Fish Facts: Landlocked Salmon (Salmo salar sebago)

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Greg Miller reeled in this world-record-caliber landlocked salmon in northern Michigan.

Photo courtesy Greg Miller

The Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) is revered for its sporting qualities, especially its propensity for going airborne when hooked—earning it the nickname “The Leaper.” Although the landlocked members of the species are generally much smaller and leaner than their oceangoing counterparts, landlocked salmon (Salmo salar sebago) share this tendency to take to the air as soon as they feel the hook. In fact, anglers drifting nymphs will often see the fish out of the water before the strike indicator even moves. “Landlocks,” as they are commonly known, are native to just a few lake systems in the Northeast, but they have been transplanted throughout the world to offer anglers a chance to tangle with a very close relative of “The Fish of Kings.”

Range and Life History
In the U.S., landlocked salmon were originally found in four Maine lake systems—Sebago, Green, Sebec, and Grand—as well as in Lake Champlain and Lake Ontario watersheds. According to Dr. Robert Behnke, the Lake Ontario population was the largest, but was extinct by about 1900 as a result of mill dams, pollution, and commercial fishing. Native landlock populations also exist in eastern Canada, Scandinavia, and eastern Russia. (In Canada and parts of northern Maine, landlocks are called ouananiche.) Nowadays, more than 175 lakes and 44 rivers in Maine are listed as prime landlock fisheries—although only about 50 are supported by natural reproduction—and you can even find the species in New Zealand and the mountains of Argentina.

Although biologists once believed that landlocks were “glaciomarine relicts,” trapped by rising land and dropping sea levels some 10,000 years ago, more recent evidence suggests that certain Atlantic salmon simply stopped going to the ocean. This view is supported by the fact that all four of the original native lakes in Maine offered some access to the ocean before they were dammed. So it seems as if some fish simply decided to become “voluntarily landlocked,” a behavioral change that scientists have yet to fully explain.

Per Westerlund shows off a fine landlocked salmon from the river Klarälven in Sweden.

Photo by Jan Hagman

Young landlocked salmon spend one to four years as stream-dwellers before migrating to a lake, where their growth rate is determined by the availability of baitfish. In Maine, the principal forage is rainbow smelt, and it is the passage of these fish through dams that helps maintain fisheries in tailwaters. Those lakes that do not have other smelt-eaters, such as lake trout, produce the largest landlocks.

Landlocks are fall spawners, but their spawning patterns are not well understood. Samples of spawning fish show fish from one to ten years old, and the vast majority are on their first spawning run. Biologists believe that salmon may spawn in consecutive or alternate years, some may spawn in consecutive years then skip a year, and some may skip two or three years between spawnings. In most places, fishing is closed during spawning to protect landlock populations.

Steelhead of the Atlantic
From a taxonomic perspective, there are actually no major differences between Atlantic salmon and landlocks, which are sometimes called “landlocked Atlantic salmon.” They are the same species, although there are some genetic differences. The relationship of the two is similar to that of rainbow trout and steelhead (both Oncorhynchus mykiss), in which it is life history and behavior, rather than genetics, that distinguishes the two. Whereas Atlantic salmon are anadromous—meaning they live in the ocean and return to streams to spawn—landlocks are potadromous, using large lakes as stand-ins for the ocean. However, not all salmon spend most of their lives in lakes; resident stream populations thrive and behave much like the trout that often live alongside the salmon.

Jackie Jordan is all smiles, as she hoists a gorgeous Vermont fish.

Photo courtesy Jackie Jordan

Tailwater Dwellers
The best fishing for river-dwelling landlocks is on tailwaters, such as the Rapid River or the East Outlet of the Kennebec, which drain massive lake systems and therefore have large populations of smelt. In moving water, salmon behave somewhat like brown trout: in general, smaller fish will rise to dry flies, while the bigger specimens lurk below, waiting for meatier offerings. There are many traditional streamer patterns designed to imitate smelt—such as the Ballou Special, Nine-Three, and Magog Smelt—but the most famous of all is the Gray Ghost, created in 1924 by Carrie Stevens, the wife of a fishing guide who lived at Upper Dam, Maine, on the banks of a short tailrace between Mooselookmeguntic and Upper Richardson Lakes.

Flies and Tactics
Landlocks don’t grow as large as their sea-run cousins, generally running between 12 and 20 inches, although much larger specimens can be found in big lakes. The IGFA all-tackle world record, from a lake in Sweden, is 23 pounds 11 ounces, and the largest landlock taken with a fly rod, in Labrador, weighed in at 7.5 pounds.

Anglers using dry flies or nymphs generally choose the same patterns they would use for brown trout, but there are well-established streamer tactics tailored specifically to landlocks. The traditional stillwater method involves trolling smelt patterns behind a boat or canoe, a tactic so productive that it is outlawed on some lakes. Whereas large, bulky streamers fill the boxes most brown-trout anglers, more streamlined smelt imitations work better for landlocks. The featherwing patterns developed at the beginning of the last century still in wide use today.

Carrie Stevens’s Gray Ghost is still a favorite pattern among landlock anglers, 90 years after it was first tied.

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