The opening of the upper rivers to silver salmon fishing on Sept. 16 is a hallmark for many anglers. All those silvers that slipped into the previously closed sections are suddenly accessible.
I’m a devoted fan of silver fishing in rivers, but I tend to avoid the rush on opening day. The attraction for me is more about solitude and undisturbed fish, both of which are scarce on opening day as well as most weekends afterward.
But even with other anglers about, it’s possible to find willing fish and a little peace and quiet on the upper rivers. All you have to do is avoid the people.
In a matter of hours after the opening, you’ll be able to do that. The steady traffic of anglers to a few well-known holes quickly produces well-worn paths along with a staggering display of trash.
While the paths make for easy navigating, it’s the long stretches between the holes that get my attention.
Silver salmon certainly congregate in the larger holes in rivers. They’re easy to spot and for the most part the casting is easy because the brush is set back.
But in those long stretches between the big holes, there are lots of smaller places that attract and hold silvers. You have to work a little harder to find them, and more often than not the casting is difficult due to encroaching brush.
But the silvers are there, and the other anglers are elsewhere.
The thing to keep in mind is that silvers like cover. They find it in the big holes because the water is deeper, and they certainly feel more comfortable in a school.
But “cover” comes in many other forms in a river. Undercut banks with overhanging vegetation are among the best. The silvers can lie under the brush and get away from the wide open sky, while the nearby undercut provides refuge if they feel threatened.
The trick comes in managing to put a hook in front of them. It can be a challenging test of your casting skills to send your hook back under the brush without snagging.
I can hold my own with a spinning or casting rod, but I truly find it a lot easier to send my casts under overhanging brush when using a fly rod. With a low sidearm cast, the straightening fly line easily slips a fly far back under the brush. I still hang my share of flies on the brush, but less so than with spoons and spinners.
With so much shoreline brush on most rivers, the trick is finding the smaller hiding places, much less delivering a cast to just the right place.
I find both easiest when water conditions allow me to wade right through the middle of the river, casting to cover on either side as I move along. It’s also easiest to avoid spooking the silvers and especially the hordes of pink salmon if you wade upstream rather than downstream.
A tidal wave of fleeing pink salmon will put down silvers just as surely as too many anglers lining a hole. I move slowly and avoid the spawning riffles as much as possible, then angle my casts further upstream to reach the silvers before my own movements or startled pink salmon spook them.
Fishing small pockets of cover rather than large holes usually requires a change in tackle to go along with the change in location.
While fishing with roe is as effective in the small pockets as in the big holes, adding a bobber or a weight to your leader can cause your casts to spin or “helicopter” as they fly toward your target. Even if your bait lands in the right place, there’s a good chance your bobber or weight will find a stray limb.
The obvious answer is to dispense with the weights and bobbers and use plain roe. But that means adjusting your bait size for a sink rate to match the water depth, as well as angling your casts further upstream to allow time for the roe to sink.
While spoons and spinners are obvious alternatives, I find they often require retrieve rates that spook fish in the smaller holes. My solution comes from the pages of steelhead anglers in the Northwest.
Have you ever tried a marabou jig for silver salmon?
In many locations they work as well, if not better, than flies. They sink quickly due to their lead head, while that soft marabou pulses perfectly with slow movements of the jig.
Jigs are traditionally fished under a bobber for steelhead, and they certainly work very well under a bobber for silvers. But if you dispense with the bobber entirely, they’re perfect for accurate casting in small pocket water with lots of snags.
Another feature of jigs is their low price. They’re cheaper than spinners and spoons, so you don’t feel too badly about breaking one off when a cast goes astray. That in itself can be a great bonus, because you can continue to catch fish from a hole after breaking off a jig. Just try catching more fish from a hole after you wade in to retrieve that expensive spinner or spoon!
Mentioning jigs is the perfect lead-in for talking about flies.
The best flies for fishing in rivers are often very different than those you would use in lakes, estuaries and the ocean. That’s because nine times out of ten the best place for a fly is close to the bottom.
The nature of small pockets on a river demands that flies sink quickly, while most flies you own or have seen probably aren’t heavy enough. You could certainly clamp a split shot on your leader, but that puts you right into the “helicopter” dilemma you face with spinning tackle and bobbers or weights.
I tie my own flies and can add as much weight as needed to the bodies. Heck, some of my best flies are so heavily weighted that friends cast and fish them successfully with spinning rods!
But if you don’t tie flies, there is a very good alternative to split shot that eliminates the shot on the leader.
The next time you’re in the sporting goods store, move away from the bins of flies and look into the fly tying section.
You’ll soon discover small packages of brass or tungsten beads and cones intended to go onto the shank of a hook for weight before you start tying a fly.
There’s nothing in the world that says they have to go on the hook and are reserved only for fly tyers.
They work just as well if you slide them up onto your leader before tying on a fly. In casting they stay down nice and tight against the fly, and in the water they perform the same function as if they were on the hook rather than on the leader.
I can’t talk about fishing the upriver stretches for silver salmon without also mentioning bears. They’re on hand, and for me anyway, a part of the attraction of fishing there. It’s like a trip to fish the remote parts of the island without the expense of a plane flight.
Bears are a fact of life on Kodiak, and with the same precautions on the road system as you would use on remote waters, they merely add a measure of wilderness to my day.
Make plenty of noise as you move about, and be prepared to yield the river to an arriving bear rather than contest it. If you want to kill silvers while you are upstream, it’s a good idea to take them back to your vehicle as soon as you land them, or at least to move them away from the water while you fish.
Anglers before you might well have taught the bears that people are a “good” source of free fish, but there’s no need to reinforce the bears’ bad habits when you don’t have to.