Salmon on the Swing
By Troy Letherman
Nearly every statement made about fly fishing, and fly fishing for Pacific salmon in particular, comes with a qualifier. If anything is categorically true, it’s that the words never and always belong nowhere near an angling discussion. What works once may not work again. Swinging a chartreuse leech creation through a pocket of holding water on an overcast day might produce strike after strike, while trying the same technique with the exact same fly in similar conditions a day or even an hour later can leave an angler with no fish and less hope.
Basically, it pays to remember that when fly fishing freshwater for salmon, anglers are attempting to entice a fish that is no longer feeding to strike at their offering. Not an easy proposition under even the best of circumstances. Not easy but not impossible, either.
Alaska receives returns of five species of Pacific salmon Chinook, sockeye, coho, chum and pink and all five are available to fly anglers at points along the Southcentral road system. Catching them involves similar techniques, most of them hinged around fishing the traditional down-and-across swing. But anglers hoping to hookup with some solid Pacific chrome can initially maximize their chances by choosing the right fishery.
First, when fishing any anadromous species, timing is probably the most critical ingredient to successful salmon angling. A group of fish can come in on a tide and shoot straight upriver, not holding and presenting anglers with many opportunities to make a presentation. An incoming tide can also be void of fish, while the next might bring thousands in from the sea. Making matters even more chaotic for anglers, salmon run times are not static events, even when populations are healthy and booming. The peak of a run can change from year to year, sometimes differing by as much as two weeks from previous years returns, especially when a season coincides with drastically altered environmental conditions such as unseasonably warm weather or flooding. Moreover, for fly anglers there’s an added dilemma: what you’re looking for ultimately is not just the fish, but water conducive to reaching them with the fly.
Although dense with anadromous fish, the region’s great rivers the Susitna, Copper and Kenai are large and intimidating and also carry heavy silt loads, making much of their mainstem flows unfishable for fly anglers. Often the bulk of the salmon sport fishing on these rivers takes place in lower, tidally influenced sections of slow-moving water that should be anathema to fly fishers. If targeting fish in one of these rivers, the flyangler’s recourse is to prospect feeder streams, pockets of holding water and accessible upriver seams, where flows and water clarity are typically better. Ideally, anglers can choose a productive stream with clear water, where sight-fishing is possible, since it usually takes fairly precise presentations within a few feet, depending on conditions to entice a strike. Now it’s all about putting the fly in front of the fish.
In southcentral Alaska, Chinook runs usually occur from late May through late July. The Cook Inlet area generally begins to see the first kings in about mid-May, with scattered reports of fish being taken from the lower reaches of the Little Susitna River, the Kenai and the hatchery-enhanced Kasilof River during the month. Most runs peak in mid- to late June in the region, continuing on into July. The second and larger return of Kenai River kings typically reaches its peak in late July.
Understanding migration corridors and the staging and resting points favored by Chinook will pay dividends to the angler. For the most part, kings will be found moving and holding in the main channels of rivers, so begin there, especially if fishing a smaller, more user-friendly stream. Shallow, choppy runs with moderate current and consistent gravel bottoms can be perfect for fly-fishing salmon in lower rivers. Chinook will be found at greater depths than other salmon, often making cut banks or river bends where the channel is deeper premium lies. Deep, slow pools are also magnets for holding fish that use the areas to rest and recuperate from the rigors of their migration. Tailouts, ledge pools, eddies, the edges of sloughs and the current seams created by large boulders and islands provide additional king water. Areas near a confluence with a tributary stream are usually a sure bet, as salmon will hold among the cleaner, more oxygenated flows of the creek mouth. Here freshly arrived fish are regularly seen rolling and flushing sediment from their gills in the warmer, cleaner water. They seem to become much more energetic, and as these water intersections often stack with fish, casting to the well-rested and territorial kings can be exciting. Upriver, kings will also hold beneath a tributary stream in which they intend to spawn, ostensibly waiting for the conditions to be just right or for their eggs and milt to ripen before commencing upon the final leg of their freshwater journey.
