What do you serve a fish that isn’t eating? That is essential the conundrum for Atlantic salmon fishermen — at least, those who chase Atlantics and adhere to tradition. (You would be forgiven for asking: “Is there any other kind?”) For those who don’t know, the accepted belief amongst salmon fishermen is that Atlantics stop eating upon entering fresh water. That belief, in my 25 years of chasing them, is universally accepted.
It makes for interesting sport. In my experience, the tension between this belief and the fact that Atlantic salmon do take a fly is the foundation for any number of activities, both laudatory and laughable. Salmon fishermen use it is as both excuse and enabler — as both the tonic and tenor to their activity.
One thing this belief has spawned is the art of the salmon fly. And why not? If the salmon is not actively feeding upon food, one might as well present to them something the fisherman finds to be alluring. As the saying gors, the flies are not meant to catch fish, but fishermen.
Ben Bilello, writing on the blog FrankenFly, articulates what I’ve explained to friends about Atlantic salmon flies. In his words:
“Toward the end of the twentieth century, we began to see a disconnect between the art of Atlantic salmon fly tying and the sport of Atlantic salmon fishing. In the right hands, a workhorse fly pattern like the Jock Scott became a large, immaculately crafted object, suitable for framing and hanging on one’s wall. Though many like it have hooked thousands of salmon over the last century and a half, this particular fly will never see water, much less the business end of a dime bright Atlantic salmon.”
I am inordinately fond of Atlantic salmon flies. I am also fond of their artistry. If you believe the above, you might right say: they caught this fishermen, more solidly than they have hooked many salmon.
But what Ben rightly points to is the the divergence that salmon flies have taken from anything resembling an organism of the natural world. Ben’s beautiful Rosy’s Spawn pattern, pictured above, is a great example of this. If the fish isn’t eating, the flight from food to fancy is an easy one. It’s also a welcome one.
The pedagogy of trout imitations, for one, can be constraining. In a sport where everyone is trying to imitate something natural, there will always be claims to superior degrees of imitation. But — and this will approach sacrilege for some — it is my experience that this too is subjective. Everyone has a March Brown pattern that works best. Everyone has a Drake wing they like best. Most of them work; there’s no standard against which to judge them but for taste, the most personal and subjective of standards.
And so we have the salmon fly. According to tradition, some work better on different rivers. And some work better at different times of day, or during different parts of the season. But some of them don’t work at all. That’s not a problem, mind you: they were tied that way. Not as flies, but as art. Because that’s what salmon flies are.