I don’t recall the first time I heard about the Salmon River, but it has fascinated me for most of my life. The idea that king and coho salmon swam only a half-day drive from where I lived seemed impossible. It was a myth, something to be dreamed of, but never experienced. But it was real, as many of my friends who made the trip to Pulaski, New York to fish on the Salmon River would tell me. They showed me photographs of absurdly large fish they’d caught and told fantastic stories of all of the other ones that had either eluded them or had been landed by other nearby anglers. So, a few years ago, I jumped in a car with three other guys on a rainy October morning and we drove the five-and-a-half hours from where we lived in Vermont to the Salmon River. We were filled with the kind of excitement that comes from the anticipation of great fishing (or totally reckless behavior).
It’s useful to look at the whole proposition of fishing on the Salmon River in terms of an old risk assessment acronym, SWOT, which stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Our strengths and weaknesses as anglers were inexorably linked. We were three middle-aged gentlemen and one 20-something fellow who all simply lived to fish. While it was true that among us we had decades of fly-fishing experience, we were also inebriated with the hubris that accompanies any good road trip, combined with way too much testosterone. The betting odds were overwhelming in that we were all quite apt to end up in the hospital. The opportunities were obvious – all of those enormous, thrashing fish waiting for us on the Salmon River. This left the four of us to contemplate the threats, which were far from clear to any of us … but, they should have been. Put four men near a body of water more than 200 miles from the calming and sobering influence of their respective spouses, arm those men with long, pointed sticks and you have a recipe for almost certain disaster.
The day we arrived, the Salmon River was running at between 750 and 850 cubic feet per second, a highly technical way of saying there was a hell of a lot of moving water and you would take your life in your hands by wading out anywhere near the center of the stream. Thousands of spawning king and coho salmon, steelhead (which were feeding on salmon eggs) and brown trout (which, like the salmon, had romance on their minds) were all on the move. It was like a swirling obstacle course that promised each angler the thrill of being gang-tackled by one or more large fish and subsequently swept away in the torrent toward Lake Ontario.
After an hour of exploring the northern bank of the river, I found a place where the high water had flooded out a section of shoreline, creating a tiny island. A little creek had formed between the bank and island and was filled with salmon; to my surprise, no one took any notice of them. This was advantageous for me because there were dozens of fly anglers working every conceivable spot of the main stem of the river. I stood at the downstream confluence of the creek and the river, set myself up and started to cast at a cluster of maybe 10 salmon grouped together about 25 feet upstream. Dense brush and trees surrounded the area where the fish were holding and I had to be very careful how I placed my cast. To my surprise, I hit the mark without getting hung up; to my horror, the very first fish I set the hook on hurled itself out of the water and landed directly in the branches of one of the overhanging trees. I had never seen a fish try to impale itself before and I reluctantly had to admit that the day had already produced an “unexpected delight” of sorts.
Strangely enough, I learned an important lesson from this bizarre experience. Somehow, I was going to have to muscle any fish I hooked into out of that brook and into the river if I was going to have a realistic chance of fighting it. Back I went to my spot at the confluence of the small stream and the river. Again I tossed my streamer in the general direction of the group of salmon I’d spotted. Before long, I had another fish on and I angled the rod tip to my left in an attempt to force it to follow me out of the creek and into open water. I was careful not to put too much pressure on it, though, as I was using a 12-pound tippet on a 20-plus-pound fish. It might have worked too, but the fly let go and shot back over my shoulder. The fish was gone. That was bad enough, but when I reeled in my line I discovered that the fly had neatly broken in two. The business end of the hook was obviously still in the salmon’s mouth while I was left with nothing but the eyelet, the snapped hook shaft, and some rapidly unraveling hackle. Thus was revealed the day’s second “unexpected delight,” as well as a second lesson: Just because the opportunities may be rich doesn’t mean it will be all that easy to exploit them.
I promise you that I eventually achieved some measurable level of success – an hour later, I landed my first salmon. It was a large female and by the time I subdued her, she was almost completely spent. I had to spend nearly 15 minutes with her, gently trying to get the water through her gills while she rested up. I was concerned that I might have hurt her during the fight, threatening her survival. This is one of the delicate parts of fishing for these salmon in the fall. They don’t live long after their spawning run; in fact, all of these salmon die very shortly after their eggs have been laid and fertilized. My fish hadn’t spawned yet and she positively burst with eggs, some of them spurting out as I lifted her from the water to remove my hook. Eventually, she shook free from my grip and headed out to the middle of the river.
