You really cannot believe all you hear. And my father was known to add, “and only half you see.”
I’m skeptical both by nature and nurture. So when I hear folks talking about all the dead Atlantic salmon they see floating downriver in Newfoundland and Labrador, I just don’t bloody believe them. I’ve listened to radio talk show callers describe such a scenario, having counted hundreds of dead salmon in a single season. Either that or they were quoting a buddy of their’s who does a bit of fishing. And we all know how second-hand stories go. Stuff gets distorted, twisted and exaggerated through each successive telling. I know of a trout from Round Pond that grew quite large that way. I have seen two dead salmon in all my time spent salmon fishing. It is a lot of time.
And why would salmon be dying in our beautiful and pristine waterways? According to some salmon fishers and many armchair experts Atlantic salmon die after being released by an angler. I met a mild version of such an armchair expert just a few hours ago. He made a bold statement out of the blue. These self-proclaimed experts are the folks who form their notions and opinions about hook and release based on stories from others and talk shows. Most have never wet a line, however they are rock solid sure of their view and understanding. I’m sure you know one or two.
This particular armchair expert is a good friend of mine, and very sensible man. I was able to make my point to him easily. He understood my rational and opposition to what he had said. Actually Karl, my friend, isn’t a typical armchair expert in the negative connotation. These are folks who truly believe they know about stuff they have never really experienced, like me considering myself an alpine climbing expert because I climbed a few hills here in Newfoundland, and read a few books. I am light-years from climbing proficiency. If I declared otherwise I’d be an armchair expert of the worse kind.
Karl was being quite casual in his armchair expert role. He was just relaying to me what he had heard, to see how I would react, to gauge my response. So Karl says, “Those salmon have to die, tortured on a rod for half an hour or more, dragged ashore over the rocks, and then thrown back out in the water.”
“Yes”, I said. “If a salmon were treated like that it would quite likely die. But that’s not what happens.”
I explained to Karl how I angle a salmon on a rod. And the vast majority of anglers intending to release do the same. Folks intending to kill their catch tend to play fish longer, for fear of losing them to a broken line. So here we go.
Once a fish is hooked I try and bring it to my hand as quickly as possible. If I bust my leader it’s no odds because I intended to release it anyway. So I pull hard. Typically a five-lb grilse takes about three minutes. I wade out to about my knees in the water, and while lifting my rod up and behind me with one hand, I reach down with the other and grab the fish by the wrist of its tail. Then I nip the rod under my arm and use my freed up rod hand to pluck the barbless hook out. All over very quickly, and the fish swims off as fit as a fiddle.
Karl was convinced, and jumped out of his expert chair. “Now there you go, that’s a very different story.” Karl is a sensible man.
Bigger fish take a bit longer, but only up to 10-minutes for a near 20-lb salmon. There should be none of these prolonged battles that we keep hearing about. Pulling hard is the key. Bigger salmon are much tougher to control. If I’m alone I’ll likely bust the line in close, rather than over-fatigue the fish. The barbless hook will fall out and do no harm. It’s better to get help with a big fish. Don’t get on with any of that manly “I can do it myself” bravado. The fish’s life is too important.
Get a buddy to tail the fish and you can concentrate rod pressure with both hands, and give full attention on the fight. It’s best to back in on the bank and pull the salmon to your buddy waiting motionless for the tail grab. Don’t wear bright clothing while tailing salmon. It can really spook them.
If the fish seems overly wary from the fight, then revive it in cool flowing water. This is rare with smaller fish angled very fast, but bigger salmon might need a minute or two to regain their composure.
With your grip still firm on the tail use your other hand to cradle the fish underneath its belly, past the middle and towards the head, to create balance in the water. Now move to an area of significant flow and hold the fish with its head directly into the current. You will feel its strength return rapidly, the tail almost overpowering your grip. Typically the fish is just winded a bit, like doing a couple of fast laps in the pool. Now just take away the belly rest and after a few more seconds let it go. I love releasing big fish. It’s a powerful rush to feel the creature’s raw power returning, and then to see it dart away unharmed.
I’ve been criticized often for photographing fish out of the water. But a camera at high shutter speed captures a fleeting instant in time. Here’s what we do. The photographer, usually me, gets set up with the camera adjustments and all that technical stuff. Then the angler lifts the fish out of the water for a shot, just a few seconds. If you look closely at my photos you will see water dripping off the fish. And I only photograph an occasional salmon. The life of the salmon trumps all bragging rights.
Stay tuned for more on salmon fishing. We have a critical year ahead of us. We will see what decisions DFO will make on how to start the 2018 season. I think we must proceed with caution. But hook and release works, and we should stop wasting time arguing about it. Hook and release is used all over the world as a conservation tool for just about every species of game fish, from tuna to trout. There is a small mortality rate, likely due to poor practice. But I know one thing for certain. When I eat a fish it is most surely dead. I can pass on eating wild salmon until I’m sure the stocks are healthy.
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