Patience, Persistence, & The First 2016 Salmon

This past week I was checking the salmon reports out of Pulaski at least three times a day. On Thursday and Friday the reports were the best they’ve been this season, with talk of over 500 salmon in the North channel of the estuary. That was enough talk to get me in my truck very early Saturday morning and back on the road to Pulaski. Once you get the salmon bug, it’s hard to get rid of it.

 The full moon over the Salmon River on the morning of Saturday, September 17th.

The full moon over the Salmon River on the morning of Saturday, September 17th.

I arrived at the DSR parking lot at 5:30am. It was immediately clear that everyone else read the same fishing reports I did. There were 35 cars in the lot and there was a line at the gate waiting to buy daily passes. I parked, got geared up and went through check-in. By the time I walked the trail and got positioned on the water it was approaching 6:15am. I was in a good riffle with pocket water and there were three guys scattered 50 yards below me. The moon was full and illuminating the river. As headlamps started turning off, I glanced downriver and saw a welcome site. There I saw the backs of three large salmon breaking the water surface as they fought the current to move upstream. Salmon running through shallow water are like torpedoes. They create huge splashes and leave a wake behind their dorsal fin. And the great thing about fishing riffle water is you can see them coming. The guy directly below me was standing on a large rock and he turned and shouted to me that fish were heading to me. Sure enough, they were moving right into my strike zone. The water was clear but tough to see into in the low light of the early dawn. As they got within 10 yards I could see three large Chinook salmon gliding into the pocket water. Salmon will pause for a few seconds in this pocket water before continuing their run; this is your window to catch them on the fly. I had on a large black woolly bugger with a good amount of weight above it. I dropped my fly in front of the lead Chinook and he took it on the drift. I set the hook and he started taking off up river. It felt as if he was hooked well and then 20 seconds later my fly flew out of the water and he continued his trek up river. It was incredibly frustrating, but as veterans of the Salmon River will tell you, that’s salmon fishing.

 The midday sun put the salmon down deep.

The midday sun put the salmon down deep.

Over the next hour, a handful of salmon worked their way up through the riffles. A gentlemen working the small hole opposite Joss Hole hooked three salmon in an hour and landed all of them. I had several opportunities to cast to fish. I hooked up twice and lost both fish to bad hook sets. At 7:00am the fish stopped running. I spent the rest of the day walking the river. I walked to the estuary, had lunch, and talked with a couple of DSR attendants for an hour at the Lower Clay Hole. I didn’t see any fish move in while I was there. Later that afternoon around 4:00pm I walked up to the top of the middle section and around 4:30 I had a small pod of Chinooks come up the large run and move into a pocket in front of me. I had several casting opportunities and couldn’t get them to take my fly. At dusk I called it quits and hiked out to my truck. I was exhausted but also frustrated at missed opportunities. Salmon fishing is a numbers game and when the numbers are limited, each opportunity becomes increasingly valuable. I looked at the forecast and there was a 60% chance of rain for Sunday morning. I drove into town for dinner and while eating weighed driving home or giving it another shot in the morning. After evaluating my missed fish and thinking about the positive impact some rain would have on the fishing, I got a room at the Super 8 and decided I’d give Sunday morning a go.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    One of the Chinooks I landed on an Egg Sucking Leech pattern.

One of the Chinooks I landed on an Egg Sucking Leech pattern.

After getting some much needed sleep I was up at 5:00am, grabbing a cup of coffee and breakfast at the dairy and heading back to the DSR parking lot. I got to the lot at 5:00am and was surprised it wasn’t as full as Saturday morning. I figured a lot of people didn’t catch fish and headed home. I put my waders on, got organized, got my day pass, and waited for the attendant to let everyone through the gate. While waiting I realized I forgot my headlamp, which was a problem because it was still pitch black out. I decided to get to the river with my iPhone flashlight, but wasn’t sure how that was going to work for getting across the river while trying to use a wading stick. The water levels were up a bit but the light of my phone showed it was still relatively clear. I made it to my spot successfully and got settled as the full moon was trying to break through good cloud cover. This time there was no one below me. I sat down on a rock and started watching the riffle water below me. Ten minutes later it started. I saw splashing about 75 yards below me, first one fish, then two more. Then I saw what was unmistakably a giant Chinook come tearing through a side channel that couldn’t have been more than six inches deep. He made quite a commotion as he broke the shallows into the main channel of the river. I was excited. The fish I saw were moving along the far bank and I had no opportunity. All the splashing had attracted two fishermen from Joss Hole who worked their way below me. As they were getting set, I saw more fish tearing up the riffle and this time they were coming directly at me. They got within 10 yards and kept coming and then their wakes stopped. I was watching the water and then there he was, less than ten yards away in a foot of water, an easy 25lb. male Chinook. I cast my Egg Sucking Leech several feet above the fish. This time I had more weight on my line and no indicator. I watched my line drift and then pause and wham, he took my fly. I set the hook and could tell I had him solid. He immediately took off and started ripping line off my reel. He was 40 yards upstream in less than a few seconds. I was fishing my 8wt Orvis Helios 2 and it did battle. I moved upstream as quickly as I could and got into a hole above me where there were a half dozen fisherman all pulling their lines in to avoid getting tangled with me. I applied more pressure on the fish and got him to turn. Eventually I got him on his back and close enough to shore to get him in my net. It felt so good to land that fish and 20 hours of frustration left me when I saw he was in the net. Here’s a video of me right after landing that fish.

That salmon measured 35”. Around 7:00am the sun started hitting the water and the salmon were still coming in small pods. Not long after landing my first 2016 Chinook I had another opportunity and connected again.  I was able to keep this male from running too far upstream, but he got away from me downstream and almost ran over another fisherman. It was a good battle but I was able to land him with relative ease. This fish measured out at 36”. Another satisfying fish. Between 6:00-7:30am I probably put my eyes on two dozen salmon that came up through the riffle. There were a good number of Coho Salmon that never stopped for anything. When the Coho Salmon decide to run, they don’t waste any time. By 8:00am the running fish had stopped and I was thinking about my five-hour drive home. I decided that I was more than content with landing two salmon and headed back to the DSR lot to pack up and head out of town. On the way out of Pulaski, I stopped in town to walk down to the Town Hole just to see what was going on. There were maybe 10 fishermen. I watched a fellow land a small Coho and let his three-year-old daughter reel it in. That was neat to watch. I snapped a couple pictures, headed south, and realized I’d be back in less than five days.

 The colors of a Chinook can be vibrant when the light hits them just right.

The colors of a Chinook can be vibrant when the light hits them just right.

 Looking upstream from the bridge at the Town Pool.

Looking upstream from the bridge at the Town Pool.