Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Salmon and Steelhead and Some Brown Trout | Introduction


I had never given much thought to fishing for salmon. I always knew about the fish from nature shows and books. It wasn’t until I worked in a fly shop that I had given them any fishing interest. Nick asked if I wanted to go salmon fishing next weekend and I told him he was crazy. He said it was a half day’s drive and we would be back by Monday. He was not kidding as he had recently driven me to the Letort in just over an hour and a half. Later that year a bunch of the guys from the shop were making a road trip to the salmon river in new York. I was unable to go as my brother was getting married that weekend. They came back with crazy stories. A few months later I saw pictures of a giant brown trout from oak orchard in new York. I looked up the photo owner and started conversations. He suggested flies for me. By next fall tom and I drove up to new York. That is a story in itself. It was that trip that I saw my first salmon, first monster brown trout, and first steelhead. I came back and started to take mental notes of what I saw and how my previous knowledge of salmon would relate to fishing for them. This is what I have from the past 10 years:

Anadromous fish live in the ocean mostly, and breed in fresh water

Salmon are born in fresh water, the eggs hatch to fry and the fry spend a while in the stream where they eat bugs and such until they mature and head to open water. In open water they are exposed to more protein in the form of fish and crustaceans. Which is why their flesh is pink. After several years in the ocean (4-6) their body starts to morph and instincts sends them to the mouth of the water where they were born.

The salmon hold or stage in this estuary or bay like area as their bodies change. Their physical characteristic  like skin color change, some develop humps, their jaws morph and huge teeth protrude from their mouths. The fish only have one thing on their mind and that is to swim upstream and mate. The salmon come in stages or waves. They wait for the proper river temperature and level. Heavy rains often trigger them to ‘run’. Running in stages prevents population decimation. If all the fish came in at once and something happened and wiped out their eggs, there would be no fish of that cohort to reproduce. They come up the river in groups or stages. Some fish are ready to go up sooner than others, some wait for ideal conditions. Passing on their genetic information. Soon they will all be dead. Though some of them are immature fish that have had a biological timer that has gone wrong and they have joined in the migration. They will  return to the sea if they survive their trip. 

The fish are now in fresh water. Their bodies have changed to allow fresh water to wash over them and into their body. Normally this would kill a fish but they have adapted to this. The fish swim upstream. They pass myriad of obstacles from the sharks, seals, whales, and humans at the mouth of the stream to physical barriers of log jams, waterfalls, bears, fast water, deep water, muddy water, and man-made structures.

The fish can go hundreds of miles to their spawning grounds. It all depends on the river. Some will navigate up side channels and some will continue to where they were born.

The fish do not eat at this stage. Their body metamorphosis has changed their insides. Their digestive tract has atrophied. They can’t eat. They are using stored fat (glycogen) as fuel. The females are looking for a specific type of gravel and the males are looking for females. The females use their tales to dig a red or nest. She kicks up detritus, gravel, and other fishes eggs. She moves rocks and debris out of the way and the males line up behind her. The males are crazy with testosterone and they use those gnarly teeth to fight each other and hold onto the females. As soon as she lays her eggs the males rush in to fertilize them. This is external fertilization. Out in the open. This is R selection. Thousands of eggs are spilled out into the nest and the ones that manage to settle to the bottom might get fertilized with the sperm before it too washes downstream. The eggs have now settled into the nooks, crevices, and textures of the river bed. They are left to their own.  The parents won’t be around to watch their young hatch, they will never see the next generation as the ones before did not see them grow up.  Soon they will be dead. The exhausted fish will either lay more eggs for the females or fertilize again for the males. They don’t stick around too long, soon they will be dead.  Their bodies are falling apart, literally rotting alive. Pieces of flesh trail off their body, their finds break apart between the rays and they shred like a kite in a tree. Their mouths open and close to get the final breaths of life. They are the living dead. The smell of rotten fish fills the air. Their bodies litter the stream bed and banks. Birds and mammals begin to feast on what’s left of them. Eyeballs and fat deposits are the first to go. Those have the most calories. This is fall and a cold winter is on its way.  The consumed meat is returned to the land in the form of nitrates in animal feces. What is not eaten starts to break down. Maggots may devour the carcasses, molds and fungi break down the fish on shore. 

The fish in the water are broken apart by small fish, crustaceans, and insects. All of the biomass is returned to the water. All of that biomass will stay in the stream and when the fry hatch it will be the basis of their food chain. The parents flesh provided the raw ingredients for the algae which are eaten by the insects which are then eaten by the fry. And it goes on as it has for millions of years. 

