The Last Salmon

All photos by Greg Pearson

This article originally appeared in the 2019.1 issue of Swing the Fly magazine and is free to view. Enjoy, and if you’re not already a member, consider joining to get access to all the member content and the Anthology book.

Two anglers climb to the top of a granite outcrop to survey a pool in the headwaters of a river that flows to the sea, through dozens of pools just like this one. It’s been a lean week. The lower river is teeming with anglers. Pick-up trucks and late-model SUVs fill every turnout along the river. All the motels and campgrounds display neon-lit “No Vacancy” signs. The anglers have this pool to themselves, which they scan carefully from top to bottom. The water is clear and the sun is high. Every lie in the pool that could possibly hold a fish is revealed with breathtaking clarity. In the tail of the pool and just in front of a wheat-colored rock, they see a salmon, a solitary salmon — a ghost in the irradiant light.

The anglers move slowly away from the edge of the overlook to avoid spooking the salmon. One of the anglers descends the faint trail that leads at a diagonal to the head of the pool. The other angler remains above, where he can observe every movement of the salmon from his unobstructed perch. The first angler moves into position, his felt soles probing the streambed so as not to betray his presence. When he is satisfied that he has reached a spot that will allow him to present his fly with maximum efficiency, he selects a dry fly from his box and ties it to the end of his leader.

The angler measures his line in the air with several false casts and drops his dry fly three feet in front of the nose of the fish. He presents his fly drag-free—allowing it to float where the current takes it as if it were unattached to his leader. The fly moves toward the salmon, bisecting the eyes on either side of her head before bobbing directly over her dorsal fin, the adipose fin and finally the caudal peduncle. He makes three more identical casts until he hears, “She moved on that one. Definitely looked at it.” He raises a hand to let his partner know he received the message.

He waits a decent interval—about the length of time it takes to light up a cigarette and turn the terminal inch of that cigarette to ash. As he does not smoke, he times the interval on his watch. He makes the same cast again. He repeats the cast five more times. “Anything?” he says to his companion. “Nothing. Not even a twitch. Try waking it.” The angler raises a hand again and adjusts his stance. He reels in six feet of line and casts at an acute angle, pulling and dragging his dry fly across the surface of the water. After every cast, he removes six inches of line from his reel and presents the fly in an identical manner. “Am I on her?” he asks without turning around. “Just about. Maybe two more short pulls of line. She definitely sees it.”

This new gambit proves no more successful. He pulls in his line by hand and stares at the dry fly as if he can’t believe it let him down. He removes the fly from his leader and searches his fly patch for a wet fly. He ties the wet fly to the leader with a double turle knot and place two half hitches directly underneath the head of the fly. “I’m trying the hitch,” he says making no particular attempt to lower his voice. “Let’s see how she likes it.” On his third cast he sees a large boil behind his fly. “Did you see that?” says the angler. “Yup,” comes the reply. “I thought she was going the take it. She moved real hard on it.”

Again, the angler waits the prescribed interval. He makes the same cast again. He watches the subtle v-wake that forms in the backwash of the fly as it snakes across the surface of the water. His girlfriend has threatened to leave him because “he fishes too much” and doesn’t care about her. He just received a late-payment notice from his bank regarding his 2018 Toyota Tacoma with a Leer cap—his dream machine for the pursuit of sea-liced fish. He has not called home in three months. None of these facts cross his mind as his fly enters the immediate territory of the salmon. The world and its many problems large and small have been reduced to the microcosm of his fly moving towards a fish. This focus, and the mental vacation that it affords, is the central gift of fishing.

The angler detects the slightest hesitation of the fly as it arcs across the surface of the river. The pause in the speed of the fly is caused by a faint upwelling that creates a miniscule delay in the speed of the flow. It reminds him of a video he saw of a porpoise skimming just above the surface of the sea while remaining completely covered by water. This seemingly unnatural feat is rendered possible by the chemical attraction of water molecules combined with the hydrodynamic properties of salmonids, aquatic mammals and nuclear submarines. The convex bend in the surface of the river slows the forward progress of his fly and then disappears as quickly as it formed. The fly continues its happy march to the dangle like a surfer who is unaware that a great white shark prowls just below his surfboard.

