Three for the Fly Rod: Shad, Pinks, Whitefish
“That ain’t fly fishing,” my fly caster pal remarked, when I described a recent experience “flossing” sockeye salmon in the Kenai River.
“A 4/0 Gamakatsu hook adorned with a hank of yarn is considered a fly if half the shank is covered,” I replied. “Anyway, what’s the difference between that and you drifting a Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymph or a Pink Maribou under a bobber?”
“The difference is I use a fly rod,” he snorted. “It’s more sporting.”
Most anglers accept that impaling fat juicy caddisfly larvae on a no. 12 Adams is cheating. But what about dousing a strip of rabbit hide, a.k.a. Flesh Fly, with a splash of Mike’s Sardine Oil? Or drifting a Pink Maribou jig below a strike indicator, a.k.a. bobber? I’ve even heard of anglers chumming sharks to get them in proper mood to strike a fly. Let’s face it. Fishers have become creative with what it takes to catch a fish.
Before the “sport of kings” deteriorates into an x-fighting video game, however, one must define the rules of engagement. First and foremost, tipping any fly with bait is not allowed. Hooks adorned with animal hair and feathers are encouraged with the caveat that modern materials such as Mylar, foam and bead eyes serve the same purpose. Must your fly resemble an insect? Sorry, streamers have been around for centuries. The main requirement, according to Washington Sport Fishing Rules for “Fly Fishing Only” waters, is using a non-fixed spool type reel and conventional fly line to deliver your offering.
This article is for open-minded flycasters willing to experiment with different techniques from a floating vessel. Or perhaps you are a traditional spin caster looking for an excuse to bring your aged fly rod out of the closet. Although certain elements may approach heresy in select circles, I’d argue the single most important thing about fishing is to have fun. And because catching fish translates to having fun, my focus is on three species abundant in northwest waters.
I anchored my Hewescraft a stone’s throw from shore and placed a loaded fly rod in the starboard holder. “What should I do,” my wife Nancy asked?
“Just sit back, relax and wait for your rod tip to go down,” I said.
No sooner had I cracked a cold one than her rod doubled over and she was fast into a feisty “roe” shad.
It was July 4th weekend and we were on the Columbia River one mile downstream of McNary Dam. The Columbia River provides a great opportunity to test your mettle for American shad. These big-eyed members of the herring family move quickly through the estuary in late May with peak timing over Bonneville Dam in June. Run size over the last 5 years has fluctuated between two and four million fish. Nearly one-quarter of the run migrates upstream to the lower Snake River.
Shad will strike most any fly, small jig or spoon. Red, white, pink, chartreuse, silver, gold, brass and two-tone colors are all effective. One color works better than another some days for reasons you can only speculate. As for gear, a 7-weight fly rod is recommended. Although a three-pound shad rarely takes out line on tight drag, strong currents may be in play.
Adult shad move with purpose along shoreline contours, concrete wing walls, basalt riprap, and current seams at depths ranging from 4 to 20 feet. I start my day trolling close to the bottom, dropping the anchor once an active school is located. The easiest on-anchor technique is to attach your fly line directly to a downrigger clip, leaving 15 to 20 feet of line hanging behind the boat. Drop the lead ball within two feet of the bottom and watch your rod tip. Another option is to position the downrigger ball to a comfortable distance from the bottom and troll slowly under power.
Don’t have a downrigger? Another approach is swinging a weighted fly or jig from an anchored boat. I favor a 6-foot leader and heavy sink tip line for this application. Quarter your cast upstream, let your line sink, and mend it to reduce drag. Letting the fly hang in the current after the swing can often trigger a strike
Another favorite “fly fishing” technique for shad involves using a modified Magnum Wiggle Wart to deliver a fly to proper depth. For this application I remove treble hooks from a Mag Wart that has failed to catch a salmon. A “neutered” Mag Wart will take your offering down 8 to 15 feet, depending on current speed and line diameter. I tie a shad fly behind three feet of 8-pound test fluorocarbon leader, spool out 50 feet or so of line and let the river current impart an attractive flutter.
When the shad bite slows or if my Wart becomes lethargic, I pick up the anchor and slowly troll back-and-forth across a current edge to vary action and depth of my offering. You can hold your rod, but it’s best to put your rod in a holder and let shad hook themselves as the thin membrane on their jaw tears easily.
“What makes salmon jump?” my grandson Adam asked.
Our guide wasted no time replying. “It’s to loosen their egg sacs prior to spawning.”
I bit my tongue. Every odd year since 2011 I make a 200-mile commute from the dry side of Washington State to chase pink salmon or “humpies” with my grandchildren in the Snohomish River. But wait a minute! Everyone knows humpies prefer sand shrimp drifted under a bobber Why waste time tossing flies when you could bonk your limit using traditional spinning tackle? I’d argue that hooking a 6-pound pink on an eight-weight fly rod is akin to battling a 20-pound king on a Shimano mooching outfit. Things can get out of control in a good way.
