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Fly Fishing the Estuaries, Tidal Waters, and Open Ocean for Pacific Salmon
Fly Fishing the Estuaries, Tidal Waters, and Open Ocean for Pacific Salmon

The Fly Fishing

Fly Fishing the Oregon CoastIn the last issue of Salmonfly.Net I wrote about the sport of taking Summer Steelhead on a fly, one that evolved from the traditions brought to us by the British Atlantic salmon anglers of the 19th century. It is partially due to those traditions that the idea of taking Pacific Salmon on a fly has been so slow to evolve. To this day, there still are very few Pacific Salmon anglers who pursue the species with fur and feathers, compared to those who fish with bait or lures. Atlantic Salmon have always been thought of the only quarry worth of the gentlemen sport of fly fishing. But while Atlantic Salmon in the United States have declined to almost negligible numbers, Pacific Salmon, though some sub-species are considered endangered, can still be found in great numbers on the west coast from California to Alaska. A case in point is that commercial fishing for wild Atlantic salmon is prohibited but still allowed for Pacific salmon. So why do anglers shun the experience of fishing for Pacific Salmon with a fly? As already mentioned, it is partly because of what they know or have read about the experience of pursuing the great Atlantic salmon. In Fly Fishing for Pacific Salmon, Johnson, Ferguson, & Trotter, (1985, p. 10) put it this way,

Throughout the world, catching an Atlantic salmon on a fly is considered to be a lifetime angling experience. The price of an Atlantic salmon trip, both in effort and money, is also a long-remembered experience.

I am assuming, though, that if you are reading this article you have an interest that in part is based on your proximity to Pacific salmon waters, and should you decide to make the effort, you could do it for considerably less expense. So that brings up the second reason for the lack of interest from fly fisherman. Pacific Salmon are considered more a fare for the table then for the sport of catching them. Getting them in the boat or on the bank is more important so they can be taken home, filleted, and put in the freezer. They are considered more of a food fish, then a sport fish. Fly fishing has always been the gentleman’s sport, the catch and the release being the quintessential element of the tradition. Witness though, the crowded banks of northwest rivers where there are good runs of Chinook, Coho, Chum, Sockeye and Pink salmon. Where are the fly fishermen, except on the few areas designated for catch and release? Witness as well, the endless abuses of the fishing regulations and fishing etiquette like the taking foul-hooked fish, fishing after the legal limit is taken, or casting lines over other fishermen’s lines – all for the sake of putting meat in the freezer. There is hardly any aesthetic or sporting value under those conditions.

Still, though, there are those that appreciate the art of fly fishing enough to avoid the fight with the crowds and find a spot on the river where they can cast a line without the worrying about who is next to them.  Just maybe they find those spots to have some quiet, appreciation for the beauty of the environment and the rush of the water breaking the stillness of the air. I would venture, though they are mostly there for the nervous anticipation of fighting one of those silvery monsters with a fly rod, line and a hook with fur and feathers constructed with their own hands. Fortunately, there are many pristine spots available to do all of that. They can be found further downstream, at the mouth of the rivers themselves, in the estuaries, on the beaches, or in the open water where fresh water becomes salt.

This article will be devoted to a discussion of Pacific salmon and the flies one can use to catch all five species on the Pacific inshore. Until recent years, there has been a dearth of literature about this subject and some even that perpetuated the myth that Pacific salmon, or at least most of them cannot be taken on a fly. In Salmon Country, A History of the Pacific Salmon, Robert H. Busch states inaccurately, “To the dismay of flyfishing aficionados everywhere, the Coho and Chinook are the only two Pacific salmon that will readily go after artificial flies.” That might discourage some from even trying for the others of the species, but now there are several fine books about Pacific Salmon fly fishing which not only dispel the myths, but give plenty of factual information about the places, techniques and tackle that can help fly fisherman locate and catch all five Pacific Salmon. Just like any other fly fishing subject, the discussion could potentially be quite lengthy, so I will limit this one to some key points and direct you to some more in-depth literature. My goal is not so much to instruct as to peak your interest. Hopefully, you’ll pick up a book or two, tie a few flies and get out there to give it a try. We need to see more fly fisherman out there.  Just don’t get discouraged if you aren’t successful on your first trip. Even the lure fisherman sometimes cast thousands of times before they hook the big one. (Johnson, Ferguson, & Trotter, 1985, p. 10) compare it to fly fishing for Atlantic salmon,

When you cut through the haze of tradition and literature, there is a great similarity in the experience itself. The taking of salmon and most other sizeable game fish on flies takes an enormous amount of patience and persistence.