“Raised her again,” the angler says. “I’ll give her another shot with the hitch. If that doesn’t work, I’ll try and close her out with a wet.” He begins the countdown. The speed of the current marks the passage of time. His timepiece has become a distraction, a symbol of all that he wishes to forget. As he folds into river time, he begins to sense, or thinks that he is beginning to sense, the mood of this particular salmon. Whether correct or not, he is open to the possibility of that understanding—a necessary step in the evolution of an angler.

His subsequent overtures with the hitched fly and finally with a standard wet fly are rebuffed. The salmon is content to hunker down in the walled confines of her redoubt. Her curiosity for creatures swimming across the uppermost reaches of her territory is quenched for now. She plays a long game, one that ensures the future of her species. This brief game of cat-and-mouse has lost its momentary appeal. Sensing this change in the demeanor of the salmon, the angler quietly reels in his line, affixes his fly to the smaller of the two stripping guides on his rod, runs the line around the outside of his reel, and reels up tight.

“Mind if I give her a try?” says a strangely disembodied voice to the angler as he extricates himself from the minefield that is the tailout of the pool. “By all means,” replies the angler. “I can’t give it to her any better than that. She’s all yours.” They pass each other on the diagonal trail leading up to the overlook — the first shift clocking out, the second shift clocking in. They exchange positions. The onlooker sees every player in the drama.

The first angler finds this role more interesting than actual fishing.

Before he enters the water, the second angler removes the floating tip from his fly line and attaches a 12-foot length of the fastest-sinking line manufactured by the fly-fishing industrial complex. He affixes a short three-foot leader to the end of the fly line and ties on an articulated black-and-purple leech with heavily weighted eyes. He wades into position and assesses the depth of water as well as the speed of the current in front of him. He casts across and slightly upstream, landing his fly with an upstream reach of his rod to allow his fly to sink. When his fly achieves the proper depth, he flips a small downstream mend in the floating portion of the line in order to swing the fly a few inches in front of the nose of the salmon.

The reaction of the salmon to this outsized invader is immediate and emphatic. She leaves her lie and swims to the head of the diminutive pool with two quick thrusts of her tail. The first angler, now the spotter, is unable to determine if the salmon is angry or simply spooked. He settles on the latter. “Anything?” says the man in the water.

“Oh, she saw it alright,” is the reply. “Give her a moment. She moved out of her lie. I’ll let you know when she’s settled back in.” Thirty seconds later he says, “O.K., give it to her again.”

The angler makes the same cast again. The fly sinks to the same depth and begins its slow and steady swing across the pool. When the fly is directly in front of the salmon, she pounces on the fly with the practiced reflexes of a consummate predator. The movement is so fast that the man on top of the cliff does not see the salmon move. One moment she is in her lie, and the next moment she has the fly in her mouth. “She ate it!” he cries. The angler slowly lifts his rod until he feels the weight of the fish.

The salmon shakes her head for a few seconds as if she is unsure what she has just done. She responded to the fly out of a territorial imperative just as a human responds to another human who intentionally invades the two-foot bubble that is the accepted social distance in western society. The salmon quickly realizes that she has made a mistake. She swims for the surface and leaps clear of the water to shed the intruder clinging to the corner of her mouth. The jump fails to get rid of the irritant, so she retreats to the deepest part of the pool.

The angler lowers his rod when the salmon is in the air to avoid dislodging the hook should the salmon land on a tight line. He moves closer to the salmon when she seeks refuge in deeper water in order to keep his line and leader out of the rocks and to exert upward pressure on the head of the salmon to prevent her from grinding out the hook in the rocks. He tightens his drag to stop her from spilling into the rapids below the tail of the pool. He will either land this salmon here or the hook will pull out. He will not follow her through the rapids.

The angler exerts maximum pressure on the salmon by pointing his rod at the fish and fighting the fish from the powerful butt of the rod. After a tug-of-war lasting no more than three minutes, he coerces the salmon out of the pocket where she has made her stand and into shallow water. He expertly tails her on his first attempt and quickly removes the barbless hook. He notices two hook scars—one on either side of her mouth—in addition to the newly formed wound in the corner of her jaw. The salmon has been caught three times on her journey to the spawning grounds.

