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Edition Six Editors Note Row Three Archives - FFI Magazine

I don’t care what’s hatching, so long as it brings trout to the surface. And last summer, while fishing at Northern Lights Lodge outside Williams Lake, British Columbia, my dad and I experienced one of the strangest and most productive hatches I’ve ever seen.

Sometimes watching fish can be just as fun as catching them, especially when they are rising for big terrestrials like looper moths. (Dan Favato)

We were fishing the Quesnel watershed—an area famed for its sockeye salmon run and the big rainbow trout that follow those fish upstream, as if chasing an egg-dispensing vending machine. Only this year the sockeye didn’t show up. In fact, the Ministry of Natural Resources counted less than a thousand fish in the entire Quesnel River system, down from over two million in previous years. Officials pointed blame at a large landslide downstream in the Fraser River, which created a natural barrier and prevented sockeye from reaching the Quesnel. I have my doubts about that assessment, but, regardless, without salmon eggs feeding into the system, the trout had to find alternative food sources.

Enter the western hemlock looper moth, Lambdina fiscellaria lugubrosa. Even with an average wingspan of 35 millimeters, these big, cream-colored moths usually go unnoticed by trout and anglers alike. But every 15-to 20 years their population explodes for a few years, which results in somewhat of a plague—it’s said they can turn a barn from black to creamy white overnight. These “hatches” occur in September and October when adult moths emerge from their cocoons and fly around the forest before breeding and dying. Obviously, some of these bugs end up on the water and, believe me, the trout take notice.

It took me a couple days to get dialed in on the hatch, because we were focused on the salmon egg/trout equation. While we were catching fish on egg patterns, particularly behind the few salmon spawning beds we could find, we were not “slaying them” as we might have during a typical sockeye run. In places where our guides and their anglers would usually catch 20 to 30 fish, we only landed a handful of rainbows. These fish were in the 16-to 22-inch class, but were not the bruisers we hoped to see.

While I was nerding-out one day, trying to match small mayflies, my dad was dragging, skating and even popping a Turk’s Tarantula across the surface. I watched as fish after fish came up and absolutely crushed that fly. But why? My dad loves fishing, loves catching fish, and has taken trolling to a higher art form, but a great fly-fisherman he is not. Why his and not mine? Stubbornly, I refused a Chernobyl Ant offered by our guide, continuing to match tiny mayflies instead. I also tried a mouse pattern and got a few fish, but my dad still dominated.

When we got to the end of our float, and after pulling the boat out of the water, dad passed me a wine bottle, an attempt to console my bruised ego. While sort of looking down at me through questioning and squinted eyes, he chuckled and said, “Another win for the old man. If this keeps up, you’ll need to find a new career.” I was shaking my head and glaring at him when just over his shoulder and downstream, a large rainbow soared through the air trying to capture one of those cream-colored moths. A minute later another leaped out of the water and snagged a moth right out of the air, like a surface-to-air missile finding its mark.

The following morning, as I made my way to the main lodge for breakfast, I noticed that the windows and sides of our cabin were covered with moths. Thousands of them. When dad wasn’t looking I discreetly plucked a few of those moths off the wall and put them in my fly box. Dad didn’t know what was about to hit him.

Later that morning I was digging through that box, looking for the biggest and ugliest terrestrial imitation I could find. I spotted a size-8 Tom Thumb that roughly resembled those moths and trimmed it to form. I’ve always wanted to see a trout hit a fly in midair, so I made a parachute cast to the head of a run. I didn’t get my midair connection, but the second that fly hit the water, a healthy 21-inch rainbow nailed it. During the next two days I fished big terrestrials nearly exclusively. I found that any sort of large terrestrial would get hit, but the wide-bodied flies worked best. Imparting action to the fly resulted in far more eats than a dead-drifted presentation, which explained why my dad had such good luck and so much fun while twitching and skating that Turk’s Tarantula. Interestingly, there were other moth species flying around and some of those ended up on the water, too, but the trout didn’t touch them. They only ate the Loopers and our imitations of them. Skating flies isn’t a novel idea in this portion of British Columbia—NLL guides skate flies throughout the year and enjoy great results when the fish are looking up.

In the end, I had to admit that “the old man” had it dialed in before I did. That didn’t mean I’d be looking for a new career anytime soon, but it was a healthy hint to keep my eyes open while fishing—in British Columbia or anywhere else for that matter—and adjust to changing conditions. On this trip the salmon went missing, but the moths arrived in force. And once we realized that the trout were tearing up those terrestrials, our trip went from “what could have been” to an experience we’ll never forget.

Gil Greenberg
Gil Greenberg is the founder of Gil’s Fly Fishing International. He holds a degree in marine biology and has always felt most at home on the water. At age 18, Gil bought his first fly rod and took it on his family’s annual walleye fishing trip. Just like so many fly-fishers before him, he was instantly hooked on the fly. To date, Gil has thrown flies at fish in over 25 countries, spanning five continents. Before getting into the fly-fishing industry, Gil served in the IDF and worked as a fisheries consultant in the Solomon Islands.

For nearly an hour the single-engine plane whines over miles of green, brown, and orange vegetation, intermittently divided by reflections off bogs, creeks and small rivers. Save for a couple small Inuit villages strategically set along the water, we pass over an entirely undeveloped landscape and absorb Alaska’s vastness.

Nearing our destination, about 80 miles south of Bethel, a waterway comes into view, winding through the rugged terrain like a ribbon thrown haphazardly on its surface. The channel twists and turns into the horizon toward the barely visible Bering Sea. From the air the Kanektok River looks slow and docile, but we will find out quickly its forceful and bursting with life.

It’s late June and prime time for fresh-run king salmon, chum salmon, dolly varden, and resident rainbows. On the ground, unfortunately, news confirms that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed fishing for king salmon this year to help manage returns and escapement objectives. (Authors note: this experience occurred in 2014 and the closure addressed a king salmon escapement estimate that fell below the objectives for the river. On a very positive note, the king salmon returns beginning in 2015 and through 2019 have met the river’s escapement goals each year based on aerial counting surveys. In fact, the 2019 count of 7,212 is at the very top of the river’s escapement objective range and provided tremendous fishing for kings, one of the best years ever. Fishing on the river was limited in 2020 because of Covid. The annual aerial survey was performed after the peak weeks for counting spawning fish, but the results pointed to another strong run of kings.)

While fishing for kings was the main purpose for a late-June trip, I always try to find the silver lining in an ever-changing world. And in this case more time would now be allocated toward chasing the river’s magnificent rainbow trout.

The trout are distributed throughout the river and can be found all summer, but this time of year, prior to salmon dropping a stream of protein rich eggs into the ecosystem, the rainbows take up the role of predator feasting on the prior year’s salmon offspring and other opportunistic meals. Mice that enter the river by mistake or on purpose become instant targets. Something swimming, struggling, and disturbing the surface catches the senses of a well-trained predator. Catching big trout on the surface is one of my favorite forms of fly fishing. Combine that with a large easy-to-see fly, while utilizing a swing approach, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

The rainbows willing to show for a mouse pattern are typically found in the margins. Soft cuts along grassy banks and near logs or branches prove to be prime lies, as well as soft inside seams created by the contour of the river or by small islands. Side-channels cutting off from the main river are also a favored area to discover aggressive trout.

Twitching the rod tip back and forth as the mouse pattern swings on the surface provides an extra disturbance and helps convey the message of struggling prey. The approach is very effective as the mouse pattern pulls stout rainbows to the surface from a range of water types. Accurate casting pays dividends, as landing the fly right next to the bank or a downed tree is most effective. A take of the fly often comes in the form of the surface erupting into spray as a fly disappears into the vortex. But some grabs are subtle, nothing more than the fish simply sucking the fly down with little or no visible disruption, much like a feeding brown trout might sip in a drifting mayfly. In some cases it appears that the trout is just trying to pull the mouse underwater.

The river’s rainbow trout are beautiful. The heavy black spotting on their bodies earns them the moniker of leopard rainbow. The vibrant red stripe and olive back spots put the finishing touches on this natural work of art. Most of the ‘bows taken on mouse patterns range between 18 and 20 inches, with a fair number stretching to 24 inches or more. A few exceptional fish may hit the 30-inch mark, but most of the truly large ‘bows are caught subsurface on baitfish imitations or eggs.

Occasionally, a large, silver dolly varden grabs a mouse pattern off the surface adding variety to the mousing game. The dollies have their own style of chasing down the mouse pattern, as a visible snout slicing through the surface is typically seen before the fly disappears in a mild disturbance. The dolly varden provides a different level of excitement since they run larger, on average, than the trout. Don’t be too surprised if a 30-incher ends up in the net. The silver appearance of a fresh-run dolly looks a bolt of lightning when chasing the fly.

The stunning beauty of the river’s inhabitants compliments the awesome power of the Alaskan wilderness. Spending time far away from home, in the wild, is the ultimate way to disconnect from a constant bombardment of daily information, and reconnect to the forces of nature.

Life is largely about opportunity, and being pushed deeper into the Alaskan wilderness to find prime trout water was exhilarating—an encounter that would not have occurred if the king fishing had worked out. From a glass half-full perspective, this was a special experience that included the challenge of accurate casting to structure and the visible display from some of the most beautiful creatures in the wild.

Rick Kustich
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Overheard somewhere along the BC Coast, July.

Guide: Any luck?

Me: Another handshake.

Guide: Steelhead?

Me: I think so.

Guide: (looking at fly): This is too big. You’ll need to go smaller for steelies.

Me: Yeah, but I don’t want to catch steelhead. I’m here for chinook.

Guide : What the hell’s wrong with you?

Once upon a time I decided to go fly fishing for chinook salmon. Like so many of the other questionable decisions I’ve made in my life, it ended badly. It was a week of seized reels and savage beat downs.

It was exactly what I needed.

I emerged from that experience like Christian Bale from the Lazarus Pit. The next season I formed the AK47 Club, a loose group of fly-fishing masochists who revel in an annual week of getting their Asses Kicked “4 7” (for seven) days on a remote little coastal river near Terrace, British Columbia.

Every year we happily forego a potentially amazing steelhead trip for a week of angling angst. On chinook waters we stress about everything, even the stuff we stopped worrying about on steelhead waters long ago. My steelhead buddies don’t understand, so I don’t bring it up much anymore. I learned the first year that announcing your intention to go chinook salmon fly fishing is like mentioning you’re taking your wife to a swinger convention. Most won’t understand, and trying to explain just makes things worse, so it’s best not to say anything at all.

(Jeroen Wohe)

My companions on this little ordeal have always been Mike and Shirley Walsh from the UK. Mike has chased anadromous fish from the Kalum to the Kharlovka, with Shirley joining him occasionally, and most often on this trip. A few other folks have suffered with us as well, but when a Skagit River sage named Dake Traphagen joined us a few years back we knew our team was complete.

What makes chinook so special? On the fly they are hands down the most challenging anadromous fish you can hook. “Chinook are sheer brute force,” said Walsh. “Uncompromising, with speed and unpredictability that tests my ingenuity and tackle to the very limits. They are like no other freshwater species.”

Traphagen agrees. “Chinook are the closest thing in fly fishing to encountering a grizzly in dense bush. They can rip your gear and ego to pieces or just ignore you all together. Either way, they leave you shaking.”

Jeroen Wohe runs Skeena River Lodge in Terrace British Columbia, where he guides fly-fishers to trophy Skeena steelhead spring and fall. But he reserves a special admiration for chinook.

“Steelhead are great,” he says. “They’re the most popular gamefish we have in our rivers here. But chinook are, in my opinion, the pinnacle of fish. The size, power and brute mentality to survive and make it back to their spawning grounds is really something special.”

And just so we’re clear, when we’re talking chinook here, we’re not talking about the red booty looking horrors splashed all over the magazine covers like Hellboy. Those are fish that entered freshwater possibly weeks ago, and have deteriorated out of their prime. They make a nice photo opp for visiting anglers who, with all due respect, just don’t get it. Those fish may share the name, but they ain’t chinook. Not at all. When I’m talking chinook, I’m talking the tide-fresh, sea-liced, titanium-hued beasties. The real ass-kickers. Fish you’re afraid to hook, because even a 20-pounder could spool you. I’m talking about those ones. And here’s what you need to know to get them, if you don’t really value your knuckles and you’re up to the task.

Timing
Okay, so you’re at least a little bit interested now, right? So when should you go? “The first chinook show up in late April heading into the Kalum River,” Wohe said. “The run is small, but fishing can be excellent. The big push of Skeena chinook arrives in June and tapers off in July.”

You might wonder if June and July are favorable months to fish for chinook, given those are usually high water times on most Pacific Northwest rivers. Fortunately, Wohe said that spring runoff isn’t much of an issue and that it actually favors your odds of finding fish.

“You want high, cold rivers to bring in fresh fish,” Wohe said. “When rivers get too low or warm the fish stay in the estuary waiting for cooler high water. So June is the best time to target these magnificent fish.”

(Jeroen Wohe)

Tackle

If you’re going to chase these fish you’ll have to supersize your steelhead tackle. Ten-weight rods are standard. You don’t need to go long with these—I typically use 13-footers—but you need a rod with lots of power in the butt so you can really lean into these brutes.

When it comes to reels, bigger is always better. “Hooking one of these salmon is like hooking a jetboat,” says Wohe. “On most steelhead reels the drag won’t cut it. You need a large reel with lots of capacity and a high quality drag system.”

Your drag not only slows the fish, but a seriously tight drag might be the only thing that allows you to get a hook into them. Chinook have notoriously tough mouths. If you don’t stick them on the take you probably won’t get a second chance to set the hook. I’ve had so many fish take and leave the pool so fast that I’ve barely had time to lift the rod. If they stop—a big if—there’s usually so much line out that trying to set up on them is pointless. A strong disc drag system cranked down to Medieval is sometimes the only thing that gives you a fighting chance.

So, classic Hardys are out. I prefer big reels from Islander, Nautilus and Danielsson. These have drag systems designed for big saltwater fish, hold several hundred yards of backing and are not overkill. I clamp these onto my 13-foot 10-weights. Cable-thick Skagit-style lines help me turn over the heavy 15 foot T-17 tips and the big flies I use. My leaders are always 20-pound Maxima Ultragreen, thick beefy nylon that gives me the strength and abrasion resistance I need when pulling hard on a big fish that’s hunkered down in a swift water rock garden.

The Tubes

Chinook eat flies of all kinds. Big or small, flashy or subdued, it doesn’t really matter when they arrive on the tide. Chinook eat flies because they can. They can do anything they want. These badass fish have gone toe-to-toe with killer whales and prevailed. So once they reach freshwater they crash around campus like Brett Kavanaugh on reading break. They’re the salmonid equivalent of the Honey Badger, or Trump after the Mueller report. They just don’t give a shit. Your goofy fly is just in the way, so they kill it.

Speaking of goofy flies, I only use tubes for anadromous fish. Nothing else. My interest in tube flies started years ago, back on the Thompson River, when we started using larger and larger flies for steelhead, especially early in the morning. I ended up tying patterns on the longest hooks I could find, and lost a lot of fish due to them either bending out, or popping out due to the leverage caused by the long shank. Tube flies allowed me to use any size fly I wanted, but with a short shank heavy wire hook. When I switched to tubes, my hooking to landing ratio skyrocketed, and I’ve been a devotee ever since.

My friends Mike and Dake also use tubes for steelhead, for the same reasons. And I think this is especially important with chinook if you are planning to release them. I know some anglers who tie on very large heavy wire hooks—5/0, sometimes bigger—but they are planning to bonk their fish. I release all mine, so the smaller short-shank hooks make the most sense to me.

Chinook don’t seem too fussy when it comes to fly patterns. These days I commonly use a dark green tube with a black collar. Some folks go with purple, some chartreuse, while others prefer shiny rainbow hued patterns, especially near the salt. Over the years I’ve found the most reliable pattern to be the black over blue flies that are common these days with sink-tip steelheaders. Tie up a dozen of these, and toss a bag of 1/0 Owner SSWs in with them and you’re good for a week.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Presentation
If you’ve fished for winter steelhead you’ll have any easy transition to chinook. Cast, mend, take a couple of steps, and hang on. I usually angle my cast 60 degrees to the flow, and finish my mend with a high rod position, so I can drop the tip to allow the fly to get deep. You’ll often (but not always) find chinook in faster water than you’d expect for steelhead, so you have to work to sink your fly. With a heavy sink-tip, a couple of downstream steps and then lowering your rod tip usually does the trick. Once I’ve made my initial mend I usually just let the fly come around. I rarely mend after the fly is swinging.

For years I experimented with various chinook hooking strategies. Despite my efforts, my landing success was rarely more than perhaps 30-40 percent. After trying literally everything to ensure solid hookups, now I just let the fish eat, which is exactly what I’ve always done with steelhead. This seems to be the best approach, and puts more fish on the beach for me than anything else I’ve tried.

To illustrate, in June of 2019 I was working my way down a big run when the head guide called me on the radio:

Guide: “Dana, how’s it going up there?”

Me: Good. I just started in at the…oh wait a sec, I think I’m getting a bite.”

Guide” “Seriously?”

Me: “I think so. Yep, there it is again.”

[Pause]

Guide: “You’re getting a take right now? Do you need me to come up there?”

Me: “No, I think I’m ok. Oh wait he’s on! I gotta go, he’s on!”

