The sun still low behind the mountains as the hiss from my Jetboil breaks the morning silence. Fumbling through my pack for my fly box, the aroma from the coffee percolating through the pour-over permeates the air. A grin slowly creeps across my face; we’ve won the coveted first pass.
Salmon angling on the Margaree River in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia is steeped in tradition. One custom is that the angler who arrives first at the pool or car park gets the first crack through the pool. Secondly, an angler may not enter the pool and begin fishing before 6:00 am.
These traditions set the parameters for a game not unlike tag or musical chairs, sending grown adults into a frenzy each morning, trying their hardest to land at their pool of choice before anyone else.
The decision to forgo the creature comforts of morning cabin life, mainly the first java of the day, has paid off. Also, coffee, not unlike cheap whiskey, always tastes better riverside.
Choosing that magical fly for the first pass is no easy task. As I sip my coffee, I thumb through the seemingly endless options of blues, greens, yellows, blacks, drys, and wets. Each fly worthy in its own right, I look down at the small selection accumulating on the log beside me. The inner dialogue in my brain is screaming, “the fly doesn’t matter”. After all how is an angler supposed to entice a species that doesn’t actively feed in freshwater?
Just like a scene from the show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, the clock racing towards 6 a.m, I use a lifeline. I present my selections in my hands to my husband, looking for some decisive feedback in order to narrow down my choice. The spun deer hair dry fly, known as a bomber, gets the nod.
Popping open the top on the GINK bottle, I apply the ritualistic floatant to the fly and step into the pool. Bomber, or dry fly fishing for Atlantic salmon, is extremely addictive and a consuming tactic. Many experienced salmon anglers, whom I’ve looked up to for years, adhere to the philosophy, DRY OR DIE when conditions permit.
I prospect my way through the pool, methodically working seams and structure, repeating the mantra, “short, medium, long” with every cast. Periodically, my mind drifts from my dancing bomber in the current to the sun cresting the peaks of the mountains around me. Why is it always in this instant that a fish decides to take? It almost seems as if less is more in Salmon fishing.
The act of getting “in the zone” is almost a zen like state of letting go and succumbing to fate. I’ve often pondered if this mindset might actually enhance one’s ability to successfully land a salmon as it curbs the body’s knee-jerk reaction to pull the fly away from the fish. In salmon fishing, ideally the fish hooks itself, as the salmon usually takes the fly and turns back downstream. A common misstep is when an angler pulls too hard or too quickly the instant they see the fish take the fly, this usually results in a missed opportunity.
Today was different. Nearing the taking spot in the pool, I watched as a shiny silver mass rose and swirled below my bomber. The resulting feeling is hard to describe to a non-fisher. A shot of adrenaline instantly pierces through your body, a euphoric excitement. It is essential at this point to take quick stock of the placement, movement, and speed of your fly’s last presentation and do it again, perfectly. The adrenaline is fighting against your every move as you carefully lift your line and deliver the fly again.
A silver torpedo flashes up from the depths. I watch a large white mouth devourer the green and orange deer hair blob on the surface.
I go mute when playing a salmon. I’m not sure if it’s superstition and I believe that premature celebration will jinx the outcome, or maybe concentration just overcomes my senses?
In the next several minutes all hell breaks loose. The fish head shakes, runs, and cartwheels through the air trying to rid itself of the hook. Atlantic Salmon are known scientifically as “Salmo Salar” meaning “The Leaper” and any salmon angler knows this is for good reason. Every time the fish nears or breaks the surface, its silver body reflects the morning sun like a piece of glass. I can’t help but reflect on the salmon’s journey and migration as it often travels as far north as Greenland spending years at sea before returning to its native waters of Nova Scotia to spawn.
I feel humbled and privileged to be in its presence and interact with it. As my husband gently tails the fish, the euphoria shifts to sense of accomplishment and more importantly gratitude for the fish. I quickly remove the fly and carefully point the fish upstream. You can feel the fish’s energy-returning as its body firms up. With one huge kick from its massive tail, it returns to the pool.
I am of the mindset that salmon do not need anglers. I believe they’d exist perfectly fine without any human interaction. I am however of the opinion that my takeaway from the experience is a complete recharging of positive energy and a boost to my mental health.
This privileged experience leaves me with the strong belief that I need to repay the fish through conservation efforts, ethical fishing, and handling practices. Salmon have taught me life lessons of patience, perseverance, confidence, and have brought me to some of the most beautiful places on earth.
As I reel up my line and attach my fly to the keep on my rod, I realize I am forever grateful for Salar.