The Sport of Kings
By John Merwin To catch the biggest fish of your life, you need to hit the water when the chinook … Continued
By John Merwin To catch the biggest fish of your life, you need to hit the water when the chinook salmon make their fall spawning runs up many Great Lakes tributaries. These are truly monsters, with fish running 10 to 40 pounds and more. There are also lots of them, thousands upon thousands running up rivers from New York all the way west into Minnesota. Some are well-known waters not far from cities such as Syracuse or Detroit. Others are on the obscure side, and you won’t find them without a topo map. Some runs start in August, but mid September to mid October is typically prime time to fish for them. Anglers fish from shore or by boat, using baitcasting, spinning, or fly gear. You won’t be alone, as once the word gets out that the salmon are running, anglers from all over flock to the tributaries. To escape the crowds on some rivers, try fishing on weekdays and hiking or boating away from the easy access spots. The main point is that the fish are there, and with the right gear and a little skill, you can catch them. Pacific salmon, chinooks were introduced into the Great Lakes as a means of controlling alewife populations in the 1970s. The fish thrived, and a massive sport fishery was soon established. Although some natural reproduction does occur, the Great Lakes states largely maintain the fishery by stocking juvenile salmon. The chinooks, also called kings, run up tributary rivers to spawn and then die. They are not feeding during these runs, and to catch them anglers have to tease them into striking any of a variety of lures or flies. Here’s how it’s done. SALMON GEAR Baitcasting gear is most often used from a drift boat or other river craft, but it can work from shore if you’re an adept caster. When you shop for gear, choose a quality wide-spool reel such as an Abu Garcia 6500 C3 ($85; abu-garcia.com) paired with a heavy-action salmon rod like the Loomis HSR1021C GL2 Hot Shot Casting rod ($200; gloomis.com), rated for 3⁄8- to 4-ounce lures and 10- to 20-pound-test line. Its 8-foot 6-inch length makes it easier to manipulate drifting lures or baits in the current than is possible with shorter rods. Spinning tackle is a better option for riverbank anglers, but it needs to be equally strong. For example, one of the new Daiwa Tierra TDTR4000 reels ($130; daiwa.com) has ample line capacity. It pairs well with a St. Croix WS86MHF2 salmon-steelhead rod ($140; stcroixrods.com), which is 8 feet 6 inches long and rated for 8- to 17-pound-test line. The most popular line for river chinooks is probably 17-pound-test monofilament, but a superline in 14- to 30-pound-test is a better choice. It has a smaller diameter, which means less water resistance in the current, so drift rigs and lures will fish deeper more easily. The low-stretch factor of superlines also means you’ll have a better feel for lures ticking the bottom and a stronger hookset on the strike. I like 14-pound FireLine on spinning reels and 30-pound Stren SuperBraid on baitcasters. In either case, a clear fluorocarbon leader testing from 12 to 20 pounds completes the rigging DEADLY SALMON LURES Plugs, spoons, spinners, and drift-bobber lures such as the Spin-N-Glo all take salmon at times. You’ll need a few of each to match different conditions. A large F13-size Original Floating Rapala (top left) in a firetiger finish ($6; rapala.com) is basic, as is a Storm ThunderStick (model AJ; $4; stormlures.com) in fluorescent red-black squiggle. In slower currents, use a FlatFish (top right) such as the 3 1/4-inch U20 in cerise chartreuse tiger ($6.50; yakimabait.com). For deeper, faster water, you’ll want deeper-diving plugs such as Luhr-Jensen’s Hot Shot (middle, left; $4; luhrjensen.com) in 050 and 060 sizes, with fluorescent red fire being the essential color. Krocodile spoons (middle right) get deep on crosscurrent swings; start with a 11/2-ounce, chrome fire stripe version ($6; luhrjensen.com). Spinners are also suitable for this technique, and the deep-running, 1⁄2-ounce Mepps No. 4 Aglia Long ( bottom left; $4.65; mepps.com) in chartreuse glitter is good for openers. For a drift-bobber lure to be fished along the bottom on a sinker rig, try Worden’s Spin-N-Glo (bottom right; $4; yakimabait.com) in a prerigged, 1-inch size and a fluorescent egg color. HOW TO HOOK A KING Once in a while, a hot salmon will charge from several feet away, throwing a huge wake and making a big splash while trying to kill your subsurface Rapala or similar lure. Most of the time, though, the salmon are near the bottom and need to be teased into striking. That means your lure has to be spinning or wobbling just inches in front of their snouts. Achieving that means getting the right drift. Wear polarized sunglasses to survey a pool, and there’s a decent chance that you will spot some salmon and can cast to visible pods of fish. At the least you’ll know approximately where they are from seeing their wakes or the fish themselves rolling on the surface. In the worst-case scenario, you might be working blind through the length of a long, deep run. In any case, here’s the drill as you fish from shore or wade along the bank: Cast across or slightly up and across stream. Tighten up on the line and let your lure move through an arc down and across the current. You should be feeling it ticking occasionally on the bottom rocks. If you need to gain depth, cast at a greater upstream angle and let the lure sink more before starting a swing. Conversely, if you’re hitting bottom too hard and too often, cast at a greater downstream angle and start the swing immediately. Add or remove weight according to the depth and current speed. Raising the tip of your rod high during the drift keeps some line above the current and can slightly slow the swing speed if necessary. Boat fishermen have some advantage in being able to work with the current instead of only across it. You might see a guide with a couple of sports in a drift boat, running diving plugs off rods mounted in holders. The guide will be rowing upstream to slow the downstream drift and also working the boat back and forth to run the lures in front of holding salmon. There’s an art to this, but sooner or later a pissed-off salmon will whack a plug, and the fight is on. ON THE FLY Some anglers recommend 8-weight fly rods, but there are times when you need to haul hard on these fish, and 8-weights won’t cut it. Use a 9- or 10-foot 10-weight, for which you’ll want floating and fast-sinking-tip lines. A large-arbor reel, holding 150 yards of 30-pound Dacron backing, completes the outfit. Single-handed rods work fine in medium rivers, while a two-handed rod makes covering larger water much easier. One solid combination is the single-handed Jim Teeny Series 10-foot, five-piece 10-weight from Temple Fork Outfitters ($225; templeforkflyrods.com) and an Orvis Battenkill V mid-arbor reel ($130; orvis.com). River salmon may scarf up drifting nymphs or salmon eggs, so small, dark stonefly nymphs or dead-drifted single-egg patterns sometimes work. To shake things up, tie on a fly developed by Michigan outfitter Ray Schmidt (schmidtoutfitters.com). His salmon snake, above, is the absolute best fly for fall chinooks. It’s a tandem-hooked, rabbit-fur monster that includes a wobbling cone at the head to make the fly shake and shimmy in the current. Big chinooks may charge this active fly, and the strikes can be simply heart-stopping.