The Kings and I

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

I’ve never been fishing in Alaska, or anywhere in the native range of the King Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). And unless I hit a big lottery jackpot I am unlikely to do so. However, my home near Philadelphia is about a five-hour drive from Pulaski, New York, which is arguably the King Salmon capital of the eastern United States. And by the way, the name of this town is pronounced to rhyme with “sky,” not “ski.” I have no idea why.

Pulaski’s economy revolves around the Salmon River, and the many fishing tourists who flock there in pursuit of the King Salmon, Coho Salmon, and Steelhead that come into the river from Lake Ontario each autumn on their annual spawning runs. In most years, the salmon run begins by early-September and ends in November. Steelhead enter the river throughout the fall and winter, heading back to the lake in early-May when water temperatures rise. There have been attempts, with limited success so far, to extend the fishing season by introducing Skamania-strain Steelhead, which are a summer-run fish, and Atlantic Salmon.

Technically, the Atlantics would be a re-introduction, since it was their historic presence that gave the Salmon River its name. Atlantic Salmon were once very abundant in Lake Ontario and its tributaries. One fisherman caught 400 salmon in one night in the Salmon River; these fish averaged about 15 pounds. Similarly, 2000 were speared in one night in Pulaski, and 3600 salmon were caught in one night by twelve skiffs fishing in the Salmon River. In 1860, salmon were so abundant that farmers used pitchforks to toss fish up on the banks of the Seneca River at Baldwinsville. By 1898 this incredibly valuable resource was gone, lost to the effects of over-fishing, agricultural practices, construction of dams, deforestation and pollution.

Various human-generated impacts on this ecosystem continued, as they do to the present day. However, The Big One was the opening of the Great Lakes, via the Welland Canal and St. Lawrence Seaway, to several invasive species. The most significant was the Alewife Herring.

By the mid-1960’s, the Alewife population had increased to the point that, incredibly, they comprised 90-percent of the biomass in the Great Lakes. They began dying en masse and washing up along the beaches. Shoreline communities in some cases had to scoop up truckloads of stinking dead fish and haul them away to landfills. Something had to be done.

Previous attempts to re-establish Atlantic Salmon in the Great Lakes, as well as several species of Pacific Salmon, had largely failed. However, the 1960’s introduction of King and Coho Salmon, in an attempt to control the over-abundant Alewife population, was spectacularly successful. The resulting sport fishery was considered a bonus.

However, it’s a bit of a stretch to call this “sport” fishing. Fishery managers had decided that since the Pacific Salmon would not eat anything once they entered tributaries to spawn, and were doomed to die anyway, why not let people collect them by any means possible, including snagging. It became very popular to sling heavily-weighted, giant treble hooks into areas where the salmon congregated and yank these hooks through the water in hopes of hitting a fish.

After a number of years of this, a few anglers began fair-hooking the salmon on lures and even flies. It became apparent that it was possible to catch them by traditional angling methods. A movement to ban snagging grew and ultimately succeeded. The established culture of snagging, however, has been very slow to die out. There’s another somewhat more subtle method, still of questionable ethics, called “lifting.” Here an angler intentionally drifts his fly or bait into the mouth of a fish lying on the bottom, then makes a hook set. Rules against it are hard to enforce, since proving it is so difficult.

When I first became aware of the Salmon River fishery, the conventional wisdom was that the salmon fishing on the river was a low-brow circus, best avoided by fly fishers. I heard all the horror stories about elbow to elbow crowds, the snagging, and guys dragging along the ground stringers of fish too heavy to carry, including some whose flesh had already started its post-spawning breakdown. Yuck! Better to wait until November and go up for the Steelhead run. There was less fishing pressure, cleaner, nicer fish and a “better” element of anglers involved. When I eventually started sampling the Salmon River fishery for myself I did not question this approach, which seemed eminently reasonable.

I would probably never have done anything else if not for my good TU buddy Jamie. He and his wife had purchased a run-down old farmhouse in the Pulaski area and poured countless dollars and hours into lovingly restoring it as a well-appointed fishing lodge. Jamie kept inviting me up, and although it was by no means intentional I somehow never got around to going. One day our mutual friend Ralph said to me, “You should really take Jamie up on his offer.” I took that to mean that perhaps Jamie’s feelings were hurt that I hadn’t, so I decided I’d better make it work.

We went up for Steelhead and for lake-run Smallmouth Bass, and it was wonderful. But Jamie kept trying to convince us to come up for the salmon run. I resisted, partially because of the reputation and also because I knew these fish were tackle-busters. Jamie himself had broken several fly rods on them. I decided I’d need at least a 9-weight outfit, or better yet a 10-wt. I didn’t own anything heavier than an 8-weight and really didn’t want to invest in it. The only thing that led me to finally give in was that I could see a secondary use for the extra-heavy outfit. I’d been thinking about trying for Muskellunge at a lake near home, and the beefy rod would be needed to cast flies bigger than many of the fish I normally catch. I bought the 10-wt.

