Fly Fishing Pacific Salmon in Fresh Water
premiere full time,
I was reading the editorial section of a flyfishing magazine the other day. A gentleman from the Great Lakes area was commenting on how it was his opinion that once Pacific salmon reached freshwater they stopped feeding and thus would not take a fly anymore.
Now I should tell you I am what you might call a freedom flyer. Some anglers only fish trout streams, others prefer lakes, To some its saltwater pursuits, and on and on. Thats the beauty of flyfishing, there are so many types. None better than others - just different. My expertise is in steelhead. I will probably chase them until I can't stand up in a river anymore. Personally though, I enjoy all types. If I can cast to it, and it will eat the fly and pull hard, I'm happy. I have spent a number of years chasing different salmon species in salt and freshwater.
I would have to say the biggest knock on Pacific salmon in freshwater comes from steelhead flyfishers. You see, here in the Northwest, much of the steelhead pursuit is done with wet flies and sinktip lines. The presentation is generally the downstream swing. This technique is very effective on steelhead, only marginally so for most salmon species. So what happens? Joe angler swims his fly down through a school of salmon searching for a steelhead, feels resistance on the line, and snags an older salmon in the back. Fish is not happy, he is not happy. His conclusion? River salmon don't take the fly, they just get in the way.
This anglers thinking is flawed, and this is why. Before we get into this, lets reach a common ground. First of all, We can assume that our 5 star Alaskan lodges, who target river salmon, are catching them fair and legal. Some of these camps are miles from the saltwater. So you say, well thats Alaska!
OK, how about the Sacramento Kings, the Elk River Kings, the Satsop coho or the Skagit chums. All known as great biting fish. Yes, river salmon will take a fly. So how do you target biting river salmon?
Know thy foe: Just as steelhead have different behavioral characteristics than river rainbows, all species of river salmon have their own quirks and habits and can be caught under the right conditions. The trick is figuring out what are the "right conditions". Simply put, differs from species to species and even river to river. Here are some generalities.
Wild vs. Hatchery: In the salmon species that have longer freshwater residency such as coho or chinook, The wild fish tend to be better biters than hatchery stock. Why? Spent their juvenile life chasing bugs not pellets. This is far less prevalent in chums and pinks because their juvenile freshwater residency is so short. Sport anglers get very frustrated watching the coho hatcheries clog with fish and they cant get jack. Poor biters. If you probe around a little, you will find some river systems are known for better river salmon fisheries. The Skagit pink simply is a better biting fish than the Stilly fish, Don't know why, just are. Some salmon such as the chum salmon become aggressive as they approach sexual maturity, others like coho and kings become dour.
Adequate numbers: As my good friend Bill Jam often says, "It takes bodies". That fact is. It takes a lot more personalities of salmon than steelhead in the pool to trigger a taker. A key is to look for good populations of fish.
Taking water: Just as some rivers have better populations than others, some pools hold more fish than others. A really good chum pool may not hold chinooks worth a darn. Each species has their own preference of holding water. Every pool has area where salmon bite best. Guides call this "sweet water". Ever notice how you can have a pool full of pinks, they may be rolling everywhere, but yet you flyfish the whole pool, and there is always one or two spots where you seem to always get the most action? This is taking water. It may be a depression in the tailout, a little boulder patch below the riffle, a slot along the bank. Look for these. The reason some anglers become really good is because they fish a lot and they pay attention to taking water. These streamy areas will generally outfish frog water. Presentation: Nothing will catch you more fish, nothing will take you out of your fishing, faster than presentation. The reason the steelhead flyfisher thinks river salmon do not take the fly is because MOST RIVER SALMON ARE NOT INTERESTED IN THE DOWNSTREAM SWING. You can have on the killer fly, fish it wrong and you won't touch a thing. Does that mean there ARE presentations that are attractive to the salmon. Absolutely, but it varies from species to species. I think a lot of river salmon behavior stems from their foraging in both fresh and saltwater. Coho for example love to chase things. They tend to like a lively fly. Chinook are used to lying along deep ledges and eating easy meals that come to them. Dead drifted flies work best.
Flies: This is going to sound silly, but one of the best ways to find out what size color and presentation works best is to watch the people catching fish. I am reminded of a time fishing down in the lower Satsop for silvers. This old gentleman was anchored off, casting into a slot along the bank with a blue and silver spoon. He wasn't just catching fish. He was putting on a clinic. That evening I was back in my camper, tying up my own version of a blue and silver fly. The next morning I managed to get this very spot. I tried to duplicate the same cast and retrieve. Three casts later the rod went down. Does color really make that big a difference to the fish? Oh Yeah.
Make mine Pink please.
Pauls Estuary Humpy
Pink, Humpy, Slimy, whatever you want to call him, Oncorhynchus Gorbuscha, gathers more attention among the sport fishing community, than any other fish. Reason can be encapsulated into a single word, availability. Being mono-genic, the Humpy does return to it’s natal waters in in multiple year classes like other species. Without going into great biology detail, suffice it to say, they come back in massive numbers, every other year.
Flyfishing Pink Salmon can be intercepted in the ocean, along their migrational beaches, through the tidewater, and finally up their rivers.
I find my flyfishing in each area is approached a bit differently. It would be difficult for me to say, which fishery, I enjoy the most, because I have certainly had fine experiences in all.
For some reason, when it comes to the Stilly, I naturally gravitate towards the estuary waters downstream of a twon called Silvana.
As the tidal influence approaches upstream to this the sleepy little settlement, I like to keep tract of daily tides. Every river has their own moods, their own bite periods. For some reason, my best action tends to come on the incoming tide. Bigger the tide, bigger the push. Couple this with an early morning or late evening event, and you have the makings of the great fishing period. As the Searun Cutthroat are entering at the same time, I have had marvelous fishing switching from Pinks to SRC, pool to pool.
Flies & Technique:
I have written an entire article about SRC called Searun Cutthroat Tactics so if you are interested you might want to check that out.
For tidal water Pinks, I like to gauge the depth of the pool. I use a floating line in the shallow pools, and a sinktip if it is more than 8 feet in depth. It pays to vary your presentation on their little salmon, but like the Coho, slow but erratic is about the best. Skating surface flies is an up river show we use extensively on the Skagit. Stilly main-stem fish are not so impressed. Two of our favorites are the Humpy Killer & and the Humpy Chaser. They can both be found on Mike’s Streamsideflyshop.com
Chumsters Are Us:
A couple years ago I was fishing on the Skagit for Chum. We were catching a few on my pet patterns but nothing like the numbers of salmon we saw rolling right out in front of us. That night I stopped into the camp of a long time angler who spends even more time on the Skagit than I. He told me he was fishing the chartreuse when the light was off the water but had more luck with a purple jig with a peach colored head when it was sunny. An eggsucking leech, I thought. Every time we hooked another fish the next day, I was thanking Jim.
Quality water: No offense, but I would rather spend an hour on the Skagit on my own with a handful of fish around, than I would to be in the combat zone at Hoodsport. But thats me. Dont be afraid to explore a little. Once you have found that stream with a good population of wild fresh salmon. Look at your map for stream sections that are away from bridges and roads. Not only will you have more fun not dodging pixie spoons and buzz bombs, you will catch more fish if they are not harassed.
Experiment: I know you have heard it before but don't be afraid to experiment a little. Figure it this way. If the fishing is poor, you have nothing to lose. If the fishing is great, you may stumble onto something awesome. I have taken 3 of the five salmon species in fresh water, ON SURFACE FLIES.
So the next time your buddy thumbs his nose at you for flyfishing river salmon - just smile. He simply doesn't know what he is missing.