His angling partner scrambles down the path from his perch with his iPhone in hand. He wades out to the angler cradling his catch, kneels in the water and prepares to record the moment. The angler lifts the salmon from the water and the photographer takes several photos of the salmon, the best of which he will upload to Instagram once he reaches a secure Wi-Fi connection. He is careful to photograph the salmon in such a way that the image will not betray the precise location of the pool.

The angler releases the salmon. She remains in shallow water at their feet, her gills working continuously as she processes the lactic acid in her bloodstream. The process will take several hours. The anglers admire her streamlined form, the subtle delineation of colors above and below the lateral line, and the small black crosses on her side that are unique to each salmon. As the salmon slowly swims to her resting place, the two men exchange high fives and fist bumps.

Robert Pashley, the Wizard of the Wye, caught more than 10,000 Atlantic salmon from 1906 to 1951. Pashley landed 678 salmon in 1936, fishing the Wye primarily on the Goodrich and Hill Court beats. In 2002, the total catch by all anglers on the Wye was 357 salmon.

Modern tackle designed to swing the fly has improved in direct proportion to the decline of available salmon and steelhead. As global numbers of sea-run fish continue their free-fall, our tackle just keeps getting better and better. We have exchanged fish in relative abundance for relentlessly superior tackle. In the first half of the twentieth century, anglers in the U.K recorded stunning catches of Atlantic salmon while fishing relatively rudimentary tackle by modern standards. Robert Pashley, the Wizard of the Wye, caught more than 10,000 Atlantic salmon from 1906 to 1951. Pashley landed 678 salmon in 1936, fishing the Wye primarily on the Goodrich and Hill Court beats. In 2002, the total catch by all anglers on the Wye was 357 salmon.

Idaho Fish & Game estimates that 40,000 wild B-run steelhead entered the Clearwater River as recently as the 1960s. In 2017, the estimated return of wild B-run steelhead to the Clearwater River was less than 400—a decline of 99.9 percent. Ted Trueblood is the most famous angler to have fished the Clearwater in this earlier era. I’m not sure what tackle Trueblood preferred when fishing the Clearwater—perhaps a Fenwick fiberglass single-handed rod and a Pflueger Medalist reel—but his success was clearly linked to numbers of fish in the river as opposed to superior tackle by the standards of today. The Clearwater is large river. The odds of putting a fly in front of a single wild B-run steelhead when there are less than 400 of them in the river are considerably better with the latest 15- or 16-foot graphite rod and a long-belly fly line designed by tournament casters in Scotland.

We could blame the hot pursuit of diminishing returns on testosterone. The defining male hormone, testosterone is a central player in aggression, dominance, competitiveness and even self-esteem. As testosterone is non-discriminatory and an equal-opportunity employer, women also feature testosterone though in smaller doses. Without testosterone, there would be no sex drive, theoretically little or no procreation outside of test tubes, no male pattern baldness and no NFL football on Sundays. Most males could do without receding hairlines, but the rest of the list is not going away anytime soon. After all, having sex is almost as much fun as hooking salmon and steelhead, and positive Nielsen ratings demonstrate that millions of viewers like to watch outsized human specimens running into each other at full speed. 

Testosterone, however, does not tell the whole story. Testosterone can explain a wide variety of aggressive or competitive behaviors on the river (intentional low-holing, pool hogging, early rising, etc.), but it does not explain our pursuit of a species to its virtual or actual extinction. Consider the woolly mammoth and the mastodon. Both populations of pachyderms were adversely affected by a warming climate at the end of the Pleistocene age (roughly 11,000 years ago). The arrival of Paleo hominids, however, coincided with the relatively rapid demise of both mammoths and mastodons. The combination of habitat loss from climate change and overhunting by subsistence hunters likely caused the extirpation of North and South America’s only Proboscideans.

If this refrain sounds familiar, consider the American bison or buffalo. An estimated 30 to 60 million bison roamed the Great Plains of North America before the westward migration of settlers. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the population of wild bison in the United States numbered 325 animals in 1884. Their catastrophic decline is pinned on habitat loss but primarily on the voracious appetite of market hunters who received up to $3.00 per hide. It took approximately 75 years to reduce the population of American bison from at least 30 million individuals to a scattered population of 325 animals. It took less than 60 years to reduce the population of Clearwater B-run steelhead from an estimated population of 40,000 to less than 400. We’ve clearly not lost our touch.

