Monday, September 8, 2014

Why Fish for Broodstock Atlantic Salmon?

Naugatuck 2011 - Hooked up in an uncomfortably high flow of 900+cfs.
For those familiar with the pool, notice the "wrinkle" that is the big rock. 

Over the years, I've taken some criticism from some anglers when it comes to fishing for Connecticut's broodstock Atlantic salmon. Some of the complaints are, "They're beat up, dumb, don't fight hard, it's an artificial fishery, I prefer to fish for wild Atlantic salmon," and the list goes on. I've addressed some of these in the past and I'm not going to open all of these cans of worms now. I want to focus mainly on that last one, "I prefer to fish for wild Atlantic salmon."

D'uh...Who wouldn't? I didn't get my start fishing for broodstock salmon. I got my start fishing for  Miramichi River salmon in pretty miserable conditions. My second season was even tougher than the first one. I wish I had the forethought to learn the basics close to home. At the very least, it would have learned to better temper my expectations. I might have even caught more fish, too.

Hindsight is 20-20, as they say. It didn't take me long to realize the resource I had in my own backyard. The fishery was a 45 minute drive from my home and the only expense was a resident fishing license, which I already had. Learning the basics here would cost a fraction of what it would cost practicing on the river while in Canada, hoping to get lucky once in a while.

I've touched on the following example before, but I will go into greater detail here...

In spring 2011, my friend John asked if I'd like to fish Russia's Kola River with him in spring 2012. After some domestic negotiations, I was in. The Kola is known for its big, tough, early run spring salmon. It's also infamous for being a really tough river to wade, especially in high spring flows. Two handed rods and solid casting skills are necessary if one hopes to have any success at that time of year. I decided to learn the Scandinavian style of two handed casting in early summer 2011. I can't say I practiced much immediately after my lesson. However, once fall rolled around, I picked up the two hander again and brought it to the lower Naugatuck River.

Practicing in normal Naugatuck flows is one thing, but little did I know what mother nature had in store for us that fall. First, there was Hurricane Irene. That raised the water. Shortly thereafter, a freak October Nor'easter dumped a ton of snow, which seemed to melt completely within days. That really raised the water! It made the water unseasonably frigid, too. Cold, high water...just right to help me prepare for the Kola and Kitza Rivers.

At home, the power was out for days and many cell towers were down. I missed a call to work with legendary jazz guitarist Gene Bertoncini. I was frustrated and had to get out of the house. My buddy Val and I went to the Naugatuck after a few days of snowmelt. The lower Naugatuck was just under the 1000cfs mark. I don't think I fished it over 700cfs before that day. It was pretty miserable, but it was exactly what I needed. I was pinned against the trees and it was a real test of my casting. The water never really warmed up after that and it stayed relatively high for the rest of the season. I used flies and tactics I expected to use in Russia and, as a bonus, I caught fish. That high water season couldn't have come at a better time.

The somewhat ironic epilogue is that spring 2012 on the Kola Peninsula was really early. The water was seasonably low and warm (50ºF+). I didn't waste my time on the Naugatuck in the fall, though. Fishing and wading a low Kola River was still much more difficult than fishing a high Naugatuck River. Under the circumstances, I actually did okay over there. It certainly could have been a lot more frustrating had I not prepared for it at all. Practicing close to home really paid off.

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There can be some unexpected complications when
fishing abroad without an outfitter.
Go prepared so you have more patience to deal with
the nuts and bolts stuff. 


Here is another example of how this fishery can benefit us. This topic jumps around a little bit, so please bear with me...

There is a common misconception that, if we want to catch wild Atlantic salmon, we need to pay an arm and a leg to do so. To some extent, we get what we pay for. You can pay $15K for a week on the Ponoi River and you'll probably catch more salmon than you can shake a stick at. Having said that, there is something out there for all of us, regardless of how much money we make or how much we are willing to spend. I'm a professional jazz musician who happens to be a hopeless salmon fishing addict. It's a pretty awful combination. When I have time, I don't have money. When I have a little money, I don't have time. The week of my first salmon fishing trip, I was called to play 11 non-conflicting gigs! I already had the trip planned, so I turned them all down. My wife was pissed. I've never been called for that many in a week since.

I figure it took me two or three Canada trips, and a lot of time spent reading and reflecting afterwards, to begin to figure out the game. It definitely helped to have a good guide. It took me a while to shake "trout brain" when I was new to salmon fishing. My guide helped snap me out of it. After my autumn Miramichi trips, I'd come home and Connecticut's salmon season would open a couple of weeks later. By then, a little time had passed and I'd think about what I might have done differently if I had another shot. It's tough to get better when you're only on a salmon river for a week or two per season. In that time, you might only see one set of conditions. Unless you get lucky, they'll probably be less than optimal. Now that our salmon season starts in mid-September, we're able to fish late summer, fall, winter and spring conditions within one season.

