This Week's View

by Deanna Lee Birkholm

November 26th, 2001

Learned Behavior

Fishing last week for our returning Chum Salmon was a wonderful release from our usual daily schedule (which has something to do with building and maintaining this website.) We all need to get out of ourselves, and I can't think of a better way to do just that than go fish.

Here's the set up. We usually try and be at our favorite local estuary at an incoming or just before high tide. The incoming tide makes it easier for the fish since it's taking them where they are headed. So fish numbers coming in on the tide is larger than on outgoing tides. Swimming against a fast tide is more work, and quite often the pods of fish just mill around in the bay during the low or outgoing tide. Outside any possible casting distance of course.

We have what are considered severe tides here, they can be as much as 13 feet on a full moon. The amount of water moving in and out is quite a physical force. The speed of the tide also changes with the phases of the moon.

Salmon are spooky fish, and prefer over-cast days, or at least a chop on the water to cover their presence. There is an exception to this. These salmon have a biological clock running. The longer they are on their run the more they deteriorate. Toward the end of the run you can see fish with pieces of flesh trailing behind them as they try to make the swim upstream. There is a point where the fish will make the upstream run in bright daylight - or very low water. It has become a life or death situation. If they don't reach the proper size gravel to spawn they will die without spawning. I call them 'ghost fish.' Unlike steelhead and Atlantic salmon, Pacific salmon die after spawning.

When we fished last week, we arrived just ahead of the high tide. (JC keeps a journal in our Tide Log so we know which times are most productive.) That lasts about an hour - called the high slack. There are several deep runs as the estuary becomes the stream bed. Fish being spooky as they are, try to get as deep as they can. When we begin fishing some of these runs are six feet or more deep. As the tide goes out the same runs may be only a couple of feet in depth.

How to fish it? Being an old steelheader, I fish the depths by casting upstream, throwing several mends upstream so the fly sinks to the bottom. As the fly line starts to bow, another mend or two is in order. It's the same method! It would have taken me a while to figure out how to make it work if I had never fished for steelhead. This may be the same method you use to fish a nymph. Of course one could add a little weight too.

Ok, so the water levels drop drastically and the fish are still using this run as their highway. Now what? If you added weight, take it off. Better yet, how about a different fly? One that will ride in the proper depth in the water column? That is the situation my husband JC created his Castwell's Chum Fly for. And it is exactly the fly we both used at the creek in these conditions.

How do you know when or how to do such things?

It starts with being there. You can't observe, catalog and acquire knowledge without 'doing it.'

All the books, instruction or websites in the world are not a replacement for experience. Being there. We all make a lot of mistakes fishing. To be kind you can call them 'learning experiences', but it is how we all learn. If we do everything right every time it really isn't nearly as much fun as finding the solution to a sticky problem.

The right fly, the right cast - the right place at the right time - is all learned behavior. There is just no substitute. Go fish. ~ LadyFisher

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