Fly Fishing for Spring Chinook Salmon
Spring Chinook are a bit like summer steelhead because they return to their river several months before spawning. They are the strongest salmonids in our area, averaging 14 to 25 pounds, and they can exceed 40 pounds. Some years, 30 pounders are quite common and when you hook one of these brutes, be prepared for a fight. All Spring Chinooks enter the river ocean-bright and they have enough fat reserves to maintain them until they spawn in September.
Spring Chinook can be caught as early as mid to late February, although they are still rare through March. During warmer water periods in mid to late April, small bursts of Chinooks enter our rivers in fishable numbers. Most years, May brings a steady procession and the run peaks in June, trailing off through July. By late July and August, these fish have lost much of their body fat and are dark and often are spotted with fungus. By this time they are beyond their prime.
Chinooks are fish that take cover from the light, so the best fishing is early morning and late evening. During midday, they habitually quit moving and dwell in deep holes under fast water were they are virtually impossible to reach with current fly fishing techniques. However, sight fishing in some pools can be fruitful with very fast sinking lines even at noon. Like steelhead fishing, cloudy days can offer advantages.
Chinooks are territorial when moving and are easier to get at when they are in water of moderate depth. Fast sinking lines are still the most practical to get your fly in front of them. Anglers should prime themselves to fish at depths of between four and twelve feet. The fly should fish a good deal slower than the current. Be prepared to lose some flies from hang-ups because Chinook like big bottom structures. Spey equipment used for winter steelhead is suitable for spring Chinook. During high water run-off periods, Chinooks can be encountered in water of shallower depths when fish are moving between pools.
These salmonids are much larger on average than steelhead and require heavier tackle. Single-hand rods from 9 to 10 weight are most handy. Eight to nine weight Spey rods capable of throwing Skagit heads with fast sinking tips are more versatile on most water. Ten weight Spey rods are recommended for some faster rivers or where larger flies are used. Wind is typically not a factor while casting on our local rivers.
Larger flies are the norm. Hook sizes 2 to 1/0 are the most often used. Fly size averages 2.5 to 5 inches and some of these flies should be weighted. Marabou or rabbit strip flies are the most well liked in chartreuse, red, black, purple, pink, and orange. Blue and chartreuse flies have been popular for Springers in recent years. All colors can be combined with generous amounts of Krystal Flash or Flashabou. Shrimp, squid, and baitfish patterns are all proven.
Reels with disk drags and the ability to hold 200 yards of thirty-pound test backing are the best. 15 to 20 pound test abrasion-resistant tippet is absolutely necessary. Battles can last over an hour, with about a quarter to half an hour is average. During this period, an angler can expect to negotiate many yards of river bank.
It’s quite amazing that Chinook are actively pursued by only a few Northwest fly fishermen. They are terrific fly rod fish. The best anglers work to acquire specific skills, and maintain an aptitude to be adaptable. Spring Chinooks are, however, as easy to catch as winter steelhead if you know what you are doing. These fish are world-class and deserve your consideration.