Throughout this little adventure I had the walkie-talkie in one hand and my rod in the other, and I didn’t lift until the second “he’s on!” You can find an excellent online video discussing this approach (minus the walkie-talkies) by Googling “How to Set the Hook While Swinging OPST.”

Pro Tip: If you’re swinging for chinook don’t tuck the rod under your arm while you light up a smoke. When they grab, they usually go, so you better have a good grip on the rod, otherwise the hours—maybe days—you’ve invested in all this are lost, not to mention the possible loss of that fancy reel and expensive two-hander.

(Jeroen Wohe)

A Chinook By Any Other Name

During the requisite boozy first evening at Chinook Camp, the conversation can get lively, especially with my American buddies present. They often call these fish “kings” for some reason, which has never made any sense to me, given that their forefathers kicked out the British Monarchy a couple hundred years ago. It’s almost as if they didn’t like them, which is clearly not the case.

“Where I grew up in Alaska—where we know a thing or two about salmon—they’re kings. That’s it.” This from my friend Greg, a long lost, slightly younger “brother.”

“Dude,” I said, because I talk like Jeff Spicoli in Chinook Camp for reasons I’ve never been able to explain, “Kings are those dark, snaggle-toothed things, man. These are different creatures.”

Greg: “Tell you what, dude—you can go and swing for chinook. I’ll fish for the kings.”

Well, you can probably guess how this ends, but it’s still fun to tell.

Greg did catch a few kings—small ones, more like princes—and lots of steelhead, although if I have to admit, he did pick my pocket on the first day when he hot-footed me down a run I should have fished more thoroughly. Meanwhile, Big Fish Mike, Dake and me were either busting off big ones or getting spooled. And every now and then 25- to 30-pounders were coming to hand. Greg—who among other talents is an excellent photographer—would hover around us, camera in hand, while we suffered our beatdowns.

“See Greg,” I managed one afternoon while rolling back into the guide boat to chase another runaway downriver, “These are chinook, that fish bent out my hook after an hour, just to make the point.”

“Man, I really wanted to see that fish!” Greg said later, raising his voice above the rattle and clank of the old F-250 that was our gravel two-track taxi back to the lodge.

I looked at him.

He said emphatically, “That ‘chinook!’ The one that bent you out! I really wanted to see him!”

And with that change in lingo, the river goddess must have been appeased, for the next day Greg started hooking real ones.

One time, halfway down the Ross Island run, I caught up with Greg, who looked rather grim and was tight to something big. I opened my flask and handed it to him.

“Better now?” I asked, as he handed it back.

“Yep. There’s no nookie like chinookie,” he said, just as his reel started spinning again.

(Jeroen Wohe)

You don’t really ever beat a chinook salmon. They just decide to break you off or let you hang out with them in the shallows for a while. If you’re lucky enough to tail one they look at you with menace, like they’re plotting your destruction. There’s not an ounce of fear in their eyes. You are clearly not in control, and never really have been. The whole experience is intimidating.

Sound tough? It is. Hyperbole it’s not. Joining the AK47 Club is for those who reach a place where the only climb worth taking is one without the rope. It’s a strange little place where success and failure look almost exactly the same. Where one week can take it all from you. And one fish can be the answer to why you started fly fishing in the first place.

If you decide to take that plunge, all I can say is, “Welcome to the Pain Cave.”

Skeena River Chinook Salmon

 

When: June and July

 

Where: Terrace, British Columbia, on the Skeena and Kalum rivers.

 

Average size: These wild chinook salmon range between 15 and 60 pounds, the larger end being nearly unlandable on fly gear. But it’s fun trying! These fish can approach 100 pounds but don’t expect to hook a fish like that, let alone try to land it, on your fly gear. Forty-pounders, however, are possible on any given cast.

 

Gear: Bring your stout nine and 10-weight spey rods and a large arbor fly reel that holds mega backing. Sink tips are needed to reach these fish in heavy flows.

 

Booking: GFFI books clients at two great lodges, Skeena River Lodge and Skeena Spey Riverside Wilderness & Lodge. Both operations offer great accommodations, excellent fishing programs, and their dedicated guides know where to find fish on the massive Skeena and the more manageable Kalum.

 

Contact GFFI for open dates, specials and other info. +1 (888) 304-4334

Dana Sturn
Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn

I don’t care what’s hatching, so long as it brings trout to the surface. And last summer, while fishing at Northern Lights Lodge outside Williams Lake, British Columbia, my dad and I experienced one of the strangest and most productive hatches I’ve ever seen.

Sometimes watching fish can be just as fun as catching them, especially when they are rising for big terrestrials like looper moths. (Dan Favato)

We were fishing the Quesnel watershed—an area famed for its sockeye salmon run and the big rainbow trout that follow those fish upstream, as if chasing an egg-dispensing vending machine. Only this year the sockeye didn’t show up. In fact, the Ministry of Natural Resources counted less than a thousand fish in the entire Quesnel River system, down from over two million in previous years. Officials pointed blame at a large landslide downstream in the Fraser River, which created a natural barrier and prevented sockeye from reaching the Quesnel. I have my doubts about that assessment, but, regardless, without salmon eggs feeding into the system, the trout had to find alternative food sources.

Enter the western hemlock looper moth, Lambdina fiscellaria lugubrosa. Even with an average wingspan of 35 millimeters, these big, cream-colored moths usually go unnoticed by trout and anglers alike. But every 15-to 20 years their population explodes for a few years, which results in somewhat of a plague—it’s said they can turn a barn from black to creamy white overnight. These “hatches” occur in September and October when adult moths emerge from their cocoons and fly around the forest before breeding and dying. Obviously, some of these bugs end up on the water and, believe me, the trout take notice.

It took me a couple days to get dialed in on the hatch, because we were focused on the salmon egg/trout equation. While we were catching fish on egg patterns, particularly behind the few salmon spawning beds we could find, we were not “slaying them” as we might have during a typical sockeye run. In places where our guides and their anglers would usually catch 20 to 30 fish, we only landed a handful of rainbows. These fish were in the 16-to 22-inch class, but were not the bruisers we hoped to see.

While I was nerding-out one day, trying to match small mayflies, my dad was dragging, skating and even popping a Turk’s Tarantula across the surface. I watched as fish after fish came up and absolutely crushed that fly. But why? My dad loves fishing, loves catching fish, and has taken trolling to a higher art form, but a great fly-fisherman he is not. Why his and not mine? Stubbornly, I refused a Chernobyl Ant offered by our guide, continuing to match tiny mayflies instead. I also tried a mouse pattern and got a few fish, but my dad still dominated.

When we got to the end of our float, and after pulling the boat out of the water, dad passed me a wine bottle, an attempt to console my bruised ego. While sort of looking down at me through questioning and squinted eyes, he chuckled and said, “Another win for the old man. If this keeps up, you’ll need to find a new career.” I was shaking my head and glaring at him when just over his shoulder and downstream, a large rainbow soared through the air trying to capture one of those cream-colored moths. A minute later another leaped out of the water and snagged a moth right out of the air, like a surface-to-air missile finding its mark.

The following morning, as I made my way to the main lodge for breakfast, I noticed that the windows and sides of our cabin were covered with moths. Thousands of them. When dad wasn’t looking I discreetly plucked a few of those moths off the wall and put them in my fly box. Dad didn’t know what was about to hit him.

Later that morning I was digging through that box, looking for the biggest and ugliest terrestrial imitation I could find. I spotted a size-8 Tom Thumb that roughly resembled those moths and trimmed it to form. I’ve always wanted to see a trout hit a fly in midair, so I made a parachute cast to the head of a run. I didn’t get my midair connection, but the second that fly hit the water, a healthy 21-inch rainbow nailed it. During the next two days I fished big terrestrials nearly exclusively. I found that any sort of large terrestrial would get hit, but the wide-bodied flies worked best. Imparting action to the fly resulted in far more eats than a dead-drifted presentation, which explained why my dad had such good luck and so much fun while twitching and skating that Turk’s Tarantula. Interestingly, there were other moth species flying around and some of those ended up on the water, too, but the trout didn’t touch them. They only ate the Loopers and our imitations of them. Skating flies isn’t a novel idea in this portion of British Columbia—NLL guides skate flies throughout the year and enjoy great results when the fish are looking up.

In the end, I had to admit that “the old man” had it dialed in before I did. That didn’t mean I’d be looking for a new career anytime soon, but it was a healthy hint to keep my eyes open while fishing—in British Columbia or anywhere else for that matter—and adjust to changing conditions. On this trip the salmon went missing, but the moths arrived in force. And once we realized that the trout were tearing up those terrestrials, our trip went from “what could have been” to an experience we’ll never forget.

Gil Greenberg
Gil Greenberg is the founder of Gil’s Fly Fishing International. He holds a degree in marine biology and has always felt most at home on the water. At age 18, Gil bought his first fly rod and took it on his family’s annual walleye fishing trip. Just like so many fly-fishers before him, he was instantly hooked on the fly. To date, Gil has thrown flies at fish in over 25 countries, spanning five continents. Before getting into the fly-fishing industry, Gil served in the IDF and worked as a fisheries consultant in the Solomon Islands.

For nearly an hour the single-engine plane whines over miles of green, brown, and orange vegetation, intermittently divided by reflections off bogs, creeks and small rivers. Save for a couple small Inuit villages strategically set along the water, we pass over an entirely undeveloped landscape and absorb Alaska’s vastness.

Nearing our destination, about 80 miles south of Bethel, a waterway comes into view, winding through the rugged terrain like a ribbon thrown haphazardly on its surface. The channel twists and turns into the horizon toward the barely visible Bering Sea. From the air the Kanektok River looks slow and docile, but we will find out quickly its forceful and bursting with life.

It’s late June and prime time for fresh-run king salmon, chum salmon, dolly varden, and resident rainbows. On the ground, unfortunately, news confirms that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed fishing for king salmon this year to help manage returns and escapement objectives. (Authors note: this experience occurred in 2014 and the closure addressed a king salmon escapement estimate that fell below the objectives for the river. On a very positive note, the king salmon returns beginning in 2015 and through 2019 have met the river’s escapement goals each year based on aerial counting surveys. In fact, the 2019 count of 7,212 is at the very top of the river’s escapement objective range and provided tremendous fishing for kings, one of the best years ever. Fishing on the river was limited in 2020 because of Covid. The annual aerial survey was performed after the peak weeks for counting spawning fish, but the results pointed to another strong run of kings.)

While fishing for kings was the main purpose for a late-June trip, I always try to find the silver lining in an ever-changing world. And in this case more time would now be allocated toward chasing the river’s magnificent rainbow trout.

The trout are distributed throughout the river and can be found all summer, but this time of year, prior to salmon dropping a stream of protein rich eggs into the ecosystem, the rainbows take up the role of predator feasting on the prior year’s salmon offspring and other opportunistic meals. Mice that enter the river by mistake or on purpose become instant targets. Something swimming, struggling, and disturbing the surface catches the senses of a well-trained predator. Catching big trout on the surface is one of my favorite forms of fly fishing. Combine that with a large easy-to-see fly, while utilizing a swing approach, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

The rainbows willing to show for a mouse pattern are typically found in the margins. Soft cuts along grassy banks and near logs or branches prove to be prime lies, as well as soft inside seams created by the contour of the river or by small islands. Side-channels cutting off from the main river are also a favored area to discover aggressive trout.

Twitching the rod tip back and forth as the mouse pattern swings on the surface provides an extra disturbance and helps convey the message of struggling prey. The approach is very effective as the mouse pattern pulls stout rainbows to the surface from a range of water types. Accurate casting pays dividends, as landing the fly right next to the bank or a downed tree is most effective. A take of the fly often comes in the form of the surface erupting into spray as a fly disappears into the vortex. But some grabs are subtle, nothing more than the fish simply sucking the fly down with little or no visible disruption, much like a feeding brown trout might sip in a drifting mayfly. In some cases it appears that the trout is just trying to pull the mouse underwater.

The river’s rainbow trout are beautiful. The heavy black spotting on their bodies earns them the moniker of leopard rainbow. The vibrant red stripe and olive back spots put the finishing touches on this natural work of art. Most of the ‘bows taken on mouse patterns range between 18 and 20 inches, with a fair number stretching to 24 inches or more. A few exceptional fish may hit the 30-inch mark, but most of the truly large ‘bows are caught subsurface on baitfish imitations or eggs.

Occasionally, a large, silver dolly varden grabs a mouse pattern off the surface adding variety to the mousing game. The dollies have their own style of chasing down the mouse pattern, as a visible snout slicing through the surface is typically seen before the fly disappears in a mild disturbance. The dolly varden provides a different level of excitement since they run larger, on average, than the trout. Don’t be too surprised if a 30-incher ends up in the net. The silver appearance of a fresh-run dolly looks a bolt of lightning when chasing the fly.

The stunning beauty of the river’s inhabitants compliments the awesome power of the Alaskan wilderness. Spending time far away from home, in the wild, is the ultimate way to disconnect from a constant bombardment of daily information, and reconnect to the forces of nature.

Life is largely about opportunity, and being pushed deeper into the Alaskan wilderness to find prime trout water was exhilarating—an encounter that would not have occurred if the king fishing had worked out. From a glass half-full perspective, this was a special experience that included the challenge of accurate casting to structure and the visible display from some of the most beautiful creatures in the wild.

Rick Kustich
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Overheard somewhere along the BC Coast, July.

Guide: Any luck?

Me: Another handshake.

Guide: Steelhead?

Me: I think so.

Guide: (looking at fly): This is too big. You’ll need to go smaller for steelies.

Me: Yeah, but I don’t want to catch steelhead. I’m here for chinook.

Guide : What the hell’s wrong with you?

Once upon a time I decided to go fly fishing for chinook salmon. Like so many of the other questionable decisions I’ve made in my life, it ended badly. It was a week of seized reels and savage beat downs.

It was exactly what I needed.

I emerged from that experience like Christian Bale from the Lazarus Pit. The next season I formed the AK47 Club, a loose group of fly-fishing masochists who revel in an annual week of getting their Asses Kicked “4 7” (for seven) days on a remote little coastal river near Terrace, British Columbia.

Every year we happily forego a potentially amazing steelhead trip for a week of angling angst. On chinook waters we stress about everything, even the stuff we stopped worrying about on steelhead waters long ago. My steelhead buddies don’t understand, so I don’t bring it up much anymore. I learned the first year that announcing your intention to go chinook salmon fly fishing is like mentioning you’re taking your wife to a swinger convention. Most won’t understand, and trying to explain just makes things worse, so it’s best not to say anything at all.

(Jeroen Wohe)

My companions on this little ordeal have always been Mike and Shirley Walsh from the UK. Mike has chased anadromous fish from the Kalum to the Kharlovka, with Shirley joining him occasionally, and most often on this trip. A few other folks have suffered with us as well, but when a Skagit River sage named Dake Traphagen joined us a few years back we knew our team was complete.

What makes chinook so special? On the fly they are hands down the most challenging anadromous fish you can hook. “Chinook are sheer brute force,” said Walsh. “Uncompromising, with speed and unpredictability that tests my ingenuity and tackle to the very limits. They are like no other freshwater species.”

Traphagen agrees. “Chinook are the closest thing in fly fishing to encountering a grizzly in dense bush. They can rip your gear and ego to pieces or just ignore you all together. Either way, they leave you shaking.”

Jeroen Wohe runs Skeena River Lodge in Terrace British Columbia, where he guides fly-fishers to trophy Skeena steelhead spring and fall. But he reserves a special admiration for chinook.

“Steelhead are great,” he says. “They’re the most popular gamefish we have in our rivers here. But chinook are, in my opinion, the pinnacle of fish. The size, power and brute mentality to survive and make it back to their spawning grounds is really something special.”

And just so we’re clear, when we’re talking chinook here, we’re not talking about the red booty looking horrors splashed all over the magazine covers like Hellboy. Those are fish that entered freshwater possibly weeks ago, and have deteriorated out of their prime. They make a nice photo opp for visiting anglers who, with all due respect, just don’t get it. Those fish may share the name, but they ain’t chinook. Not at all. When I’m talking chinook, I’m talking the tide-fresh, sea-liced, titanium-hued beasties. The real ass-kickers. Fish you’re afraid to hook, because even a 20-pounder could spool you. I’m talking about those ones. And here’s what you need to know to get them, if you don’t really value your knuckles and you’re up to the task.

Timing
Okay, so you’re at least a little bit interested now, right? So when should you go? “The first chinook show up in late April heading into the Kalum River,” Wohe said. “The run is small, but fishing can be excellent. The big push of Skeena chinook arrives in June and tapers off in July.”

You might wonder if June and July are favorable months to fish for chinook, given those are usually high water times on most Pacific Northwest rivers. Fortunately, Wohe said that spring runoff isn’t much of an issue and that it actually favors your odds of finding fish.

“You want high, cold rivers to bring in fresh fish,” Wohe said. “When rivers get too low or warm the fish stay in the estuary waiting for cooler high water. So June is the best time to target these magnificent fish.”

(Jeroen Wohe)

Tackle

If you’re going to chase these fish you’ll have to supersize your steelhead tackle. Ten-weight rods are standard. You don’t need to go long with these—I typically use 13-footers—but you need a rod with lots of power in the butt so you can really lean into these brutes.

When it comes to reels, bigger is always better. “Hooking one of these salmon is like hooking a jetboat,” says Wohe. “On most steelhead reels the drag won’t cut it. You need a large reel with lots of capacity and a high quality drag system.”

