Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

At my home river they cut the autumn fishing season off a full month earlier than elsewhere in the state to allow a fall Chinook salmon spawning run to progress undisturbed. They assume mid-November through mid-December to be the spawning season, and so fishing halts a full month early–October 15th–to give the fish a chance. This river is narrow enough to cast across with a decent spey rod, and so the salmon would all be highly accessible to anglers.

But something I’ve learned in my general trout/salmon research is that a spawning run is not so precisely timed–the arrival of fish will chart like a bell curve on the calendar. The great bulk of them may show up within weeks of each other, but there are outliers. I knew for a fact that there are late arrivals when I saw a submarine-sized shape cruise past me three feet from my knees in mid-January last year, long after most of the salmon eggs would have already hatched. And so I reasoned that in early October I was likely to see a few showing up in the river a month early for the party.

So on the fishing season’s last day, chanting the age-old axiom “Ain’t No ‘Nookie’ Like Chinookie,” I was there at dawn. I’d prepared by researching likely salmon streamer suggestions and coaxing opinions from a handful of friends who I thought may have stalked the wily critters in the past. I tied up a couple of “Ramone Salmon Killers,” adding a few mild modifications of my own, and arrived on the scene with the biggest fly rod I had–my trusty 9-foot 5-weight wispy thing–which in retrospect was like bringing a noodle to a joust or a foam rubber pop gun to a heavy artillery war.

I rigged a leader of rod length that ended in 1x and trusted it’d be enough, added some shot, and put on one of the flies I’d tied up. A fellow fisherman, Finland-born Jyrki (pronounced something kinda like “Yurki”), asked me what I intended to use and I showed him the orange-and-black fly. Turns out he and his spey rod had hooked into a Chinook there a year prior, and he shared with me what it had hit.

Jyrki also had experience with Atlantic salmon–a smaller and according to him perhaps more easily tempted species, but it was experience nonetheless. He’d been faster setting up and had gotten what I thought was the best spot on the river today, because of its back-cast space, shallow gravel bar and access to a main channel feature that included a deep drop-off that’s usually appealing to fish. So I opted to move upstream. I reasoned that fish would instinctively travel the eddies along the edges rather than waste energy plowing up the middle…and again I remembered that huge monster that had cruised past me last January, while I was literally in the trees and within 3 feet of the flood-level bank. I found a spot near that place that had enough back-cast room to make a short 30-foot toss, stepped into waist-deep water about 6 feet from the bank, and by 8am was putting my streamer to work.

Twenty minutes into it, a tail fin that would do a sailfish proud appeared directly in front of me about 12 feet from where I stood. It was a big, dark Chinook, and I could almost have slapped it with my rod tip if I’d known it was coming. I was in the right place. A 15-inch rainbow leaped full out of the water a hundred feet out there, and I knew salmon were coming up in numerous places across the river. But I’d not yet had a strike…so remembering what Jyrki had told me about his experiences the year before, I decided to try a hot-pink pattern. Rather than remove the orange-and-black, I’d just add an 18-inch dropper off the hook bend, to give both colors a chance. But I couldn’t find any 1x in my vest or bag! Had to use 3x. That’d be enough, wouldn’t it? It was an idea that would cost me big.

I realized that casting was unnecessary given that the flies would always sweep to the same place, so I let them drift down, strip-retrieved them to within a dozen feet of my rod tip, then fed that line back out and let the flies drift down again, sinking…only to make the same moves again. When half an hour later the strategy still had produced nothing, I remembered comments I’d often heard–the theory that spawning salmon strike out of predatory instinct or aggression rather than to feed. Personally it never made complete sense to me, given that the long journey from the deep Pacific to a river’s headwaters must take incredible stamina and that any BTUs taken on along the journey would help a fish go the distance in strength and health. I didn’t question that their focus is no longer primarily on feeding, but I thought they must have at least some interest in meals they can scrounge as they go. But the “out of aggression” phrase kept ringing in my ears, suggesting what other anglers’ experiences may have been through the years—maybe if I anger the fish they’re more likely to strike? I switched my strip retrieve from pull-pause-pull to jerky-crazy-stupid-yank, pause, jerky-crazy-stupid-yank. On the third strip I snagged the bottom.

Dang it. But wait…the snag was moving out into the current. My reel started to sing. I was into one of the beasts.

