Flashing Silver in the Sky

SARA GODWIN stalks the elusive Atlantic salmon.

Newfoundland's most exacting rivers, the Gander and the Humber, are legendary among those after a fly-fishing challenge, their names uttered in appropriately reverential tones in the litany of world-class salmon rivers. Lee Wulff, the American icon of fly casting, not only fished these rivers, but also designed his own flies for them.

Fly-fishing is a demanding sport: the gracefully unfurling backcast, the smooth, straight forecast, the precise placement of a salmon fly are skills that can take a lifetime to master. There are people who seek out the sport who have little interest in fishing - people drawn by the pure difficulty of casting accurately. The man who first taught me to cast was among these: John Ray was then the reigning world champion tournament fly caster. Oddly enough, how well one casts is but a small fraction of the Atlantic salmon equation.

For thousands of years, Atlantic salmon swam out to sea, returning to the rivers to spawn, as certain as the seasons. Native Americans believed the salmon were sacred; Europeans believed they were unlimited in number and always would be. Until an American submarine doing arctic research discovered vast numbers of them wintering under the polar ice cap, no one knew where the salmon worked the miracle by which they ran out to sea as six-inch smolts and returned to the rivers four or five years later as 30-pound fish.

The fish may fast for months on end, and that ups the ante for the angler: if they do not feed, what artifice will impel them to strike?

Larger Atlantic salmon have been taken - weighing from 50 to more than 70 pounds - and quite a few of those fish swam in Newfoundland's legendary rivers. But knowing where they accomplished their transformation does nothing to diminish their mystique. Every serious angler dreams incessantly, obsessively, of such rivers and such fish.

The salmon does not take kindly to interruptions when it has its mind on sex. Indeed, sex is more important than food. Once they start upriver, salmon do not feed again until they return to sea. The fish may fast for months on end, and that ups the ante for the angler: if they do not feed, what artifice will impel them to strike? There are no answers, though theories abound: pure irritability, territorial imperative, genetic memory. The fact is, some salmon do take, and some anglers catch salmon.

The Gander adds its own special challenges, easily as great as mastering fly casting and luring a fish that isn't hungry to bite. Its riverbed is strewn with rocks, at once the advantage and the gauntlet it flings before the angler. The rocks form the many rapids, riffles, and pools where the salmon lie, and constitute the best fishing to be had on the swift-running river. Salmon rest behind rocks where the current is slower, and gather below rapids before leaping, in the act of silver splendor for which they are named. Their species epithet, "salar" means the leaper. Many of the Gander's rocks tower above the water. Many more lie only inches below the surface. The guides throw the white-water rafting in for free.

I fished the Gander twice, late afternoon and late evening, casting from the boat. The guide, Richard Gillingham of Beaver Lodge, has been on the river all his life, and I asked him to fish about half the time we were out, to assure that there would be a fish tale to tell here. I even told him I would be willing to follow in the time-honored nineteenth-century tradition of the "sport," wherein the guide hooks the fish, then hands over the rod for the sport - the client - to play and land.

No other nation in the world has had the political courage to take the ecological high ground, to take the brave, unpopular steps essential to save the salmon.

We had great hopes. This was billed as the year of the great payoff from a desperate gamble: In 1992, Canada placed a moratorium on all commercial salmon fishing in an attempt to prevent the Atlantic salmon from collapsing from overfishing as the cod fishery has. The government bought back commercial salmon fishing licenses, and imposed stiff limits on the sport fishery. On the Gander the limit is two fish per day, and no fish over 25 inches. After years of throwing the little ones back, we now throw back the big ones.

Alas, it was to no avail - though Richard and I fished until we could scarcely see. Neither of us so much as hooked a fish. Last year, 18,000 salmon came up the Gander, and the guests at Beaver Lodge caught more fish in the first nine days of that season than have been taken in the first six weeks of this year's. I hope we have not waited too long to learn that the salmon are sacred.

That night, over a consoling cup of tea, Clyde Wells, former premier of Newfoundland, told me that the commercial fishing moratorium was worth trying, if only because it was morally the right thing to do. And it is true: no other nation in the world has had the political courage to take the ecological high ground, to take the brave, unpopular steps essential to save the salmon.

The next day, I tried my luck on the Lower Humber with Rob Solo, arguably Newfoundland's most knowledgeable guide, and a raconteur par excellence. Where the Gander is rough-and-tumble, the Humber is elegant water, as demanding and sophisticated as the cognoscenti who fish it. Queen Elizabeth and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt both fished here as guests at Strawberry Hill, Sir Eric Bowater's country estate. No doubt, they had better luck than we.

There was no question that the salmon was big - it ran every inch of line off the reel and stripped 250 yards of backing.

Rob raised my spirits with the story of the biggest fish he ever hooked on the Humber. Wading at Steady Brook Shoals with his uncle, a retired river warden, Rob had once spent an hour and a half casting to a single salmon. Again and again the fish rose to a wet fly without taking, seven times in all. Rob is famous for his Humber River flies, and at last he tried his own variation of a Gray Wulff, with moose-hair wings and tail.

He cast twice, and the salmon lunged on the second cast. There was no question that the salmon was big - it ran every inch of line off the reel and stripped 250 yards of backing until he could see the spool of the reel. But the river is deep and wide, and there was no way to chase the fish. In a magnificent leap, the salmon rose halfway out of the water, snapped the leader, and plunged back into the water, raising a glittering plume of
water where a silver fish had danced only an instant before.

Most fish stories end right there. Rob estimated the salmon weighed 50 pounds, immense for an Atlantic salmon; his uncle insisted it was closer to 60 pounds. Fifteen minutes later, Rob had fished the line again - and the salmon rose, the fly still in its mouth, its full size easily seen in the Humber's clear water. Rob allows as how his uncle may have been right.

Sara Godwin is the award-winning author of The Angler's Companion and several books on wildlife. She has also written for magazines, including Outside and Backpacker.

Sara Godwin is the award-winning author of The Angler's Companion and several books on wildlife. She has also written for magazines, including Outside and Backpacker.