Your drag not only slows the fish, but a seriously tight drag might be the only thing that allows you to get a hook into them. Chinook have notoriously tough mouths. If you don’t stick them on the take you probably won’t get a second chance to set the hook. I’ve had so many fish take and leave the pool so fast that I’ve barely had time to lift the rod. If they stop—a big if—there’s usually so much line out that trying to set up on them is pointless. A strong disc drag system cranked down to Medieval is sometimes the only thing that gives you a fighting chance.

So, classic Hardys are out. I prefer big reels from Islander, Nautilus and Danielsson. These have drag systems designed for big saltwater fish, hold several hundred yards of backing and are not overkill. I clamp these onto my 13-foot 10-weights. Cable-thick Skagit-style lines help me turn over the heavy 15 foot T-17 tips and the big flies I use. My leaders are always 20-pound Maxima Ultragreen, thick beefy nylon that gives me the strength and abrasion resistance I need when pulling hard on a big fish that’s hunkered down in a swift water rock garden.

The Tubes

Chinook eat flies of all kinds. Big or small, flashy or subdued, it doesn’t really matter when they arrive on the tide. Chinook eat flies because they can. They can do anything they want. These badass fish have gone toe-to-toe with killer whales and prevailed. So once they reach freshwater they crash around campus like Brett Kavanaugh on reading break. They’re the salmonid equivalent of the Honey Badger, or Trump after the Mueller report. They just don’t give a shit. Your goofy fly is just in the way, so they kill it.

Speaking of goofy flies, I only use tubes for anadromous fish. Nothing else. My interest in tube flies started years ago, back on the Thompson River, when we started using larger and larger flies for steelhead, especially early in the morning. I ended up tying patterns on the longest hooks I could find, and lost a lot of fish due to them either bending out, or popping out due to the leverage caused by the long shank. Tube flies allowed me to use any size fly I wanted, but with a short shank heavy wire hook. When I switched to tubes, my hooking to landing ratio skyrocketed, and I’ve been a devotee ever since.

My friends Mike and Dake also use tubes for steelhead, for the same reasons. And I think this is especially important with chinook if you are planning to release them. I know some anglers who tie on very large heavy wire hooks—5/0, sometimes bigger—but they are planning to bonk their fish. I release all mine, so the smaller short-shank hooks make the most sense to me.

Chinook don’t seem too fussy when it comes to fly patterns. These days I commonly use a dark green tube with a black collar. Some folks go with purple, some chartreuse, while others prefer shiny rainbow hued patterns, especially near the salt. Over the years I’ve found the most reliable pattern to be the black over blue flies that are common these days with sink-tip steelheaders. Tie up a dozen of these, and toss a bag of 1/0 Owner SSWs in with them and you’re good for a week.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Presentation
If you’ve fished for winter steelhead you’ll have any easy transition to chinook. Cast, mend, take a couple of steps, and hang on. I usually angle my cast 60 degrees to the flow, and finish my mend with a high rod position, so I can drop the tip to allow the fly to get deep. You’ll often (but not always) find chinook in faster water than you’d expect for steelhead, so you have to work to sink your fly. With a heavy sink-tip, a couple of downstream steps and then lowering your rod tip usually does the trick. Once I’ve made my initial mend I usually just let the fly come around. I rarely mend after the fly is swinging.

For years I experimented with various chinook hooking strategies. Despite my efforts, my landing success was rarely more than perhaps 30-40 percent. After trying literally everything to ensure solid hookups, now I just let the fish eat, which is exactly what I’ve always done with steelhead. This seems to be the best approach, and puts more fish on the beach for me than anything else I’ve tried.

To illustrate, in June of 2019 I was working my way down a big run when the head guide called me on the radio:

Guide: “Dana, how’s it going up there?”

Me: Good. I just started in at the…oh wait a sec, I think I’m getting a bite.”

Guide” “Seriously?”

Me: “I think so. Yep, there it is again.”

[Pause]

Guide: “You’re getting a take right now? Do you need me to come up there?”

Me: “No, I think I’m ok. Oh wait he’s on! I gotta go, he’s on!”

Throughout this little adventure I had the walkie-talkie in one hand and my rod in the other, and I didn’t lift until the second “he’s on!” You can find an excellent online video discussing this approach (minus the walkie-talkies) by Googling “How to Set the Hook While Swinging OPST.”

Pro Tip: If you’re swinging for chinook don’t tuck the rod under your arm while you light up a smoke. When they grab, they usually go, so you better have a good grip on the rod, otherwise the hours—maybe days—you’ve invested in all this are lost, not to mention the possible loss of that fancy reel and expensive two-hander.

(Jeroen Wohe)

A Chinook By Any Other Name

During the requisite boozy first evening at Chinook Camp, the conversation can get lively, especially with my American buddies present. They often call these fish “kings” for some reason, which has never made any sense to me, given that their forefathers kicked out the British Monarchy a couple hundred years ago. It’s almost as if they didn’t like them, which is clearly not the case.

“Where I grew up in Alaska—where we know a thing or two about salmon—they’re kings. That’s it.” This from my friend Greg, a long lost, slightly younger “brother.”

“Dude,” I said, because I talk like Jeff Spicoli in Chinook Camp for reasons I’ve never been able to explain, “Kings are those dark, snaggle-toothed things, man. These are different creatures.”

Greg: “Tell you what, dude—you can go and swing for chinook. I’ll fish for the kings.”

Well, you can probably guess how this ends, but it’s still fun to tell.

Greg did catch a few kings—small ones, more like princes—and lots of steelhead, although if I have to admit, he did pick my pocket on the first day when he hot-footed me down a run I should have fished more thoroughly. Meanwhile, Big Fish Mike, Dake and me were either busting off big ones or getting spooled. And every now and then 25- to 30-pounders were coming to hand. Greg—who among other talents is an excellent photographer—would hover around us, camera in hand, while we suffered our beatdowns.

“See Greg,” I managed one afternoon while rolling back into the guide boat to chase another runaway downriver, “These are chinook, that fish bent out my hook after an hour, just to make the point.”

“Man, I really wanted to see that fish!” Greg said later, raising his voice above the rattle and clank of the old F-250 that was our gravel two-track taxi back to the lodge.

I looked at him.

He said emphatically, “That ‘chinook!’ The one that bent you out! I really wanted to see him!”

And with that change in lingo, the river goddess must have been appeased, for the next day Greg started hooking real ones.

One time, halfway down the Ross Island run, I caught up with Greg, who looked rather grim and was tight to something big. I opened my flask and handed it to him.

“Better now?” I asked, as he handed it back.

“Yep. There’s no nookie like chinookie,” he said, just as his reel started spinning again.

(Jeroen Wohe)

You don’t really ever beat a chinook salmon. They just decide to break you off or let you hang out with them in the shallows for a while. If you’re lucky enough to tail one they look at you with menace, like they’re plotting your destruction. There’s not an ounce of fear in their eyes. You are clearly not in control, and never really have been. The whole experience is intimidating.

Sound tough? It is. Hyperbole it’s not. Joining the AK47 Club is for those who reach a place where the only climb worth taking is one without the rope. It’s a strange little place where success and failure look almost exactly the same. Where one week can take it all from you. And one fish can be the answer to why you started fly fishing in the first place.

If you decide to take that plunge, all I can say is, “Welcome to the Pain Cave.”

Skeena River Chinook Salmon

 

When: June and July

 

Where: Terrace, British Columbia, on the Skeena and Kalum rivers.

 

Average size: These wild chinook salmon range between 15 and 60 pounds, the larger end being nearly unlandable on fly gear. But it’s fun trying! These fish can approach 100 pounds but don’t expect to hook a fish like that, let alone try to land it, on your fly gear. Forty-pounders, however, are possible on any given cast.

 

Gear: Bring your stout nine and 10-weight spey rods and a large arbor fly reel that holds mega backing. Sink tips are needed to reach these fish in heavy flows.

 

Booking: GFFI books clients at two great lodges, Skeena River Lodge and Skeena Spey Riverside Wilderness & Lodge. Both operations offer great accommodations, excellent fishing programs, and their dedicated guides know where to find fish on the massive Skeena and the more manageable Kalum.

 

Contact GFFI for open dates, specials and other info. +1 (888) 304-4334

Dana Sturn
Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn

I don’t care what’s hatching, so long as it brings trout to the surface. And last summer, while fishing at Northern Lights Lodge outside Williams Lake, British Columbia, my dad and I experienced one of the strangest and most productive hatches I’ve ever seen.

Sometimes watching fish can be just as fun as catching them, especially when they are rising for big terrestrials like looper moths. (Dan Favato)

We were fishing the Quesnel watershed—an area famed for its sockeye salmon run and the big rainbow trout that follow those fish upstream, as if chasing an egg-dispensing vending machine. Only this year the sockeye didn’t show up. In fact, the Ministry of Natural Resources counted less than a thousand fish in the entire Quesnel River system, down from over two million in previous years. Officials pointed blame at a large landslide downstream in the Fraser River, which created a natural barrier and prevented sockeye from reaching the Quesnel. I have my doubts about that assessment, but, regardless, without salmon eggs feeding into the system, the trout had to find alternative food sources.

Enter the western hemlock looper moth, Lambdina fiscellaria lugubrosa. Even with an average wingspan of 35 millimeters, these big, cream-colored moths usually go unnoticed by trout and anglers alike. But every 15-to 20 years their population explodes for a few years, which results in somewhat of a plague—it’s said they can turn a barn from black to creamy white overnight. These “hatches” occur in September and October when adult moths emerge from their cocoons and fly around the forest before breeding and dying. Obviously, some of these bugs end up on the water and, believe me, the trout take notice.

It took me a couple days to get dialed in on the hatch, because we were focused on the salmon egg/trout equation. While we were catching fish on egg patterns, particularly behind the few salmon spawning beds we could find, we were not “slaying them” as we might have during a typical sockeye run. In places where our guides and their anglers would usually catch 20 to 30 fish, we only landed a handful of rainbows. These fish were in the 16-to 22-inch class, but were not the bruisers we hoped to see.

While I was nerding-out one day, trying to match small mayflies, my dad was dragging, skating and even popping a Turk’s Tarantula across the surface. I watched as fish after fish came up and absolutely crushed that fly. But why? My dad loves fishing, loves catching fish, and has taken trolling to a higher art form, but a great fly-fisherman he is not. Why his and not mine? Stubbornly, I refused a Chernobyl Ant offered by our guide, continuing to match tiny mayflies instead. I also tried a mouse pattern and got a few fish, but my dad still dominated.

When we got to the end of our float, and after pulling the boat out of the water, dad passed me a wine bottle, an attempt to console my bruised ego. While sort of looking down at me through questioning and squinted eyes, he chuckled and said, “Another win for the old man. If this keeps up, you’ll need to find a new career.” I was shaking my head and glaring at him when just over his shoulder and downstream, a large rainbow soared through the air trying to capture one of those cream-colored moths. A minute later another leaped out of the water and snagged a moth right out of the air, like a surface-to-air missile finding its mark.

The following morning, as I made my way to the main lodge for breakfast, I noticed that the windows and sides of our cabin were covered with moths. Thousands of them. When dad wasn’t looking I discreetly plucked a few of those moths off the wall and put them in my fly box. Dad didn’t know what was about to hit him.

Later that morning I was digging through that box, looking for the biggest and ugliest terrestrial imitation I could find. I spotted a size-8 Tom Thumb that roughly resembled those moths and trimmed it to form. I’ve always wanted to see a trout hit a fly in midair, so I made a parachute cast to the head of a run. I didn’t get my midair connection, but the second that fly hit the water, a healthy 21-inch rainbow nailed it. During the next two days I fished big terrestrials nearly exclusively. I found that any sort of large terrestrial would get hit, but the wide-bodied flies worked best. Imparting action to the fly resulted in far more eats than a dead-drifted presentation, which explained why my dad had such good luck and so much fun while twitching and skating that Turk’s Tarantula. Interestingly, there were other moth species flying around and some of those ended up on the water, too, but the trout didn’t touch them. They only ate the Loopers and our imitations of them. Skating flies isn’t a novel idea in this portion of British Columbia—NLL guides skate flies throughout the year and enjoy great results when the fish are looking up.

In the end, I had to admit that “the old man” had it dialed in before I did. That didn’t mean I’d be looking for a new career anytime soon, but it was a healthy hint to keep my eyes open while fishing—in British Columbia or anywhere else for that matter—and adjust to changing conditions. On this trip the salmon went missing, but the moths arrived in force. And once we realized that the trout were tearing up those terrestrials, our trip went from “what could have been” to an experience we’ll never forget.

Gil Greenberg
Gil Greenberg is the founder of Gil’s Fly Fishing International. He holds a degree in marine biology and has always felt most at home on the water. At age 18, Gil bought his first fly rod and took it on his family’s annual walleye fishing trip. Just like so many fly-fishers before him, he was instantly hooked on the fly. To date, Gil has thrown flies at fish in over 25 countries, spanning five continents. Before getting into the fly-fishing industry, Gil served in the IDF and worked as a fisheries consultant in the Solomon Islands.

For nearly an hour the single-engine plane whines over miles of green, brown, and orange vegetation, intermittently divided by reflections off bogs, creeks and small rivers. Save for a couple small Inuit villages strategically set along the water, we pass over an entirely undeveloped landscape and absorb Alaska’s vastness.

Nearing our destination, about 80 miles south of Bethel, a waterway comes into view, winding through the rugged terrain like a ribbon thrown haphazardly on its surface. The channel twists and turns into the horizon toward the barely visible Bering Sea. From the air the Kanektok River looks slow and docile, but we will find out quickly its forceful and bursting with life.

It’s late June and prime time for fresh-run king salmon, chum salmon, dolly varden, and resident rainbows. On the ground, unfortunately, news confirms that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed fishing for king salmon this year to help manage returns and escapement objectives. (Authors note: this experience occurred in 2014 and the closure addressed a king salmon escapement estimate that fell below the objectives for the river. On a very positive note, the king salmon returns beginning in 2015 and through 2019 have met the river’s escapement goals each year based on aerial counting surveys. In fact, the 2019 count of 7,212 is at the very top of the river’s escapement objective range and provided tremendous fishing for kings, one of the best years ever. Fishing on the river was limited in 2020 because of Covid. The annual aerial survey was performed after the peak weeks for counting spawning fish, but the results pointed to another strong run of kings.)

While fishing for kings was the main purpose for a late-June trip, I always try to find the silver lining in an ever-changing world. And in this case more time would now be allocated toward chasing the river’s magnificent rainbow trout.

The trout are distributed throughout the river and can be found all summer, but this time of year, prior to salmon dropping a stream of protein rich eggs into the ecosystem, the rainbows take up the role of predator feasting on the prior year’s salmon offspring and other opportunistic meals. Mice that enter the river by mistake or on purpose become instant targets. Something swimming, struggling, and disturbing the surface catches the senses of a well-trained predator. Catching big trout on the surface is one of my favorite forms of fly fishing. Combine that with a large easy-to-see fly, while utilizing a swing approach, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

The rainbows willing to show for a mouse pattern are typically found in the margins. Soft cuts along grassy banks and near logs or branches prove to be prime lies, as well as soft inside seams created by the contour of the river or by small islands. Side-channels cutting off from the main river are also a favored area to discover aggressive trout.

Twitching the rod tip back and forth as the mouse pattern swings on the surface provides an extra disturbance and helps convey the message of struggling prey. The approach is very effective as the mouse pattern pulls stout rainbows to the surface from a range of water types. Accurate casting pays dividends, as landing the fly right next to the bank or a downed tree is most effective. A take of the fly often comes in the form of the surface erupting into spray as a fly disappears into the vortex. But some grabs are subtle, nothing more than the fish simply sucking the fly down with little or no visible disruption, much like a feeding brown trout might sip in a drifting mayfly. In some cases it appears that the trout is just trying to pull the mouse underwater.

The river’s rainbow trout are beautiful. The heavy black spotting on their bodies earns them the moniker of leopard rainbow. The vibrant red stripe and olive back spots put the finishing touches on this natural work of art. Most of the ‘bows taken on mouse patterns range between 18 and 20 inches, with a fair number stretching to 24 inches or more. A few exceptional fish may hit the 30-inch mark, but most of the truly large ‘bows are caught subsurface on baitfish imitations or eggs.

Occasionally, a large, silver dolly varden grabs a mouse pattern off the surface adding variety to the mousing game. The dollies have their own style of chasing down the mouse pattern, as a visible snout slicing through the surface is typically seen before the fly disappears in a mild disturbance. The dolly varden provides a different level of excitement since they run larger, on average, than the trout. Don’t be too surprised if a 30-incher ends up in the net. The silver appearance of a fresh-run dolly looks a bolt of lightning when chasing the fly.

The stunning beauty of the river’s inhabitants compliments the awesome power of the Alaskan wilderness. Spending time far away from home, in the wild, is the ultimate way to disconnect from a constant bombardment of daily information, and reconnect to the forces of nature.

Life is largely about opportunity, and being pushed deeper into the Alaskan wilderness to find prime trout water was exhilarating—an encounter that would not have occurred if the king fishing had worked out. From a glass half-full perspective, this was a special experience that included the challenge of accurate casting to structure and the visible display from some of the most beautiful creatures in the wild.

Rick Kustich
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Overheard somewhere along the BC Coast, July.

Guide: Any luck?

Me: Another handshake.

Guide: Steelhead?

Me: I think so.

