Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Fly Fishing Salmon in Wisconsin

Every August, I get giddy like a small child knowing Fall is just around the corner. "The Run" is coming. Another month, and the Lake Michigan tributaries become ripe with the bounty of the Fall migration of Salmon, Steelhead, and Brown Trout.  I begin to watch water levels and weather forecasts hoping for a cold front and a downpour.
The first run is the Chinook or "King" Salmon. These fish are typically four year olds, however, three and five year olds making the run are not uncommon.  These fish range anywhere from 10-25 lbs with the largest fish topping 35 lbs.  The run's start is usually marked by two factors; time of year and rainfall. Typically, the run begins in late August or Early September and can run for two months depending on weather and water conditions. Once late August comes, it is just a matter of waiting for a good downpour.  A hard rain that raises river levels will push fish from their staging areas in harbors and river mouths up into the rivers themselves.  This continues for the length of the entire run.  Every sustained instance of rain pushes fresh fish into the system.  These fish are seeking large riffle structures to make their spawning beds or "redds".

While there is a wealth of fish present in the system, Mother Nature throws fishermen a curveball when it comes to catching these fish.  Salmon undergo a physiological change in their digestive system and they no longer actively feed for nutritional purposes once they begin their spawning run (also why they die after). However, their appetite is replaced by an aggressive attitude. Salmon will strike out of aggression far more often than any specific feeding behavior at this time of year.  There are two different strategies to make the most of a Salmon's aggression: Early in the run large, gaudy streamer patterns elicit territorial strikes from pre spawn fish. Once the fish have moved up onto their redds, switching to egg patterns brings aggressive survivalist strikes.  Simply put, these fish don't want any other fish in their neighborhood and they don't want other fish's offspring to survive.  In the most fevered fish, the result can be strikes that border on psychotic. Ultra aggressive fish will move four or five feet once agitated to destroy what they view as a threat.  If they are hooked and lost, they will move back into position and they can be hooked again mere minutes later.  They lose all sense of rationality and solely respond to their most basic primal and instinctual callings.

The size of these fish dictates the need for a 7-9 weight rod.  Tippets need to be strong to turn these big fish in heavy runs so 1X or 2X is commonplace.  A large diameter reel makes palming and picking up line easier while a smooth drag becomes very necessary when you're trying to stop a 30 lb freight train with the current at its' back.  Flies of all colors can be effective, however I have had the most success on brightly colored bunny and tinsel streamers and large orange and pink egg patterns.

Tying the Popsicle Tube Fly:

It is important to note, there is no natural reproduction on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan because of poor spawning habitat.  These fish are stocked by the Department of Natural Resources throughout the states surrounding Lake Michigan by the hundreds of thousands with the specific goals of sport fishing and invasive species control.  Targeting fish on redds is a hot button topic amongst fishermen.  Some people find it unsportsmanlike to target spawning fish.  I believe there's two very basic facts to consider when it comes to fishing redds in Wisconsin; the fish are not actually reproducing and its' not illegal.  Past those two factors, it is all personal perspective and preference.
Some great stocking and Salmon history information can be seen in this video:

The 2013 stocking numbers for the Great Lakes has been vastly reduced for the coming years.  This is a result of a drop in forage numbers.   This won't affect fisherman for another few years as the year class grows, however, it is something on the horizon.  A presentation of the stocking report and recommendation can be found below.  It's a little lengthy and pretty dry, but it is vital information for upcoming runs.