The insatiable urge to hunt or kill the last remaining specimens of a population is a riddle wrapped within an enigma. It makes little sense to hunt an animal to extinction and to eradicate a food source on which the hunter relies for his very survival. It is madness of the first order. Chimpanzees, who share upwards of 98 percent of our DNA, exhibit what Jane Goodall calls “hunting crazes,” during which they hunt and kill large numbers of red colobus monkeys and other prey. The explanation for this binge behavior is elusive. An element of this behavior is related to nutrition. Female chimpanzees who are sexually receptive and who receive meat from male chimpanzees demonstrate higher reproductive rates. The timely and targeted delivery of meat to sexually receptive females means more chimpanzee toddlers.

Nutritional needs, however, do not explain the sum total of predatory behavior by wild chimpanzees. The yield from a successful hunt for red colobus monkeys may not satisfy the nutritional requirements of all chimpanzees within a community. Researchers have surmised that there is a valuable social component to these “hunting crazes” or binges. The meat derived from the hunt is a commodity that can be traded for sexual favors with female chimpanzees or to elevate the status of male chimpanzees within an alliance. The effects of predation on red colobus monkeys by chimpanzees can be devastating. Researchers have observed that a hunting party of chimpanzees can decimate a group of red colobus monkeys within minutes.  

A “hunting craze” or a “killing frenzy” appears to be what certain apex predators do. A wolf or a mountain lion may kill every sheep within an enclosure. Market hunters shot American bison for the hide and tongue, leaving the rest of the carcass to rot. Commercial hunters reduced the population of passenger pigeons from an estimated population of 5 billion in 1850 to a solitary individual named “Martha” in 1912. The heath hen, the Labrador duck, the Carolina parakeet and the great auk suffered similarly expeditious and final ends due to over-predation by humans. The modus operandi in each of these scenarios seems to be “kill everything in sight and ask questions later.” As a long-term strategy for species management, it leaves something to be desired.

The common theme for each of these “hunting crazes” or “killing frenzies” appears to be tactics (group hunting by chimpanzees), artificial constructs (an enclosure preventing escaped prey) or technological advancements (rifles and shotguns) that permit an apex predator to kill with few if any limitations. In each case, the instinct to kill appears to be so well developed that there is no “off switch.” The killing stops only when the prey species is eliminated or the population declines to a level where it can no longer sustain itself. When the success rate for a hunt dips below five or even 10 percent, apex predators generally seek alternative forms of prey.

As a method for catching salmon and steelhead, fly fishing is not particularly effective. Affixing feathers and hair to a hook and launching it with a length of string into a large river in pursuit of a fish that is not feeding contains all the ingredients for a fool’s errand. Try crowdfunding that idea and see how far you get. If you really want to catch a salmon or a steelhead, spread a gill net completely across the river. Deadly and effective, a gill net is a tried and true instrument of capture. If you’d like to get rid of those pesky salmon and steelhead once and for all, build a dam (or in the case of the Lower Snake River, build four dams). Dams, particularly those that lack adequate fish passage, stop a sea-run fish in its tracks. If you want catch or kill the last salmon, a gill net or a dam gets it done in a hurry.   

Fly fishing for salmon and steelhead is not particularly easy. If it were easy, I’m guessing you and I would not participate. It’s like tennis—another sport that is not particularly easy. We practice our backhand, work on our second serve, and increase our agility and fitness. As we improve, we derive greater and greater satisfaction from our emerging skills. We might even take a set from a player who previously wiped us off the court.  Alternatively, and in contrast to the earlier use of the gill net, we could lower the net in tennis by six inches, making it easier to keep the ball in play. If the net is still too high, we could dispense with the net altogether. Tennis is now easy, but, one could argue, it is no longer tennis. Tennis requires a net. Fly fishing for salmon and steelhead requires a rod, a reel, a line, a leader and fly, and a modicum of casting and fishing skills. Lacking these, it is no longer fly fishing for salmon and steelhead, but something else entirely.

