In my first couple of days on the Hawke, I learned about the many aspects of this fishery that made it different from my home rivers. One characteristic, however, stayed the same, and unfortunately that was the most frustrating characteristic of all. It was quickly apparent that no matter where in the world you are, when chasing anadromous species in rivers, water conditions are an ever-challenging variable that can rarely be predicted with any accuracy. Sure enough, I had traveled across the continent to fish Labrador during one of the best weeks of the season in late June, and the river was barely a trickle.
The exposed rocks of the usually covered riverbed made it obvious that normally there would be a lot more water running between the Hawke’s banks, but this year things weren’t going to plan, because of drought conditions that had persisted for months. The most experienced guide at the lodge had been there for 13 years, and said that he had never seen the river so low in all his seasons fishing it. But what could I do? I had traveled all this way to catch my first Atlantic salmon, and so that was what I was going to do. Subpar flows couldn’t stop me. This is still a hell of a lot better than blown out chocolate milk, I thought to myself, remembering some of the long drives I had made for steelhead to find a swollen brown river at flood stage as a result of torrential overnight rains.
Over the next five days, I got to fish and hike many miles of the Hawke branches with different guides and fishing partners. Despite the extremely low water conditions, there were still fish in the river. According to my fellow anglers who had ﬁshed the Hawke in years past, the action was nothing compared to what they had experienced before. That being said, I was thrilled with how many willing salmon we were able to find, with a skunk bering out of the question. That was a testament to just how robust the Hawke’s returns are. A truly pristine run of anadromous fish—unaffected by logging, hatcheries, and overfishing—is a rarity in the 21st century. Unlike on my home rivers, nobody on the Hawke laments how much better the fishing was 10, 20, or 50 years ago. Here, it is as good as it ever was.
Teaming up with anglers who had fished Atlantic salmon all their lives on Canada’s East Coast, I was able to quickly learn about the subtle nuances of becoming a good salmon angler. On the Hawke, a single-hand 7- or 8-weight was more than adequate. Though I came armed with sinking tips and poly leaders of many densities, a floating line and long monoﬁlament leader tapering to 6- or 8-pound test were all that was necessary. Much like summer steelhead, these fish were more than willing to come to the surface for a well-presented ﬂy.
The go-to technique was to fish a sparse wet ﬂy with a “riffle hatch.” The riffle hitch is a simple but effective technique for making a wet ﬂy ride in the ﬁlm, just under the surface, while being swung under tension. By making two half hitches with the leader behind the head of the ﬂ y, it is pulled broadside to the current and subsequently kept riding high. The result is a V-wake, which Atlantic salmon seemed to find irresistible. Though it wasn’t necessary to catch fish, I used the hitch the majority of the time, as it clearly worked and was the choice of the seasoned salmon anglers I shared my week with. Besides putting the hitches in opposing directions to lock it in place, the most important trick is to make sure that the line is coming off the side of the ﬂy that will be facing the near shoreline when swinging. If the hitch comes off the side facing the far shoreline, it won’t wake properly. By tying the hitch farther back on the body, a ﬂy can be made to create an even larger wake, so the presentation can be fine-tuned by consciously deciding where on the ﬂy to affix the hitch. This technique is also effective for summer steelhead, though not nearly so widespread as in Eastern Canadian salmon fishing.
Fishing waking flies with floating lines, my introduction to Atlantic salmon fishing was a visual treat. I would track the vee of my ﬂy as it swung across the current, anticipating the boil or splash of a salmon coming up to play. Sometimes the fish would inhale the ﬂy, resulting in a solid hookup and guaranteed display of acrobatic jumps. More often than not, though, the fish would boil on the ﬂy without actually taking it. After the excitement of watching a bright salmon swing on the ﬂy, it was difficult not to immediately cast back to the same spot. The tedious but effective technique, however, was much the opposite. By taking a quick break to change flies, reeling in two feet of line, and then beginning the presentation again, adding a few more inches to each swing, I was giving the fish a chance to rest and the new ﬂy would likely be presented well even if the target had moved up in the current by a foot or two. Most of the time the fish would come back for another swipe, sometimes committing and other times repeating the same game of cat and mouse. At times it would take a painstaking four or five ﬂy changes before the reaction would finally be a take and not just a slash, peck, or look. This quality, as well as their life history of making multiple trips to the ocean as repeat spawners, meant these Atlantic salmon of the East Coast were more similar to summer-run steelhead than I had ever thought. Though I have always been more of a winter steelhead junkie, this trip motivated me to chase summer runs more actively once back home in Seattle.
Although the majority of the fish we caught in the Hawke were grilse in the three- to four-pound range, which are fish that have spent only one year at sea, there were enough 10- to 12-pound salmon mixed in to make me frequently test my knots. Stories of 20-pounders from trips past were told over dinner, though no such beasts were hooked this week. Landing a fish of that class among the boulders of the Hawke would be an unlikely feat anyways, as the couple of hefty beauties I was lucky enough to land were a real test of my tackle and fish-fighting savvy in these tight quarters on the light tippets required to fool them. All fish were chrome bright, with many sporting sea lice. The Hawke River Lodge sits just miles above the river’s meeting with salt water, so you are likely to be targeting fish that entered the system days if not hours prior to grabbing your ﬂy.
All week we prayed for rain, knowing that even the smallest bump in river level could bring in waves of fish that were likely staging around the river’s mouth. With each passing day that greeted us with blue skies, we lost a little more hope. I didn’t mean to take for granted the good fishing, which was pretty phenomenal coming from my West Coast perspective of normally hoping for only a fish or two per day on the swing. That being said, I couldn’t help but think about the true insanity of this river in optimal conditions after hearing so many stories from my mates in camp.
Finally, though, it happened. On our last day the skies opened up, and the rain began. It poured all afternoon, and by evening we were all pretty convinced we had found ourselves in fishermen’s heaven. Salmon poured into the system. We watched them shoot through the runs, jumping left and right over the rapids around us. No longer were we fishing to holding fish. The rising river had transformed into a salmon superhighway, with untold numbers of fish taking advantage of the long overdue rains to make their push to upstream spawning grounds. They were rolling and jumping everywhere, and there were aggressive fish to be had for all. By the end of it, I reveled in the beauty of this environment and put my rod down in favor of my camera. Watching new friends battle cartwheeling salmon on either side of me, I knew this was too unique a moment not to be photographed and remembered. This was the Hawke River at its best, and man oh man, was it something special.
Loren Elliott wrote about winter steel-head tactics in the November/December issue of American Angler.