Atlantic salmon about to be released

Salmon Fishing In Atlantic Canada; 8 Tips For Beginners.

New to fly fishing for Atlantic salmon? Have you enjoyed some success fly fishing for trout and thinking of using those skills to hook the king of Atlantic Canada game fish? 

Fly fishing for Atlantic salmon can be an exercise in frustration until you hook your first one. If you have experience in fly fishing for trout but have never targeted Atlantic salmon, I'd like to talk about some of the most common mistakes I see when introducing experienced trout fishers to Atlantic salmon.

Here are my top 8 mistakes to avoid when new to Atlantic salmon fishing. Keeping these 8 points in mind will surely increase your chances of having your first intimate encounter with an Atlantic salmon.

Here Are Our 8 Tips For Novice Atlantic Salmon Fly Fishers: 

  1. Don't walk straight to the river's edge.
  2. Don't assume you know where the fish are.
  3. Don't have too much line out.
  4. Check your reel drag.
  5. Keep your leader free from knots and abrasions.
  6. Change your fly frequently.
  7. Change your presentation.
  8. Leave your fly in the water longer.


        Don't walk straight to the river's edge

        I get it. You just can’t wait to get to the river. Here’s the thing, stop and think for a minute. I try to stop myself at least 5 meters from the water’s edge. There are several reasons why. My gear might not be 100% ready. I might not have the right fly tied on. I may not know where the fish are holding in the pool. I’d rather take care of these things before the river’s edge. Understand that your best chance of hooking a salmon will be in your first few casts. The fish may very well be holding tight to the river bank you are headed for. The commotion of a fly fisher unloading their gear and tying on a new fly may easily be seen by the fish. These fish may be your best chance in the whole pool. Don’t blow it before you even take your first cast! 

        Stop 5 meters before. Unload your gear. Check your fly. While you are at it, check your leader for knots and abrasions. Strip out a bit of line and walk cautiously towards the river’s edge, stopping 2-3 meters short. Take your first casts with a short line and fish the near bank before you walk up to the bank. Once you have covered the near bank from 2-3 meters away, move slowly to the bank and start reaching further into the pool.

        Don't assume you know where the fish are

        Sure, the fish may very well be exactly where you think they are. However, they may also be in other places. Some of those places you may not have thought of. Why is this important? Because if you immediately cast a long line to where you think the fish are, you are decreasing your chances with any fish that are laying between you and where you expect the fish to be. Your best chances will be for fish that are observing your fly and nothing but the fly in the first instance.

        I like to think of the pool as a search grid and the object is to find a fish in it using my fly. Start from near and extend out. Strip out an extra 6 inches or so of line and fish the pool in increments. Try and have your fly be the first object that drifts over every piece of water, not the main fishing line followed by the fly. You will get to that sweet spot you have in mind. But you will not have ruined the entire pool just because you are in a rush to hit that spot you know has fish in it.

        Too much line

        Having too much line out is a problem for a few reasons:

        • As I mentioned, it can spook a fish before it even sees your fly.
        • It can create unwanted drag on your fly. This is particularly a problem if you are trying to naturally drift a dry fly down a pool.
        • Too much line makes it more difficult to control the tracking of your fly.
        • You cannot set the hook when a fish takes the fly.

        I try and only use the amount of line that it takes to hit my targeted starting point with the fly. The line and leader should be as straight as possible between myself and the intended target. Once the fly lands, don’t let the line accumulate in the water. Take up the excess line as it tracks downstream. If you don't, the excess line will pick up more and more drag from the current making it more difficult to control the fly’s track. It will also be very difficult to set the hook.

        Reel drag is important

        Reel drag is not really much of a concern when trout fishing in Atlantic Canada. It’s a very different story for Atlantic salmon. You will most certainly be using the drag system on your fishing reel if you hook an Atlantic salmon. Check the tightness of your drag before your first cast of the day. It should provide some resistance but not be too tight. If an Atlantic salmon wants to run, and they always do, you will not be able to freeze the fish in place. It is essential to let the fish take out some line on these runs. If a fish wants to run, and you try and freeze it in place with an overtightened drag or your hand, that fish is as good as gone. The leader will break or the fly will tear from the fish’s mouth.

        Hooking your first Atlantic salmon is a memory you will never forget. I promise. Sadly, I have seen many experienced trout fishers take the walk of shame back to the camp after losing their first fish because they grabbed the reel and tried to hold a fish that wanted to run. It’s not a trout. You’ll get the hang of it.

        Keep your leader free of knots and abrasions

        Having your reel drag properly set won’t matter much if the tensile strength of your leader is reduced due to nicks and knots in your leader. Both knots and knicks in your leader create weakness in the leader. This will of course become a potential failure point when battling your first Atlantic salmon. Of course you need to check this before you hook a fish. It’s a good practice to remove any knots that develop in your leader right away. Replace the damaged leader with a new leader.

        Tapered leader

         tapered leader

        Change flies more frequently

        If you failed to move a fish after thoroughly covering a pool once or twice with your preferred fly, change it up and start the process over again. Take your time with it. Take a small break, tie on a different fly, rest the pool for a few minutes. When you resume, start in close just like the first time and cover the pool thoroughly as you did with the first fly. I have my favourite flies to start with. I usually start with my picket pin, or green machine. However, I am fully aware that I have no idea what the preference of those specific fish, in this specific pool, on this given day, with these specific conditions will be. It only takes one fish out of many, to take any one of the flies I am prepared to present. So if something didn’t work, ask yourself…what next? If you fished a wet like the picket pin, try a bomber next.



        I often make my next fly choice something very different from what I just tried. Of course dry flies and wet flies require different presentations and I think that helps as well.

        Change your presentation

        In addition to changing your flies, you can also change the presentation of any fly. You can do this by fishing the pool from different angles. By moving a little higher or lower in the pool, or by casting to a different starting point, you will be changing the movement of the fly through the same part of the pool. Usually, we start at the top of the pool, cover the water thoroughly, then move a foot or two downstream and start again. By starting your cast slightly upstream your fly will give a very different presentation from the first time the fly passed over the same spot. It’s not uncommon to hook a fish that wasn’t interested the first time but became interested due to a different fly movement as it passed by.  In smaller pools, you can affect a lot of change in the presentation by holding your rod tip in different locations in the air while your fly sweeps through the water.

        By combining different flies and different presentations you increase the chances that a fish might see something worth attacking. Try it. Experiment. It is not a waste of time. Throwing the same fly, over and over and over and over again, in the same way you presented it every other time without moving a fish, is unlikely to move a fish on the 99th time.

        Don't take your fly out of the water too soon  

        Allow your fly to move completely through the pool. Don't be impatient by lifting your fly too soon to start your next cast. It is common for a salmon to follow a wet fly through the pool, striking the fly at the end of it's travels. I was taught to wait until the fly is clearly at the end of it's travel, and then count to 5 before lifting it. This technique has resulted in many hook ups that would not have happened if I was impatient.

        Summing it up

        I hope you find some of these tips useful. Each of these 8 tips I have learned from fishing with more experienced fly fishers. I remember my transition from trout fishing to salmon fishing. It's not as straight forward as I thought it would be. If you have any questions, please send us a message or comment. If you have more suggestions to share, please comment. 

        Good luck out there. 

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        Chris, I think a person’s best chance to hook their first salmon in NS is Margaree. I usually fish it in September/October but early July is also good.


        What’s your favorite river in Nova Scotia to salmon fish? What time of year would say your best chances of catching a salmon in your favorite river?

        chris huskins

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