A LIFE DEVOTED TO ATLANTIC SALMON AND FLY FISHING
Salmon Junkies owner, Steffen Juhl, has just completed his 19th season on Russia’s Kola Peninsula. He is totally committed to fly fishing for Salmon and throughout the years the guests at his camps have caught more than 50,000 salmon. He, himself, has to date caught and released some 2500 of the “King of all Fish”.
Steffen – “I’ve been very fortunate because of my job as camp manager and before that as a guide to have had the opportunity to fish in rivers that I’d only dreamed of or read about in the fly fishing magazines.
I still love, however, to return home to Denmark and Sweden and fish my old favorite stream for sea trout and salmon. Maybe it’s a little bit like the chef at a five star restaurant who after work is looking forward to going home and making a simple sandwich out of the leftovers in the fridge”.
“I began salmon fishing 25 years ago when a magazine asked me if I would go to Norway to write an article about Swedish fisherman, Gøran Andersson and his fly-casting philosophy. I brought along a two-hand rod but I never got the hang of that long stick. Instead, I used my trout gear which I’ve been familiar with for so many years. I could cast and present the flies the way I wanted to. And that is actually a very important point right here. Use equipment that you are familiar with. Don’t go out and buy a lot of new and fancy stuff you are not comfortable with. I’ve have seen it happen so many times , especially in recent years, where the tackle manufacturers have relayed the impression that it is impossible to fish for Atlantic Salmon without using a huge double handled rod. That is pure nonsense. Time is too valuable for that sort of experiment. That said, a Spey rod can still be a very useful piece of fishing gear and I have learned over the years to appreciate and master very successful techniques and I am now a devoted “Spey Bum”.
Asked what kind of impact catching some 2500 Salmon over the years has had on his understanding of the fishery his answer is very objective.
” I still enjoy just being on the water having fun. And the special feeling one gets from safely releasing a salmon. What really fascinates me is learning new angels and perspectives on the sport. It’s still a mystery at times why a salmon reacts a certain way but I think I’m getting closer to the inner core of it.
I’ve lived so many years on the riverbank and have seen thousands upon thousands of salmon being hooked and often times landed and released. And what I have found is that what happens in real life on the water is not always the way it is supposed to be by the book. ”
Now that Steffen has gotten deep into the conversation it was time to ask the one-and-only question needed to be answered for many salmon fly fishers.
Why does the salmon take the fly? He leaves the newly served coffee untouched and lets his hands gesticulate.
“Ahhh….. That is the question. We’ll never find a really good answer to that until the day someone has a long and comprehensive dialogue with a knowledgeable salmon.
But I do think it’s a blend of a lot of things. Initially the salmon has an instinct of how to seek food that can either come from its first years in the river or the time it has spent in the sea. Why a salmon in the river takes a fly I don’t really know for sure. I’ve heard many explanations. Some are that the salmon simply do it for the fun and others say that it’s an instinct that we provoke. I believe most in the “territorial theory” that the Salmon become extremely aggressive when it enters freshwater. But as I said,we need to talk to a salmon before we can make any conclusions in these matters.”
Having to give up on the final theory of “why a salmon takes a fly” we move on to something more “human” among fly fishermen. Which is the perfect fly for catching salmon?
Steffen Juhl’s many years of on the river experience has strengthened his belief.
“When you approach new waters you should always listen to the locals and fishing guides. No matter where you go there are some flies that are more effective than others. Sometimes its minor details in the environment that we, as “intruders”, won’t pay attention to. It can be the color of the background, the transparency of the water and things like that. So my conclusion on this is to listen to the local experts. If you are in some deserted place, keep in mind that someone once said that ‘the color of a fly isn’t that important as long as it’s black.’ It may sound crazy, but this has been proven over and over again that most black flies fish very well.
What’s more important, from my point of view, is the temperature of the water. In places like the Kola Peninsula we’ll have to divide the season according to the temperature in the rivers. When the water is cold, it’s okay to use big and colorful flies. When the water gets any warmer than 8 degrees Celsius, that seems to be a magic point when it comes to salmon fishing. Now is the time to use smaller, darker, and less colorful flies. It doesn’t necessarily have to be black flies. A Green Highlander is a marvelous all-around fly. Red Butt and Billy Butt are probably the closest you can come to universal flies. A Silver Doctor is also a must on days with strong sunshine. On top of this, it is important to use the right size. The exact size varies from one river to the next. In fast flowing water, it is quite okay to use large flies. If you fish in calm waters on a hot sunny day it might be necessary to use flies as small as size 12. My all around favorites are the Black Sheep. Red and Green Butt, and my own AMSE fly.
Size and presentation of the fly is, without doubt, the most important issue when fishing salmon.”
