Atlantic Salmon FAQ - salmon lies, hooking and playing

Contributed by Bob Boudreau (copyright)


Salmon Lies

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.

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.

General Observations


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.)

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.)

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.

salmon pic
Contributed by Dave Liverman and many others..
Any corrections, questions or comments to Dave Liverman