October 13, 2009
SAULT STE. MARIE, Ontario (MCT) - Going after pink salmon is perfect for anyone who wants to learn how to catch salmon on a fly rod. The techniques are so simple and so much fun that they should call this Salmon Fishing 101.
The chinook salmon runs were pretty sparse in Michigan tributaries to lakes Michigan and Huron recently, apparently running late during this unusually cool and wet summer.
So to satisfy a salmon Jones, I headed to the St. Marys River Rapids, where guide John Giuliani said that the pinks were as thick as fleas along with fair numbers of Atlantic salmon and steelhead.
It took Giuliani two casts with a double-nymph setup to hook the first pink from a nice school that had just moved up into a deeper slot in the fast water 15 feet in front of us. The three-pound male somersaulted over the water three times before boring out toward the center of the river, pulling out all of the fly line and getting into the backing.
"I think that pound-for-pound they're the toughest fish we have," he said. "A three-pound steelhead would jump, but it couldn't pull like that. A lot of these fish are fresh, really silver. They must have just come up into the rapids overnight."
About 30 seconds later I hooked a four-pound male with a hooked jaw (kype) and a Quasimodo-type hump that showed he was ready for spawning and which gives the species its nickname: humpbacked salmon.
He fought hard, but it only took a couple of minutes to turn him toward shallow water where Giuliani could grab the leader, remove the hook and get the fish back into the water quickly.
"That's something else I like about pinks for beginners - you can catch and land 20 of them in the time it takes to land one big chinook," he said. "The real trick is learning how to hook them. Once you've got that, you can use the same technique for every species of salmon."
We were using eight-weight fly rods with two No. 10 or 12 caddis nymphs on a nine-foot leader. The top nymph was about six feet under a small bobber, sometimes euphemistically called a strike indicator, and the nymphs were about two feet apart.
"When I see someone fishing for pinks without an indicator, it tells me he doesn't know what he's doing," Giuliani said. "You can see today that the bite is so subtle you'd never know you had a fish on without the indicator."
And on most drifts he was right. Sometimes the bright green, acorn-size foam indicator jiggled a little without going completely underwater. Other times it suddenly slowed down. Either occurrence was a signal to raise the rod tip and feel the sudden, hard headshake of a hooked fish.
Once I saw a white belly flash underwater at about the place I knew the point fly should be, so I lifted the rod and felt plenty of weight. A second later, a nice male humpy porpoised upstream, but the indicator hardly moved. It wasn't until another fish jumped that I realized I had hooked two pinks, one on each fly, which were headed in opposite directions.
On this morning, we never made more than eight casts without a hookup, but we had ideal conditions - cool and overcast with occasional drizzle. But even though fish were tasking, Giuliani changed the colors of the nymphs every half hour or so.
"They like green today, but they're taking a black stonefly, too," he said. "I like to see what they want, and if a fly doesn't produce real fast, I change it."
The Great Lakes are the only places pinks are found outside their native waters on the North Pacific coasts of North America and Asia. Only a handful of tributaries to lakes Huron and Superior produce reliable numbers for anglers, although biologists suspect they may be reproducing in streams along Georgian Bay.
Pink salmon on the Pacific Coast make a spawning run at age 2, and streams there get a pink run every other year. The pink runs in the Great Lakes started out that way, but over time, the St. Marys and Garden rivers started getting runs every year.
Scientists believe that's the result of a sparser food supply that caused some of the pinks to stay in lakes Superior and Huron for three years before returning to spawn.
Now some tributaries of both lakes get an annual run of pinks. The older fish tend to be bigger - three to five pounds compared with 1 ½ to 2 ½ pounds for the 2-year-olds - and pinks from Lake Huron are bigger than those from Lake Superior.
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