KODIAK — It’s that time of year!
Red salmon, also known as sockeye, are nosing into rivers around Kodiak Island. That’s a hallmark each year because they are so popular on the line and on the table.
Red salmon fishing is relatively new on the scene here in Kodiak. When I arrived back in the 1970s, and well into the 1980s, almost no one fished for them. The common “wisdom” was that they wouldn’t hit a hook and that the only way to get them was via a subsistence permit and a gillnet.
That all changed when techniques developed on the Kenai Peninsula migrated to Kodiak. Suddenly, people started catching reds reliably, and crowds quickly developed on the few road system rivers that host the species.
Red salmon need large lakes in a river system because their young rear in freshwater for several years before running out to sea. You can fairly easily spot their host rivers around Kodiak by looking at a map for rivers with lakes.
Strategies and methods for catching red salmon follow two broad paths.
The “Kenai” method that swept Kodiak is frankly only one step away from snagging, made legal by fairly loose interpretation of requirements that fish be hooked in the mouth. At its most basic, a weight is put 18-24” in front of a hook disguised as a fly. The rig is cast upstream from the fish in fairly fast water and allowed to sink to the depth of the fish.
As the rig moves through the water, the weight and hook spread out to stretch the leader between them. And when the orientation and depth are right, the leader passes into the mouth of the salmon. As the weight continues downstream, the hook is pulled up to the mouth and a hookup results.
If you think your red actually struck, take a close look at the fly in its mouth. You’ll find that in a high proportion of cases the hook enters from outside the mouth, rather than from inside the mouth, which would be the case in a true strike.
The distinction has long been lost in the regulation books. However, in fact, the system would work just as well with a bare hook as with a hook disguised as a fly. The feathers and such on the hook merely make it look more like fishing than snagging.
Folks have come to rely on this method for catching reds because it works, and works well with practice. You’ll hear it called flossing, force feeding and even legal snagging, but it’s all the same thing.
I said there are two paths to catching reds. Though I’m quite capable of flossing and do so when the situation calls for it, I much prefer the second approach. That’s when the reds actually take the hook because they want it.
Long before flossing was developed and brought to Kodiak, folks in Washington, British Columbia and even Southeast Alaska worked out methods to make reds open their mouths and take a hook.
I tried them before flossing came on the scene — and made them work here. They still work, but only for reds that have not been assaulted by flying hooks and sinkers wielded by crowds. The reds have to be in the right places and the right mood to open their mouths.
The bulk of the sockeye catching to the south of us occurs in saltwater while the returning fish are still feeding. Dining mostly on plankton and krill, they’re seldom taken on traditional salmon gear. But when you change your gear to things more attractive to them, they respond in force.
It works so well that commercial trollers in Southeast and BC target reds and make good landings while recreational trollers also catch plenty. The practice revolves around using small pink or red hoochies — or even bare red hooks — trolled very slowly behind small dodgers. Trolling speeds need to be down in the 1mph realm and depths can be pretty specific to target where the reds are feeding. Most commercial and sport catches come at a depth of about 60’.
I’ve caught reds off Kodiak while mimicking the methods used further south, though I’ve found it to work only in a few places. In my experience, it’s best far from the river mouths and off headlands and in passes rather than near shore.
As learned by both recreational and commercial trollers, there’s also huge value in having lots of gear in the water. It appears one or two lines in the water attract little interest, but when you use four or six lines, it turns on the reds somehow. If you’d like to take a serious crack at trolling for reds, break out the manual for “stacking” gear on downriggers and invite lots of friends.
We have managed to catch a few reds near shore later in the run as they approach their home rivers. In fact, they have hit small cutplug herring I was using at the time for other species. Reds do eat small fish on occasion, and it’s probably no coincidence that there are lots of needlefish around when cutplugs work. And, upon dressing the fish, I always find small needlefish in their bellies.
Perhaps due to the same feeding activity, I’ve also caught reds from shore in saltwater when rivers are low and they accumulate in larger numbers. All my catches have been on silver Crocodile spoons around 2 ½” long, or more often on 1 ounce silver dart jigs that I use for longer casts.
Things start to get even more interesting right at the river mouth. I’ve had better luck some days than others. However, starting at low tide, I’ve caught reds using small pink shrimp flies and sinking lines. If there’s a drop-off at the river mouth, reds tend to hang there and will fairly reliably take shrimp flies dead drifted where the river current carries them over the lip of the drop-off.
Once the reds enter rivers it can be Katy Bar the Door for flossing, and the reds simply quit hitting under the onslaught. Without the crowds, they hit.
I base that on fishing in the years before the crowds descended and on more recent visits to distant rivers with little or no angling pressure. Position yourself upstream from holding fish and make your casts so the current sweeps your fly across in front of them a foot or so from their noses and at the same depth. Whether it’s competitive spirit or impulse, if one red moves forward for a look at your fly, another is almost sure to dash past it to get there first.
Have you ever been upriver and seen relaxed reds swirling up to the surface almost like they’re taking dry flies? Keep your eyes open for that at all times. In my long experience, they’ll hit a waked dry fly at such times just like steelhead, and usually even the same Steelhead Caddis and Muddler Minnow fly patterns.
If the school of relaxed fish is holding but not surfacing, you can also have good luck bouncing a pink Glo Bug along the bottom. Recall how quickly your roe attracted attention of red salmon fry last time you fished silvers in a lake? I suspect the adult reds still have some vague memory of salmon egg feasts from their youth and will attack Glo Bugs with equal abandon if they’re not in fear of life from flossing.
The pivotal moment for me in catching red salmon without flossing occurred years ago on a distant river. We were camped and fishing for kings, and a plane dropped off guided anglers that morning. Late in the day, they returned to their pickup point near our camp and the guide noticed the schools of reds lazing in the slack water of a deeper pool.
Being experienced and resourceful, he quickly rigged his clients with roe and small bobbers, the leaders adjusted so the roe would drift slowly downstream through the reds and at their depth. He baited the hooks with roe clusters smaller than are typically used for either silver salmon or king salmon, just about the same size as a large olive or average grape and instructed his clients to cast upstream past the fish and allow the rigs to drift.
I can’t think of a better term for describing the results than hot! In little more than an hour, all six clients landed their limits of five reds.
I came home and tried it in pools where red schools were holding, and it worked just as well. I went one step further and tied Glo Bugs the same size, fishing them the same way under indicators, with similar results.
I don’t want to get your hopes too high with these river methods for use on the road system. They most definitely do not work when anglers around you are flossing. But if you can find reds away from the crowds, keep them in the back of your mind.
It’s a whole lot more fun for me at least when I don’t have to resort to flossing like many neighbors and I can find ways to make reds hit of their own free will.