Run timing is variable from one year to the next, and I certainly can’t project with any certainty. My solution is to start looking for reds when the calendar page turns to May, with the likelihood of their arrival improving with each passing day.
Consider my experiences over the last 40 years on Kodiak.
The earliest I’ve seen red salmon in Kodiak rivers was May 6. And in two different years I’ve caught my first on May 9.
But in worst cases I didn’t manage to see or catch one until the third week of the month.
You can certainly wait till others find red salmon and the word spreads. But that lands you smack-dab in the middle of the biggest problem with red salmon on the Kodiak road system: crowding.
Once the red run is in full force you can hardly find a rock to stand on, much less the elbow room to cast.
They’re popular fish on the line and the table, and many anglers build their summer around efforts to put as many as possible in the freezer.
You can certainly “catch” them by elbowing your way into the crowd. It involves “force feeding” the fish by drifting your leader through its mouth so the hook is drawn into the corner as the line continues downstream. You’ll also hear it called “flossing” or “legal snagging.”
Sure, I know how to do it, and it’s easy when you get the hang of it. Put just the right amount of weight a couple of feet or so above a fly, spot the fish, then cast upstream so the hook and weight have time to get close to the bottom as it drifts downstream to where the fish are holding.
Anyone can do it, and a lot do.
But most anglers do it in their mistaken belief that red salmon won’t strike.
I agree that they almost never strike when running a gauntlet of flying hooks with dozens of anglers looming within their sight.
But when reds are nice and relaxed, they’ll actually strike like any other fish.
The catch is finding relaxed red salmon.
That means getting away from the other anglers and finding good holding water where the reds like to rest for a short while on their relentless migration upstream.
You can certainly find such places by moving away from the popular spots once the crowds descend. But I’m sad to report that such great little spots are harder and harder to find as more and more anglers ply the waters.
It’s much better to get on the water in the first week of the run or so before the crowds arrive. There aren’t so many red salmon as later, but the fishing is sure a lot more fun.
I like my red salmon as much as everyone else, but the crowds and the flossing put me off more and more these days. I’m more likely to go without red salmon than to endure the shoulder-to-shoulder fishing much more.
But I know for a fact that there’s a great alternative that’s fun in its own right.
Why not catch them in saltwater before they ever enter their home rivers?
Over the last 20 years or so I’ve had just enough success in saltwater to keep trying. The reds are certainly relaxed, and in fact they are still feeding on ocean foods.
It’s just a matter of finding the reds and offering them the right thing to eat.
My quest for saltwater reds started from shore. On numerous occasions I’ve managed to catch them on both spinning tackle and fly gear.
The reds you see jumping near shore in the bays will respond well to spoons or small dart jigs that resemble the local needlefish or sand lance. Sure, reds feed mostly on plankton far out at sea, but open a few stomachs the next time you catch reds in the river mouth or nearby. You’ll almost always find a small baitfish or two, usually needlefish.
You’ll draw a blank if you cast directly to a red jumping in saltwater. They’re on the move, and by the time your cast arrives, they’re far beyond the spot you last saw them.
I cast 15 to 20 feet beyond the jumper in the direction they showed in their jump. I sincerely doubt I’m catching the fish that actually jumped, because they tend to run in schools. Get that spoon or jig in front of a school, and your odds of connecting go way up.
Best spoons for me have been Crocodiles in plain silver, silver/blue and silver/orange. Kastmaster spoons also work, but not as consistently as the Crocodiles.
You can cast a country mile with 1-ounce dart jigs, which is a bonus when reaching fast-moving schools of reds. My favorites are plain silver, with natural needlefish colors coming in a distant second.
If you search the internet for information on catching red salmon in saltwater, you’ll find almost nothing along the lines of what I just described. That’s because in other ports ranging from Washington through the length of Canada to Southeast Alaska, almost everyone trolls for them.
And they catch a lot!
You almost never hear about reds caught while trolling off Kodiak. Does that mean Kodiak reds are special and won’t hit trolling gear?
Of course not.
It is in fact a measure of the way Kodiak trollers usually work. We might do it just right for king salmon and silvers, but our methods are wrong for red salmon.
For one thing, we go too fast. Most reds in other ports are caught while trolling very slowly, on the order of 1 to 1.5 mph. Most trollers in Kodiak can’t even go that slowly unless they resort to their kicker or smaller outboard.
Another issue is what we tie on the end of our lines.
The lures and flashers we use are entirely too big. Red salmon (or sockeye) trollers use the little 2/0 herring dodgers. They also rely on very small hoochies or even bare red hooks a short distance behind the dodgers.
The final detail for saltwater red fishing concerns fishing depths. Most folks south of us fish deeper open water around headlands and through passes with their hooks around 60 feet down.
I’ve tried deeper trolling, and it has worked for me. But I don’t know enough about offshore areas to reliably find the reds reliably. Yet, that is.
I’ve had my best luck fishing known concentrations of reds in shallower water while running my gear about 10 feet under the surface.
Tired of the crowds?
Leave them behind and join me in the search for offshore reds.
It will be great if you spot a few in the rivers right away. But in the bigger picture, a few reds in the river means there are a lot more offshore waiting their moment to come home to spawn.