Although people have been targeting kings on a fly for many years it is becoming quite apparent that what we thought we knew 20 years ago was mostly incorrect. In modern fly fishing we are constantly redefining what is considered “fly water” or a “fly species” every day. Advances in technology, techniques, and a better understanding of fish in general has allowed us to start targeting fish successfully in waters that were often overlooked or once considered impossible on the fly.
In our adventures targeting kings on the fly we have found a few key components you need to find. The most important factor is a high density of fish. Just like all salmon they don’t tend to get grabby until they are competing for space in a pool. Fly fishing for king salmon is not effective if their are only a couple fish in a pool or run. If you are fishing water that tends to accumulate a large number of chinook every year like a major confluence in a river, you need to target these fish as soon as possible after arrival. We figure you have about 2 weeks until the fish get stale mulling around staging areas, but upon arrival they are extremely aggressive to the fly. If it is a heavily fished section it can be tougher. It is amazing how fishing pressure diminishes your chances for catching kings on the fly.
Clarity of water is overrated in our opinion. You can catch kings on the fly in very colored water if all the other attributes are correct. Don’t be so quick to give up if you have dirty water, if you know where the fish are (they often roll) and you have a fishable depth you will be in the game.
Water speed is the most important factor in fly fishing for king salmon. These fish rarely move up to bite a fly. They chase flies quite far but only if the fly originated in the correct depth. You can almost be assured if your not getting down to the fish at some point in the swing or cast you are not going to garnish a strike. Obviously water speed dictates how deep we can fish, so this is the most important factor in determining where to target. This is why so few chinook rivers lend themselves to swinging flies with spey rods. Intermediate skagit lines and as much T-17 you can throw helps, but that isn’t exactly fun.
If you don’t have some opportunities to swing for kings a on a river, or you need more that 15 feet of T14 to get down you just don’t have a desirable river to fly fish for kings. With that said you can still get out and try some different techniques. This is why more and more fly fisherman are targeting kings in the back channels, and side sloughs.
Anchor on the edge of the seam so you can cast both ways. Swing into the dead water and strip short quick strips. Your goal is to keep the fly as deep as possible for as long as possible yet giving your fly the illusion of speed. Your fly has to look like its moving fairly fast if your stripping it upstream. Holes with a lot of current, or any speed at all have to be mid range depth. If your river doesn’t have a lot of swing water search out a calm slough. Sometimes your coho type water will attract kings as well.
Eddies are very dependent on what the water speed and depth are, most of which are too fast and have too wild currents. We have found eddies that have a slight enough current running up stream that you can cast, mend and swing into that have been big time producers. Even if it only has 20 feet of this type of current you can work it hard and pull fish out. The main thing you need to do is edit your water to places that may have fish, and that your fly can get down.
Do your research and find
staging water where good amounts of chinook stop
try to get to them early, the longer they sit, and the more they are fished the less chance you have
look for rolling fish in mid range water with a slow steady speed, or target slow dead currents. look for a foot or more of vis but we have caught fish in less.
The main thing is to get out and try. You may not be as productive as the gear guys, but believe us, its well worth it.