Saturday, August 15, 2015

Atlantic Salmon Flies And The Gifts They Give Us

(A little note to readers:  this post started out as a simple description of my favorite flies (Spring, Summer and Fall) for Atlantic Salmon.  As I started going through thousands of photos, and taking new ones, it occurred to me that salmon flies are so much more than inanimate objects to be admired or swung hopefully in the river, seeking a salmon.  Rather, I've come to view them as the keys to the entrance to a world that I would, frankly, be lost without.  I hope can do a good enough job here so that you will see what I mean.)

Don't forget:  You can click on the pics for a enlarged version.

I started fishing for Atlantic Salmon in 1998, at 48 years of age.  I wish it had been much earlier, but what can you do? At that time, I was the executive director of The American Museum of Fly Fishing. AMFF board member Pam Bates and her friend Bob Warren (co-author and editor, respectively, of Fishing Atlantic Salmon - the Flies and the Patterns) felt it important that I broaden my angling horizons and learn about fishing for Atlantics.  I could talk the talk and walk the walk regarding trout fishing, but knew nothing about Atlantic Salmon angling. And I could tie a good enough trout fly...but I'd never even held an up-eye salmon hook in my hands.

Pam and Bob invited me to fish with them for three days in July, 1998 at what was then known as Vin Swayze's Tuckaway Cabins (and now as Bullock's Lodge), on the banks of the Miramichi in Boiestown, New Brunswick.  I had the 8-weight gear I'd need from my bass fishing exploits, but was at a loss for flies.  I mentioned to Gardner Grant, another AMFF board member (and all-around wonderful man, conservationist and philanthropist who, sadly, passed away several years ago) that I was heading to the Miramichi in a few months.  The next time I saw him, he gave me this little fly box:

When he gave it to me, it was loaded with a dozen or so Atlantic Salmon wet flies, all tied by none other than his good friend (and, I hope I am not being presumptuous in saying mine!)  Keith Fulsher (co-author, with Charlie Krom, of Hairwing Atlantic Salmon Flies).  Unfortunately, all that remains of that delightful gift is the box.  But while the box may look empty, it is actually full to the brim with the memories the flies in it afforded me.  That is a gift.

July finally arrived, and I made my way to Boiestown, hooking up with Pam and Bob at Vin's camp.  Our first morning on the river, we were guided by Renate Bullock at her family's Elbow Pool, which was, at that time, leased by Vin Swayze.   The consensus opinion was that the new guy should step into the pool first.  They all looked in my little fly box and agreed I should tie on the Black Bear Green Butt it contained.  I knew nothing about the conventions of proper salmon fishing; Renate just told me to step in, make a couple casts then take a couple steps down the pool and repeat.  Occasionally, I do what I'm told.  So I did just that.  And promptly hooked a nice, lively grilse!  "Nothing to it!" I ridiculously said to Renate.   I can't tell you how many times and in how many ways I've paid for that comment!  Renate captured the moment as we rejoiced over my first atlantic:

That little Fulsher-tied Black Bear Green Butt did more than just hook the grilse that day; it became the first of many flies that acted as keys to doors leading to the world of Atlantic Salmon Fishing for me.

I must not have behaved too badly that year; Pam and Bob invited me back in 1999.  I still wasn't tying salmon flies, but I was in for a treat:  Keith Fulsher and Charlie Krom were also in camp, and they were spending time at the vise:

Including Bob Warren, I was now in camp with three of the best and most knowledgeable salmon fly tyers in the world.  The stuff the dreams of a new salmon angler/tyer are made of!  Great conversations both in camp and out on the river:

L to R (standing):  Bob Warren, Dick Jagodnik, Charlie Krom, Pam Bates
L to R (seated):  Vin Swazey, Keith Fulsher, and the resident lightweight, yours truly

What we all had in common was the atlantic salmon fly.  Without that odd little beast, none of us would have been there, forging friendships and memories.

