By Bill Hartnett | August 2012
With the increased popularity of Atlantic salmon fly fishing and the improved runs over the past few seasons, these two factors have done more to put salmon and angler together on the water at an ever increasing rate. This has been a benefit to all the folks that earn a living from and those that simply enjoy the pleasure of this sport. This therefore puts the focus on the safe handling for the long term survival of your landed Atlantic salmon, the climax to your exciting battle with Salmo salar. As the salmon you release leaves a wake waving its powerful tail, it’s a sight to behold leaving a great feeling inside knowing that you have sent Salmo salar safely on its way to complete is cycle and pass it’s genes.
With this wide spread resurgence of Atlantic salmon fly fishing the buzz is about live release and is mentioned and debated on various forums, blogs, fly fishing groups and organizations. The changing mind set of the fly fishing community towards live release has brought the attention to the proper handling of a salmon when practicing catch and release.  During the excitement of landing your first Atlantic salmon or for the others that have had the pleasure of landed many salmon in their years of fly fishing one can end up unknowingly decreasing the salmon’s chance for survival. This is where we can all afford the advantage of additional knowledge and practices that will help both the rookie fly fisher and seasoned veterans alike, in the safe release of an Atlantic salmon.
This year’s hot and dry climate has been a shock to all river systems and becomes another factor in a salmon’s survival after being played and landed.  The 2012 season with the very low and warm water conditions have highlighted how critical the proper handling procedures for Atlantic salmon catch and release are. In collaboration with Sean Dolan, supervisor at the St John River Hatchery who handles hundreds of salmon yearly and Restigouche River Lodge manger and guide Deering Irvine who has spent a life time on the Restigouche River. We have put to paper a report on the safe handling and release of an Atlantic salmon. Through their time learned knowledge and based their experiences working with salmon we are able offer this list to help anglers understand and learn the “whys” of safe and successful catch and release.
First: The take and fighting an Atlantic salmon: After playing and landing your salmon the thing you can brag about is how quickly you were able to land and safely return to the river your Atlantic salmon. The old generation thinking of landing a fish on the lightest test line and equipment no longer applies. To fight a salmon to its death in a futile attempt to land the fish while not breaking the fish off. No longer does this give us the satisfaction it once did. Now you enjoy the satisfaction of returning your salmon so it is able to spawn and have the chance for another ocean cycle, this completes the whole Atlantic salmon fly fishing experience.
Second: the condition of the salmon after the fight: To quote Deering “the fish has just run a marathon, think of yourself running as fast as you can for as long as you can, and then having someone hold your head underwater while gasping for air. How long could you take it? It just might kill you right on the spot. It’s the same for the salmon only it’s the water which supplies the needed oxygen while you hold its head from the water.”
Third: In landing and handling the salmon: Keeping in mind the statement above, everyone is excited and anxious to see the magnificent fish he or she has just landed. Now is the critical time and what happens from here on is all that matters to the salmon’s survival. If you are not taking a picture, you and the person helping you land the fish should try to remove the hook with the least bit of handling the quicker the better. If the fly is too difficult to remove just cut the leader and the salmon is on its way. This fly has served its purpose and has done what you intended it to do when first you tied it, I am sure we would be lost for words if that were the case for all the flies in our boxes. Some experience guides can pop the hook without ever touching a grilse or small salmon. It is always preferable to land the salmon near the shore, when fishing in a canoe we always head to the shore to fight and land the fish. Look for a good spot to tail the salmon nice gravel and water that is not to shallow dragging the fish along its side over the rocks till it’s almost out of the water makes little sense. Finding the best spot that allows you to tail the salmon keeping in its swimming position is the best way. After you have put the salmon through a round of pictures hold the fish facing up stream in some good current allowing the oxygen rich water to pass through its gills. Not moving the fish back and forth just let the current do all the work while the fish has time settle, being able to expel the air from its system. Salmo salar will let you know when its time and your salmon will be on its way.
Fourth: Tailing the salmon: It is well known by many that tailing a salmon is the safest and least stressful method of landing a salmon, tailing is the only way that the prestigious Restigouche Salmon Club allows for their salmon to be landed as the use of nets are not permitted.
