Interview with the Alien: Fly Fishing for Chinook salmon.
I’m a student of salmon. Nuts about salmon. As a “salmon scientist”, I have dedicated my career to studying Pacific salmon and trying to translate an understanding about the fish into management actions that would help save what we can of these magnificent fish for future generations.
I love to fish for salmon too. As much as I have learned, I realize each time I am on the water that I will never understand these fish, and the ways they react to our best fly presentations, never do more than barely scratch the surface of possibilities.
There are so many places to fish, so many tides, and seasons, and so much equipment, interacting with fish in such a ways as to complicate and turn everything we thought we knew yesterday into a new discovery today.
Get to the point, Jay.
I met this guy on the river recently. At least I think he was a guy. Not sure though. We were both on the Alsea River, near Kozy Kove, fly fishing for Chinook. We were both dedicated and focused. We were both the recipient of numerous lectures and jokes regarding just how pointless it was to be fly fishing for king salmon. Silvers and jacks – maybe – but not Chinook. Our tackle was inadequate. Kings don’t take flies. We were offered bobbers and eggs, sometimes free and sometimes for a price. Our would-be mentors and detractors were relentless. We eventually retreated to an isolated reach of tidewater where we could escape the onslaught of their ongoing dialogue, well intentioned or otherwise.
This creature seemed a kindred spirit, and we enjoyed our conversation immensely. Clearly, this being was an accomplished salmon fly fisher, relating many colorful stories of both fishing success and failure on rivers I was completely unfamiliar with.
I enquired if an interview would be welcome, if I could present a series of questions that would delve into this creature’s experience chasing Chinook with a fly rod.
The answer was: yes. We had only a short time before nightfall so I kept my questions to the basics. Here is the gist of the interview, reported after the fact, as best as I can remember. I hope it helps you as much as it has helped me.
Q/A with the Alien: Fly Fishing for Chinook salmon in Oregon.
Q: Is there an ideal time or tide to be on the water when fly fishing for Chinook?
A: Yes. Whenever you can be on the water with fly rod in hand. Go early in the day. Go at last light. Go at noon. Go fishing. Get your butt out of the chair in front of the computer and go fishing. Put on your waders, string a fly rod, tie on a fly, and go fishing. Just go. Don’t fret about the best time or tide to be on the water. The best time and tide is all day, every day, as many days a year as you can go.
Some rivers fish best on the incoming, some on the outgoing. Some fish best, or seem to fish best, on large tide exchanges, but some seem to fish best on small tide exchanges. As soon as you believe that low slack tide is the hot bite time, you will find high slack the best. The salmon must be in front of you, and they must be willing to grab your fly. This condition is the most elemental, and it virtually beyond generalization. So, just go fishing.
Seventy days on the water fishing will tell you a lot more about Chinook and flies and casting and all the related fishing weirdness than seven days will. This should go without saying, but seven days in a row will teach you a lot more than 7 disassociated days.
If you happen to fish during the seven best fishing days of the season you will have learned almost nothing compared to fishing on the thirty worst salmon days. The least informative days are the days when the fish are everywhere and very grabby. These days teach you little, because they taunt you with the notion that salmon fishing is easy, which it normally is not.
The most informative days are the ones when fishing is in the tank, when you have to really hunt and scratch for a grab. It is a blessing when we can observe other fly fishers who are connecting on days when you are not. We all benefit by wearing the student’s shoes as often as we may. The big-number fish-days teach us that these fish can be so easy that anyone can catch them by just slopping a fly fifteen feet out into the river.
Q: What type of water is best to fly fish for Chinook: estuaries, river tail-outs, deep pools, boulder pockets, swift current, slow flows?
A: Any water that happens to have a Chinook in it is the best place to fish at any given time, including Class IV rapids and 3’ deep flats between pools.
Q: do I need a boat to fly fish for Chinook in Oregon?
A: No. But yes. Opportunities to fly fish for Chinook from the riverbank or beach are indeed limited. A tidewater pram or jet sled will certainly increase the number of days you can access salmon each season.
Q: What size fly should I fish for Chinook salmon in Oregon?
A: I recommend that you fish a fly somewhere between a sparsely dressed #12 soft hackle and a 10” Intruder. There is no clean formula to dictate fly size based on water clarity or temperature.
Q: What are the best colors for Chinook flies?
A: Hot orange. Or chartreuse. Unless purple is the color of the day. But sometimes blue is hot, hot, hot. When Chinook want blue, nothing else will turn their head. Or blue with black, purple with black, purple with red, red and black, orange and red, fluorescent orange, pink, or, a smallish grey scud. Now and then, though, a Royal Coachman Bucktail could be the best fly in your box.
Comets? Yes. Boss flies? Yes. Bunny leeches? Yep. Scuds? Now and then. Clouser deep minnows? Don’t bother wasting your time fishing the darn things.
Q: What leader should I fish for Chinook salmon?
A: Six to twenty lb. leaders are about right, tapered or level, depending on circumstances and personal preferences, at lengths of about three to twelve feet.
