Anyone who’s successfully chased king salmon using a spey rod knows it’s insanely exciting. The pull-your-arm-off grab happens more often with king salmon than even with steelhead. The runs are powerful, and with a chance at hooking one over 30 pounds on any given tide makes it a truly addictive hobby. One of the things that gets a lot of people interested in trying it is that it often happens in the summertime. It can be windy and wet, but it’s very rarely cold. In British Columbia, you can almost guarantee that at some point during king season temperatures will soar into the 90s. Those who fear having to navigate cold frigid waters while fishing for winter steelhead will feel like they could make a go at summer chinook. This has attracted a new collective audience that’s pining for opportunities to swing for kings. Heck, you can include us in that group, as those beautiful chrome kings hammer swung flies like no other.
We have been running trips on the B.C. coast for five years and unfortunately have witnessed firsthand a very expedited decline in fish stocks. Five fish days have turned into one fish day on the productive wild runs. Of course, the hatchery rivers can still produce high-encounter days.
Where have the king salmon gone? Well, let’s start with what’s happening with the other species of salmon. The truth is that Pacific salmon are more abundant than ever. Unfortunately, it isn’t the right kind of salmon. Pink salmon account for 67% of the total abundance of Pacific salmon in the ocean. Chinook, coho, and steelhead account for 4%. Pacific hatcheries from Japan, Alaska, and Russia are dumping over five billion hatchery fish— mostly chum and pinks—into the ocean. Alaska is the worst offender of this practice. In fact, 48% of commercial fish caught in Alaska are figured to be hatchery fish. When you disproportionally alter the oceans natural balance you can expect things to change. Thing have certainly changed.
Due to this decline, there have been closures in both B.C. and Alaska. In some cases, there isn’t even enough fish to allow for catch and release practices, though this has sparked great debate. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there’s a desire to change and help the chinook rebound. There are also still fisheries that are thriving. It just means that we have to really minimize our impact on the water when fishing for kings. Fishing single, barbless hooks and keeping caught fish in the water to be released is a good place to start.
If you decide you want to attempt to catch a king on a swung fly, you have to decide where you want to do it. Some rivers are extremely difficult to fish. They require long-distance casting, around 80 to 90 feet to reach holding water. The difficulty level rises with how heavy of a sink tip you need to use. On some of our coastal rivers we use 12 feet of T14 or T17 with big powerful rods. This can be very difficult for a beginner. The upside is that coastal B.C. gives you the best chance at catching a king of a lifetime. The rivers are stunningly beautiful, with scenery that rivals anything in the world: snow-peaked mountains, sheer granite cliffs, and aqua turquoise waters. B.C. coastal kings are often a much brighter chrome than fish found in Alaska. In fact, the fish in B.C. with any hint of colour showing don’t earn many bragging points. This is where you see blinding silver king salmon that you need sunglasses in order to look at— tide-fresh monsters with sea lice that test every knot in your line. Hooks straighten all the time, people are spooled, and rods are broken.
With the Skeena closing and the returns in the North Coast so low, we sent many of our guests into a very small intimate river on Kodiak Island, Alaska—specifically, to a small camp catering to six fly anglers a week. The river is so small that guests actually walk and wade most days to swing for kings. The river is shallow and gentle, and as such allows for very easy wading. If the pool is deep and wide enough to hold king salmon, then you’ll most likely catch one. Switch rods with very light sink tips and medium-sized flies are the most productive in these scenarios. This is an excellent place to catch good numbers of kings on the fly. Even on a bad return year, a group of six anglers will hook over 70 kings in a week. On a big return, the numbers are downright silly. The size of fish is also great in Alaska, but there are fewer fish over 40 pounds than you would find in B.C. In the North Coast of B.C., kings over 30 pounds are fairly common.
If you want to get the full Alaskan experience—the solitude, the brown bears, the sockeye salmon—then you should seriously consider joining us up in Kodiak Island. It’s extremely remote up there, and there’s a good chance that you won’t see many other anglers, if any, during the week. The fishing is exceptional and you will become proficient in successfully hooking and fighting king salmon on spey rods.
If you’re an advanced spey caster and want to feel that explosive grab from a king salmon out in the middle of the river after bombing out a 75-foot cast into a heavy current, then you need to fly into Northern B.C. The pristine rivers are fast, big, and hard to navigate. They have less fish swimming up them, but the ones that do will battle you like no other freshwater fish ever has before.
No matter where you decide to spey fish for king salmon, the important thing is that you try. Countless articles have been written and videos made in recent years about this sport, and with good reason. The fish are unbelievable. Almost every trip you go on will bring you face to face with fish that you will never forget—either from a blistering run that straightened a hook, or from an aerial show that puts Cirque du Soleil to shame. Put conservation first, but when your opportunity to catch these fish presents itself, grab it as fast as you can and never look back.