Early fall on the tributaries of the Great Lakes can be a hot topic amongst anglers. This is especially true when it concerns fishing for King Salmon. As soon as the salmon start their migration upriver to spawn and die, their attitudes and behavior completely change from a feeding machine to a breeding machine. They no longer eat anything which results in debate. Do King Salmon actually take flies and lures? Due to this question, you can break tributary anglers into three main groups. In one group, you have anglers that simply don't believe that it is worth fishing for kings because they do not eat flies and thus it is not sporting. On the other side of the spectrum, are groups of anglers that are simply there to harvest fish, or just have a fun time fishing. Often, they completely disregard the entire argument and do not care if the fish took their lure or fly. People in this group vary from outright snagging fish, lining fish, or walking a tight rope between groups two and three. The third group of people have probably been through stages one or two at some point and come to realize the conditions that can induce fish to take lures and flies. Often, they have seen first hand fish go out of their way to take their offering.
Count us as former members of group one and currently residing in group three. Our first few years on the tributaries fishing for steelhead found us encountering plenty of salmon. Soon we ended up joining the masses during Salmon season to try and catch one. That first year was a true eye opener for us to all the types of anglers that reside in the three groups above, especially group two. We took to calling Salmon season the "circus" and it still is. By our third year, we basically realized that our current strategy of attempting to legally catch a fish was not working.
We worked our way downriver eventually settling on the DSR, that you have to pay to fish. Here you can find the easiest way to catch a salmon. Fresh and confused, the salmon are just entering the river from the estuary and are willing to take a fly. The first time we saw this happen, we were swinging large streamers through a fast run with a slate bottom. The salmon moved and tracked the fly for several feet before inhaling it. Several more hookups and we caught the salmon bug. By the time we figured it out, it was late in the season and we benefited from the hormonal aggression of fresh salmon in the lower river. This year, we ventured down a different path.
That path led us downriver to see the DSR during the peak of the salmon run. With really low flows thanks to the hottest summer on record and a prolonged drought, the salmon were super spooky. The heavy skagit lines and big nasties scared everything in sight, no matter how properly presented. We ended up using lighter scandi and skagit lines with intermediate heads/versileaders attached to long pieces of tippet. Instead of big nasties, we started tying more traditional wet flies in some pretty small sizes. Turns out, a salmon will eat these as well. Using this strategy it is not a numbers game. You can swing flies all day and not receive a hook up, but when you do, it will surely make up for all the time casting. You are looking for that one fish in the pod that is a little overly aggressive and curious. Every pod has one and thanks to fishing downriver, they are willing to take. Our strategy paid off this past weekend and we learned a lot in the process.
Over the past five years, we have become conditioned to fishing up on the tributaries. We are used to the crowds and the oddball behavior one can see and experience, even from guides. Rather than go into any crazy stories (of which we have dozens) I am simply going to ask you all to roll away your stone. Salmon do take flies in certain conditions and it can be a rewarding experience. During all our tributary trips, past, present, and future, we will stick to that rewarding experience. By doing so, you can be sure you're looking at something real, rather than wondering if what you're looking at was actually "caught" or not.