Q: What are the most effective fly lines for Chinook fly fishing in Oregon?
A: If you are really dedicated, you will consider carrying a full range of thirty-foot shooting heads by Airflo, Rio, and SA in floating, intermediate, 3 ips (inches-per-second sink-rate), 4 ips, 5 ips, 6 ips. 7 ips, and 9 ips. I also recommend integrated shooting head fly lines like the Airflo 40+, Rio Outbound, and SA Streamer Express. These integrated shooting head fly lines should also be spooled up and ready to fish in floating, intermediate, 3 ips, 5 ips, 6 ips and 9 ips. The Airflo Sixth Sense fly line in floating, mini clear tip, and sinking versions are excellent, but you should consider cutting off the first 12’ or so of these lines to make them more suitable for salmon fishing. Spey fishing for Chinook generally calls for Skagit Compact fly lines and sink tips of 10’ to 15’ in type 3 to Type 6 (3 ips to 6 ips).
Q: Your favorite fly reels for Chinook salmon?
A: Size and basic functionality are most important in a fly reel one will fish for king salmon in tidewater, I think. In the early days, I insisted on the finest fly reels, mondo drag systems, and so on. I washed these reels at the end of each day, stripped line into the shower, inspected each line, and re-spooled it in preparation for the next day. This is all good, but my attention to fly reel maintenance has evolved somewhat.
As the years have accumulated, this has all been abandoned for a much more utilitarian approach to rod and reel selection and maintenance. When I fish, standing, from dawn to dark each day, making gosh who knows how many casts, there just isn’t much left over at day’s end. I fish a variety of fly reels, new and old, by Nautilus, Ross, Abel, Tibor, Bauer, and Sage. All my fly reels, shiny or grungy, will be grungy by the end of the week. They will stay grungy and become more and more scuffed up as the days go by during the season. Some fly reels expel a grinding, gritty sound when a king makes a run; at which point I grimace and loosen the drag, letting my fumbling fingers do the job that a sand-filled reel might shy away from.
Crucial point about fly reels? Wipe the egg cure off your reels. Really. Please. If you can.
Point about fly reels? Get one. Get several. Load ’em up with your lines and go fishing. Fish good fly reels if you can, otherwise, just dump your backing and fly line in a trash can in the bottom of the boat and do without. Think of the trash can as a giant stripping basket. Use a 55 gal oil barrel if you don’t have a spare trash can. Concentrate on hooking a salmon and then figure out what you really (haha) want to fish in the way of a fly reel.
I recommend that you carry spare fly lines. You never know when you will loose the perfect fly line of the day when a fish wraps you around a log or when you suck it into your jet impeller, cut it with your cleats, or have a harbor seal take it for a cruise.
Typically, I will go into a day of fishing for Chinook with ten pre-loaded reels/spools up and carry at least twenty spare lines, not including spare running lines.
Q: Your favorite fly rods for Chinook salmon?
A: Easy. A high quality 9’, 9 wt fly rod is adaptable to most of the Chinook fly fishing conditions you will encounter in Oregon. Eight weight fly rods are a little on the light side, but can work in a pinch. Ten weight fly rods are better suited if you encounter salmon in the 30#+ class. In my opinion, 11 and 12 wt rods are a bit much for Oregon Chinook. They have some advantages when handling large salmon, but they take a toll on your hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders when you have to make a thousand casts to hook a king salmon. Spey fly rods in the 7 and 8 weight class are suitable for both overhead and Spey casting, but long rods can provide challenges if you are fishing by yourself from a small boat.
Q: Should I buy a fish finder for my boat?
A: Yes. Absolutely. Get the best fish finder money can buy. Spend at least a thousand bucks on your fish finder. Get a color monitor. Get a big screen. Get a fish finder that “beeps” when it marks a fish. The purchase of a fish finder will accomplish two important things. First, it will provide entertainment when you are fishing for days on end and catching no salmon whatsoever. Second, and perhaps more important, it will help the global economy.
Q: What is the single best thing I can do to become more accomplished as a Chinook salmon fly fisher?
A: Immerse your self, totally, in fly fishing for salmon. Eat it. Drink it. Poop it. If you tie your own flies, and you certainly should, do the same in this endeavor.
Wallow in your efforts to catch a Chinook until you stink of salmon fly fishing and fly tying. Dunk yourself in it until you think you’re going to suffocate. If you have a regular job, well, you’ll have to do the balancing act. If you have a girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, parents, friends, associates, acquaintances, or any living creature that might expect something from you – test their tolerance for your obsessive fly fishing absences to the utter limit of civility.
And – please – don’t blog about your fishing. Anyone who does much blog writing or blog reading should confine such nefarious activity to the hours between 10 PM and 3 AM lest ye miss precious that could be more productively dedicated to fly fishing for salmon.
I thanked my alien fishing buddy as we parted, reflecting on his good humor, generosity, and wisdom. He vanished in a flash of light near dark, while I pulled anchor and headed for the boat ramp, fishless, again.