Four Hour Underwater Journey | Viewing Live Salmon
August STS 2017 Feature Story
Story & Photos by Scott Haugen
“Hey, did you guys lose a little underwater camera by any chance?” shouted a man over the rumble of his boat motor as he slowed on his way upstream. My heart rate shot up as I yelled back, “Yes, broke it off on a coho earlier this week, it’s a little black camera shaped like a bullet, called a Water Wolf. There was a pink skirted spinner on the other end!”
“I have it at our camp, come by this afternoon and grab it,” the man smiled and waved as he put the motor in gear and continued heading up the Egegik River.
Had I been near a store I’d have went and bought a lottery ticket right then.
Earlier on the trip I tied a Water Wolf underwater camera to my braided mainline.
On the other end was a Flash-Glo Squid Spinner. I hooked a nice coho on my first cast, had a couple hits on my second cast, then hooked into a fat silver salmon on the third cast. I was in fast moving, shallow water, and couldn’t control the big coho. I got a couple looks at it and figured it was at least 13 pounds, a big fish for this part of Alaska.
Whenever I got the fish into the shallows, it would make a run.
This happened three times, but the forth time was too much. Raking the braided line over the sharp-edged volcanic rock, something had to give and it did. About 10-feet above the camera, my mainline broke. It was a helpless feeling, losing the fish, spinner and underwater camera in an instant.
A couple buddies were fishing with me, so instantly I had them start casting to where I’d lost and also hooked the fish, hoping to hook the line. For over an hour we tried hooking the line, with no luck.
Three Days Later
I was dejected at losing that camera. Not because of the cost, but because it was only day two of a seven day fishing trip on what I consider to be one of the best coho streams in all of Alaska. I was on the Egegik River, with Bruce Hallingstad of Becharof Lodge, a place I’ve been to many times and will be fishing again, likely while you’re reading these words.
The Egegik River is a clear flowing stream, born from the headwaters of Becharof Lake, Alaska’s second largest lake, south of the little town of King Salmon.
The conditions of the river and the number of coho that enter it in August, make it exceptional for filming underwater fishing action.
I’d planned on trying a range of gear during that week, and capturing it on underwater cameras. Unfortunately I broke a GoPro on the first morning, and had issues when another Water Wolf camera got water in the casing at the end of day one and was out of commission for the entire trip.
Now, with my second Water Wolf gone, it left me with one GoPro, which I babied along but dared not risk breaking or losing.
On the last evening of our trip, I learned about the camera being found by a fellow angler in the only other camp on this remote river. Eager to hear the story, and see the camera, I skipped dinner and ran down to Becharof Rapids Camp. One of their guides introduced me to Jerry Nielson, the angler who caught my camera.
“I caught it right out there a couple days ago,” Jerry pointed. “The thing attacked my fly and put up one heckuva fight! I thought it was a bobber hanging on the line; I just unhooked my fly, tossed the salmon on the bank and kept fishing. Not until a buddy came over and looked at it closely did we see it was an underwater camera.”
I found it interesting that where Jerry caught the salmon with the camera still attached was three miles downstream from where I had lost it, three days later. The coho weighed 15 pounds, and Jerry said it was the biggest of the trip for him. The fact the coho bit a fly, with a big lure still in its mouth, also amazed me.
“Sorry, I don’t know where your lure is, as my buddies kept taking it and catching fish,” Jerry smiled. “It was the best lure of the trip, and no one in our group had one like it. But here’s your camera.”
I cradled the camera in the palm of my hand, wondering what, if anything, it may have recorded. Looking to make sure the O-ring seal hadn’t broken, I was shocked at the number of teeth marks on the back of the camera. The camera hung about five-feet behind the spinner—more than a foot behind the salmon—and had been hit numerous times by other coho.
Four Hour Journey
Heading back upstream to camp, it was a beautiful evening on the Egegik River. Temperatures hovered in the ‘60s, the sun was nearing the tundra horizon to the east, and the trip had been a true joy. Now, if only the camera worked.
I’d just charged the battery of the Water Wolf camera before I lost it. When I remove the mini SD card and plugged it into my laptop back at camp, I was elated when it showed four hours of captured video footage.
That night I couldn’t get to sleep I was so excited, so embarked upon a four-hour underwater journey, where I looked at the footage until 2:00 a.m. Since that first viewing I’ve poured over the footage many times, learning from what was captured on film.
When the fish broke off, it went back to where I’d originally hooked it.
How do I know?
Because I could see our lures hitting in front of the fish when my buddies and I tried casting to hook the line. One time the camera caught another coho about 15-feet in front of my fish, actually striking a lure and thrashing around once hooked. Another time it showed a humpy swimming by with a pink jig that it had broken off.
During the four hours of video, the coho moved a lot, both up and downstream.
