May 8, 2010

Swing For Kings

I worked on this river up in Alaska for seven seasons. It is a special place. Home to all five species of Pacific Salmon, Rainbow Trout, Dolly Varden and Grayling, this river is an artery to all surrounding forms of life. The fish are the blood. From the Arctic Tern that flitters about,to the native eskimo people that settled generations prior, this river is a provider. Here, nature is intact and free to flow untethered by follies of man. There is a strong gravity here...

Duffy - Getting in touch

Equipped with the luxury of grocery outlets and a meager, but manageable wage, I am pulled here not to survive, but for other reasons. In search of a life more simple, a life more in touch with our extended family, I was taken by its gravity. The snapshot of the human eye can reveal so much here. The smells and sounds all add up to a surrounding that is in tune with itself. And in these waters swim fish. The blood. Sometimes really big, beautiful, chrome bright fish that, yes, are eager to take a swung fly.

Kings will take a fly. A swung fly. I realize that some places are more condusive to this style of fishing. This river is one of them. It almost seems like it was built for the swung fly. It is a fairly shallow stream, with soft riffles that fan out into even softer tailouts. The wading is very comfortable and it is difficult to find a gravel bar that doesn't fish well. Most holds are surrounded by smooth, steady current that makes effective presentation a breeze. The run is large and the fish are fresh. We would spend many days swinging within one river mile from the Bearing Sea. Fresh in from the ocean, these fish are quite rambunctious and they are even naughtier when hooked.

Unlike a Steelhead, that will at times, travel great distances to take a fly, Kings need a little more encouragement. If they are not looking up, we need to bring the fly down to their level. Enter the sink tip. As an anadromous fish angler, this could be the most valuable tool in your sleeve. To be effective with these tips is not easy and will take time to develop. Art and science each play their roles here, and when done correctly, a sunk fly encourages participation. If you want to pick someones pocket, try fishing down a run behind one of those dry fly "Purists" with a chunk of T-14. (On a side note, I actually prefer fishing in the winter here in Oregon because the added element of the sink-tip is far more engrossing. Taking depth into account and bringing the fly under tension when it matters is just plain robust. Anybody can manage an edible drift with a dryline when water temps are in the 50's. OK, sorry.)

Here in Oregon, I always hear people talk about King Water, you know, those real slow, deep tanks. They are in there. They like the cover of depth. They like to hold in slow moving current. Yes, this is true. And these pieces of water are definatley fished best, with traditional tackle, like spinners and plugs. It is hard to get down deep with a tip that is just dense enough that it will be in the zone and still maintain a livley swing. It is possible to swing this type of water, but it is difficult. Steelheaders know that Steelhead, like Salmon will hold here as well, especially in cooler water temps, but swinging flies in these tanks is just not as effective as presenting in shallower water.

Well how to go about swinging for Kings in the great state of Oregon? Hmm, well one should locate those obvious, slow, deep tanks that have a steady enough flow to work a fly. Healthy pieces of T-14 and even T-17 will get you down into the strike zone. These swings will be slow and tedious. If you find that you are hooking bottom, bring the casting angle further downstream or decrease the size of your mend and the amount to time you bow slack to the drift. Or both. Raising your rod tip after the initial mend will bring the fly under tension sooner. Finding the bottom is always a good starting point. Once you find it, you can then present to where your fly comes under tension and swings about 3 feet above the river bed. A problem with fishing these tanks is that there isn't much life in the swing. Once you come tight, try to maintain a downstream belly and steadily work this swing towards the hang-down.

Do not limit yourself to these tanks! I think that current speed, more than depth could very well be the most important factor. It is likely that you will never find these fish in quicker, riffle water like summer steelhead. But set your sights further down the run to where the current softens a bit. Look for current breaks off the deep, rushing channels of the river and acheive an effective depth before your fly reaches the hold. Look for those little micro-slots in tailouts that lay above fierce rapids. Holds do not have to be 15 feet deep to have residents. Drop her down and swing with confidence. Persistence will eventually be rewarded.

This past week while fishing on a Columbia River tributary, I hooked two kings. The water depth was no more than waist high, and the presentation was fairly aggressive. Both these fish attacked a chartreause and blue tube with a fair amount of copper flash. There was no nibbling here. One of the fish I got to hand after a fiesty tailwalking session. The other fish was definately in charge the whole time. A minute into the fight, I was starting to question the backbone in my 13' 8 wt spey, when the water exploded. She thrashed and thrashed and then she thrashed and thrashed some more and then she sped off downstream like a rocket ship. She left my hook behind, leaving it to dangle back and forth in the cool sway of the current.

Alas, a taste of Alaska in our own backyard...

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