This section is from the book "American Game Fishes", by W. A. Perry. Also available from Amazon: American Game Fishes: Their Habits, Habitat, and Peculiarities; How, When, and Where to Angle for Them.
The number of expert Salmon anglers in this or any other country is small, possibly because their experience is often confined to a single river, or to rivers of the same temper.
Rivers are as different as horses. Some are wild, impetuous, and untamable; others restive as an Arabian courser. Some plod like a plow-horse, and others buck like a broncho or kick like a mule. Some dash to the sea in a straight-away course, with scarcely a break, and others wind with a sinuous and solemn monotony, like blind cobs in a tread-mill. Some are like circus horses, cavorting in many an eddy, and flying leap, and others tumble and plunge like colts at the hurdles. Some have breadth, and depth, and sweep, while others are pent-up, curbed, and narrow, churned into constant lather and foam. In some rivers the pools are frequent and spacious, open to the sunlight, -and glinting with bright, pebbly bottoms; in others they are short, angry, and broken, filled with debris and bowlders. Some are overhung by protruding branches and thickets, while others flow under the gloomy shadows of jutting cliffs. There is no end to the composition and phases of rivers, and, consequently, no end to the artifices and methods of the angler. It is this complexity which makes the study and practice of Salmon angling a superlative art, and of all piscatorial accomplishments the most difficult to learn and master. As in human nature, it is difficult to diagnose or interpret one face, type, or character by another, so it is equally difficult to predicate the disposition of one river by the idiosyncrasies of another.
The methods of a hooked Salmon in a quiet pool of a placid river are so simple and so uniform, that the angler goes through the process of subduing his fish and bringing him to gaff, in about the same perfunctory way that Gleason or Rarey would quiet a horse that was skittish, but not vicious. The ambitious novice can learn them as easily as he can the fundamental rules in arithmetic. In what the Scotchmen call a "wicked" river, the task is more delicate and exacting, requiring much strategic ability, as well as physical endurance. There is a great deal of personal risk, too, where often a false step or a stumble when wading might cost the angler his life, by pitching him into a rapid as tumultuous as that of Niagara. On such a river one can never count on killing his fish until he has him on the bank, stiff.
Such rivers try the angler's mettle as well as his science. Tactics of the drill-master fail here. Instinct becomes a better prompter than a "rule of three." Expedients are suggested by emergencies, both to the Salmon and his captor, in marvelously rapid succession. The hooked fish, after his momentary fright on getting fast, collects his senses, and like the chased deer and fox, devises stratagems on the jump. You have no time to dally. Playing your fish becomes a desperate struggle, like a Spartan bout.
You must kill your fish on short line with rod bent double, or have him break away. You must drop your rod-tip when he vaults clear of the water, and "slue" him off from dangerous places when he gathers headway. You summon the forces of the current to your aid in accelerating a favorable momentum, and you counteract them when the influence is adverse. If the Salmon once gets out of the pool into the raceway of the impetuous lower stream, there is nothing to do but follow him down the bank and over the slippery rocks, into the water and out of the water, shoe-deep or waist-deep, lifting your line over obstructing bowlders in the channel, watching out for projecting ledges or branches of trees, keeping your weather-eye always on the fish and looking ahead for the best footing, holding your rod up and never allowing slack, even though you stumble full length over the rocks; not minding thumps or bruises, but keeping your wind and saving your fish, no matter if you break your neck. And you keep this up an hour, perhaps, giving as little line as possible, until finally you are so limp and blown that you couldn't puff out a candle with your breath, and in bodily condition much like the Salmon, your opponent, which by this time has haply turned up his silvery side at the foot of the rapid, convenient for the clip of your exultant and admiring gaffer.
Your attendant is an almost indispensable factor. He must be mentor as well as assistant. In fact, he ought to be as intelligent and experienced as his master. He is not there merely to basket the fish and tote them. He should have sense when to advise his companion, and when to refrain; and above all things he should be cool and self-possessed. He is able to perceive from lateral points of observation what the man with the rod cannot see, and thus often to anticipate the intentions of the fish, and head them off. He is to clear away bushes which interpose, and rocks which impede the passage along the bank; he is to take the rod betimes into his own hands while the angler gains a better foothold or more advantageous position, to steady him by the shoulders in difficult places, to help him by the hand and steer him, as a policeman guides a lady or a cripple through the intricacies of a thronging thoroughfare; and worse than an idiot would be the bumptious dolt who would spurn this timely counsel.
Furthermore: The gaffer should select the landing-place in advance, if the fish is to be gaffed from the shore, as is usually done, even when fishing from a boat, and wade well out, say to the depth of his knees, so that by any chance the fish may not flounder loose by striking the bottom in too shallow water. Then the man with the rod should lead his captive, as best he may, up to the gaffer, so that he can strike it. Never be in a hurry; a slip of the foot on the river bottom may cost another hour's hard work with the rod. Put the gaff into the water as quietly as possible, and unobserved of the fish, to the depth of fourteen inches or so, and make the clip upward and inward, endeavoring to fix the point abaft the shoulders, which is the center of gravity. If hooked elsewhere, the fish gets a big leverage with head or tail, and will make a ghastly rent in his body, if indeed he does not flop off the hook altogether. Never strike a fish in the belly. There is nothing more unsightly than a great gaping wound, especially if the entrails protrude. A gaff should not have its point reversed, or turned inward, as we find them at most of the tackle-shops. The point should be parallel with the shank, so that the line of draft at the point may be parallel with the line of draft on the shank and gaff handle. The hook need not exceed two and a half inches in the width of the bend between shank and point. A four-foot handle is the correct length. Jointed handles are convenient to carry, but are objectionable on account of a possibility of their telescoping or slipping at critical moments.