Fifth: The use of landing nets: A net does aid the guide when it comes to landing a grilse as it cannot be tailed however by simply running your hand down the leader grabbing the fly popping it out is better way by far. When a Parr takes your fly you just take hold of the hook and shake the Parr off, handling would surely kill the young salmon to be, if you don’t touch the salmon he keeps his slime.
Sixth: The negatives of landing nets: A landing net should be of the design that has no knots, small holes and a softer giving material. When a salmon sees a strange large object in the water seeming to chase it, the salmon will do all it can to avoid this treat further stressing the fish. It is therefore far better to lead the salmon into the net while still keeping it in the water and then tailing. While in the net these are some of the dangers. The eyes of the salmon, they can’t close and get rubbed and scratched. Fins and gills can be injured if caught in the netting and the net itself scrapes slime from the salmon’s body.
Seventh: The use of a glove: Sean Dolan states, that he has learned during his daily experience in working with handling salmon “I see lots of people wearing gloves now to tail salmon. In my past experiences where we had tailed multiple salmon with a wool or cotton glove in a matter of a day or two there would be a visible black mark where the salmon was handled with the glove. A wet hand is the way to go keeping as much of the slime on the fish as possible.”
Eighth: Photographs: We have come a long way from stuffing the actual fish and hanging it on the wall. We all want a token memory of our experience landing a beautiful Atlantic salmon. Not to mention being able to help explain to the naysayers back home why we go through all we do and spend so much of our hard earned dollars in the pursuit of these Atlantic salmon, the king of game fish. In taking the picture think of these few thoughts.
1) You don’t have to always handle the fish just get in the picture with your guide he already has hold of the salmon, and you won’t miss the photo if the fish is lost in the hand off, I know as it happen to me.
2) Keep the fish in the water till ready to take the shot lifting it gently while holding the tail and supporting the belly. Keeping the salmon partially in the water is preferred remember the fish has a different type of skeleton unlike ours it relies on the water for support.
3) Return quickly to the water and limit the number of photos.
4) Think of the great shots you get by just rolling the fish on its side while in the water, not to mention those magnificent underwater shots that just can’t be beat.
5) Now those totally out of the water photos don’t seem to have the same impact as a fish alive and well in its own environment. We all have done the stand up photos and will probably still to a point but let’s give the natural way a chance by getting down in the water with your Atlantic salmon.
Ninth: Retaining the salmon’s slime: Let’s face it, I don’t think anyone of us looks forward to being slimed and after the fish is released, the first thing we do is dip our hands in the river washing off the slime and smell and then shaking the hand of our guide or fishing companion. In keeping with this let’s let the salmon keep as much of the slime as we can as he needs it and we don’t want it!
Tenth: Slime the sound of it makes one think it’s no good: To humans slime is not a good thing and the general thought has always been to keep away from something slimy. We live in air based environment while a salmon lives in water world. If our environment is to wet it causes problems, too much moister can cause infections to a wound. The salmon leaves in a wet world where dry is not good and needs the slime for its protection.  The slime on a salmon is its defensive mechanism against pathogens in the water especially in terms of fungus. If you release a fish and see slime all over you from bear hugging it and over handling, you know that fish is now subject to any diseases and bacteria present within the water, again this risk is further highlighted by other external elements such as stress and warm water.
If you have the misfortune of seeing or hearing about an increase in dead salmon in a river, it might very well be form the unknowing mishandling of a salmon. It could take weeks for the fish to die after the loss of is protective slime allowing tiny parasites, bacteria and infections to enter the salmons body and take their toll. So remember this an Atlantic salmon is a tough fish as in the testament of its spectacular life cycle and the repeated journeys made during its lifetime to and back from the ocean. In Sean Dolans words “to think that something as simple as taking a picture or the way you hold a fish could have such a serious impact on its survival or well being we all need to think and do right for the salmon we land, after all their future is in our wet hands!”
It is the commitment of the partners of the Restigouche River lodge to safely release all Atlantic salmon and grilse on the lodge’s section of the Restigouche River. We would also like to commend our guests that practice catch and release. And to those guests who occasionally take a salmon or grilse for respecting our wishes and still patronize the lodge. When it comes to live release we put our lodge name on the line with the total no kill policy of salmon and grilse.
KB with Sean Dolan and Deering Irvine