Thoughts on salmon behavior;

Ard

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This may come as a surprise to you but I spend almost as much time watching the water as I do fishing. I've been this way for a long time and it helped me to become pretty good at trout fishing, it's also been important when applied to salmon. It's king salmon time here and every year I find myself fishing with someone who is new to these fish and this year is no different.

I think it's a safe guess that anyone who has been around a river that has kings or silvers for that matter has seen fish display themselves. Jumping, rolling the head and tail dip move and of course the big slosh or splash you didn't see but heard. I've heard about every old wives tale and hairbrained explanation for why these fish display or jump and the craziest was they are hens trying to loosen up their eggs. Now you gotta admit that seems a bit far fetched doesn't it?

Because I'm a watcher of waters I see a lot of fish doing a lot of things and I've seen plenty of jumping and flopping salmon. For years I only saw this behavior on trips to Lake Ontario tributary rivers or in rivers like Margaree and Miramichi when I took long distance salmon trips. Now I've been here in Alaska for 17 seasons where there are more of the species available both to fish for and to observe so observe I do ;)

I've developed a thought or theory if you like about what makes these fish display and instead of just telling the guy in the boat with me I'll share this with the people who will find and click this thread. From the time a salmon is an egg until approximately 2 years later (for kings and silvers) they reside in the natal stream. Then as a smolt they for reasons unknown to them are inspired to migrate downstream until they reach the ocean. There in the ocean waters they will live, feed and grow for up to 4 years and sometimes longer. So we have 2 years the first of which was spent egg to fry to fingerling and the second as a smolt followed by 4 years at sea becoming an adult fish. The ocean, a deep water environment, essentially a place with no bottom where they live and feed anywhere between 60 or more feet of depth and the surface area. Then there's another of those things they do something else that they don't really understand, they swim to the mouth of a river carrying their natal water and they go back into fresh water and upstream. There in the fresh water they haven't experienced for years they will finish the sexual maturity process and undergo some morphological changes as well. They will be fished for by men and in some streams by bears, many will die but some will reproduce. But we see them jump and roll and flop before any of the dying or reproducing happens don't we?

So here's what I think. I think there are two main conditions that prompt or elicit the display behavior we witness when salmon jump and roll. When I can get on a high bank and look into water without color and see just one or two lone fish sitting on the bottom in the current they generally just sit still. I've not ever seen a lone fish just decide to jump from the water for fun. When there are a bunch of fish congregating in the same area which is their way this is when you will see some activity. They sit there and they can see one another. They can feel one another via the hydraulic waves sensed through the lateral lines and as new fish join the pod from the rear there is more movement. Someone gets too close to someone else and someone bolts. Now the stage is set for multiple fish to go racing around a bit and this is when I see someone break the surface. The other factor I believe comes into play is that after years of living in that bottomless world they are now relegated to water depths sometimes less than six feet. I think they would like deeper water and once there becomes some crowding in a lie / resting area some test the ceiling and break the surface in that process.

Since I'm writing thoughts I'll share one about the bite. I've heard a lot of stories about why a salmon, especially a Pacific Salmon takes a fly. The most ridiculous one to me is the "They get mad and hit it" story. I don't believe fish get angry just like I don't believe they get sad. With the kings sometimes they just will not bite but when they do I've never seen any cruising around a run looking for something to hit. They are either sitting tight or in the process of making slow upstream movement and you have to get that fly close. The fact that the fly has to be within feet of a fish's front not its side or behind it can make it seem like either they aren't biting or there are none where you are swinging that fly. A river is a big place and a fish only occupies a very small slot of space in that very big place. That is why you have to fish slowly and patiently searching for that sweet spot in the water where that fly ends up just a few feet in front of a fish. I think the grab is just the product of years of conditioning from feeding and when the fly enters what I just called the sweet spot some fish react by grabbing hold of it. Another thing I ponder is whether parts of present runs and future runs will be genetically pre disposed not to bite on lures or flies alike. The reason I entertained this idea is simple, when anglers were allowed to harvest the kings here I never saw one released other than by anglers fishing with me. Every single fish I've ever seen reeled in here was bonked or allowed to suffocate on shore never left go. So biters get killed and only those fish that did not grab the Blue Fox or Vibrex get to lay eggs and from their progeny will come more biters. Eventually as the fishing pressure increases those biters will get clubbed too but the non-biters will get to breed albeit in fewer numbers. I think it's an evolutionary conclusion that there will one day be way more non-biters than biters as the biters are culled from the population. This has been going on here for only about one hundred years, rod and reel fishing that is, prior to that nearly all fish harvesting was done with nets or weirs. Since the 1960's the harvest on the natal waters has continued to grow and over the past 20 years the population in South Central Alaska has doubled from what it was near the end of the 20th century and the salmon populations reflect the pressure. If I live another 20 years I'll just be watching them and I'm quietly rooting for the non-biters unless that is my that just entered the sweet spot ;)
 

flytie09

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Some good thoughts. Fortunately for you Ard you get to fish for unpressured Salmon and can formulate a hypothesis and cater certain techniques to target them using sporting methods.

I only fish Great Lakes Salmon. I don’t fish for them early on in their run when they will very much hit a fly. My thoughts are they are not far removed from feeding in the Lake on baitfish. You can elicit a strike by the cat and mouse analogy I commonly use for Steelhead. As they make their way upriver to the hatchery or upper spawning grounds….this cat and mouse aggressive strike wanes. They will strike but it has to be early light or they have to have been unmolested for a while. This is where strikes from annoyance or more so from protectionism of their redds and eggs. However, this is where the moral dilemma kicks in. Should you target this fish that are making their last push? For me…… I don’t. I target the areas below where freshly arriving fish have moved in or other species like Browns and Steelhead tend to be.