Over the course of the next several years, I got seriously into salmon fly tying.  You know the drill: bought the books:

 the hooks:

the materials:

and, uh, a few fly boxes to hold all those extremely necessary flies:

Tying equipment-wise, I went from this (a thoughtful gift, in the early '70's, from my friend Barbra):

To this:

And to continue in the spirit of the shameless name-dropping I've started on this post, there's another gentleman that had an influence on my tying: John Betts:

Folks often shake their heads at the artificial flash I add to classic streamers, for example.  It's John's fault.  He was the groundbreaker when it comes to the use of artificial materials in flies.  Hell, Sports Illustrated even did an article on him back in the '70's, I believe it was.  Got it around here somewhere.

In my earliest years of salmon fishing years, I used your standard Orvis 25-pocket mostly-for-trout fishing vest.  Twenty-five pockets.  Must fill them all.  I carried probably 4 Wheatley wet-fly clip boxes, a box for buck bugs (more about them later, if I remember), a box or two for bombers, probably even had one with streamers in it.  And all kinds of other paraphernalia so utterly important to a neophyte's successful completion of his/her mission:  hook atlantic salmon.  I mean, that's why I was there, right?  Hook and land atlantic salmon.  Why else bother with 1,200 mile roundtrips, gas, groceries and beverages?   Regarding the vest: no wonder I have so many back problems.

After a couple years, I hung up the Orvis vest and switched to a Filson strap vest, probably mostly because I thought I looked cooler and more like a salmon fisherman in it.  And it forced me to pare down the boxes and supplies to a dull (aching back) roar.  But it worked!  I only hooked grilse in the Orvis; when I ramped up to the Filson, I started landing salmon!  Less is more, obviously!

These days, I'm down to a little L.L.Bean fanny pack that I usually sling around my shoulder.  A wet-fly Wheatley and a box o' Bombers are all that's in it, plus a few leaders and some tippet.  And pliers to crush barbs with.

Which, finally, brings us to flies (the audience breathed a collective sigh of relief) and why/how I went from 10 or so boxes down to 2... hooking fish in inverse proportion to the number of fly boxes I carry.  Good flies collect fish, friends and memories.  The others are just fly box dressing.  Just carry good flies.  Dump the rest.  Better yet, donate them to your salmon conservation organization of choice to raise funds with.  There, that's the ticket.

Having said all that, here are my good flies, their stories, their friends, our memories:

I enjoy Spring fishing for Atlantics more for the companionship of my friend Vin Swayze than I do for the actual fishing.  I love tooling around in his boat, the FTG, with him.  We don't always troll, but I will tell you that he is the absolute master of maneuvering effectively in the Miramichi's currents.

I'm always very happy to spend some chilly spring air and story telling time with Number One Guide, Renate Bullock.  She has a perpetual smile on her face when she's on the river.

And I am perfectly happy to be out there with just these four flies (I'm biased towards two of them - they're my designs):

The Deep Green Beauty is the first fly I tie on every Spring, and usually the last, too.  If want to see how I tie it, go here:

I love gathering up the materials for this fly:

I've enjoyed great success with it, as I know others have.

Vin and I were fishing one early May morning a ways below the camps in Boiestown, trolling and casting the Deep Green Beauty (DGB).  It was one of those mornings when the fish were really keeping things interesting.  I had hooked and landed seven fish on the same DBG and felt another good tug.  As I got the line on the reel, I told Vin I didn't think it was a very active fish.  As I got the fly near the boat, I thought: chub.   We both cracked up when I got the fly to the boat...I had hooked a really nice little rock.  The fly was pretty beat after 7 fish, and along with the rock looked like a perfect paperweight.  I epoxied the hook into the exact hole it was snagged in.  The rock even kinda looks like a fish head, eh?