As far as the best fishing conditions beyond the water the early and late hours on overcast or windy days are hard to beat, for king salmon are very sensitive to light and seem to prefer bad weather and the quiet hours of the day for most of their activity. That is why so much more surface rolling is seen very early in the morning and during the lingering hours of Alaska’s midnight sun. When the water has been selected and it’s time to finally make that initial presentation, anglers would do well to remember the importance of getting deep and then staying there. While kings will occasionally move a few feet for a fly, they almost never move up to take. Precision is everything at this stage, as the fly must approach fish at a controlled speed and depth, usually passing within inches of its face. The most common approach is to employ the standard wet-fly swing. Here an angler will make an across-stream or down-and-across cast and then point the rod at the fly to follow it downstream. It’s important to remain in a good (tip down) position to set the hook during the drift when swinging a fly through salmon water, as even the slightest hesitation in the line’s progress can signal a strike.
While the standard swing is often the most productive manner in which to cover the water, there is merit in sometimes combining short, sharp strips with the drift. Also, it can pay to hesitate at the end of the swing and then strip the fly back in a few feet before lifting the line to cast again. A profitable fast-water tactic is to cast at a 45-degree angle upstream and then strip thefly in front of holding salmon. When Chinook are found in still- or frog-water locations, the best bet is to employ a short sink-tip line or an intermediate sinking line with a longer (nine-foot) leader. Once a school s orientation has been determined, you can cast ahead of the group, countdown to give the fly a chance to sink and then strip it back directly in front of the milling salmon.
For small, deep-water streams like Willow Creek, an excellent tactic to employ is one that s very similar to the methods used by fishermen back-trolling plugs. Fly anglers can utilize the same technique by casting heavier-grained lines at steep downstream angles. The fly in this scenario virtually hovers in front of holding fish during the short swing. Since the drift is much shorter, it’s even more important to get down quickly for this approach to be effective and, in these often-heavier waters, to stay down. The lines you’d consider normal when looking at this type of water from a wet-fly swing perspective say 200- to 400-grain sinking lines simply will not be effective. To utilize this hover technique, start thinking about 600-grain lines or even heavier.
Despite its culinary acclaim and its reputation for the fight, fly fishing for sockeye remains a relatively fresh development. As recently as the 1970s, in fact, institutions like the International Game Fish Association still hadn t recognized the species as a legitimate target for sport anglers. Today, however, fly-fishing effort for the species is burgeoning. The sockeye s legendary vigor when hooked makes them a worthy target, and contrary to popular belief, it takes much skill to produce consistent success.
For sockeye, it s even more critical to time efforts to coincide with the peak of the runs. While absolute precision is probably unattainable, anglers can review historical run timing for a particular drainage, and when coupled with current forecasts and weather trends, predict with decent accuracy the best chances for intercepting a run at its zenith. Good planning should include timing an outing for the best incoming tides as well. In areas with a significant commercial fishing presence, fly fishers will also want to make sure their trip doesn t coincide with a fleet opening, as the sockeye runs in a few major rivers will shut off like a faucet when the nets are deployed.
In general, strong numbers of sockeye can be found almost anywhere in the state during the month of July. Specific peaks will vary from population to population, sometimes drastically. Some Alaska streams will receive multiple returns in a season, and in cases where separate runs of sockeye return to the same drainage for spawning, one is almost always more productive than the other. The Kenai is one such river, with early-returning fish available in June and a second, more significant wave of fish arriving around the middle of July.
For reasons both obvious and obscure, locating strong concentrations of fish should be the first step for all sockeye fly fishers. Even though they lack the strong predatory response common to other species in freshwater, sockeye seem more prone to strike when pressured by the crowded conditions of an overloaded run or pool. Thus, anglers should look for shallow areas where stress factors will be highest on a group of fish. Of course, remembering the sockeye s unique near-shore migration tendencies is a first step. Lake outlets and inlets, river mouths and areas of defined structure, such as waterfalls, the lee sides of islands and boulder-lined rapids, can produce the kinds of natural rest stops preferred by migrating fish. An example is the area preceding the Russian River Falls, where thousands of reds will stage.
