Sep 11, 2014

Klickitat River Mid Season with John Garrett


In my last blog article (John Garrett's Guide to Early Season Steelheading on the Klickitat), I mainly focused on swinging flies for Steelhead on the Klickitat River and approaching it from a Steelheads point of view. I touched on the clarity issues the Klickitat River can often have and I gave some insight to selecting the right fly profile and color. I wanted to follow that article up with a Mid-Season, early Fall article and focus on swinging flies for Chinook on the Klickitat. Bear in mind that steelhead will still be in the system but because of the numbers of Chinook they will become harder to catch.

Early predictions for this year’s fall Chinook run boasted numbers too big to ignore with a ship-load of fish returning, I thought it fitting to include Chinook this time around.  In other words, if you’re going to head over to swing for steelhead in September and early Oct, you have an excellent chance at hooking Chinook.  Andrew, a fellow Gorge Fly Shop employee and swinging addict, just scored a mint bright Chinook on the swing last night right before dark.  To be bluntly honest, if the river gets the return they’re predicting, catching a steelhead on the swing will be difficult because the Chinook will dominate the runs.  If you want to focus on steelhead alone, you’re going to have to search for small buckets where the steelhead will be hiding from the big boys.  That said, I’ve caught some “HOG” Steelhead right in the middle of the Chinook.  I think it’s because they think they’re big enough and bad enough to hang out with them.

Typically during the heat of the Chinook run, you will hook fewer steelhead on the swing because they are nervous and hiding out.  I have literally seen steelhead so tight up against the bank and tucked under the edge of a rock just to avoid the bigger, aggressive Chinook.   I have witnessed Chinook chasing steelhead down and nipping at them.  Later on when the salmon are staged up and spawning, I’ve seen steelhead sit right behind them just waiting for a stray egg to float by.


I once had a client ask me how I could tell the difference between a steelhead and a Chinook just by looking at them in the water as we floated by.  His question came at a great time because we were just about to come to the tailout of a run that traditionally held a number of Chinook and with the water as clear as it was, it was super easy to spot them.  We were nymph fishing at the time (don’t hold that against me! – I had kids to feed) and we were using Trout Beads.  You could see the beads as we drifted into the tailout, it was that clear, and as we started to see the fish and as I started physically pointing out the Chinook, I would say…”there’s a Chinook, there’s a Chinook, that’s a Chinook, and that one right behind them is a Steelhead!” and no sooner did steelhead come out of my mouth and that steelhead, like a rocket, took the clients Trout Bead as if on cue.  We got to see the whole thing go down!  That steelhead ended up being a hatchery Steelhead that we harvested and when we cleaned her out, her stomach had quite a few salmon eggs in her belly.  Who says, Steelhead don’t eat when they enter fresh water?

A Fall Chinook that couldn’t stand this Orange, Red and Black Mojo invading its home!


Fall Chinook weren't always in the Klickitat River and if my memory serves me right, we started stocking Fall Chinook or Upriver Brights (URB’s) in 1985 or 1987.  Since then for the most part the URB’s have done well, although I can remember in years past they were much bigger in average size than they have been in the past few years.  We get the Chinook smolts from Hanford Reach and on average four million smolts are planted yearly.


As I sit and type this out, in the past three days, the fish counts over Bonneville Dam have exploded.  A total of 113,397 Fall Chinook alone have made it past the counting window.  In addition to the Fall Chinook making their way up stream there were also a total of 19,300 hatchery and wild steelhead joining in the journey.  The warm Columbia River temperatures have forced the returning Chinook to be a bit later than normal and with no rain to speak of, the Klickitat is becoming low and clear which in my experience can make for tough fishing conditions.  On the Klickitat River one of the toughest conditions to catch a Chinook is not the off colored water we spoke of in my last blog article, but the low clear conditions that we are facing now.

If you will, Imagine a fish that spends 2 to 5 years out in the big deep ocean, sometimes known to swim at depths of 1800’, now entering in comparison a small stream that at best only has a few runs that are deeper than 20’.  To say they could be spooky is an understatement.  So, we’ve set the stage, how do we approach fishing the Klickitat River with tons of fish coming back and at least at press time, deal with low clear water conditions?


Most Chinook caught on the Klickitat River while swinging a fly I would dare say were hooked by accident, in other words hooked while swinging for steelhead, especially when there’s glacial color to the water.  When the Klick is running with glacial color, chinook will be found where you would typically target steelhead.  When the river is glacial, the Chinook become very comfortable hanging out in shallower water.  This makes them easier to target for the swing fisherman.

On the other hand when the water is low and clear, I find that the Chinook will concentrate in the deeper, boily, runs.  This scenario presents a challenge to the swing fisherman because it’s very difficult to get a sweet swing when your fly line looks like a snake crossing the road.  Over mending becomes the norm just to try to get a decent swing.  The beauty of two handed Spey casting and the Skagit system is the versatility it brings to the river.  In the instance we just talked about, I would pull out my intermediate head and it doesn’t matter if you like Rio’s Skagit i-Flight Heads or Airflo’s Skagit Compact Intermediate Heads, they both are the perfect answer to runs that are dominated by conflicting surface currents.  These heads with the appropriate sink tips allow the head to sink below the pesky surface current and actually will slow down your swing while maintaining the desired “J” swing.  The hype you’ve heard of feeling a direct connection to your fly while using an intermediate head is very true.  If you need proof, try swinging the run with your normal Skagit head and concentrate on the feel, then switch to an intermediate head and do the same.  You’ll quickly notice the difference.  Here’s a quick descriptions of both lines from their respective manufacturers.