A salmon notices everything in its surroundings. And how to fish a given beat is just as important as what to fish with. Steffen feels that the speed of the fly is essential.
” Actually, you can never fish the fly too fast when the water temperature is above 8 degrees Celsius. A lot of people try to project, in their mind, how a salmon sees the fly and they surely don’t want the salmon to not notice their excellent efforts. The result, of course, is that they fish the fly at too slow a pace. They have probably also read piles of literature where they are told to cast their line diagonally downstream and mend in order to give the salmon a chance to see the fly. The Atlantic Salmon is a phenomenal creature that sees everything that passes its sight , regardless of the speed. I have been in thunderous white water and dragged a small size 14 fly through the water and there, from 12 feet down, the salmon comes up and attacks it. They see everything that moves above them”, says Steffen, without any sign of hesitation.
Steffen’s take on short distance casts and full speed.
“It is not the length of the cast that defines how many salmon you’ll catch. 90 percent of the salmon I’ve caught have been no further away than 45 feet. I rarely cast longer than 60 feet as I’m much more concentrated on getting the fly to fish from the minute it hits the surface. In order to do this, you have to make sure that your line is stretched when it touches the water. I normally cast straight across the river and then let the tip of the rod point to the surface in the down stream direction in order to maximize the pressure on the line to obtain a high speed on the fly. It’s a technique with no speed limit. The faster the better. I also always let the line hit the water in an angel of 90 degrees to the riverbank and not 45 degrees downstream as it has been STATED in SO many books. The obvious benefit is that you cover twice as much water and naturally you catch more salmon. The fly gets exposed much faster this way and this is a very important fact – you also hook the salmon far better this way. About 1 out of every 4 salmon that I’ve caught has taken the fly on the angel from 90 to 45 degrees from the riverbank.”
What kind of equipment does a professional make use of, having the opportunity to choose whatever he likes regardless of the price? The thought of being able to pick and choose as they like could keep many fly fishermen awake for several nights or give them some very sweet dreams.
“A lot of people scratch their heads when they watch me fish with my “trout gear” as they teasingly call it. I mostly use an 8’8″ rod class 6-7. That’s big enough to handle an intermediate line and sink tips and is, at the same time, a real useful tool on the short distance. I’ve landed salmon up to 28 pounds on that light gear. On a 9 foot rod for a 7 line,
I have landed several Salmon in the magical range 30 to 40 pounds. The basics of successfully fighting a salmon is to put some pressure sideways on it in order to make them swim and spend energy. A lot of fly fishermen in Europe believe that it takes a two hand rod to fight a salmon. But that is simply not true. A single hand rod puts just as much pressure on the line as a two handed rod does ( you pull the same pounds talking basic Single / Double handed rods) – It’s not something that I discovered. This conclusion was reached by my mentor, Lee Wulff, many years ago. He also said ‘One minute per pound’ and that is a good rule of thumb. Fishing salmon with lighter gear gives the fishing its soul and nerve… That is very crucial for me”, adds Steffen.
“I have in recent years also become a devoted Spey rod enthusiast. – My favorite length is 12 – 13 ½ « # 7 / 8 / 9 . As I have grown older, I have come to greatly appreciate that with a good spey outfit, I don’t have to wade waist deep 24 hours a day to reach my quarry. And, Spey casting is a blast in itself. These modern double handed rods have a tremendous line throwing capacity for all combined with lightness for less stress on older bones.”
Steffen talks on floating and intermediate lines
” Except for the early spring, I only use intermediate or floating lines. Some prefer intermediate because they think they disturb less but, as far as I see, both are brilliant for salmon fishing. I use an intermediate line combined with a fast sinking poly leader when the water temperature is below 7 degrees Celsius. When it gets warmer, I change to a floating line sometimes combined with an intermediate tip / floating nylon leader. Unless you have extreme water conditions, a “Taking Salmon” will always come for a fly near the surface.
Shooting heads versus classical DT or WF is not a discussion Steffen Juhl pays much attention to.
” I’ve used shooting heads for the last twenty five years and they work perfectly well for me. I have to admit that I’m not rigid in these matters. I sometimes put on a WF-line and love to sense the qualities in that way of fly fishing.”
Steffen Juhl pays attention to the quality and the design of the reel but doesn’t make much use of the reel drag.
” I never use the brake during the fight. I adjust my drag to a point where it makes enough friction to prevent jamming or overrunning the line. I use my palm to brake the reel. It is absolute nonsense to think that one can prevent any salmon from taking a run by tightening the drag. The only thing that happens is that the line will break or the hook will lose its grip. I have never seen anyone who manages to fully control a salmon by using the brake on the reel. I have my Bogdan sitting on the book shelf looking beautiful, but a few trusty classic Hardy reels I mostly use in my daily fishing. As far as modern reels, however, it is my opinion that the Loop Classic offers the best combination of drag, hand palming, reel sound and long lasting durability and I find I am using mine more and more in tough conditions.”