In large off-color or glacially influenced rivers, sockeye are also prone to holding in the areas where clear streams mix with the larger river s flows. Good Alaska sockeye water can also include areas of fairly strong current. After all, most experienced sockeye fly fishers believe that moving fish are more apt to respond to strike stimuli, whether because of aggravation, oxygen stress or reflexive feeding behavior. To fish traveling sockeye, anglers must first locate migration corridors along the edges of shallow gravel bars and in long slots close to shore, preferably where the water is less than three feet deep because of the effect water depth has on fish concentration, visibility and fly presentation.
For presentation, remember it is a rare sockeye that breaks ranks even slightly for a fly moving above or below in the water column. For this reason, blind fishing is not the best idea. Anglers should position themselves in the best possible casting locations, slightly up and across stream from the holding fish. One of the most consistent techniques is to then cast down-and-across and employ a modified, highly controlled wet-fly swing, usually with a sink-tip rather than the floater/split shot setup, with the line kept taut at all times. Shorter casts work better, not just because the fish are usually close to shore, but also because it allows an angler to maintain more line control.
Another standard technique is to use a floating line and a nine-foot or slightly longer leader. Begin by wading into position across from the suspected lie or travel corridor and then cast upstream. As the fly drifts, hold the rod high, keeping the line off the water and follow the progress of the fly with the tip. By not allowing the fly line to belly in the current, anglers not only enable their fly to sink more quickly and stay down but a more realistic dead-drift presentation is produced. The key here is to keep constant contact with your presentation. One of the most difficult things for beginning sockeye salmon fly anglers to pick up is the subtle nature of the overwhelming majority of sockeye takes. Many will be barely perceptible, perhaps just a slight hesitation in the downstream progress of the line. By intently following the fly’s progress, anglers can better anticipate a strike and react in time to avoid foul-hooking the next fish in line.
As a gamefish, the coho offers fly fishers an incredibly diverse range of angling scenarios for which any number of techniques, presentations and patterns may be appropriate. Added to that variety, coho can be taken in nearly any of Alaska’s angling environments.
In southcentral Alaska, runs can begin in late July, with late August and early September seeing the highest numbers of fish migrating into freshwater in most areas. A few drainages also host dual coho returns, most notably the Kenai River, where an early return occurs in August and a second, smaller run begins to enter the drainage around the middle of September. This second Kenai return can occur throughout October and even November, with bright fish often available well into Alaska s winter season.
Coho tend to travel and hold less in primary river channels than Chinook, shunning the stronger flows of a mainstem river except where unavoidable. Also similar to fly fishing for Chinook and the other Pacific salmon, the closer to saltwater the fish can be intercepted, the better it is for the angler. Silvers are brighter and full of fight near the sea, as well as being much more prone to actively chase a fly. In a lot of instances, fly fishers can pursue the fish right in the bays, estuaries or river mouths, as they stage for the first big push upriver. Once they’ve cleared the tidewater area and moved into the stream proper, the holding water anglers are looking for doesn’t differ much from silvers to the other salmon. Side sloughs and confluences with tributary streams are almost always productive areas to fish, as are eddies, long seams and the tailouts of pools and the belly of the pools themselves. During the height of a run, strong numbers of coho will stack in the most desirable lies, and oftentimes, an angler will be able to ascertain their location without a lot of blind casting. Active silvers tend to roll and showthemselves more than Chinook or at times, even sockeye.
For the most part, presentations need not be artful in order to entice bright silver salmon to strike. A controlled wet-fly swing is the most common tactic utilized, where conditions warrant. Because of the coho s territorial impulses and general aggressive nature, the swing is sometimes combined with short, erratic strips, which seem to be effective. If fishing a wide pool or riffle, anglers will position themselves just upstream and across from the holding fish. The fly is cast about ten feet in front of the fish and allowed to sink, then stripped as it drifts towards their position. If the fish seem reticent after several casts, anglers can increase the length or frequency of their strips before swapping out flies or making other significant alterations. For coho, the retrieve and action on the fly, not the severely controlled depth, can be the most important element in successful angling.
In extremely low and clear situations, it’s usually best to put the standard, brightly-colored coho flies back in the box and go to a subtler pattern. In these occasions, a lot of disturbance can actually be counterproductive, so anglers should fish the subdued patterns dead-drift, forgoing the action and strip of earlier presentations.
