If you catch a king salmon in the Salmon River in Oswego County this year with an intact adipose fin, you’ll know the fish was born in the river, not in a hatchery.
And at least one observer says he’s seeing large numbers of them. Guide Loren Williams of Westvale said his unscientific guess is that as many as half of the big kings pushing up the Salmon River this season are wild.
In 2008, the state began clipping the adipose fins of all king (also called Chinook) salmon stocked in the river. This is the first year when all hatchery fish returning from Lake Ontario to spawn will have the clipped adipose (that’s the small fin on the fish’s back, near its tail), and therefore, the first year that all fish with unclipped fins can be reliably judged wild.
“People I talk to are all saying the same thing,” said Williams, who was also a member of the U.S. competitive fly-fishing team at the world championships in Italy last month. “What that means, I don’t know, and we need more than one year to really determine anything. But it’s a special experience to catch a wild Pacific salmon that’s lived its entire life in fresh water.”
There are still plenty of king and coho salmon around. Williams noted they don’t feed while on their life-end spawning run, so there’s no point trying to make them hungry.
“It’s an aggression bite, or aggravation bite,” Williams said. “You want to upsize your offering, and have a lot of flash and a lot of color. Get it deep and get it in their face.” Use at least 15-pound test line, he suggests.
Steelheads are moving into the river, too. They own the place in November, after the salmon have spawned and died, but the steelies fresh from the lake in October are some of the prettiest and most aggressive.
When drift-fishing for steelheads, Williams recommends 12-pound tippet — he doesn’t think they’re leader-shy — and hot-colored attractor flies in sizes 6 or 8, such as Sucker Spawn or Glo Bugs.
“I don’t think you need to match the hatch, I think you just need to find the right kind of water and fish it well,” he said.
The right kind of water isn’t deep, slow pools full of salmon. The steelhead will run right through them. Steelhead water is usually described as three to six feet deep, the speed of a fast walk (or faster), with a wavy or choppy surface. Heads of pools are often good choices.
Swingers (anglers who fish bright streamer flies downstream just under the surface) will also do better in swifter water at the heads or tails of pools, Williams said.
The Salmon River is a remarkable fishery, and mid-October is the peak of its popularity. It’s not a place to look for solitude. Some spots, like the Staircase below Pulaski or the Altmar bridge pool, can be astonishingly crowded, especially on weekends.
It’s a wild scene. And if Loren Williams’ and his fellow guides’ observations are correct, it’s getting wilder all the time.
Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at [email protected]
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