Fishing the Salmon…
It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory … over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: You will outlive the bastards.
― Edward Abbey
I have fly fished my share of upstate NY over the years, but the fabled Salmon River has always escaped me. I suppose I was intimidated by the river’s fame and also by its power – both for good and bad. The river is well known for its world class fishing but with that comes its own curse. It draws a circus with each year’s salmon run and along with many good and respectful anglers a draft of the darker side of humanity. And it can be a widow-maker, literally, when wading anglers come ill-equipped and ill-informed.
It wasn’t until late in 2011 when I first wet a line there and that was only under the sage tutelage and guidance of Loren Williams, a great local guide and fly tyer. I did well under Loren’s watch, but failed to return to try it on my own. I was too much in awe of it, and so chose to fish the places I knew far better – places where the river bed was certain and the fishing calculable – places and fish that were comfortable to me. Perhaps I was just playing it safe, but safe bets get one no closer to achieving improvement in any endeavor. I think an angler’s fishing suffers when they don’t continuously fish waters that in some way push the envelope at least a little bit.
Enter John Trainor, one of the board officers in the local IFFF chapter of the BC Flyfishers. John has fished the Salmon River a lot over the recent past. And he’s certainly done well there. After hearing some of his stories, I just had to ask – “wanna go fishing”? John was kind enough to oblige.
We met up very early this past Veteran’s Day – a Tuesday. We drove north to the Salmon River in the dark, had a quick breakfast on the way up, and arrived on the river a little past 7:30 am. Our first stop was a place a coworker had recommended – the Long Bridge Pool. We parked in town, rigged up, and walked our way down to the river, and I must say I was disappointed, but let me first preface that statement. I am one of those anglers spoiled by the solitude found on some of our local waters, particularly the warmwater rivers like the Tioughnioga, Chenango, Chemung, and the Susquehanna. As has been posted here before, an angler could spend an entire day and see just a few anglers, if any at all, on these waters. So walking to any river and seeing anglers every 20 to 30 feet or so and in some cases closer yet, was hard for me. John seemed unfazed and commented that the crowd actually wasn’t too bad. I guess my lack of Salmon River experienced showed!
We walked up to the Long Bridge Pool and found two openings. John rigged me up for bottom bouncing one of his fishy looking estaz egg patterns. Then he headed upriver to some transition water where he tried swinging a streamer, leaving me to fish the head of a pool below him. There was an interesting seam and a very deep pocket not far from where I stood and it was there I decided to work my fly. I cast up into the faster water and followed the fly down the seam. As is sometimes the case with fly fishing, long periods of dullness can suddenly erupt with goodness. But this was no wild take. Instead I noticed my fly line suddenly move upstream to which I followed by raising my rod tip sharply. I soon had a tiger by the tail, but this tiger did not jump. Instead it zigged and zagged, shook its head at times, and on many occasions darted out to the fast water just beyond. After some net assistance from a downstream angler and John, it became apparent that this was a domestic rainbow – splendidly colored and a somewhat unique catch.
We fished that stretch a bit more and then decided to head upriver. I won’t pretend to have come close to memorizing the pools John spouted off by name, their history, or his personal vignettes from years plying the Salmon River. We ate a great lunch at a little diner in town – regrettably, I’ve since lost its name but could recognize it just walking by. It was one of those home-town places frequented by friends, not customers. I felt right at home and devoured a roast beef club and a tall icy Coca Cola fountain drink.
By that time, temps outside were becoming exceptionally pleasant for early November. We headed upriver again after fishing a bit in town and like a tour guide, John pointed out all the various holes and access points with their interesting names, like The Compactor Pool, Sportsman Pool, Trestle Pool, Pineville, and Ellis Cove, all the while filling in with his own stories, good and bad, from fishing these spots.
