This week I am not the bearer of joyful news, at least not for those angling optimists extraordinaire, the folks who pursue the fish of a thousand casts. (That’s Atlantic salmon I’m talking about, and it’s a well deserved nickname I think.)
I’ll do the math pertaining to my most persistent unrewarded hunt for the big fellas; those gigantic early run silvers that entice fly tossers to hop on airplanes and fly thousands of miles around the world.
Let me see, seven days casting upon the renowned River Gaula in Norway, at 14 hours per day and a cast a minute, that’s a total of 5,880 casts for zero fish. That put a severe dent in my batting average.
Last year, on the Restigouche in Quebec, I logged a solid 20 hours through pouring rain and frigid cold winds for one fish over 20 pounds. That’s 1,200 casts, a better score, and oh so worth it. That’s the game we play, on the prowl for big salmon.
Big fish, little fish
I know I’ve explained this before, but to refresh I’ll quickly explain the often misunderstood difference between big salmon and grilse. Grilse are Atlantic salmon under 63 centimetres that migrate to feed in the ocean for just one year before returning to their natal rivers to reproduce.
Big salmon or multi-sea winter fish (2SW) stay at sea for two or more years before returning to freshwater. The 2SW fish winter and feed off Greenland, and mix with other big salmon from all over the world, Russia, Norway, Quebec, Newfoundland and so on. Grilse tend to migrate much shorter distances, with our Newfoundland and Labrador grilse feeding and wintering in the Labrador Sea.
When I ramble obsessively about targeting early run silver, I’m specifically referring to those massive 2SW salmon that tend to enter rivers early, taking advantage of spring runoff to get their deep rotund bellies over the rocks. One of the favourite Newfoundland haunts for these lunkers is Bay St. George in June. This concentrated group of waterways produces some very big salmon, often in excess of 20 pounds.
I’m sad to say that reports indicate a desperate start to the 2014 season. Hardly any large salmon have been caught. We are praying that the salmon are late due to the oddly cold spring we are experiencing. I hope I will soon have better news to report.
Let’s take a look at what’s going on generally with regard to big 2SW silver. At present all Newfoundland anglers are required by law to release any large salmon that they might catch. Although folks have complained, given present circumstances this is a very good thing in my view. Other provinces and countries should follow suit. We should be killing no 2SW salmon unless minimum spawning requirements for a particular river are absolutely 100 per cent satisfied. It’s also prudent to err on the side of caution if data is sparse.
Overall conservation requirements for North American 2SW salmon have been below minimum since the early 1990s, with a slight improvement in the past few years. The problem is that salmon continue to be harvested in three separate gillnet fisheries that are all difficult to control for various reasons. This seriously compounds the environmental factors that saw a total of 900,000 fish in the mid-’70s plummet to 100,000 today.
Incidentally, a little over 200,000 is the minimum conservation requirement. Don’t forget, I’m not talking about grilse. These smaller fish are orders of magnitude more numerous. The Exploits alone has produced 50,000 fish in a single year.
So, where and how are the 2SW salmon being slaughtered, and what can we do about it? There are three commercial or subsistence fisheries that account for big numbers. The largest is the Greenland fishery, which killed 11,500 North American salmon last season. This includes subsistence and commercial markets. The commercial side of this fishery was bought out and halted for a number of years, but now they are back at it again, and planning even bigger catches. They point to salmon killed in Canada as justification. Negotiations are ongoing.
For 2013 in Canada, 12,969 large salmon were killed. This includes angling in jurisdictions where retention of large salmon is legal, as well as the Labrador subsistence fishery. Greenland is looking at these numbers and balking at halting its commercial fishery. We really need to step up and reduce the numbers of 2SW salmon killed in Canada. It’s proposed that live traps be used in Labrador instead of gillnets so that large salmon might be released. Grilse are just as tasty on the coals. I’d also encourage other provinces to go no-kill on big fish. Then we would wield serious bargaining power in dealing with Greenland.
There’s also a gillnet kill fishery in St-Pierre-Miquelon. The French killed 588 large salmon and 1,764 grilse in 2013, all fish heading for Canadian Rivers. This constitutes their most prolific fishery since they started keeping records in the 1970s. Not good enough. The North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) is meeting in Paris this month. Hopefully headway will be made to curtail this interceptory fishery.
There is much to do if we want 2SW salmon to sustain, grow and survive.
We can all help by donating to the Atlantic Salmon Federation. Check out their website at www.asf.ca, and consider joining. For 50 bucks you get regular updates on what’s going on in the Atlantic salmon world plus four copies per year of the Atlantic Salmon Journal.
It’s tax deductible and a very worthy cause. These are the guys and gals who fight tooth and nail to save our salmon.
If you hook a big salmon this summer, play it crisply, like you really mean it, snap a photo quickly, and release it gently. Better to break the line than kill the salmon.
Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every
opportunity. He can be contacted
at email@example.com or follow him on twitter at @flyfishtherock.