Outdoors: King of gamefish poised for comeback?

Here in the Florida Keys, many hard core fly fishermen regard the bonefish as the king of gamefish. Although I have yet to manage a hook up with a fly rod on the vaunted Florida bonefish, I have witnessed others watch their reels sing and wind into the backing with a streaking bone, leaving a contrail across an aqua-colored mangrove flat. An exciting angling experience for sure.

However, having fought a few fresh-run Atlantic salmon on my Sage 9-weight flyrod over the years, no other game fish, not even a “bone” quite measures up, if you ask me. In fact, a memory of my maiden encounter with an Atlantic salmon on a fly rod will always stand out and give new meaning to the word exhilarating.

An 18-pound silvery salmon, laden with eggs and fresh from the sea, caught me by surprise. She was, at the time, fanning in place just downstream behind a big rock on New Brunswick’s Upsalquitch River, not far from where it dumps into the fabled Restigouche River. My guide knew she was there, but he kept it to himself — for a while at least.

“Hey now, Lad,” says he after a while, in that lyrical New Brunswick dialect,”Pit yer flea jist a tad sooth of thet beeg auld rook yender, oki?”

Obliging his request, I delivered the line to the chosen spot. The line swung around with the current, taking the double-hooked Rusty Rat into the foam and down beneath the surface.

“Kay, Lad, thet’ll wirk. Strip, now. Strip…strip…strip.”

“Hookup,” I yelled over the competing roar of the fast flowing Upsalquitch.

The rod, responding to a powerful fish in fast water, began to bend and shudder. The flyline got taut as a fiddler’s bow and extended more and more downriver. The reel wound down like it was driven by a high speed motor.

As an experienced angler, or so I believed, it was the first time in my life that I thought, “Geez, this fish is in charge. I’m not.”

In seconds, the headstrong salmon had my reel into the end of the backing as it raced down river taking line with it like a kite in a hurricane.

“Chase ther feesh, bi. Chase ther feesh,” intoned the guide, waving the stem of his pipe downriver.

I began hopscotching my way down the rock-strewn river bed, all the while trying to reel in backing in between my knee-bruising stumbles on slippery rocks.

In time, the tables turned. The fighting fish tired from the bursts of speed and airborne antics. Working together, the guide and I gently beached the fish, weighed her, and released her to fight another day. As you might imagine, my first encounter with the Atlantic salmon convinced me that this fish is, indeed, the king of gamefish.

Sad to say, Atlantic salmon fishing today is not what it once was. Back in the 1950s, my Dad, the late Harvard Reynolds, fished New Brunswick’s famous Miramichi often during the halcyon days, a few times with the late Ted Williams. The fish and the stories of that era invariably prompt the same question when anglers chat about their sport. “Will we ever see those days again?”

In the face of discouraging population statistics, the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) continues to urge optimism. Occasionally, there are small rays of hope. Interestingly enough, the ASF believes that Maine could be a focus point of Atlantic salmon recovery. ASF writes in part, “(T)he Penobscot … continues to have the single best chance of a healthy U.S. population of Atlantic salmon in the years ahead.”

Anglers who have been there with a fly rod on the Penobscot River when the Atlantic salmon made their runs from the sea, or those who would like to be there one day, will be keeping a close eye on the annual return of the king of gamefish.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is paul@sportingjournal.com and his new book is “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook.”

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