Second Chances on The Salmon River

Last Thursday night I finished up work around 5:00pm and headed to Pulaski for the third weekend in a row. To say I had high expectations would be an understatement. On Thursday afternoon the Douglaston Salmon Run (“DSR”) posted a report that their river patrol had spotted hundreds of salmon making their way toward the river at the lower property line. I figured this was finally it, the epic run that was going to see all the Chinook and Coho salmon stacked in the estuary move through the Lower Clay and head upriver.

I arrived in Pulaski late Thursday night and stayed at the Deer Creek Motel on Rt. 3. No sooner had I unpacked my gear and hopped into bed and it was 4:00am and I was back on my feet following the early morning Pulaski routine. Upon arriving at the DSR parking lot early Friday morning I was greeted with the most fishermen I’ve seen at the DSR this season. By the time I got my day pass, made it through the gate and settled on my piece of water, it had started to mist and rain. I pulled my rain jacket hood up over my head and cinched it tight, realizing there was nowhere else I’d rather be at that moment. 

As a cloudy and rainy daybreak came I could see that there were a lot of fishermen on the river. Upstream and downstream I could see fishermen patiently waiting. Like the weekend before, as light broke on the horizon, I saw splashing in the distance and it wasn’t long before I saw a Chinook salmon making its way through the riffle below me. He passed me without giving me an opportunity. In the early morning you are at a disadvantage because it is too early to use your polarized glasses and the fish can slip into pockets unnoticed. Salmon started consistently coming through the riffle, but many would seem to disappear when they got just below me, trading a splashy run for silent movement under the surface.

At one point I saw a good-sized Chinook just briefly before it entered a pocket in front of me. I took a chance and dead drifted my Blue Estaz Stonefly pattern through the seam. After several casts my line stopped and I was stuck. I pulled on my line with no success and waded out to free my fly rig. As I waded into the riffle, I pulled on my rod only to see the large form of a salmon rise as I pulled on my rod. I had a fish on and didn’t realize it. When the fish suddenly noticed I was there, it whipped around and headed downriver making a scene and disturbance that got the attention of everyone in the riffle. The fish ran 50 yards and the line broke without giving me a chance. Disappointed I went back to my post and waited for another.

 The hen I caught while it ran tight to the bank.

The hen I caught while it ran tight to the bank.

Later that morning as the sunlight started hitting the water, the fish started running tight to the banks. I watched a Chinook hen (female) sneak along a bank behind me towards a deep pool. The other gentlemen fishing the area missed that the fish paused to rest in a pocket that couldn’t have been more than a foot deep and a few inches off the bank. I kept my eye on her position and walked over. I threw a Crystal Egg Sucking Leach and on my second drift the fish took the fly and she splashed the rest of the way up the riffle into the pool where I briefly fought and then netted her. It was my first fish of the weekend and it felt good to land her. I had several other opportunities leading up to lunch on Friday, but with no hook-ups.

 Meeting Mike Haines in the DSR parking lot at lunch time on Friday.

Meeting Mike Haines in the DSR parking lot at lunch time on Friday.

At lunchtime, I met my fishing buddy Mike Haines in the DSR parking lot. Mike had never fished for salmon before and was hoping to use the weekend to get his first picture with a salmon. Within ten minutes of being on the water, I had Mike in the position to hook his first Chinook. Unfortunately the fish didn’t follow the script and we couldn’t get him on the line. During the afternoon while exploring downriver, I stumbled onto a large Chinook buck (male) that was lying in the slack water behind a large rock. After a couple of drifts he took my fly and he gave me an excellent fight on my 8wt. He took me downstream and I was finally able to land him in a shallow run. Here is a video of me lifting that fish out of the water just after catching him. He was the largest fish I caught over the weekend, measuring close to 40”. What a fight, just an incredible fish

That evening, Mike and I explored some areas upstream and Mike had a couple of close encounters with Salmon but couldn’t find a fish that wanted to bite a fly. On our walk out at dark, we observed quite a few salmon running upstream in the upper section of the DSR property.

On Friday night our buddy Matt Fuddy joined us. Matt is actually the guy I credit with first getting a fly rod in my hands. Matt loves fly fishing almost as much as I do so it was fun to have him come into town. Like Mike, this was Matt’s first time to Pulaski and the first time he was going to be fishing for salmon. Saturday morning came quickly and the alarm at 4:00am was hard to wake-up to but Matt’s enthusiasm to see the river for the first time got me moving. After following the morning routine of coffee and breakfast sandwiches at the Byrne Dairy, all three of us were getting geared up in the DSR lot. The stars were covering the sky as we got out of my truck and we all commented on how many cars were in the lot. The shift to colder temperatures was immediately noticeable. Overnight the temps had dropped almost ten degrees and the air temps were 40 degrees. It felt like autumn, maybe even winter. We all figured this would probably have a positive effect on the fish movement so we didn’t complain, however, none of us had brought clothing for 40-degree temps. After getting through the gate, we headed to the middle section of the run and found some good riffle water to post up on. As light crept onto the water, it was apparent the water temps were still in the high fifties. The cold air hitting the warm water was causing a fog to hover on the surface. It was a surreal scene to take in as the sun rose over blue skies and fishermen were shrouded for as far as you could see in fog. The fish movement on Saturday morning was disappointingly slow. A fish moved through the riffle here and there but I counted three by 7:00am.