Guide: (looking at fly): This is too big. You’ll need to go smaller for steelies.

Me: Yeah, but I don’t want to catch steelhead. I’m here for chinook.

Guide : What the hell’s wrong with you?

Once upon a time I decided to go fly fishing for chinook salmon. Like so many of the other questionable decisions I’ve made in my life, it ended badly. It was a week of seized reels and savage beat downs.

It was exactly what I needed.

I emerged from that experience like Christian Bale from the Lazarus Pit. The next season I formed the AK47 Club, a loose group of fly-fishing masochists who revel in an annual week of getting their Asses Kicked “4 7” (for seven) days on a remote little coastal river near Terrace, British Columbia.

Every year we happily forego a potentially amazing steelhead trip for a week of angling angst. On chinook waters we stress about everything, even the stuff we stopped worrying about on steelhead waters long ago. My steelhead buddies don’t understand, so I don’t bring it up much anymore. I learned the first year that announcing your intention to go chinook salmon fly fishing is like mentioning you’re taking your wife to a swinger convention. Most won’t understand, and trying to explain just makes things worse, so it’s best not to say anything at all.

(Jeroen Wohe)

My companions on this little ordeal have always been Mike and Shirley Walsh from the UK. Mike has chased anadromous fish from the Kalum to the Kharlovka, with Shirley joining him occasionally, and most often on this trip. A few other folks have suffered with us as well, but when a Skagit River sage named Dake Traphagen joined us a few years back we knew our team was complete.

What makes chinook so special? On the fly they are hands down the most challenging anadromous fish you can hook. “Chinook are sheer brute force,” said Walsh. “Uncompromising, with speed and unpredictability that tests my ingenuity and tackle to the very limits. They are like no other freshwater species.”

Traphagen agrees. “Chinook are the closest thing in fly fishing to encountering a grizzly in dense bush. They can rip your gear and ego to pieces or just ignore you all together. Either way, they leave you shaking.”

Jeroen Wohe runs Skeena River Lodge in Terrace British Columbia, where he guides fly-fishers to trophy Skeena steelhead spring and fall. But he reserves a special admiration for chinook.

“Steelhead are great,” he says. “They’re the most popular gamefish we have in our rivers here. But chinook are, in my opinion, the pinnacle of fish. The size, power and brute mentality to survive and make it back to their spawning grounds is really something special.”

And just so we’re clear, when we’re talking chinook here, we’re not talking about the red booty looking horrors splashed all over the magazine covers like Hellboy. Those are fish that entered freshwater possibly weeks ago, and have deteriorated out of their prime. They make a nice photo opp for visiting anglers who, with all due respect, just don’t get it. Those fish may share the name, but they ain’t chinook. Not at all. When I’m talking chinook, I’m talking the tide-fresh, sea-liced, titanium-hued beasties. The real ass-kickers. Fish you’re afraid to hook, because even a 20-pounder could spool you. I’m talking about those ones. And here’s what you need to know to get them, if you don’t really value your knuckles and you’re up to the task.

Timing
Okay, so you’re at least a little bit interested now, right? So when should you go? “The first chinook show up in late April heading into the Kalum River,” Wohe said. “The run is small, but fishing can be excellent. The big push of Skeena chinook arrives in June and tapers off in July.”

You might wonder if June and July are favorable months to fish for chinook, given those are usually high water times on most Pacific Northwest rivers. Fortunately, Wohe said that spring runoff isn’t much of an issue and that it actually favors your odds of finding fish.

“You want high, cold rivers to bring in fresh fish,” Wohe said. “When rivers get too low or warm the fish stay in the estuary waiting for cooler high water. So June is the best time to target these magnificent fish.”

(Jeroen Wohe)

Tackle

If you’re going to chase these fish you’ll have to supersize your steelhead tackle. Ten-weight rods are standard. You don’t need to go long with these—I typically use 13-footers—but you need a rod with lots of power in the butt so you can really lean into these brutes.

When it comes to reels, bigger is always better. “Hooking one of these salmon is like hooking a jetboat,” says Wohe. “On most steelhead reels the drag won’t cut it. You need a large reel with lots of capacity and a high quality drag system.”

Your drag not only slows the fish, but a seriously tight drag might be the only thing that allows you to get a hook into them. Chinook have notoriously tough mouths. If you don’t stick them on the take you probably won’t get a second chance to set the hook. I’ve had so many fish take and leave the pool so fast that I’ve barely had time to lift the rod. If they stop—a big if—there’s usually so much line out that trying to set up on them is pointless. A strong disc drag system cranked down to Medieval is sometimes the only thing that gives you a fighting chance.

So, classic Hardys are out. I prefer big reels from Islander, Nautilus and Danielsson. These have drag systems designed for big saltwater fish, hold several hundred yards of backing and are not overkill. I clamp these onto my 13-foot 10-weights. Cable-thick Skagit-style lines help me turn over the heavy 15 foot T-17 tips and the big flies I use. My leaders are always 20-pound Maxima Ultragreen, thick beefy nylon that gives me the strength and abrasion resistance I need when pulling hard on a big fish that’s hunkered down in a swift water rock garden.

The Tubes

Chinook eat flies of all kinds. Big or small, flashy or subdued, it doesn’t really matter when they arrive on the tide. Chinook eat flies because they can. They can do anything they want. These badass fish have gone toe-to-toe with killer whales and prevailed. So once they reach freshwater they crash around campus like Brett Kavanaugh on reading break. They’re the salmonid equivalent of the Honey Badger, or Trump after the Mueller report. They just don’t give a shit. Your goofy fly is just in the way, so they kill it.

Speaking of goofy flies, I only use tubes for anadromous fish. Nothing else. My interest in tube flies started years ago, back on the Thompson River, when we started using larger and larger flies for steelhead, especially early in the morning. I ended up tying patterns on the longest hooks I could find, and lost a lot of fish due to them either bending out, or popping out due to the leverage caused by the long shank. Tube flies allowed me to use any size fly I wanted, but with a short shank heavy wire hook. When I switched to tubes, my hooking to landing ratio skyrocketed, and I’ve been a devotee ever since.

My friends Mike and Dake also use tubes for steelhead, for the same reasons. And I think this is especially important with chinook if you are planning to release them. I know some anglers who tie on very large heavy wire hooks—5/0, sometimes bigger—but they are planning to bonk their fish. I release all mine, so the smaller short-shank hooks make the most sense to me.

Chinook don’t seem too fussy when it comes to fly patterns. These days I commonly use a dark green tube with a black collar. Some folks go with purple, some chartreuse, while others prefer shiny rainbow hued patterns, especially near the salt. Over the years I’ve found the most reliable pattern to be the black over blue flies that are common these days with sink-tip steelheaders. Tie up a dozen of these, and toss a bag of 1/0 Owner SSWs in with them and you’re good for a week.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Presentation
If you’ve fished for winter steelhead you’ll have any easy transition to chinook. Cast, mend, take a couple of steps, and hang on. I usually angle my cast 60 degrees to the flow, and finish my mend with a high rod position, so I can drop the tip to allow the fly to get deep. You’ll often (but not always) find chinook in faster water than you’d expect for steelhead, so you have to work to sink your fly. With a heavy sink-tip, a couple of downstream steps and then lowering your rod tip usually does the trick. Once I’ve made my initial mend I usually just let the fly come around. I rarely mend after the fly is swinging.

For years I experimented with various chinook hooking strategies. Despite my efforts, my landing success was rarely more than perhaps 30-40 percent. After trying literally everything to ensure solid hookups, now I just let the fish eat, which is exactly what I’ve always done with steelhead. This seems to be the best approach, and puts more fish on the beach for me than anything else I’ve tried.

To illustrate, in June of 2019 I was working my way down a big run when the head guide called me on the radio:

Guide: “Dana, how’s it going up there?”

Me: Good. I just started in at the…oh wait a sec, I think I’m getting a bite.”

Guide” “Seriously?”

Me: “I think so. Yep, there it is again.”

[Pause]

Guide: “You’re getting a take right now? Do you need me to come up there?”

Me: “No, I think I’m ok. Oh wait he’s on! I gotta go, he’s on!”

Throughout this little adventure I had the walkie-talkie in one hand and my rod in the other, and I didn’t lift until the second “he’s on!” You can find an excellent online video discussing this approach (minus the walkie-talkies) by Googling “How to Set the Hook While Swinging OPST.”

Pro Tip: If you’re swinging for chinook don’t tuck the rod under your arm while you light up a smoke. When they grab, they usually go, so you better have a good grip on the rod, otherwise the hours—maybe days—you’ve invested in all this are lost, not to mention the possible loss of that fancy reel and expensive two-hander.

(Jeroen Wohe)

A Chinook By Any Other Name

During the requisite boozy first evening at Chinook Camp, the conversation can get lively, especially with my American buddies present. They often call these fish “kings” for some reason, which has never made any sense to me, given that their forefathers kicked out the British Monarchy a couple hundred years ago. It’s almost as if they didn’t like them, which is clearly not the case.

“Where I grew up in Alaska—where we know a thing or two about salmon—they’re kings. That’s it.” This from my friend Greg, a long lost, slightly younger “brother.”

“Dude,” I said, because I talk like Jeff Spicoli in Chinook Camp for reasons I’ve never been able to explain, “Kings are those dark, snaggle-toothed things, man. These are different creatures.”

Greg: “Tell you what, dude—you can go and swing for chinook. I’ll fish for the kings.”

Well, you can probably guess how this ends, but it’s still fun to tell.

Greg did catch a few kings—small ones, more like princes—and lots of steelhead, although if I have to admit, he did pick my pocket on the first day when he hot-footed me down a run I should have fished more thoroughly. Meanwhile, Big Fish Mike, Dake and me were either busting off big ones or getting spooled. And every now and then 25- to 30-pounders were coming to hand. Greg—who among other talents is an excellent photographer—would hover around us, camera in hand, while we suffered our beatdowns.

“See Greg,” I managed one afternoon while rolling back into the guide boat to chase another runaway downriver, “These are chinook, that fish bent out my hook after an hour, just to make the point.”

“Man, I really wanted to see that fish!” Greg said later, raising his voice above the rattle and clank of the old F-250 that was our gravel two-track taxi back to the lodge.

I looked at him.

He said emphatically, “That ‘chinook!’ The one that bent you out! I really wanted to see him!”

And with that change in lingo, the river goddess must have been appeased, for the next day Greg started hooking real ones.

One time, halfway down the Ross Island run, I caught up with Greg, who looked rather grim and was tight to something big. I opened my flask and handed it to him.

“Better now?” I asked, as he handed it back.

“Yep. There’s no nookie like chinookie,” he said, just as his reel started spinning again.

(Jeroen Wohe)

You don’t really ever beat a chinook salmon. They just decide to break you off or let you hang out with them in the shallows for a while. If you’re lucky enough to tail one they look at you with menace, like they’re plotting your destruction. There’s not an ounce of fear in their eyes. You are clearly not in control, and never really have been. The whole experience is intimidating.

Sound tough? It is. Hyperbole it’s not. Joining the AK47 Club is for those who reach a place where the only climb worth taking is one without the rope. It’s a strange little place where success and failure look almost exactly the same. Where one week can take it all from you. And one fish can be the answer to why you started fly fishing in the first place.

If you decide to take that plunge, all I can say is, “Welcome to the Pain Cave.”

Skeena River Chinook Salmon

 

When: June and July

 

Where: Terrace, British Columbia, on the Skeena and Kalum rivers.

 

Average size: These wild chinook salmon range between 15 and 60 pounds, the larger end being nearly unlandable on fly gear. But it’s fun trying! These fish can approach 100 pounds but don’t expect to hook a fish like that, let alone try to land it, on your fly gear. Forty-pounders, however, are possible on any given cast.

 

Gear: Bring your stout nine and 10-weight spey rods and a large arbor fly reel that holds mega backing. Sink tips are needed to reach these fish in heavy flows.

 

Booking: GFFI books clients at two great lodges, Skeena River Lodge and Skeena Spey Riverside Wilderness & Lodge. Both operations offer great accommodations, excellent fishing programs, and their dedicated guides know where to find fish on the massive Skeena and the more manageable Kalum.

 

Contact GFFI for open dates, specials and other info. +1 (888) 304-4334

Dana Sturn
Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn

I don’t care what’s hatching, so long as it brings trout to the surface. And last summer, while fishing at Northern Lights Lodge outside Williams Lake, British Columbia, my dad and I experienced one of the strangest and most productive hatches I’ve ever seen.

Sometimes watching fish can be just as fun as catching them, especially when they are rising for big terrestrials like looper moths. (Dan Favato)

We were fishing the Quesnel watershed—an area famed for its sockeye salmon run and the big rainbow trout that follow those fish upstream, as if chasing an egg-dispensing vending machine. Only this year the sockeye didn’t show up. In fact, the Ministry of Natural Resources counted less than a thousand fish in the entire Quesnel River system, down from over two million in previous years. Officials pointed blame at a large landslide downstream in the Fraser River, which created a natural barrier and prevented sockeye from reaching the Quesnel. I have my doubts about that assessment, but, regardless, without salmon eggs feeding into the system, the trout had to find alternative food sources.

Enter the western hemlock looper moth, Lambdina fiscellaria lugubrosa. Even with an average wingspan of 35 millimeters, these big, cream-colored moths usually go unnoticed by trout and anglers alike. But every 15-to 20 years their population explodes for a few years, which results in somewhat of a plague—it’s said they can turn a barn from black to creamy white overnight. These “hatches” occur in September and October when adult moths emerge from their cocoons and fly around the forest before breeding and dying. Obviously, some of these bugs end up on the water and, believe me, the trout take notice.

It took me a couple days to get dialed in on the hatch, because we were focused on the salmon egg/trout equation. While we were catching fish on egg patterns, particularly behind the few salmon spawning beds we could find, we were not “slaying them” as we might have during a typical sockeye run. In places where our guides and their anglers would usually catch 20 to 30 fish, we only landed a handful of rainbows. These fish were in the 16-to 22-inch class, but were not the bruisers we hoped to see.

While I was nerding-out one day, trying to match small mayflies, my dad was dragging, skating and even popping a Turk’s Tarantula across the surface. I watched as fish after fish came up and absolutely crushed that fly. But why? My dad loves fishing, loves catching fish, and has taken trolling to a higher art form, but a great fly-fisherman he is not. Why his and not mine? Stubbornly, I refused a Chernobyl Ant offered by our guide, continuing to match tiny mayflies instead. I also tried a mouse pattern and got a few fish, but my dad still dominated.

When we got to the end of our float, and after pulling the boat out of the water, dad passed me a wine bottle, an attempt to console my bruised ego. While sort of looking down at me through questioning and squinted eyes, he chuckled and said, “Another win for the old man. If this keeps up, you’ll need to find a new career.” I was shaking my head and glaring at him when just over his shoulder and downstream, a large rainbow soared through the air trying to capture one of those cream-colored moths. A minute later another leaped out of the water and snagged a moth right out of the air, like a surface-to-air missile finding its mark.

The following morning, as I made my way to the main lodge for breakfast, I noticed that the windows and sides of our cabin were covered with moths. Thousands of them. When dad wasn’t looking I discreetly plucked a few of those moths off the wall and put them in my fly box. Dad didn’t know what was about to hit him.

Later that morning I was digging through that box, looking for the biggest and ugliest terrestrial imitation I could find. I spotted a size-8 Tom Thumb that roughly resembled those moths and trimmed it to form. I’ve always wanted to see a trout hit a fly in midair, so I made a parachute cast to the head of a run. I didn’t get my midair connection, but the second that fly hit the water, a healthy 21-inch rainbow nailed it. During the next two days I fished big terrestrials nearly exclusively. I found that any sort of large terrestrial would get hit, but the wide-bodied flies worked best. Imparting action to the fly resulted in far more eats than a dead-drifted presentation, which explained why my dad had such good luck and so much fun while twitching and skating that Turk’s Tarantula. Interestingly, there were other moth species flying around and some of those ended up on the water, too, but the trout didn’t touch them. They only ate the Loopers and our imitations of them. Skating flies isn’t a novel idea in this portion of British Columbia—NLL guides skate flies throughout the year and enjoy great results when the fish are looking up.

In the end, I had to admit that “the old man” had it dialed in before I did. That didn’t mean I’d be looking for a new career anytime soon, but it was a healthy hint to keep my eyes open while fishing—in British Columbia or anywhere else for that matter—and adjust to changing conditions. On this trip the salmon went missing, but the moths arrived in force. And once we realized that the trout were tearing up those terrestrials, our trip went from “what could have been” to an experience we’ll never forget.

Gil Greenberg
Gil Greenberg is the founder of Gil’s Fly Fishing International. He holds a degree in marine biology and has always felt most at home on the water. At age 18, Gil bought his first fly rod and took it on his family’s annual walleye fishing trip. Just like so many fly-fishers before him, he was instantly hooked on the fly. To date, Gil has thrown flies at fish in over 25 countries, spanning five continents. Before getting into the fly-fishing industry, Gil served in the IDF and worked as a fisheries consultant in the Solomon Islands.

For nearly an hour the single-engine plane whines over miles of green, brown, and orange vegetation, intermittently divided by reflections off bogs, creeks and small rivers. Save for a couple small Inuit villages strategically set along the water, we pass over an entirely undeveloped landscape and absorb Alaska’s vastness.

