SALMON fishing is the greatest of all the sports, that can be had in fresh water. I say "fresh" water, for I have had no experience of Tarpon fishing, and though the written accounts of it convince me that salmon fishing is a finer sport, I am content to leave any comparison between the two sports to those who know both. I am not sure that we all feel for salmon fishing that intimate affection which we do for some other forms of angling, but the greatness of it as a sport is indisputable, and we admit its supremacy. The attraction of it is found in the largeness of the fish, the size of the rivers, the strength of the stream, and the tremendous uncertainty.
There is exhilaration and excitement and mystery about it, the thought of which hurries us towards any opportunity of angling on a river which is known to hold salmon in any quantity. But we come to be fastidious as we grow older, and though the season of fly fishing for salmon lasts from about the middle of January on some rivers in Scotland to the end of November on the Tweed, we do not look forward to all parts of it with the same eagerness. It is on fresh run spring salmon, that the angler of experience comes to set his heart, and for these, on the rivers of Great Britain generally, the months of March and April are the best season. If I had to choose four weeks in the year for salmon fishing, I should take them from the middle of March till the middle of April. It was once my great good fortune to spend a little time in these months for several successive seasons on one of the best spring rivers in Scotland, and since those days I have made comparatively little account of autumn fishing. The glory of salmon fishing is in the spring. In March the supplies of water are still high, from the rain of the autumn or from lately melted snow, which has soaked into the ground. The rivers are kept full, the salmon can ascend them at will, and can be in their favourite places in the streams; and, unless the season be very exceptional, we can rely upon having enough water for angling.
It is a great moment when, for the first time of the season, one stands by the side of a salmon river in early spring. The heart is full with the prospect of a whole season's sport. It is the beginning of a new angling year, and the feel of the rod, the sound of the reel, the perpetual sight of moving water are all with one again after months of longing and absence. Every stream looks as if it must hold a salmon, and as if the salmon must rise, and one begins to cast trembling with excitement and eagerness. Very delightful are the first few minutes, the supply of hope seems inexhaustible, and one bestows it lavishly upon each cast. If the best part of the first pool is reached and passed without a rise, the angler begins to husband his hope a little, but remains still content, reaching forward in thought to the next pool, where he presently begins with fresh eagerness and confidence.
To me there is nothing in all sport equal to the glory of success in salmon fishing, but the supreme moment is undoubtedly the actual hooking of the fish. However great my expectation and keenness, the feel of the fish when it hooks itself comes upon me with a shock of surprise and delight, and there is a sudden thrill in having to do with the weight and strength of a salmon. A sense of complete achievement and satisfaction is felt merely in the hooking of it. This satisfaction in hooking a salmon remains undiminished as years go on, but I cannot say the same of the actual playing of the fish. I remember being a little disappointed, even with the first salmon which I played on a salmon rod. It so happened that I was, when a boy, particularly unfortunate in salmon fishing. For five years from the time I was fifteen I had a few days' salmon fishing in August or September every year without ever hooking a fish. During all this time I built many castles in the air, and imagined the play of a salmon to be like that of a trout, increased many-fold, not only in strength and endurance, but also in liveliness. Of course it was wrong and unreasonable to expect this combination, and when at last success came, I was struck with what seemed to me a want of quickness in the movements and turns of the salmon. I still feel that want of violent rapidity, and though the play of a fresh run salmon is often very fine, I wish that it was a little less stately. In some of the more rapid rivers of Norway the speed and violence of the salmon seem to be much greater than they can be in the quieter rivers at home, and some day perhaps I may meet with one of those fish, to land which one has to spend hours and travel miles in the struggle after it is hooked. I have never yet had a fish in play on a salmon rod for more than half-an-hour, or landed one more than 200 yards from the place where it was hooked.
The art of fly fishing for salmon bears no relation to any other form of angling with a fly. If it is akin to anything, it is to working a minnow rather than a fly, and the salmon angler must get all analogy with trout fishing out of his head. The most essential points are skill in casting and knowledge of the river. In casting the object of the angler is to throw the fly above and beyond where he hopes the fish are lying, in such a manner that it may be brought by the stream moving in a lively and attractive way within sight of the fish, being gradually swept across to the angler's own bank. To do this successfully the angler must cast not only across but down the stream, and the more down stream the cast can be made the slower will be the pace at which the fly crosses the river, the greater will be the chance of the salmon seeing it, the less will be the chance of its seeing the line, and the more easy it will be for the angler to keep in touch with the fly during the whole time it is in the water. This is why it is so important to be able to throw a long line in salmon fishing, even in a comparatively narrow river: it is desirable not only to reach the whole of the likely water, but to cover it at a proper angle. If the cast is made directly across the stream, the line bags in the middle, and for the first half of the cast the fly has the appearance of a dead thing being towed down stream by a visible cord, instead of something alive being jerked by its own motion in the water. Two things especially should the angler bear in mind when actually casting and managing his fly: the first is that the salmon in fresh water has more curiosity than appetite, that he is not waiting for food, nor expecting it to come to him as he lies in the water. The fly must rouse the attention of the fish, and must do it attractively. It should have the appearance of something trying with difficulty to escape from him, and so perhaps arouse in him the passion of the chase, even when he has no appetite to be appealed to. This is why I think it is important that the fly should cross the stream slowly, but with a lively motion. The second point is that, as salmon lie either at the bottom of the river or not far from it, the fly should be well sunk in the water. To secure this in heavy water it is best not to jerk the fly violently, but to trust the stream to give the motion to the fly; and to use a long and heavy line. The most successful salmon angler, of whom I have ever had any knowledge, always fished with a big rod and a heavy and long line in the spring. I think his fish nearly always took under water, but he caught more than any one else on that river.