Return of the Kings

I was goin’ down, down, down to the flatlands, headed north, to check on a favorite tributary for king salmon and the browns that follow. No, my destination wasn’t Oak Orchard Creek or the Salmon River– not on Columbus Day weekend. I swore off holiday visits to those rivers years ago, when I couldn’t have squeezed in with a shoehorn.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

These days, my favorite Great Lake tributary is getting crowded also. But the crowd stays pretty close to the bridges, mostly, and there’s several miles of open water between those bridges for an angler still capable of walking.

For whatever reason, this stream has a later run of kings than the major tributaries have, and the run was just beginning. Salmon were everywhere, charging up the riffles in pods of six or seven, splashing toward the spawn like cattle to a barn, or tired anglers to the call of Happy Hour.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll day, through the rain and the sunshine that followed, the big fish headed upriver by the hundreds. They were fresh from the lake, as green as the riverine foliage and as feisty as badgers in a flower garden. With a few exceptions, they were not yet ready to pause and sniff around at flies or egg sacs or other lures designed to irritate them into striking.

Most of these fish were not yet territorial or on the redd. My challenge was to stand upstream of a resting salmon and get it to strike at a fly swung by its nose. Salmon don’t eat while on the spawn, but they’ll bite instinctively at an irritant. My goal was to get one to hit a streamer or a Woolly Bugger without snagging the massive body.

egg mass found on bank

egg mass found on bank

I did pretty well, catching and releasing about a dozen chinook salmon (kings) on WoollyBuggers with an orange or chartreuse head. One of those, a 38-inch female, with an unbelievable girth, took me 15 minutes to land and then release. Like all the other salmon, she inscribed a huge arc in the 8-weight fly rod, and she made me feel my age, contributing to the pleasant ache and muscle pain I sensed hours after getting home.

No, I didn’t see any of the big browns that tend to follow the initial salmon run, but I understand that a few of those bruisers had arrived.

Near the bridge I saw a knot of anglers with heavy spinning gear, some of whom were obviously challenged in the ethics department. A couple of fellows, my age or older, represented the Old School of Salmon Snagging which (thankfully) was condemned and outlawed about 20 years ago in New York State. I watched one guy swinging out his innocent-looking egg sac then repeatedly yanking his lure sideways to snatch a big salmon any way he could.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I was climbing to the road to prepare for my homeward drive when I heard the snagger yell. Looking down at the commotion from the bridge, I saw that he had lost his balance and had tumbled into the knee-deep water, flipping onto his back. Floundering around like a thirty-pound salmon on a mission, he had lost his hat.

Watching his hat sail happily toward freedom in the big lake, I refrained from laughing out loud.

Touché.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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24 Responses to Return of the Kings

  1. Excellent work landing a fish that size on fly tackle. Sounds like it took as much finesse as fight and plenty of both.

  2. Thank you, Jim. The chinooks are powerful fighters when they’re fresh run from the lake or ocean. I’ve seen fly-anglers walk away from them spooled or with a broken rod. I’ve had one snap an 8-weight rod in two. And yes, if you play the game ethically, as everyone should do, it does require some finesse to place the fly where you want it in order to get the fish to strike.

  3. Brent says:

    Observation one: I like the pun you used for your title. Observation two: You’ve got the most important ingredients for some fresh sushi right there in your pictures. Observation three: That’s an impressive fish, all the more so for being caught fairly!

    • Brent, I had a feeling you would like the title! As for sushi, the ingredients are there, probably safe to eat in limited quantity, but I’ll wait for you to haul it away some year when you’re up here at this time of season. Those fish weigh 20 to 30 pounds each (one guy caught a 43-pounder the other day; he showed me a picture that was taken of it), too much for a geezer to haul very far. And fairly is the only way to go, if not always the most popular.

  4. markw says:

    Nice fish! She must have been a handful for sure

  5. She was, indeed. All of them were. Quite hefty after spending three or four years of good eating in the Lake. Thanks Mark!

