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The Strange Feeding Habits of Chinook (King) Salmon

Kings are truly strange critters when they hit freshwater. Out at sea, they are normal predators…basically one-track-minded killing machines that chase bait schools around. But man, when they hit the sweet water, things start to get weird. 

For example, think about the stuff we catch them on. Even though roe is one of the top offerings, have you ever stopped for a second and thought…really thought…about it? It doesn’t make a ton of sense why a fish that’s not supposed to be eating will greedily gobble down big globs of their own genetic material cinched down in an egg loop, right?

Making matters even stranger is the fact that we take a natural bait like roe and feel compelled to cure it with all sorts of chemicals, then dye it an unnatural color and expect the fish to want to eat it.

Weird!

And then there’s all the other wacky stuff that kings will bite from time to time. Probably the most bizarre one I have seen occurred as I was guiding on the Sacramento River for trout. We were drifting nymphs next to the boat in a fast riffle when one of the guys’ indicator was sucked down. At first, I thought he was snagged but then the “bottom” started shaking its head violently. 


After an epic scrap on a 5-weight, we eventually landed a 13-pound hen chinook…our size 14 Bird’s Nest nymph stuck solidly on the inside of her upper jaw. What the heck?

When I was working at Alaska’s Togiak River Lodge last summer, one of the guides was cleaning a chinook for his guest and found a chunk of fresh halibut in its belly. The curious part of the story is somebody cleaned halibut at the lodge earlier that morning and threw the carcasses into the river. The salmon in question was caught later that day, just upstream of the lodge. 

On a similar note, I was hovering eggs on the Sacramento River last October right next to a boat that was anchored-up with plugs. The hole was stuffed with kings but they were not biting in the warm water. The guy next to me said he was done with salmon and was going to “see if at least the catfish were biting.” He reeled up his Flatfish and then tossed out a chunk of sardine with a heavy sinker and put his rod in the holder. A few minutes later, a bright 18-pound buck slurped that cutbait right up off the bottom and the fight was on.  

I’ve actually seen that one bunches of times on the Sacramento and Feather rivers in the spring and fall. It’s just so strange when you think about a salmon swimming along and then smelling something tasty, pointing his nose down into the silt and gobbling up a bait that’s lying on the bottom. A funny image, isn’t it?

Years ago on a small river in Southwest Alaska, I had clients fishing eggs under bobbers. The lodge didn’t have any bobbers that season, so I was improvising, using big Cheaters pegged to the line with toothpicks. With three guys in the boat, I had each rod rigged with a different color bobber—one chartreuse, one orange and one hot pink so I could keep track of whose line was doing what. 

We had five kings one day come up to the surface and eat the bobbers…just like bass on top-water frogs. The interesting thing was they all hit the pink bobber and left the other two completely alone! The same scenario occurred several other days on the river that summer—and it was always the pink bobber that the kings wanted to blow up on. 

Of course, I have caught a few kings over the years on pink worms while steelhead fishing which is kinda nutty, but not nearly as much as the springer my buddy caught this year in Washington on a black/chartreuse tail Mad River Steelhead Worm under a bobber. 

Speaking of black stuff, I had a season on the Nushagak River in Alaska when the kings showed a real preference for that color. I stumbled, quite by accident, onto the fact that the river’s chinook loved all-black leeches while trout fishing. In fact, they were so into black that I decided to do a little impromptu test on a small tributary. In hole after hole stacked with kings, I’d let a buddy go through with good eggs under a bobber and then I would come in behind with a fly rod stripping black leech patterns. When it was said and done, I caught a dozen or so more kings than he did. 

Now, I won’t be ditching my eggs for flies anytime soon, but on that given day the fish were crazy for the black bugs. And I guess that’s my point here: kings are moody, unpredictable buggers and there’s no telling what you might get one to bite. 


Down in the California Delta where I do a lot of striper fishing, we have caught plenty of kings on swimbaits, Rat-L-Traps and jerk baits. One that really stands out was a chrome springer from a couple years back that smacked a tiny crawfish-pattern crankbait fished in about five feet of water for smallmouth bass.

A friend hooked a 30-pound chinook last season in three feet of water on a flooded island in the Delta while flipping a rubber crawfishy-looking bait in the tules for largemouth. Way weird!

I could go on and on here, but it would be fun to hear from some of you guys. I bet some of you have some kooky salmon stories too. Feel free to share some with me. You can reach me through my website, www.fishwithjd.com

- JD Richey


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