The advantage of fishing the estuary compared to the fresh-water
section of the Leaf River is that the arctic char, the salmon and
the sea-run speckled trout feed vigorously there on the abundant
shrimp and small baitfish. As a result, streamer flies
and spoons get quick results.
The large sea-run trout in the estuary tend to hide close to rocks
and are best caught at low tide. A fly that is particularly effective
is the wooley bugger, which provides a good imitation of shrimp and
readily fools the trout and char. Trout can also be caught
on surface flies at low tide among the rocks at the edge of the estuary
The char and salmon are strong swimmers and can readily avoid predation
by the seals and beluga whales that enter the estuary. For
this reason, char and salmon are generally caught in deeper water
via drift fishing. Flocks of gulls that hover above the feeding
char give a clear indication of productive locations. Char will also
come into shallow water at high tide in pursuit of prey, in which case shore fishing
is highly productive.
Sea-run speckled trout
Fly Fishing in the Leaf River Estuary
Henry (Hank) Smith
Johnny and Billy Cain Outfitters
Lay of the land:
The estuary of the Leaf River is located between a large falls (about
12 meters high) located at approximately 58 deg. 47' N, 70 deg.15'
W and a minor falls at 58 deg. 47' N, 70 deg. 4' W. A map
can be found at the web site of the Leaf River Estuary Lodge (http://www.leafriversport.com).
Above the large falls is the Leaf River, which is pure fresh water;
below the falls the water is brackish with the salinity depending
on the tidal phase. The minor falls pokes above the
water surface only in the final quarter phase of tidal swing. At
the maximum tide the large falls disappears; one can go by boat
directly from the estuary to the fresh water river without encountering
any rapids. In August, seals and beluga whales swim up into
the fresh water river chasing char in their annual migration. Beluga
have been seen over 10 km upstream. Fresh-water seals inhabit the
river and the headwaters at Lake Minto 200 miles upstream
In addition to the Leaf River, three streams contribute fresh water
to the estuary.
In the summer the Leaf River Estuary (LRE) contains 3 species of
salmonoid: arctic char, Atlantic salmon, and sea-run eastern brook
trout (speckled trout).
The char come into the estuary from the Leaf River and perhaps other
sources. The salmon are both estuarian and deep-ocean salmon. Salmon and char can be caught throughout
the estuary, often in deep water where they feed on shrimp and small
bait fish, called sand lances.
They are long and thin, somewhat like a finger, and have unusually large fins enabling them to leap into the air, presumably to avoid predators. I've seen this phenomenon at night.
The sea-run trout can be found among the rocks at the edge
of the channel at low tide, or at high tide among the rocks between
the channel and the shore. The trout need the rocks to hide from
the seals and beluga whales that come into the estuary. Trout
are not the strong swimmers that the char and salmon are, and hence
defend themselves by hiding rather than evasion.
Fly fishing at high tide:
The tidal swing in Leaf Bay is the highest in the world so fly-fishing
tactics for high, middle and low tide in the estuary vary greatly. At
high tide I've had the best luck drift fishing from the boat (freighter
canoe) of a streamer fly with a weighted head on a sinking line.
There is almost always a wind blowing, which also has the benefit
of keeping the mosquitoes away. The guide will motor upwind
and then cut the engine and drift. Sometimes the char can
be seen close to the surface, but experience says they are mostly
down deep. Flocks of gulls circulating above and occasionally
diving give away the presence of feeding char down deep. I
believe the gulls are picking up fragments of bait fish mangled
by the feeding char and salmon, but I have never actually seen what they pick
up among the waves.
The char hit hard, and since they are generally big (5 to 20 pounds) they make long runs and show
enormous endurance. When they get close and see the boat they
invariably make 1 or 2 more long runs.
I typically use large chartreuse streamer flies with weighted heads
to simulate the bait fish. White flies work equally well. In
fact I think just about anything will work when the char are feeding. They
tend to feed voraciously and fill their bellies until they are
distended. Once full they stop feeding to digest
their burden. When the food is digested they feed again. This has
been my observation. If you happen to hit this feeding sequence
just right there can be no better fishing in the world.
The salmon are caught the same way as the char. Although the salmon population was depleted several year ago, their population has come back strongly in recent years. In 2013 about equal numbers of char and salmon were caught. Salmon are known for their ability to leap high in the air, which they generally do once hooked. Salmon carry a parasite that causes red vent disease. For this reason and to allow further recovery of the salmon fishery, clients are urged to return salmon to the water.