But, it is well worth it, as they go on to say,

Unless you just happen to like casting, you will keep at it mainly in anticipation of the reward. When the salmon finally hits and you are suddenly on the end of aerial acrobatics and screeching runs of a beautiful silver-sided fish, you’ll experience a rush of exhilaration that will let you know that all that preparation and effort to reach this moment was worthwhile.

That is the essence of it in a couple sentences. There is nothing like it, once you have experienced it, and the anticipation before each outing increases every time you go. Need I say more? And the good news is that it is not as hard as it may seem. Yes, it takes patience, but when has any fishing been known as a sport for the impatient? More than that, it takes the quiet confidence of knowing that when you make the effort, it will pay off. It can even be rather simple, if you are experienced at all with fly fishing for other species. British Columbia outdoors author, Barry M. Thornton, renowned as an expert fly fisherman for steelhead and Pacific Salmon writes in Saltwater Fly Fishing for Pacific Salmon,

There is no trick to saltwater fly fishing for salmon; all the skills of casting, retrieving the fly, and locating the fish remain essentially the same. …I firmly believe that any angler who has learned the skills of fly fishing can and will be effective at saltwater fly fishing as he would using the conventional salmon fishing methods of drift fishing, mooching, or trolling. ...If there is any secret, it likely lies in the truism of placing the fly in the areas where there are fish and keeping the fly in the water more times than it is out! (Thornton, 1995, p. 9)

The only thing that complicates it for most that have the desire is time, distance, expense, and knowing where and when to find the fish. Nowadays, even when you are within an hours drive, expense can be an issue given the price of gas. I am fortunate enough to live close to some very good salmon waters, so the only issue with me is time. I try to find it in the early morning hours, before I head off to work and when I won’t be missed by my family. But, excluding those factors, the point about simplicity should not be overlooked. We tend always to make fly fishing more complicated than it should, even in the flies that we construct. New patterns are always being developed, some of them with elaborate dressings calling for difficult, if not tedious tying techniques. You will see as we go on, however, that several experts agree that simple fly patterns, usually mimicking bait fish in one form or another are extremely more effective. In my limited experience, I have also found more success with simple patterns. I will discuss some of the common ones in the next section.

All five species of Pacific Salmon can be taken on in the salt and are worthy of a fly fishing outing if you know where to go, what to look for, when to go, and how to fish to them. Chinook Salmon are most likely to be caught from a boat as they tend to inhabit deeper water, channels, and inlets further from shore but they can be targeted from shore as they are staging near or entering their spawning streams. The other four are often targeted by waders along the shore, near beaches, estuary flats or rocky points near kelp beds (Hanley, 2003). If you are lucky enough to be close to salmon salt water habitat, knowing where to fish may be a matter of picking up the telephone book and checking with the local fly fishing shop, guides in your area (see Dennis Dickson’s The Rolled Muddler in this issue), or getting involved with a fly fishing organization like local council of the Federation of Fly Fishers. Another great source of information is a discussion forum site and directory like Washington Fly Fishers. If you live in the Northwest United States (I am including Alaska), or British Columbia, close to salt water, you are blessed with some of the best Salmon fly fishing opportunities in the world.  If you are close to salt water in British Columbia, you are also blessed. Now all you have to do is a little research, a little preparation, and get out there. If you are reading this article, you probably have a computer. Information for you is just a click of the mouse away. There have also been many fine books and articles written about Pacific Salmon and I will discuss some of those here.

This article has been difficult to write – not because there is a lack of information, but because there is so much. To keep it shorter, I have linked to other information in many places. For instance, each variety of Pacific salmon is linked to a Wikipedia article which explains each species in depth, including a physical description, reproductive history, range, habitat and other miscellaneous facts. There are also other links to descriptive articles. There is no sense in re-writing the book. Simply click on the links to find out more about each fish. I have also linked the fly suggestions to the fly patterns on this site, which will help you, I hope to gather the materials and tie the flies yourself. You can read though the article by skimming and clicking on the links, or take more time to read it thoroughly. In all cases, I recommend that you pick up the literature to get the advice of the experts who have accumulated years of experience. They are again, nothing more than a mouse click away from having them delivered to your door or reserved at your local library.

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