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Ard Stetts Series

  "Lying in Wait"

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Ard Stetts, rewarded with a nice Sockeye - his pontoon boat in the background.

By Ard Stetts for The Real Skinny

Iíll open this installment for Salmonfly.Net by asking readers if their salmon fishing experiences are different from what they envisioned before casting the first fly in hopes of landing the BIG one.

Salmon jumping fallsFor me, my first salmon fishing adventure was nothing like the pristine accounts I had read about when I was young. I headed to Maine with certain perceptions and expectations of what the fishing was going to be like. I read many tales about fishing for salmon, and all the beautiful flies invented long before I was born. Visions of one of my own ďJock ScottsĒ gracefully swinging through crystal clear water to the lie of a magnificent waiting fish dominated my thoughts. It was the 1970ís and there were rumored to be a few Atlantic salmon in the mighty Penobscot River. I took my trip in the fall, knowing that Maine would offer a mixed bag. If the Atlantic salmon effort did not go as planned, I would have the landlocked variety to fish for in the north central part of the state. 

Orange TipThe Penobscot was high with rain water and much larger than I had ever anticipated.  After spending a day looking for an area where a person could wade to fish, I gave up and traveled to Greenville Maine where I fished all the rivers in that area that I could manage. Some of the better were the Moose, the Kennebec, and the Roach rivers. Here I found that fishing my artistically constructed featherwing streamers was not as easy as I had thought it would be. Weight was going to be needed, and a lot of it. Like the big Penobscot, these rivers were deep and swift. I caught a good number of landlocks, some of which were large. Back in the seventies there were quite a few big landlocked salmon in Piscataquis County Maine. My success was no doubt due to the sheer numbers of fish making their spawning run, not a result of my knowing what I was doing. That has been many years ago now, but the difficult conditions in which we must fish for salmon are much the same.

Here in Alaska, you would think that catching wild salmon would be a pretty easy task. Back in 1950, fishing alone on the river bank in the Last Frontier, you could catch one every cast. But this is 2009, and you will not be alone in most cases.  I quickly discovered that all the experience I had fishing for trout and salmon would need to be mustered.  I needed to adapt some new strategies. Just like my early experiences with deep swift water, the rivers here are often swelled with either snow melt or rain water. Once again I find that the fishing isnít always like you wish it would be.

There are some well known places where salmon runs of incredible proportions still occur, but year by year they are beginning to show signs of waning. The Russian River on the Kenai Peninsula is still receiving two runs of sockeye salmon every year that sometimes fill the channel to mind boggling levels. But the number of fishermen increases each year also. If you choose the Russian as one of your destinations for salmon fishing you will be one of literally thousands of people who will crowd the little stream this season. So what do you do?

Pontoon Boat FishingI was faced with this situation and chose to do what I learned as a trout fisherman. I seek out the places where there are either no or very few other anglers. Of course along with the diminished number of angling competitors comes the fact that there are fewer fish running the streams. Fewer fish means that you have a smaller window for error.  Spooking the fish means less chance of finding more without hiking the waterís edge. In many cases a hike along the riverís edge is difficult, and often impossible due to the thick shore line vegetation and the depth of the water. I often employ a Fishcat 13í pontoon boat to locate fish, and then beach the boat and wade to them.

Just like when stalking trout, you should wear a pair of good polarized fishing glasses.  Whether you are walking or floating, remember; donít let the fish see you!  Almost anywhere you fish for salmon the fish are stressed. They have survived the predators of their days as fry and all of their sub-adult lives. Now after reaching maturity they must survive commercial fishing fleets, sea lions, seals, and of course the armadas of sport fishing boats that lie in wait for them. They are spooky and once they have spotted you, the chance of getting one to strike a fly is between slim and none.

Big DipperHere is a strategy to consider if you find yourself alone on a stretch of water and you know that there may be salmon or steelhead present. When it comes to fly fishing for salmon, sight fishing is the number one factor that will contribute to success. First, remember that wild fish have very good eyesight.  Treat them as if you are trying to sneak up on a bunch of Bald Eagles. Stay out of the open if you can. As you get nearer to the water, try to move slowly from tree to tree. And when moving toward the waterís edge, either use a tree to hide your approach or crawl into a good position from which to observe the area. Now if this sounds extreme ask yourself this, what are you there for? If you are really there to catch fish, then the less the fish know about your presence, the higher your probability of meeting your goal.

Western DoctorBy taking the necessary time for observation you will be able to determine where fish are, and how best to approach them. When you think you know how youíre going to get to them make very sure there aren't two or three laying between you and the target fish. If you spook wild fish and send a couple running, you might as well toss a few goonies in to go with them. Remember this, fish do not run for exercise or for fun! Fish flee when there is a danger present. Enter the water slowly and with as few waves as you can manage. Your goal is to identify where fish are, and get close enough to make a good presentation without being spotted.  Your cast must be exact in order not to give yourself away.  Often they know what a fly line is, and it is an identifiable danger they will respond to. Do not make any false casts over the area where you know the fish are at. Make your first cast either far right or left of the real target. Use this first test cast to adjust your distance and to Fitch Tailcheck the sink rate of your fly. You may need to add weight (a necessary evil) in order to reach the strata where the fish are. You will also need to determine how far upstream and how much line mending you will need to do in order to have the fly and the fish in the same place at the same time. If the tackle needs any adjustment make it prior to casting to the target area. Now that your terminal tackle is ready and you have your range adjusted, make your presentation. At this point you will be acutely aware of why our salmon flies are so colorful. You can, with practice, guide the fly directly to the fish.  Usually this results in a hook up. If you are not taking the time and care to give yourself the absolute best odds for success, then you need to consider treating salmon fishing more like trout fishing. Think more like a deer hunter and be sneaky.

Anchor Demon Cains River tyleIf the river you fish is crowded with other fishermen, then another strategy will be needed. When I find myself one of many on the water, I switch methods from stealth to patience. You can choose a good looking channel and hold that position, or you can go looking for them. I have spent entire days waiting for fish to move into the water before me. Sometimes they come and my patience is rewarded, other times they never show. Marching along the river searching for the shadow, the movement of a tail or the opening and closing of a mouth is your second option. Once you do spot a fish and no one is fishing in the immediate area revert back to stealth mode.  Treat the situation as if you are alone on the river and move into position slowly and get prepared to make a good presentation as described earlier in this article.

It is my intention to share tactics that I utilize every time I fish with you through my writing. My hope is that you will find within these paragraphs some useful piece of information that will enhance your fishing especially if you are after salmon or steelhead.

Ard Stetts

The Flies

Anchor Demon; Cainís River StyleThe Big DipperFitch TailOrange Tip
Western Doctor


Ard Stetts

The Real Skinny, will now be a regular feature of informative articles written by Ard Stetts for Salmonfly.Net about fly fishing for salmon and steelhead.  Ard Stetts was born in north central Pennsylvania and now resides in Alaska. He has been tying classic Salmon, Landlocked Salmon and Featherwing Trout Streamers for 35 years and has learned from some of the best.  Also see The Flies of Ard Stetts.


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