“Feeling the take of a big fall chinook on a fly is something truly special.”
I like to employ whatever type of fishing method works.
When we were kids, my older brother and I started out fishing with worms in a little creek that ran through our farm in southwestern Idaho with good success. Through the years, we graduated to using hardware, salmon eggs and unique baits like Velveeta cheese formed in our palms to look like minnows. I remember when I bought my first fly rod and reel when I was about 10 years old. I went to the Pennywise Drug Store in my hometown of Nampa, Idaho and purchased a split bamboo rod with an extra tip for $4.98.
I used that funky little rod successfully for quite a few years, catching mostly 6- to 8-inch trout. From there, it was a steady progression to fiber glass and later to graphite-boron rods.
In 1995, my brother-in-law from Everett, Washington invited my Dad and me to accompany him to his childhood friend's ranch near Port Orford, Oregon to fish for fall chinook salmon on the Elk River.
The first day of fishing was magical as we saw mint-bright salmon rolling right in front of us in every hole on the ranch. We caught several salmon ranging from 8 to 25 pounds and had a blast. We caught them by bouncing anchovies along the bottom and casting spinners. On the second day of fishing, I was surprised to see a fly fisherman come in from the other side of the river. He started casting large Clouser minnow patterns with a fast-sinking line. Within 20 minutes he hooked and landed a nice 12-pound female. I was impressed to say the least.
The ranch owner and his wife invited us all to a fabulous home-made dinner of salmon and halibut on the following Saturday. I told the rancher about witnessing the fisherman catching a nice chinook on a fly and he informed me that fly fishing was often more productive than bait or hardware fishing when the salmon are fresh out of the ocean.
Then he took me over and introduced me to an older gentleman by the name of Frank Moore. He said Frank was one of the best fly fishermen on the river. I told Frank that I was intrigued with the notion of catching one of those big salmon on a fly and he told me to meet him at a particular spot on the river the next morning and he would show me how. I was ecstatic!
The next day, I met Frank at the designated stretch of river that ran fairly swift and moderately deep with a gravelly bottom. Frank handed me one of his extra 10-weight rods and showed me the large flies with heavy barbell eyes for extra weight. He explained that to cast the heavy flies and fast-sinking line, I would have to master the double-haul cast.
This was a new experience for me because prior to that day, I had used only 5- to 6-weight rods with mostly floating lines. He patiently stood by me and coached me until I could clumsily, but adequately cast the fly across the small river. Then he took me several paces downstream to the stretch of river that held several fall chinook. He had me cast the fly across the river quartering downstream and let the fly swing across the bottom until it reached close to shore. Then he would have me take one step downstream and repeat the process. To my amazement and absolute delight, I hooked a mint-bright female chinook on about my fifth cast and managed to land it after a terrific fight with Frank coaching me all the way.
When I slid the fish onto shore and subdued it, I turned to Frank and he gave me a big hug. We have been good friends ever since.
Only later did I find out that Frank Moore is a legend in Oregon for being a former member of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, master fly angler, a leading advocate for saving habitat for steelhead on the North Umpqua River and recipient of several conservation awards. I had to find that out from others because Frank is such a gracious and humble man.
Since then, I have made several trips to the Elk River and my favorite way to catch these late-run fall chinook in November is fly fishing.
As is the case with most coastal streams, the Elk River salmon runs depend a lot on rainfall. A good freshet will bring in fresh salmon out of the Pacific Ocean and into the river and dry conditions will keep the fish in the lower part of the river in the deeper holes meandering back and forth. When sufficient rains are late in coming, often these fish that stay in the lower holes become quite dark. But it is still fun to catch them on flies.
When the river is up and moving fairly fast, you must use fast sinking lines—sink-tips or full sinking lines and weighted flies. But when the river is low with little current, you can use floating lines with weighted flies or moderate sinking lines with un-weighted flies. As I described above, with moderately flowing water you can swing flies along the bottom much like steelhead fly fishing. But when the water is low and slow, you need to strip the fly in. Most of us who fish the Elk River tie our own flies, many of which do not have names.
The most popular patterns are sparsely tied flies with a Kelly green, dark blue or chartreuse bucktail upper body and a white bucktail under body. Such patterns are tied with or without chrome barbell eyes for weight. Various Clouser patterns also work. A pattern that I tried for the first time in 2013 was a chartreuse Comet fly that out-caught all the other flies in my box in low, clear water conditions.
I tie my flies on Size 2 to 1/0 saltwater hooks. In order to have the right weight for the various flow conditions, I always tie a variety of flies using small to extra large chrome barbell eyes for weighted flies. I also carry several fly lines from floating to full-sinking 450 grain lines.
You just never know what you will encounter in terms of flows when you get down to the river and it can change from day-to-day depending on rainfall. And like other coastal streams, excessive amounts of rain can blow out the river and make any kind of fishing impossible. But when conditions are right after a good freshet the salmon are usually aggressive and will viciously attack your flies. Those are the times when you can experience 20-30 fish days. Sore arms and wrists are the usual outcome at the end of the day.
I am not a fly fishing purist by any means and when conditions are not right for fly fishing, I will quickly revert to using hardware. But feeling the take of a big fall chinook on a fly is something truly special. And the day I will most remember is when I hooked a heavy fish that stayed deep and never showed itself for almost 20 minutes until I finally got it close enough to shore for my fishing buddy to tail it. The big male was my biggest fall chinook I have ever caught on a fly and weighed 47 pounds!
And that, my friends is what I call fun!
- written by Rick Itami