  6. Alan says:

    The sneaky snagger got his just ending.
    Walt that is an impressive catch. I have only fished for steelhead once and managed to do pretty well. That’s a great fishery.

  7. Dale says:

    You have to take me there sometime so tired of the salmon river and all the bull , does this place have steel head also

    • Dale, We’ll go sometime. I’ve been tired of the BS at the Oak and Salmon for years. This place has some steelhead but not many. Caught a nice one there in early Oct. one time, but mainly it’s known for its salmon and big browns.

  8. That has to be insane seeing fish that big in water that shallow.

    • Kevin, despite the fact that I’ve seen this sort of fish phenomenon for years on end, when I see it for the first time in October once again, I say to myself, “Crazy, man!” Thanks for reading!

  9. Bob Stanton says:

    I had to enlarge the picture next to the description of the snagger’s mishap, thinking (hoping) you’d caught him floundering in the water, but it appears to be a big rock. Dang! Still funny to think about, though.

  10. LQN says:

    Nice Walt. They are fun on the fly rod. I myself made the mistake of going to the salmon river columbus day weekend last year. never again.

  11. Ken G says:

    I used to go up to Milwaukee to fish for those coming out of Lake Michigan. Haven’t done it in years. It was the only time I would get arm cramps from fighting and landing fish. I’ve hooked and landed enough muskie on the river I fish. There’s simply no comparison. I figured out that bridge thing too. Was nice to walk not too far and get away from the crowds. I need to get back up there one of these days. Thanks for the reminder.

  12. Ken, It’s one of those things– each year in Oct. I head north and look for the big fish, wondering if I’m really up for it or not, and then, when I get there and see what’s going on, the old adrenalin kicks in again. Yeah you get the arm and stomach and leg cramps from the fighting. I wouldn’t want to do it on a regular basis, and for a real change of pace, for a brief while it’s a hoot. I’ve never caught a muskie, but occasionally I entertain the thought of trying for one with a big-ass fly.

    • Ken G says:

      Would be worth giving muskie a try Walt, but they tend to give up relatively quick. Salmon, fresh salmon, just don’t quit. I landed one of about 40 inches once. Took me a half hour. Took that long to get the feeling back in my arm.

      • I’m really not far from where the muskies roam, so maybe I’ll try for one some day when the trout fishing goes into the doldrums. As for fresh-run salmon, you’re right, they do not quit. I’ve caught bunches in one day, hundreds of pounds in total weight, and they can about kill you. Thanks for commenting, Ken.

  13. Les Kish says:

    Walt, I wish I could feel your pain. Big kings on a eight weight are a load of fun and one heck of a workout. As for the browns, I still remember the monster that you posted a photo of last year. Wow.

  14. Les, I’ll bet you could feel that pain again with a fairly short drive over the Divide, couldn’t you? We sound like a bunch of masochists around here, don’t we?

    • Les Kish says:

      Kings do make it to Idaho, but they’re mostly caught by gear guys. Caught one on the Grande Ronde in Washington a few years back while fishing for steelhead.

      Hundreds of pounds of fish in one day? Sounds more like halibut fishing. Next time you go, suffer a little for me too! Yup, masochists indeed.

      • I’ll put it into context, Les. Hundreds of pounds, but you’ve got to hit it just right (or wrong, from muscles point of view). It’s a medium-sized stream, so when the big run occurs, the fish are everywhere. If you know how to hook them fairly (in the mouth), you don’t lose too many fish, you just fight them, one after the other. My most exhausting day occurred last year, when I landed and released about 2 dozen fish. Usually, on a good day I’ll catch a half dozen or less. But for the big day, average weight, about 20 pounds a piece. Multiply that by 24. That was an extreme day, though. I would’ve had enough after the first few fish, but masochism simply kicked in. I don’t think I’ll be able, or willing, to get that exercised much longer, at my age. Thank god for 9-inch brookies.

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