Fair or Foul?

Foul hook: verb.  The act of hooking a salmon in any location other than inside the mouth.  A salmon can be fouled on purpose or unintentionally.

The term Snagging is often applied to the act of foul hooking salmon and implies a purposeful act, but a salmon can actually be foul-hooked quite by accident.  The term flossing,  refers to the accidental or intentional hooking of a salmon on the outside of the mouth as a consequence of the leader becoming located between the salmon’s jaws and subsequent action by the swimming fish or the retrieval of the line drawing said leader through the mouth, resulting in the hook at the end of said leader lodging on the outside of the salmon’s mouth.

A snagged salmon may be referred to as flossed, lined, skinned, or fouled.

The chinook pictured here ate a Clouser cleanly.  You can barely see the lead eyes and the hook is buried in the roof of the mouth.  Good grab here.

I saw several salmon foul-hooked recently on the Elk.  I didn’t count how many.  More than a few. But I only saw two people whose fishing manner was likely to increase the number of salmon they fouled.

One fellow I saw with a fouled salmon was probably in his seventies.  Plainly dressed, wearing hip boots like I haven’t seen in twenty years, and a stained work coat.  He was casting a spinner.   His tackle was inexpensive and well worn.  Several hours into the morning, he hooked a salmon.  Making a blistering run across the lagoon, the fish catapulted into the air twice in quick succession.  “Damn,” he said.  “Snagged.”  He continued to play the fish.  I stood by and watched, saying nothing.

“Wish it wasn’t snagged,” he muttered, almost to himself.  “I’m gonna keep it if I can,” he rambled on.  “My buddy is only 67; he’s got Alzheimer’s.  Can’t fish anymore.”  “I’m gonna take him a fish if I can.”

He played the salmon for a long time, but eventually the fish pulled free and he had nothing to take to his friend.  His shoulders sagged.  He was stricken to have lost the fish.

This man was not tying to foul that fish.  He was just casting his lure hoping to catch a fish to take his friend.

Sadly, two fly fishers put on a show of fouling fish that same day.

They were equipped with the very best waders, coats, rods, and reels.  All the right stuff.  Elegant but not overdone.  These two men slipped into a line of anglers and began working out their shooting heads.  Excellent casters.  Lots of chatter.  High energy.  Laughing and joking about this fish and that fish, this place and that place.  They cast across a school of kings, let their flies and lines settle into the water, and began a rapid retrieve.  Two or three casts after stepping into the water, one of them set up hard on a fish.  His rod stayed down for several seconds, then the fish somersaulted out of the water and took off downstream.  “Fish on!” he yelled, delighted, and began to wade off downstream after the fish.

His partner continued casting, briskly stripping his fly across the pod of salmon as his companion yee-hawed off in the distance.  “What odds would you give me that your buddy’s fish is fouled?” I asked.  “Seventy five percent fair, twenty five percent foul”, he replied.    “Bullshit!” another guy in the line retorted.  We had all seen the telltale, out-of-control leap the salmon made, the absence of a head-shake when it was first hooked, and the uninterrupted downriver run.

The salmon was fouled, no question about it.

The second guy hooked up shortly, with the same result.  No head-shake.  Frantic leaping.  He too, let out a yelp of joy and followed the salmon down the lagoon.  Each of these men fought their salmon to the beach before releasing them.  They returned to the line, beaming with the thrill of the battle, and repeated the routine over and over during the afternoon.

They could have adjusted their position, the weight of their flies, or their retrieve to reduce or even eliminate the likelihood of fouling fish.  They could have used lighter leaders.

The salmon pictured above is hooked outside the mouth, accidentally flossed.  This fish gave the head shakes characteristic of a fair hooked fish.

Some anglers may squander skill and knowledge in return for bragging rights.  “Hooked fifteen yesterday”, they might say.

My friend Steve was fishing the same general area.  He did adjust how he fished. He had one good grab, an honest hook-up, while the other guys fouled a dozen or so fish.  Steve landed his fish and went surfing.  The other guys yee-hawed on into the afternoon.

The Chinook pictured here requires a very personal ruling.  One has to get down on hands and knees to see the that the hook placement is barely  on the outside of the tooth line.

Close.  Very close.  I wonder if this fish was  messing with the fly, maybe bit the head of the fly.  Did it purposefully bump the fly?  Dunno.   I would certainly count a steelhead that banged a big leech or a swung Green butt Skunk, even if hooked on the outside of the tooth line, because I have seen steelhead chase a fly and head-butt it, so to speak.  I  have seen steelhead and sea-run cutthroat also take a fly by it’s tail or hackle without taking it into completely into their mouth.

Should salmon fishers count fish hooked like this salmon as fair?     Maybe.

During the the 2009 salmon season, I hooked two kings that I am absolutely positive were attempting to eat my fly, and were hooked barely on the outside of the tooth line.  One ate a four-inch long Comet and one ate a three-inch Clouser.  The hooks were in the right part of the mouth, upper forward portion of the mouth – just as classic Clouser bite hook-ups would be.  So, my philosophy regarding outside of the tooth line hook-sets has moderated a little.

PS: Try looking up salmon snagging on the Internet.  Turns out the practice of intentiaonal snagging is entirely legal in certain locations.


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