Atlantic salmon can be taken in the ocean on sports fishing gear but it took a Pacific Coast Vancouver Island angler to show how it could be done.
After five weeks of fishing, in two years of experimentation under federal fisheries auspices, Saanich Inlet fishing guide Jim Gilbert of Brentwood developed a planktonic-type lure with which he caught the first Atlantic salmon ever known to be caught in salt water on sports fishing gear.
His catches this past summer may signal the start of a brand new sports salmon industry on the Atlantic coast… an industry to put back to work at least some of the commercial fishermen who were left stranded by a decision to ban commercial Atlantic salmon fishing as a conservation measure.
Before he got his first Atlantic salmon, Gilbert tested some 300 Pacific Coast lures, in combination with dodgers, flashers, leader lengths, weight, wire line, monofilament lines, trolling and mooching.
“I finally experimented with a planktonic-type lure which was successful in catching my first salmon,” he said.
The reason he developed the planktonic-type lure was that after examination of the mouth structure of Atlantic salmon, netted by the fisheries department for research, he discovered they had no teeth to speak of and they looked like an ocean-type river-bound steelhead.
“This rang a bell. In all the years I have fished, I have never caught a river-bound steelhead, so I concluded they could possibly be plankton feeders.” (Gilbert has taken many Kelt steelhead, out-bound after spawning in the rivers, but that is a different situation.)
That is why he developed his special Atlantic salmon lure… a plastic fluorescent wobbler, about 1.5 inches long in association with shocking pink fluorescent hootchie strands, half an ounce weight, and 200 feet of line.
He hooked his first Atlantic salmon June 17 about five miles offshore from the mouth of New Brunswick’s famed Miramichi River.
“Atlantic salmon can be taken successfully in the ocean. I think they could be taken in good numbers… anywhere where they run to rivers,” says Gilbert.
“They didn’t think it could be done. On capture of my first Atlantic salmon there was silence. I proved it could be done. Instead of the end, this is the beginning,” he said.
Gilbert explains that in the east “They have no concept of sports fishing other than in the rivers. They don’t know about rods and reels, like we have, not even rod holders. Sinkers, flashers, lures and spoons are all new to them.
“They have no regulations, no gear, no seasons in any aspect of ocean angling for salmon or any other species.”
Gilbert was hired by the federal fisheries department to go to the northern New Brunswick area at the request of the Newcastle fisheries division on the Miramichi River to see what the potential was in the Maritimes for a whole sports fishing industry on the Atlantic seaboard, similar to that on the Pacific Coast.
Part of the program was to see if Atlantic salmon could be taken with a lure in the ocean.
His first trip was in the fall of 1971 to fish a three-week period when the fall run to the Miramichi was expected to fill the estuary portion of the river system.
He fished for three weeks, caught mackerel and other cod-like species but not even a strike on a salmon.
“I went with the impression there would be a run of 40,000 fish but fisheries officials didn’t feel it exceeded 4,000 fish that year,” Gilbert said.
This past June he went back for three weeks to fish the summer run and decided to fish in the three different areas.
First choice was the estuary portion of the Restigouche River in New Brunswick’s Bay of Chaleur on the Quebec border. He got involved with the tail end of Hurricane Agnes, which restricted fishing and although he didn’t get into salmon, he did get sea-run speckled trout up to three pounds, on troll with a four-inch smelt and half an ounce of weight.
The New Brunswickers hadn’t been in the habit of catching the trout in the tidal portions of the Bay.
Next week they went and fished the saltchuck in an area offshore from the Miramichi River in Northumberland Strait in a chartered 40-foot lobster boat.
Out of Water
It was there that Gilbert hooked his first Atlantic salmon on the planktonic-type lure.
“It hit. It came out of the water, but after a 3 to 5 minute battle it out-foxed me and broke the leader,’ said Gilbert, who has probably battled more Pacific salmon on sports tackle than any other person.
“I was pretty disappointed. I had my nine-foot steelhead rod right up in the air, reel running free and he beat me.
“But I was encouraged. If I hooked one, I could hook another.”
He then made a complete swing around in the experimental gear from bait to planktonic-type lures.
“I took some pink hootchie strands and put them over a customized No. 1 Krippled K spoon. I fished it 24 inches behind a No. 3 Krippled K slender, steel, narrow dodger on wire line.
I fished two on wire with 50 feet and a pound of weight and three on nylon, 200 feet and half an ounce of weight.
“We didn’t see any fish showing… no indication of fish.”
His next Atlantic salmon hit the wire line.
“As soon as he hit, he came right to the surface and made fantastic jumps. Finally, I got him up to the boat after 15 minutes and gaffed him… a 9.5 pounder… June 18… about seven miles offshore from Escuminac Breakwater and 12 miles from the Miramichi mouth… the first authenticated Atlantic salmon taken on sports fishing gear in the saltchuck.”
Next day they fished 15 to 20 miles offshore towards Prince Edward Island. They didn’t take any more salmon there but they did prove there were unlimited supplies of fish to be taken on sports tackle for a charter boat operation, one on wire line. They also caught mackerel.
“We proved the potential of a sports fishing industry on the Atlantic seaboard,” said Gilbert.
He said that just because he caught them on a planktonic-type lure doesn’t mean they wouldn’t take another lure.
Reason for the interest in an Atlantic saltwater sports fishery is that in 1965 the Danes got into offshore Atlantic salmon feeding grounds off Greenland and started to net them. By 1967 they were taken 2,000 metric tonnes a year.
That caused drastic declines in Atlantic salmon stocks in all river systems in the Atlantic region.
This year Canada’s federal fisheries department banned all commercial fishing by Canadian commercial fishermen for Atlantic salmon, because of the concern for the depleting stocks.
Canadian government compensated the fishermen for their lack of fishing opportunity. In the Miramichi estuary there had been 110 trap licences and 130 gillnet boats.
Federal fisheries officials are interested in swinging commercial fishermen to charter boat and marina operators. They want to make economic use of the stocks of Atlantic salmon left, until they can rebuild the runs or stop the Danes from exploiting the salmon on the high seas.
They got 70 one- to three-pound mackerel that fought like Pacific Coast bluebacks and plenty of Atlantic cod by trolling plugs, bait, hootchies and spoons within two feet of the bottom. Cod ranged to 20 pounds and they took 560 pounds of them.
“They fought far more than our ling cod. They were good sports and fine catching,” said Gilbert.
They finished up fishing the estuary portion of the Miramich Rvier to see if it would be feasible to establish a small boat sports fishery in inshore waters. They used 16-foot out boards and took two 9.5 pound Atlantic salmon on the Planktonic lures… one on nylon.