Social media was burning up this week with reports of a massive run of Chinook salmon up the Salmon River in Pulaski.
There were photos of salmon chasing each other over dry sandbars (and with the river running at just 222 cubic feet per second as of Monday, there was more dry land than anyone would like). There were photos of pools just brimming with big, bright, three-foot fish, full of brute strength and wild energy.
But just because the river’s full of fish doesn’t mean you’re going to catch many fair-and-square. After all, the Chinook are not in the river to feed. Nature wisely turns off their appetites so they don’t gobble up the next generation before the eggs even hatch.
There’s a large dollop of mystery in getting salmon of any species to strike. Most likely, the fish are acting out of aggression or curiosity.
Lots of fish are hooked in big runs like the one this week, but a great many are foul-hooked, either on purpose — often by people who believe Chinook never strike — or unintentionally. With that many big fish present and large numbers of flies drifting and swinging through the water, it’s almost unavoidable.
But true strikes do happen, said Geoff Schaacke of Ballston Spa, a veteran Lake Ontario tributary angler.
“In the lower river, they will hit a dead-drifted bait or fly,” he said. “Bright estaz and such seem to get the job done. Most people think you are snagging that way, but I’ve watched enough turn for the fly over the years to know they will hit.”
“It’s not a numbers game. If you have the patience to watch 500 to 1,000 fish go by and hope one hits, then you can be successful. If you can be happy watching a pool of 100 salmon milling around, and keep presenting a fly and resist the urge to snag, then you may get one or two to hit throughout the day.”
Then again, “sometimes, you strike lightning and every fish hits,” he said. “Depends on the day, fish and how much change you have in your right pocket.”
Chinooks don’t get a lot of respect from fly-fishers. After all, their arrival draws so many anglers that the Salmon River is often comically crowded. That kind of fishing pressure and the high ratio of snags to strikes is a little disheartening for anyone who cares about fair chase.
Many who consider themselves serious fly-fishers say they’d rather catch anything but Chinooks — cohos, the smaller, but more acrobatic species of salmon; steelhead trout, a fish that’s almost revered for its beauty, power and degree of difficulty, both hooking and landing; and lately, Atlantic salmon — the fish the Salmon River were named for in the first place. They may be making a comeback, and that would be a welcome development.
But away from the crowds, Chinook fishing is a much better experience than the shoulder-to-shoulder snagfest at the most popular pools.
The fish themselves are spectacular when first in from the lake, and the nice weather is a bonus — a far cry from the gloom of November. The Douglaston Salmon Run is your best bet if you don’t mind the $45 daily fee — it’s the first stop after Lake Ontario and the fish are still bright and fresh. The number of anglers is restricted, and the riverbanks are undeveloped.
In any case, the Salmon River is open for business.
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