Salmon River Kings Redux

Guest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss, Life-long avid angler, licensed PA fishing guide, founder of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association

I recently returned from my second annual trip in pursuit of King Salmon, at the Salmon River, in Pulaski, NY. During last year’s trip I hooked many, but landed only two Kings in three days of fishing. I became familiar with their rather intimidating size and power, but never achieved any sense of control over a hooked fish. It was simply a matter of hanging on and hoping for the best.

This year, as the date of our trip approached, we’d been very excited to hear reports of charter boats on Lake Ontario marking huge schools of salmon on their sonar units. This presaged a strong run of fish up the Salmon River. Although salmon had been trickling into the river for a few weeks, the main run had clearly not started yet. The water was too warm and the river too low.

We arrived on Sunday, September 16 to find unseasonably hot and humid weather conditions. On Monday and Tuesday our activities were limited to hiking and sweating and swatting mosquitoes. Some fish were in the river; we watched them roll and porpoise and occasionally leap out of the water. They were completely disinterested in our flies. Even the spin fishermen weren’t landing any, although there were some brief encounters which seemed more likely to have involved (hopefully) unintentional snagging than legitimate hook-ups. I began to despair of having any good fishing at all.

On Tuesday night a weather front came through that dropped the humidity and temperature dramatically. As we made our way to the river early Wednesday morning the air was cool enough to promise a more comfortable day. Since there had been no rise in the water level, however, I still wasn’t terribly optimistic about our chances on this our final day of fishing. It was soon apparent, however, that the temperature change was enough to get the salmon moving. As we approached the spot we’d chosen to fish, we ran into one of the Douglaston Salmon Run wardens. Reports he’d received were that there were a lot of bent rods down in The Estuary. They were coming!

We settled into promising spots at our mid-stretch location, and tuned up our terminal tackle and casting. Things were quiet at first, but not for long. The salmon made a dramatic entrance, motoring up the riffles below our position, throwing spray as they came. Soon we were hooking up with regularity. We’d had the good luck to be in the right place, at the right time, to meet the season’s first big push of salmon up the river—an amazing thing to witness and experience. The sheer number of willing fish made it possible to learn a lot about fishing for these monsters. By the time the day was over I’d landed five King Salmon and hooked up and lost more than I could count. I was exhausted but very happy indeed.

I am well aware that fly fishing in all of its many forms is far more art than science. Everyone has his or her own ideas, strategies, and preferences. Although my experience with the Salmon River fishery is limited, I will make bold to share a few of my observations, and what I’ve learned so far.

The technique I’ve settled on for fishing the salmon run is rather unorthodox, but it’s something I’m happy doing and it works well enough to suit me. Most fly anglers on the Salmon River either bottom-bounce with considerable weight added to the leader, or swing wet flies, often with a Spey or Switch-Rod. I use a 9 ft. 10-wt. single-handed rod, large-arbor reel, and a floating line. I search out water that’s suitable for my preferred method—dead-drifting an egg pattern under a strike indicator. It’s basically an upsized version of nymphing with an indicator for trout. I try to read the water and identify hip-deep slots that the salmon will funnel through as they make their way upstream.

My terminal tackle consists of a 9 ft. knotless tapered fluorocarbon leader with a OX or slightly heavier point, to which I tie a #14 barrel swivel. I add a foot or so of 1X tippet, to which I tie my fly. I add just enough shot to take my fly to the bottom and hang them on the leader above the swivel, which keeps them from sliding down onto the fly. When I snag on the bottom and must break off, I usually lose only the fly, or sometimes the fly and the tippet. So re-rigging is relatively easy, and loss of terminal tackle components is minimized.

My preferred strike indicator is a medium-size Air Lock. This indicator is buoyant enough to suspend my typical rigging. Once installed it does not kink the leader, is easy to adjust for depth, and is almost impossible to lose. Say no more.

Many flies are lost in a day of this fishing, so if you tie your own you’ll want a pattern that is cheap and easy to tie. I’ve settled on a fly I call the JZ—the initials of the man who shared it with me. (And no, if you’re wondering, not the famous Rap artist.) This fly consists of a body of chartreuse sparkle chenille and a sparse wing of white Glo-Bug yarn extending back just short of the hook bend. Other fluorescent colors can be used, as you please. I tie this fly on a #10 wet fly hook. I know that a larger hook would hold a salmon more securely. However, the small hook pulls out of a snagged fish with greater ease and that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make.
The JZ recipe:
Hook: #10 heavy wet
Thread: 3/0 Monocord, chartreuse
Body: Medium Woolly Bugger chenille, chartreuse
Wing: Glo-Bug Yarn, white
Note: Use any fluorescent color desired for the body.

