Paul Smith: Salmon numbers are down
Hook and release only for the remainder of the season
Paul Smith email@example.com
Published on August 12, 2017
It looks like we are in the midst of a sad salmon season. So I am going to write about salmon.
Earlier this week I photographed a bunch of outdoor cooking, intending mouth-watering photographs for this weekís column. But codís heads, battered britches, and golden-brown chicken legs can wait. What changed my mind was listening to VOCMís ďOpen LineĒ and hearing the goings on about hook-and-release angling for Atlantic salmon, overwhelming negativity without facts.
Before I get into releasing salmon into the river instead of whacking them on the head for supper, let me tell you exactly where we are according to the latest scientific data from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). There is a grand total of 15 monitoring stations in all of Newfoundland and Labrador; that is we count salmon in only a tiny fraction of our rivers, so the data is quite limited. The rest we infer from this small sample, or manage on anecdotal evidence, primarily from anglers. Be that how it is, we know that this yearís salmon numbers are way down.
The Exploits River in Central Newfoundland is our flagship island salmon producer. Its annual fish run has exceeded 40,000, making it by any measure a world-class fishery. But it has been declining in recent years. So far this season the count is at 13,533 compared to 23,459 last year. This is a seriously significant decrease. Most other monitored rivers are showing roughly similar percentage decreases. The exceptions are Northeast Placentia with the most dramatic decrease, 251 compared to 741 last year, and Garnish River that is actually up from last year, 368, compared to 187. Monitoring is very thin for the Big Land, but the few minor rivers that have counting fences are down similar to the island. It is bad all around.
Back in June we were all hoping that the salmon were just late coming this season. There was much more ice than normal and the consensus of opinion is that salmon donít like swimming under ice. Iím not sure about that, but from my experience and othersí who have fished many seasons, there seems to be a correlation between late ice and late salmon runs. So we were expecting the salmon to be late. Anglers waited and waited for the big surges of fish on full or new moons, but alas, it did not happen. It appears now to be a very poor season.
Everybody who cares about conservation agrees that something had to be done so that fewer fish would die. DFO acted correctly in my opinion, and instated hook-and-release only fishing on Aug 6. I think the department should have moved sooner. I killed one fish this season and I wish I hadnít. Iíll be heading out to the west coast next week and Iíll be angling again, but Iím certainly OK with letting them swim free, thatís if I catch any.
Which brings me back to the radio show and folks calling in to criticize hook-and-release fishing for salmon. I donít really know where to begin on this, but let me start with this ridiculous notion held by many that just about all released fish go belly up and float down the river dead. This is the ultra extreme view, but yes indeed, many believe it. There are folks who state in public that they have seen hundreds of dead salmon in our rivers, and as a result many who donít fish at all believe what they hear on radio and in print. So there is a groundswell of anti hook-and-release opinion based on what I think is nonsense.
I have fished numerous hours in many places for decades, and I have found two dead fish. I have talked to many who have done the same and found none or very few dead fish. I fished for a full week on the Ponoi River on Russiaís Kola Peninsula, where all fish are released, thousands a day sometimes. It is very prolific. I caught and released more than 200 salmon in that week, in circumstances no different than here at home. Thirty anglers in our camp were doing that same, as were folks at another camp upstream. I saw not one dead fish float by. Hook and release works just fine.
Then there are the less extreme people who know all the released fish donít die, but just exaggerate the mortality rate to argue for retention fishing only. They say the mortality rate is unacceptable. But scientific studies have shown over and over that the mortality from hook-and-release angling is extremely low. Thankfully DFO listens to reason and science, and took proper action in using hook and release as a conservation tool. The alternative would be no angling at all and open season for poaching, with no keen eyes on the rivers.
I am all for hook and release, as Iím sure you have figured out by now. But we have to do it right. Many years ago on Castors River I saw a man pull a salmon up on the rocks, and tussle with it to get the barbed hook out. He than measured it to be over 63 cm, picked it by the gills and slung it out into the river. What the hell? That salmon likely perished. Fortunately that kind of behaviour is rare. Incidentally, for those who donít fish salmon, all fish over 63 cm must be released.
Not that Iím perfect or anything even approximate, but I try to do this right. Hereís how I play a salmon, hard and fast. The quicker you bring a salmon to hand, the less stress you put on the fish. No more than three or four minutes is plenty to subdue a grilse under 63 cm. If you break the line, or pull the hook out, what odds, you were going to release the fish anyway. It generally breaks at the knot, and the barbless hook will fall out. When you have the salmon at your feet, bend down and slide your hand down the line to the hook. Most times you can pop the hook out without even touching the fish. They take off like a shot, none the worse for their brief human encounter.
Landing and releasing bigger salmon over 10 lbs is a much different game. Folks usually want a quick photo and a bit more know how and skill are required to do it right. Iíll say more on that another time.
Paul Smith, a native of Spaniardís Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter at @flyfishtherock