Nearing our destination, about 80 miles south of Bethel, a waterway comes into view, winding through the rugged terrain like a ribbon thrown haphazardly on its surface. The channel twists and turns into the horizon toward the barely visible Bering Sea. From the air the Kanektok River looks slow and docile, but we will find out quickly its forceful and bursting with life.

It’s late June and prime time for fresh-run king salmon, chum salmon, dolly varden, and resident rainbows. On the ground, unfortunately, news confirms that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed fishing for king salmon this year to help manage returns and escapement objectives. (Authors note: this experience occurred in 2014 and the closure addressed a king salmon escapement estimate that fell below the objectives for the river. On a very positive note, the king salmon returns beginning in 2015 and through 2019 have met the river’s escapement goals each year based on aerial counting surveys. In fact, the 2019 count of 7,212 is at the very top of the river’s escapement objective range and provided tremendous fishing for kings, one of the best years ever. Fishing on the river was limited in 2020 because of Covid. The annual aerial survey was performed after the peak weeks for counting spawning fish, but the results pointed to another strong run of kings.)

While fishing for kings was the main purpose for a late-June trip, I always try to find the silver lining in an ever-changing world. And in this case more time would now be allocated toward chasing the river’s magnificent rainbow trout.

The trout are distributed throughout the river and can be found all summer, but this time of year, prior to salmon dropping a stream of protein rich eggs into the ecosystem, the rainbows take up the role of predator feasting on the prior year’s salmon offspring and other opportunistic meals. Mice that enter the river by mistake or on purpose become instant targets. Something swimming, struggling, and disturbing the surface catches the senses of a well-trained predator. Catching big trout on the surface is one of my favorite forms of fly fishing. Combine that with a large easy-to-see fly, while utilizing a swing approach, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

The rainbows willing to show for a mouse pattern are typically found in the margins. Soft cuts along grassy banks and near logs or branches prove to be prime lies, as well as soft inside seams created by the contour of the river or by small islands. Side-channels cutting off from the main river are also a favored area to discover aggressive trout.

Twitching the rod tip back and forth as the mouse pattern swings on the surface provides an extra disturbance and helps convey the message of struggling prey. The approach is very effective as the mouse pattern pulls stout rainbows to the surface from a range of water types. Accurate casting pays dividends, as landing the fly right next to the bank or a downed tree is most effective. A take of the fly often comes in the form of the surface erupting into spray as a fly disappears into the vortex. But some grabs are subtle, nothing more than the fish simply sucking the fly down with little or no visible disruption, much like a feeding brown trout might sip in a drifting mayfly. In some cases it appears that the trout is just trying to pull the mouse underwater.

The river’s rainbow trout are beautiful. The heavy black spotting on their bodies earns them the moniker of leopard rainbow. The vibrant red stripe and olive back spots put the finishing touches on this natural work of art. Most of the ‘bows taken on mouse patterns range between 18 and 20 inches, with a fair number stretching to 24 inches or more. A few exceptional fish may hit the 30-inch mark, but most of the truly large ‘bows are caught subsurface on baitfish imitations or eggs.

Occasionally, a large, silver dolly varden grabs a mouse pattern off the surface adding variety to the mousing game. The dollies have their own style of chasing down the mouse pattern, as a visible snout slicing through the surface is typically seen before the fly disappears in a mild disturbance. The dolly varden provides a different level of excitement since they run larger, on average, than the trout. Don’t be too surprised if a 30-incher ends up in the net. The silver appearance of a fresh-run dolly looks a bolt of lightning when chasing the fly.

The stunning beauty of the river’s inhabitants compliments the awesome power of the Alaskan wilderness. Spending time far away from home, in the wild, is the ultimate way to disconnect from a constant bombardment of daily information, and reconnect to the forces of nature.

Life is largely about opportunity, and being pushed deeper into the Alaskan wilderness to find prime trout water was exhilarating—an encounter that would not have occurred if the king fishing had worked out. From a glass half-full perspective, this was a special experience that included the challenge of accurate casting to structure and the visible display from some of the most beautiful creatures in the wild.

Rick Kustich
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Overheard somewhere along the BC Coast, July.

Guide: Any luck?

Me: Another handshake.

Guide: Steelhead?

Me: I think so.

Guide: (looking at fly): This is too big. You’ll need to go smaller for steelies.

Me: Yeah, but I don’t want to catch steelhead. I’m here for chinook.

Guide : What the hell’s wrong with you?

Once upon a time I decided to go fly fishing for chinook salmon. Like so many of the other questionable decisions I’ve made in my life, it ended badly. It was a week of seized reels and savage beat downs.

It was exactly what I needed.

I emerged from that experience like Christian Bale from the Lazarus Pit. The next season I formed the AK47 Club, a loose group of fly-fishing masochists who revel in an annual week of getting their Asses Kicked “4 7” (for seven) days on a remote little coastal river near Terrace, British Columbia.

Every year we happily forego a potentially amazing steelhead trip for a week of angling angst. On chinook waters we stress about everything, even the stuff we stopped worrying about on steelhead waters long ago. My steelhead buddies don’t understand, so I don’t bring it up much anymore. I learned the first year that announcing your intention to go chinook salmon fly fishing is like mentioning you’re taking your wife to a swinger convention. Most won’t understand, and trying to explain just makes things worse, so it’s best not to say anything at all.

(Jeroen Wohe)

My companions on this little ordeal have always been Mike and Shirley Walsh from the UK. Mike has chased anadromous fish from the Kalum to the Kharlovka, with Shirley joining him occasionally, and most often on this trip. A few other folks have suffered with us as well, but when a Skagit River sage named Dake Traphagen joined us a few years back we knew our team was complete.

What makes chinook so special? On the fly they are hands down the most challenging anadromous fish you can hook. “Chinook are sheer brute force,” said Walsh. “Uncompromising, with speed and unpredictability that tests my ingenuity and tackle to the very limits. They are like no other freshwater species.”

Traphagen agrees. “Chinook are the closest thing in fly fishing to encountering a grizzly in dense bush. They can rip your gear and ego to pieces or just ignore you all together. Either way, they leave you shaking.”

Jeroen Wohe runs Skeena River Lodge in Terrace British Columbia, where he guides fly-fishers to trophy Skeena steelhead spring and fall. But he reserves a special admiration for chinook.

“Steelhead are great,” he says. “They’re the most popular gamefish we have in our rivers here. But chinook are, in my opinion, the pinnacle of fish. The size, power and brute mentality to survive and make it back to their spawning grounds is really something special.”

And just so we’re clear, when we’re talking chinook here, we’re not talking about the red booty looking horrors splashed all over the magazine covers like Hellboy. Those are fish that entered freshwater possibly weeks ago, and have deteriorated out of their prime. They make a nice photo opp for visiting anglers who, with all due respect, just don’t get it. Those fish may share the name, but they ain’t chinook. Not at all. When I’m talking chinook, I’m talking the tide-fresh, sea-liced, titanium-hued beasties. The real ass-kickers. Fish you’re afraid to hook, because even a 20-pounder could spool you. I’m talking about those ones. And here’s what you need to know to get them, if you don’t really value your knuckles and you’re up to the task.

Timing
Okay, so you’re at least a little bit interested now, right? So when should you go? “The first chinook show up in late April heading into the Kalum River,” Wohe said. “The run is small, but fishing can be excellent. The big push of Skeena chinook arrives in June and tapers off in July.”

You might wonder if June and July are favorable months to fish for chinook, given those are usually high water times on most Pacific Northwest rivers. Fortunately, Wohe said that spring runoff isn’t much of an issue and that it actually favors your odds of finding fish.

“You want high, cold rivers to bring in fresh fish,” Wohe said. “When rivers get too low or warm the fish stay in the estuary waiting for cooler high water. So June is the best time to target these magnificent fish.”

(Jeroen Wohe)

Tackle

If you’re going to chase these fish you’ll have to supersize your steelhead tackle. Ten-weight rods are standard. You don’t need to go long with these—I typically use 13-footers—but you need a rod with lots of power in the butt so you can really lean into these brutes.

When it comes to reels, bigger is always better. “Hooking one of these salmon is like hooking a jetboat,” says Wohe. “On most steelhead reels the drag won’t cut it. You need a large reel with lots of capacity and a high quality drag system.”

Your drag not only slows the fish, but a seriously tight drag might be the only thing that allows you to get a hook into them. Chinook have notoriously tough mouths. If you don’t stick them on the take you probably won’t get a second chance to set the hook. I’ve had so many fish take and leave the pool so fast that I’ve barely had time to lift the rod. If they stop—a big if—there’s usually so much line out that trying to set up on them is pointless. A strong disc drag system cranked down to Medieval is sometimes the only thing that gives you a fighting chance.

So, classic Hardys are out. I prefer big reels from Islander, Nautilus and Danielsson. These have drag systems designed for big saltwater fish, hold several hundred yards of backing and are not overkill. I clamp these onto my 13-foot 10-weights. Cable-thick Skagit-style lines help me turn over the heavy 15 foot T-17 tips and the big flies I use. My leaders are always 20-pound Maxima Ultragreen, thick beefy nylon that gives me the strength and abrasion resistance I need when pulling hard on a big fish that’s hunkered down in a swift water rock garden.

The Tubes

Chinook eat flies of all kinds. Big or small, flashy or subdued, it doesn’t really matter when they arrive on the tide. Chinook eat flies because they can. They can do anything they want. These badass fish have gone toe-to-toe with killer whales and prevailed. So once they reach freshwater they crash around campus like Brett Kavanaugh on reading break. They’re the salmonid equivalent of the Honey Badger, or Trump after the Mueller report. They just don’t give a shit. Your goofy fly is just in the way, so they kill it.

Speaking of goofy flies, I only use tubes for anadromous fish. Nothing else. My interest in tube flies started years ago, back on the Thompson River, when we started using larger and larger flies for steelhead, especially early in the morning. I ended up tying patterns on the longest hooks I could find, and lost a lot of fish due to them either bending out, or popping out due to the leverage caused by the long shank. Tube flies allowed me to use any size fly I wanted, but with a short shank heavy wire hook. When I switched to tubes, my hooking to landing ratio skyrocketed, and I’ve been a devotee ever since.

My friends Mike and Dake also use tubes for steelhead, for the same reasons. And I think this is especially important with chinook if you are planning to release them. I know some anglers who tie on very large heavy wire hooks—5/0, sometimes bigger—but they are planning to bonk their fish. I release all mine, so the smaller short-shank hooks make the most sense to me.

Chinook don’t seem too fussy when it comes to fly patterns. These days I commonly use a dark green tube with a black collar. Some folks go with purple, some chartreuse, while others prefer shiny rainbow hued patterns, especially near the salt. Over the years I’ve found the most reliable pattern to be the black over blue flies that are common these days with sink-tip steelheaders. Tie up a dozen of these, and toss a bag of 1/0 Owner SSWs in with them and you’re good for a week.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Presentation
If you’ve fished for winter steelhead you’ll have any easy transition to chinook. Cast, mend, take a couple of steps, and hang on. I usually angle my cast 60 degrees to the flow, and finish my mend with a high rod position, so I can drop the tip to allow the fly to get deep. You’ll often (but not always) find chinook in faster water than you’d expect for steelhead, so you have to work to sink your fly. With a heavy sink-tip, a couple of downstream steps and then lowering your rod tip usually does the trick. Once I’ve made my initial mend I usually just let the fly come around. I rarely mend after the fly is swinging.

For years I experimented with various chinook hooking strategies. Despite my efforts, my landing success was rarely more than perhaps 30-40 percent. After trying literally everything to ensure solid hookups, now I just let the fish eat, which is exactly what I’ve always done with steelhead. This seems to be the best approach, and puts more fish on the beach for me than anything else I’ve tried.

To illustrate, in June of 2019 I was working my way down a big run when the head guide called me on the radio:

Guide: “Dana, how’s it going up there?”

Me: Good. I just started in at the…oh wait a sec, I think I’m getting a bite.”

Guide” “Seriously?”

Me: “I think so. Yep, there it is again.”

[Pause]

Guide: “You’re getting a take right now? Do you need me to come up there?”

Me: “No, I think I’m ok. Oh wait he’s on! I gotta go, he’s on!”

Throughout this little adventure I had the walkie-talkie in one hand and my rod in the other, and I didn’t lift until the second “he’s on!” You can find an excellent online video discussing this approach (minus the walkie-talkies) by Googling “How to Set the Hook While Swinging OPST.”

Pro Tip: If you’re swinging for chinook don’t tuck the rod under your arm while you light up a smoke. When they grab, they usually go, so you better have a good grip on the rod, otherwise the hours—maybe days—you’ve invested in all this are lost, not to mention the possible loss of that fancy reel and expensive two-hander.

(Jeroen Wohe)

A Chinook By Any Other Name

During the requisite boozy first evening at Chinook Camp, the conversation can get lively, especially with my American buddies present. They often call these fish “kings” for some reason, which has never made any sense to me, given that their forefathers kicked out the British Monarchy a couple hundred years ago. It’s almost as if they didn’t like them, which is clearly not the case.

“Where I grew up in Alaska—where we know a thing or two about salmon—they’re kings. That’s it.” This from my friend Greg, a long lost, slightly younger “brother.”

“Dude,” I said, because I talk like Jeff Spicoli in Chinook Camp for reasons I’ve never been able to explain, “Kings are those dark, snaggle-toothed things, man. These are different creatures.”

Greg: “Tell you what, dude—you can go and swing for chinook. I’ll fish for the kings.”

Well, you can probably guess how this ends, but it’s still fun to tell.

Greg did catch a few kings—small ones, more like princes—and lots of steelhead, although if I have to admit, he did pick my pocket on the first day when he hot-footed me down a run I should have fished more thoroughly. Meanwhile, Big Fish Mike, Dake and me were either busting off big ones or getting spooled. And every now and then 25- to 30-pounders were coming to hand. Greg—who among other talents is an excellent photographer—would hover around us, camera in hand, while we suffered our beatdowns.

“See Greg,” I managed one afternoon while rolling back into the guide boat to chase another runaway downriver, “These are chinook, that fish bent out my hook after an hour, just to make the point.”

“Man, I really wanted to see that fish!” Greg said later, raising his voice above the rattle and clank of the old F-250 that was our gravel two-track taxi back to the lodge.

I looked at him.

He said emphatically, “That ‘chinook!’ The one that bent you out! I really wanted to see him!”

And with that change in lingo, the river goddess must have been appeased, for the next day Greg started hooking real ones.

One time, halfway down the Ross Island run, I caught up with Greg, who looked rather grim and was tight to something big. I opened my flask and handed it to him.

“Better now?” I asked, as he handed it back.

“Yep. There’s no nookie like chinookie,” he said, just as his reel started spinning again.

(Jeroen Wohe)

You don’t really ever beat a chinook salmon. They just decide to break you off or let you hang out with them in the shallows for a while. If you’re lucky enough to tail one they look at you with menace, like they’re plotting your destruction. There’s not an ounce of fear in their eyes. You are clearly not in control, and never really have been. The whole experience is intimidating.

Sound tough? It is. Hyperbole it’s not. Joining the AK47 Club is for those who reach a place where the only climb worth taking is one without the rope. It’s a strange little place where success and failure look almost exactly the same. Where one week can take it all from you. And one fish can be the answer to why you started fly fishing in the first place.

If you decide to take that plunge, all I can say is, “Welcome to the Pain Cave.”

Skeena River Chinook Salmon

 

When: June and July

 

Where: Terrace, British Columbia, on the Skeena and Kalum rivers.

 

Average size: These wild chinook salmon range between 15 and 60 pounds, the larger end being nearly unlandable on fly gear. But it’s fun trying! These fish can approach 100 pounds but don’t expect to hook a fish like that, let alone try to land it, on your fly gear. Forty-pounders, however, are possible on any given cast.

 

Gear: Bring your stout nine and 10-weight spey rods and a large arbor fly reel that holds mega backing. Sink tips are needed to reach these fish in heavy flows.

 

Booking: GFFI books clients at two great lodges, Skeena River Lodge and Skeena Spey Riverside Wilderness & Lodge. Both operations offer great accommodations, excellent fishing programs, and their dedicated guides know where to find fish on the massive Skeena and the more manageable Kalum.

 

Contact GFFI for open dates, specials and other info. +1 (888) 304-4334

Dana Sturn
Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn

I don’t care what’s hatching, so long as it brings trout to the surface. And last summer, while fishing at Northern Lights Lodge outside Williams Lake, British Columbia, my dad and I experienced one of the strangest and most productive hatches I’ve ever seen.

Sometimes watching fish can be just as fun as catching them, especially when they are rising for big terrestrials like looper moths. (Dan Favato)

We were fishing the Quesnel watershed—an area famed for its sockeye salmon run and the big rainbow trout that follow those fish upstream, as if chasing an egg-dispensing vending machine. Only this year the sockeye didn’t show up. In fact, the Ministry of Natural Resources counted less than a thousand fish in the entire Quesnel River system, down from over two million in previous years. Officials pointed blame at a large landslide downstream in the Fraser River, which created a natural barrier and prevented sockeye from reaching the Quesnel. I have my doubts about that assessment, but, regardless, without salmon eggs feeding into the system, the trout had to find alternative food sources.

Enter the western hemlock looper moth, Lambdina fiscellaria lugubrosa. Even with an average wingspan of 35 millimeters, these big, cream-colored moths usually go unnoticed by trout and anglers alike. But every 15-to 20 years their population explodes for a few years, which results in somewhat of a plague—it’s said they can turn a barn from black to creamy white overnight. These “hatches” occur in September and October when adult moths emerge from their cocoons and fly around the forest before breeding and dying. Obviously, some of these bugs end up on the water and, believe me, the trout take notice.

