Article by Jeff Bright
For most of the recorded history of fly fishing on the North American West Coast, pursuing Chinook salmon on the fly has been mostly about tidewater fishing from prams with small flies and shooting heads. Prime time was during the low, slack flow periods of autumn, and standard accounts involve fly fishers lined up gunwale to gunwale, double hauling on Fenwick fiberglass and stripping size 8 Comets through pods of rolling kings. Russell Chatham’s The Angler’s Coast provides a colorful, entertaining, and literate description of the characters, the tackle, the techniques, and the scene that surrounded Chinook fly fishing’s mid-20th century heyday.
On northern California and southern Oregon rivers such as the Smith and Rogue, these estuary fisheries continue in the same tradition each fall, even if only faintly reminiscent of the glory days. Runs have shrunk to precarious levels, and fall/winter low flow closures on California rivers have drastically curtailed fishing opportunities. In these venues, a Chinook salmon upstream of tidewater darkens quickly, and is typically not a desirable game fish. Consequently, steelhead fly fishers of the region, fishing above tidewater, often looked upon — and many still do — autumn Chinooks as more nuisance than prize. In some ways, you could say, “the king” got a bum rap.
But, far to the north, there is a new movement underway, one poised to rival the cult status of modern West Coast steelheading, or at the very least, one quickly gaining a following among those same hardcore anglers devoted to swinging flies for large, wild, sea-run fish.
With the popularization of modern two-handed rods, and user-friendly Skagit-style specialty lines, many of the limitations that kept anglers from the best Chinook fly-fishing opportunities in the past have been minimized. We can now deliver massive flies impressive distances. And we can sink those flies to previously unthinkable depths even in heavy flows.
In recent years, steelhead and Atlantic salmon anglers are finding it an easy, natural, and exciting transition to “swing for kings” when and where kings are the most aggressive and receptive to flies. This is during the high-water periods of late spring and early summer in Alaska and British Columbia, and to a somewhat lesser degree on a few rivers south of the Canadian border.
Where & When:
The first hot chance of the year to swing for kings happens on the Skeena system. The Kitsumkalum River feeds the main stem Skeena at the town of Terrace, BC, and hosts a run of “springer” Chinook salmon. Headed for canyon pools of feeder streams above Kitsumkalum Lake, these Chinooks enter the Skeena and the lower pools of the “Kalum” as early as late March. The best fishing is normally in late April and throughout May. If the tug is the drug, Kalum springers may provide the highest of highs. These special, rugged fish stay bright and aggressive for weeks, haunt steelhead runs, and hit flies with a vengeance.
While the Kalum offers the best early spring opportunity, elsewhere throughout Alaska and British Columbia, snowmelt floods of June and early July bring in summer runs and the bulk of the fish.
Compared to steelhead and Atlantic salmon, Chinooks quickly lose interest in flies the longer they’ve been in fresh water. On the contrary, when first entering the river, only a few tides removed from voracious ocean feeding, Chinooks can actually be more aggressive than steelhead. Find a river with a strong run of spring or summer kings, coupled with sweet swinging runs within a mile or so of tidewater, and you have the primary ingredients for a great Chinook salmon destination.
The consensus among guides and experienced Chinook fly fishers is that rods should be short and stout, and reels should be able to stop a speeding truck. In Chinook fly fishing, more so than in any other fresh water fly fishing, your reel’s braking capability can play a huge role in whether or not you ever see the fish you’ve hooked. If it sticks or doesn’t react precisely to on-the-fly adjustments, don’t use it.
A guide endorsed rig might consist of a 13-foot double-handed rod for a 9- or 10-weight line, a saltwater reel capable of holding over 200 yards of 30-pound backing, 100 feet of 30-pound-test running line, a 650- to 750-grain Skagit head, and a sinking tip made of 10 to 20 feet of T-14, T-17, or T-20, if you really want to get down and dirty. RIO’s Heavy MOW Tips use the same tungsten “T” designation but come in a neatly packaged set of tips with different lengths of sinking line and a rear floating portion you can loop directly to your Skagit line. The floating-to-floating connection reduces the hinging effect you can get while casting, and as a result, MOW Tips have become incredibly popular with Chinook anglers.