As we cast our relentlessly superior rods and apply our methodical array of fly lines in search of ever diminishing runs of silver and steel, many of us enjoy the sport more than we ever have. The specter of a “threatened” designation for our preferred gamefish or a closed fishery has perhaps sweetened the experience of each moment on the river. “How many fish do we need in the river?” is a question that is sure to invoke a variety of responses. My vote would be for a return to previous abundance, but I realize it’s not likely to happen in my lifetime. Instead, I settle for numbers that are not in decline. If the average run size over a period of five years increases even slightly, I count my blessings. For others who fish rivers where salmon or steelhead are in steep decline, the answer to this question may be very different. The question again is, “How many fish do we need in the river?” In a worst-case scenario, the answer is, “We need enough fish in the river so that they don’t close the fishery, and I can still practice my Spey casting with everybody thinking I’m fishing.”

I sometimes feel as if Angler #1 (Dry Fly Guy) is perched on my left shoulder and Angler #2 (Bottom Ranger) sits on my right shoulder. Angler #1 whispers quietly in my left ear, “Dry or die!” Angler #2 mumbles simultaneously into my right ear, “Go deep or go home!” These two approaches to the swung fly are not mutually exclusive, but they do require the fish to react differently to each presentation.

Most anglers practice catch-and-release fishing for wild salmon and steelhead. There are fisheries, some of them stable and self-sustaining, where catch-and-kill is an acceptable practice. In other fisheries, particularly in the world of Atlantic salmon, anglers continue to kill salmon in spite of overwhelming evidence that wild Atlantic salmon are in steep decline throughout their range. Anglers who continue to kill salmon — “harvest” is the term preferred by those who do the actual killing — generally state that they simply “want one fish for the pot.” When the number of angler days on a given river exceeds the size of the run, we have a problem. If every angler takes “one for the pot,” there are not enough fish left over to spawn. Salmon are wondrous creatures, but they can’t spawn if they reside in someone’s freezer.

Even the practice of catch-and-release may be inappropriate for some of today’s hammered fisheries. In the fishing scenario described at the beginning of this article, the angler lands a salmon that has been caught on two other occasions during its journey to the spawning grounds. There is considerable evidence that catching a salmon or a steelhead multiple times adversely affects its capacity to spawn. As recreational anglers, we presumably have a meal waiting for us at the end of the day, whether or not we catch a fish. We do not fish for subsistence, rather for enjoyment. We are trying to have a good time, to enjoy ourselves. Salmon and steelhead, on the other hand, are trying to make a living. It is quite literally spawn or perish. If our desire to have a good time affects their ability to procreate, then we compromise the reproductive future of the fishery and, by default, we kill our own sport.   

I don’t have a clear-cut answer for this conundrum. Returning to the angling scenario at the beginning of the article, I sometimes feel as if Angler #1 (Dry Fly Guy) is perched on my left shoulder and Angler #2 (Bottom Ranger) sits on my right shoulder. Angler #1 whispers quietly in my left ear, “Dry or die!” Angler #2 mumbles simultaneously into my right ear, “Go deep or go home!” These two approaches to the swung fly are not mutually exclusive, but they do require the fish to react differently to each presentation.

The first scenario requires the salmon to move to the fly. The salmon may react to the dry fly or to the hitched fly as she reacted to the thousands of insects that she consumed as a parr. If the angler un-hitches the fly and fishes a traditional wet-fly swing or a greased-line presentation, the salmon may simply react as any apex predator reacts to escaping prey: kill it first, ask questions later. The common denominator for all four presentations in the first scenario is that the salmon moves to the fly of her own volition.

The second scenario requires a very different reaction from the salmon. By selecting a weighted fly and a fast sinking tip, the angler has decided, unconsciously or not, to force the hand of the salmon. The weighted fly invades the immediate territory of the salmon, forcing her to either get out of the way or to kill the unwanted intruder. There is a fine line between fishing and harassment. If an angler “force feeds” a salmon by repeatably  running a fly in front of her nose, I believe that he is engaging in the latter. His desire to catch a salmon is now so all-consuming that he risks falling prey to one of the “hunting crazes” that Jane Goodall describes with the chimpanzees of Gombe National Park in Africa.

