Bill Kessler shares his fly fishing adventures for Atlantic Salmon
The BC Flyfishers chapter of IFFF got off to a great start on Thursday, September 22nd, with its fall / winter monthly meeting program. Fresh off the summer break, the chapter enlisted local Atlantic Salmon fly fisher, Bill Kessler, as guest speaker. The white-maned Kessler gave a presentation to the chapter on his adventures chasing “the king of game fish”, and it was a dandy, replete with high quality pictures and terrific video clips featuring the acrobatics of the freshwater “silver king.”
Kessler started his presentation by emphasizing his total obsession with Atlantic Salmon fishing. He travels widely to catch Salmo Salar, from his “local” home waters on the Gaspé Peninsula and New Brunswick, to Scotland, Ireland, and the remote fisheries just a couple hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in Russia.
The Miramichi watershed in New Brunswick and the famed salmon rivers of the Gaspe Peninsula in Canada are closest to the Southern Tier of NY and provide outstanding angling experiences, but Kessler also makes it a point to fish other places, more remote and wild, with the Kola Peninsula being the ultimate in terms of the big strong wild Atlantic Salmon that call it home.
The Atlantic Salmon is a unique Atlantic-based strain of salmonoid that has a relatively complex life history that includes spawning, juvenile rearing in rivers, and extensive feeding migrations on the high seas. Atlantic salmon go through several distinct phases that can be identified by specific changes in behavior, physiology, and habitat requirements. Kessler talked about this in some detail during the presentation, noting, for example, that while mature fish will leave the sea and migrate up their natal rivers to spawn in late fall to early winter, juvenile male salmon can become sexually mature before going to sea and can actually spawn with a mature hen.
Young salmon spend one to four years in their natal river. When they are large enough (c. 15 centimetres (5.9 in)), they smoltify, changing camouflage from stream-adapted with large, gray spots to sea-adapted with shiny sides. They also undergo some endocrinological changes to adapt to osmotic differences between fresh water and seawater habitat. When smoltification is complete, the parr (young fish) begin to swim with the current instead of against it. With this behavioral change, the fish are now referred to as smolt. When the smolt reach the sea, they follow sea surface currents and feed on plankton or fry from other fish species such as herring. During their time at sea, they can sense the change in the Earth magnetic field through iron in their lateral line.
When the smolt have had a year of good growth, they will move to the sea surface currents that transport them back to their natal river. When they reach their natal river they find it by smell.
As the adults prepare for spawning, the head of the male undergoes an incredible transformation. The head elongates and the lower jaw becomes enlarged and hooked at the tip, forming a kype. The nesting site is chosen by the female, usually a gravel-bottom riffle area above or below a pool. While the male drives off other males and intruders, the female, on her side, uses her caudal fin like a paddle and excavates a nesting depression (the redd). Adult female salmon can deposit from 600 – 800 eggs per pound of body weight. The eggs are usually a pale orange in color and measure 5 – 7 mm in diameter.
Fly fishing for Atlantic Salmon involves a lot of casting. In fact, Kessler refers to it as a casting game, with the caveat, “…that you might be rewarded.” One can catch fish on some trips or go an entire week without a pull. But Kessler’s terrific video clips made it clear how hard it must be to feel the tug from one – and not want more…
Kessler fishes topwater and subsurface for the king of freshwater gamefish. Each approach is unique. Dry fly fishing is done with big flies such as the bomber dry fly using a floating line and a 12 foot leader.
Waking flies are also used, including a method referred to as the riffling hitch. Fishing for salmon with a dry fly is one of the most popular and successful means of catching salmon.
Kessler also fishes subsurface using wet flies and streamers, preferably tube flies. His tube flies feature small hooks that he says hold better than larger ones because they are harder for the fish to throw. The method is to cast and take a step down-river and repeat over and over, fishing wets and streamers with a 45 degree downriver presentation and certain nuances depending on the river conditions and the fly being used.
The fly rods that Bill recommends for salmon duty are a singlehanded 7 to 9 weight, 9 foot fly rod for dries and skaters, a switch rod in 6 – 8 weight and 10.5 – 11.5 feet, and a doublehanded spey rod, 7 – 10 weight, and 12 – 16′ in length. Kessler chooses to use an older Sage RPL 10′ 8 weight for dries and waking flies and really loves his Burkheimer 13’4″ 7 weight spey rod for subsurface work.
But in addition to the technical aspects of the presentation, the beautiful pictures, and the spectacular videography, were the stories…
Kessler told one tale of a salmon that was missed several times on hook-sets but was hooked at last only after waiting longer than usual to strike. The reason? – the fish was a male with a huge kype.
In another story Kessler was fishing a pool on top with no luck, but he and the members of his fishing party were seeing plenty of salmon. After a frustrating day with no hook-ups, he returned to the same section of the river and fished a sinking line, and soon connected, and connected, and connected – with 9 salmon! The lesson learned – sometimes the fish want the fly deep.
And then there was the tail-slap story…
Kessler talked about a salmon that tormented him with teasing moves towards his dry fly. It started with the slow rise of the fish and the refusal. It progressed over closer rises to actually bumping the fly, nosing the fly and finally actually slapping the fly with its broad tail! But Kessler’s persistence won out in the end. Just when he thought it was time to move on, the fish rose and ate on his last drift.
Bill Kessler certainly informed and entertained at the BC Flyfishers chapter meeting. In his obsession for chasing the Atlantic Salmon, Kessler exemplifies a strategy to fly fishing excellence that some anglers choose on the path to becoming a master angler. That is, rather than fly fishing for a variety of species, pick one and become really, really good at fly fishing for your species of choice.