To accurately document the how hard all of this fishing can be, let me give you the vital statistics our foursome compiled on one of the three days we spent on the Salmon River. On that particular day, we each fished for 12 hours, garnering a fairly impressive 90 to 100 strikes (for an average of roughly two per angler per hour), while landing exactly four fish. In most cases, the fights lasted less than a few seconds as the salmon leapt, ran, turned downstream and, at breathtaking speeds, snapped our lines, bent the hooks straight, or faked us completely out of our shorts by sending the fly lines zooming directly back at our foreheads after the hooks came loose. In addition to the fact that salmon can literally take you out at the knees while you stand in the river (their river, by the way) blocking their headlong dash upstream as you make some kind of absurd attempt to catch them on an artificial fly, you also must calculate the potential economic consequences of actually getting one to strike. You see, any one of them could very effectively spool all of your fly line and backing simply by deciding to run downstream with the current. It’s one thing to lose a fish, but quite another to see a $50 weight-forward fly line and 150 yards of backing disappear up and out of your rod eyelets and into oblivion. But, as I mentioned, there were a couple of victories too.
At about 9:30 on the morning of our second day, Andy (a new fishing friend) and I were sharing a shallow stretch of river together, bouncing 1/16-ounce feathered jigs off the bottom. We’d seen several pods of salmon rush through this spot and had each already hooked into a couple of good fish, fighting them for 5 or 10 minutes before they broke off. I got another strike and set the hook, pulling as hard as I could, but the fish wouldn’t budge. For almost five minutes I stood about 15 feet from my fish, trying to figure out how to get the damn thing to run. I even began to weigh the idea of asking Andy to throw a rock at it, but recognized this might constitute an unforgivable breach of etiquette, one that our new friendship might not be able to survive. Instead, I smiled and mouthed obscenities at the fish. This must have enraged the beast because, with a terrible lurch, it turned and swam downstream, the flow pushing it along at incredible speed. I’d already had a couple fish fight me well into the current that morning and they’d both eventually snapped off. The idea of leaping into this cascade to give chase seemed very unwise to me then. I considered holding firm to my line and letting the fish break off at the tippet but, for reasons I will never fully understand, I unexpectedly recalled a famous quote by Mae West: “When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I’ve never tried before.”
Well, I’d never tried to kill myself by running after a 25-pound fish, mid-thigh in rushing water over rocks and holes I had no way of anticipating, so off I went. I often do things that seem to run contrary to my normal instinct for survival, particularly when it comes to fishing. I’m not the most agile guy to begin with and crossing any kind of flowing water is a task I prefer to attack with slow deliberation. However, my fish had other plans and I found myself negotiating the terrain so quickly that I didn’t really have much time to consider the potential danger involved. Nothing says “adrenalin rush” quite like the prospect of risking serious, perhaps life-threatening injury. About 300 yards and 15 minutes later, both my fish and I lay on a beach, thoroughly exhausted. She was a big sow, filled with roe. I was a short, middle-aged man, experiencing palpitations of the heart. I looked back upstream and saw that Andy was about halfway down the way I’d just traveled, running at a good clip. What a great guy, I thought – he’s come to help me with my fish. No he hadn’t! He was busy trying to keep a wildly-leaping male salmon from tearing all the line off his reel. He too headed for the beach where I sprawled. Andy negotiated his fish into the shallows, where I lifted it out of the water by its tail and we caught our breath.
We revived our salmon, which took some time. Mine was pretty wiped out, but she was finally able to swim off into the current. Andy and I headed back upstream to find that a couple of other anglers had taken our place at the spot where we’d hooked our fish, so we hiked a bit farther upstream to another pool. There was a group of a half-dozen anglers there, three of them working the water while the others stood back, away from the river, comparing notes on their day. After a while, the talk drifted to the topic of where people had come from. Folks travel from all over the place to fish the Salmon River and so I eavesdropped as the conversation ran on.
“It took me three hours to get here today,” said one.
“That’s not too bad,” another offered.
“We got in last night – an eight-hour drive.”
“Yup,” said the next angler.
“Took us about six hours.” I smiled and murmured to no one in particular, “It took me 51 years.”
• For regulations, licenses and more information on fishing the Salmon River visit dec.ny.gov