chinook salmon

chinook salmonGuest Blogger: Mike Vorhis, Fly Fisher & Author, FreeFlight Publishing

Yesterday I drove 7 hours total for three hours on a river. It proved to not be my preferred gulp of tea.

This has been a terrible year for trout fishing in California, for me anyway. Warm drought flows have rendered waters within already-not-so-easy reach largely unproductive. I actually gave up trying in the streams I knew, throwing that towel in way back in May.

So when I heard in mid-September that the Chinook Salmon were running on the upper Sacramento river, with roe-eating steelhead and trout prowling in the mix, my starved soul justified a lone 3.5-hour midnight road trip in a gas-guzzling vehicle, plus a 4-hours-of-sleep night and the cost of a cheap motel room, plus leaving my family to fend for themselves overnight (that is to say I used up quite a bit of ‘political capital’), plus of course the 3.5 hours of return. I got up to the river to find a scene so different from what I seek in a trout water experience that I don’t think it’s really the same sport at all.

The gravel bar is 150 yards long and big enough to drive a thousand trucks onto yet still maneuver them all around. I learned that “this is the place to be” mostly because it’s the only public access along this ~ten miles of river. Trucks–you know, gear-and-beer wagons–lined the water’s edge, along with sun shades and gas grills. The river is a good 400 feet across here, maybe more. Anglers were positioned every forty-point-zero feet in an unbroken line, just as far out into the current as they could possibly get without being in over their heads or swept off their feet. Using spinning rigs and looking for all the world like pier fishermen casting far out into the salt, they were heaving 50-lb braided line out to the middle with the help of two full ounces of lead. A 15-foot 20-lb-test leader extended from the sinker to a bit of reddish yarn and a big-barbed hook festooned with “beads.”

While one may expect shoulder-to-shoulder waves of anglers on opening day along rivers in places like the USA’s densely populated East Coast, such combat fishing scenes seem out of place in the limitless expanse of the Great American West, at least to me. I came out here many decades ago for elbow room–for wilderness–not to hear powerful vehicle engines exploding to life at water’s edge and throaty speedboats roaring up and down the river in front of me, and not to have to crank like a madman and back out of the water whenever the words “fish on!” are croaked from my right.

My 150gr sink tip line didn’t have a snowball’s chance of extending even half the distance I needed to reach the channel the migratory fish were following. I tried to convince myself that there might be steelhead stragglers between me and that channel, but it was a pipe dream. I knew I should have been on a gravel bar in a more narrow part of the river…but I’d have had to somehow get to one. I tried to get creative by wading well upstream to a shaded area near the bank, but that wasn’t where fish wanted to be either.

I did meet some very nice people and get a glimpse of a different kind of fishing. These guys know their world, no question–they know exactly how to land huge salmon without a net, and they have their system down to an art. I watched a few of them hook sizeable California Suckers and toss them up on the bank “because they eat eggs.” I heard about freezers full of fish pulled from favorite stocked lakes in the region. I listened for methods and theories that might differ from “yarn and beads” but (other than bait-soaking) heard none–suffice it to say the whole varied, cerebral, individual match-the-natural-food academic fascination wasn’t in high evidence…probably everyone simply accepted and used the one rig they knew could get fish on.

“So…you put beads on the hook to imitate salmon eggs.”

“No idea, man, all I know is they work.”

A noteworthy plus was that this style of fishing afforded me ready access to my own cooler and I was able to medicate away my general disappointment with an ice-cold “breakfast beer.”

Despite the fact that over three hours I saw several salmon lost and three large ones landed (including a monstrous dark red kipe-jawed thing the size of a small pony that looked straight out of the Alaskan wilderness, took more than 40 minutes to land, and kept seven or eight other guys out of the water for that entire time), I have to recognize that the admittedly fascinating scene still lacked a few things I crave out of a morning’s fishing. I actually found myself contemplating whether I’d rather be on more secluded water with herons and otters and little hatches of mayflies EVEN IF I KNEW THE WATER WAS MOSTLY BARREN OF FISH…and you might be surprised at my conclusion.

This was a different world. It was social and held the promise of a shot at real poundage…and yes, it was fishing. But I haven’t rushed to mark the place permanently on my fishing map. I’ve discovered that the eternal quest for length and girth isn’t really the main thing to me–that the prospect of harvesting a month’s worth of meat on a single hook-up means a little less to me than gurgle and sparkle and rises, even of fingerlings. While fly fishing can be adapted to many different situations, I think it was born primarily for smaller ecosystems and more intimate experiences. That’s just my guess.

So now there’s one spot along that gravel bar shoreline, along that line of skilled hopefuls, where there’s not 40 but 80 feet of room between fishermen. Yes, I’ve vacated my spot. Now don’t everybody jump in at once….


  1. Mike, there is no joy in combat fishing, no matter what the target is, how big or small the water or how colorful the anglers are. You captured the agony of it very well.

  2. Agony…what a great word. I should have used that in the article. Or maybe de-misera-frustro-beer-spitting-dirt-kicking-flation. Yep, that one might have done it too.

    – Mike

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