The famous running of the bulls takes place in Pamplona, where grown men suffer themselves to be chased down tight city streets by a hundred tons of horned beef. Less famous is the Michigan version, where the bulls wear adipose fins. In either case, they run in July.
King salmon run, spawn, and die, but before expiring they do their bit for the economy by shredding countless leaders, destroying expensive fly lines, smoking dozens of reels, and breaking a few rods. Glancing at the sport on the web or in magazines might provide the impression that Great Lakes salmon, even before entering rivers, become "scabs"— their silver tarnished, their beauty compromised, and their worthiness diminished. Locals like to encourage such mythology.
In Western Michigan, kings invade trout water, and natural reproduction occurs. These returning fish are "wild," and hit the rivers silver and bright. The run begins in August on the Big Manistee. Some West Michigan trout streams have kings in late June, most by mid-July.
Silver kings are monstrously powerful in these small confines. They leave a vast world to enter one infinitely smaller. That vast world makes them big and powerful. The small world crowns them king. And if you're skilled enough to hook an early king with a fly, chances are quite good she'll crown you in return. She might wrap your $70 fly line around a fallen tree, after she tries to rip one of your fingers off with it. Not a game for the faint of heart.
Nor is it a game easily played. Given $1 for every time I've heard a fly-fishing guide tell me he can't figure out early kings over the past 30 years, I could easily afford a new 10-weight rod. But the gauntlet was thrown, the challenge accepted, knowledge shared—and some who guide men to early kings have finally crested the learning curve.
In August the forests enveloping the Big Manistee River are bright green. Light-jacket mornings clothed in mist give way to T-shirt afternoons that open vistas across the scattered wetlands, forests, hills, and high banks. The substrates are primarily soft, allowing the river to cut new courses and topple many trees. Fallen trees divert the current, filling in old pools and creating new ones every year. Single-handed 9- and 10-weight rods allow you to strip and manipulate the line to induce strikes. Two-handed rods make it easier to cast large flies.
Early kings have developed a following. I lived in Michigan 20 years ago, when early kings were entirely overlooked. Locals began hunting them before September, but very few others. People held mistaken impressions, including the old "they don't eat in rivers" myth. But these days, it becomes difficult to find casting room on weekends, especially since the Big 'Manna coughed up the all-tackle, world-record brown trout last year—to a salmon fisherman. Larry Raney is a multi-species fly-fishing guide in the fold of Ray Schmidt. Schmidt Outfitters is based near the Big Manistee, but offers trips on many rivers. "About five or six years ago I figured out you could start catching kings in August on a fly, " Raney said. "It's not as tough as most people think. It's an overlooked fishery, largely because people think salmon stop eating. It's not true with early kings. They chase and they eat."
Well, sometimes. The perfect day for catching early kings has a recipe. "Moon phases (new and full) bring fish up in August," Raney added. "Wind direction is critical. A northwest wind brings fish toward shore in Lake Michigan. That combined with dropping temperatures at night and a little rain encourages them to move upriver. A perfect day for salmon in August is misty, cloudy, and rainy with low pressure slowly rising. A steady barometer is good, and a dropping barometer is bad."
As the season progresses, kings darken. They sit in deep pools and sulk. The longer they've been in the river, the harder they become to entice. Kings are most responsive to a fly within the first five or six days after they enter rivers—another reason to target kings in August.
In September and October, as they move up on gravel riffles, another window opens. Territorial imperatives drive them to chase and crush invaders on the redds. It's a great way to catch kings, but I leave them alone wherever natural reproduction occurs. They can be released and may retain enough energy to spawn, but maybe not. And you're literally wading across or planting anchors on nests and eggs to approach them or chase them down. It's a good time to visit put-and-take waters, and harass stocked kings to your heart's content.
Matt Supinski operates Gray Drake Outfitters. He's been guiding fly fishermen for over 14 years on the St. Joseph, Pere Marquette, Muskegon, and Manistee rivers for salmon and steelhead. "Early kings behave in similar fashion in all the rivers here," he said. "Look for the deepest pools. That's the coolest water where most of the sunlight is filtered out. Having big springs entering the river just upstream is another key. Kings are staging, just like they do in the big lakes. Dredging doesn't work. They're stratified in that deep pool, so early in the morning start stripping as the fly hits the water and move fast.Summer kings in West Michigan enter the rivers strong and bright, and chase large, brightly colored fly patterns. Look for them in deep holes downstream of coldwater inflows, and around instream woody debris.
