The first and one of the last salmon of Asón river

Written by: Álvaro Santillán

Chances are that you have never heard about Atlantic salmon in Spain. No worries, there is a good reason for that, sadly. 

The Atlantic salmon population in Spain is the farthest southern population in the world and it occupies most of the rivers flowing into the Atlantic Ocean in the North of Spain. This region is known as Cantabric area and it gets its name from the Cantabric sea. 

This population is as well one of the oldest populations of Atlantic salmon in the world. Scientists think that during the last glacial age, these were the only rivers that were able to maintain the conditions needed for the survival of the species because the rest of the rivers in Europe, further north, were frozen.

Anyway, that’s history, as well as the numbers that we got left in our rivers. Only some decades ago, most of the rivers in this region presented thousands of catches per season. And those ones were only the legal ones, because the economy of the valleys were supported for this incredible silver run and many families had to get as many salmon as they could. How? That did not matter. Trains full of salmon came and went from Madrid and other big cities. Over and over.

In those old good days, a tradition was born. When the first salmon of the season was caught, the church bells echoed loudly to celebrate that the salmon run had started and that gave the name to that first fish of the season. It was called “Campanu”, which in Spanish means “The one that makes the bells ring”, and it was a reason for celebration because that meant that the money will start to flow again. Nowadays the tradition is still on, and in many villages we celebrate with a fishing fair and an auction with the first salmon of the season that usually gets prices between 1 000 € to 10 000 €. That is also the only salmon that can be sold legally.

Some decades later, these healthy populations have changed. Our rivers are almost collapsed due to pollution, dams, droughts and of course, fishing pressure.

A good example of the situation is my home river, the Asón. In this river, only 60 years ago, more than 1 000 salmon were caught per season. Only 40 years later, we had the worst season in the history: 7 salmon. Nowadays the situation is a little bit better and the government decided to establish a quota of 35 fish per season. Although during many seasons, that limit has not been reached. For example, this season, today 19th of May, since 1st of April only 6 salmon has been caught and this article is about the first of them. The “Campanu” of the Asón. 

Almost one month had gone since the opening day, and no salmon had been caught. We had spotted some in the big pools, swimming around, but the low water and its temperature makes fishing almost impossible. 

The weather forecast announced rain for the night, and that afternoon the river was rising around 50 centimeters, although it got some murky color. With that water flow, many pools are tricky to fish. Our banks are covered with trees and low branches and you have to wade deep to get some room behind. Since a couple of years ago my fishing has become much easier. The Guideline ULS system makes these places possible to fish, places that were impossible years ago. Even more, the casting experience with a 10´ hybrid rod with an Ultra Light Scandi line, short and compact head is enjoyable, fun and effective. It is not only about the casting itself. When you have to cover pocket water or runs that are broken by different stones, ripples and back eddies, that short length of the head helps a lot when it comes to playing with the line, mending constantly and keeping the shooting head suspended while you play with your rod tip.

I started fishing the pool with a ULS 3D+ F/H/S3 but after some drifts I was not happy with my choice. The swing was too slow for the conditions, so I quickly changed to a floating set up with a long tapered 12´ leader and little heavier fly with a tungsten cone. I choose a ULS Multi Tip system in this case, because that floating body will make the swing faster in the upcoming rounds when I will fish deeper, just changing the tip of the set up. With this full float set up I would make the swing much faster and I could control the depth of the fly easily, mending upstream if that was needed because the tungsten head of the fly will drop it fast to the desired depth. Or at least, that is what I am hoping for.

Only a few minutes later the fish was on. And after a nice fight, I held the “Campanu” in my hands. Something really special for someone who has been fishing this river since 26 years ago. I let it go back, and the salmon said goodbye to with a nice tail shake.

After all, this has been the first Campanu in the history of Spain that has been C&R, which makes me proud of leading this movement of anglers who are really worried about conservation and the sustainability of our rivers. Right now, even with the current situation of our populations, less than 10% of anglers practice C&R and hopefully my small contribution could be a sign with a big ripple effect that could help our rivers, and transform their management into something more sustainable.

1 Comment

  1. Good article, Alvaro!
    A Spanish is still on my bucket list, but I feel it’s better to leave them alone.

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