Saving Salar Supreme

by Louis Bignami
Atlantic Salmon need our help

Picky piscatorial pundits should know it's the Restigouche River, but the Ristigouche Club.

Nothing would be as pathetic as a record for a species that is now extinct. Who would want to mount the last passenger pigeon, largemouth or striped bass? Of all the major game fish caught in freshwater, the Atlantic salmon came closest to extinction. Such would be a disaster, for no other fish offers such a combination of size and speed, of delicate take of tiny flies and giant's jumps, of superb spirit and magical mystique. Salar's unique ambiance was even recognized by cave men; a digging in the mountains of France turned up a prehistoric carving of a salmon that dated back to 12,000 B.C. Salar is special. Only the steelhead of the Pacific come close to its value as a sporting fish.

Today, thanks to the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the general realization of the value of this superb species, Salar is coming back on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. This shows fishermen can push government to save threatened species. This realization may, in the long term, be much more important than who holds what record.

Historic Records

The listed all-tackle Atlantic Salmon record was set by Hennrik Henriksen on the Tana River in Norway back in 1928. Henriksen took his 79-pound 2-ounce fish either on a prawn or by trolling -- it seems unclear. Fly rod record salmon run nearly as large because, over most of its range and much of its history, salmon have been a flyrod fish caught by wealthy fishermen able to pay for increasingly expensive sport. Back in July of 1921, Nicholas Denissoff, took a 56 and 74 pound fish from the Saro River on the same morning -- some morning!

The larger fish was the biggest ever taken on a fly rod. According to Charles Ritz, the world-famous hotelier and fly caster, "Denissoff was quite reliable as well as one of the few Russians smart enough to leave the country before the Bolsheviks with rather a large fortune."

An even bigger fish, a 103-pound, 2-ounce salmon was reportedly "captured," probably with a net by poachers either on the river Devon or the Forth in Scotland -- accounts vary. Several other large Atlantic salmon were caught in Europe. One of the most famous records was the 64 pound fish caught by Miss G. W. Ballantine on a spinning dace minnow bait in 1922. She fought it from the Boat Pool on the river Tay a half-mile downstream and landed it after a fight that went nearly two hours.

These records are moot in the Western Hemisphere today. The biggest mounted fish is probably the 55-pound Atlantic Salmon caught with a Lady Amherst fly by Esmond B. Martin on the Grand Casapedia on June 27, 1939. This fish is in the American Museum of Natural History, and it stretched 49 3/4 inches long and 30 1/8 inches in girth.

However, you can't keep large salmon under existing regulations. So all the IGFA line class records, save 2- and 4-pound test, come from Europe. Neither states nor provinces allow fishermen to keep large salmon; most require flies only. So what big fish are kept are captured in Iceland, Norway, Scotland and other European countries.

Ambassador J. Graham Parsons with a 57 pound salmon from the Vosso River, Norway.

PHOTO: ATLANTIC SALMON FEDERATION

In Europe the salmon rivers have always been a tightly-held monopoly by landowners and the very rich who lease fishing rights. Good beats in Europe can run $3,000 a week or more per fisherman. So Europeans have taken wonderful care of their fishery, and some of the largest Atlantic salmon ever ascend streams in the Iceland, the British Isles, Norway and other Scandinavian countries. European salmon historically made their spawning runs into rivers from the Arctic Circle throughout the Baltic all the way down to Portugal. Since then, the French and Germans have trashed their rivers so their salmon are rare.

Western Hemisphere Atlantic Salmon

In the United States salmon fishing is more democratic, if mostly catch and release by specialists who love salar. Ever so slowly the fishery extends south back to its historic range from Canada down to Long Island. Most of the New England rivers lost their salmon when dams barred salmon runs during the industrial revolution, and logging removed shading trees so water temperatures rose so high that eggs could not hatch.

Today the New England branch of the Atlantic Salmon Federation has moved local, state and federal agencies to provide fish ladders and such. Dams are starting to come down. Water quality gradually improves. So runs now extend in some waters as far south as the Connecticut River. Much more help is needed.

In Canada, salmon fishing runs from Ungava Bay in Northern Quebec down through the Maritime Provinces where salmon rivers with wonderful names like the Restigouche, Matapedia or Grand Cascapedia have long been regulated by lease and governmental decree. Fees on private water aren't low. Four rods might pay $4,000 to $4,800 for three days on the water with a lodge stay and guides. Fortunately, there is "open water" in most parts of Canada where fishing is available for a small fee.

Only about 1984, when salmon stocks reached a historic low, did Canada announce a plan to ". . . reestablish the vitality of a magnificent and important species." This plan included restrictions on commercial license allocations, gear restrictions (fly fishing only, for example), season reductions, by-catch limitations (these set seasonal limits), and license buy-back programs for the commercial fishermen. There were river closures and some closures of Newfoundland's Zone 12 and Maritime province commercial fisheries.

Modern Records

Because of these changed regulations, modern "records" of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, if not the IGFA, use a formula on released fish that results in a fairly accurate weight determination and saves those 800 salmon eggs per pound of body weight needed to insure the continuation of the fishery.

The usual formula is the length of the fish times the square of its girth, divided by 800. Under that formula, the current record for the largest Atlantic salmon ever taken in North American by a fly rod was set on June 23, 1990 by Ken Jamieson, a Houston resident. Mr. Jamieson, a long-time member of the Ristigouche Club caught a male salmon that was 68 1/2-inches long with a 29-inch girth. Jamieson was fly fishing with guide, Charlie Adams of Matapedia, Quebec, who has been with the Ristigouche Club for "only" 14-years -- the club has been there since 1880! 