"Later in the day you want to swing it a little slower because they'll spend more time inspecting. A slow, steady swing is best. Pretty much like Atlantics—they don't want it right in their face. The more the fly moves away from them the better kings like it."
Captain Bill Boynton is an avid fly fisherman who spends the winter guiding for tarpon out of Homosassa, Florida. During summer and fall, he guides salmon fishermen on the Big Manistee. "Salmon like low-light conditions and slow water," he said. "They won't go out of their way to eat. Salmon hold behind logjams and other current breaks."
Classic pools for Chinooks are deep and slow, but some overriding factors occur early. "Slow water is way more important than deep water," Raney said. "I once had a client say, 'If salmon were here, we'd see them,' just before a giant wake intercepted his fly crossing over shallow sand. Fish everything, but concentrate your efforts in the most likely stretches of river. I'm looking for deep, woody holes where a coldwater creek runs in."
Inflowing springs, rivulets, and brook-trout streams provide temperature moderation for up to a mile downriver, Raney said. "Typical water temps in August are 68 to 70 degrees F.," he said. "Don't worry. They fight. I've been dragged to my knees a lot by salmon in August," Raney said. "But they can be stressed by the warm temperatures. Most of the kings in any stretch of river will be found in pools associated with wood cover directly downstream of a cold-water inflow."
Like many big-river guides in Michigan these days, Raney fishes from a jet boat equipped with oars. The jet takes him from one inflowing freshet to the next. The oars help him cover everything downstream for a mile. "I don't stay on a spot long," he said. "About 10 to 15 casts. I'm rowing until I reach a spot likely to hold several fish. That's how you learn the river. Hit everything that's likely to hold a fish." That means any and all shaded, slow water behind or under wood cover, and all water deep enough to hide the bottom from view.
Cape of the Matador
Raney uses a 9½-foot, 10-weight Sage. His line is a RIO 400-grain sinking tip. Boynton uses various 9-foot, 9-weight rods and a RIO or Scientific Anglers 300- to 350-grain sinking tip. Heavy rods are required not only to turn kings charging for cover, but also to put long, wind-resistant flies on target in close quarters. Early-season salmon flies tend to be big.
"Some of my flies look like I killed a bird and strung a hook through it," Raney laughed. "Big and bulky. One of my favorites is the CF Baitfish, but I'll try anything from big trout streamers to pike and tarpon flies. The most productive flies in the early season tend to be 4 to 7 inches long. Articulated flies work really well. The more movement the fly has, the better. Schmidt's Salmon Snake is a classic example. Materials should provide flash and movement. Rabbit, Fish Hair, marabou—anything with a lot of movement combined with Flashabou, Lite-Brite, or anything reflective."Rainy's CF Whistler
Hook: #1/0 Mustad 34007 or similar.
Thread: 3/0 to match collar.
Wing: Rainy's Premium Craft Fur mixed with pearl Lite-Brite or Ice Wing Fiber.
Collar: Rainy's Premium Craft Fur mixed with pearl Lite-Brite or Ice Wing Fiber.
Eyes: Large silver bead chain.
Flash/Lateral lines: Silver Holographic Flashabou.
Many say the strike of a salmon in flowing water is simply an instinctive predatory response, and coloration of the most productive flies seems to bear that out. The best Great Lakes salmon flies imitate the colors of big-water baitfish like smelt, perch, alewives, or gobies. Black, green, blue, or chartreuse backs with pearl bellies and bright fire-tiger patterns seem universally effective. Bright green, orange, and chartreuse attractor patterns follow close behind.
Flash and vibration are key triggers. "Sometimes I add rattles or put small spinner blades ahead of the fly," Raney said. "But the real trick is having a lot of flashy movement built in."