The ones that do survive for the time being attempt to protect the nests.  Their only parental instinct is to keep things away from the nest. Crayfish, other fish, insects. Anything that poses a threat to their progeny will be the target of those gnarly teeth. Anything that interferes with their mating will receive the wrath of those teeth.  And that’s where the fly fisherman comes into play. But that’s later. 

One of the fish that are present to eat the salmon eggs are the steelhead. Like the salmon, the steelhead is anadramous. It is a variety of rainbow trout. Rather than spend its life in a lake or stream, these fish migrate. Born in the fresh waters of the streams, they follow the same path of the salmon. Eggs hatch, fry mature, and juveniles swim to open water. It is in the ocean where their size and strength are built. Eating fish and crustaceans. Their silvery bodies are packed with protein. They grow to great sizes and feel that urge to migrate. They too will follow their primal urge and to this is where the their natal stream is located. Those that make it into the water begin the journey upstream. Unlike the salmon, their bodies do not begin to break down. Unlike the salmon, these fish will return to the ocean.  The fish right from the ocean are shiny as a freshly minted dime. Those that have been in the water longer begin to take on the colors of the river. They turn green to blend in with the substrate. Steelhead have two things on their mind. Some are there to wait for spring to spawn, some are there to eat. Some are there to put on pounds and wait out the winter in the stream and spawn in spring. 

The steelhead are presented with a smorgosbourd of food opportunities. As the female salmon dig their nests they dislodge insect larvae. Mayfly, caddisfly, stonefly, and true flies are sent floating downstream at the mercy of the current. Salmon eggs tumble down stream along the bottom . Protein rich eggs by the thousands are there for the picking. They need the fat to sustain them in the cold waters for the next several months.  The rotten chunks of salmon flesh break off from the carcass and drift down and are engulfed by the steelhead. It has been said that an aggressive steelehead will ram a gravid female salmon to force her to release her eggs. Other steelhead will line up behind a female and wait for her to drop her eggs or turn up bugs and gorge on those.  And this is where the fly fishing comes into focus.
But wait. 

In some places these fish have been stocked. This includes the great lakes fisheries. The fish are raised in hatcheries and released into rivers. From the rivers they mature and enter the great lakes. The great lakes are a surrogate adult and in there they mature to adulthood. They feed on forage fish and crustacea within the lakes. In some areas they are used to keep control of the forage fish populations.  In addition to the introduced steelhead and salmon, there are brown trout. Like the salmon and steelhead, the browns are bred in hatcheries and released. The young mature in the stream and enter the great lakes. In other places these would be called sea run browns. They pack on the weight in the great lakes as they would in the ocean. At sexual maturity they return to their natal stream. Like the salmon, they reproduce or spawn in the fall. Like the steelhead, they return to the great lakes. They will either winter in the rivers or return to the lakes. Often to power plants where they can bathe in the warm waters over winter. Stocked fish may not be able to reproduce in their introduced waters. They sure will try. 

The fish will reach a hatchery upstream where the female eggs are harvested and the males are milked for their sperm. From there the fish are returned to the river to continue their instinctive travel upstream. There was an article a year or so ago about taking the corpses of the hatchery fish and putting them in a wood chipper downstream to get their biomass back into the stream. 

These fish like the steelhead are also feeding. They will feed on the salmon eggs and insects floating downstream. They need to pack on the calories. They need the extra energy for spawning and holding over through the winter. They are not in the same population density as the salmon. The steelhead will also eat their eggs and the eggs of any other stream dwelling fish that happen to spawn.

Some things to remember.
Stocked fish are not the same as wild fish. In strength and behavior. Stocked fish often have their adipose fin removed and lack pectoral fins from being scraped along hatchery walls. Most fishing for these fish is done August – April. The cold months. Fish (i.e., steelhead and browns) are cold blooded so they are the same temperature as the water. 

Colder water = colder fish and that means slow metabolism. They will not go out of their way to chase down food if the water is bitterly cold. They should move if the amount of calories gained from the food is greater than the amount of calories lost in the process of going after that food. Fish do not want to burn unnecessary calories. They will hold in water that allows them to maintain position without having to exert energy. Deeper water is slower. Structure provides breaks in the current and decreases the water’s velocity. 

Where you see a female salmon there will be trout behind it. They will blend in so you won’t be able to see them. 

Riffles produce oxygen. Fish like you need more oxygen when moving. Fish that are swimming upstream and chasing food need to breathe. Find turbulent water.

