Friday, March 13, 2009

How To Fish the Russian River

With proper technique, you can even catch these fish with a baby on your back.
I can't tell you how many times I've encountered tourists in some dismal act of futility along the banks or in the water of the Russian River. They fling their unweighted fly at the water and hope for a fish to bite.

We call it "flogging the river."

I usually try to be helpful and get the neophyte oriented so that there is at least the possibility that they will catch something. Of course, this depends on how long I've been in the water. If I already have a couple of sockeye, I feel a lot more generous with my time than I do when I'm just starting out.

So, with this page, I can tell you, the virtual tourist, the trip planner, all the things I would say on the river, before you ever get off the plane in Anchorage.

Lesson One: Sockeye Salmon (aka, Red Salmon) do not eat when they enter fresh water.

Repeat that to yourself about a hundred times. You'll know the denial has finally ended when you stop asking the following question:
  • "What color of fly should I use?"
I can answer quite definitively: the color that the fish is least likely to notice. It is popular to fish the Russian with fluorescent colored streamers, and it is also common to see the fish running away from these highly visible flies or giving them a wide berth before the line drift gets anywhere near them. My answer is to tie my own grey, black or bottle green flies with a minimal material. Note: AK Fish and Game regulations make it illegal to use a bare hook in the Russian River; otherwise, I'm sure this would be a popular technique among the veterans. On the other hand, it is nice to have some color on the hook in order to track it while it is drifting downstream. This brings us to our next question.
  • "If the fish aren't eating, how can I be expected to catch them?"
It's not entirely unlike feeding an infant. Ever see a baby shaking her head and flailing at the spoon? It isn't easy to get that spoon into the kid's mouth in the beginning, but with practice, you manage to figure it out. The sockeye is no different. All you have to figure out is a technique for getting past the fish's skittishness and then inserting the fly into the swimmer's mouth. The key to getting in the fish's mouth is not the fly color (neutral, as we say above) but the weight. The weight? What does that have to do with it? Most of the sockeyes tend to swim in a range close to the bottom of the river bed, but not on it. So finding the right weight will be crucial. You'll want just enough weight to lightly bounce off the rocky stream bed; you cast upstream at 45 degrees and by the time the line is directly in front of you, you should feel a light bump of the weight hitting bottom. As the line continues downstream, you'll continue to feel the light bouncing. If you get stuck on the bottom, or if you're bouncing heavily, you have too much weight; if you never feel bottom, not enough. Of course, the right weight in one part of the river will not be the right weight in another part of the river, where the water may be swifter or deeper.
  • "What kind of weight should I use?"
I'm glad you asked. Split shot get wedged between rocks too easily. This is a drag. Also, they are not easy to change out once they are mutilated by bouncing off the bottom for a while. I like to use the slinky style of weights with small shots encased in a heavy fabric tube. You can buy these at Cabelas in a variety of weights from 1/4 oz to 1 1/4 oz. I like to put a swivel at the end of my fly line and tie a couple feet of leader onto it. Then I can clip different weights on and off very easily. Note that AK Fish & Game regulations require 18" between weight and hook.
  • "So, now I'm at the right level in the water, how do I get this thing in the fish's mouth?"
Fortunately, much of this work is done for you by the physics of the water and the leader. That is to say: if you have gotten to the right level in the water and if there is a fish situated 20 to 45 degrees downstream of you, and if you have cast the right distance to be able to meet these fish in the mouth with your leader, there is a very good chance that your leader will slip into the fish's slightly open mouth as he lets the water wash over his gills; once the line in in his mouth, the current continue to pull it downstream, which pulls the fly right up to the side of the salmon's face and into its mouth where, generally speaking, it gets stuck. Most people notice this when they begin to retrieve their line, and are often so stunned that they fail to set the hook or prepare what is often an explosive reaction by the fish to being poked in the gums. A spray of water, a line whizzing through the air, and a fish racing upstream: it's exciting, but not exactly what you'd come for.

Next time, we'll talk about your cast.

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