We ended up at the lower fly zone, and after scouting a bit for the best access, decided to fish a pool located at the foot of a cemetery and church. We actually stopped there once, then decided to check out the upper fly zone, before returning to find the stretch of river a lot more crowded than when we first stopped. Indeed, there were only a few spots along a stone bank erosion wall. It certainly wasn’t wade fishing perched atop the rocks, but it did provide good access to a pretty run that looked very fishy.
The fishing was more “chuck and duck”, and ongoing experimenting with fly type, size and color, and weight. After a while my persistence was rewarded when my drift came to a very abrupt halt, followed by a nice head-shake, and the spastic run and jump of a steelhead. My JP Ross 8 weight handled the fish well – bending deeply to its power. I played it carefully as it waged a deep upstream slog, interrupted by occasional runs for the riffle just below. Eventually I could feel it tiring, and John was there to tail it for me. It was a nice male, dark from time in the river and best of all, hooked fairly in the corner of its mouth with one of my own estaz egg patterns.
A while later I hooked up again – this time with a different color and style egg pattern…
In all it was a great day on the water, far surpassing how I thought it might go. It was a day that built my confidence, thanks at least in part to John’s help in introducing the river to me.
A couple of weeks later I decided to try it all again. John could not go so I decided to spread my wings on my own. As I prepared for the Sunday trip, I could feel that same uneasiness that I’d felt before – would I be up to the task?, would the river smack me down after “beginners luck”? I can say I’m glad I went for two reasons – the fishing and the fishermen…
I fished the same spot in the lower fly zone. I felt I knew the water at least and the weather would again be on the milder winter side, although this time there was snow on the ground. I arrived fairly early but already the river had a good crowd. Anglers were spread along the river and ironically, I found the same section along the bank erosion wall to be open. I set up and began fishing. A while into fishing I got a good jolting grab at the end of a drift and struggled to get my line on the reel. By the time I was tight to the fish it was off and the end of my tippet told the woeful tale – my non-slip loop knot had not been tied correctly (note that this is a great knot that can give good movement to a fly but it can be tied incorrectly and will then fail easily). Worst of all, I had lost a nice fish on one of my flies.
I continued to fish a while with no results – the fishing seemed to be off and then on again and with no obvious explanation. During the off period I was lucky enough to be entertained by an absolute riot of a fly fisherman who had been sleeping on a nearby snow bank while his friend fished downstream of me. Eventually he rose, rigged up, and fished, and I will admit he was good – he claimed to be a guide. This guy turned out to be part comedian, part “gangsta-rapper-dude”, part California surfer, sporting a flat-brimmed ball cap and a voice tone reminiscent of Jeff Spicoli, of Fast Times at Ridgemont High fame. His stories were hilarious feats of angling prowess combined with life in the fast lane. He told me later he had stayed at the Tailwater Lodge and his dinner bill at the bar the night before was $170, with only $40 of it going for food.
In any case, I honestly liked the guy, and he was good with a net, landing the two steelhead I caught that day for me. I learned from him as well – both from observation and discussion. In between stories and narration of the fishing around us, he’d point out tips and techniques as well as different fly patterns that worked for him. He and his friend left mid-afternoon, quite possibly to hold court at the Tailwater Lodge bar. I left soon after that myself, feeling good about my day on the Salmon…
Driving home I thought about how anglers sometimes make fly fishing too difficult. The monster of awe we lay on fish and fishing can cause us to respect and esteem the wariness and cunning of the gamefish we seek too much, perhaps. I was once reminded by a guide that the trout we were fishing for were armed with a brain the size of a pea. While it is never good to fish such fabled rivers as the Salmon with an air of smugness, it’s just as bad to not fish it because we think it greater than our capacities, skills, or abilities. I look back on the years I didn’t fish the Salmon River as years I’ll never regain. But I’ll value that as a lesson looking forward. I’ll remember the Salmon every time I hesitate to venture on new waters, cast to unknown fish, or angle in ways unfamiliar. And I’ll fish regardless.