Mr. Jameison hooked his fish on a #4 Silver Rat fly about 6 P.M. in the main pool by the club. He played it for well over an hour and a quarter before Adams could tail the fish -- Atlantic salmon have a conveniently small tail and handling them at this end insures better survival on release. Jameison said, "It was the biggest fish I'd ever seen. Although, understandably, in the thrill of the moment I pictured it as a trophy fish, I was happy to serve the conservation cause and release the magnificent animal."

Jameison took the fish on a 9-weight Orvis Boron-graphite outfit with a 15-pound tippet. It was kept in the water while being measured and photographed before the fish was carefully released and continued its journey to upstream spawning beds. Under the usual formula the fish would weight 72.01 pounds. This would fall just below Denissoff's fly-caught record.

However, and these kinds of problems are one reason IGFA won't go with the formula approach, Lee Straight, Director and Past-president of the Steelhead Society of British Columbia, suggests "a better formula would suggest Jamieson's fish really weighed more." Mr. Straight feels that steelhead conformation is much like that of Atlantic salmon. He notes that members of the Steelhead Society of British Columbia have much experience weighing big steelhead and salmon. Mr. Straight recommends the "tried and true British 'Sturdy Formula' which is four-thirds (1.33333) times the length of the fish times the square of its girth, all divided by 1,000." According to this formula Jamieson's catch really weighed 76.8-pounds. With this formula Jamieson's salmon would be the largest ever taken on a fly!

 Salar's Future

Fish like Jamieson's show that existing treaty provisions on the off-shore catch of Atlantic salmon, and strict freshwater restrictions have started the fishery on its way to recovery. More work is needed. To see why this is an international problem, it's useful to see the Atlantic salmon life cycle. This starts with breeders running up into streams. Where dams are a problem either fish ladders or elevators are essential. So are adequate gravel spawning beds and decent water quality. Since females produce eggs about 800 per pound of body weight, regulations now in place to protect large fish that are usually females are essential.

As the salon eggs hatch the fry or "alevins" need adequate river flows and temperatures - stagnant or warm water reduces survival rate. At this point the fry develop markings much like trout and become parr. This is a reason why "trout" fishing must be curtailed or "single barbless hooks, catch and release" on salmon rivers. Parr live in fresh water for two to six years.

Then they migrate downstream when they are about 5 to 7 inches long. As tidewater nears, parr lose their markings and become bright silver smolts.

In the ocean smolts start to grow fast in the nutrient-rich waters off Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island where they winter during their first year in the ocean. Then as ocean waters cool, salmon now run back into their wintering areas off the Grand Bank. With warming waters, salmon head north along the Hamilton, Nain and Sglek Banks of Labrador or swim toward western Greenland, before returning to their wintering grounds. On their third summer than head unerringly back toward natal streams. European species follow a similar pattern.

The 1/2-pound to 7-pound "grilse" are exceptions to this pattern. They return to natal streams after their first year. Only grilse are kept in the Western Hemisphere by sport fishermen. Some grilse, like some main third summer returnees, survive spawning and go back to sea to return another year. Such fish are never as large as the huge fish that may live in the ocean for three, four or even five years before spawning.

The reason for the variation in time at sea for Atlantic salmon, and other sea run fish like Chinook salmon or steelhead, is simple. By staggering the number of years fish stay at sea before they return, nature "restocks" rivers on years when natural disasters like drought or even a Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption might wipe out an age class.

Because of the international migrations of salmon, the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization was formed in 1983 to set quotas to maintain stocks. In large part this has resulted in lower commercial quotas off Newfoundland and Greenland and a prohibition of fishing outside the 200-mile limit. Unfortunately there have been some "salmon pirates" in action around Iceland and in other areas. When advised of the problem on ships flying their flag, both the Poles and Danes stopped this illegal fishing. Panama should be next.

One way around this problem is to cease commercial fishing. Orri Vigfusson, an Icelander, is now trying to buy out the commercial fisheries in Greenland and the Faroe Islands. This would mean an additional 500,000 Atlantic salmon -- half for North American Waters, half for Europe -- would reach their natal rivers.

Canada has also done much rethinking about commercial fishing. It became obvious that the recreational use of salmon brings more money into maritime provinces than the commercial catch. For example, a recent study showed that, in 1988 commercial landings of Atlantic Salmon were valued at less that $4 million (Canadian) and the value of the recreational fishing in Newfoundland was about $20 million. Of the recreational fishing development in British Columbia, Ontario and New Brunswick, the study concludes "a high level of economic development based on recreational fishing activity can be built and sustained by a properly managed fish resource." Another study showed that a commercially-caught salmon was valued at less than $20 in 1988, but an angled salmon's value exceeded $170 each.

The problem, as with other species, is that commercial fishermen do not want to lose their traditional lifestyles, even if they are paid not to fish. This understandable difficulty seems difficult to overcome. It is gradually falling into place as, with reduced stocks of salmon, the fishery becomes marginally cost effective for commercial fishermen.

However, readers should know organizations like the Atlantic Salmon Federation do a lot more than give banquets and contribute money. They can pressure politicians. They can insist that existing laws about water quality and river flows are enforced. Perhaps most important, by their efforts they let everyone know that fishermen are watching. For information on the Atlantic Salmon Federation contact them at P.O. Box 807 Calais, ME 04619, U.S.A.