Pacific Salmon on Flies - By Dennis Dickson
Pacific Salmon on Flies
By Dennis Dickson
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. That’s 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 that’s 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.
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 that’s me. Don’t 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.
Article courtesy of Dennis Dickson at Fly Fishing Steelhead and Salmon Guide for Washington - Skagit, Stilly, Sky, OP and Grande Ronde River - Stilly,Sky, Skagit Rivers
Re: Pacific Salmon on Flies - By Dennis Dickson
Yeah Dennis, salmon rock! :)
I've nailed 'em with a fly up in Alaska, in British Columbia and have inadvertently hooked a few while fishing for steelhead here in eastern Washington. They certainly will take a fly, and they'll give one heck of a fight!
Re: Pacific Salmon on Flies - By Dennis Dickson
Good article by someone who has caught Salmon on the fly. Kings will take a dead drift fly if it is put in there mouth. Silvers love flies and they are no problem with catching them. Reds may be the hardest to entice with a fly but in Alaska with millions passing by it is not hard to get a taker. I mentioned on another post about floating a fly under a red and getting a take when it comes out on the other side of the fish. This is a trick taught to me by the owner of Ole Creek lodge in Alaska. Even if Salmon do not eat in fresh water they will respond with a reaction strike much like bass.
Re: Pacific Salmon on Flies - By Dennis Dickson
A good article Mr. Dickson.
I live in Wasilla Alaska and fish my States waters for Salmon every year. I should tell you that I have been fishing nothing but flies that I tie since 1975. Prior to that I would still use a baited hook if I thought it would be more effective than an artificial. Those were my Jack of All Trades years.
Without digressing too far into the "I've been doing this long before some of you were born" presentation I'll get to the real point. I fish every year from the Mat Su Valley and the Kenai Peninsula to Kodiak Island and I catch all four species of Salmon and the Steelhead Trout that run our rivers. I catch them on streamers and attractor patterns such as Comets. Sometimes I catch fish on greased Muddlers or Bombers skidded across the surface but always I catch fish because they take the fly!
When I find fish who won't take it there seem to be underlying circumstances that usually are related to human pressure on the fish. Salmon, Trout, Char, or for that much few fish that I've ever encountered will take a bite of food when spooked. If you are hovering directly over a King Salmon regardless of how far it is from the salt, it usually won't take a fly or anything else for that matter.
I don't experience trouble often at getting the fly into the fish's mouth but then I labor long and hard to put myself as far from the maddening crowds as possible. I also go to great lengths to hide my presence from the fish regardless of where they were born. Any fish who does not know I'm attached to the fly, or for that much even present at all, is usually a fish about to be caught.
In a nut shell, try to find a fish, don't let it see you, make a good cast so to present the fly close to the fish and wham mo, a Salmon will take the fly.
By the way, I've never even had one of those plastic beads tied on any of my rods. Those aren't flies boys and if you use them to catch Trout, Char, Or Steelies, I'm not impressed. Beads are are for necklaces and desperate people who I would prefer to see play golf, not pretend to fly fish.
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