PUBLISHED: 4:40 PM on Thursday, May 25, 2006
Chasing king salmon on the fly

Photo by Rich Culver
  Spey casting to estuary king salmon under a setting sun.
Two hours into the falling tide the first king salmon of the morning gently rolled and dimpled the surface. Up until now, the estuary was calm and quiet with only the occasional cry of a few lonely eagles adding cadence to the rhythm of weary fly casters.

"Time to get serious," I muttered to myself. Trying to stay calm, I quickly pulled the trigger on my next cast.

Like a falling feather, my fly landed with grace just up current of the sighted salmon and soon my 4/0 Clouser began to swing swiftly in the ebbing tide.

Aided by the length my long Spey rod, I continued to guide the drifting fly, occasionally teasing the swing with intermittent strips and gentle pauses. One strip clearly got recognized as my fly rod suddenly dipped and bowed to the violent explosion of a leaping king.

King salmon (or Chinooks) are the largest of the five North American Pacific salmon.

Generally speaking, king salmon fishing in Southeast Alaska is predominantly a saltwater fishery. However, thanks to specific hatcheries programs, there are now select king salmon fisheries referred to as terminal fisheries.

At these places in Southeast Alaska sport anglers can now target these large and formidable salmon from shore using either fly gear or conventional tackle. Depending on the strength of the returning run, terminal fishery king salmon begin to show up in area waters as early as late-May and continue to build through the month of June and into early July.

Intercepting king salmon with fly gear is very challenging, yet by all means not impossible. Their sheer size and intimidating strength can easily splinter even the most expensive graphite fly rod or instantly deplete your spool of fly line and backing from their blistering runs.

To be successful at taking kings on a fly, much like fishing for any big game quarry, one must have a suitable plan.

From my personal experience this plan should entail knowledge of the particular watershed or drainage, an understanding of the region's tidal influence and proper gear.

Most anglers in Southeast will agree that tides play an integral role in their fishing (for example, when and where they choose to fish). So it should come as no surprise that successful king salmon fishing should follow similar guidelines, and that is, in fact, the case.

But which tides or period of the tidal cycle offers one the best chances of hooking up? Without getting to elaborate, the answer is both tides (incoming and outgoing) depending on the location.

The key is having an understanding of where you are fishing and how the local tide influences the abundance and migration of fish.

Photo courtesy of Rich Culver
  Author Rich Culver with a nice estuary king salmon.
For example, in some estuaries a flooding tide may move fish through corridors or channels that ultimately concentrate them in areas making them highly vulnerable to flies.

In other locations however, a flooding tide may simply disperse the fish making them much more difficult to catch. In the absence of local knowledge, it never hurts to fish through a daily tidal cycle in order to learn and note first hand what is occurring at that specific watershed or estuary.

Fly rods for Southeast Alaska king salmon must to be able to withstand the rigors of briny conditions and the constant pressure of heavy loads while enduring long sustained runs.

As a general rule of thumb, any fast action, or progressive taper 10-weight fly rod with a solid backbone will suffice. These rods come in standard lengths of nine to ten feet for single-hand rods, and thirteen to fifteen feet for two-handed Spey rods. Fly reels for kings must be large enough to hold at least 150-yards of 30-pound backing, and they should also be fully anodized to prevent corrosion from continual exposure to salty conditions. They should also be equipped with a fully adjustable and strong drag/braking system. Virtually all big game fly reels on the market today easily satisfy all of these very important requirements. And lastly, if possible choose a fly reel with a large arbor design. Large Arbor fly reels facilitate rapid pick up and line retrieval. This feature alone can be the difference between landing your trophy or simply hooking "the one that got away."

Getting your fly to kings requires more than just accurate casting skills. In my opinion, it also requires the proper selection of fly lines. The key selecting fly lines, is to match your line's characteristics with the conditions that you are fishing. For example, in slow moving flows, a slowly sinking fly line may be ideal whereas during other times when the tide is rapidly flooding or ebbing, a faster sink rate would be more applicable.

There are a wide variety of commercially produced fly lines available to fly anglers and each line has its own special, specific application. Learning the behaviors of these specialty fly lines and in particular, how they drift and present your fly in different water types and conditions, offers significant advantages to anglers who take the time learn fully comprehend this dynamic relationship.

Without debate, king salmon are the crown jewel of the heavy weight division for Southeast Alaska fly fishers. Their robust size and relentless strength pose significant challenges to any fly rodder-beginner or advanced. Although I am firm believer and advocate of wild strain fish, each June I must confess that I nervously await the return of local terminal fishery king salmon. It is their arrival that marks the commencement of summer and the beginning of yet another season of angling opportunities in Southeast Alaska.