Both guides mentioned that some flies tied for stripers, tarpon, pike, or even muskies can be effective. I agree, my only stipulation being the ability to hover and undulate. The sink tip holds it down, so a fly that hovers tends to be unweighted and fairly thick with materials that at least resist sinking, like bucktail and bunny strip. Woolly Buggers make good salmon flies on size #1 to 2/0 hooks because they hover and undulate in the current. They look alive. Better to be good than to look good, in this case. Give me a black bunny strip any day over a beautiful traditional that produces a stiff, motionless profile.
Most guides use short, stout leaders they can quickly replace. Raney starts with 30-pound Maxima Chameleon for a butt section. He ties on a #8 swivel and adds 3 feet of 15- to 20-pound Maxima Ultragreen. The finished product is 4 feet long. Boynton uses a similar setup to tie 5-foot leaders with a 20-pound butt and 3 feet of 15- to 17-pound mono for tippet. Salmon focus on the fly, and if it's big and flashy, they tend to ignore the leader, but I use 17- to 20-pound Toray Superhard fluorocarbon tippets, just in case.
"Be in position and ready to cast when the light comes up," Raney said. "Low-light periods are the best times. I generally split my days when guiding to cover daybreak and sunset. The first and last hours of the day are crucial in August.
"I position just downstream of a logjam, on the midriver side, and cast across stream to the pool behind it," he continued. "I'm looking for soft water behind current breaks and casting in a traditional manner. I make one mend and begin a countdown. In a really loggy spot you need to start stripping right away. It's dropping 5 to 8 inches per second with a 400-grain sinking-tip. Get the fly down 3 to 5 feet and start stripping. Usually they respond best to a quick, steady strip, but we do play with speed and rod twitches. The most common cadence is to strip two or three times, then add a couple of rod twitches."
Boynton approaches pools a little differently. "I fish out of an 18-foot Fishrite Power Drifter that Ray Schmidt and I designed back in the 1990s to allow two men to fly cast at the same time," he said. Like Raney, he keeps moving, rowing, and dropping anchor through the most likely stretches of river, but he likes to anchor slightly upstream of the pool. "I cast at a 45-degree angle downstream and strip it back in," Boynton said. "I like to cast across a current seam—a likely holding spot for active fish. The retrieve is slow and steady, letting the fly work against the current as it intercepts that seam. I start the retrieve with a twitch. There are many ways to trigger strikes and it changes day-to-day, so I keep altering the speed of the strip, adding a rod twitch or two at various points in the retrieve."
Boynton is right: Salmon are triggered by a variety of things. Think about it. They feed on baitfish every day for four years. Everything they've learned continues to function in rivers. On good days, they strike everything that moves within reach. On bad days, the predatory response can be triggered only by one or two moves, and it's up to you to discover and employ those moves. Kings strike when baitfish: A) Make sudden movements; B) Stop; C) Behave as if wounded, sick, or dying; or D) Make sudden course changes.
Some days the best trigger is accomplished by sweeping the rod from one side of your body to the other at mid-retrieve, while stripping, to accelerate, lift, and change the direction of the fly all at the same moment. Salmon have been clocked at 36 mph, making it almost impossible to move a fly too fast for them to overtake it.
Do everything right and you might hook one fairly. That's when the lesson actually begins. Learning to land an August king in the Big 'Manna is more than half the battle. Dealing with heartbreak commands a big portion of the learning curve, too. "You have to stay on the fish when you first hook it," Raney said. "If you take a break to try and put line on the reel, that salmon is going to bury you deep in the wood. Lay the rod over and get the fish to the center of the river. They crash into flies right at boatside sometimes, leaving you with 50 feet of fly line to clear. But concentrate on the king. Let it run, but try to steer it with rod pressure."
The good news is they chase a fly right to your feet sometimes. "Watching a 20-pound king chase a fly to the boat—if you don't enjoy that, you don't have a pulse," Raney laughed. Hook a fresh, silver king in running water with a fly rod. Just once. You'll circle the last week of August on calendars for the rest of your life.
-Matt Straw has been an outdoor writer for 30 years, and fly fishing even longer.
Gray Drake Outfitters
Capt. Bill Boynton