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Fly Fishing for King Salmon
King salmon (Chinook) in the Great Lakes are unique creatures. Brought to the Great Lakes from the Pacific Ocean in the early 1960s by the Michigan DNR Fisheries Division to help control the overpopulation of small baitfish, this fish quickly became a driving force in the dynamic of the Great Lakes.
To help understand this fishery (fly fishing for Kings) a look at the life cycle and history of this fish is important. Adult salmon migrate from the sea, or in our case, one of the Great Lakes into a chosen river system, usually in late August and September. The female salmon finds an area in the river that has the right size gravel to begin cleaning and building a nesting area. The large surface area on the tail of this fish allows the fish to turn on its side and use the tail as a suction fan to remove silt and debris from the gravel to build a nest to deposit eggs. While the female fish is preparing the nesting area, male salmon are competing for the rights to fertilize her eggs. Once the nest is complete and the male selection process is finished, the female excretes a large quantity of eggs in the gravel nest. The male salmon immediately fertilizes these eggs and the female moves upstream of the nest a few feet and uses her tail again to move gravel from the river bottom to cover the eggs in the nest. This completes the adult female and male’s job.
The historical home rivers of the king salmon (Pacific Northwest) are relatively sterile of stream aquatic critters. In order to support their offspring and provide nutrition for them, Mother Nature required adult salmon to sacrifice their lives to provide for their young. King salmon die shortly after spawn and their bodies deteriorate in the river system to provide nutrients to support insect life for the young salmon to thrive on.
Once the egg develops through its stages and the young salmon emerges from the gravel as a swim-up fry, the young fish moves to the river’s edge where the water flows are calm. It begins to feed on very small nutrients and then insects. In a matter of a few months the fish develops through several stages until it reaches the smolt stage. A smolt is the stage in a migratory fish’s life that means “return to the sea.” Smolting takes place when the water flows are right, and the young fish is ready to make the adventure to a large body of water. This usually happens in April or May. Once the young salmon reaches the sea or Great Lake, it feeds heavily on insects and eventually other fish. It takes about four years or so before it reaches adulthood again and starts the cycle all over again.
Most fly fishing for king salmon occurs on the river. My clients and I have nymph-fished for king salmon for nearly 25 years, hoping that these fish remembered their youthful feeding practices. Occasionally they eat a small nymph or egg. This is a successful technique, but not very exciting. For years my buddies that use spinning gear have been telling me that throwing Rapallas and Thunder Sticks are extremely effective. They say that that the sight of a king salmon charging out from the long jam to attack a lure was off the chart.
I have tried many different kinds of streamers with fast retrieves, slow retrieves, heavy sinking lines, you name it, I thought I tried it. Kings would chase my streamers, and on very rare occasions a stupid fish would grab the fly. Not good enough when my buddies were turning 15 to 30 fish a day and landing 3 or 4.
A few years ago I met Marc Petitjean at a trade show in Salt Lake City. Marc is a talented inventor from Switzerland who patented a cup device called a Magic Head. I began designing a fly that would closely mimic the action of a Rapalla or Thunder Stick using the Magic Head. After many tries, I finally designed a fly that works well. The fly is called Ray’s Salmon Snake. I recommend using a 10-weight rod and a Scientific Anglers Streamer Express 350- to 400-grain line with the Salmon Snake. Does it work as effectively as a Rapalla or Thunder Stick? No, but it is very effective. We can turn many great fish and even catch a few. This is a great kind of streamer fishing. Think about it-a 15 to 25 pound fish chasing down your streamer in full view.
We are not sure why the king salmon chase down and attack these kinds of lures. We know they are not feeding. Some think that fishing for them soon after they migrate into the rivers ensures they still have their predatory instincts to attack another small fish.
Stop by our fly shop and we’ll show you these flies and ideas to help you on your way. You are going to love this stuff.
Schmidt's Salmon Snake Streamer
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