Silver salmon are also the most likely to hit a topwater presentation. Those seeking an opportunity to take coho on the surface should scout for streams with shallow, clear water and a rather gentle flow. Four feet deep or less is a good benchmark, and anything more than a slight ripple should be avoided, as the broken current will tend to keep the fish trained on the bottom. It’s also best to concentrate on areas close enough to the surf that the fish are still bright and aggressive, while not being so close that the salmon have yet to acclimate to the drastic change in their environment, as recently arrived coho can often be lethargic as they habituate themselves to freshwater. However, there remain chances much farther upstream, for instances in tributary streams and creeks in the the upper reaches of the Susitna and Yentna drainages. Here, after exiting the big glacial rivers, coho will stack up like cordwood in the flush of clean water to rest before beginning another push upstream. Anglers can stalk and then sight-cast to these fish by keeping a low profile and approaching each pod with as little disturbance as possible. In this scenario, the first cast is always the most important, as it will almost always take a fish if they aren’t lined.
Chum & Pink Salmon
For fly anglers, southcentral Alaska is a little lacking in opportunities to fish for chum salmon. The primary chum producer in the region is a massive glacial system the Susitna River and sexually mature fish have a long way to travel before reaching clearwater tributaries where they can be effectively targeted, making them less than desirable targets in most cases.
However, southcentral Alaska is not short of pink salmon fishing destinations. Coastal streams near Valdez can be explosive, as can many Cook Inlet streams. Resurrection Creek, a small, shallow stream that enters Turnagain Arm near the historic mining community of Hope, is famous for its even-year pink return. And there’s probably no location in the state that can match another of the region’s rivers when it comes to trophy potential, as the Kenai’s even-year pink run has produced several IGFA world records.
The pink salmon is a fine light-tackle pursuit, and their sheer willingness to chase a fly has rescued more than one outing when bigger, prettier, more spectacular-fighting species decide not to show up. Pinks can also be targeted in the salt when they re still actively feeding and are in prime condition, adding another dimension for anglers looking for new challenges.
Chum salmon fresh from the sea, on the other hand, should need no shilling. They re large, strong fish with amazing stamina that will actively eat properly presented flies on the surface or below. Accordingly, fly fishing for species is gaining in popularity, especially on the tundra rivers of Southwest, where good concentrations of bright fish can be found in an environment perfectly tailored to fly anglers, even those who prefer to use a double-handed rod.
Both chum and pink salmon return during the height of the Alaska summer, when fishing for kings and sockeye is usually on the wane and the big pushes of chrome-bright coho have yet to build. However, since both also tend to spawn in extreme coastal areas, with their extreme reproductive morphology coming on fast, it’s usually best to target runs at their outset and as close to saltwater as possible.
Most chum salmon runs peak from early July to early September. In general, runs will begin earlier to the north and commence at progressively later dates the farther one travels south. Pink salmon also appear in freshwater from mid- to late summer. Runs tend to peak during July and August throughout most of their range, but bright pinks may be present in freshwater anytime between early June and late October, depending on the region and even the particular stream. Many regions of the state also have stronger runs of pinks on even-numbered years, with smaller runs on odd-numbered years or vice versa.
Fishing for pinks is often fast and frenzied, and the numbers of fish in many coastal areas can be truly astounding. Plus, they tend to be as aggressive as they are plentiful. The best place to find them is in the extreme lower stretches of coastal streams and the deep holes and runs right above intertidal areas. In large, glacial systems like the Kenai, however, bright fish can also be found miles upstream near the mouths of clearwater tributary streams. Tactics are often the definition of simple. Any of the regular techniques employed for other salmon will work when targeting the fish in freshwater.
When targeting chum salmon, anglers should be most intent on locating milling fish. During in-river migrations, chum will frequently stick close to the shore in the same traveling corridors as used by sockeye, sometimes even mixing. At these times the fish are usually too concerned with reaching the next piece of holding water to bother with a fly that s presented even inches off their route. These same fish will often stop at the entrances to sloughs and side channels and pool up. It’s here that they ll aggressively chase flies, and the bite can remain steady for hours at a time. In deeper water, chum salmon will assertively move towards flies that swing across the current with some speed. For this reason, leading the fly even throwing a large downstream mend can increase an angler s chances.
Troy Letherman is the editor of Fish Alaska magazine.