I don’t recall the very first time I heard about the Salmon River. I guess the reason I never went to fish there, in spite of its relatively close proximity to where I live in Vermont must have been related to an old childhood prejudice. The Salmon River is in upstate New York, Pulaski actually, and having been born and raised on Manhattan Island in New York City, my feeling had always been best summed up by the old saying that once you’d left “The City”, you were out of town. Pulaski had to be the end of the Earth for this transplanted New Yorker, even if the salmon fishing there was always considered as good as you can get in the state where I grew up.
But time has a way of eating away at everything. Little remains today of the ancient Mayans and this year I discovered that my antipathy for Pulaski had abated as well. I jumped in a car with three other guys last Tuesday morning and we drove the five and a half hours to the Salmon River, armed with nine and ten weight fly rods and the excitement that comes either from the anticipation of great fishing or totally reckless behavior.
The water was running at between 750 and 850 cubic feet per second on the Salmon River, which is a highly technical way of saying that there was a hell of a lot of flow and you took your life in your hands by wading out to anything anywhere near the center of the stream. Coupled with this was the fact that thousands and thousands of King and Coho salmon, along with migrating steelhead (which, while they weren’t spawning, were still very aggressively hitting flies as they tried to fuel up before winter) and brown trout (which definitely did have romance on their minds) were crowding into the same space with us. If you don’t dig the idea of a sex starved, 20-30 pound fish taking you out at the knees, then perhaps this isn’t your idea of “fun”.
The other amusing little twist to all of this was that these huge fish can very effectively run out the clock and all of your fly line simply by deciding to run downstream with the current. Most of us were using 12-pound test tippet material on the ends of our leaders, so we were often forced to hurtle downstream after our fish in a usually vain attempt at keeping up with the surge of line that peeled off of the reel. It’s one thing to lose a fish, but quite another see a $50 weight forward fly line and 150 yards of backing go flying off your reel, up and out of the eyelets on your rod, and off into oblivion.
Of course each member of our group positively lived to experience this kind of full contact sport. Nothing says “adrenalin rush” like the prospect of risking serious injury while enjoying what to the untrained onlooker might appear to be a quaint, unhurried, somewhat patrician day on the water, mending one’s fly line in hopes of catching a fish.
To illustrate the daunting odds against success, let me give you the statistics our foursome compiled. On the Wednesday of our three-day trip, we fished for 12 hours, garnering an impressive 90-100 strikes, while landing exactly two fish. In most cases, the fights lasted less than a few seconds as the salmon would leap, run, turn downstream and at breathtaking speed, snap our lines, bend the hooks straight, or just fake us completely out of our shorts by throwing the hook, sending the fly zooming directly back at the astonished angler in question.
But there were some victories too.
At around 9:30 on Wednesday morning, Andy (a new fishing friend) and I were sharing a stretch of stream together, bouncing 1/16 of an ounce feathered jigs in about a foot and a half of relatively slow moving water. We’d seen large pods of big salmon rush through this spot and each of us had already hooked into good fish, that we’d fought for 10 or 15 minutes before losing them. I got a strike and after a few minutes of fighting the salmon in the same spot where it’d hit, my fish turned downstream and began to run.
I’d already had a couple fish fight me well into the downstream current that morning and they’d both eventually snapped off. The idea of leaping into the heavy flow of this cascade to give chase had seemed very, very unwise to me then. But a little voice started to whisper in my ear and as I listened carefully, I recognized (to my enormous surprise) I was remembering a famous quote by Mae West. It advised me: “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 river water, over rocks and holes I would have no way of anticipating, and so off I went.
I’m really not the most agile guy and normally crossing a swift stream that only comes up to my knees is a task I 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 danger involved. About 300 yards and 15 minutes later, both my fish and I sat on a beach, thoroughly exhausted. She was a big sow, filled with roe. I was a short middle-aged man, experiencing near-palpitations of the heart.
I looked back upstream and saw that Andy was about halfway down the way I’d just traveled. What a great guy, I thought – he’s come to help me with my fish. No he hadn’t either! He was busy trying to keep a wildly leaping male salmon from tearing all of the line off his reel. He too headed for the beach where I waited. Andy negotiated the fish into the shallows where I lifted it out of the water by its tail and we caught our breath.
We revived our fish, which in my case took a good 10 minutes. My salmon was pretty wiped out, but she finally shook herself free of the grasp I had on her tail and disappeared into the current. Andy and I headed back upstream to find that other anglers had taken our places at the spot where we’d hooked our fish, so we hiked a bit further 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 days. 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 3 hours to get here today,” said one.
“That’s not too bad,” another offered. “We got in last night – an 8-hour drive.”
“Yup,” said the next angler. “Took us about 6 hours.”
I smiled and murmured to no one in particular, “It took me 51 years.”
Copyright 2008 by Peter Cammann