An Outdoor View: On salmon fishing

You can spend a lot of time, effort and cash in pursuit of the wily salmon, and you can have years of experience, but none of it matters unless you’re in the right place at the right time.

After many years of fishing for salmon, the only thing I know for certain is that they’re almost always on the move, either feeding or on spawning migrations. It doesn’t matter how much you study harvest rates, fishing reports and past weir and sonar counts. By the time you get to where you think they are, they’re usually not there. Even if you live across the street from a guy who lives on the bank of the Kenai River, and he yells over to you that he’s catching sockeyes like mad, by the time you grab your fishing stuff and run over there, they’re gone. OK, I exaggerate a little, but the point I’m trying to make is that finding salmon usually involves figuring out how to “head ‘em off at the pass.” It’s mainly a matter of luck and persistence. It’s comforting to know that if you stand in one place long enough, salmon will eventually swim past.

It’s discouraging to think about, but your knowledge and experience count for nothing if the fish aren’t there at the same time you are. Few words are more disheartening to hear than, “You should’ve been here this morning. We killed ‘em!”

To make matters worse, even if you find salmon, you can’t always get them to bite. There are theories for this reluctance. One that makes sense to me is that adult salmon, having spent at least one year in saltwater, undergo radical physical changes when they enter a freshwater stream to spawn. Salmon undergoing this phase don’t tend to bite as readily as they do after becoming accustomed to freshwater.

Another reason that salmon might be unenthusiastic about biting after entering a stream is the difference between the sea and the stream. Almost everything about a stream — the feel, sight, taste, smell and sound of it — would be a great change from the sea. The lack of deep water, alone, likely affects how they feel about biting. I can’t even imagine being a king salmon and having to make my way up the Kenai River during a typical July. Or worse, trying to spawn in the chaotic environment of a popular fishing hole, such as Big Eddy, Eagle Rock or Beaver Creek.

I’ve noticed that salmon will sometimes stay in the lower reaches of a river for a time, apparently either adjusting to the change to freshwater or waiting for a change in the water level or temperature. When this happens, they will sometimes all take a notion to head for the spawning grounds at once. While fly fishing for silver salmon on a stream near Cordova, I once witnessed silvers swimming upstream en masse.

The river had been low for a days, so the silvers had stayed in the lower end. But after one hard rain, every salmon seemed focussed on getting upstream. In places where on previous trips I had caught one on almost every cast, I couldn’t get a silver to even glance at my flies. I tried everything, but nothing worked. I was getting ready to quit when three guys fishing with spinners came walking up to “my” gravel bar and caught three silvers each, one after another.

One moral of this story: Salmon will sometimes ignore one bait, but will take another.

Another moral: A bait that catches salmon one day won’t necessarily catch them the next.

Still another moral: When you’re fly fishing for salmon, always take along a few spinners.

One reason I like fishing the Kenai River is that it’s always murky enough that I can’t look down and see if any fish are there. I don’t want to see fish swimming past, shunning my bait. And I definitely don’t want to know that nothing is there.

Much about salmon fishing remains a mystery, and it’s better that way. A little mystery keeps us coming back for more.

Les Palmer can be reached at

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