Swinging for Kings

Sep 4, 2011   //   by Geoff Schaake   //   Cack Handed, Mojo  //  Comments Off on Swinging for Kings


On my rare (this year) and latest outing to the Salmon, Robin and I hit the
DSR  in search of the early
season chrome torpedoes called the Kings. 1.8 million Chinook Salmon are stocked
every year into the Salmon River only to return to the place of their birth (the
hatchery on beaverdam brook) in the fourth year of their life cycle to spawn, or
to be unceremoniously squeezed by a DEC worker. What isn’t currently known is
how many of the returning fish in the river are wild. There are estimates thrown
out into the world by just about everyone but who really knows. Well the DEC has
been out for the last four years to find out. In the latest report that I could
find, the State of the Environment
for Oswego
County, It says,

“From part of the financial settlement with Occidental Chemical, NYSDEC
purchased a mass-marking trailer. This has allowed the fin clipping of all
Chinook salmon stocked in Lake Ontario since the spring of 2008. The technology
allows, for the first time, all 1.8 million Chinook salmon to be fin clipped to
distinguish between hatchery produced and naturally reproduced fish. The Salmon
River is known to have reproduction levels of Chinook salmon in the millions on
an annual basis. Until now there was no way to know the actual survival rate of
these fish and their contribution to the fishery.  With the marking of all
hatchery fish this question can now be addressed.  Early indications from
sampling in the lake show naturally-reproduced Chinook salmon accounted for
approximately 31% of the fish caught by anglers.

Approximately 57% of adult Chinook salmon returning to the  main stem of the
Salmon River were unclipped, naturally-reproduced fish, while returns to the
Salmon River Hatchery, as expected, were predominately hatchery produced
fin-clipped fish. ”

That’s about all it says about the Chinooks so unless you’re into reading
text book type language about the environment you can stay here and read the
rest of what I have to say. It’s much more interesting anyways. So what you ask,
So more than half of the fish returning from the lake are wild. They’re still
dirty mudsharks that deserve to be hooked by any means necessary, thrown on a
stringer, cut up and put in the garden next year when you find them in the back
of the freezer right? Maybe but I witnessed some pretty cool stuff out there
this week. Just one day of watching an unmolested pod of King salmon taught me a
bunch about what happens when they enter the river, pod up and are actually
“Fished” for. During our day in the DSR, Robin and I found a nice pod of fish in
the Clay Hole. For those who have never been, The clay is a classic bend pool on
the inside of an Island Channel. It’s really only a few feet deeper than the
surrounding water but it’s just different to hold fish regularly. In normal King
Run times, it’s full of fishermen and the fish are usually running for their
short lives from split shot and estaz but this day they were just in there doing
their thing. There thing is a continual dance of positioning and establishing
Hierarchy in the pool. Once it’s established, the pool settles down into a calm
holding pattern. In this stage, you could barely see the 20 lb fish fin in the
current and I watched as Robin fished flies down through the pool with little
response from the fish. I could tell very clearly though, which flies the Kings
did not like. As the fly would swing through the pod, 3-5 fish would break off,
violently circle around away from the fly and settle back into position once the
“Intruder” passed through the water. The Clay Hole is one of the first holes in
the river so I knew these fish had not been pounded by fishermen, they just did
not like the fly in their space.

Conversely when a new pod of fish would trickle into the pool, the dance
would start over. At this point, and for a few minutes afterward, fish would
move back and forth, even nudge each other and reshuffle the deck. During this
time, I noticed that the fish would not run from flies and once in a while a
fish would track the fly briefly.

During my turns of fishing, I experimented with colors and sizes keeping an
eye on fish reactions. In my over-zealous youth, I would have just walked up and
roped a few of those nasty Kings with running line. This seemed a bit more fun.
Keeping a mind’s eye on the “Swinging
for Kings Bible”
The limited amount of information available on the
internet, I tried to keep the swings low and slow. I used a 15 foot 2.9 inch/sec
sink rate polyleader by rio and 3 feet of 12lb maxima. I seemed to be getting
down but not hitting the bottom. During one of those influxes of new fish, my
rod bucked a bit harder than the creek chubs that had been hitting and my reel
started singing. My new rod, oh ya, I was experimenting with the Buelah 11 foot
8/9 surf switch rod
trying to find a line that worked well, settling on the
Elixer 500 gr scandi head, doubled over and it was off to the races. I ended up
losing this fish in the tree that is ever present while fishing large fish but
took it as a huge success. It was a legit swung up king that bit. I just so
happened to have a Signal Light, tied on a #6 tmc 7999 hook.

It was at this time when we had a visitor. He was a nice enough guy but he
seemed to think we felt lonely and started fishing with us. It’s not an uncommon
practice on the Salmon but when there is fish moving, and the number of anglers
in a ½ mile of river equal 3, does it really make sense for everyone to be
fishing in the same hole? I thought so too but he was undeterred. I asked him if
he wanted to rotate with us and take turns, and he politely replied, “umm, no
thanks”. More on him later. I have some things I wanted to say but it was my day
off and I wanted to fish more. He was using a spey rod with split shot to bounce
the bottom…it took everything I had not to get preachy.

So with the 3 of us fishing the run now, I tied on a similarly sized Green
Butted Skunk. Only because it was a similar fly to the Signal Light and it had
the same colors.

A short time later, new fish entered the pool and I got blistered by another
king. A note on presentation. Both presentations we almost vertical, meaning
straight down stream, on a slow as possible swing. This fish the rod performed
again beautifully and sitting in the shallows was a dime bright King Salmon. A
quick inspection of the fins revealed that it was a wild fish. Too perfect.

I had completed what I had set out to do, catch King Salmon on a swung fly. A
fish with a notorious reputation of being closed mouthed with a need of being
snagged or “lifted”. I have been successful on kings other times, usually I
catch 3 or 4 a year on the swung fly. It’s what I prefer to do. It’s not as
successful but for me it’s much more rewarding. Every time I am successful I
feel I learn a bit about it. It’s definitely a different animal than swinging
for steelhead and even though I’m learning, I don’t feel as if I know anything.
I have some theories and they aren’t that much different from anybody elses.

1: Depth matters. You need to be at eye level of the fish. Kings don’t seem
to want to move up or down for a fly. I have seen them move left or right to a

2: Speed Matters: The slower the better. To achieve this, stand way above
from where you want to fish, use a long line and set up the longest dangle you
can. This is similar to swinging for steelhead in cold water.

3: Size matters: Size of fly on certain day matters but it varies. In low
water, I have done ok on small flies. In higher water, I have caught them on
larger popsicle styles. Bottom line, experiment.

4: Try different things and stick with what works for the day.

5: Don’t expect that what was successful one day will work any other day. Use
it as a starting point and go from there.

6: Try to find holding fish. I have been most successful on fish that have
been holding, not moving. If fish are moving through, find a spot where they
hold for a while before moving on.

Seeing a fish hooked up must have been too much for our new friend to handle
because he made it a point to weasel into what he though was the best spot,
blocking us from our rotation. We left at that point to find another pod. The
day was getting long at that point anyways so it was time to move.

A note to our new friend: What I wanted to say to you is: You bought a
beautiful outfit, a precision piece of equipment designed to bring you joy and a
new outlook on a great fishery. Get up here man, take that BS off your leader,
put this tip on and swing man…Get off the bottom and into the light. Welcome
young Jedi…But I didn’t…

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