To connect the fly, use a short section of 20- or 25-pound nylon monofilament. Long leaders allow your fly to ride up, short leaders keep your fly right in the face of prospective customers.
On the business end of the leader, specific fly pattern is generally not critical. But design is. Large silhouette, ample flash and movement, and varying degrees of buoyancy are key elements in the construction of an effective Chinook fly. Intruders, rabbit leeches, and wrapped marabou on tubes or shanks with #1 to 1/0 trailing hooks are the most common. Blue and chartreuse is a killer combination, and standard steelhead colors such as pink, orange, red, purple, black, and blue will all work at one time or another.
An ocean-bright chinook over 20 pounds — they’ll go 60 or better, depending on the river — will test your skill, as well as every element of your tackle. A landing rate of 50 percent is commendable. Unless you’re very lucky, you just don’t land all the fish you hook.
Each item in your rig is important in the equation. However, paying close attention to three things can greatly improve the score.
1) Leader material should always be fresh and leaders changed every day and after every fish. Intense summer sun and the abrasive glacial rivers can quickly cloud monofilament and weaken it.
2) Choose burly knots such as a triple surgeon’s for looping leaders to sink tips and use a no-slip mono loop at the fly. Chinook salmon tend to hold in deeper, structured runs, and your leader will spend a good deal of time grinding on the stones. A visibly abraded knot will likely fail and should be immediately retied. Snap-test all mono knots each morning and frequently throughout the day.
3) Use heavy-wire, short-shank hooks such as the Mustad 60500BLN size 1/0 for both tube and shank-style flies and use a proper hook hone to keep them sharp. Thinner-wire hooks may be sharper out of the package, but they will bend open and can continue cutting, perhaps even completely though the mandible of a Chinook over the course of a protracted battle. In my experience with spring and summer Chinooks, there is little issue getting the hook to penetrate — grabs can be thunderous. Keeping the hook the in, however, is a different matter.
King salmon are notoriously strong, and undoubtedly, there is a physical requirement in pursuing them with a fly rod. But often it is the diligent, meticulous angler who earns the most time with a hooked fish.
When it comes to finding migratory fish in rivers, there are no absolutes. The fish that takes your fly could have been on the move, resting short term, or holding long term. When first entering rivers, chinook can occasionally be encountered in classic steelhead water as they move upriver, but there are general guidelines for targeting the highest percentage water.
Chinook are indeed kings of the river. Unless being harassed by a seal, or the water is extremely clear or turbid, they can and will be hanging out wherever they want, i.e., in the most comfortable water available. The eye or gut of a pool where the flow is softest is a prime lie, as are the seams between fast water and slack water, such as where the main flow meets a slack side channel or slough. In the latter scenario, chinook can sometimes be found rolling in the slough just off the main flow and can be enticed to bite with a stripped fly, especially one with jigging action.
Water clarity is a critical factor in moving a chinook to a fly. Often times, when the river is high and dirty — dirtier than you might think fishable — fishing can be best. When flows are bank-to-bank, running in that opaque, dirty green shade, chinook can be almost anywhere. And when they’re pouring in from the sea, it can seem like they are almost everywhere; there’ll be holding fish in the guts, moving fish in the runs and riffles, resting fish under the seams and fish pausing for a breath in the tailouts. Being school fish, chinook have a tendency toward groupthink; if one’s on the bite, they may all be on the bite. On the flip side, when the water goes clean under a bright, blue sky, chinook go spooky — at a much quicker rate than steelhead. When visibility runs over 4–5 feet, that giant 6-inch flashy intruder you were slaying with a few days ago will be completely ignored. If they haven’t already blasted upstream, the chinook will have moved into the deepest heaviest water and be on their guard. In this situation, hope there are steelhead around to target, or stick it out with heavy tips under the heads of the deep runs and size down your flies significantly.