It took me a couple days to get dialed in on the hatch, because we were focused on the salmon egg/trout equation. While we were catching fish on egg patterns, particularly behind the few salmon spawning beds we could find, we were not “slaying them” as we might have during a typical sockeye run. In places where our guides and their anglers would usually catch 20 to 30 fish, we only landed a handful of rainbows. These fish were in the 16-to 22-inch class, but were not the bruisers we hoped to see.

While I was nerding-out one day, trying to match small mayflies, my dad was dragging, skating and even popping a Turk’s Tarantula across the surface. I watched as fish after fish came up and absolutely crushed that fly. But why? My dad loves fishing, loves catching fish, and has taken trolling to a higher art form, but a great fly-fisherman he is not. Why his and not mine? Stubbornly, I refused a Chernobyl Ant offered by our guide, continuing to match tiny mayflies instead. I also tried a mouse pattern and got a few fish, but my dad still dominated.

When we got to the end of our float, and after pulling the boat out of the water, dad passed me a wine bottle, an attempt to console my bruised ego. While sort of looking down at me through questioning and squinted eyes, he chuckled and said, “Another win for the old man. If this keeps up, you’ll need to find a new career.” I was shaking my head and glaring at him when just over his shoulder and downstream, a large rainbow soared through the air trying to capture one of those cream-colored moths. A minute later another leaped out of the water and snagged a moth right out of the air, like a surface-to-air missile finding its mark.

The following morning, as I made my way to the main lodge for breakfast, I noticed that the windows and sides of our cabin were covered with moths. Thousands of them. When dad wasn’t looking I discreetly plucked a few of those moths off the wall and put them in my fly box. Dad didn’t know what was about to hit him.

Later that morning I was digging through that box, looking for the biggest and ugliest terrestrial imitation I could find. I spotted a size-8 Tom Thumb that roughly resembled those moths and trimmed it to form. I’ve always wanted to see a trout hit a fly in midair, so I made a parachute cast to the head of a run. I didn’t get my midair connection, but the second that fly hit the water, a healthy 21-inch rainbow nailed it. During the next two days I fished big terrestrials nearly exclusively. I found that any sort of large terrestrial would get hit, but the wide-bodied flies worked best. Imparting action to the fly resulted in far more eats than a dead-drifted presentation, which explained why my dad had such good luck and so much fun while twitching and skating that Turk’s Tarantula. Interestingly, there were other moth species flying around and some of those ended up on the water, too, but the trout didn’t touch them. They only ate the Loopers and our imitations of them. Skating flies isn’t a novel idea in this portion of British Columbia—NLL guides skate flies throughout the year and enjoy great results when the fish are looking up.

In the end, I had to admit that “the old man” had it dialed in before I did. That didn’t mean I’d be looking for a new career anytime soon, but it was a healthy hint to keep my eyes open while fishing—in British Columbia or anywhere else for that matter—and adjust to changing conditions. On this trip the salmon went missing, but the moths arrived in force. And once we realized that the trout were tearing up those terrestrials, our trip went from “what could have been” to an experience we’ll never forget.

Gil Greenberg
Gil Greenberg is the founder of Gil’s Fly Fishing International. He holds a degree in marine biology and has always felt most at home on the water. At age 18, Gil bought his first fly rod and took it on his family’s annual walleye fishing trip. Just like so many fly-fishers before him, he was instantly hooked on the fly. To date, Gil has thrown flies at fish in over 25 countries, spanning five continents. Before getting into the fly-fishing industry, Gil served in the IDF and worked as a fisheries consultant in the Solomon Islands.

For nearly an hour the single-engine plane whines over miles of green, brown, and orange vegetation, intermittently divided by reflections off bogs, creeks and small rivers. Save for a couple small Inuit villages strategically set along the water, we pass over an entirely undeveloped landscape and absorb Alaska’s vastness.

Nearing our destination, about 80 miles south of Bethel, a waterway comes into view, winding through the rugged terrain like a ribbon thrown haphazardly on its surface. The channel twists and turns into the horizon toward the barely visible Bering Sea. From the air the Kanektok River looks slow and docile, but we will find out quickly its forceful and bursting with life.

It’s late June and prime time for fresh-run king salmon, chum salmon, dolly varden, and resident rainbows. On the ground, unfortunately, news confirms that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed fishing for king salmon this year to help manage returns and escapement objectives. (Authors note: this experience occurred in 2014 and the closure addressed a king salmon escapement estimate that fell below the objectives for the river. On a very positive note, the king salmon returns beginning in 2015 and through 2019 have met the river’s escapement goals each year based on aerial counting surveys. In fact, the 2019 count of 7,212 is at the very top of the river’s escapement objective range and provided tremendous fishing for kings, one of the best years ever. Fishing on the river was limited in 2020 because of Covid. The annual aerial survey was performed after the peak weeks for counting spawning fish, but the results pointed to another strong run of kings.)

While fishing for kings was the main purpose for a late-June trip, I always try to find the silver lining in an ever-changing world. And in this case more time would now be allocated toward chasing the river’s magnificent rainbow trout.

The trout are distributed throughout the river and can be found all summer, but this time of year, prior to salmon dropping a stream of protein rich eggs into the ecosystem, the rainbows take up the role of predator feasting on the prior year’s salmon offspring and other opportunistic meals. Mice that enter the river by mistake or on purpose become instant targets. Something swimming, struggling, and disturbing the surface catches the senses of a well-trained predator. Catching big trout on the surface is one of my favorite forms of fly fishing. Combine that with a large easy-to-see fly, while utilizing a swing approach, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

The rainbows willing to show for a mouse pattern are typically found in the margins. Soft cuts along grassy banks and near logs or branches prove to be prime lies, as well as soft inside seams created by the contour of the river or by small islands. Side-channels cutting off from the main river are also a favored area to discover aggressive trout.

Twitching the rod tip back and forth as the mouse pattern swings on the surface provides an extra disturbance and helps convey the message of struggling prey. The approach is very effective as the mouse pattern pulls stout rainbows to the surface from a range of water types. Accurate casting pays dividends, as landing the fly right next to the bank or a downed tree is most effective. A take of the fly often comes in the form of the surface erupting into spray as a fly disappears into the vortex. But some grabs are subtle, nothing more than the fish simply sucking the fly down with little or no visible disruption, much like a feeding brown trout might sip in a drifting mayfly. In some cases it appears that the trout is just trying to pull the mouse underwater.

The river’s rainbow trout are beautiful. The heavy black spotting on their bodies earns them the moniker of leopard rainbow. The vibrant red stripe and olive back spots put the finishing touches on this natural work of art. Most of the ‘bows taken on mouse patterns range between 18 and 20 inches, with a fair number stretching to 24 inches or more. A few exceptional fish may hit the 30-inch mark, but most of the truly large ‘bows are caught subsurface on baitfish imitations or eggs.

Occasionally, a large, silver dolly varden grabs a mouse pattern off the surface adding variety to the mousing game. The dollies have their own style of chasing down the mouse pattern, as a visible snout slicing through the surface is typically seen before the fly disappears in a mild disturbance. The dolly varden provides a different level of excitement since they run larger, on average, than the trout. Don’t be too surprised if a 30-incher ends up in the net. The silver appearance of a fresh-run dolly looks a bolt of lightning when chasing the fly.

The stunning beauty of the river’s inhabitants compliments the awesome power of the Alaskan wilderness. Spending time far away from home, in the wild, is the ultimate way to disconnect from a constant bombardment of daily information, and reconnect to the forces of nature.

Life is largely about opportunity, and being pushed deeper into the Alaskan wilderness to find prime trout water was exhilarating—an encounter that would not have occurred if the king fishing had worked out. From a glass half-full perspective, this was a special experience that included the challenge of accurate casting to structure and the visible display from some of the most beautiful creatures in the wild.

Rick Kustich
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Overheard somewhere along the BC Coast, July.

Guide: Any luck?

Me: Another handshake.

Guide: Steelhead?

Me: I think so.

Guide: (looking at fly): This is too big. You’ll need to go smaller for steelies.

Me: Yeah, but I don’t want to catch steelhead. I’m here for chinook.

Guide : What the hell’s wrong with you?

Once upon a time I decided to go fly fishing for chinook salmon. Like so many of the other questionable decisions I’ve made in my life, it ended badly. It was a week of seized reels and savage beat downs.

It was exactly what I needed.

I emerged from that experience like Christian Bale from the Lazarus Pit. The next season I formed the AK47 Club, a loose group of fly-fishing masochists who revel in an annual week of getting their Asses Kicked “4 7” (for seven) days on a remote little coastal river near Terrace, British Columbia.

Every year we happily forego a potentially amazing steelhead trip for a week of angling angst. On chinook waters we stress about everything, even the stuff we stopped worrying about on steelhead waters long ago. My steelhead buddies don’t understand, so I don’t bring it up much anymore. I learned the first year that announcing your intention to go chinook salmon fly fishing is like mentioning you’re taking your wife to a swinger convention. Most won’t understand, and trying to explain just makes things worse, so it’s best not to say anything at all.

(Jeroen Wohe)

My companions on this little ordeal have always been Mike and Shirley Walsh from the UK. Mike has chased anadromous fish from the Kalum to the Kharlovka, with Shirley joining him occasionally, and most often on this trip. A few other folks have suffered with us as well, but when a Skagit River sage named Dake Traphagen joined us a few years back we knew our team was complete.

What makes chinook so special? On the fly they are hands down the most challenging anadromous fish you can hook. “Chinook are sheer brute force,” said Walsh. “Uncompromising, with speed and unpredictability that tests my ingenuity and tackle to the very limits. They are like no other freshwater species.”

Traphagen agrees. “Chinook are the closest thing in fly fishing to encountering a grizzly in dense bush. They can rip your gear and ego to pieces or just ignore you all together. Either way, they leave you shaking.”

Jeroen Wohe runs Skeena River Lodge in Terrace British Columbia, where he guides fly-fishers to trophy Skeena steelhead spring and fall. But he reserves a special admiration for chinook.

“Steelhead are great,” he says. “They’re the most popular gamefish we have in our rivers here. But chinook are, in my opinion, the pinnacle of fish. The size, power and brute mentality to survive and make it back to their spawning grounds is really something special.”

And just so we’re clear, when we’re talking chinook here, we’re not talking about the red booty looking horrors splashed all over the magazine covers like Hellboy. Those are fish that entered freshwater possibly weeks ago, and have deteriorated out of their prime. They make a nice photo opp for visiting anglers who, with all due respect, just don’t get it. Those fish may share the name, but they ain’t chinook. Not at all. When I’m talking chinook, I’m talking the tide-fresh, sea-liced, titanium-hued beasties. The real ass-kickers. Fish you’re afraid to hook, because even a 20-pounder could spool you. I’m talking about those ones. And here’s what you need to know to get them, if you don’t really value your knuckles and you’re up to the task.

Timing
Okay, so you’re at least a little bit interested now, right? So when should you go? “The first chinook show up in late April heading into the Kalum River,” Wohe said. “The run is small, but fishing can be excellent. The big push of Skeena chinook arrives in June and tapers off in July.”

You might wonder if June and July are favorable months to fish for chinook, given those are usually high water times on most Pacific Northwest rivers. Fortunately, Wohe said that spring runoff isn’t much of an issue and that it actually favors your odds of finding fish.

“You want high, cold rivers to bring in fresh fish,” Wohe said. “When rivers get too low or warm the fish stay in the estuary waiting for cooler high water. So June is the best time to target these magnificent fish.”

(Jeroen Wohe)

Tackle

If you’re going to chase these fish you’ll have to supersize your steelhead tackle. Ten-weight rods are standard. You don’t need to go long with these—I typically use 13-footers—but you need a rod with lots of power in the butt so you can really lean into these brutes.

When it comes to reels, bigger is always better. “Hooking one of these salmon is like hooking a jetboat,” says Wohe. “On most steelhead reels the drag won’t cut it. You need a large reel with lots of capacity and a high quality drag system.”

Your drag not only slows the fish, but a seriously tight drag might be the only thing that allows you to get a hook into them. Chinook have notoriously tough mouths. If you don’t stick them on the take you probably won’t get a second chance to set the hook. I’ve had so many fish take and leave the pool so fast that I’ve barely had time to lift the rod. If they stop—a big if—there’s usually so much line out that trying to set up on them is pointless. A strong disc drag system cranked down to Medieval is sometimes the only thing that gives you a fighting chance.

So, classic Hardys are out. I prefer big reels from Islander, Nautilus and Danielsson. These have drag systems designed for big saltwater fish, hold several hundred yards of backing and are not overkill. I clamp these onto my 13-foot 10-weights. Cable-thick Skagit-style lines help me turn over the heavy 15 foot T-17 tips and the big flies I use. My leaders are always 20-pound Maxima Ultragreen, thick beefy nylon that gives me the strength and abrasion resistance I need when pulling hard on a big fish that’s hunkered down in a swift water rock garden.

The Tubes

Chinook eat flies of all kinds. Big or small, flashy or subdued, it doesn’t really matter when they arrive on the tide. Chinook eat flies because they can. They can do anything they want. These badass fish have gone toe-to-toe with killer whales and prevailed. So once they reach freshwater they crash around campus like Brett Kavanaugh on reading break. They’re the salmonid equivalent of the Honey Badger, or Trump after the Mueller report. They just don’t give a shit. Your goofy fly is just in the way, so they kill it.

Speaking of goofy flies, I only use tubes for anadromous fish. Nothing else. My interest in tube flies started years ago, back on the Thompson River, when we started using larger and larger flies for steelhead, especially early in the morning. I ended up tying patterns on the longest hooks I could find, and lost a lot of fish due to them either bending out, or popping out due to the leverage caused by the long shank. Tube flies allowed me to use any size fly I wanted, but with a short shank heavy wire hook. When I switched to tubes, my hooking to landing ratio skyrocketed, and I’ve been a devotee ever since.

My friends Mike and Dake also use tubes for steelhead, for the same reasons. And I think this is especially important with chinook if you are planning to release them. I know some anglers who tie on very large heavy wire hooks—5/0, sometimes bigger—but they are planning to bonk their fish. I release all mine, so the smaller short-shank hooks make the most sense to me.

Chinook don’t seem too fussy when it comes to fly patterns. These days I commonly use a dark green tube with a black collar. Some folks go with purple, some chartreuse, while others prefer shiny rainbow hued patterns, especially near the salt. Over the years I’ve found the most reliable pattern to be the black over blue flies that are common these days with sink-tip steelheaders. Tie up a dozen of these, and toss a bag of 1/0 Owner SSWs in with them and you’re good for a week.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Presentation
If you’ve fished for winter steelhead you’ll have any easy transition to chinook. Cast, mend, take a couple of steps, and hang on. I usually angle my cast 60 degrees to the flow, and finish my mend with a high rod position, so I can drop the tip to allow the fly to get deep. You’ll often (but not always) find chinook in faster water than you’d expect for steelhead, so you have to work to sink your fly. With a heavy sink-tip, a couple of downstream steps and then lowering your rod tip usually does the trick. Once I’ve made my initial mend I usually just let the fly come around. I rarely mend after the fly is swinging.

For years I experimented with various chinook hooking strategies. Despite my efforts, my landing success was rarely more than perhaps 30-40 percent. After trying literally everything to ensure solid hookups, now I just let the fish eat, which is exactly what I’ve always done with steelhead. This seems to be the best approach, and puts more fish on the beach for me than anything else I’ve tried.

To illustrate, in June of 2019 I was working my way down a big run when the head guide called me on the radio:

Guide: “Dana, how’s it going up there?”

Me: Good. I just started in at the…oh wait a sec, I think I’m getting a bite.”

Guide” “Seriously?”

Me: “I think so. Yep, there it is again.”

[Pause]

Guide: “You’re getting a take right now? Do you need me to come up there?”

Me: “No, I think I’m ok. Oh wait he’s on! I gotta go, he’s on!”

Throughout this little adventure I had the walkie-talkie in one hand and my rod in the other, and I didn’t lift until the second “he’s on!” You can find an excellent online video discussing this approach (minus the walkie-talkies) by Googling “How to Set the Hook While Swinging OPST.”

Pro Tip: If you’re swinging for chinook don’t tuck the rod under your arm while you light up a smoke. When they grab, they usually go, so you better have a good grip on the rod, otherwise the hours—maybe days—you’ve invested in all this are lost, not to mention the possible loss of that fancy reel and expensive two-hander.

(Jeroen Wohe)

A Chinook By Any Other Name

During the requisite boozy first evening at Chinook Camp, the conversation can get lively, especially with my American buddies present. They often call these fish “kings” for some reason, which has never made any sense to me, given that their forefathers kicked out the British Monarchy a couple hundred years ago. It’s almost as if they didn’t like them, which is clearly not the case.

“Where I grew up in Alaska—where we know a thing or two about salmon—they’re kings. That’s it.” This from my friend Greg, a long lost, slightly younger “brother.”

“Dude,” I said, because I talk like Jeff Spicoli in Chinook Camp for reasons I’ve never been able to explain, “Kings are those dark, snaggle-toothed things, man. These are different creatures.”

Greg: “Tell you what, dude—you can go and swing for chinook. I’ll fish for the kings.”

