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Chinook in the salt
The chinook is considered by many to be the prime game fish of the North East Pacific, with only the steelhead challenging that title.
The chinook is considered by many to be the prime game fish of the North East Pacific, with only the steelhead challenging that title.
The continual strip is normally broken by only two things, a quick backcast followed by a long shoot of the heavy head, or the splash of large salmon. First the bait wells to the surface, with each individual striving to reach the centre of the school and safety. Then the salmon crashes through the middle of the school. Finally, so exciting by the abundance of food, the salmon it leaps 4 feet into the air, flips its tail over its head, and crashes back into the ocean. Anything wounded is chased down and swallowed. I can't help but pause my fishing to be enthralled by nature's drama.
The Chinook (Oncorhynchus tschawytscha) is caught and finds its freedom again
Sometimes though, the strip stops before the shooting head is back in the guides. Then the rod quivers as a heavy fish shakes its head. The shaking stops and the fish starts to move. Ten, twenty and then fifty yards of backing leave the reel before the fish stops. The line slackens and moves to the surface. If I'm lucky, the fish leaps at the sky and then crashes down. Regardless of whether it jumps, it usually turns and charges for the kelp. Only a large arbor reel lets me keep in touch with this king of the sea. If I can turn it from the kelp, usually only a couple shorter runs elapse before the exhausted fish is slid into a net. Then the fish is captured on film, the hook removed and the regal fish that granted me the pleasure of matching wits to instincts is released.
The chinook is considered by many to be the prime game fish of the North East Pacific, with only the steelhead challenging that title. In the ocean it is a king of fishes and bears the name King Salmon in many parts of the world. It begins life in a fair sized river and may head immediately to sea after emerging from the gravel. It spends an average of 31/2 tough years in the ocean before it returns to spawn in the same gravel that it emerged from. But when those few that do return weigh 20 pounds or more, with half that weight gained in the last summer. To put on so much weight, the chinook must feed aggressively and continuously the entire summer. This article deals with my attempts to understand how this fish feeds, and how to trick such a heavy, selective feeder into striking a fly.
Finding the Fish
The key to any open ocean fishing venture is to present your offering to fish and not empty water. I've found the most consistent location for feeding chinook to be back eddies created by tidal flow. Illustrated below is a typical eddy created by a tide moving at least 2 km/h. Faster tides produce smaller eddies which can be better, because the bait fish are more concentrated and thus so are the chinook. In general in doesn't matter which way the tide is flowing, just as long as you fish the side with the eddy. Local situations may only produce fish on a particular direction.
Finding the the Hot Spot that is likely to hold chinook.
Based on my visual observations of moving fish, the majority of fish seem to show along the current seam, with a slight bias to the main tidal flow side. Without tracking individual fish underwater, it's impossible to know where they are when they're not on the surface, but presumably they also spend more time in the seam under the surface. The hot spot is the almost dead water right where the eddy rejoins the main flow. The bait fish can not swim against the current, so they congregate in this prime spot where they can feed on the plankton that drifts by in the main current, but don't have to fight the current. Just as the head of a pool is the preferred spot for many trout, the head of the eddy is preferred by the bait fish and the chinook. The head of the eddy also can host the supreme ruler of the ocean. Orca sightings are uncommon but not rare around chinook haunts. The chinook is just as tasty to the killer whale as it is to us. I try to let the whales finish their hunt before I move in. Sometimes I don't even bother to fish for salmon that day: the killer whales can put the salmon off feeding for the rest of the day or longer.
Notice the rippled moving water behind and to the left of the killer whales. The calm eddy that the whales are showing in is less than 10 feet deep. To the right of the whales is the kelp bed. Click to see the whole picture.