As far as why Kings boil, roll or get feisty. Perhaps they are anxious, sensed something bad in their proximity, or know it’s showtime. Who knows? I don’t think it’s hunger in any way.

The best answer I heard was this Spring….. they jump because they don’t have middle fingers.
 

ddb

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Has anyone patterned the jumping behavior to a particular stage of migration? That is, do kings jump more when in their early stages of migrating to spawning sites; in holding/rest phases on the way; or actually on the scene during mating?

I have noticed when camping on the Pere Marquette that the jumps and surface wallowing sounds are vastly more common at night than in the day time. And the area in question was full of redds. Listening to them is a great way to fall asleep.
 

flav

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I spent 15 years on L Michigan chasing salmon and steelhead, and the next 20 years in Oregon pursuing mostly steelhead. I've seen a lot of fish roll, jump, and splash. Steelhead roll and splash just as much as salmon, there's just way fewer of them so you see it less often. I've heard the theories that they're loosening eggs, trying to remove sea lice, or that they're excited. I never really worried about why they do it, since it never meant they were actively feeding. I have always appreciated that they do it, though, because in the rivers I fish steelhead are hard to locate, are very hard to see, and at least a rolling fish shows me that fish are present.

Ard, I've heard that theory about biters being removed from the gene pool before, but mostly pertaining to hatchery fish. The fish that make it back to the hatchery are the ones that head straight upstream, not stopping to rest along the way, where they have a chance to be caught. Fish that move upstream more slowly (like a wild fish often does) and are more likely to bite, are caught and harvested. This has created strains of hatchery fish where the biters have been removed and the fish head quickly upstream, providing very few opportunities to catch them unless you fish just below the hatchery.
 

Ard

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Has anyone patterned the jumping behavior to a particular stage of migration? That is, do kings jump more when in their early stages of migrating to spawning sites; in holding/rest phases on the way; or actually on the scene during mating?

I have noticed when camping on the Pere Marquette that the jumps and surface wallowing sounds are vastly more common at night than in the day time. And the area in question was full of redds. Listening to them is a great way to fall asleep.
I could have continued with observations until I'd covered every single possibility but to attempt answering what you posed, early on there may be very few fish in any one location. This is when they seem to just lay chilly. Once more fish enter the system and eventually the lying chilly spot the activity seems to pick up. As they continue to sexually mature and hens begin the nesting area selection there are pheromones' being secreted into the water that alerts males to the coming readiness of those hens and this will draw multiple males into the same area. Once the males start the jousting and sparring activity there will be plenty for us to see on the surface. The nighttime activity you hear from your camp may be the result of them using the low light period to stage into runs and pools prior to moving on upstream. This would fit my 'when it gets crowded' theory and there always seems to me more activity when there are more bodies in a given spot.

Sometimes I see silvers and sockeye's jump during the upstream run but again this usually signals that there are quite a few moving at once. On the contrary I watched over 1200 silvers mixed with over 600 Chums swim past on a perfect channel while I had a guy fishing and not one fish jumped or would consider a fly. They just kept moving in an orderly file upstream at about 3 mph. I am aware of the number we saw because that large pod of fish had just passed through a research station one mile down river and both the Techs working were friends of mine. When I ask how many they had passed on my way downstream they told me that count.

Sometimes when I'm ask why they jump I just say 'because they can' because all of these pontifications and theorizing can be pretty heavy stuff in answer to a simple question :)

Ard, I've heard that theory about biters being removed from the gene pool before, but mostly pertaining to hatchery fish. The fish that make it back to the hatchery are the ones that head straight upstream, not stopping to rest along the way, where they have a chance to be caught. Fish that move upstream more slowly (like a wild fish often does) and are more likely to bite, are caught and harvested. This has created strains of hatchery fish where the biters have been removed and the fish head quickly upstream, providing very few opportunities to catch them unless you fish just below the hatchery.
I think you said that better than I did but here it is the wild stock that survives only if they stay on the move. I mentioned above about being passed by some 1700 salmon with zero interest in what my angler had to offer, those are the movers. These rivers are pretty long, the one where that happened is over 120 miles and there are many areas where you can't safely take a jet boat. It is those areas that keep these meager runs alive I think. All the people wanting to slay the kings and silvers can be thankful I'm not in control of the rules or there would be no harvest until I had these runs recovered fully which may take longer than I will live if ever.
 
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thom

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Not being knowledgeable regards why salmon bite and jump this is all very interesting. Fishing a trout only section of a local river friends are surprised to learn the goal is to avoid hooking a big salmon. If sight fishing this is quite easy. If an accidental hookup occurs the fish keep the fly. Here in South Central Alaska kings are under a great deal of pressure. My concern for the Kenai is that the big fish genetics are being lost. Give it a rest.
 

jjcm

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From what I have seen, they seem to start jumping and rolling when staging or just after moving past that part of their journey onwards to their upstream migration. What comes to mind is them moving in near to the piers and then into water like Betsie Lake. I've watched this area more than others; I presume in happens in places like Manistee and Ludington too, but I am not sure. Would be interesting to know. From what I remember water depth at this stretch of water is between ten and thirty-four feet deep. Thus, it is much shallower than the lake and this activity does seem to start as they begin to congregate and move toward to the river.
 
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Lamarsh

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Good theory. The fact that it seems they jump when they're fresh in the river, and less and less as they stay in, lends well to your theory.
 
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