RIO’s new iFLIGHT is the latest addition in the arsenal of heads for the Skagit fly fisher. The short, powerful head has an 8ft long highly visible floating back end that is easy to track during the swing, and can be mended for total fly control. The unique clear camo intermediate front section is a fantastic asset for when extra depth is needed, in strong current and also on windy days, or when a slower swing is needed.

RIO’s iSHORT heads are powerful, intermediate based Skagit heads (with a short floating back section), designed for shorter Spey rods, Switch rods and single-handed rods. The intermediate front section give anglers deep, slow swings, and cast large flies and the fastest of sinking tips with exceptional ease. For anglers using shorter Spey rods, Switch rods and Single Handed rods, and for tight casting situations, the iSHORTS are a fantastic choice. All Skagit heads are built on an ultra-low stretch core for the maximum in casting and fishing sensitivity.


Great lakes anglers identified the need for a line that would cast and fish like our Skagit Compact, but would avoid all the surface hydraulics caused by corrugated bottom structures. While in development and testing the Skagit Intermediate Compact opened our eyes to a whole new level of fly presentation. No longer do you have to put up with tumultuous surface currents pulling at the floating portion of your Skagit system. 

The Skagit Intermediate gets you below the surface and into more even, mid-strata flows, allowing for a smoother more direct fly presentation. Two tone in color, the front taper and belly section are transparent blue intermediate, and the floating back taper is Heron gray. Featuring power core for direct contact and solid hook set, our industry leading Flexi-loops at both ends, and easy to read head size designation. Skagit casting anglers will benefit from this line no matter where you fish.


If you’re going to target Chinook an intermediate head will be your friend, your best friend! Typically when lining up your rod with an intermediate head you will want to match the same grain weight of your normal Skagit head or go a line size smaller, I personally recommend a line size smaller, but there are folks out there that will stick with the same grain weight as their normal Skagit head. In other words if your Sage Method 7126 takes a Rio Skagit Max 525 grain head I would put a Rio Skagit iFLIGHT 500gr head on. If you like Airflo and you use the Skagit Compact 510gr or 540gr head I would go with the Airflo Skagit Compact Intermediate 480gr or 510gr head.

These heads are a little bit harder to cast than the normal Skagit heads because they sink. You will want to bring the line to the surface completely by slowly lifting your rod tip and then perform a roll cast downstream to then set up your Spey cast. If you try to cast the intermediate heads without doing this you will struggle and in turn not enjoy fishing with an intermediate head. Another thing while casting intermediate heads is this, during your casting stroke you will want to keep things moving. You won’t have to rush things, you’ll just want to keep your stroke moving not allowing any hesitation for the head to sink. Once you start don’t stop.The intermediate heads are perfect tools for also swinging the faster choppy water at the heads of runs and pools. In my experience salmon and steelhead often will concentrate at the heads of runs when the water is low and clear for several reasons. More oxygen and more cover. This is especially true in a run that is considered shallow by Chinook standards. If you need a reference, I would say runs that are 6’ or less in depth are great candidates to focus some additional time at the top of the runs. I have seen salmon and steelhead hold so far up into the head of the run they are almost in the tailout of the run above it. I have seen fish holding in this type of water with their fin sticking out of the water. Often times when you have choppy water at the head of a run there are soft deep pockets just as the run starts to get deeper. This is an excellent spot for a spooked fish to hold. In a fish’s point of view, what’s not to like. They have oxygen and they have cover.

Now, with all this about intermediate heads they don’t always work under every condition. They shine in the faster, boily, deeper water and at the heads of runs where you have enough current speed that you’re not always hanging up on the bottom. There can be a fine line from dredging and dragging. Dredging means I’m down deep enough and my fly is swinging right where I want it. Dragging means just that! I’m too deep and in turn ineffective, dragging my fly across the bottom just waiting to get hung up. Salmon and steelhead see up and you want you’re offering above them where they can see your fly, not below them where they could care less. I will agree that you need to get your fly in front of the Chinook, and Chinook are somewhat lazy but I can’t stand my fly dragging on the rocks constantly and often getting hung up and losing flies. Losing flies can be a huge waste of time if it happens too often. If I tick a rock or two during my swing I can live with that, but if I am constantly dragging I am going to change something in the set up. Maybe all I need to do is add a lighter sink tip or cast further downstream so I don’t allow as much time for the fly to sink or maybe I change the head all together. If the river gets too shallow and clear I will use summer tactics and go with an outfit that is less likely to spook the fish. An Airflo Rage Compact with a clear intermediate Polyleader or even long 14 to 16’ fluorocarbon leaders with smaller flies can and has paid off for me in really tough conditions.
This hatchery steelhead caught in low clear water made for great fish tacos!


