Our Man In Canada
February 26th, 2001

King Chinook

By Rob Brown

In Alaska and other American states with Pacific shores Oncorbynchus tsbawytscka is the king. In Canada his majesty shares the name Chinook with the dry wind that whips down from the Rockies bringing unseasonably warm air to autumn days. In Skeena he is the spring salmon, named for the time of year when the first of his numbers begin to appear in the river of the Kitsumkalums, Spring, Chinook, smiley, king - whatever you call him he is the largest and strongest of the Pacific salmon with a prominent place in the dreams of sports fishers.

Jim Cult releasing Skeena Chinook

Like other fishermen, I'd caught springs with bait and lures, but sitting under the hot sun behind a forked stick watching a belled rod is more market fishing than fishing for sport. Casting spoons from one spot, though more sporting than still fishing, tends to be costly, and its still too sedentary a pursuit. For years I thought about bringing those leviathans to a fly. I had read plenty of articles about the exploits in Alaska, but these were invariably illustrated with pictures of fly fishers straining as they hoisted ripe kings the colour of fire trucks. Salmon guarding redds can easily be provoked to strike, but provoking them is like shooting nesting birds. No knowledgeable, ethical angler does it. No, the trick was to hook this fish when they were still clean and silver, new arrivals to fresh water.

In the summer of 1986 I set out after spring salmon in earnest. The first task was to assemble the right tackle for the job. Big fish demand big rods, I reasoned. In hindsight, I believe I should have purchased a tarpon, for the better leverage these poles have, but a ten weight, 15-foot Hardy Spey rod was handing from the wall of the local sporting goods store. Because nobody in Terrace [B.C.] was using one at the time, and because it appealed to my iconoclastic nature, I bought it and very nearly wore my arms out trying to cast it in what I thought was the approved manner.

To complement the rod I purchased Hardy Marquis, Salmon #3, a giant winch carrying a 40 yard double taper fly line and hundreds of yards of backing its manufacturer claimed had a breaking strength of 30 pounds.

Mike Whelpley, who had been ramrodding the Kalum Project where some giant Kalum Chinook are taken each year for enhancement purposes, told me his crew had found a hulking male during a dead pitch, that even in its spent condition, weighted over 70 pounds. Firmly attached to the hinge of its toothy jaw was a number four Green Butt Skunk. So, in this anecdote was evidence that some Chinook will take a fly, and, given the size of the fish, a relatively small fly at that. I assembled an arsenal containing this pattern, a half dozen General Practitioners built on three and five ought Atlantic salmon hook as well as a number of two inches vinyl tube flies in Green Butt Skunk dress, but with a few thin strands of pearl Mylar lashed on under their polar bear wings. Since the regulations forbid trebles, I broke from the British cannon and armoured them with needle sharp 2/0 bait hooks, choosing the red plated models in keeping with the red tail demanded by the recipe for Skunks.

The next hurdle was to find a spot where migrant Chinooks stacked up to marshal energy for the rest of their journey, excluding those spots where the current is simply too heavy for the fly. Unfortunately, Chinook often favour these heavy flows. I went through a list of rivers using a process of elimination: the Skeena was simply too big, the Chinooks, unlike their cousins, generally preferred to swim too far out in the river; the beaches of the Kalum, home of the biggest springs, where underwater during the peak migration of Chinook; it was the same situation on the Ecstall River; the Lakelse simply had too few fish - and most of the river was closed to fishing anyway. All of which left the Zymoetz. It, after all, hosted a strong run of springs, and, provided it wasn't too filled with glacial flour, had plenty of inside corners and long runs suited to fly fishing. Moreover, I remembered a day when Bill Burkland of Kitimat hooked a steelhead and a small Chinook on his six weight cane rod with a Muddler Minnow at the end of a floating line.

Finlay was skeptical. Gene Llewellyn downright disbelieving when I met them at Baxter's Riffle, showed them my outfit and told them my mission. It was a hot day. For the Zymoetz the water was clear, affording me two and a half feet of visibility. "If you stand in the river up to your knees and you can still see your feet, then it's fine for fishing," Finlay declared. "That's what Ted Rawlins used to say."

We didn't wait long for a fish to roll. I could see they were milling around where a strand of gravel lay at the rail of a rapid creating 50 yards of slower water behind it. The line was one of those fast-sinking models, 12 feet long. I'd attached a short leader of 15-pound and one of Colonel Drury's Orange prawns. In short time I'd ambushed my first Chinook. It hit hard, setting off a large splash.

"We got one!" Gene yelled to Fin.

The fish proved to be about 15 pounds. There were no jumps, just strong determined runs. It was much stronger than a steelhead of the same size. "They're stronger, pound for pound," Gene agreed when I made this observation.

For a week I fished this ambuscade, beaching 12 salmon. The largest was the most memorable. A little over 50 pounds he pulled over half a mile from Baxter's to the Old Bridge. Twice he came within inches of spooling me, once running the backing all the way to the arbour knot. For all the excitement, there was something distasteful about the episode. The fish was on for an awfully long time before I could get him ashore. The fishing was more like work than sport. If I could somehow dissuade salmon of over 20 pounds from taking the fly, if the places to fish for them weren't so few, and the right conditions so hard to find, I'd still go out after them each summer. ~ Rob Brown

Credits: From Skeena by Rob Brown. We thank Frank Amato Publications, Inc. for use permission!

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