The dog days of summer are upon us. While most of us are soaking up the summer sun, enjoying every waking minute of what seems to be the shortest of the seasons, my thoughts have already begun to turn. To what you ask? Chinook of course. But here in the Great Lakes we’re still weeks away from any significant runs of fall fish, right? Short answer, yes. Long answer, yes with exceptions.
While most Great Lake tributaries won’t see substantial runs of fish until well into September, there are elite rivers on both sides of the border that get early runs, sometimes as soon as mid-July and always by mid-August. These aren’t just small random pushes of fish either but significant, fishable runs.
To save myself from placement on a short and rather unpleasant list I’m not going to name any of these rivers, but they will have a couple of things in common. Typically they are larger, spring fed rivers that remain relatively cool through the hot summer months and they usually support naturally reproducing fish. There are exceptions to every rule and it does take a bit of research and leg work to determine which rivers consistently produce early runs each year.
Summer is by far my favorite time to be chasing kings for a couple of reasons; the fish are super fresh and strong, and there’s no one fishing for them. Some are slowly starting to catch on but for the most part I can be a couple of weeks deep in my chinook season before I run into anyone else targeting them. There’s something to be said about having a river full of chinook all to yourself.
Salmon were the gateway drug to what is now a serious steelhead addiction. When I was young getting around was an issue. If I couldn’t walk or bike to it I didn’t go. Lucky for me a river full of salmon was mere blocks away and many evenings and skipped school days were spent there fishing until dark and walking home in my waders. My friends and I were the first ones on the fish, weeks before anyone else. Those we did tell didn’t believe us. We found it somewhat amusing, and loved the fact that we had these fish to ourselves.
It’s not always easy to get into fish. Water tempuratres play a big role in the mood of these fish and in the summer those temps can fluctuate like crazy. Time it right and it will seem effortless. Remember those days because for every one like that there are four or five when it seems impossible. It gets hot, fish start to sulk and they become much tougher to get into. At best they’re a few weeks away from entering full spawning mode and have the luxury of taking a break in the deepest, slowest most wood strewn pools they can find, holding bottom until it’s time to move on.
Talk to the few that are riverside and they’ll say there is one simple solution to the sulkiness: drifting big chunks of skein under a float; slow and steady. In fact it’s a pretty standard way to catch early run fish and I can’t deny it effectiveness. I love fishing a float, but honestly prefer to pray on the fish’s aggressiveness rather than its instinct. Yes there are times when big juicy chunks of skein are the only thing that will work, which is why I always carry some, but it’s not my go to.
Big ugly, flashy flies are deadly under a float, as well as flat bottom soft minnow baits. Goby imitations are incredible, but so too are paddle tail swim baits rigged on their side. Salmon will crush 4, 5 and 6 inch minnow baits but it’s not about dead drifting them. Instead, stopping the float and letting the bait rise up in the water column can induce strikes so vicious you can feel the rage of the fish before your mind even registers that the float has disappeared. Once hooked they won’t back down. The fight is on and it’s a fight that the fish has a better chance of winning than the angler does.
As fun as it is to battle one of these beasts on a float rod, nothing preys on their aggressiveness like tossing hardware. Simple and affective, there is only one way to describe throwing spinners, spoons or hard body crankbaits; exhilarating. Kings are an angry fish and that is never more apparent than when they smash a lure and the rod doubles over, making you question the integrity of both gear and your own physical prowess.
Summer salmon scratch an itch that pesters me from the moment I catch my last spring steelhead. That longing that I have had for the last couple months is now being temporarily satisfied. Of course once I get the word that the first steelhead of the fall are starting to make their way in that is where my focus will turn, but until then the awesome power of big kings is all I need to keep me going. When the winter comes in full force and I’m standing river side fighting off frost bite, it are these warm days I will be dreaming of.