Spey fishing for Chinook salmon
They're big, they're strong and they'll test your gear. The King of kings....the Chinook salmon.
It wasn't all that long ago that these critters were considered a no-go for fly fisherman. Gear limitations, mainly rod technology and weighted line constraints meant that getting down deep enough, connecting with a fish and not having your favourite prospecting tool snap like a twig were all tall orders.
That has all changed, and these updated tools now allow us to target one of the largest freshwater gamefish going.
Those who have connected with them on the swing will know that violent take as the reason they keep coming back for more. The fights can be long and any weaknesses in your knot connections, lines and rod will show themselves during them!
Below you'll find a few tips and tricks for gear selection and strategies for connecting with these monsters.
Rod - You will require a 9 or 10 weight rod in the 13'-15' range. You want something long enough to easily throw a heavy rig whilst being stout enough to put the pressure on the fish. Rods such as the Echo King are a good place to start.
Reel - STRONG. DISC. DRAG! Steer clear of click and pawls here. An easily adjusted disc drag reel that allows incremental adjustment within a wide range is your best friend. If you wish to see the fish you have hooked, you need to make it as difficult as possible for him to head back towards the ocean whilst avoiding the vast tension swings that can blow knots and straighten hooks. A good entry level, reliable reel is the Redington Behemoth which requires very little maintenance and has an excellent drag system.
Lines - My current setup is as follows (on a 14', 10WT rod):
- Backing - 200 yards of gel spun backing line - much beyond this and you've lost control of the fish!
- Shooting line - 115' of Rio Slickshooter - I use a combination of the bimini twist and double surgeons knots to create loop to loop connections on my backing and shooting lines. Always re-tie and test your knots before your trip!
- Head - 22' Rio Skagit iFlight shooting head in 525 grain - I have used Skagit heads on this rod up to 650 grains, but have found the iFlight can throw everything I need with minimal effort. When you're fishing 10 hours a day, your body will thank you for any effort saved in the cast! Always pair your lines with your rod and speak to your local dealer if in doubt.
- Sink tips - I use predominantly Rio MOW Tips. 12.5' to 15' of T14 up to T20. These are fast sinking tips that allow the angler to get the fly down quickly. In times when I think the fish are lying in on the edge in shallower water (generally early morning), I will go lighter on the tip to maximise the swing. I generally buy the standard Rio tips which come with welded loop connections for easily changing out.
- Leader - At a minimum, I fish a 20lb monofilament, at approx 6' in length. Don't be scared to go heavier as these fish aren't leader shy! A bimini twist is a good knot to use here as it has some elasticity in it and is a good shock absorber. For rigging your fly, see my previous blog post here.
- Note: Good knot connections and small knots are essential as you want your line setup passing seamlessly through your rod guides under tension.
Flies - Go for large profile and plenty of movement with a couple of contrasting colours. A bit of flash never goes amiss! The classic Chartreuse/Blue in 3-4" length is a go-to of mine in just about all conditions. I will also fish Black/Blue in most conditions and then Pink and Prawny patterns closer to the salt. It's worth holding a few smaller patterns in your box for clearer conditions, but the aim of the game is to put it across their nose and irritate them into taking it, so bigger is generally better! Additions such as dumbbell eyes and tube weights add some extra weight to the fly, but don't overdo it on this as the fly still needs to cast well. Personally, I prefer a bit less weight and let the sink tip do the work. Some tried and tested fly options can be found here.
For hooks, you want good quality 1/0 or 2/0 hooks. Owner and Gamakatsu are the preferred brands. Anything smaller than this and you risk the fish straightening the hook. Ensure your barbs are pinched.
It's no secret that Chinook like deeper, faster water. You will often find them occupying the seam between the fast water and a back eddy at the head of the run.
Having said this, it's a good idea to approach a run the same way you would with Steelhead. Especially in early morning, you can find fish in less than a couple feet of water, tucked in on the edges. In regards to moving fish, they will travel the easier currents along the edges, rather than expelling extra energy in the heavier flows. When you are in the run up (and after) high tide, it's definitely worth lightening up your tip and swinging those edges! If time and angler pressure allows, I'll normally work through with a T8 or T11 first, before working through again with T14-T20.
As you drop in at the head of the run, start presenting line in small increments via roll cast and letting it swing. Don't step in and start stripping huge amounts of line in anticipation of making those monster casts out to the seam. I made this mistake once and will never make it again: Having a large Chinook take your dangling fly while you have several disorganised loops of line in your hand is not a recipe for success! There went the knot and my fly!
Continuing the incremental increase of line length with each roll cast, begin casting out towards the seam at approximately 90 degrees depending on the flow speed. A Snap-T or Double Spey are my go-to casts depending on wind direction. If the wind is in your face, use a Snap-T to keep the fly upstream of you. If the wind is behind, use the Double Spey to keep the fly downstream of you. Obviously, any cast will do the trick, but these two casts will allow you to cover almost any situation and avoid any unwanted hook removal...
After your cast, throw in a big upstream mend and then drop your rod point. Follow your line with your rod point as it drops into the slot. This allows your sink tip & fly to drop as quickly as possible into the fish zone. You can also add a step or two downstream to give it a bit more time. You may need to throw in another small mend or two to keep the fly moving through nice and slowly. Chinook will rarely track across the run to chase the fly as a Steelhead will, so the longer you can hold it in front of them, the better.
At the end of the swing, don't be hasty in retrieving your fly. Start with a few small, slow strips to try to entice a trailing fish. Once you have done a few of these, strip in the rest of your line and make your next cast, working the run through a step or two at a time.
It's a point of personal preference, but I like to ensure there is no slack line left in my hand during the swing. If a fish takes, I want it to be straight onto the reel's drag system. The take itself can be extremely violent but can also be more of a gradual increase in tension if taken at the end of the swing. In either case, I want my reel and rod doing the work.
Chinook have very tough mouths so a good hook set is recommended after you are sure a fish has eaten your offering.
If you've reached this point prepare to buckle in! Once the fish knows it's hooked, prepare for a big run. They can take you well into your backing on the first run. Get your drag turned up to the point where the fish is working hard to take line, but not so much that you are going to let him take your rod with him! A low rod angle can really help the fight as you add more water tension to the fish.
Once the fish feels like it has slowed, start working it back in. If it wants to run again, let it! These are strong fish with lots of energy and trying to halt them abruptly will result in far more fly-less leaders than it will fish to hand..
When it comes to landing, ideally have a pal with a net standing by. Don't scrimp on net quality here, either, as you'll burn through cheap nets at an alarming pace on these critters. With rod pointed in towards the bank (and the net) try to lift the head to give your pal a chance at it.
Once it hits the net, follow best handling practices. If in doubt about these, Pacific Angler have a detailed video here.
And that's about it. Hopefully there are a few helpful pointers in here that get you out there chasing the big'uns. Tight lines!