run downstream and while I stood my ground (as ordered), the fish was into my backing (I now recommend 250 yards, by the way). I worked the fish in, got the fly line back onto the reel and felt in control. Not so fast, the fish made a big cartwheel-like jump completely out of the water. I would later describe the splash as sounding like a swimmer with swim fins jumping off a diving board. Splat! And off she went downstream into the backing for a second time. By the time I reeled her in and guided her into the magnum salmon net, it had been a 20 minute battle. The fish weighed 23 pounds on the net scale; the second largest fish caught that week. Fresh from the ocean, shiny chrome in color, and as strong as any fish I had ever hooked. What a thrill and what a way to end a memorable trip; lots of new learnings while fishing for this new species. Glad my Burkie Spey rods were there with me. Couldn’t have done it without them.
The author, Willy George, is an IFFF Certified Master Casting Instructor who teaches single hand and Spey casting at the world famous Golden Gate casting ponds in San Francisco, California. He also co-founded the San Francisco School of Fly Fishing (website: sanfranciscoschoolofflyfishing.com) and is a member of the Burkheimer Pro Staff. Willy can be reached at his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org