You don't see a lot of purple Spring flies, but if you look at many photos of smelts, many of them have kind of a purplish hue to them.  I was dyeing some materials purple for some other project, liked how they were coming out, so I tossed a Whiting American Rooster Cape into the dye bath, and really liked what I came up with.  An acquaintance (and great fly tyer, which is how I came to know him) from Prince Edward Island, Dwayne Miller, had posted a very simple featherwing streamer on Facebook some time prior; just a featherwing and tinsel body.  Looked great, durable and fishy, so I followed his basic design and came up with the Royal Smelt (Royal because of the purple wing and silver and gold tinsels body).  The belly is Hareline's UV Minnow Belly - I love that stuff:

Rounding out my Spring foursome are the Gray Ghost (tied with flash in place of some of the natural materials) :

Dan Bullock made good use of a Gray Ghost back in 2014.  We usually get out together at least once every Spring.  He's the camp manager at Bullock's Lodge, where I'm always pleased to headquarter (

and the venerable Golden Eagle:

The flies of Spring bring me to the river at a great time.  There's no fixed fishing schedule, so I get to catch up with some of the many friends salmon fishing and tying have introduced me to.  Guys like Howie Gould, building his camp down near Blackville.  When Vin retired from the board of the New Brunswick Salmon Council, Howie took his chair.

I'm a strong believer in the thought that there is far more to Spring fishing (or at any other time, for that matter) than the fish.  But I digress; we're talking about flies here, right?  Which brings us to:

I suspect that if you ask one more salmon angler what the best flies for summer atlantic salmon are, you'll get one more completely different answer from the last person you asked.  The one constant, regarding "flies of choice", especially if you read Doug Underhill's weekly report ( ) will be the cursed Green Machine, the fly many of us love to hate.  I have never fished it, never will.  Just one of those quirks some of us carry around.  But enough of that.  Here are the only summer flies I need:

The Cutty Sark:

The Cutty is the creation of my good friend, Bob Warren.  I'm on pretty solid ground when I say that it is, for all intents and purposes, the only fly he fishes when he's on the Miramichi for a couple weeks every July.  It works for him:

And me (on the Northwest several years ago during the Miramichi Salmon Association's Classic fishing event):

Bob is a generous friend.  I believe it was 2012, and Bridget's first trip back to the Miramichi in many years.  Bob hooked a grilse on a Cutty, and handed the rod to her so she could once again enjoy playing an atlantic (she has since been top rod just about every trip since, I'm sort of happy to say).  He netted the fish for her, too:

Tying has become a family affair for the Warrens.  Linda couldn't have a better tutor than Bob.  Tying in camp last year (she could be tying her own creation, the Glenlivet.  Scotch runs in the family!):

She's gotten good at the tying bench, and has always been great on the river!

The Glitter Bear:

The Glitter Bear, originated by ASF's Bill Taylor, made me a believer in 2008.   I think I might have been top rod for the entire season that year at Bullock's, due completely, I'm sure, to the Glitter Bear.  I had a tough time keeping them off the hook that summer.  I really like to switch to it when the light starts to flatten out in the evening.  Last summer, Dan Bullock was guiding me and I was rummaging around in my fly box for a change of fly.  It was that time of evening, and Dan suggested I tie on a Glitter Bear.  Second cast:

The RBM:

RBM stands for Renate Bullock's Muddler.  Just two nights ago (Aug. 12, 2015)  she hooked this grilse:

on this RBM:

Renate is more than a great guide and fly tyer; she's a great friend to have as well!

The RBM is one of the few three-season flies I know; Spring, Summer and Fall, it takes fish.

The Green Picasse:

Quebec guide and prolific fly creator Marc LeBlanc designed the Picasse (it is tied in several color variations; I like green the best).  Picasse translates to "anchor" in French.  One of LeBlanc's guide friends named it that when he saw how quickly it sinks, thanks to its vinyl D-rib body.  It started life looking more like a streamer than it does now, sort of a "spey style."  I hooked 4 fish with it within a few days of Hurricane Arthur's devestation last summer, including this grilse:

Speaking of Hurricane Arthur, when the river looks like this:

Salmon guides and anglers do this (never a dull moment at Bullock's Lodge!):

My buddy Vin likes to use a shucking table that is height-adjustable:

Getting back to the Picasse, it is also a heck of a fall fly, too.

