Adult, mutli-sea-winter (MSW) Atlantic salmon fish can be captured by hand tailing. This is accomplished by wrapping your hand and around the “wrist” of their tail (known as the caudal peduncle), just in front of the tail fin, much as you would grasp your own left wrist with your right hand just in front of your hand. The tail fin on an MSW fish has developed stiff exterior rays, and prevents the fish from slipping through.
Atlantic salmon that have only spent one winter at sea before returning to the river to spawn are known as grilse. Grilse are smaller, usually from 20 – 24 inches in length, and have not yet developed this stiffness in the tail fin’s exterior rays. A sure way to tell a big grilse from a small salmon is to check the development of the tail fin exterior rays. If they are stiff, and don’t collapse when you try to squeeze them together, it’s a salmon. But if they collapse, it’s a grilse.
Because of this lack of development in the exterior caudal fin rays of a grilse, if you try to “tail” a grilse with this conventional method, the tail fin collapses and he’ll squirt right out of your grasp!
But if your guide is not handy with the net when you’re about to land your grilse, you still can hand tail him using the technique I call the “Vulcan Grilse Grip”. Make a “V” or a “peace sign” by extending your index and middle finger of your dominant hand. With thumb extended, slide this “V” so one finger is on the top and the other along the bottom of the caudal peduncle. Now quickly wrap the thumb around and close the rest of your hand as if you’re trying to make a fist. You should now have a firm grasp on the fish! I’m not sure why this works, but it does.
A word of caution, never lift a salmon or a grilse you plan to release clear out of the water by the tail. This can cause internal damage. Please use hand tailing only as a means of securing the salmon in the water so you can remove the fly and properly release into the current. If you want to lift a salmon for a photo, use your other hand to gently support the body of the fish, and lift no more than a few inches from the water and for no more than a few seconds.
Many thanks to angling great Larry Solomon, co-author of the classic “The Caddis and the Angler”, for showing me this technique over 20 years ago on the Nepisiguit River.
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