 The early morning fog on the Salmon River on Saturday morning.

The early morning fog on the Salmon River on Saturday morning.

The fishing was so slow that by 9:00am I had convinced the guys to take a walk to the estuary with me. We hiked downstream and didn’t see many guys hooking up with fish on the way. When we arrived at the bottom of the DSR property, there were maybe a dozen fishermen spread out hoping to catch the sight of fresh salmon coming up the run from the Lower Clay Hole. Matt and I decided to walk out into the estuary to watch a small group of fishermen that were fishing below a large group of boats. I was interested to see if you could actually see these fresh salmon in large pods swimming around in the estuary. No sooner had we made our way out to this group of spin fishermen, and we were watching them all hooking fish. These salmon were very fresh and were leaping all the way out of the water after being hooked. It was awesome to watch. Eventually I saw pods of 10 or more salmon swimming in circles in the estuary water. At one point Matt had a large Chinook turn around and bite his fly. The fish took off, took one giant leap out of the water and threw Matt’s hook. He was incredibly disappointed. The rest of the day was very uneventful with one exception. At 4:00pm I hooked into a good Chinook in the river using a Pink Deceiver pattern. This fish led me on a battle that covered approximately 70 yards and lasted forty minutes. This fight was so intense that I was second-guessing ever using an 8wt for salmon again. We first had a 10-minute battle that ended in the buck throwing my fly. After the first fight, he gave me a second chance when he stayed in the riffle and bit my Pink Deceiver a second time. Eventually I did land the fish and we measured and weighed him. He was a good fish weighing 21lbs. and measuring 38” in length. That evening we sat on the river until dark and we didn’t see a single fish make a run up the middle section.

 Mike Haines and I after the 40 minute battle with the male Chinook.

Mike Haines and I after the 40 minute battle with the male Chinook.

On Sunday morning we hadn’t intended to fish due to the long ride home, but Matt was driven by the idea of hooking up and landing a Chinook. I understood where he was coming from because I’d been there and decided I’d stay and fish the morning with him. Mike Haines had decided he’d had enough of chasing salmon and decided to sleep in and head home early. On Sunday morning it was 39 degrees at 4:00am in the morning. At 6:15am Matt and I were back on the water. We immediately knew this was going to be a better day. While standing in the darkness, our headlamps shining on the water revealed several large Chinooks working their way upstream. As the dawn came we dealt with fog like the day before, but this time the salmon were moving well. It was an awesome thing to see. By 7:00am I was able to hook up with a good buck and land him in my net.

 The beautiful buck I landed on Sunday morning.

The beautiful buck I landed on Sunday morning.

By 9:00am the running fish had slowed and Matt was starting to feel the heat of “if you want to catch a salmon, you better do it soon—the clock is ticking.” I suggested we head just a little further downstream to the Flats. Not long after we moved to the Flats, I noticed several salmon running a very shallow riffle below me. I took up position and had multiple chances on good Chinooks. After the third one passed me, I shouted for Matt and got him over there. For the next two hours, Matt and I experienced a spectacular run of Chinook and Coho salmon.

I hooked into five different fish and lost all of them to broken lines. Matt had a similar experience, but it was more painful for him to be losing fish because he hadn’t ever landed one. Eventually I spotted a good Chinook salmon in a side current. I was able to get him to take my Deceiver and he led me on a crazy run downstream that included having to crawl under a fallen tree to land him.

 The Chinook that ran downstream and took me under a fallen tree.

The Chinook that ran downstream and took me under a fallen tree.

At 1:00pm I walked up and told Matt we needed to head out so that I could make it home at a reasonable time. He asked for one more chance to walk out and look for a fish. No sooner had he said that and a gentlemen downstream started shouting about fish coming. I looked down and saw a big Chinook hen make her way into the middle of the river and then move through the water closer to Matt. I was packing my stuff up and getting ready to shut down the GoPro when I heard Matt say, “I got her.” I saw Matt carefully trying to fight the fish, but the hookup looked solid. I got out the GoPro and started shooting footage. Matt fought that fish for five to ten minutes and then suddenly just like it started, his line went limp and I heard “no” shouted in desperation. Matt was really disappointed. I realized the fish didn’t move far. I encouraged Matt to stay after her, because salmon will sometimes bite a second or third time after a long fight. Matt put several drifts in front of the fish and amazingly enough the salmon opened her mouth and inhaled Matt’s fly.  I couldn’t believe this fish had taken the same fly again. This time Matt had her hooked well in the mouth. I waded out and decided I was going to do everything I could to get that fish in my net. I walked up behind the fish and at one point had her jump out of the net. Matt’s line ran across my net and came within seconds of breaking. Somehow Matt’s line survived and I was able to get the net positioned just right to see the salmon turn and run into the net. Matt shouted at the top of his lungs “yes.” He was so excited and it was a pleasure for me to be there and see Matt catch his first salmon. He was thrilled.

 Matt was all smiles after landing his first Salmon River Chinook.

Matt was all smiles after landing his first Salmon River Chinook.

As I was taking a picture, Matt said, “It's amazing that yesterday you had a fish and today I had one, and we both lost them but we were given opportunities to catch them a second time.” And I said it is amazing, they both gave us second chances. And it hit me that just like those fish gave Matt and I second chances at success, maybe some times in life we owe it to people to give them second chances to win and find redemption.