Well, you can probably guess how this ends, but it’s still fun to tell.

Greg did catch a few kings—small ones, more like princes—and lots of steelhead, although if I have to admit, he did pick my pocket on the first day when he hot-footed me down a run I should have fished more thoroughly. Meanwhile, Big Fish Mike, Dake and me were either busting off big ones or getting spooled. And every now and then 25- to 30-pounders were coming to hand. Greg—who among other talents is an excellent photographer—would hover around us, camera in hand, while we suffered our beatdowns.

“See Greg,” I managed one afternoon while rolling back into the guide boat to chase another runaway downriver, “These are chinook, that fish bent out my hook after an hour, just to make the point.”

“Man, I really wanted to see that fish!” Greg said later, raising his voice above the rattle and clank of the old F-250 that was our gravel two-track taxi back to the lodge.

I looked at him.

He said emphatically, “That ‘chinook!’ The one that bent you out! I really wanted to see him!”

And with that change in lingo, the river goddess must have been appeased, for the next day Greg started hooking real ones.

One time, halfway down the Ross Island run, I caught up with Greg, who looked rather grim and was tight to something big. I opened my flask and handed it to him.

“Better now?” I asked, as he handed it back.

“Yep. There’s no nookie like chinookie,” he said, just as his reel started spinning again.

(Jeroen Wohe)

You don’t really ever beat a chinook salmon. They just decide to break you off or let you hang out with them in the shallows for a while. If you’re lucky enough to tail one they look at you with menace, like they’re plotting your destruction. There’s not an ounce of fear in their eyes. You are clearly not in control, and never really have been. The whole experience is intimidating.

Sound tough? It is. Hyperbole it’s not. Joining the AK47 Club is for those who reach a place where the only climb worth taking is one without the rope. It’s a strange little place where success and failure look almost exactly the same. Where one week can take it all from you. And one fish can be the answer to why you started fly fishing in the first place.

If you decide to take that plunge, all I can say is, “Welcome to the Pain Cave.”

Skeena River Chinook Salmon

 

When: June and July

 

Where: Terrace, British Columbia, on the Skeena and Kalum rivers.

 

Average size: These wild chinook salmon range between 15 and 60 pounds, the larger end being nearly unlandable on fly gear. But it’s fun trying! These fish can approach 100 pounds but don’t expect to hook a fish like that, let alone try to land it, on your fly gear. Forty-pounders, however, are possible on any given cast.

 

Gear: Bring your stout nine and 10-weight spey rods and a large arbor fly reel that holds mega backing. Sink tips are needed to reach these fish in heavy flows.

 

Booking: GFFI books clients at two great lodges, Skeena River Lodge and Skeena Spey Riverside Wilderness & Lodge. Both operations offer great accommodations, excellent fishing programs, and their dedicated guides know where to find fish on the massive Skeena and the more manageable Kalum.

 

Contact GFFI for open dates, specials and other info. +1 (888) 304-4334

Dana Sturn
Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn

I don’t care what’s hatching, so long as it brings trout to the surface. And last summer, while fishing at Northern Lights Lodge outside Williams Lake, British Columbia, my dad and I experienced one of the strangest and most productive hatches I’ve ever seen.

Sometimes watching fish can be just as fun as catching them, especially when they are rising for big terrestrials like looper moths. (Dan Favato)

We were fishing the Quesnel watershed—an area famed for its sockeye salmon run and the big rainbow trout that follow those fish upstream, as if chasing an egg-dispensing vending machine. Only this year the sockeye didn’t show up. In fact, the Ministry of Natural Resources counted less than a thousand fish in the entire Quesnel River system, down from over two million in previous years. Officials pointed blame at a large landslide downstream in the Fraser River, which created a natural barrier and prevented sockeye from reaching the Quesnel. I have my doubts about that assessment, but, regardless, without salmon eggs feeding into the system, the trout had to find alternative food sources.

Enter the western hemlock looper moth, Lambdina fiscellaria lugubrosa. Even with an average wingspan of 35 millimeters, these big, cream-colored moths usually go unnoticed by trout and anglers alike. But every 15-to 20 years their population explodes for a few years, which results in somewhat of a plague—it’s said they can turn a barn from black to creamy white overnight. These “hatches” occur in September and October when adult moths emerge from their cocoons and fly around the forest before breeding and dying. Obviously, some of these bugs end up on the water and, believe me, the trout take notice.

It took me a couple days to get dialed in on the hatch, because we were focused on the salmon egg/trout equation. While we were catching fish on egg patterns, particularly behind the few salmon spawning beds we could find, we were not “slaying them” as we might have during a typical sockeye run. In places where our guides and their anglers would usually catch 20 to 30 fish, we only landed a handful of rainbows. These fish were in the 16-to 22-inch class, but were not the bruisers we hoped to see.

While I was nerding-out one day, trying to match small mayflies, my dad was dragging, skating and even popping a Turk’s Tarantula across the surface. I watched as fish after fish came up and absolutely crushed that fly. But why? My dad loves fishing, loves catching fish, and has taken trolling to a higher art form, but a great fly-fisherman he is not. Why his and not mine? Stubbornly, I refused a Chernobyl Ant offered by our guide, continuing to match tiny mayflies instead. I also tried a mouse pattern and got a few fish, but my dad still dominated.

When we got to the end of our float, and after pulling the boat out of the water, dad passed me a wine bottle, an attempt to console my bruised ego. While sort of looking down at me through questioning and squinted eyes, he chuckled and said, “Another win for the old man. If this keeps up, you’ll need to find a new career.” I was shaking my head and glaring at him when just over his shoulder and downstream, a large rainbow soared through the air trying to capture one of those cream-colored moths. A minute later another leaped out of the water and snagged a moth right out of the air, like a surface-to-air missile finding its mark.

The following morning, as I made my way to the main lodge for breakfast, I noticed that the windows and sides of our cabin were covered with moths. Thousands of them. When dad wasn’t looking I discreetly plucked a few of those moths off the wall and put them in my fly box. Dad didn’t know what was about to hit him.

Later that morning I was digging through that box, looking for the biggest and ugliest terrestrial imitation I could find. I spotted a size-8 Tom Thumb that roughly resembled those moths and trimmed it to form. I’ve always wanted to see a trout hit a fly in midair, so I made a parachute cast to the head of a run. I didn’t get my midair connection, but the second that fly hit the water, a healthy 21-inch rainbow nailed it. During the next two days I fished big terrestrials nearly exclusively. I found that any sort of large terrestrial would get hit, but the wide-bodied flies worked best. Imparting action to the fly resulted in far more eats than a dead-drifted presentation, which explained why my dad had such good luck and so much fun while twitching and skating that Turk’s Tarantula. Interestingly, there were other moth species flying around and some of those ended up on the water, too, but the trout didn’t touch them. They only ate the Loopers and our imitations of them. Skating flies isn’t a novel idea in this portion of British Columbia—NLL guides skate flies throughout the year and enjoy great results when the fish are looking up.

In the end, I had to admit that “the old man” had it dialed in before I did. That didn’t mean I’d be looking for a new career anytime soon, but it was a healthy hint to keep my eyes open while fishing—in British Columbia or anywhere else for that matter—and adjust to changing conditions. On this trip the salmon went missing, but the moths arrived in force. And once we realized that the trout were tearing up those terrestrials, our trip went from “what could have been” to an experience we’ll never forget.

Gil Greenberg
Gil Greenberg is the founder of Gil’s Fly Fishing International. He holds a degree in marine biology and has always felt most at home on the water. At age 18, Gil bought his first fly rod and took it on his family’s annual walleye fishing trip. Just like so many fly-fishers before him, he was instantly hooked on the fly. To date, Gil has thrown flies at fish in over 25 countries, spanning five continents. Before getting into the fly-fishing industry, Gil served in the IDF and worked as a fisheries consultant in the Solomon Islands.

For nearly an hour the single-engine plane whines over miles of green, brown, and orange vegetation, intermittently divided by reflections off bogs, creeks and small rivers. Save for a couple small Inuit villages strategically set along the water, we pass over an entirely undeveloped landscape and absorb Alaska’s vastness.

Nearing our destination, about 80 miles south of Bethel, a waterway comes into view, winding through the rugged terrain like a ribbon thrown haphazardly on its surface. The channel twists and turns into the horizon toward the barely visible Bering Sea. From the air the Kanektok River looks slow and docile, but we will find out quickly its forceful and bursting with life.

It’s late June and prime time for fresh-run king salmon, chum salmon, dolly varden, and resident rainbows. On the ground, unfortunately, news confirms that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed fishing for king salmon this year to help manage returns and escapement objectives. (Authors note: this experience occurred in 2014 and the closure addressed a king salmon escapement estimate that fell below the objectives for the river. On a very positive note, the king salmon returns beginning in 2015 and through 2019 have met the river’s escapement goals each year based on aerial counting surveys. In fact, the 2019 count of 7,212 is at the very top of the river’s escapement objective range and provided tremendous fishing for kings, one of the best years ever. Fishing on the river was limited in 2020 because of Covid. The annual aerial survey was performed after the peak weeks for counting spawning fish, but the results pointed to another strong run of kings.)

While fishing for kings was the main purpose for a late-June trip, I always try to find the silver lining in an ever-changing world. And in this case more time would now be allocated toward chasing the river’s magnificent rainbow trout.

The trout are distributed throughout the river and can be found all summer, but this time of year, prior to salmon dropping a stream of protein rich eggs into the ecosystem, the rainbows take up the role of predator feasting on the prior year’s salmon offspring and other opportunistic meals. Mice that enter the river by mistake or on purpose become instant targets. Something swimming, struggling, and disturbing the surface catches the senses of a well-trained predator. Catching big trout on the surface is one of my favorite forms of fly fishing. Combine that with a large easy-to-see fly, while utilizing a swing approach, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

The rainbows willing to show for a mouse pattern are typically found in the margins. Soft cuts along grassy banks and near logs or branches prove to be prime lies, as well as soft inside seams created by the contour of the river or by small islands. Side-channels cutting off from the main river are also a favored area to discover aggressive trout.

Twitching the rod tip back and forth as the mouse pattern swings on the surface provides an extra disturbance and helps convey the message of struggling prey. The approach is very effective as the mouse pattern pulls stout rainbows to the surface from a range of water types. Accurate casting pays dividends, as landing the fly right next to the bank or a downed tree is most effective. A take of the fly often comes in the form of the surface erupting into spray as a fly disappears into the vortex. But some grabs are subtle, nothing more than the fish simply sucking the fly down with little or no visible disruption, much like a feeding brown trout might sip in a drifting mayfly. In some cases it appears that the trout is just trying to pull the mouse underwater.

The river’s rainbow trout are beautiful. The heavy black spotting on their bodies earns them the moniker of leopard rainbow. The vibrant red stripe and olive back spots put the finishing touches on this natural work of art. Most of the ‘bows taken on mouse patterns range between 18 and 20 inches, with a fair number stretching to 24 inches or more. A few exceptional fish may hit the 30-inch mark, but most of the truly large ‘bows are caught subsurface on baitfish imitations or eggs.

Occasionally, a large, silver dolly varden grabs a mouse pattern off the surface adding variety to the mousing game. The dollies have their own style of chasing down the mouse pattern, as a visible snout slicing through the surface is typically seen before the fly disappears in a mild disturbance. The dolly varden provides a different level of excitement since they run larger, on average, than the trout. Don’t be too surprised if a 30-incher ends up in the net. The silver appearance of a fresh-run dolly looks a bolt of lightning when chasing the fly.

The stunning beauty of the river’s inhabitants compliments the awesome power of the Alaskan wilderness. Spending time far away from home, in the wild, is the ultimate way to disconnect from a constant bombardment of daily information, and reconnect to the forces of nature.

Life is largely about opportunity, and being pushed deeper into the Alaskan wilderness to find prime trout water was exhilarating—an encounter that would not have occurred if the king fishing had worked out. From a glass half-full perspective, this was a special experience that included the challenge of accurate casting to structure and the visible display from some of the most beautiful creatures in the wild.

Rick Kustich
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Overheard somewhere along the BC Coast, July.

Guide: Any luck?

Me: Another handshake.

Guide: Steelhead?

Me: I think so.

Guide: (looking at fly): This is too big. You’ll need to go smaller for steelies.

Me: Yeah, but I don’t want to catch steelhead. I’m here for chinook.

Guide : What the hell’s wrong with you?

Once upon a time I decided to go fly fishing for chinook salmon. Like so many of the other questionable decisions I’ve made in my life, it ended badly. It was a week of seized reels and savage beat downs.

It was exactly what I needed.

I emerged from that experience like Christian Bale from the Lazarus Pit. The next season I formed the AK47 Club, a loose group of fly-fishing masochists who revel in an annual week of getting their Asses Kicked “4 7” (for seven) days on a remote little coastal river near Terrace, British Columbia.

Every year we happily forego a potentially amazing steelhead trip for a week of angling angst. On chinook waters we stress about everything, even the stuff we stopped worrying about on steelhead waters long ago. My steelhead buddies don’t understand, so I don’t bring it up much anymore. I learned the first year that announcing your intention to go chinook salmon fly fishing is like mentioning you’re taking your wife to a swinger convention. Most won’t understand, and trying to explain just makes things worse, so it’s best not to say anything at all.

(Jeroen Wohe)

My companions on this little ordeal have always been Mike and Shirley Walsh from the UK. Mike has chased anadromous fish from the Kalum to the Kharlovka, with Shirley joining him occasionally, and most often on this trip. A few other folks have suffered with us as well, but when a Skagit River sage named Dake Traphagen joined us a few years back we knew our team was complete.

What makes chinook so special? On the fly they are hands down the most challenging anadromous fish you can hook. “Chinook are sheer brute force,” said Walsh. “Uncompromising, with speed and unpredictability that tests my ingenuity and tackle to the very limits. They are like no other freshwater species.”

Traphagen agrees. “Chinook are the closest thing in fly fishing to encountering a grizzly in dense bush. They can rip your gear and ego to pieces or just ignore you all together. Either way, they leave you shaking.”

Jeroen Wohe runs Skeena River Lodge in Terrace British Columbia, where he guides fly-fishers to trophy Skeena steelhead spring and fall. But he reserves a special admiration for chinook.

“Steelhead are great,” he says. “They’re the most popular gamefish we have in our rivers here. But chinook are, in my opinion, the pinnacle of fish. The size, power and brute mentality to survive and make it back to their spawning grounds is really something special.”

And just so we’re clear, when we’re talking chinook here, we’re not talking about the red booty looking horrors splashed all over the magazine covers like Hellboy. Those are fish that entered freshwater possibly weeks ago, and have deteriorated out of their prime. They make a nice photo opp for visiting anglers who, with all due respect, just don’t get it. Those fish may share the name, but they ain’t chinook. Not at all. When I’m talking chinook, I’m talking the tide-fresh, sea-liced, titanium-hued beasties. The real ass-kickers. Fish you’re afraid to hook, because even a 20-pounder could spool you. I’m talking about those ones. And here’s what you need to know to get them, if you don’t really value your knuckles and you’re up to the task.

Timing
Okay, so you’re at least a little bit interested now, right? So when should you go? “The first chinook show up in late April heading into the Kalum River,” Wohe said. “The run is small, but fishing can be excellent. The big push of Skeena chinook arrives in June and tapers off in July.”

You might wonder if June and July are favorable months to fish for chinook, given those are usually high water times on most Pacific Northwest rivers. Fortunately, Wohe said that spring runoff isn’t much of an issue and that it actually favors your odds of finding fish.

“You want high, cold rivers to bring in fresh fish,” Wohe said. “When rivers get too low or warm the fish stay in the estuary waiting for cooler high water. So June is the best time to target these magnificent fish.”

(Jeroen Wohe)

Tackle

If you’re going to chase these fish you’ll have to supersize your steelhead tackle. Ten-weight rods are standard. You don’t need to go long with these—I typically use 13-footers—but you need a rod with lots of power in the butt so you can really lean into these brutes.

When it comes to reels, bigger is always better. “Hooking one of these salmon is like hooking a jetboat,” says Wohe. “On most steelhead reels the drag won’t cut it. You need a large reel with lots of capacity and a high quality drag system.”

Your drag not only slows the fish, but a seriously tight drag might be the only thing that allows you to get a hook into them. Chinook have notoriously tough mouths. If you don’t stick them on the take you probably won’t get a second chance to set the hook. I’ve had so many fish take and leave the pool so fast that I’ve barely had time to lift the rod. If they stop—a big if—there’s usually so much line out that trying to set up on them is pointless. A strong disc drag system cranked down to Medieval is sometimes the only thing that gives you a fighting chance.

So, classic Hardys are out. I prefer big reels from Islander, Nautilus and Danielsson. These have drag systems designed for big saltwater fish, hold several hundred yards of backing and are not overkill. I clamp these onto my 13-foot 10-weights. Cable-thick Skagit-style lines help me turn over the heavy 15 foot T-17 tips and the big flies I use. My leaders are always 20-pound Maxima Ultragreen, thick beefy nylon that gives me the strength and abrasion resistance I need when pulling hard on a big fish that’s hunkered down in a swift water rock garden.

The Tubes

Chinook eat flies of all kinds. Big or small, flashy or subdued, it doesn’t really matter when they arrive on the tide. Chinook eat flies because they can. They can do anything they want. These badass fish have gone toe-to-toe with killer whales and prevailed. So once they reach freshwater they crash around campus like Brett Kavanaugh on reading break. They’re the salmonid equivalent of the Honey Badger, or Trump after the Mueller report. They just don’t give a shit. Your goofy fly is just in the way, so they kill it.

