There is a myth that continues to spread concerning the willingness of members of the Pacific salmon clan to take a fly. The truth is, however, that like any other anadromous predator, the salmon will strike viciously at anything drifted into its territory.
Fly-fishermen have the opportunity to fish for Chinook, Coho, and pink salmon in tributaries feeding all five of the Great Lakes. There are kokanee, landlocked red salmon, in a few northern tributaries as well, completing the menu. Fall runs of Chinook, Coho, and every other year, pink salmon, offer fly-fishermen a smorgasbord of opportunities in rivers ranging from knee-deep to those that will float your hat. Prime time is Mid-September through Mid-October.
If you are able to sight-fish salmon in your favorite river, choosing tackle can be done with some flexibility. However, most rivers don't offer that luxury so the approach must be to look to the heavy end of the range of fly tackle available. Look heavy, but choose as light as your nerves and skills will allow.
Salmon fishermen have been seen with 7-weight rods on larger rivers that afford plenty of room to battle 20 to 25-pound Chinook, but the best choice is probably a 9-weight rod
mated to a reel with the capacity for the fly line and at least 200 yards of Dacron backing
are a matter of personal choice for most salmon fishermen and will include those with drag systems and those affectionately called knuckle-busters. A river hosting a strong run of 12 to 15-pound Chinook will always have a bruiser or two weighing in well over 20 pounds mixed in. It's always good to have confidence in your 7-weight system, but step up a notch to assure success. Fly fishermen in pursuit of big salmon will find that long leaders or tippets are unnecessary. Usually, 4 or 5-foot leaders made of 11 to 15-pound low-stretch monofilament are adequate.
Choosing a fly follows much the same rules as those written for big trout - bright sky, clear water means smaller, more subdued patterns; cloudy days and off-colored water, either stained or discolored following a heavy rain, choose bright and oftentimes slightly larger patterns. The rod and line will certainly cast larger patterns, but you will have to pay attention to sky and water conditions. Remember, the fish isn't reacting to feeding urges and is striking out of instinct, but it still must see the offering.
Since salmon, (either moving through holding water or guarding spawning gravel) will hold in the bottom 12 to 18 inches of the river, any offering will have to drift through that zone to be picked up.
Weighted streamers are top choices for a number of very basic reasons. They are simple in design and can be tied or modified to match any possible combination of sky and water. They present big, very visible targets to holding salmon and, since the jaws of a salmon seldom permit an encore performance by a fly, they are affordable.
Simple bucktail streamers
are my top choice for all Great Lakes salmon waters. Tied plain, mixing colors and sizes to cover the most common types of rivers favored by salmon keeps me in the action. I carry a fix-up kit in my fly vest that consists of pieces of tinsel or flash-and-sparkle material, Glo-bug yarn; all things that can be quickly added to a pattern that's drawing the attention of the fish, but not causing a strike.
One other "secret" in my kit is an assortment of small willow-leaf blades that can be slipped over the barb of the hook to add a little action and a bit of flash to a fly. Carry both silver and brass blades to match water and sky conditions. One other note on flies for Great Lake salmon is more common sense than anything. Salmon, particularly the Chinook, have extremely hard, bony jaws. Very sharp hooks are a must. A few drifts through a promising run can dull a hook and cause you to lose a trophy fish. Take a minute, every few drifts, and touch the point with a file to keep your hook sharp.
Where to find them
Salmon, en route to a date on the spawning gravel, will spend little time moving upriver. They pause to rest in the first deep run, or pool, close to the river mouth and then continue upstream at a deliberate pace until they reach spawning gravel. Low on the river, look for these deeper resting areas first. Sight fishing in shallow riffle water is going to be an exercise in dump and chase, with you dumping your fly near moving salmon followed by a chase upstream to catch up with a fish that wasn't interested in your offering.
The most consistent action starts away from the river mouth in areas of deep runs and pools, where the fish starts its relentless migration to spawn. Here, the salmon starts becoming territorial and less tolerant of those traveling within it. This is the zone in which intruders of any size are attacked, including that bucktail fly you drifted through the run.
The final and most productive water is the spawning area where salmon have set up definite territories, and will defend them with increasing vigor until they have completed their lifecycle and spawned. In this area, the fish will most likely hold immediately below the nest, moving up quickly to attack even bits of flotsam drifting downstream. Your bucktail streamer takes on the appearance of a small fish in search of a snack of roe, drawing the rage of the salmon.
A sloppy approach will send even the most intent spawning fish in search of other, quieter water, but salmon will tolerate an errant cast or two. Approach from slightly downstream and make your cast to allow the fly to swing in front of or through the area immediately in front of the salmon. They will move slightly to pick up a fly, but they won't move far. Not only won't they move to take your fly, they rarely will rise up more than a couple of inches to intercept your offering. Keep the fly near the bottom, well within that 12 to 18-inch layer of the river they favor.
There are easier ways to catch the Great Lakes salmon, but none more satisfying or rewarding. The number of salmon migrating upstream into the hundreds of tributaries feeding the five Great Lakes is staggering, and the opportunities for the fly fishermen are limited only by one's imagination.
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