I've often brought spin fishermen up with me. Using spoons they
get about 3 times as many hits as do my streamer flies. I assume
the acoustic disturbance of the spoon provokes an anger response
in the char. They will often hit the spoon when their bellies
are full. The spoon is the preferred lure of the Inuit.
The sea trout are almost never caught from the boat at high tide.
They are hiding among the rocks at the bottom. However, from the
shore one can have some good fishing for trout in water 10 to 20
feet deep. I believe the trout and the occasional char or salmon caught at high tide from shore are seeking shrimp. Hence I use a floating line and a
9 or 12 foot leader. My preferred fly for this is the wooley
bugger in green or brown, but I must confess that I have not done
all that much experimentation with high-tide shore fishing compared
to the experiments I've done from the channel edge at low tide.
I do a lot of salt-water fly fishing in Massachusetts and have perfected
the double-hauling technique. I find this particularly useful for
casting from the shore. I use either a #8 or #10 rod.
Fly fishing at low tide for sea-run trout:
At low tide, a clearly defined channel forms in the estuary. On
the south side, where the Leaf River Estuary Lodge is located, there
is a flat region a few hundred meters wide that one can wade across
to the channel edge and get some spectacular fly fishing.
The large sea-run speckled trout are at the channel edge in great
numbers hiding among the rocks and watching the flow bring their
food by. I typically wade out wearing a dry suit so I don't
have to worry about falling and filling my waders, which I once did.
I wear a life vest because the boat that might rescue me if I happen
to fall into the channel is up on the dry rocks of low tide. I place
myself on a large flat rock and cast from there using either a floating
line or a sinking tip. If I use a rapidly-retrieved streamer
I switch to a sinking line.
I've often caught large trout on every cast from the channel edge
using a wooley bugger fly. After about 12 catches it actually gets
boring. But this year the shrimp were much smaller than the type
of flies I had. Unfortunately I left at home my box of small
nymphs that might otherwise have imitated the shrimp present in the
estuary. If fishing is slow I often take the first trout caught
and check his stomach content, and I'd recommend this. Thereafter
I release all trout except perhaps for a bleeder. Because the
trout are so numerous at the channel edge it's easy to conduct experiments
with various flies. Streamers work well. A fast retrieve works
best. They also take pink salmon flies. If the water
is calm, which it seldom is, I'd try a large fly called “the
bomber.” This is a popular salmon fly and works well
on char in the river and should excite the trout in the estuary channel
as well. The bomber would be a good idea for shore fishing
on a calm evening at high tide.
With trout at the channel edge the most fun is had (at least in
my view) with a floating fly that imitates a mouse!! Isaak
Walton noted in the 1600's that trout readily eat mice that happen
to fall in the water, and I've found the remains of mice, or lemmings,
in the stomachs of trout I caught up in the fresh water Leaf River. When
I've tried the mouse fly at the channel edge the trout fight one
another to get at it. This July, on my first cast with the mouse,
a large fish swept in immediately and snapped the fly off. Unfortunately
I had only one with me. The mouse is best fished with jerks that
produce lots of splashes. The technique is not elegant but
trout love it, and it's fun to observe.
Fly fishing at low tide for salmon and char:
Salmon and char can also be caught from the channel edge, but they
are out in the middle of the channel not on the edge as the trout
are. Hence long casts are required. An alternative would be to
use the boat but anchor on the north side of the channel and cast
from the boat. The char and salmon feed on shrimp if they
are numerous, and I've caught char and salmon on wooley buggers. However,
most of the time I've got them on streamer flies. I'd recommend
checking the size and color of shrimp at low tide in shallow water
and then try to match it; could be lots of fun.
When the flow of water in the channel slows down to a near stop, leave immediately; the tide has turned. It's amazing and quite scary how fast the water level will rise. Because of the lower falls, the tidal pattern is not sinusoidal at this time,
so don't expect a slow rise of water. (I can explain why with equations
and graphs if you like, but better to just believe me.)
Low tide from the boat:
At low tide one cannot bring the boat to the rocky shore;
however one can stop at the many sand bars that pop up. Fishing from sand bars is sometimes productive. On a previous trip, highly productive
fishing for char and salmon was had from the boat at a location midway
between the lodge and the lower falls, which become visible at low
tide. Char were caught on nearly every cast.
During your stay at the Leaf River Estuary I'll be reachable
by phone at 617-253-6865. Feel free to call for real-time advice.