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Chinook Salmon on the fly

May 24, 2013

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Text & Photo: Jaap Kalkman

Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, also known as Chinook salmon or Spring salmon in British Columbia or King salmon in the United States are the biggest of the pacific salmon family. Here in northern British Columbia they are most commonly referred to as “Springs”. For many years it was thought that fly fishing for these fish was extremely difficult. Obviously the size of the fish was an issue, but also the belief that Spring salmon hold in deep water and will not come to the fly easily. Over the last decade or so that perception has changed. With improved fly tackle technology and techniques the Spring salmon has proved to be an excellent target for the fly fisherman. They are an aggressive fish, especially when fresh from the ocean.

Finding water that is suitable for the fly is important. Spring salmon are similar to Atlantic salmon in the way they migrate up rivers. Whereas Steelhead will mostly seek out “soft” water, the Spring salmon are not afraid of faster currents, especially when moving up river. When they arrive at the upper reaches they will find slower water where they will hold. These holding fish are not as aggressive and require different techniques. Personally, I do not target holding fish that start to color-up, but prefer to target fresh fish. The nice thing about the fresh fish is that a swung fly, fished from shore, works very well. It is possible to fish for them from a boat, on seams, with heavy sinking heads, nymph like techniques or jigging retrieving techniques but I prefer the swung fly. Luckily there is so much water here that is suitable for that type of fishing that I don’t have to resort to the other techniques, unless I am in a frame of mind to experiment a bit.

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The tackle is quite straight forward, with one important factor; everything needs to be strong. My set up is as follows:

Rods: A rather long, powerful, ten weight double hander. My go to rod is the 14’9”, ten weight Le Cie. The reason for a longer rod is that I need to lift long sinking tips out of slow inside-water. A short rod is too much work for this kind of work. I also avoid having to roll the sink tip to the surface before casting, in order to optimize my time. With a short rod and a long sink tip, rolling the tip to the surface becomes a necessity.

Lines: I mostly fish short Skagit style heads in combination with 18’ sink tips. The tips vary depending on the depth and speed of the water, between T10 and T18. The reason for a short Skagit line with tips is two-fold. Most of the water I fish is faster further out and slower into shore. In order to fish at the right depth you need a tip that goes down fast as soon as the fly line lands, but, at the same time maintains enough speed to prevent the line/tip to hang up on the bottom when it enters the slower inside water. For this you need a floating belly and a fast sinking tip. My favorite line is the Guideline Skagit head. Another good line is the Airflo Compact Skagit.

Occasionally I will swing flies in runs that are fast and deep and remain fast into shore. For those runs I will use a full sinking line such as a Guideline S1/3/5. This allows the fly to slow down and remain deep against shore.

I use a shooting line of 60lbs with non-slip mono loops tied in both ends. Compline is my favorite.

Leader: 5 feet of fluorocarbon, 30 lbs. For knots I use a Bimmini twist for the connection to the sink-tip and a non-slip mono loop knot for the connection to the fly.

Flies: For fresh moving fish I use chartreuse. For low light conditions I use black and blue flies. For “parked” fish that have been fished for and did not move to the fly I use pink flies. That’s it. More importantly I fish big hooks. I use 3/0 hooks, bait hook style with strong wire. Any smaller hooks or light wired hooks will bend out. All hooks are barbless. Most flies have a small amount of weight so that the fly rides at the same level as the tip or slightly lower. In extreme situations I may go to a heavy weighted fly.

Backing: 60 lbs braid attached with a Bimmini to the shooting line.

Reels: This is one of the few occasions where I think a good drag is important. Springs tend to take the fly and make a hard run back down-stream. If you do not stop and slow down that run the chances of landing a fish like that become much smaller. So I set my drag close to breaking strength and hang on….

That’s about it as far as equipment goes. I won’t go into special techniques here because that is too big of a topic for here. The key thing when swinging a fly is to present it fairly close to the bottom.

The season here in BC starts around the middle of April and ends around the beginning of September with the peak of the season from early June to the middle of August.

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Chinook salmon stocks are declining. This is represented in reduced retention quotas set by the government of BC. Springs are a popular food fish. I hope that catch and release of Spring salmon will become more accepted. This is one of the most impressive sports fish that we can catch. It would be a shame to loose that experience.

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