How To Fish:

Bounce flies off the bottom. If the fish are holding down there and that’s where the food is, that’s where they will be. 

Salmon: They are not feeding, they are mating. They don’t have hands so they can’t shoo away something that is pestering them. They bite at what is pestering them. A fly swing in their face may elicit a strike. Salmon are protecting their progeny. Anything that may be threatening their genetic information is subject to attack. Insects eat their eggs, crustaceans eat their eggs, fish eat their eggs. Nymph patterns swung, crayfish patterns, and streamers from zonkers to egg sucking leeches will elicit an aggressive strike. Patterns with beads or eggs on the front mimic an organism stealing an egg.  Bright and gaudy patterns that are easy to see and obviously don’t mimic a natural food item, just something to get their attention.

Based on the population density, it is often that you will inadvertently snag a salmon. Most states require snagged fish to be broken off. These fish are big and strong and most still have a lot of fight left in them. The dying ones may get a hook in their mouth via just holding on the bottom with their mouth open. These rotten or moldy fish can still put up a fight. Though you probably don’t want to see one up close. 


In fall they have only one thing on their mind. If salmon are there for sex, steelhead are there to eat. Steelhead arrive around the time of the salmon and come up the river in stages.

A variety of patterns in a variety of colors, sizes, and fished at different depths is the key. Find what they are taking and stick with it. Nymphs, leeches, streamers, etc.  fish along seams where fish are catching their breath or holding.  Cast above female salmon and allow fly to drift and sink behind her to imitate eggs or bugs she has moved with her tail. You might get a male salmon back there too.  Strikes will be more aggressive during the warm weather. 

Winter brings cold water and tailwaters offer the best option for winter steelheading. Less ice in the water, constant and consistent hatches, constant temperatures.

The fish will be holding in deeper water and will take flies that pass near them. If the fly stops its either snagged or held up on the bottom or a fish has taken it.

Watch your hook sets and be ready for your line to go tight.  Often spawning in spring and then returning to the lakes or oceans.  However there are some ‘summer run’ species of steelhead that migrate the river in summer.

Brown Trout:
Similar to steelhead.  Fish in the same manner. Often behind the female salmon to gobble up their eggs.The fish to the right took a large sucker spawn type pattern bounced off the bottom.


Rods should be long. The longer the rod, the more line you can keep off the water and prevent drag.  Longer rods allow roll casting so you don’t get exhausted. Roll casting will prevent your guides from icing up in winter. Longer rods have more bend to them and more energy to fight fish. 

Lines should have a long front belly and allow easy roll casting or overhand casting. Colors depend on you. Floating lines or sink tips. Rio makes a variety of specialty lines. 

Backing should be ample in the event your fish runs. Dacron is fine. Color based on your preference. 

Leaders should be long. Tapered via machine or cut and pieced by hand. Thick butt sections to turn over flies and weight. Fluorocarbon tippet is preferred by most. I use Seaguar or Berkley vanish. I use a perfection loop to connect butt to line. Blood knots for section to section and sometimes use a tiny barrel swivel between leader and tippet. If its too cold out to tie those knots, its easier to tie a clinch knot to the swivel ends. I use an improved clinch or triple surgeons loop to attach the fly. 

Weight is important to get your fly down. Split shot is common. A variety of sizes and you should be able to feel your spilt shot ticking along the bottom and sending vibrations up your line. If you snag bottom it is too heavy. You will need to modify the amount of weight and placement depending on your location. Some use slinkys which are a short piece of hollow parachute chord with split shot inside. They dangle from a swivel and are less likely to get hung up on rocks and trees. 

Reels: large arbor to allow line to be stripped off and reeled in fast. Solid drag system. 

Strike indicators: some fish with them and of course I recommend the thingamabobber. Others rely on the different colors of their line and visual twitches to indicate a strike. Some just do it by feel. 

Waders: breathable with proper layering underneath. 

Shell: I prefer a kayaking dry top.

Boots:  rubber with metal studs. Often a size or two larger to allow feet to move and enhance circulation. 

Camp stove: allows you to heat up food on riverbank to warm up body and spirits. 

Casting: upstream cast with mends to allow fly to sink to proper depth before current has time to manipulate the line and cause drag. Allow fly to finish its swing /drift and then slowly lift the rod tip to allow fly to levitate off of stream bed toward surface. Re-cast. 

Nets: should be big. No bigger. It should be able to scoop up a four year old. 

All of my gear from the last trip: 

Matt Supinski 
Rio Lines 


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