As for playing the salmon, I remembered from last year that the biggest challenge was dealing with the seemingly unstoppable long run the fish would make immediately after the hook-up. They would get so far away that I had no control whatsoever. The fish would pull the leader along the stream bed until the tippet got jammed between the rocks and parted.

By hooking fish after fish this year, I began to see behavioral patterns that I could exploit. The first important lesson was that a foul-hooked salmon usually behaves differently than a fair-hooked fish. With a fair-hooked fish, there will be some head shakes that you can feel through the rod. The fish tends more to swim around fairly calmly for a while, providing you don’t pressure him too much. A fair-hooked fish rarely jumps. Foul-hooked fish almost always tear off on a long run immediately, and frequently jump and shake the hook loose in the process. This is a good thing.

I found that a fair-hooked fish typically has only one long, spectacular run in it. Delaying this “big run” was the key. The more I could tire a fish before it ran, the shorter the run would be. The harder you hold any hooked fish, the harder it will pull back. In the excitement of playing these huge fish, and dealing with their awesome power, I temporarily forgot this very basic principle.

After hook up, I needed to play the salmon lightly enough to keep it from fleeing in panic. I had to keep the fish moving in order to tire it, but not trigger that run. If the fish started getting too agitated, I’d lighten up the pressure. If it sulked on the bottom, I’d cautiously apply more side-pressure to put the salmon off balance and make him move. The drag setting should be just heavy enough to make the fish work to take line once the inevitable run begins. By employing these interactive strategies, I was able to reduce the length of the fish’s run and increase my landing percentage considerably.

If you’re planning a trip to enjoy this fishery, or a similar one, I hope these ideas may prove helpful to you.

7 thoughts on “Salmon River Kings Redux

  1. Michael Vorhis

    Excellent strategies Mary. Sounds like a terrific river this time of year. Mine closes too early to let me fish the shoulder-to-shoulder Chinook wave; the best I can do is to fish on the last legal day, when a number of them are coming up but the stampede has not yet materialized. I use streamers rather than egg patterns, but that’s mostly because I’d feel idle if I wasn’t actively “working” a fly–wetfly syndrome, as you alluded. Glad to hear you felt their power repeatedly again this year and that you brought some to net. They are magnificent fish.

    – Mike

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  2. Mary S. Kuss

    The Salmon River fishery is a unique experience. Distance and finances don’t allow me to pursue these fish in their native range, which would certainly be preferable. But the Salmon River is a leisurely five-hour drive away, and best of all I have a good friend who allows me the use of his vacation home up there. Hard to beat that! Third try was the charm with the salmon fishing, and when I finally hit it right it was more than worth the time and effort. I may feel sporty enough to swing wets for them one of these days, but I’m not quite there yet.

    Reply
  3. Joe Dellaria

    Hi Mary,
    Thanks for sharing your strategy in playing the fish lightly to tire them prior to the long run. If I ever get the opportunity to do this, that will be a key piece to remember.
    Your plight with the weather is what makes me fearful of traveling a great distance to fish. My toast always falls with the jam side down, so I assume I will “be had” by the weather.
    All the best,
    Joe

    Reply
  4. Mary S. Kuss

    Thanks, Joe. We fly fishers are always at the mercy of the weather, water conditions, and sometimes uncooperative fish. The first two and a half days of my 2019 salmon trip featured miserable weather and disinterested fish. This made an interesting contrast to the final day of the trip, which was fantastically good. Sometimes you have to take your lumps to get your reward. You can’t win if you don’t play. I truly believe that it takes slow to downright rotten days to make you fully appreciate the good ones.

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  5. Dave Caudle

    Sounds like great fun. I have a larger fly that worked wonders in Alaska’s Kenai River. It caught rainbows, dolly varden, reds and hooked kings although they always broke my leader. Too bad I didn’t know about your strategy. I might have landed a king. Fly is simply florescent pink bucktail on a number 2/0 hook. Try it you’ll like it.

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