Owner of Skeena River Lodge Joroen Wohe holds an immaculate specimen from BCâ€™s Kitimat River.
A King Thing Experts weigh in on the ultimate anadromous quarry
By Ken Morrish & Friends
A KING THING
hether you call it a king, a spring, a tyee or a chinook the largest of After one to eight years at sea (average three to four) they return to their home the Pacific salmon is a formidable and fabulous game fish. When rivers. The first to arrive are the spring chinook, which come early because of the they return to the river, every form of conventional angler known to long distances that most of them travel inland to spawn. They arrive loaded with man comes out in hot pursuit. It's a form of madness for the angling masses but fat and energy reserves for the trip, making them the most delicious and most the illness has been slow to infect fly fishers and spey anglers. Today, in part due expensive salmon on the market. Many also consider them the strongest fighters. to the maturation of modern spey techniques and the insatiable urge to have a Next come the summer chinook of British Columbia, Alaska and Russia. These swung fly crushed by a big sea-run fish, the tide has changed. A movement is runs start in June and last through August and favor the big rivers like the Skeena, underway and for the committed, it may well be the ultimate anadromous Kenai and Nushagak as well as Kamchatka’s larger systems. These are the longest quarry, as there is no arguing the fact that the king is The King. lived of the kings and there are still giants among them. It has taken me decades to make the leap into be As the northern runs fade in August, a new wave of bright coming a king fisherman. But when I realized that what fall fish arrives off the coast of Oregon and northern California. I wanted most was to tangle with fish that are big and Having a short distance to travel to their spawning grounds, brutal…fish that present the ultimate test of tackle, these fish arrive late with the fall rains. Fall chinook season technique, physical strength and mental resolve…fish starts in September and the last bright fish arrive in that are all too happy to beat you down, take all your December. These runs of large, heavy bodied fish produced line and leave you a helpless blubbering mess, I committed to the the world fly-caught record, a mint bright 71.5 pound buck K in gtr u d er by Rob Ru sse l l quest. And while I now consider myself a convert and a fan, I am from the tidewater section of the Rogue River in southwest Oregon. far from an expert and accordingly have invited some true experts The largest chinooks become monsters because of a life history to share their insights on these fish, their life history, why they love them and pattern that delays spawning migrations until they have spent 5 to 8 years in the ocean. But fish this size have become scarce in many river systems. This is the rivers they frequent in search of them. because every additional year in the ocean exposes them to the pressure of coastal commercial salmon fishing fleets. The odds of surviving this troll fishery decline What is a King? with each season in the salt. Additionally, the tendency of fresh and saltwater By Guido Rahr, Executive Director of the Wild Salmon Center, Portland Oregon sport fishers to kill the biggest salmon has made the issue worse. So when and if and obsessed coastal salmon fly angler you are lucky enough to catch one of these amazing fish, be sure to do your part As a lifelong salmon angler and advocate, there has never been a question as to and release the largest specimens so that the genes that create these giants live on. which species is my favorite. It has always been the chinook. There are actually six species of Pacific salmon, all members of the genus Oncorhynchus, which Kitimat and Lower Skeena means “crooked snout” in Latin. Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, better known as By Jeroen Wohe, Full-time guide and owner of Skeena River Lodge, Terrace BC the king or chinook is the largest species of “true” salmon in the world and has been known to grow to over 120 pounds. The reason I love kings is because they get my adrenalin pumping and my heart Chinook spawn in the rivers of the northern Pacific Rim, historically as racing at a dangerously high pace that no other fish comes close to. Pound for far south as the Ventura River in California all the way across the Pacific arc to pound these fish are stronger than tarpon and when you hook a big one there the rivers of the northwestern Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. is a feeling of having no control whatsoever. There is no other anadromous After less than two years in freshwater, chinook smolts