Call it beginner’s luck. It’s my first time fly fishing, I’ve only been doing it for five minutes, and I’ve already got my first bite.
“Keep the line taut,” says Garrett Brancy, who’s showing me the moves. “Draw it in slowly.”
If, like me, you’re not a country sports person, you may not have heard of Oswego County, on the shore of Lake Ontario in New York State. And you almost certainly won’t have heard of the Salmon River. But for keen sportspeople, this is the stuff of legend. True to its name, the Salmon River is a salmon-fishing paradise. Every autumn, around 100,000 of them swim up the 17-mile tributary of Lake Ontario to spawn every day — and during the two-month migration season, from mid-September to mid-October, 100,000 people come from all around the world to catch them. “It creates a really big draw,” says Garrett. “To all intents and purposes, this is Alaska.”
It’s certainly a different world. You can’t go more than a mile or two without passing a tackle shop, and every motel seems to advertise wader cleaning, and have signs welcoming fishermen. Even my posh hotel, the Tailwater Lodge, in Pulaski, sells bait, wellies and energy bars in reception.
Even though it’s summer — slow season — it’s still fairly crowded, so I’ve arranged my first lesson at the relatively quiet Douglaston Salmon Run. Family-owned for the past century, it’s a private 2.5-mile stretch of the river, where numbers are strictly capped, so avoiding the usual scrum elsewhere. During the migration season, says Garrett, you can’t even wade into the river without Chinook salmon and steelhead trout bashing into your legs; today, though, the water is calm and the river, at first glance, empty.
I’d never really understood fly fishing. Why people would stand for hours, twitching their rods in the hope of snaring something for dinner, was beyond me. It was boring, I thought, and cruel. The Douglaston Salmon Run, however, is fearsomely ecologically focused — anglers are required to release fish after they’ve caught them (apart from Pacific salmon during the migration, when the fish are soon to die, anyway). But although this approach is admirable, it made me even more baffled as to why anyone would choose to do it.
I soon find out, though. It’s because it’s almost as relaxing and therapeutic as a spa treatment or a meditation session.
Trussed up in waterproof dungarees, we wade out to hip level. The water rushes past us, pummelling my thighs — but it’s energising, and not completely alien from having a massage. Garrett teaches me how to hurl the line downriver and dance it back up, mimicking the darting moments of a smaller fish. It’s surprisingly calming, standing there supported by the water, watching the movement of the river as I pull the fly upstream.
And then we have a bite.
Nipping the line in quickly will lose the catch, so I reel it in slowly, patiently, until I’m face to face with a wriggling fish. Most anglers, says Garrett, will take the fish out of the water and photograph it, before releasing it, but I don’t want to cause it any more distress, so we unhook it immediately, and watch as it darts off, diving deep into the river. Ten minutes later, we have another bite — I lose a third, but reel in a fourth before our time is up.
We’ve spent about 90 minutes on the water doing something I was sure I’d find boring. But coming out I’m refreshed, relaxed and considerably calmer. What’s more, I suddenly ‘get’ fishing. It immerses you in nature, de-stresses you and gives you all the time you need to think. And that’s surely worth wearing waterproof dungarees for.