Flight & Fight:
So, you’re rigged and ready. You’ve waded into position to cover the soft, choppy bucket below the heavy riffle. Now what? If you’ve fished for winter steelhead with fast-sinking tips, you’ll know exactly what to do. The goal is to get the fly deep in a hurry, present it broadside to the fish, and keep it deep for as long as you can. Ideally, it goes like this . . .
I cast roughly square to the current — or slightly up or down depending on current speed and the depth of the water. Immediately after the fly lands, I raise the rod tip to lift the running line and back end of the Skagit head and, without dropping the rod tip, I make an upstream mend. This minimizes the amount of line on the fast surface current and allows the tip time to sink and pull the fly down into the slower current toward the river bottom.
Then, keeping light tension on the line, I follow with the rod tip as the line moves downstream. As I follow, I release a few feet of line into the drift and take a couple of steps downstream, still managing light tension on the line with a high rod tip. (Stepping downstream at this point allows the fly to sink even deeper.)
As the line nears 45 degrees, I ease the rod tip down and extend my arm toward the fly, which is now at maximum depth, entering the lair of the beast, flashing and fluttering in full silhouette. From here, as the fly starts to swing, I lead the Skagit head slightly toward the bank on my side of the river. This keeps the fly swimming deep and broadside to the current — and as it begins to pick up speed and “flee” toward shore, hopefully triggers a predatory response from any chinook holding in the bucket.
As the fly swings toward the bank, I feel a violent, heavy yank. No need to drop a loop of line or wait for the fish to eat the fly. I simply hold on with the running line pinched in my fingers. This is a BIG PULL. The rod comes up reflexively and the hook bores into the salmon. The fish starts thrashing, my adrenaline starts pumping…and now comes the moment of truth.
Many experienced Chinook fly fishers claim the only way to win the game is stand your ground from the start, never let the fish turn its head downstream. This takes a reserve of concentrated strength, an unfailing reel, flawless knots, and maybe more than anything, a willingness to watch your $1,000 graphite rod shatter into a thousand slivers.
If you take this course, drop the rod low to the side and bend it into the cork. Then be prepared to go at it for a good long while. If you can, drop the rod tip into the water, and make the fish fight the current dragging on the line in addition to your pressure. If you have room, you may eventually be able to slowly back up onto a gravel bar and wrestle the fish into the shallows. If not, take it inch by inch. Winch it in. If nothing breaks, the fish will eventually surrender.
Alternately, if you’re confident you can follow, or think you may be able to recover miles of backing without your wrist and forearm seizing, you can let the fish run. This is the decision I most often make — or, I should say, the decision the fish makes for me. Stopping a 30-pound Chinook from turning in heavy current is quite a feat. Stopping one over 40 pounds is truly manly. And stopping one over 50 rarely happens. Once a Chinook gets its head turned away from you and can use both its power and the force of the current to run away from you, you’re in for the ride of a lifetime, but it’s not always the end of the show.
Nothing tires a fish faster than a sprint, especially a manic sprint against heavy resistance. If the fish runs and you can increase the brake on the spool as it’s running — keep your fingers out of the spinning handle — you may be able to tire the fish more quickly than if you held it close. Frequently, this means you’ll have to run after it while reeling faster than you’ve ever reeled. Remember, a sprint downstream can also tire you out; hopefully you’ve got more energy reserves than the fish at the other end of the line. If the fish gets too far gone, though, forget it. You will eventually need to get an angle on the fish to pull it sideways and be able to land it. If it gets several hundred yards downstream, your only salvation is a boat to help you close the distance.
No matter how you play it, meeting a Chinook on the fly is a wild, exhilarating ride — often brief, occasionally epic, but always an experience to savor. Sometimes the river allows you a moment of glory, most times it doesn’t. A king salmon is a creature of amazing power and determination. Some of them absolutely refuse to stop running, and leave you only to clamp down, break off the fly, and tip your cap. After all, only the king gets to wear the crown.
Jeff Bright is a photographer, freelance writer, conservationist, avid steelheader and a true Salmon Junkie. He hosts more than a dozen expeditions for anadromous fish annually, from the Skeena River to Tierra del Fuego to the Kola Peninsula. He is the author of Found in a River: Steelhead & Other Revelations (Frank Amato Publications, 2002).