I couldn’t stop it for half an hour–didn’t even know which fly it had taken. It parked out in the current and moved upstream, then out and across, then it backed down a bit, then up into the current again. It stayed well away from my bank. At one point it surfaced and I saw an orange bit of bucktail swinging in the air above it–so I knew it had taken the pink zonker streamer with the weighted eyes. But that also meant I knew it was on 3x (6lb) tippet that was at least a decade old. And by its tail size and pull and the doubled-over 5-weight, it seemed huge. But that’s all I could tell because the reel started to sing again.

All sorts of things go through your head. What kind of epoxy had I used a few years ago when I built this rod? How much pressure does a medium action blank apply when bent this much–more than 3x worth? Was my tippet more like 4x because of its age? It fought with such unencumbered power–was it somehow snagged? They say snagged fish never tire…and I’d been jerking the retrieve in 6-inch yanks, after all. And how was I going to land it? I made a loud coughing sound and Jyrki looked up from 150 yards downstream. I thought he might see me struggling and give me a thumbs-up, but he set his rod down instantly and hurried on up to me; I knew then that hooking one of these was not at all a common occurrence. I’d now fought it for 35 minutes and although my arms were about done-in, the fish showed no signs of fatigue.

Just then it decided enough was enough and started downstream. I was bumping knuckles trying to apply drag to the reel spool without breaking off the light tippet. Into the backing now…halfway through the backing, “zzzzzzzzzzzzz!” I knew I had to follow it. In an incredible stroke of luck I was able to get around the nearby tree without stepping into water over my waders. Jyrki was in the water with me now, leading the way, finding me a wadable path down. The guy was experienced. We went the full 150 yards–the fish had stopped just past the deep drop-off where Jyrki had been fishing. Nearly an hour now, it running to the far side of the river or parking below the drop-off, me trying to keep it burning its energy. Needed to tire this thing out somehow. It would get into the current, which was a good thing, but it was using that current to its advantage, which was bad–and my line tension was in some ways helping it. I changed the angle repeatedly.

It opted not to descend further into a very deep, very slow “hole,” and I don’t know why. Was there insufficient current there to help it pull against me? Were there other huge salmon, or maybe otters, in there, and it didn’t want to get down there in its compromised state? I’ll never know, but if it had done so and bolted down below that pool I wouldn’t have been able to follow.

Four other fishermen from up and down the river dropped their rods and gathered to watch the duel. At 11am, the 2-hour mark, I joked that I was “halfway there.” Other salmon, sensing a situation, became agitated and were splashing and bolting everywhere. I needed to put enough pressure on the fish to tire it out, but couldn’t risk popping the tippet. And my own arms and grip, because of the lack of a fighting butt, were all but gone. It took me deep into my backing four separate times. At the 2.5 hour mark I realized that the cheap but courageous copy-of-a-Battenkill-style reel I was using did have an early form of drag–a feature I’d never known was on it and had always poo-poo’d for fly reels but now appreciated greatly because it smoothed the pressure I was putting on this fish. Also about that time Jyrki said gently, “Well, remember the park closes at 7pm.”

I believe a strong fish like this, especially one not given to aerobatics, will fight in stages–this one certainly did. There’s the initial surprise that comes with the bite of the hook, and a move into strong current in an attempt to out-power its plight. There’s some early surface thrashing, trying to throw the hook. It begins to become more annoyed at the mysterious force pulling it than at the hook itself, and you enter the “seeing who’s boss” phase–power against power. At some point when that sulking down deep doesn’t help, it decides to make a monumental run. When it finds out it can, it keeps going. It instinctively uses the current to its advantage, which means it will probably go downstream. You need to stop it or turn it, by changing the angle of pull…which usually involves running down the river hoping not to step into a deep channel…or by applying more risky pressure, or by praying. Or all three.

It is said of the Chinook that, in the early part of the fight, any illusions you may have about being in control are fantasies. They’re brawlers; they’re too powerful. Pound for pound they’re the most powerful things you’ll ever tie into. They defy and mock with open impudence, open contempt; they lay waste to your baseless arrogance and you’re nothing but a weak joke along for the ride.

This fish eventually found a place to make its stand, in deep water near good current. I knew it was where the siege would end, one way or another. I had to tell myself not to overreact–we were evenly matched but I hadn’t lost the battle…yet.