The "Locator" Bomber:

Tied on anything from a number 10 to number 4 hook, the Locator is hands down my favorite Bomber.  Renate always calls it the Locator, so there you have it.  I was blanked for hook-ups during my trip to the Miramichi this past July; the only fish I brought up came to this fly, dead-drifted and skittering on the surface.

Which brings us to the last Summer fly on my list, but always the first fly on my line:

The Celtic Beauty:

To synopsize what I've written in the past:  I derived the CB from my streamer, the Deep Green Beauty over the winter of 2010/11.  I was looking forward to giving it it's first swing in the Miramichi in July, 2011, but my hip had other ideas about going fishing, so I mailed a batch of them to Renate, asking her to pass them out to her sports as she saw fit.  Long story short:  3 anglers hooked 16 atlantics over the course of the first day the fly ever swam.  Granted it was 2011 and there were plenty of fish around, but I still consider that a pretty auspicious start for the fly.  It is named in honor of my lovely Irish partner:

I fish it often, but not to the exclusion of other flies.  Still, it hooks most of my fish.

Which brings us to:

The list of the only flies I need for fall fishing is a pretty short list, too:

First, we have to re-visit the Celtic Beauty.  Last fall, Vin took Bridget and I upriver a ways from Boiestown, where she had quite a time for herself.  She hooked seven fish.  The largest:

on the same, bedraggled little number 10, de-barbed Celtic Beauty:

You'd look like that too if you'd been dragged around a river by seven atlantic salmon! 'Nuff said about the CB.

The Golden Pheasant Spey:

The Golden Pheasant Spey, another of Bob Warren's creations, is another fly I love gathering up the materials for:

With the exception of the Celtic Beauty, when autumn comes around, I start thinking about oranges, reds and yellows, the colors of autumn, in my fly.  Obviously, GPS has those in spades.  Autumn just seems made for a fly like the Golden Pheasant Spey!

Back in October, 2013, fishing with my pals Howie Gould and Paul Elson, the GPS did me proud.  I've never hooked and landed 3 fish in one shift on the river, but I did one evening on the Northwest with the two of them.


All three fish came to the same Golden Pheasant Spey.  I thoroughly enjoy my October time with Howie and Paul, as well as other friends and acquaintances, whether it's watching Howie tie flies by lantern-light:

or enjoying a bonfire in front of his camp with a new friend from Iceland:

My interest in salmon fly tying has brought me into contact with such a diverse group angler/tyers.  I have met many of them through the tying sub-forums of several salmon angling-oriented forums, chief among them are the NSflyguy forum ( ), the NewBrunswickSalmonFishing forum ( ),
 Speypages ( ) , the NBflytyers group on Facebook ( and the SalmonFishingForum (

Several autumns ago we hosted a picnic at Bullock's Lodge for a group of folks, most of whom I had met on one of those forums.  An incredible group of talent, they came from as far away as Prince Edward Island and the U.S. Pacific Northwest!

But, as usual, I digress.  I would not head to the river in the Fall without the Sneaky!

Mike Boudreau developed the Sneaky.  It is at it's best in the low water, slow flows of autumn.  I tie it only on small size 10 and 12 hooks, but it attracts big fish! My fishing and bird hunting pal Bill Dreyer absolutely tore it up in October of 2014 with the Sneaky:

Last, but very definitely not least, we come to Emmett Johnson's version of the General Practitioner:

Bridget's first big salmon came to Emmett's GP:

October, 2014 found me on the Little Southwest with Howie, Paul, Emmett's GP and this guy:


Amazing what the teeth on a big hookbill can do to a pretty fly!

So there you have it.  Without salmon flies - especially a few favorite salmon flies - I would be missing an entire world of fun, friendships and opportunities.  Without salmon flies, there would not be moments like this: