Atlantic Salmon FAQ - salmon lies, hooking and playing
Contributed by Bob Boudreau (copyright)
Identifying salmon lies is a process of recognizing the various types of
water in a river and understanding the prioritized needs of a salmon. (Also
see H. Kanemoto's FAQ on Reading the Water and Finding Trout)
There are five major types of water in a river system:
The driving force behind a salmon's migration to fresh water is
reproduction. The beginning of the spawning cycle is determined primarily by
water temperatures and when the critical temperatures are reached the salmon
will be found on their spawning beds or redds. Spawning usually takes place
in October or November. The beds are in the shallower waters at the back end
of pools and runs, at the head of a riffles or in the smaller tributaries
off the main river. They characterized by clean, flowing, oxygen rich water
with a silt free, gravel bottom.
- rapids - deep, fast and rough water.
- riffles - a shallower (3-4 ft.) form of rapids characterized by broken water
over a bottom of smaller stones.
- runs - flowing water that has a relatively smooth surface with deeper water
than a riffle, (4-6 ft).
- pools - deep, slower moving water with large boulders on the bottom (6 ft. +).
- flats - usually wide sections of the river with a relatively constant depth
of 2-4 ft., unbroken surface and slow current. The bottom is usually flat.
Although salmon do not have food needs when in fresh water, they require the
comfort of proper water temperature and oxygen content, the safety provided
by access to deeper water and shelter from strong current flows which allows
them to hold their position in the river while expending minimum energy.
These needs are met in the runs and pools commonly found in all salmon
rivers under normal water conditions. Until such time as the correct
spawning temperatures are reached, the salmon make their way up river at
various speeds and will lay up or hold in runs and pools throughout the river.
Salmon lies will change with water conditions as do trout lies however trout
lies and salmon lies are different. As mentioned previously, salmon do not
feed when they enter fresh water and lies are not based on access to food
but relate more to comfort, safety and shelter requirements. Look for breaks
in water flow, depressions in the river bottom, large rocks where salmon can
hold without expending much energy. Salmon like to have access to deep water
and this combination with the above results in preferred lies. Pools and
runs meet these requirements.
- Salmon will often lie in the tails of pools where the water seems to lift
up and gain speed.
- Salmon will also lie where the water slows down and flattens out after
running into a pool from rapids or riffles.
- junction pools or any pool where a tributary enters the main river is a
likely location for salmon to hold.
- Salmon are moving upstream, unless water is extremely low, and in the
normal course there is a certain turnover of fish in a pool as salmon move
in and out.
- A rising river provides good fishing before the water turns muddy. When
river banks are full however, the salmon take advantage and move upstream
rapidly often ignoring or not seeing the flies presented to them. Salmon
begin to take again when the water begins to drop and they start to hold in
the pools and runs.
- Although salmon will take a fly better in shallow to moderate water (2-8
ft.) versus deep pools (10 ft. +), they become more difficult to catch each
passing day if they are not moving up river due to low water conditions.
- When the water is extremely warm, salmon seek out cool, oxygenated water
near springs or streams pouring into the main river and can sometimes be
seen in large numbers with their backs out of the water and their noses
pointed into a side stream.
- Salmon will move up into the head of a run or pool in the evening either
for oxygen or as a staging maneuver before continuing migration upriver.
- Salmon will sometimes face downstream in a large, deep, back eddy and can
be fished successfully with adjustments to casting technique so the fly is
presented broadside in front of the salmon.
Most salmon rivers require the angler to wade to reach certain pools or to
position oneself to make the proper fly presentation. Chest waders are
recommended for larger rivers. Wading in large rivers can be dangerous
especially under high water conditions unless caution is practiced.
(Also see G. Cox FAQ on Wading Safety Tips.)
- Wade at a 45 degree angle down river when you are trying to cross.
- Carry a wading staff with you to assist in crossing strong currents.
- Two people can lock arms or put the arms over each other's shoulders and
cross together, with one person on the up river side and the other on the
down river side.
- Many rivers have slippery bottoms and some are almost impossible to
maintain your footing. Felt soles are highly recommended and for very
slippery rivers, felt soles with metal studs should be used.
- There are divergent opinions on the use of wading belts. The majority
however believe that the use of a wading belt can be beneficial should you
- Do not attempt to wade in extreme run-off or spate conditions.
- Be careful when wading deep, and proceeding down river while casting
through a pool. It is easy to move down river with the current in deep
water. Should you find that you can't wade any further because the water is
too deep and you realize that you cannot turn to shore because of a drop
off, it is extremely difficult to make your way back up river into the
current without you feet going out from under you. If you find yourself in
this position, walk slowly backwards first until you are at a depth where
you can turn around safely.
- If you find yourself in the river, try to lay on your back and point your
legs down river. This will allow you to try and avoid any rocks or other
obstacles that you may encounter.
- If you are not familiar with a river, it is helpful to ask local anglers
the best areas to cross the river when trying to get to certain pools.
It is suggested that on a warm day with warm water, (or in a swimming pool),
get in the water over your waders and try to move around. This should only
be attempted in a safe area with assistance or supervision. The object is to
experience the sensation under controlled conditions hopefully avoiding a
panic reaction should you fall in accidentally.
Raising a Salmon
Should you raise a fish on a cast but you do not hook him or "feel" him,
then you should:
Common wisdom suggests that a hooked fish (you can feel the weight of the
fish), which immediately gets off will not promptly take another fly.
(Sometimes called "burning" a fish.)
- follow up with the same presentation
- try the same presentation with a shorter line
- lengthen your cast
- try a slower or a faster presentation
- tie on a smaller fly and make the same presentation
- tie on a larger fly
- rest the fish for a few minutes
- go back to the original pattern and presentation
- change positions if possible to give the salmon a different look (angle)
at the fly.
Playing a Salmon
Salmon will generally move to take a wet fly and then turn and go back to
their lie. Once the weight of the fish is felt the rod is lifted to set the
hook. Salmon will rise to a dry fly vigorously if they are taking and not
just looking. A common mistake is to pull back on the rod too early and take
the fly out of the salmon's mouth.
Once a salmon has risen and taken the dry fly, you should hesitate until the
salmon has turned with the fly before setting the hook. If you wait too long
however the salmon will spit out the hook. Do not move your rod until you
feel the pull of the fish. This can be difficult to do at first for
fishermen with previous trout experience. Proper timing comes with practice.
Grilse seem to take a dry fly quicker and do not require as long a
hesitation before setting the hook.
Once hooked, a salmon will make an initial run. During this run, any slack
line should be fed through the guides carefully to avoid knots. Loose line
should be recovered as soon as possible either by feeding out line to a
running fish or reeling in slack line if the fish is stationary or moving
towards you. You should always try to maintain some amount of pressure on
the fish but do not try to hold a fish tight on the surface just after
hooking him. Give him some scope to move back to his lie or deeper water.
Keep your rod tip high to allow the tip to act as a shock absorber, avoid
snags and to be able to quickly drop the rod tip to reduce tension on the line.
Try to position yourself opposite or even slightly down river from the fish
while playing him.
During head shaking, reduce the line pressure. When the salmon jumps, drop
your rod ("bowing to the fish"), to release pressure on the line. Many
salmon are lost during a jump when the pressure is not relaxed. The salmon
can fall on the line and break the leader or pull the hook out.
It is suggested that nearly 50% of all salmon hooked are lost.
Play a salmon as aggressively as possible so as not to exhaust it
unnecessarily if the fish is to be released. Keep maximum pressure on the
fish and do not let him rest. Apply sideways pressure to keep the fish
moving and off balance. Should a large fish, that is going to be released,
take an extremely long period to land then put excessive pressure on the
line to break off the fly rather than injure the salmon due to exhaustion.
This can be done by pointing your rod tip directly at the fish, taking the
line in your hand and giving a sharp tug. This will break the tippet,
releasing the salmon.
Landing a Salmon
A salmon may be landed by using a net or by hand tailing. Gaffs or tailers
are not permitted anywhere in North America, (except Quebec where tailers
are permitted). The mesh of the net should be made of cotton and not nylon.
Nylon can do more damage to the scales, protective membrane and eyes of the
salmon. The net should be large and sturdy. Although there are many schools
of thought, the generally accepted method to land a salmon in a net is to
net the fish from below by putting the net 2-3 ft. under the surface and
having the angler back the fish into the net then lifting. Some angles put a
rock in the bottom of the net to keep the mesh down.
Hand tailing a salmon can be quite exciting and, if done properly, may cause
the salmon less harm if he is to be released. The object is to bring the
salmon under control and to grasp the tail, (sometimes referred to as the
wrist), of the fish just in front of the caudal (tail) fin and behind the
adipose and anal fin. You must be careful to use enough pressure so that the
fish does not escape but not too much pressure that might cause injury to
the tail muscles. Hand tailing a grilse is particularly difficult because
the tail is smaller and subsequently there is less to hold on to. When
grasping the tail of a grilse use the thumb and index finger or thumb and
first two fingers. Some anglers use a cotton glove on their hand when
tailing a fish.
Hand tailing can be difficult and proper technique comes from watching
others and practice. A salmon can be broken off or injured if the technique
is not executed properly. If you are playing a fish that will be released
and you are not comfortable with the technique, ask someone for assistance
and let them tail the salmon rather than playing the fish to exhaustion.
A salmon that will be released should not be beached, dropped, held by the
gills, played into rocks, held up by the tail or taken out of the water for
extended periods of time.
Contributed by Dave Liverman and many others..
Any corrections, questions or comments to