Jason Koertge has caught a lot of fish on swung flies. Besides having landed 52% of the kings and steelhead that have swum into Oregon since 2003, Jason has also chased kings with us on the Kanektok and the Dean as well.
Needless to say, he’s learned a lot in the process, and in particular he’s learned how king fishing is different from winter steelhead fishing. Today Jason presents a graduate-level course in what he’s learned about swinging flies for kings.
Note: This lesson is indeed graduate-level. If you’re just getting started swinging flies for kings, you should probably start with 10 Tips: Swinging Flies for Kings.
Talking Salmon to a Winter Steelheader
Hickman’s once-coiffed, but now recently graying hair has a way of marking time I guess, and the amount of salt and pepper the kid’s sporting these days says it’s been a few years now since my first Kanektok suckerpunching. The day was number Two, I was feeling the beatdown creeping closer and despite a handful of encounters, I’d beached a whopping total of one jack. No pouting and no complaints, mind you, but not exactly what I was after either. Hence, I did what any winter steelheader would do when soul-searching for an answer they had to have within the next five days: I emptied my pride on my friends and then-AK West guides Jeff Hickman and Mitch Harris, then begged for solace.
“You’re fishing them like they’re winter steelhead, man.” Jeff said matter-of-factly, then finishing in an oh-so-Nuk fashion, “Dude. They’re not. Thought you’d have figured that out by now.”
And I gotta say, those words hit me hard on the Camp Bar as Jeff, Mitch and I played out our Oregon winter steelhead game vs. these Kanektok kings on a late sunny evening that felt more like a really long, awesome afternoon. The kid was right. Damn, I hate it when the kid’s right. Kings aren’t steelhead.
That said, having since buckled down on chinook in quite a few drainages from Alaska to BC to virtually anywhere, anytime they’re available in Oregon (where I currently reside typing and dreaming of Zoo Bar’s tailout snags in high water), I’ll say two things to anyone who cares to read this: 1.) Please, don’t fish Ktok kings like they’re winter steelhead and, 2.) Take what you learn on the Ktok, apply it at home if you’ve got kings around and you’ll be surprised how many winter steelhead rivers turn into spring Chinook rivers come May. The Ktok tutelage will teach you lower 48 Kings on a swung fly are anything but a figment of your imagination, though significantly fewer and much farther between. The latter is one of the best things I still take away from my times at Alaska West; get into a soul groove with that river and it shows you some killer secrets you can put in your back pocket for elsewhere.
Couple of uber-nerdy things to get quasi-religious about if you’re headed north to chase the North Pacific Chrome in the next few weeks:
- It’s about fly depth, not necessarily speed: Winter steelheaders are genetically predisposed to breed with the slowest swing possible because steelhead will rise to a slow fly in cold water. Yet, a clean downstream cast, perfect set-up mend and a really, really slow swing doesn’t necessarily gain you the depth needed to get a fly on a king’s level when they’re deep. Instead, try casting straight across the river or slightly upstream, just over the hard seam, kick a giant upstream mend in your shooting head, settle the fly into the edge of that slow seam, then take your steps to let the fly free drift for a second or four. Feed line if you have to and don’t worry too much if your fly is sort of maching through the swing’s end. Kings kill the hell out of it if it’s on the level. Conversely, they’re not always on the bottom, so don’t hesitate to take a pass fishing just under the surface. The biggest Dean king of my life ate an unweighted fly and 10’ of type 6 less than 6” under the surface in a pool eight feet deep. Experiment. Always keep wondering.
- Trust not your sinktip: This year, week one, we all started out fishing varied sinktips and lengths. Once I had my racket tight, it seemed I couldn’t miss in the gut of lower Zoo Bar’s snags. Until the tailout, where I never touched a fish. Hickman was on fire in that same tailout, but found less in the lower snagline. Likewise, when the sun got high toward the week’s end, I got schooled by Dirty Tom Larimer who was fishing a heavier tip / heavier fly into the hard seam over holding fish at Elias Bar’s head. He was killing it in there, only to blank in the tailout. I never touched a fish where he was crushing, then hooked multiple fish all over that tailout as they were moving. Sorta proves one sinktip sometimes won’t cover an entire pool much less the whole river, so don’t hesitate to change it up if you’re not getting bumped. By week one’s end, I had three rods rigged and that helped a bunch; one with 14’ of Airflo CCT-200 (type X) and an unweighted fly to fish snag-free runs all the way inside, one with 11’ of Rio T-17 and a marginally weighted fly for slower, even seams and one rigged with 13’ of T-17 and a tube fly with a ¼ oz. bullet weight in front of it for sunny days when the water’s clearing and you have to get down fast to fish stacked way out on the hard seam. If you’re not blessed with OCD or a box of crittery lead like my friends and I, on a second lap through a run, try changing your sinktip, not just your fly. Go heavier. Or if you feel you’re bumping fish without an eat, go a bit lighter. I know it sounds a bit obsessive, but it makes all the difference.