Speaking of goofy flies, I only use tubes for anadromous fish. Nothing else. My interest in tube flies started years ago, back on the Thompson River, when we started using larger and larger flies for steelhead, especially early in the morning. I ended up tying patterns on the longest hooks I could find, and lost a lot of fish due to them either bending out, or popping out due to the leverage caused by the long shank. Tube flies allowed me to use any size fly I wanted, but with a short shank heavy wire hook. When I switched to tubes, my hooking to landing ratio skyrocketed, and I’ve been a devotee ever since.

My friends Mike and Dake also use tubes for steelhead, for the same reasons. And I think this is especially important with chinook if you are planning to release them. I know some anglers who tie on very large heavy wire hooks—5/0, sometimes bigger—but they are planning to bonk their fish. I release all mine, so the smaller short-shank hooks make the most sense to me.

Chinook don’t seem too fussy when it comes to fly patterns. These days I commonly use a dark green tube with a black collar. Some folks go with purple, some chartreuse, while others prefer shiny rainbow hued patterns, especially near the salt. Over the years I’ve found the most reliable pattern to be the black over blue flies that are common these days with sink-tip steelheaders. Tie up a dozen of these, and toss a bag of 1/0 Owner SSWs in with them and you’re good for a week.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Presentation
If you’ve fished for winter steelhead you’ll have any easy transition to chinook. Cast, mend, take a couple of steps, and hang on. I usually angle my cast 60 degrees to the flow, and finish my mend with a high rod position, so I can drop the tip to allow the fly to get deep. You’ll often (but not always) find chinook in faster water than you’d expect for steelhead, so you have to work to sink your fly. With a heavy sink-tip, a couple of downstream steps and then lowering your rod tip usually does the trick. Once I’ve made my initial mend I usually just let the fly come around. I rarely mend after the fly is swinging.

For years I experimented with various chinook hooking strategies. Despite my efforts, my landing success was rarely more than perhaps 30-40 percent. After trying literally everything to ensure solid hookups, now I just let the fish eat, which is exactly what I’ve always done with steelhead. This seems to be the best approach, and puts more fish on the beach for me than anything else I’ve tried.

To illustrate, in June of 2019 I was working my way down a big run when the head guide called me on the radio:

Guide: “Dana, how’s it going up there?”

Me: Good. I just started in at the…oh wait a sec, I think I’m getting a bite.”

Guide” “Seriously?”

Me: “I think so. Yep, there it is again.”

[Pause]

Guide: “You’re getting a take right now? Do you need me to come up there?”

Me: “No, I think I’m ok. Oh wait he’s on! I gotta go, he’s on!”

Throughout this little adventure I had the walkie-talkie in one hand and my rod in the other, and I didn’t lift until the second “he’s on!” You can find an excellent online video discussing this approach (minus the walkie-talkies) by Googling “How to Set the Hook While Swinging OPST.”

Pro Tip: If you’re swinging for chinook don’t tuck the rod under your arm while you light up a smoke. When they grab, they usually go, so you better have a good grip on the rod, otherwise the hours—maybe days—you’ve invested in all this are lost, not to mention the possible loss of that fancy reel and expensive two-hander.

(Jeroen Wohe)

A Chinook By Any Other Name

During the requisite boozy first evening at Chinook Camp, the conversation can get lively, especially with my American buddies present. They often call these fish “kings” for some reason, which has never made any sense to me, given that their forefathers kicked out the British Monarchy a couple hundred years ago. It’s almost as if they didn’t like them, which is clearly not the case.

“Where I grew up in Alaska—where we know a thing or two about salmon—they’re kings. That’s it.” This from my friend Greg, a long lost, slightly younger “brother.”

“Dude,” I said, because I talk like Jeff Spicoli in Chinook Camp for reasons I’ve never been able to explain, “Kings are those dark, snaggle-toothed things, man. These are different creatures.”

Greg: “Tell you what, dude—you can go and swing for chinook. I’ll fish for the kings.”

Well, you can probably guess how this ends, but it’s still fun to tell.

Greg did catch a few kings—small ones, more like princes—and lots of steelhead, although if I have to admit, he did pick my pocket on the first day when he hot-footed me down a run I should have fished more thoroughly. Meanwhile, Big Fish Mike, Dake and me were either busting off big ones or getting spooled. And every now and then 25- to 30-pounders were coming to hand. Greg—who among other talents is an excellent photographer—would hover around us, camera in hand, while we suffered our beatdowns.

“See Greg,” I managed one afternoon while rolling back into the guide boat to chase another runaway downriver, “These are chinook, that fish bent out my hook after an hour, just to make the point.”

“Man, I really wanted to see that fish!” Greg said later, raising his voice above the rattle and clank of the old F-250 that was our gravel two-track taxi back to the lodge.

I looked at him.

He said emphatically, “That ‘chinook!’ The one that bent you out! I really wanted to see him!”

And with that change in lingo, the river goddess must have been appeased, for the next day Greg started hooking real ones.

One time, halfway down the Ross Island run, I caught up with Greg, who looked rather grim and was tight to something big. I opened my flask and handed it to him.

“Better now?” I asked, as he handed it back.

“Yep. There’s no nookie like chinookie,” he said, just as his reel started spinning again.

(Jeroen Wohe)

You don’t really ever beat a chinook salmon. They just decide to break you off or let you hang out with them in the shallows for a while. If you’re lucky enough to tail one they look at you with menace, like they’re plotting your destruction. There’s not an ounce of fear in their eyes. You are clearly not in control, and never really have been. The whole experience is intimidating.

Sound tough? It is. Hyperbole it’s not. Joining the AK47 Club is for those who reach a place where the only climb worth taking is one without the rope. It’s a strange little place where success and failure look almost exactly the same. Where one week can take it all from you. And one fish can be the answer to why you started fly fishing in the first place.

If you decide to take that plunge, all I can say is, “Welcome to the Pain Cave.”

Skeena River Chinook Salmon

 

When: June and July

 

Where: Terrace, British Columbia, on the Skeena and Kalum rivers.

 

Average size: These wild chinook salmon range between 15 and 60 pounds, the larger end being nearly unlandable on fly gear. But it’s fun trying! These fish can approach 100 pounds but don’t expect to hook a fish like that, let alone try to land it, on your fly gear. Forty-pounders, however, are possible on any given cast.

 

Gear: Bring your stout nine and 10-weight spey rods and a large arbor fly reel that holds mega backing. Sink tips are needed to reach these fish in heavy flows.

 

Booking: GFFI books clients at two great lodges, Skeena River Lodge and Skeena Spey Riverside Wilderness & Lodge. Both operations offer great accommodations, excellent fishing programs, and their dedicated guides know where to find fish on the massive Skeena and the more manageable Kalum.

 

Contact GFFI for open dates, specials and other info. +1 (888) 304-4334

Dana Sturn
Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn

I don’t care what’s hatching, so long as it brings trout to the surface. And last summer, while fishing at Northern Lights Lodge outside Williams Lake, British Columbia, my dad and I experienced one of the strangest and most productive hatches I’ve ever seen.

Sometimes watching fish can be just as fun as catching them, especially when they are rising for big terrestrials like looper moths. (Dan Favato)

We were fishing the Quesnel watershed—an area famed for its sockeye salmon run and the big rainbow trout that follow those fish upstream, as if chasing an egg-dispensing vending machine. Only this year the sockeye didn’t show up. In fact, the Ministry of Natural Resources counted less than a thousand fish in the entire Quesnel River system, down from over two million in previous years. Officials pointed blame at a large landslide downstream in the Fraser River, which created a natural barrier and prevented sockeye from reaching the Quesnel. I have my doubts about that assessment, but, regardless, without salmon eggs feeding into the system, the trout had to find alternative food sources.

Enter the western hemlock looper moth, Lambdina fiscellaria lugubrosa. Even with an average wingspan of 35 millimeters, these big, cream-colored moths usually go unnoticed by trout and anglers alike. But every 15-to 20 years their population explodes for a few years, which results in somewhat of a plague—it’s said they can turn a barn from black to creamy white overnight. These “hatches” occur in September and October when adult moths emerge from their cocoons and fly around the forest before breeding and dying. Obviously, some of these bugs end up on the water and, believe me, the trout take notice.

It took me a couple days to get dialed in on the hatch, because we were focused on the salmon egg/trout equation. While we were catching fish on egg patterns, particularly behind the few salmon spawning beds we could find, we were not “slaying them” as we might have during a typical sockeye run. In places where our guides and their anglers would usually catch 20 to 30 fish, we only landed a handful of rainbows. These fish were in the 16-to 22-inch class, but were not the bruisers we hoped to see.

While I was nerding-out one day, trying to match small mayflies, my dad was dragging, skating and even popping a Turk’s Tarantula across the surface. I watched as fish after fish came up and absolutely crushed that fly. But why? My dad loves fishing, loves catching fish, and has taken trolling to a higher art form, but a great fly-fisherman he is not. Why his and not mine? Stubbornly, I refused a Chernobyl Ant offered by our guide, continuing to match tiny mayflies instead. I also tried a mouse pattern and got a few fish, but my dad still dominated.

When we got to the end of our float, and after pulling the boat out of the water, dad passed me a wine bottle, an attempt to console my bruised ego. While sort of looking down at me through questioning and squinted eyes, he chuckled and said, “Another win for the old man. If this keeps up, you’ll need to find a new career.” I was shaking my head and glaring at him when just over his shoulder and downstream, a large rainbow soared through the air trying to capture one of those cream-colored moths. A minute later another leaped out of the water and snagged a moth right out of the air, like a surface-to-air missile finding its mark.

The following morning, as I made my way to the main lodge for breakfast, I noticed that the windows and sides of our cabin were covered with moths. Thousands of them. When dad wasn’t looking I discreetly plucked a few of those moths off the wall and put them in my fly box. Dad didn’t know what was about to hit him.

Later that morning I was digging through that box, looking for the biggest and ugliest terrestrial imitation I could find. I spotted a size-8 Tom Thumb that roughly resembled those moths and trimmed it to form. I’ve always wanted to see a trout hit a fly in midair, so I made a parachute cast to the head of a run. I didn’t get my midair connection, but the second that fly hit the water, a healthy 21-inch rainbow nailed it. During the next two days I fished big terrestrials nearly exclusively. I found that any sort of large terrestrial would get hit, but the wide-bodied flies worked best. Imparting action to the fly resulted in far more eats than a dead-drifted presentation, which explained why my dad had such good luck and so much fun while twitching and skating that Turk’s Tarantula. Interestingly, there were other moth species flying around and some of those ended up on the water, too, but the trout didn’t touch them. They only ate the Loopers and our imitations of them. Skating flies isn’t a novel idea in this portion of British Columbia—NLL guides skate flies throughout the year and enjoy great results when the fish are looking up.

In the end, I had to admit that “the old man” had it dialed in before I did. That didn’t mean I’d be looking for a new career anytime soon, but it was a healthy hint to keep my eyes open while fishing—in British Columbia or anywhere else for that matter—and adjust to changing conditions. On this trip the salmon went missing, but the moths arrived in force. And once we realized that the trout were tearing up those terrestrials, our trip went from “what could have been” to an experience we’ll never forget.

Gil Greenberg
Gil Greenberg is the founder of Gil’s Fly Fishing International. He holds a degree in marine biology and has always felt most at home on the water. At age 18, Gil bought his first fly rod and took it on his family’s annual walleye fishing trip. Just like so many fly-fishers before him, he was instantly hooked on the fly. To date, Gil has thrown flies at fish in over 25 countries, spanning five continents. Before getting into the fly-fishing industry, Gil served in the IDF and worked as a fisheries consultant in the Solomon Islands.

For nearly an hour the single-engine plane whines over miles of green, brown, and orange vegetation, intermittently divided by reflections off bogs, creeks and small rivers. Save for a couple small Inuit villages strategically set along the water, we pass over an entirely undeveloped landscape and absorb Alaska’s vastness.

Nearing our destination, about 80 miles south of Bethel, a waterway comes into view, winding through the rugged terrain like a ribbon thrown haphazardly on its surface. The channel twists and turns into the horizon toward the barely visible Bering Sea. From the air the Kanektok River looks slow and docile, but we will find out quickly its forceful and bursting with life.

It’s late June and prime time for fresh-run king salmon, chum salmon, dolly varden, and resident rainbows. On the ground, unfortunately, news confirms that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed fishing for king salmon this year to help manage returns and escapement objectives. (Authors note: this experience occurred in 2014 and the closure addressed a king salmon escapement estimate that fell below the objectives for the river. On a very positive note, the king salmon returns beginning in 2015 and through 2019 have met the river’s escapement goals each year based on aerial counting surveys. In fact, the 2019 count of 7,212 is at the very top of the river’s escapement objective range and provided tremendous fishing for kings, one of the best years ever. Fishing on the river was limited in 2020 because of Covid. The annual aerial survey was performed after the peak weeks for counting spawning fish, but the results pointed to another strong run of kings.)

While fishing for kings was the main purpose for a late-June trip, I always try to find the silver lining in an ever-changing world. And in this case more time would now be allocated toward chasing the river’s magnificent rainbow trout.

The trout are distributed throughout the river and can be found all summer, but this time of year, prior to salmon dropping a stream of protein rich eggs into the ecosystem, the rainbows take up the role of predator feasting on the prior year’s salmon offspring and other opportunistic meals. Mice that enter the river by mistake or on purpose become instant targets. Something swimming, struggling, and disturbing the surface catches the senses of a well-trained predator. Catching big trout on the surface is one of my favorite forms of fly fishing. Combine that with a large easy-to-see fly, while utilizing a swing approach, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

The rainbows willing to show for a mouse pattern are typically found in the margins. Soft cuts along grassy banks and near logs or branches prove to be prime lies, as well as soft inside seams created by the contour of the river or by small islands. Side-channels cutting off from the main river are also a favored area to discover aggressive trout.

Twitching the rod tip back and forth as the mouse pattern swings on the surface provides an extra disturbance and helps convey the message of struggling prey. The approach is very effective as the mouse pattern pulls stout rainbows to the surface from a range of water types. Accurate casting pays dividends, as landing the fly right next to the bank or a downed tree is most effective. A take of the fly often comes in the form of the surface erupting into spray as a fly disappears into the vortex. But some grabs are subtle, nothing more than the fish simply sucking the fly down with little or no visible disruption, much like a feeding brown trout might sip in a drifting mayfly. In some cases it appears that the trout is just trying to pull the mouse underwater.

The river’s rainbow trout are beautiful. The heavy black spotting on their bodies earns them the moniker of leopard rainbow. The vibrant red stripe and olive back spots put the finishing touches on this natural work of art. Most of the ‘bows taken on mouse patterns range between 18 and 20 inches, with a fair number stretching to 24 inches or more. A few exceptional fish may hit the 30-inch mark, but most of the truly large ‘bows are caught subsurface on baitfish imitations or eggs.

Occasionally, a large, silver dolly varden grabs a mouse pattern off the surface adding variety to the mousing game. The dollies have their own style of chasing down the mouse pattern, as a visible snout slicing through the surface is typically seen before the fly disappears in a mild disturbance. The dolly varden provides a different level of excitement since they run larger, on average, than the trout. Don’t be too surprised if a 30-incher ends up in the net. The silver appearance of a fresh-run dolly looks a bolt of lightning when chasing the fly.

The stunning beauty of the river’s inhabitants compliments the awesome power of the Alaskan wilderness. Spending time far away from home, in the wild, is the ultimate way to disconnect from a constant bombardment of daily information, and reconnect to the forces of nature.

Life is largely about opportunity, and being pushed deeper into the Alaskan wilderness to find prime trout water was exhilarating—an encounter that would not have occurred if the king fishing had worked out. From a glass half-full perspective, this was a special experience that included the challenge of accurate casting to structure and the visible display from some of the most beautiful creatures in the wild.

Rick Kustich
Rick Kustich lives in western New York and has been in the fly fishing industry for over 30 years. He is the author of Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead and Hunting Musky with a Fly.

(Jeroen Wohe)

Overheard somewhere along the BC Coast, July.

Guide: Any luck?

Me: Another handshake.

Guide: Steelhead?

Me: I think so.

Guide: (looking at fly): This is too big. You’ll need to go smaller for steelies.

Me: Yeah, but I don’t want to catch steelhead. I’m here for chinook.

Guide : What the hell’s wrong with you?

Once upon a time I decided to go fly fishing for chinook salmon. Like so many of the other questionable decisions I’ve made in my life, it ended badly. It was a week of seized reels and savage beat downs.

It was exactly what I needed.

I emerged from that experience like Christian Bale from the Lazarus Pit. The next season I formed the AK47 Club, a loose group of fly-fishing masochists who revel in an annual week of getting their Asses Kicked “4 7” (for seven) days on a remote little coastal river near Terrace, British Columbia.

Every year we happily forego a potentially amazing steelhead trip for a week of angling angst. On chinook waters we stress about everything, even the stuff we stopped worrying about on steelhead waters long ago. My steelhead buddies don’t understand, so I don’t bring it up much anymore. I learned the first year that announcing your intention to go chinook salmon fly fishing is like mentioning you’re taking your wife to a swinger convention. Most won’t understand, and trying to explain just makes things worse, so it’s best not to say anything at all.