swim downstream with fish more powerful than a sea liced, ocean bright spring. I have landed Atlantic spring runoff. Once in the ocean, they roam thousands of miles, contouring vast salmon up to 40 pounds and some really big steelhead over 30 pounds but for submarine canyons and seamounts where the edges of the continents plunge into me a big king is “the” fish on a spey rod. It is like a hybrid between a steelhead the deep ocean forcing plumes of nutrient rich water towards the surface. Here (fast) and an Atlantic salmon (strong), but on steroids. For me they are the last the chinook gorge on baitfish and crustaceans often adding ten pounds a year. step in the evolution of a spey angler; when the time is right and you are ready,
“...there is no arguing the fact that the king is The King.” PAGE 41
A KING THING the final step will be chasing and hopefully hooking these magnificent fish! Fishing for these big brutes it is not much different than fishing for steelhead or Atlantic salmon in cold water. That means we have to present the fly close to where the fish are holding. The anglers that do best can cast a long line with heavy tips and big flies all day long. My favorite king rivers are the Kitimat and the Skeena. The Kitimat has strong returns of large fish and it is relatively easy to cover its best holding water and traveling lanes. Also, the majority of fish that we hook have been in fresh water for less than 24 hours so they are bright and immaculate. The Skeena is tougher due to its size but there are few places on earth where you can lose more line in the blink of an eye. It is also less crowded than most of the great king rivers and it represents the best chance of hooking a fish over 50 or 60 pounds. Landing these fish is another matter altogether. If you are looking for a real challenge and potentially the fish of a lifetime, you won’t be disappointed!
The Kanektok By Jeff Hickman, Full-time steelhead and salmon guide with many seasons on Alaska’s Kanektok, Clackamas OR What do I love about kings? Their size of course! Also they are magnificent fish, strong, beautiful and despite popular belief they love to eat swung flies. Chinook are possibly the most moody of all targeted fish species on the fly. They have huge mood swings. Attacking the fly when they are angry, playing with the fly when they are playful, eating the fly when they feel hungry or completely ignoring the fly the other 90% of the time. Therefore those that want to swing flies for them must be up to the huge challenge that they present. They are very light sensitive. When the water is clear and the sun is out your chances of getting one to eat your fly go way down. Also the farther they are from the salt water and the longer they have been in the river, the less likely they are to eat your fly. In my experience, if you can find chinook within 10 miles or so from the salt or fresh fish that have been in the river for less than a week, they are far more likely to be interested in flies. It’s all about playing your odds. The more kings you put your fly in front of and the longer you keep your fly in the right zone the more you will catch. They are not always on the bottom or out in the middle. In fact, I have found in times of high water they are often in the slowest, softest water you can find on the river. And many times they may only be traveling or holding a foot or
two under the surface. This is especially true in low light situations, colored water conditions and in tidewater areas. What makes a great king fly fishing river? One that has a large run of fish, consistent water color so that they feel safe in shallow areas, some big deep pools for them to stack and hide in, and of course one that has limited crowds if possible. Certainly the one that draws me back season after season is the Kanektok. It is a perfect Alaskan fly river. It meanders through 100 miles of tundra that act as a filter and keeps the river a consistently gorgeous green color even in monsoon rains. The Kanektok is a great size, not too small to make the fish feel uncomfortable or nervous and not so big as to intimidate spey anglers. It is the perfect manageable size, and the wading is as easy as it gets. Despite its appearance of gentle flow the current runs hard, especially considering that structure is nearly non-existent except for the odd root-ball. This means that the kings travel on the seam lines. If you cast too far beyond the seam line you are not fishing efficiently. Don’t waste time out in the heavy flow. Get your fly to the proper depth and effectively swing through the seam and into the hang-down zone. Especially when the water is high, the tail end of the swing is a very high odds zone.
