I've caught a lot of salmon all over the Great Lakes region over the years. Whenever I fish, I observe
1. Construct a good fluorocarbon tapered leader. I construct my salmon leaders with 25lb, 20lb, and 15lb fluorocarbon and then the 4th section is my 1st section of tippet. The 1st section of tippet consists of 1x or 2x fluorocarbon (depending on water clarity). You will never turn the fishes head with a lightly constructed leader. I like to make my leaders the length of my rod. You'll figure out what works for you.
2. Never underestimate the power of a small offering for salmon. Look, the reality is, there is no rhyme or reason as to why king salmon ever hit anything. There are arguments that they are aggression strikes only. Others argue that even though they really don't feed much in the river, they can't stop their instincts from hitting food. Who knows? All I know is that sometimes they do strike an offering, and that is the fish I'm looking for. The majority of salmon I catch around the Great Lakes region are on #12-14 hares ear nymphs, stone flies, or egg patterns. I do catch them on hex nymphs as well.
3. Yes, they do hit streamers on the swing. So don't hesitate in trying this. Be willing to mix it up with a variety of offerings.
4. Look for areas of shallow redds and fish the deep water behind them. Every once in a while I see an aggressive buck strike an offering on a redd, but the majority of legitimate strikes are by fish behind the redds in deeper water. Often these are aggressive bucks that are sparring back and forth and nailing everything in their path, regardless of size. This is also a great place to catch brown trout and steelhead gorging on eggs.
Fishing directly over redds will likely only result in foul hooking fish. Getting fixated on the fish you can see will waste a ton of your time and keep you from actually making offerings to fish that are likely to hit.
5. Relax and let your offering drift freely! If a salmon hits your fly...you'll know it. You will likely rarely ever need a pro bass tour set to hook a salmon. When you jerk your offering every time it bumps something, you are setting yourself up to foul hook fish constantly. Frankly, I get irritated when I foul hook a fish. Above and beyond the fact that snagging is no longer legal, it's annoying and robs me of flies and time to be pursuing fish that will hit. So, relax and let that offering swing through the run you are fishing. Your offering is going to bump rocks, logs, and the plethora of fish stuffed in the holes during salmon season.
When a salmon hits you will know it. When you lift your rod at that point you will almost always immediately see a huge salmon head shaking back and forth and it's mouth opening and closing. When you see that, you'll know you did it right! And then....hold on
Also remember that tight lining your drift results in lining (or flossing) of salmon and a much higher rate of foul hooking. One last time, relax and let that offering freely drift through the run. You can do this whether you use an indicator or not.
6. Use as little weight possible to get your offering down. I have chuck & ducked a couple of times when I was on rivers with tremendous flow and deep holes. I can't say I enjoyed it in the least. It is not a relaxing or pleasurable way to spend a day, but occasionally, it is necessary.
The vast majority of the time I am able to use 1-3 BB size splits and that is plenty of weight to get my offering to the level of aggressive fish. The more weight you add, the more likely you are to line or snag fish, even when that is not your intent. I leave a long tag from the blood knot connecting my 3rd and 4th leader sections and apply my split shots to that tag. This lets my offerings drift more naturally in the water without the splits being directly in line with my flies.
7. Make peace with the fact that you are just going to lose some of these fish, even when you do everything right. When salmon are fresh in the rivers they are powerful. You can do everything right and they can still take you to your backing and stick you in a log. Sometimes there is nothing you can do about it. You can't get down river fast enough. When they have you to your backing, you can't keep enough pressure on them or turn them out of a log. The fact is, they win and it is what it is. If you did everything right and did not get the fish in your hand, you come to better appreciate just how powerful and spectacular these fish are. Tip your hat to them and hit the next run.
Consider these things on your next Great Lakes Salmon trip and you will catch more fish and waste less time retying and chasing foul-hooked fish!
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