Atlantic salmon are large game fish which, although originating from the area within and around the Atlantic Ocean, have now been introduced across the world.
Atlantic salmon are a beautiful fish and are probably one of the most easily recognised given how popular this fish is as food. This is a true anglers fish and is held in incredibly high regard for keen anglers across the world.
Atlantic salmon (scientific name Salmo salar) are a large game fish of the Salmonidae family.
This family includes other species which you are familiar with including species of trout and grayling. Common names given to salmon include “sea salmon”, “black salmon”, “kelt”, “parr” and “grilse”. In the UK they are commonly referred to simply as salmon.
There are several other species of salmon as well as the Atlantic salmon. There are five species which inhabit eastern North America on the Pacific coast and are collectively called Pacific salmon.
These varieties are chinook, coho, pink, chum and sockeye. The final two species are found in Asia and are called masu and amago salmon. Atlantic salmon is one species, it is not separated into varieties in the way that Pacific salmon is.
Several techniques have been developed to farm Atlantic salmon and it is now so widespread and successful that it has replaced the necessity to catch wild salmon for food.
There is a lesser demand for salmon to supply the fishing industry. The countries with a high proportion of salmon farms include Norway, Scotland in the UK, Chile, Ireland, Canada, the Faroe Islands, Tasmania in Australia and Russia.
Salmon eggs are fertilised in captivity and placed in fresh water. Once they eggs hatch the fry are kept for 12 to 20 months before being transferred to cages in the sea.
In 2017 over two million tonnes of farmed Atlantic salmon were harvested with a value over $10 billion.
There are arguments against farming salmon, including the spread of disease and sea lice, the pollution of the water and the impact of escapees on wild stocks.
The vast majority of Atlantic salmon eaten is now farmed fish. Salmon can be found fresh, canned, smoked or frozen. Atlantic salmon has been an important part of the European diet since Palaeolithic times.
The importance of this fish was recognised as long ago as the 11th century when laws were created to protect the stock. There has been a steady decline of salmon for centuries when the nets catching the fish in major rivers prevented them from reproducing.
Habitat change and pollution is also likely to have had an impact. Salmon was also important to native Americans and early European settlers in America.
Distribution and Habitat
Salmon are native to some of the countries surrounding the Atlantic Ocean as the fish will migrate to the freshwater in those countries to spawn.
Although native to a relatively low number of countries, they have been introduced far outside of their native range for food and angling.
Salmon are native to the cooler areas of the North Atlantic. They are found as far north as Iceland and Southern Greenland, as far east and Finland and Russia, as far south as Portugal and as far west as Quebec in Canada and the Eastern USA.
There are landlocked salmon located in some areas of Russia, the USA, Canada, Finland, Norway and Sweden which are self-sustaining.
Salmon have been introduced to the following countries where they are not native: Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, India and Argentina among others. In areas where they are native they have been introduced to other environments in Russia, Canada, the USA, the UK and Ireland.
Some of the farmed fish have escaped and have formed wild populations in the northern Pacific Ocean, Chile and New Zealand, however these populations are generally landlocked.
Salmon live in freshwater for the first years as juveniles. They will live in freshwater streams, estuaries, creeks and clean rivers. Salmon require cooler waters and they are very sensitive to change in habit.
As they mature into adulthood, they migrate out to sea and will only return to freshwater to spawn.
Atlantic salmon are the largest members of the genus Salmo.
Salmon have a large, elongated bodies. Adult salmon can differ in colour, however they are generally are a beautiful dark silver colour on their backs, a brighter silver on their flanks and a cream colour on their bellies.
Salmon have very distinctive spots coloured dark blue, black or green on their bodies and heads, generally above the lateral line. Juvenile salmon will have lighter blue or red spots but will lose this colour as they mature. As the fish reach adulthood they take on a beautiful blue sheen.
Their fins do not have the spots from their bodies. They have lightly coloured fins but are bordered black and, unlikely many other fish, have an adipose fin between their dorsal fin and caudal fin (which is forked).
Salmon which have migrated out to sea are generally much larger than the salmon which are landlocked, in the same way that sea trout grow bigger than brown trout although they are the same species. This is likely to be due to the richer feeding grounds in the sea.
Salmon grow to a size of between 150cm for male fish and 120cm for female fish. Salmon generally grow between 2kg to 9kg in weight, however this is only an average size and there are much larger specimens.
The maximum published weight is 46.8kg and the specimen was 13 years of age. The largest rod caught salmon was a specimen from Norway which weighed 35.9kg.
Salmon generally live for 2 to 9 years, with 4 to 5 years being the average age.
How they Feed
Salmon are generally carnivores however they will eat plant matter exceptionally. Salmon are predators and use their power and speed to catch their prey. Juvenile salmon feed on plankton and small invertebrates in the river.
As the salmon grow they will feed on larger insects and crustaceans. Once the salmon move into the sea they eat marine life including other fish, squid, cuttlefish, shrimp and molluscs.