Where my own fishing is concerned, I prefer to entice. If the salmon in the first scenario, already caught twice, decides not to eat a third fly, that is alright by me. I have given her a choice. If she has enough energy to take a well-presented fly near the surface, then hopefully her fitness levels are sufficiently sound so that angling will not affect her reproductive success. If a fish rises to my dry fly and boils twice to a hitched wet fly (as happened to the first angler), I’ve had a lot of action. The tug may be drug, but the anticipation for the next cast after a rise to my fly is a big part of why I fish. I’ve had plenty of good days where I moved a bunch of fish, but never actually hooked up. I’d rather coax several fish to come up and take a good look at my fly as opposed to force feeding even one salmon.

I have several friends who are expert tarpon fishermen. They prefer to “jump” tarpon—they break off the fish after one or two jumps—in order to short circuit the sometimes lengthy process of landing a tarpon or to reduce the risk of death by hammerhead or bull shark. It seems like a square deal. The tarpon ingests a small item of food, which bites back and proves to be singularly strong out of all proportion to its diminutive size. The tarpon jumps twice, removes the irritant, and continues on its migration. The angler reels up, ties on a new leader and fly, and hopefully writes to his congressman or congresswoman to advocate for his favorite fish.

We may get there with salmon and steelhead. In the last two seasons, I’ve fished sporadically with no hook point on my flies. I remove the bend of the hook with a set of pliers and fish the fly tied on only the shank of the hook. I employ the same technique with tube flies, leaving just enough bend in the hook to prevent the tube fly from sliding off the end of the leader. I don’t fish this way all the time. If the river is high and cold, I fish with standard hooks. If the level of the river is low or the temperature of the water reaches a point where playing and landing a salmon may prove lethal, I consider a hookless fly or simply reel up for the day. I’ve also fished a hookless fly when salmon parr are especially active. I don’t like catching juvenile salmon even on barbless hooks. Most parr survive the encounter with little problem. Some parr, however, are fatally injured. Salmon parr may be one to two years of age at the southern end of their natural range and as mature as five or six years old at the northern end of the range. A salmon iron through the brain or eye of a parr can instantly undo several years of growth.

Some of my friends find my experimenting with hookless flies to be, well, “pointless” in the extreme. To each his own, I say. I aim to be part of the solution as opposed to being part of the problem. Fishing a hookless fly beats not fishing at all. When a salmon takes my hookless fly fished on a floating line, I see a large boil on the surface and receive a tug just as if I were fishing the real thing. Most of the time, that’s all I need. A friend of mine uses hookless flies for salmon when the action gets really hot and heavy. He simply can’t be bothered to land them. The tug for him is quite clearly the drug. Fishing for salmon and steelhead may be more expensive than a cocaine habit, but it’s a lot better for you.

Lee Wulff, an early proponent of catch-and-release fishing, said that salmon deserve the sanctuary of deep water.

I’ve fished on rivers where the number of salmon caught during a season exceeded the run size. That statistic is possible only when a percentage of the run is caught more than once. As a working definition of the term “hammered fishery,” it will do. When the number of angler days on a river exceeds the total run size by a multiple of two, three and even four, we have a similar problem. Our ability to mine for silver has exceeded the capacity of the seemingly infinite vein. Unlike the Comstock Lode, salmon and steelhead replenish themselves when left to their own devices. Don’t spread a net across the river, don’t build a dam, and allow them free and relatively unfettered access between their spawning grounds and the sea. It’s not management, unless you view “just get out of the way” or “first do no harm” as the Hippocratic Oath of fisheries managers.

Lee Wulff, an early proponent of catch-and-release fishing, said that salmon deserve the sanctuary of deep water. Salmon and steelhead deserve that sanctuary and much more. The decision to fish for salmon and steelhead is a conscious act. We choose to fish. I’m pretty sure that we can hunt down the last salmon or the last steelhead. It’s what we do, after all, and do very well. No other species has ever done it better. The question is not whether or not salmon and steelhead can withstand warming rivers, the Blob off the coast of British Columbia or the black hole that is the North Atlantic ocean. The question is whether or not salmon and steelhead can survive us.

Topher Browne wrote Atlantic Salmon Magic (Wild River Press, 2011) and 100 Best Flies for Atlantic Salmon. He has guided professionally for Atlantic salmon and co-produced the spey-casting DVD Spey to Z. He lives in Maine, where he is currently working on a new book.