What happened every time the salmon stopped, disproved what I, and many other anglers, always thought was a rule, that when pink salmon were in a river with coho, the coho held tight to the bottom and the pinks stacked above them. In fact, over my more than 25 years of fishing in Alaska, I’ve written articles on the challenges of getting through pink salmon to get down to the coho during those even numbered years when both species inhabit rivers.
I’ve interviewed top guides on the topic and got some great advice. But was it all wrong? In this case, it seems to be. Though in order to draw an accurate conclusion about where coho hold in any river containing pink salmon, further underwater studies would need to be done.
However, in this case on the Egegik, my eyes were opened. Every time the coho held up, it, along with all the other coho nearby, were atop the stack of pink salmon. Often the coho held barely a foot under the surface. Prior getting my other Water Wolf wet, I recorded a series of coho strikes, and every fish that attacked, when holding where pink salmon were, came from above the schooling pinks.
Usually, the schools of coho would hold on the high points of the bottom, while the pink salmon crammed into the depressions. Knowing this, it’s the shallows that should be cast to when targeting coho in shallow rivers, not always the deeper holes.
In fact, the deep holes rarely held a coho, even when direct sunlight hit the water.
When the bottom varied between large rocks and gravel, the coho always held over the big rocks. I figured this was due to the sand mixed in with the finer gravel, which the silver salmon didn’t want to get in their gills. It was interesting to me, for when the camera rested on the bottom of these sandy areas, a lot of silt passed by.
The coho obviously didn’t like this, but the pinks didn’t seem mind, as that’s where they held, right where the sand was moving downstream over the along the bottom. When coho were alone, holding over small gravel, it was almost always on the leading edge and along the sides, never behind it, again, likely due to the sand.
Caption: The author was surprised by how often schools of coho held atop rises in the river bottom, in very shallow water, usually when there were deeper holes on each side that remained void of fish.
Schools of coho also held tight behind and in front of big boulders, like steelhead often do.
They could be seen riding the currents and upwellings in front of, to the side and behind the big rocks, where the water was less taxing. In turbulent waters they got moved around a lot, but didn’t seem to mind.
Whenever the coho with the camera moved, it first elevated near the surface, then swam. This footage was unstable to view, so I couldn’t conclude if the salmon did this to keep the camera from hitting the bottom as it swam, which may have tugged on the hook, or if this was normal for all coho on the move.
In the absence of pink salmon, schooling coho held tight to the bottom in both shallow and deeper sections, but never over where sand was. It was interesting to see on the other Water Wolf camera before it got water in the housing, which was my fault, the consistency of coho hits.
Almost every time a coho hit the spinner, it was one that was spurred on by other fish that first started following it. More than 90% of the time the first fish to follow the spinner were the ones closest to the surface.
While they may have eventually struck the spinner, it was faster moving fish from below that almost always got to it first.
No matter if the school numbered 10 or 50 salmon, the results were almost always the same; shallow fish would start to follow the spinner, then salmon laying below reacted to the movement of the fish and the spinner above, speeding ahead as fast as they could to attack the spinner.
It proved what aggressive, tenacious feeders salmon can be, and how the movement of one fish can trigger a feeding frenzy. The lesson here is when your buddy hooks a salmon, quickly cast into the same spot. This explains why you’ll often see double hookups on salmon. Watch closely while fishing Buoy 10 this fall and you’ll see what I mean.
Sometimes the spinner would pass by the nose of dozens of coho and not get looked at. Sometimes it hit the water and a coho attacked it before the retrieve even began.
On day one I was able to use the Water Wolf camera as a bobber when fishing jigs. The best footage from this approach came when passing overhead schools of fish, for once a strike came, all else was a blur. Again, fish from below often moved in on the jig, turning on it at the moment of the bite. This was a good angle to see where fish held and how they schooled in certain areas.
I also filmed some egg bites while drift fishing.
The first few casts with a fresh bait caught the most fish, and the bigger the scent trail laid down by the eggs milking out, the more coho seemed to be attracted to it.
It was similar to the spinner take, where once one fish reacted to the bait, others followed. Often over a half-dozen coho would be fighting for the eggs, and once one was hooked, they’d all go crazy, swimming sporadically and following one another around like there was going to be more food where that came from.
I’ve been fortunate to fish for salmon and steelhead for over 45 years, and it never ceases to amaze me, how much there still is to learn. If you stop and think about it, what we think we know, and what we truly know, are two very different things largely based on speculation. Unless you’re actually underwater observing how fish move, act and react, you can’t say for sure what’s happening.
Underwater camera’s reveal a lot and studying footage with an open mind has greatly educated me over the years.
Never before, however, have I had a camera actually follow a salmon around for four hours. To see where that fished moved, either alone or in schools, and how it traveled, was an education that will change the way I fish for coho.
In the end, I guess that’s what I love most about salmon and steelhead fishing; the learning never stops.
Article written and all photos taken by Scott Haugen
Watch this underwater footage of coho in cover, filmed by Nick & Tony Amato - edited by Lucas Holmgren.