Spawning and Life Stages
Salmon follow an anadromous fish migration where they are born in the rivers, move out to the sea, and return to the river to spawn. Salmon undergo their largest growth in the seawater.
Salmon start their lives hatching from eggs in gravel. They remain in the gravel for up to 6 weeks where they fully consume their yolk sacs. Salmon at this stage are known as “alevins”.
After seeking out food, the fry grow to around two inch long and develop camouflage stripes. Fish at this stage are called “parrs”. They feed at this stage for around 1 to 4 years.
Once the parrs grow to around 6 inches in size, they become silver in colour. These are known as “smolts”. During the spring, the smolts change chemically which allows them to enter seawater.
The timing of when salmon enter saltwater appears to depend on the environment where they live. The salmon in the south of the UK will generally migrate in 1 year, whereas the salmon in Scotland will migrate in 3 to 4 years. The salmon migrate out into the North Atlantic basin.
After 2 or 3 years in the sea the salmon will develop into fully grown adults. They grow rapidly in the sea and the flesh will take on a pink or orange colour due to the shrimp which they consume.
When it is time to spawn, the salmon migrate to the same river and even the same stretch of river where they were born. Spawning usually takes place between November to February.
Females will make depressions in gravel known as “redds”. The female will lay several thousand eggs in the redds and the males will fertilise them. Eggs hatch in the early spring, however it depends on the temperature as to the exact time.
Although most salmon will die after spawning, around 5 – 10% will, contrary to common belief, actually migrate back out to sea and may spawn again.
How to catch the magical Salmon!
Salmon fishing is like taking a real-life history lesson. There is records of folklore and Victorian literature which speak of salmon fishing as an almost spiritual endeavour. Salmon fishing draws visitors from across the world to come to catch this fascinating fish.
If you intend to fish for salmon you need to research a suitable location and the rules around fishing in that location. It’s worth saying here that salmon fishing can be very expensive and can even run to several thousand pounds in some areas.
There will be areas which are more reasonably priced so it is worth researching these thoroughly.
Salmon will be found in cleaner rivers and streams. It is thought that Salmon do not actually feed when they re-enter rivers to spawn so it is unclear why they take the flies. Some theories include that they are annoyed or curious at the fly so will mouth it.
Anglers will commonly fly fish for salmon and as such you will need suitable flies to go with it. There are literally books on the types of fly with you could use. We won’t suggest anything specific here as the type of fly you choose should depend on three things.
Firstly, the colouration of the river should match the fly. Secondly, the water temperature will influence the size of the fly as cooler water will require larger flies. Thirdly, if you are fishing on a bright day use a duller fly as it can sparkle and flash which may put the fish off.
Fly fishing is very different to coarse fishing. For salmon it is likely that you will want to get into the water and fly fish. This is a very good technique and will allow you to get into the heart of the action. Casting is something that you really need to get a good feel for when fly fishing as it is so different to coarse fishing.
You might want to get some instruction on this or find a good tutorial before trying. Fly fishing for salmon can be mentally and physically demanding but keep casting and your efforts will be rewarded!
In terms of tackle, a good double handed rod which is 13 – 14 feet in length (class 8/9 or 9/10) should be perfect for most rivers, however you can get these smaller or larger depending on where you are fishing.
A good reel for salmon should be heavy enough to be a good counterweight to the large double handed rod, with a closed spool cage and a good capacity for at least 150m of line.
A sinking (full Spey line is perfect) and floating line would be a good idea to take, however this depends on the angler. If you are fishing deep use a short tippet which is around 1.5m in length, a 30 – 40mm mono or fluorocarbon would be perfect.
There are a few accessories which you might want to consider for targeting salmon. Chest length waders are important if you are going to go into rivers.
Polarised glasses might be something which you might want to consider as they can help you to identify fish or underwater structures when fishing. If you are fishing in fast flowing current then a wading staff and lifejacket are things to consider as they will help to ensure your safety.
In the UK, section 32 of the Salmon Act 1986 makes it illegal to “handle salmon is suspicious circumstances”. Contrary to popular belief, this is not referring to physically handling a salmon correctly but is aimed at preventing the sale of fish from poaching!
The correct handling of salmon is important as it could die with improper care. This not only damages the fishing stocks but will make you feel deflated after all the effort which has gone into catching the fish!
It is important to plan ahead before fishing so that you know how you will land the fish. Seek out a good location where you can safely land the fish.
Make sure you have some forceps to remove the hook and your camera nearby if you want a photo. You will need a good landing net with suitable mesh (rubber nets are very good at protecting the fish).
When the fish is hooked, try not to overplay as salmon can overexert themselves. Use the net to fully lift the fish out of the water, do not drag it over the banking or gravel.
If the fish is deep hooked, it is better to cut the line as close as possible to the hook as this will cause less damage. Make sure you give the fish enough time to recover in the water when releasing.