To determine if a particular eddy holds salmon look for visual clues. If bait is present it should be visible as flashes near the kelp and in the eddy. If the wind is calm, the bait will dimple the surface while feeding. The activity of the diving birds will show if there's enough bait in the area to be worth their while and yours. If they have bait in their beaks and are diving then there's bait below. If they're just diving and coming up empty, or not even bothering to dive, there isn't likely to be enough bait to attract salmon. Finally the salmon will often reveal themselves. Big splashes, and jumping fish reveal feeding fish. The chinook rarely jump unless they are charged up from heavy feeding. So if you see chinook, you can be almost certain that heavy feeding is going on under the surface.
The key component to fishing the kelp beds is to be anchored in the best spot. Generally anchoring slightly upstream of the hot spot in the figure is best. That way you can work both sides of the seam, and every cast finishes up in the hot spot. If there is no bait underneath the boat, you're likely in an unproductive spot. Since even 120 foot casts are inconsequential compared to the size of a back eddy, it is crucial that you anchor within easy reach of where you believe the hot spot to be. I prefer to anchor by tying directly to the kelp using a clove hitch. This knot holds well yet is quick to untie in the event you want to chase a large fish. An even better method is to use a clip on the anchor rope so you can attach a float and return for the anchor line later. This is essential when anchoring to the bottom.
The chinook can grow to tremendous sizes of 60 lbs or more. However the majority of fish are between 10 and 20 lbs. Such fish require an 8 weight rod as a minimum, and a 12 weight is not unthinkable if you want to be prepared for a 40 lb fish. The 8 weight is pleasant to cast for a long time, but suffers from lack of backbone for turning the fish into the net at the end of the fight. The 8 weight will also not cast as heavy a head as a beefier rod can. Two handed rods are an excellent choice as they provide phenomenal fish fighting power with a shock absorbing long tip. They also increase casting distance which has never directly caused someone to catch less fish. Finally the strain of casting is distributed between two arms so you can fish longer before fatigue or some nasty wrist sprain ends the fishing day for you.
The smaller fish don't seem to make screaming runs, but rather make long determined moves. Plenty of backing is a good idea, as is a disc drag. A click pawl reel, however, with sufficient backing capacity and a palming rim should be sufficient for nearly every fish. Backing should be at least 20 lb and be at least 150 yards in length. If you don't want to chase fish from the boat, then you should have 200+ yards of backing.
Leader length is always up for debate. I favor a longish leader of 9 feet or more because a longer leader offers more shock absorption, and it overcomes any potential problem of leader shy fish. Other writers feel that long leaders are essential, and yet others feel short leaders are adequate with sinking lines. Since depth control is not crucial, and the fish are rare enough that I can't experiment with leader lengths, I tend to err on the side of caution. I use 10 - 14 lb tippet depending on how daring I feel. I find that the 14 lb tippet will allow you to rip flies out of the kelp, while the kelp wins a lot more frequently if you use 10 lb tippet. I do like the flourocarbon leaders, but it's more their abrasion resistance that I like instead of their index of refraction. I usually use a hard mono leader with a flourocarbon tippet.
I have used shooting head systems exclusively to date. I use 850 grain Deep Water Express by Scientific Anglers, and cut heads to match the rod I'm using. I attach the tapered end to the running line and the leader to the heavier end. While this sounds backwards, it casts just as well, and the heavier end keeps the fly in a straighter line with the rod, without a nasty bow in the line. I use a flourescent monofilament for shooting line because I can see it when it's coiled in the boat. I feel that the long head and the long leader place the bright running line out of visibility distance underwater, but a neutral colored monofilament would eliminate any possibility of spooking fish. I would like to try a regular sinking line when the chinook are really active near the surface, but that doesn't happen every time out.
Some form of line control device is essential. There are various commercial models that are designed for use on the angler, but few that are designed for use in the boat. I use a plastic laundry tub. I have two boot dryers which look like ten extra fingers each that keep the coils of line separated. I would say I get one tangle per trip with the boot dryers in the bottom compared to 5 or 6 without.