It«s hard enough to get a salmon to take the fly and if the ensuing fight is to be successful, Steffen Juhl thinks there is good advise to follow.
” It is important to have a reel that carries a lot of backing line. At the same time I’ll say that it is only a few of the many thousands of salmon I’ve caught that have stripped more than 150 yards from my reel. The salmon is a fascinating and unpredictable fish. A 10-pound salmon may go berserk and pull all of the line off your reel before you even get ready for the fight. Sometimes big trophy size salmon seem like they have given up before the fight has begun. So there are no firm rules. But a good compromise is to have at least 150-200 yards of backing line on the reel. A lot of fly fishermen fight the salmon with the rod in an upright position. But the only efficient way to fight a salmon is by putting horizontal pressure on the line. An American friend once said, ‘Give it some beef’, meaning let the salmon know that there is power on the other end of the line. That’s good advice right there. I have seen many clients standing with the rod pointing straight up in the air and the salmon parked somewhere in the middle of the river. As soon as they dragged horizontally the salmon came alive and the battle began again. ”
Reading the water
” It is very important to be able to read the water. It is about spotting how it flows and looking for little changes on the surface. That combined with experience tells you where the fish are. It takes 3 to 5 casts to fish a likely hot spot and maybe a change of the fly. Remember that salmon don’t like turbulent waters. It is always in front of or by the side of a rock that you’ll find the fish. Try to read and understand the river and please do yourself a favor by fishing places that everyone else thinks are impossible to fish.
The first time I was in Umba in 1993 the local guides were surprised when I caught fish in places they would swear didn’t have half a salmon in them. Dogmas are to be dealt with and if we always follow the book, it’s no fun anymore. It’s innovation and creativity that gives this sport a kick.”
As a veteran camp manager with more than 17 years of experience Steffen Juhl has seen fly fishermen from all over the world and has had lots of time to study their different and varied techniques. Although he is very fond of the Scandinavian style, he also positively fascinated by the English and American way of fly fishing.
” I love all the different styles. Picture an English gentleman Spey casting whilst wearing a tweed jacket and tie while it is raining cats and dogs. He is fishing the way he has been fishing for the last 30 years and, without doubt, will be doing the same for the next 100 years. It is wonderful, nostalgic and I respect the “English school” enormously.
The Americans have another attitude towards fly fishing. It’s much more of a rock’n’roll approach with dry fly and various other techniques. They are incredible in the way that they are open to new ideas and always very relaxed about dogmas . I«m also extremely fascinated by the US West Coast Steelhead guys. Today a lot of good innovation regarding tackle, flies and casting comes from this community. I have been fortunate to fish with some of the best Steelheaders in the world, and they taught me a lot of new stuff.
In Scandinavia, where I’m from, we have a style of our own. It is here that the latest developments take place when we talk of technique and new gear.
Some of the world’s best sea trout and salmon anglers are, without doubt, Scandinavian. Go to any major Scandinavian river when it is open season and you’ll see it with your own eyes. The way they cast and fish will make almost anyone stop and stare with admiration. Guys like G¿ran Andersson, Christer Sj¿berg, Michael Fr¿din, HŒkan Norlin and others are leading the way. ”
Steffen’s Salmon to remember
“The salmon that I most remember are the ones where I planned the approach and there was a particular strategy behind the catch. You choose your fly that will work for you the best in a spot that you alone have discovered. And you make your presentation the way only many years of trial and error have taught. When all of these conditions meld and the salmon takes your offer … you have a moment so beautiful that it is difficult to describe. And is only embellished by taking the opportunity to release your fish to the wild.It is at times like that, when I really feel blessed.”
“This season in June, 2008, we shot a DVD on the renowned Ponoi River. We had some outstanding fishing and, at the same time, I had the opportunity to fish with some fantastic guys during that week. One notable rod was Julian Pullan from the UK who one day declared very spontaneously in front of the camera ‘One week on a river like Ponoi is the best therapy available on the market’. A brilliant way to put it, and something I remind myself of everyday. This same week veteran manager, Mariusz Wroblewsk, answered when he was asked why we released all fish? ‘Why kill a miracle like an Atlantic Salmon?’
What beautiful insight.”
“I’m lucky because my job enables me to fish in the finest Salmon Rivers on Earth. My journey has been long and not always easy , but I wouldn’t have traded anything for this wonderful experience. My nearly two decades in Russia working under, at times, trying conditions have given me a so many memories that I would need thirty five children and twice as many grandchildren to justify my Russian fairy tale.”
Russia beckon. Hope to meet you out there.