The first year we went up in mid-October. I’d filled a couple of boxes with flies suggested by an Alaskan guide friend of mine, who admitted she knew little about the Great Lakes fishery. King Salmon porpoised and rolled and leaped all around us, and we couldn’t catch one to save ourselves. My friend Cid and I foul-hooked (we think) one salmon each in three days of fishing. None were landed.

The second year I decided to get cute and try to time the run. I was convinced we’d gone up too late the year before. So, as planned, we arrived in early-September only to find stinking hot weather. Worse, the salmon were still out in the lake and had not yet come up the river. It was grim.

This year, on September 24-27, we finally hit it right. The third try was the charm. The fish were in, abundantly, and hitting. I’d also done enough research to figure out that what it took to catch Kings in the Great Lakes tributaries was much more like Steelhead fishing than Salmon fishing in Alaska. I can not tell you how many Kings I hooked, some unintentionally fouled but a good many legitimately hooked in the mouth. I landed only two.

Both of the Kings I landed were taken on Steelhead egg patterns. The larger of them, which measured 38 inches and was estimated to weigh around 24 pounds or so, took a fly consisting of a chartreuse sparkle chenille body and a sparse wing of white Glo-Bug Yarn on a size 10 Mustad 3906 wet fly hook. He was neatly hooked in the right upper jaw, about half way between the nose and the scissors. Somehow I kept him on through a fight of about 20 minutes, and played him to the bank. After a few photos, being careful to keep his head submerged throughout the process, he swam off strongly once I steered him out into deeper water, with no reviving needed.

Any fish that is known to be fouled is immediately broken off. Most everyone does this, and it results in many fish carrying around several trophy flies marking their run-ins with anglers. Even so, breaking off still seems like a better option than trying to bring a powerful, 20-plus-pound foul-hooked fish to hand for hook removal. I cleaned all the flies off the two I landed before sending them on their way.

The power of these fish is breathtaking, almost frightening. When one starts running, all you can do is hold on. You are not going to stop it, and most of the time you’re not going to turn it. I lost many fish because they ran hell-bent-for-election upstream or down into a shallow riffle and the tippet was sawed over the rocks until it parted.

The demands of fighting them are tough on tackle, even short of breaking a rod. The locking ring on my reel seat kept vibrating loose, and at one point the spool fell off my reel and the drag bearing dropped out. And this was “top-shelf” equipment. Thank heaven the reel came apart right after landing my biggest fish, and not during the fight. All the pieces were recovered, reassembled, and resumed working properly.

No matter how you try to dress it up, this is still not pretty fishing. Even on the privately-controlled, fee-fishing water where Jamie has a season pass and where we were his guests, you see people dragging stringers of fish back up the hill to their cars. I don’t know why anyone does this. The flesh of these fish bears no resemblance whatsoever to that of the familiar sea-run salmon of the fish market or restaurant. Jamie once paid to have a couple of Salmon River fish smoked, and says they were so bad he had to throw them out.

And so I have had my encounter with The Kings. I’m not sorry I did it, and will probably do it again if only to get another use or two out of that 10-weight rod outfit. It’s just a different flavor of fishing, among many. I enjoy as many of them as I can, even if some of them are a bit of an acquired taste.

3 thoughts on “The Kings and I

  1. Michael Vorhis

    Excellent description Mary, in particular your words about the power of these fish. You’ll see when one of my own tales gets posted how much I agree with you. I’d forgotten about the constant loosening of the reel-seat locking ring! But you’re so right–the reel rattles and rotates left and right and you catch it in the nick of time throughout a fight.

    Out here on the Pacific coast there’s a despicable technique they call “flossing,” which I believe may be similar to the “lifting” practice you describe. I’ve even heard of people finding deep holes in pristine feeder streams within the Skeena watershed, up in British Columbia, where many steelhead or salmon are holding while awaiting nightfall…and, miles from nowhere, when no one is looking these peple DYNAMITE the hole and collect forty or fifty majestic but nevertheless quite dead fish.

    It boggles one’s mind what some people are thinking, or not thinking.

    – Mike

    Reply
    1. Mary S. Kuss

      I’m relieved to know that I’m not alone in having my equipment fall apart from playing these fish. Now that you mention it, I have heard of “flossing.” I think that’s why the New York State regulations set a maximum limit of how far above your hooks you can add weight to your leader. I could never understand this; I thought that a minimum distance would be more logical, because the closer the weight was to the hook the easier it would be to snag a fish. But the long distance between hook and weight would facilitate drifting the leader into the mouths of fish laying on the bottom. Now I get it. Thanks!

      Reply
      1. Michael Vorhis

        Some time back I wrote an article I called “A Different World,” about trying to fish alongside folks who were going after fall salmon up on the Sacramento. They all had a cheap red plastic jewelry bead or two somewhere on their rig–sometimes on a hook but sometimes several feet up the line from the bait they were soaking…and some of them dispensed with the bait. I asked them if the bead was intended to resemble roe, but they didn’t seem to know or care. “Dunno, dude, they just like beads,” was all I got for a reply.

        At the time I didn’t know about all the cheating techniques, but I now suspect many of these folks were “flossing,” because they pulled their lines in too frequently and with too little reason to be doing anything else. Not all, but I believe many.

        – Mike

        Reply

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