A long cast is counted down to the appropriate depth and then worked back to the boat with a variety of stripping techniques. I have found a slow constant strip to work best. I use foot long strips with about one strip every 2 seconds. I try to minimize the pause between strips. While the chinook are often very lazy, intelligent feeders and will try to pick off the most crippled fish around, most of the bait in the areas I fish is so small that even a healthy loner can't outswim the chinook. Therefore I feel that the key is to let the chinook notice your slow moving fly, but keep it moving. I feel that the patterns I use tend to lose a lot of their appeal while stopped in the water.
I move my casts around the current seam and use mends to fish the faster reaches. I don't feel that fish will hit the fly on the swing, so I'm always stripping a little, even when the fly is swinging across the current. Retrieving straight up the seam is good, as is parallel to the kelp and perpendicular to the seam.
Fly fishing is really limited to less than 30 feet of water, unless the tide is slack and then depths to 50 feet are reachable. I use a count down method to explore all the depths down to near the bottom. I feel that the chinook are not a true bottom feeder and therefore are not found on the bottom in shallow water. I wasted many of my early trips trying to keep the fly on the bottom. I lost many flies and while I hooked some true bottomfish, I did not hook a salmon. It wasn't until I started to work the upper 2/3 of the water column that I began to hook chinook.
The Feed and the Flies
So far I have only encountered chinook feeding on two species of bait fish. The Pacific Herring (Clupea harengus pallasi) and the Pacific Sandlance (Ammodytes hexapterus). The herring are that year's spawn and are only 1-2" in length. I don't know the age of the sandlance or needlefish as they are also called, but they are slightly larger at around 2-3". I have developed two patterns to imitate the respective species.
Chinook bait and matching patterns
The Ten Mile Dart is the needlefish imitation and is pictured at the bottom of the following picture. Above it are samples from the throat of a chinook. Above the needlefish is a herring, and the Ten Mile Deceiver that I use to imitate it. As you can see in the picture, the chinook tend to prefer the needlefish as all the bait in the picture came from the throat of one chinook. That same fish had 29 needlefish and 5 herring further down in its stomach. Clearly the chinook that I fish for have a definite preference for needlefish. Correspondingly I spend more time fishing the Dart than the Deceiver, and have had more success on the Dart. I caught one fish, shown below, on an attractor pattern called a Weigh Wester.
Ten Mile Dart
|Hook:||#2 34007 Mustad|
|Thread:||Monofilament (Uni Mono)|
|Tail/Body:||Pearl Accent Flash, White Super Hair, Olive Accent Flash, Olive Super Hair|
|Body:||Pearl Diamond Braid|
|Lateral:||Purple and Silver Holographic Flashabou (2 each)|
|Gills:||Flourescent Red 3/0|
|Topping:||Peacock Herl (8)|
|Eyes:||Chartreuse 2mm stick on|
|Epoxy:||Clear with ultra fine green glitter|
Ten Mile Deceiver
|Hook:||#4 34007 Mustad|
Optional Tandem: #6 34007 Mustad
|Tail:||4 White Hackles|
|Gills:||Red Angel Hair|
|Wing:||Pearl Flashabou and Peacock Herl|
|Hook:||#1 34007 Mustad|
|Tail/Body:||White Bucktail (thick)|
|Overbody:||Pearl Mylar Sleeve|
|Eyes:||Eyes: Red 2mm Stick on|
The grand prize
The chinook salmon does not come easily to the fly, but it does come. By determining the preferred food source, in a particular location, and presenting the appropriate fly, chinooks can be taken consistently. I typically average one chinook landed per day's fishing. That involves fishing one spot that I know very well. It's not every fly fisher's game, but to me, there's no more challenging gamefish for the fly. For anyone considering chasing the chinook, I'd recommend the following books. The first two are written in an anecdotal format, which means you have to look for the information, but it's there in a very pleasant read. The last book, which is more like a textbook, would probably be the first place to start.
Jim Crawford, Salmon to a Fly, Frank Amato Publishing, 1995
Barry Thorton, Saltwater Fly Fishing for Pacific Salmon, Hancock House, 1995
Fly Fishing for Pacific Salmon, Ferguson, Johnson and Trotter.