You can expect that Puget Sound streams will once again be flooded with pink salmon in 2017. The largest runs occur in the Skagit, Snohomish, Green, Pullulap, Nooksack and Nisqually Rivers with peak numbers arriving from late August to early September. There is no better fish to introduce a novice to the sport.
This part of my article is not about arriving before first light to fly cast for pinks along a Puget Sound shoreline. It’s about shirt-sleeve days in early fall when access to a drift boat, jet sled or pontoon boat gets you away from the crowd. It’s about sneaking in a cast after your grandchildren have gotten their fix of jerking and reeling and settled down with a foot-long ham-and-cheese, party-size bag of chips and a handful of M & Ms.
I prefer to anchor in slow to moderate current where pinks wink, splash and roll as if to show they can. These behaviors demonstrate salmon on the move. And for every pink you see, there’s a dozen or more milling below the surface. After anchoring on a school, I tie a weighted no. 4 Pink Clouser, Pink Flashabou Comet, or similar pattern (key word here is PINK!) on 10 feet of 2X tippet or 10 lb test leader. I cast my sink tip line slightly upstream and allow it to swing across the current as close to the bottom as I can get. Retrieving with a series of short quick pulls helps lift your fly in the water column and varies action. Alternatively, you might let it hang languidly in the current.
Struggle to get your offering to depth? I admit to catching my first pink salmon on a 1/8-ounce BeuMac hot pink Maribou Steelhead jig. Aerojig Zip Zip makes a bright pink jig, sized 1/64 to 1/16 ounces, having heavy wire Gamakatsu hooks. Dress up a favorite jig with pink chenille, Maribou or Krystal Flash and you have a fly. Words of caution: watch your backside when tossing these tiny guided missiles.
“I brought my spinning rod this time,” Ted said, reflecting back to when he dragged the river bottom with a nymph pattern for three hours without so much as a grab. “I’ve changed my mind about having to fly fish all the time. I want to catch fish.”
“We’re going to start with spinning gear,” I replied. “But once we find where whitefish are holding, we’ll switch over to fly rods.”
An hour later, with three fat Mr. Whites in the bottom of my cooler, our fly rods came out. We were smack dab in the middle of the Hanford Reach in an area where fall Chinook salmon build redds. Water depth ranged from 6 to 12 feet at moderate river discharge. It was a blue sky day with air temperatures in the low 40s. We tugged wool caps down over our ears to protect from a steady breeze.
For this exercise I favor a 6-weight rod with floating line and 10 feet of leader below a 2-inch diameter Thingamabobber. At the terminal end of my leader is a no. 10 Glow Bug. Two feet above that, on a dropper-type arrangement, is a single 8 mm orange plastic bead pinned above a no. 14 Eagle Claw snelled hook. A no. 5 sinker pinched 8 inches further up the leader completes the elaborate setup but disallows one from venturing into “Fly Fishing Only” water.
Catching whitefish in strong current involved some work. I had to remain vigilant on the bow to control our position and speed while drifting through the half-acre patch of water where whitefish concentrated. We angled our casts upstream, managing line loops to maintain tension. Admittedly, I got tangled up more than once while surrounded by a 40# “rocking chair” anchor, trolling motor, foot pedal and a large coil of rope. Ted had more freedom of movement from the aft end of the boat. That was my excuse for him hooking the first three whitefish and I’m sticking to it.
Okay. I admit it. I stole the idea from Alaska anglers that drift colored beads under a strike indicator for trophy rainbows during the sockeye salmon spawn. One variation on the theme involves using an Exude “rocket red” egg in place of a plastic bead. There’s also tipping an orange hackle fly with a maggot although that would be considered cheating.
The “faux egg” method is deadly in the Hanford Reach in November when fall-run Chinook salmon spawn. Mountain whitefish stage in nearby shoals, gobbling up loose eggs to build up energy reserves. While lightweight spinning outfits afford greater casting distance and depth control, fighting a 3-pound whitefish on a fly rod and reel is a blast. Hooking and landing two at once, as I did last year, is even more of a hoot.
During the heat of summer you can find success drifting a no. 18 Hares Ear or Copper John through shallow riffles. These patterns closely resemble midgefly and caddisfly larvae, favorite foods of the mountain whitefish. What doesn’t work well though, as Ted can attest, is dragging a weighted Stonefly Nymph behind the back of the boat when whitefish key on Chinook salmon eggs.
Give it a Try
Admittedly, some members of my local fly caster club do not condone variation on the theme. However, neither have I been sent to the end of the buffet line at dinner meetings as penance for creative angling. Indeed, I may have made a few converts, particularly on days when fish ignore more traditional offerings. After all, isn’t the purpose of fishing to catch fish? And doesn’t catching fish lead to having fun?