Reading Water

No matter how advanced the gear, how decked-out the boat or how many days are spent on the water, the key to catching more spring chinook lies in being able to read water. Here's how.

By Scott Haugen

Dad and I arose at 2 a.m. to reach the river early and secure our honey-hole, but our efforts weren't enough. A boat sat in the slot we wanted, but considering that morning's water conditions, there wasn't room to join them. Nonetheless, we launched in hopes of working the lower end of the hole.

It was a classic spring chinook scenario: a fast-moving riffle at the head end followed by narrow ledges through which fish had to funnel to continue their upstream journey. Down from the ledges a big, deep swirl made for ideal holding water.

As darkness gave way to first light, we noticed that the other boat was farther downstream from the position we preferred, and its presence spooked salmon away from moving upstream through the slot. Instead, the fish congregated in the swirl we were fishing.

Within two hours we had three chinook salmon in the box while the other boaters struggled. Seeing all the salmon rolling in the swirling water near us, the other anglers pulled anchor to move in below us. Before they dropped anchor again we had moved just a few boat lengths upstream of where they had been.

We gave the hole a few minutes to settle, and then Dad back-bounced his way into a 22-pound keeper with his first pass through the hole. Slipping the last fish of our two limits into the box, the other boaters asked what bait we were using. We told them, but we also knew that bait was only part of our success. Knowing the water and how the fish reacted in that location was more important than what we wiggled in front of their noses.

Swirl holes such as this one could hold a number of spring-run chinook. Photo by Scott Haugen

Spring chinook are quite predictable. For the angler, knowing what to look for and how to fish the various settings in which chinook thrive are keys to their success.

By breaking down a river into identifiable parts, anglers can take a seemingly overwhelming amount of water and decipher what constitutes ideal fishing water. Be it fishing from the bank or a boat, reading a water's surface is foremost on the priority list. Your search will be for the types of water in which salmon hold, move around and travel.

Salmon typically shoot right through fast-moving, shallow riffles. Timed perfectly, however, your chances of catching these moving fish can be excellent. The edges of deeper, churning rapids will also find fish regularly moving across them. At the same time, these can be ideal holding zones, where fish often stage prior to moving upstream.

Big, boiling swirls are favorite springer hangouts, but only when the conditions are right. Then there are ledges, chutes and eddies, all of which can be prime salmon-holding holes.

Once identified on the surface, more complete information can be acquired by actually fishing a hole. This is where anglers discover what the bottom is like, where the hang-up spots are, when a drift starts to swing, or whether drifting-fishing or back-bouncing must be used. The more time spent at a hole, the better you'll know it.

Fast-water springer fishing is one of the most thrilling settings in which to catch these fish. Rapid moving, often shallow water results in the split-second reaction of a salmon hammering a bite before it can speed past. Be ready!

Such water may have rapids, or it can be flat. In either case, the slope of the streambed dictates the speed with which the water flows, and wave-creating structure - boulders, logs, ledges - cause disruptions to that flow. By assessing the depth and rate of flow, anglers can identify which fishing technique is most applicable for these areas.

Fast-moving water can be tough for plugging or running a diver and bait, but drift-fishing it from the side may be an option. If working from a sled or other boat, back-trolling plugs or bait may provide more control.

If anchored to the side or fishing from the bank, using ample weight is imperative to attaining the ideal drift. This sounds easy but takes time and dedication to figure out. Only by changing weights will the perfect drift be realized in each condition, and only by achieving the perfect drift will the structure of the river bottom be learned. Fish a salmon hole long enough and you'll have every bit of its bottom mapped.

Be it a riffle or any other type of salmon hole, the water level affects how you fish. Some of my favorite fast-water salmon holes are only productive when the flow is low; others are great for back-bouncing when the levels are high. By sticking with a hole during various phase changes, you'll know what gear to use and where in the drift it will work best.

For the rest of a riffle, and especially working toward its upstream (shallowest) point, drift your gear through the inside and outside edges of the main current. Salmon travel along those edges. Cover the area from top to bottom. The heaviest travel periods are early morning and late evening, and you may see them rolling in these travel areas; waste no fishing efforts there, even if it's in the middle of the current.

Depending on the individual riffle and fish behavior in that setting, exactly where you fish may vary. One of my favorite riffles roars at its upper end and kicks out ideal slack water on one side. Fish often stack into the slack water because it offers less taxing conditions. At another favorite riffle, drifting eggs down the speedy center section is productive at its shallow end when fish are actively cruising through the area. And yet a third riffle I've had good success with over the past 30 years boasts excellent fishing from the center out to the edges, all the way from the top of the run down to the pool it dumps into. Several hours can be spent covering a hole like this one.

Swirls are one of the most attractive and yet most challenging holes in which to fish for salmon. Large boiling swirls and eddies may find fish on the bottom, suspended or with their bellies on the gravel facing the opposite direction of the current on the surface.

Water levels and flows play a major part in determining where and even how to fish a swirl. If coming upon a swirl for the first time, locate its "eye" and note where the side currents meet the river's normal flow. These seams often appear as water moving upstream, products of the turbulent environment from which they we

re born. The only way to learn what these boiling seams are like is by fishing them.

Fishing boiling seams is tricky, and again, using enough weight is the key. Be able to feel your way around the bottom, noting where gravel and rocks exist. Because the unpredictable current routinely kicks terminal gear all over the place, it can take time to learn such a hole.

Where side currents flow upstream, the fishing can actually be better from the downstream side rather than from above. Here, position yourself to drop a back-bouncing setup into the current. As the gear moves upstream, you're actually targeting fish that are facing downstream - into the reversed current.

One day last spring a buddy and I were fishing such a hole. Three boats were anchored on the upper end so we moved to the lower end of the swirl. Though we were all fishing the same hole, my partner and I offered the fish a different look by allowing our baits to drift to the fish, whereas the other boaters had to drag their baits into the boil. We quickly caught our limits while the other boats caught zip.

The eye of a swirl hole can be fished if the swirl is not too turbulent. The swirling currents give fish a place to congregate, and drifting bait through such a place can be highly productive. A long dropper line with a spider sinker setup is ideal here, to keep the bait covering water. You're at the mercy of the river in such a hole, as your line can move in any direction at any given time. Be sure to maintain constant line control.

Once salmon waters can be read, your catch rates will rise. Take time to read and learn the river, how it behaves at different levels, what the bottom structure is like and where the fish are. Through time you'll discover just how vital reading water is to catching more springers. (Editor's Note: For signed copies of Scott Haugen's latest book, Summer Steelhead Fishing Techniques, send $23 (includes S&H) to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489. The 136-page, full-color book is loaded with the latest steelheading strategies.)

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