The Ring magazine, established in 1922, has maintained a list of the best boxers, pound for pound, since Mike Tyson laced up the gloves. A subjective valuation, the magazine’s P4P ranking is a popular metric of the best fighters relative to their weight. How would Muhammad Ali fare against Floyd Mayweather Jr. if they boxed in the same weight class? We will never know, but it sure is fun to speculate.
We anglers are equally invested in our favorite fighters. It just so happens that our combatants are of the aquatic and gilled variety. So let’s get ready to rumble with our own P4P ranking. I present to you the challenger in the pelagic corner: the Atlantic salmon.
The binomial name of Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, is derived in part from the Latin verb salire (to leap). The prodigious aerial displays of the Atlantic salmon provide them with their popular nickname: the Leaper. Blessed with speed and an instinct to take to the air when threatened, Atlantic salmon exhibit an affinity for Louganis-like twists, somersaults and single gainers. If you’re up to your waist in the river, time stands still while the fish performs its unrehearsed routine above your head. The effect is mesmerizing. It’s standard fare in the moment to forget to bow to the silver king of fresh water, which can end a promising relationship before it begins. Based on takeoff, elevation and execution, the judges in our unofficial P4P ranking assign a perfect score to the Leaper in the category of aerial acrobatics.
Not all Atlantic salmon go to the moon. Some go horizontal. What possesses one salmon to leap like a jumping bean and another to turn tail and head back to the ocean like a feline afire is a mystery that I hope I never figure out. Scientists estimate that Atlantic salmon can reach 25 mph at top speed, which is a lot faster than you or I can run, unless we’re being chased by a bear. I’ve watched salmon cartwheeling down rapids while I stare at the suddenly visible arbor of my reel. In a moment of uncharacteristic maturity, I usually try to convince myself that I don’t need to land a fish that badly. Broken ankles mean one thing in basketball and something altogether more painful in fishing. It’s not a bad idea to keep your leaders light so that you can break off a speed demon if you have to. Score another one for the salmon. Full marks for acceleration, top speed and using the terrain to their advantage.
My personal bête noire is the salmon that does none of these things. A salmon that goes horizontal can often be landed fairly quickly after a long run, providing you can keep up. The same holds true for a salmon that expends its stores of anaerobic energy in the air. A salmon that sticks its nose into the deepest part of the pool and settles in for a protracted fight usually results in a pulling contest, where your odds of success are determined by the lifting power of your rod, the strength of your muscles and the integrity of your connection to the salmon. I seem to lose these battles with regularity.
I had a stalemate with an exceptionally large cock salmon on the Restigouche River in New Brunswick, who shook his head for 20 minutes and refused to budge from his lair. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard a graphite rod begin to whine and creak as it contemplated implosion. I jinxed it by saying to the guide, “This is the largest salmon I’ve ever hooked,” at which point the hook pulled from the mouth of the beast. Oh, the agony of defeat! Not quite the agony of defeat as in the cartwheeling skier during the opening sequence of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, but close.
Occasionally, you encounter a salmon that scores a perfect 10 in all categories on the judges’ scorecards. These are the “rest-home fish” — the ones that you’ll remember when your athletic endeavors include rousing games of shuffleboard. I hooked such a fish on the Restigouche while probing the limits of my casting ability with a 15-foot 10-weight. The fish ran deep into my backing, leaping in the next pool upstream of the one in which I was standing.
The imperative to migrate upstream is particularly strong for early-season salmon, but so is the instinct to return to the sea. The salmon screamed downstream past me while I stripped backing and dumped it into the current in a futile attempt to stay tight to the fish. I made it to shore and ran as fast as a middle-aged guy can run in sodden waders to the tail of the pool, where, thankfully, the salmon stopped. A pulling contest (see above) commenced for the next 15 minutes, with each combatant exchanging body blows.
I finally tailed the creature, all 38 pounds of him, and removed the hook embedded in his scissors. I carefully held him in waist-deep water to facilitate his recovery. He disappeared into the belly of the pool within five seconds, but not before delivering a swift kick to the groin to let me know what he thought of the proceedings.
The judges went to their scorecards and pronounced it a draw. I headed to the local watering hole to facilitate my own recovery.
Read about the other fish in our "Who's the Toughest?" survey here (updated as fish are added):