A popular method for rigging and fishing an Atlantic salmon fly is also an effective way to entice big fish in big water.
[by Paul Smith]
I’M STANDING ON A BARREN RIVERBANK overlooking an unbroken laminar flow, deep, black, and mysterious; one step forward, and I’d be to my waist in a cold, uninviting abyss. Reindeer move along the opposite shore in single file, on trails worn deep into the rugged tundra. Gena, my guide, assures me big salmon rest in this pool. It’s perfect water for a slow, dead-drifted float, so I tie on my favorite dry, the unquestionably most effective surface salmon fly, a Brown Bomber. Gena watches impatiently, seated behind me on a massive round boulder, eager to get on with the show, like he’s sure I’ll not raise a fish. Nothing happens.
Gena reaches for my Bomber, deftly snips it off, and passes it to me with a devious smile. He pulls his overstuffed fly box from his vest and fumbles through it, settling on a nearly four-inch long, black-winged offering that’s totally foreign to my Newfoundland fly fishing sensibilities. But I’ve read and traveled enough to recognize a Sunray Shadow tube when I see one. But what Gena does next really throws me.
He pulls a lighter and needle from another pocket, casually heats the needle tip in the hissing gas flame, and uses it to poke a hole in the side of the fly’s plastic tube body. He inserts my tippet through the side, out the tube’s business end, and ties on a stout Partridge double with pinched barbs. Fitting it snugly in the tube’s soft rubber connector, he hands it to me with zero expression and says, “Try that.”
Hailing from Newfoundland, I know how to fish a hitch, but I never imagined a hitched tube, and certainly not a version 1 1/2 inches long with flowing black hair three times that length. And I was about to cast this abomination on a quintessential dry-fly pool. I was apprehensive. But so far, Gena’s advice and guidance had been sound. I’d give it my best.
Why salmon attack flies is a mystery, so why any nonfeeding fish would come to the surface for this monstrosity, after passing up my best Bomber presentation, had me completely dumbfounded. After casting 30 feet of line, I’d almost decided this must be Gena’s elaborate setup for an after-dinner joke. He sensed my doubt, but I continued casting. Midway through a swing, the slick surface water exploded around my fly. A big salmon coming savagely to the surface can startle the best of us. I excitedly struck early and missed.
Two casts later, in exactly the same spot, hardened steel found its mark and the battle was on. An 18-pound hen, vitalized by the cold, well-oxygenated water flowing through the rolling hills of the Russian Arctic tundra, tore up the calm pool for 20 anxious minutes. When I finally subdued her, I plucked the Sunray Shadow, now a favorite, from her jaw as she revived in the frigid arctic river.
What’s Good for Salmon Is Good for Trout
While that day on the Kola Peninsula was everything anglers dream about, it was also a pivotal day for me in terms of experimentation with flies and presentations. Until then, I lacked a willingness to break away from tradition—if for no other reason than the fact that angling for Atlantic salmon is steeped in tradition. It takes effort to get out of that confining box.
Fast-forward 10 years to January 2015. I’m equally far from home, but directly 7,000 miles south instead of east, fishing the Río Grande in Argentina, and challenged by tough conditions. My friend Kris Gunnarisson and I were catching small, resident sea-run brown trout. Respectable fish of maybe 2 pounds, but not what I’d traveled south to find.
After a day of bright skies, we hoped bigger fish would relinquish their typically guarded nature for an hour or so and drove to a Río Grande tributary. For this smaller water, I broke out my 7-weight rod and attached a 15-foot tapered leader. Kris suggested a small riffled tube fly and recommended I “hitch” it.
Just as my fly swung over a large fish I’d spied earlier, the trout hammered down on it. While it wasn’t a big brown trout by Río Grande standards, I was still elated. After years of dreaming about South American sea-run browns, there I was, knee deep in the water as the sun set below the Andes, going to and fro with a brutish trout on a light, single-handed rod. What’s more, I fooled it with a fly rigged using the Portland Creek hitch – a rigging style concocted out of necessity on my home waters, more than 100 years ago.
History of the Hitch
The Portland Creek hitch, or riffling hitch as it’s sometimes called, was first revealed to the mainstream angling world by widely acclaimed fly-angling pioneer, filmmaker, and writer Lee Wulff.
While Wulff is famous for many things, he is best known in my neck of the woods (Newfoundland) for assessing the salmon- and trout-fishing potential of the Great Northern Peninsula region. Portland Creek was one of his favorites. At one point, a Portland Creek guide by the name of Arthur Perry disclosed a rigging technique to Lee that the locals invented and used almost exclusively—half-hitching the tippet around the head of a fly in addition to the standard clinch knot.
Not only did the additional steps help locals prevent losing precious gut-eyed salmon flies, but the odd combination also formed a 90-degree kink between the fly and leader that caused the fly to create a V-shaped wake on the water’s surface at it swung across the current on a tight line. For some reason, salmon find the effect irresistible.