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.
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.
All 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.
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.
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.