If you fish the Klickitat in the next four to six weeks, you’re not going to have to wonder if the fish are there, you’re not going to have to call the shop for a fishing report. Get online to our website: or better yet just stop by the Gorge Fly Shop and pick your swinging self up an intermediate head and a few effective flies and head on over to the Klick and start swinging. You’re going to see fish roll all around you. You’re going to wonder why you might not be getting grabbed. Next thing you know, you’re getting ripped out of your waders. The difference between a Hero and a Zero is a split second. Hold on, if you’ve never landed a chinook on the fly it could take a bit.

And please remember, these are things that I have done and still do that are effective for me and in no way are the only way to catch salmon or steelhead. I write these things to share insight and I know other anglers who have had great success that could easily add to what I have written here. I am always on the lookout for fresh information that I think could improve my success on the water. Bear in mind that as swing fisherman we are trying to get fish that supposedly don’t eat when in fresh water, to eat our fly. Doesn’t that sound like a challenge from the get go? I mean if they ate like they did out in the ocean it would be too easy. I know for a fact that I could nymph fish or use a centerpin with a single bead and crush chinook and steelhead on the Klickitat River, but that is not what I want to do. Nothing against it but I just love the challenge and the grab on a tight line swing. Of all the methods I have used over my steelhead and salmon career, the grab on a tight line swing is hands down my favorite way to catch them. It can also be the hardest and that again is why I like to do it.

Remember in my last article I stated that when the river is full of fish, it always and I say again always plays in your favor toward success. I would rather fish a river that is low and clear with a ton of fish in it than a river that is low and clear and baron. This is stating the obvious.

FLY CHOICES (Conditions can dictate choices):

Chinook tend to like certain colors like blue, chartreuse and black or orange, red and black. I have also had success with chartreuse, purple and black. They really like chartreuse for whatever reason. If hooking a Chinook or steelhead in the same run is a strong possibility, I will choose a fly that works for both. The flies pictured below would do the trick…

Pictured above are a few of my own favorite ties that have caught Chinook in the past and as an added bonus steelhead as well. If you tie your own flies the possibilities are endless. I’m a big fan of chartreuse for Chinook but if I had to choose just one fly to use it would be my Orange, Red and Black Garrett’s Mojo to the far right because it has landed Chinook, Steelhead and Coho for me.  These are flies I would choose, in a heartbeat, if the Klick had glacial color.
If you don’t tie your own flies or you’re in a jam and need to pick up some, stop on in at the Gorge Fly Shop and the flies pictured below would be excellent choices as well. The photo to the left would be great low, clear water choices and the ones pictured to the right for glacial, off colored water. Remember in my last post that I stated the darker the color water…the darker the fly choice. Keep that in mind when you make your choice.

Low, clear water flies pictured on the left, top to bottom: Howell’s Signature Intruder size 6, Morejohn’s Bantam Purple and Orange, Hickman’s Fish Taco, GP Spey Orange, Polar Shrimp, Silvey’s Brass Monkey.

Glacial or off colored water fly choices pictured on the right, top to bottom: Metal Detector, Larimer’s Reverse Marabou tube fly, Jumbo Critter, Bjorn’s String Butt Prawn, Hot Butt Prawn, Pick’yer Pocket Orange, Foxee Dog, Pick’yer Pocket Blue and Chartreuse. Again, these aren’t the only flies that will take Chinook, they’re just great choices!

The beautiful thing about fall is that both steelhead and Chinook are present in the river and the chance at hooking both on the swing is like a magnet to me. Like I said earlier, I think that most Chinook that are caught on a swung fly are caught by accident while swinging for steelhead, at least on the Klickitat. With everything that I have said here, get out there, tie on a sweet fly, relax, take a deep breath, leave your stress behind for the moment and enjoy the day. Tomorrow is never promised, soak it all in. And when you do get that grab try not to lose your mind! So just…

"...Relax Bro"
ONE LAST HINT: If you’re struggling to get a grab by a chinook and you know they’re in the run your swinging, try tying a dropper with a trout bead off of your main swinging fly. Use about 12 to 14 inches of dropper and just see what happens. I’m not saying that I do this very often, in fact I do it very rarely, but when you just have to get a grab or your gonna die, try it. Salmon and steelhead naturally key on single salmon eggs this time of year. Salmon don’t spawn clusters of eggs. It’s just a thought and if you don’t like it, don’t try it.

Salmon don’t spawn clusters of eggs. It’s just a thought and if you don't like it, don't try it.
Klickitat Fall Chinook fooled in fairly clear water
Thanks again for taking the time to read my ramblings. If you ever need anything just call the Gorge Fly Shop or stop on by, we aim to serve your fly fishing needs. We love to fish, we love to talk about fish….

See you out on the river and if you recognize me say hello!

The GFS Team
John Garrett

Be sure to also read - Chapter One:
John Garrett's Guide to Early Season Steelheading on the Klickitat


"Fly Fish the World with Us"

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