Beginning Oct. 1, you may start seeing something along the fly-fishing-only zones of the Salmon River that, so far, you haven’t seen very often: back casts.
The Department of Environmental Conservation is poised to rid the fly zones of “chuck-and-duck” fishing, which employs large amounts of split shot or similar sinkers, and basically converts a fly rod to a kind of plug-casting rig. Only true fly-fishing — casting the line, not the lure — will be allowed.
Generations of anglers after steelheads and salmon on the Lake Ontario tributary have considered heavy sinkers necessary to get their flies to the bottom of deep pools where the fish lie.
The split shot also enabled an alternate way of casting: You gather in your slack, raise the rod tip over your left shoulder, snap it forward, lobbing your sinkers and fly into the current. This works even when you’re pinned up against a wooded bank with no room for a back cast, or when you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with other anglers, which are both fairly common occurrences on the Salmon River.
Of course, if a pool is ringed with anglers lobbing “slinkies” — three-inch lengths of parachute cord stuffed with split shot and clipped to the leader — then real fly-fishing is going to be difficult, if not impossible. Getting a fly near the bottom of an eight-foot-deep pool, even when using a sinking fly line, requires casting well upstream of the target lie. That’s not possible in crowded conditions. Chuck-and-duck fishing leads to crowding, and crowding makes chuck-and-duck necessary.
And, of course, all those flies dragged to the bottom by all that weight cause lots of foul-hooking. For a significant percentage of chuck-and-duck anglers, that’s the whole idea. They’re convinced salmon and steelhead seldom, if ever, bite, and believe snagging them is the only way to catch them.
All that ends in the fly zones on Oct. 1. You’ll still be allowed to use weighted flies and weight on your leader, the way you would nymph-fish a trout stream, but you won’t be allowed to use weight to the extent that it becomes “the primary means of propelling the cast.”
In other words, you have to cast the line, with the fly going along for the ride, which is the basic definition of fly-fishing.
At first, I imagined an uproar in the parking lots when anglers who drove all night from Pennsylvania or Massachusetts are told they can’t use their slinkies. Indeed, there have been a handful of complaints to the DEC about banning chuck-and-duck from the fly-fishing-only water.
But overall, the trend on the Salmon River’s fly zones has been toward traditional fly-fishing, back cast and all, according to Fran Verdoliva, the Salmon River program coordinator for the DEC.
“You see less and less people in that particular section using the running line, strip-casting technique,” Verdoliva said. “You see people using some weight, but still able to roll cast or overhead cast.”
I wondered about how the rule would be enforced, since the new regulation doesn’t say specifically how much weight is allowed. Verdoliva said DEC law enforcement officers know the difference between chuck-and-duck casting and traditional roll casts or overhead casts. As he noted, the difference in the two techniques is pretty obvious.
What about the catching? Is it possible to catch bottom-oriented salmon and steelhead with traditional fly-fishing gear and tactics? You bet. There has always been a small group of Salmon River anglers who fish that way. They catch their share of fish, and while they probably hook up less often than chuck-and-duckers, they probably find the fish they do catch more rewarding.
“There have been a couple of people who’ve contacted me through the department and said, ‘I won’t be able to fish anymore,’ ” Verdoliva said. “To put it bluntly, that’s kind of stupid. If that’s the only way you can fish, you’re pretty limited.”
And as Verdoliva, a former Salmon River guide who still enjoys chuck-and-duck fishing sometimes, pointed out, if you simply must chuck and duck, you’ll have 12 miles of river on which to do it. Meanwhile, those of us who really want to fly-fish will finally be able to.
By the way, during the summer, weight will continue to be banned altogether from the Salmon River’s fly zones, in order to provide fair chase for summer-run steelheads and Atlantic salmon.
Most people think of the Salmon River as being a fall, winter and
early spring fishery, but the summer species are becoming more common, and people who know how to fish for them are having success, Verdoliva said.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but we had 20 Atlantics here come to the hatchery this fall,” he said. “We’ve never had any at all before.”