Then came the phase in which it began to bolt back and forth to the limits of the area it had chosen, but not beyond. The river was much wider here and it made long runs to the far deep side, but each time returned, and what line it took I took back. I felt it violently shaking its head. I knew it was starting to get impatient, and reminded myself I didn’t want to make the same mistake.

Its back-and-forth thrashing got more aggressive and revealed more agitation, more frustration. Good sign. It made another powerful run to the river’s far side but again returned to its point of last stand. There came a phase of this fight during which it surfaced more and more, trying that trick repeatedly. This meant it was getting desperate…which meant it had lost confidence in its brute muscle abilities. It seemed just as powerful as ever to me, but I knew it could feel its own strength beginning to fade.

Every bit of line it took, I patiently reclaimed when I could. I began to realize I could drag it a bit closer to myself than it had ever been. Not letting it see me, keeping the mystery in play in its mind, I backed it toward where I might be able to beach it. I kept it swimming against line pressure and current to the degree possible. It had a few more weak moves left in it, but each one took it closer to the end. But it never gave up–valiantly it kept doing what had always saved it throughout its life–it kept swimming. It did that through to the battle’s end…and neither of us yet knew what that end would be.

At about 30 inches long, it would be far too big for my trout net. Jyrki stepped into the ankle-deep water and tried four times to grab its tail–each time it accelerated away, and yet each sprint was shorter and slower than the last. It saw him but had almost nothing left. Once it tried to get around him to the outside, but ran into his boot. Eventually he just stood behind it, behind its tail, a tail that still fanned it forward unable to go faster than the current it was pointed into…and he got a grip on it and lifted it out of the water…and after a duel lasting 3 hours 15 minutes he put the drama to an end.

 

It was by far the biggest fish I’ve ever caught on a fly, and might be my biggest catch in fresh water on any tackle, I can’t be sure. The fly was properly in the corner of its mouth and the old 3x had held. At 10 pounds it was still dwarfed by some of the other Chinooks in the river that day. The other fishermen were probably disappointed once we saw it, but I was relieved–I’d have had no chance of landing anything bigger.

I always release fish, and felt a little saddened that I’d kill this one, considering its heroics and its long story beating the odds from river to deep sea and back. But after 3+ hours of lethal stress it wasn’t going to make it the final quarter mile to its destination, and it wouldn’t have the energy to spawn. Along with Jyrki I acknowledged what the river had given me and the long proud life of this fish.

From this battle I learned:

A. Bring a rod up to the task of going against such fish–one with backbone and a fighting butt. It’s stupid to risk a little 5-weight.

B. Use a 15-lb leader, and maybe more. If I’d hooked into a 30-pounder this fight would have been over in ten seconds. Even 30-lb line could have treated me to some impromptu waterskiing, given the size of some of these fish.

C. Bring a big net during spawning season.

D. Have a chase path figured out in advance–if Jyrki hadn’t been there to scout the wading path ahead of me, I’d have been in literally over my head.

E. Come prepared with streamers of various colors. Hot pink is now on the must-have list. Chartreuse is probably well advised too.

F. Lift weights for several weeks before the outing.

A spawning run of a major ocean-migratory species is a deadly disruption–an invasion–to the small critters who call a stream home. The waters suddenly team with monsters so massive, so adept at predation and so boldly full of their own dominance that I suspect little locals cringe in the crevices for their lives. This was a very different river from the pastoral stream I knew so well.

And to other predators such as ourselves, a spawning run is a thrill to experience. It brings out the lust for serious combat in us, and the fights are well matched.

One more thing I learned: Being early to a party may not end well. Best to arrive with the other guests…and after any ‘open seasons’ on invitees have closed.

2 Comments

    1. Agreed, never too old…although I must be close. : )

      Thanks Jim; glad you enjoyed it. In about 2 weeks I’ll get back out on this river (when it reopens to anglers) and see if I can add to the saga with a “Late To The Party” tale. I’ve spent the last few months getting the right flies tied and right artillery set up for the task, so it won’t be another “5-weight and 3x against Goliath” clash, but maybe I can tie into one o’ them 40-pounders. Hey, a guy can dream…definitely never too old for that.

      Jim, are you initiated unto the Chinook? Any tales to tell?

      – Mike

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