- Setting the hook low and to the bank = Language your mother would not approve of: Whereas that seems to be the given hookset in many winter steelhead circles, with kings, it’s a recipe for little more than a headshake and unholy creative vocabulary. They don’t eat like a steelhead. They rarely turn, instead, they stop the fly but that’s just them killing the hell out of it while moving forward to keep killing the hell out of it. Set the hook high and to the upward side; 10 o’clock from river left, 2 o’clock from river right. And by set, I mean crush. So hard you think you’re gonna explode your rod. Most rods come with a warranty. Farming a 30+ lb. Kanektok king does not.
- There is no such thing as too slow of water for kings: A run like Cuda Jacks might not seem like ideal swinging water once you’re halfway through the swing and the flyline begins die out and elbow, but if you kick a big downstream mend into the line and slowly pull or strip the fly through the dead inside, I’ll bet you 20 bucks you’ll really enjoy getting lit up like they tend to do there. Same goes for any spot with sloughy water. They’re there in the slow, almost dead stuff, make no mistake about that. They’re probably in there thick.
- Cast flies you’re comfortable casting: This one seems like a no brainer, but sometimes that super kick-ass fly the size and weight of a Ptarmigan your best friend tied you for the trip sucks to huck all day long. Same goes for more than a few commercial flies, and if you can’t turn it over and have fun while doing that, Advil will ensue. Flies like Hickman’s Fish Taco or Silvey’s Tube Snake offer both the good profile and ease-of-casting, as well as does the absolutely diabolical FurBurger tube fly both Andrew and Larimer kept pilfering from my boxes all week, which I’ll tie for $15 dollars and 32,500 Alaska Airline miles a pop if you don’t happen to be named Andrew or Tom.
- Fresh 15 lb. Maxima UltraGreen will straighten an Owner SSW Size 1 needle point: Might not sound like a beefy enough leader or enough of a hook gap, but it’s the sweetest combo and 15 is easily enough for a big fish fought clean. A de-barbed size 1 seats the hook ideally on a king’s jaw. Having lost two Compact Skagit heads a few years ago (and they were prototypes, so you can imagine how bad that hurt) to super strong 20 lb. Maxima and not-so-strong running lines, I switched to 15 lb. Maxi and had no fear fishing deep into snaglines where I knew there was potential for hot king lovin’. If you hang up, just point the rod tip at the snag and pull evenly. Most of the time the hook will straighten and you’ll get your fly back. Re-tune the hook, sharpen it a little and you’re back in the game. Having a small hook file is key for this.
- Don’t fight a king like it’s a steelhead. Because it’s not: It can and will break more than your heart. Changing angles, muscling the fish, chasing it downstream and trying to repeatedly knock a chinook three minutes from the salt off balance or putting overt pressure on these locomotives will just piss them off even more. After the initial run, stand your ground. Get your junk together. Be cool. Get in tune with the sinister happenings, look for any snags and breathe like your girl when she’s all yoga’d out. If you’re really intent on landing that fish, stick the rod tip in the water pointed just slightly out and downstream, let a big belly in your line form to keep that hook seated clean in the king’s jaw, then slowly start the Ktok Creep; the gentle reeling/winching process that seems to lull the fish to sleep, probably because they’re ultra badass and not sure they’re still hooked. Seriously. I’ve never seen kings come to the beach faster than if you avoid torquing on them like you’re junior varsity. You’re varsity, fella, first team, all-conference. Remember that. Until their belly touches gravel. That’s about the time you start to pray and keep the sinktip out of the rod tip. From there, karma takes over. Hope you’ve saved some up, sinner.
- Last, trust your guide: Look, there’s a million lodges in Alaska for a guy to work at. 11 of the four billion potential Alaskan guides got a job at Alaska West for very good reasons, not the least of which include the fact they’re fishy as all hell. Now, prior to fishing here, I’d been guided exactly 0 times, and I’m proud to say more than a few of these guys have become close friends and damn trusted fishing partners in the off-season. To a crusty-ass, lie-to-your-face winter steelheader like me, that means something. Something very cool and full of proven, infernal ju-ju. Enough said.