Salmon River Chinooks In High Gear

On Wednesday it was still bothering me that my time fly fishing the Upper Fly Zone on the Salmon River the prior weekend had been unproductive. I was thinking of calling it quits on the 2016 salmon season and starting to focus my energy on autumn steelhead or brown trout. Then Thursday evening it hit me I hadn’t looked at the Douglaston Salmon Run (“DSR”) report all week. I surfed over to their website and within seconds of reading their Thursday, October 6th report, I knew what I’d be doing on Friday morning. The line in the report that got me was the note from a guide who fished the Lower Clay Hole that morning who said he conservatively estimated 1,000 fish moved past him. Throughout the month of September, all the charter boat captains were saying that there were huge numbers of marked salmon sitting just offshore. I knew the potential for an epic run was there, but after the last three years, you just couldn’t definitively say it was going to happen. Well folks, it happened.

On Thursday night I packed my gear up and was out the door by 11:30pm on my way to Pulaski. The DSR had been sold out for October 7th and 8th for over a week. I knew if I was going to have any shot at getting in there Friday morning I was going to need to be there before 5:00am when they opened the gates. If you get in line early, any vacancies left by season pass holders or guides are given out as day passes. I knew my chances of getting a pass were slim. I arrived in Pulaski at 4:15am and stopped in at Fat Nancy’s Tackle Shop to pass some time. I couldn’t believe how many fishermen were already in the store at this time of the morning. I headed over to the DSR parking lot around 4:30am. To my surprise, when I arrived, the gate was already opened and I saw eight guys in the day pass line. I parked and got in line as quickly as I could. Within ten minutes, I had a dozen people behind me. At 6:00am, the DSR attendant looked at the numbers and announced that 10 day passes would be available. I was number 9. I couldn’t believe it, I made the cut and had a huge smile on my face.

I got geared up and started my hike to the river. As I made my way down the trail, I could see that there weren’t many people positioned downriver. Everyone must’ve figured the fish were all on the upper end. When I got to the water, it was definitely the lowest I’ve seen it in the past five weeks. The water was running at approximately 180CFS and the water temperature was 58 degrees. Many rocks were exposed and the river looked like one giant riffle with occasional deeper pocket water. As I started wading across the river I noticed the dorsal fin of a Chinook gliding into a pocket. I stopped to consider getting my line prepared and then I looked further out and saw another fin, and then another. It was at that point I realized there were fish everywhere. I started tripping over myself to get out to the island I was wading towards. When I arrived I tied on a large salmon streamer and started casting to fish. I hooked into my first fish within seconds of throwing my first cast.

 The first Chinook I caught on the morning of October 7th.

The first Chinook I caught on the morning of October 7th.

The next two hours became the best two hours of salmon fishing I’ve ever experienced. At one point I hooked up with a feisty Chinook that was probably a 20lb. fish. After several blistering runs, I chased this fish downriver to attempt to net him. While trying to navigate the slippery bottom, I fell into the water twice. Then as I got close to the fish, I was at an awkward angle and he made one final run and snap! That was the sound of my 9’-8wt Orvis Helios 2 fly rod breaking in half. Typically I’d probably be upset at breaking that rod, but my adrenaline was through the roof and the fishing was so unbelievable, I chalked it up to the business of catching big fish. I’d estimate that I had 30 hook-ups and landed a half dozen big Chinooks by 10:00am. 

 The salmon that snapped my Orvis H2 fly rod in half.

The salmon that snapped my Orvis H2 fly rod in half.

 A fresh buck that couldn't resist a salmon streamer. 

A fresh buck that couldn't resist a salmon streamer. 

With no fly rod, I decided to hike back out to my truck and run into town quickly to grab breakfast and stop at the tackle shop. I hadn’t planned on buying a new rod, but with the fishing conditions, I didn’t have much of a choice. I ended up buying a Redington Vice 10’-8wt rod. I raced back to the DSR parking lot, rigged up my new rod, and was back on the water by 12:30pm. For the afternoon I headed down to an area below Joss Hole that they call “The Flats.” I stopped for a few minutes and watched the other fishermen. Any direction you looked, somewhere in the distance you could spot a rod bent in half as someone was fighting a salmon, and you could hear the laughing and hollering as they enjoyed every moment. Throughout the afternoon and into the evening I was able to hook-up with another 25 salmon and brought another half-dozen to my net. My Frabill net, which had been reliable over the past two years, finally fell victim to the sharp teeth of a Chinook. I found this out when I went to net the largest salmon I caught all day, a 40” fish that swam right through a hole in the netting.

 The 40" Chinook that blew a hole through my net.

The 40" Chinook that blew a hole through my net.

 A hefty male Chinook that helped break in my new Redington Vice 10'-8wt fly rod.

A hefty male Chinook that helped break in my new Redington Vice 10'-8wt fly rod.

 Eggs pour out of a hen as I lift her out of the water.

Eggs pour out of a hen as I lift her out of the water.

In the late afternoon I ran into a couple on the river that helped me net a fish. I commented on how amazing the fishing was and they said that for years, this is how the salmon run always was. But they referenced a flood that hurt the fishing for a few years. I’ve heard many theories on why the salmon run has been limited the past several years, but I can say without a doubt that this year, it is back in full force. I tried to take in the afternoon and enjoy it because I realized it could be some time before I experience something like it again. As the sun set on Friday evening, I started my hike off the river. While I was crossing the last section of the river in the twilight, I could see salmon running upriver from the Joss Hole. I stopped and put my headlamp on and there in the water I was able to watch two salmon spawning. The female was depositing eggs on the river bottom and the male was fertilizing them. It was the first time I’d ever seen this in person. It made for an interesting end to an incredible day of fishing. I’d spent five weeks straight coming to Pulaski and this was the pinnacle of the run. The Chinooks were in high gear and it was a special thing to experience. And on that note I called it a night, hiked to my truck and ended my 2016 salmon season.

 The sun setting on the Salmon River and my 2016 salmon season.

The sun setting on the Salmon River and my 2016 salmon season.