Because I could fish for salmon close to home, I learned how to better target salmon in low water, high water, dirty water, etc. I learned about fly selection based on conditions. I learned about how salmon react to flies in different weather and atmospheric conditions.  I honed my presentation skills. I got over "buck fever" and learned when to come tight to a fish. I worked strategies to turn "players" into taking fish (this is a big one). I read about techniques and flies from other parts of the world and incorporated them into my arsenal. My water reading skills got a whole lot better. After a while, I felt comfortable landing large fish without any assistance, often times in tricky water. One of the most liberating aspects of our fishery is the ability to experiment without the fear of wasting valuable time or money. If it doesn't work, I've only paid for gas. When it does work, I have another arrow in my quiver.

It would have taken me years, possibly decades, worth of week-long trips to get a better grasp on some of what I listed above. I didn't start salmon fishing at an optimal time in the fish's history, so who knows if I would have learned some of these lessons at all? I practiced at home and brought what I learned with me to my next destination. After shortening the learning curve a great deal, I feel like a sponge when I'm on a salmon river. I learn much more quickly than I did during those first few trips.

Now, I'm not trying to oversimplify this. There are many differences between the Connecticut fishery and wild salmon fisheries. For one, our fish move around, but they don't run the river. You'll learn how to time fishing in rising and falling water to some extent here, but not how fish move through a river system. Also, there are plenty of places I never find salmon in the Naugatuck that would expect to find a running fish every now and then. Conversely, I've caught broodstock salmon in spots I would probably pass up on a true salmon river. In all, I believe the similarities outnumber the differences. They take the same flies and the same presentations as their wild brethren. Unfortunately, they're prone to sulking and general unpredictability just like their wild brethren, too.

How does this relate to the financial stuff above? If you have the money to spend $15K per week on the Ponoi, you'll probably catch a pile of salmon. They might be on the smaller side, but you'll catch them. Want a good shot at catching bigger fish? Ok, how about a week on the Restigouche or the Grand Cascapedia? A prime week might only cost less than half as much as the Ponoi. Is $6K still too much? If you draw off-peak time on the Glen Emma beat of the Matapedia, it's only $500/day and that includes a guide and canoe, room and board not included. Still too much, huh?

Unfortunately for most of us jazz musicians, it is too much. Should that stop us from salmon fishing? Hell no! Over the years, I've made plenty of friends who catch salmon without breaking the bank. Most of them are very good fishermen. Since they are not often fishing prime pools or exclusive beats, they are forced to try hard and persevere if they want to catch anything. They fish public water year in and year out. Sometimes they knock 'em dead, sometimes they don't. But they don't let the perception of Atlantic salmon fishing being "the sport of kings" turn them away. Most are Canadians. Some are Russians. A few are Americans, but most American salmon fishermen I meet go the lodge route.

Don't get me wrong, someday I'd like to stay at a five star lodge, fish a legendary river, maybe in a canoe, and with a top-notch guide. Then I'd enjoy returning to camp to enjoy a peppercorn crusted ribeye and glass of malbec. I have absolutely nothing against people who choose to fish this way. Honestly, I would really love to try it sometime! It's just not where I'm at right now and I don't know if I'll ever get there. Like my buddies, I'm not going to let it stop me from hooking salmon. If I have to do it on my own, I will.

When I fish alone on public water, I might get some tips, but it's up to me to read the water, pick an appropriate fly, and present the fly in a way that attracts a salmon. If I do everything right, I might have to tail the fish, unhook it and release it safely, all while managing not to slip and fall into the river. After that, I might relax with a PB&J or some trail mix, then go back at it. When I travel to a new river, observe the conditions, devise a strategy, and then catch fish, I know I'm making real progress. Without spending off-seasons chasing broodstock salmon, I would be much less confident on my own.

I still make plenty of mistakes. When I identify an aspect of my angling that needs improvement, I make it a point to add it to my to-do list for the next broodstock salmon season. My motto is, "Practice here so you don't have to practice there." That goes for almost everyone, not just beginners. In America, we have no wild salmon rivers with which to hone our skills, but we have a tremendous resource at our disposal and it only costs as much as a Connecticut fishing license. Though the broodstock salmon fishery is already popular, its full potential has not yet been realized by the vast majority of local anglers.

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