BC’s Remote Coastal Systems By Derek Botchford, Full-time guide and owner of Frontier Farwest Lodge and Base Camp, Smithers, BC I have always had an infatuation with king salmon due in large part to twelve years guiding in Bristol Bay Alaska. Although they don’t have the illustrious history in the fly fishing world like steelhead, they may very well be the greatest challenge available for the ardent spey fisherman. The reasons I love pursuing kings include that their size starts where steelhead’s ends, they can blow up your gear faster than any other freshwater fish and they are unique and rare compared to other species. They are found in only a small fraction of watersheds and the amount of time they spend in the ocean is double and in some cases triple that of other anadromous fish. I think the most interesting king fishing happens in the smaller, less known fly-in systems of BC that flow directly into tidal water. These are rare and unique fisheries as kings usually prefer larger rivers for their freshwater cycle. They are gorgeous and un-crowded and while I hate to mention them by name in print, let’s just say the author knows the names and can tell you more about the unique program I run along BC’s coast.
“For me a big king is ‘the’ fish on a spey rod. It is like a hybrid between a steelhead (fast) and an Atlantic salmon (strong), but on steroids.” PAGE 42
Clockwise from top left: Adam Tavender with a rock-hard Dean spring salmon; Derek Botchford with a basecamp brute; Jeff Hickman on holiday at the Dean; Ken Morrish with an Oregon coast trophy; a well-pinned Kitimat fish awaits release. Photos: Authors and Rob Elam. PAGE 43
A KING THING vigor. Springs of the lower Dean River have all these characteristics and hold I get excited about these small systems because you feel more connected in fly-friendly runs stretching right down to tidewater. It’s here that geologic to the water and the fish. What might be most impressive about these fishgood fortune has created the perfect fish in the perfect setting. eries is the enormous potential size. There may be other fisheries that offer anglers higher numbers of kings, but I have never seen fish over 40 pounds as consistently as in BC. For me the most exciting thing in guiding is when I see Tactics and Technique someone hook into a 40 to 50 pound wild, native chinook on a spey rod on a Fishing kings is not for the faint of heart or the inexperienced. As mentioned, small coastal river. It is a life altering, mind blowing experience that you will this is the big leagues and it is a high risk/high reward game. Anglers need to rank as high as anything you have accomplished on a river. be well prepared to play the game effectively and first and foremost that means When fishing small chinook rivers like the ones we fly into, you have casting skills. The primary difference between king fishing and fishing for other to change your tactics a bit to be successful. The fish will tend to move early anadromous species is that most often you will be fishing deep with heavy tips morning or late evening, and being chased constantly by seals these fish are and large flies. If casting sink tips is a struggle, think twice about this arena, always on red alert. When they first arrive to their new lies they are in their as the main component to success is casting far and fishing deep all day long. most aggressive state as they compete for space in the pool. They will be holding Typically spey anglers targeting kings fish relatively square to the opposite bank. in deep slow runs very similar to where our summer steelhead go when water In some cases to get the needed depth they might actually cast up and across temps drop to the low 30‘s. Lengthen your leaders with heavily weighted flies. and mend upstream hard to get additional depth. Likewise, after the initial cast Fishing about 10 feet of T-17 seems to work the best. When the tide comes in is made feeding slack line is common to enable the and fresh fish mix with holding fish it is like a bar tips to drop in deep before the line comes under letting out after last call. Tensions are high, fish tension. Many anglers, myself included, like to are extremely aggressive, and you are most likely Top Picks for take their downstream steps after the initial mend about to be in for the fight of your life! Fishing Kings to increase the duration of the tip’s tension free drop. Unlike winter steelheading, king fishermen Visit www.flywatertravel.com for details The Dean are typically far less concerned about slowing the By Adam Tavender, fly fishing photographer with Bulkley Basecamp: See pages 56-57 fly’s speed and in many cases the preferred presen22 full seasons on the Dean, previous owner of BC West: See pages 58-59 tation has the fly swinging square, fast and deep. Nakia Lodge (now known as BC West), Comox, BC A good broadside presentation often leads to the Skeena River Lodge: See pages 56-57 Contrary to what you may have heard, size really most savage takes. Spey Lodge: See pages 56-57 does matter. A three pound brown trout gets the King fishermen need to be obsessive about Hoodoo Lodge: See pages 50-51 adrenaline flowing, but a thirty pound chinook fishing sharp hooks as chinooks have very hard electrifies the senses like no other fresh water fish. mouths. Unlike the steelhead game where you Alaska West: See pages 50-51 There’s just something about being attached to an often wait patiently for the fish to turn and hook animal weighing that much. For most of the fight, itself, most king anglers will tell you to hit them control of the fish is not an option. But of course, this chaos is precisely what hard as soon as you feel anything fishy. How exactly should you hit them? My chinook anglers seek. It’s a fishery requiring relinquishment of authority... a recommendation is to hit them as hard as you possibly can with the path of willingness to give up the driver’s seat. On my home water the landing rate is your tip traveling towards the downstream bank. In order to accomplish this only 10%, so it’s also helpful to possess a neurotic compulsion seasoned with you might consider pinning your line against your cork with two or three finpragmatic fatalism. Targeting sea-bright springs is the “extreme sport” of fly gers as opposed to just having it under your index finger. Typically one really fishing in fresh water. good set is more effective than multiple hook sets. If you bury it well then it’s Not all chinook are created equal. Some things distinguish turbo-charged between you, your tackle, your fighting skills and the fish. When the fish are individuals from run of the mill. As with any anadromous fish, time spent in hot and strong be patient as landing them might take an average of a minute fresh water runs down the clock on their “best before” date. Sea lice and silvery per pound. Have limited delusions of grandeur as it is a tough game. But when, scales are hallmarks of the fittest fish. Once hooked, chinook in a large, fast flowafter hours of effort, they come barreling by and you connect with a big one ing river perform better than their pool-bound brethren from a smaller system. and your backing melts away ignoring the full force of your drag, you will be Also, through genetic selection, certain strains simply have more strength and elated to have made it to the big leagues! PAGE 44
Tools of the Masters When Tackle Counts Rods: The panel of anglers interviewed were largely in agreement that 13-14 ft rods for 9 wt lines are best suited to fishing kings. Several anglers noted that the longer rods really help pulling the heavy tips out of the water. Reels: All of the interviewed anglers insist on a really good drag, one capable of stopping the largest and strongest salt water fish. The Sage 6012, Hardy Fortuna, Ross F1, and Bauer MX6 were all mentioned. Backing: The panel agreed that 250 yards is a must. Most are fine with 30 pound Dacron but Jeroen Wohe likes 350 yards of 80 pound Tuff Line for the Skeena. Running Line: No consensus here. 30 pound Airflo Ridge, 40 pound Slick Shooter and SA Floating Monocore were all mentioned and Adam Tavender likes an integrated running line noting that at times anglers benefit from stripping the head in while wading in deep slack water. Heads: The panel was unanimous in liking Skagit style floating heads as well as the SA Skagit Intermediate Extremes. It was also noted that dropping down in grain weight is beneficial with the intermediate heads. Sink Tips: Most anglers like 12-17 ft of T-14. Derek Botchford liked 10 ft of T-17 and Tavender prefers Cortland LC-13 for superior strength and sink rate. Tippet: All interviewed prefer Maxima Ultra Green in 20 or 25 pound test. Flies: Most prefer 3-4 inch weighted tubes or intruder style flies. Chartreuse was the top color but black and blue, pink and purple were also mentioned. Jeff Hickman prefers 2.5 inch un-weighted patterns like the Fish Taco.
Dr. Bryan Sohl trying his hardest to stay in the game, Dean River. Photo: Ken Morrish.
Hooks: 2/0 and 3/0 hooks were the top picks. Owner SSWâ€™s and Mustad Octopus Beaks were mentioned by name. Jeff Hickman prefers a #1 Owner for superior penetration and maintains the smaller gapes are harder to open or bend out. PAGE 45