The Lure of Salmon
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Most any respectable salmon fisherman knows how to catch a salmon; the trick then lies in the where and when part of the equation. While it’s been said that science raises more questions that it answers, here’s a bit of what science has found to help get your salmon on.
I suppose that catching your first salmon at the age of eleven could have its drawbacks. I only bring this up because it’s been said that children are very impressionable and thus there may be repercussions from tainting an innocent life at that tender age. However, ever since that life-altering salmon was placed in my cooler, I’ve spent almost 35 years testing the theory and have yet to find any hard evidence of a “drawback”.
Assuming that you don’t consider obsession, stalking, or blind fixation blemishes of character, we’re on the same page. In the early 70’s (yes, 1970’s) my Aunt and Uncle routinely rescued me from the Arizona desert where I was growing up, in order to spend summers with them on their island farm in western Washington. It began as an innocent boat ride, how was I to know? “Yes”, I tell my therapist, “that’s how it all started.”
Just as I was pouring my second cup of hot cocoa, a reel screamed, my Aunt screamed and I screamed… my scream relating more to the hot liquid seeping into my pants than the other screams. “Come here Tattoo,” yelled my Aunt. Yes, that was my childhood name within the family, although I was, in fact, Tat-four (see byline).
I found myself with rod in hand, being coached by experts “Pump up, reel down, pump up, reel down.” Now, I had landed many a fine pan-sized trout in the ponderosa forests of northern Arizona and even a few decent bass in the desert lakes, but nothing had prepared me for an angry, mature Chinook salmon. Nothing, with a capital “N”.
The next few minutes had my mind reeling, please excuse the unintentional-pun again, and the cooling cocoa running down the inside of my pants went un-noticed. After a few more “just hold the rod up an let ‘em run” runs, and even more wicked “pump up, reel down”s, I opened my stress-clenched eyes to see a fine bright specimen in the 25-pound class that had magically appeared inside a net on the deck of the boat. Of course, as an eleven-year-old, it was easily double that size, and triple by the time I returned home to Arizona two months later. Yep, they grow real fast during those summer months.
Well, that was the end of the innocence. That night, with a flashlight under the covers, I read outdoor magazines until I didn’t need the flashlight any more because it was dawn. Then, stretching and yawning like a well-slept boy I arrived at the chow table. “What would you like for breakfast, Tattoo?” my Aunt asked. “Do you know the difference between the clinch knot and the ‘improved’ clinch knot?” was my response. She just pivoted and stared at me.A few hours later my apprenticeship began. My Aunt, who was really the ringleader of fishing in my family, sat me down and graciously ladled out information most locals had to buy on the black market. This continued daily until our next excursion upon the saltwater a week later. We slayed ‘em. It was the peak of the run and we used barbless hooks before barbless hooks were required just so we could shake fish faster and get back to fishing. This went on for a couple of more weeks and I thought that this was just how fishing was. Why would anyone NOT like salmon fishing? Was the world just stupid? I couldn’t fathom that some kid would take Saturday morning cartoons over this. The second weekend of August my bubble burst. We fished 5 five hours for two shakers. I was convinced that my roadside Blackberry vending business had cursed me with scent and I soaked my hands in herring juice for two hours that afternoon. I had spent the previous week gathering and selling berries for money to buy fishing magazines. I burned the “Blackberries for Sale” sign that was born from a piece of the old barn and painted with seven colors of leftover house paint.It wasn’t until after I had gone to these radical extremes that my Aunt informed me that I had completed “Basic Training” and now knew “How” to catch salmon, and was ready to enroll in the under-grad courses of “When & Where” to catch salmon. In order to do so, I would have exactly nine months to study abroad (Arizona) and a three-month practical exam the following summer. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that can be fully grasped in the course of a school year, especially when you’re being pounded by other teachers to learn silly things like English and Math. I have almost 35-years of training and am still no PhD. All waters and ecosystems have their own traits, trends, and circumstances, each of which is variable. For learning, it’s best to concentrate on your own little piece of the world to truly understand the complexities but there are some universal truths as well.
Freshwater habitats offer a comparatively protected, yet finite, environment for the eggs to be deposited, incubate and hatch. There are less predatory threats here than in the open ocean and thus the little guys can thrive for a short period of time while growing large enough to prepare for the next stage of their lives.However, there comes a time in their freshwater existence that the ecosystem can no longer support this population of what can be hundreds of thousands in some watersheds. Therefore, nature has provided them with the means to not only survive but thrive in open sea conditions. Thus their entry into marine waters where food is plentiful and competition disperse.History, and nature, have proven that it is much easier to study fish in a more closed and manageable environment, namely rivers and streams. Understandably, relatively little (compared to freshwater studies) has been accomplished in the name of understanding ecology of the ocean stage of pacific salmon. However, there has been much progress in the field over the last thirty years and more accurate studies are available.
Each year, juvenile salmon dump into the Pacific with many estimates running over 10 billion. As fishermen, what concerns us most (after assuming that populations and habitat are healthy) is where and when can we intercept the returning adults. This is an extremely complex equation and depending upon ocean, atmospheric, river and a plethora of other conditions, can vary greatly year after year.Scientists and biologists are still to this day struggling with the complexities of salmon migration but studies over the past 30 years have brought forth many interesting facts. The migrations (or acts of migration) appear to require a more sophisticated guidance system than that of an AIM air-to-air missile.
Migration, which has greatly evolved over time (for salmon as well as other animals), is nature’s process of adapting living creatures to optimize conditions for both feeding and breeding activities. These activities usually take place in different locales which helps the species maintain great populations without wiping out their local food bank. Just like us, one McDonald’s can only fry so many hamburgers in a day so we need a chain of restaurants to keep the population alive. Well sorry, bad example.
While there are five species of Pacific salmon to contend with, there are some generalities that speak for most species. It’s been discovered that most salmon migrate in a rapid and directed movement, at least in the open ocean to coastal waters portion of their trip. Some species, once they arrive in coastal waters, may tend to “wander” near their tributaries waiting for a cue to move upstream but the initial migration from the ocean is normally swift and direct.
Variances in ocean temperatures account for some of the “sway” in run timing. Because it is believed that salmon begin the initial phase of their migration (i.e. ocean to coastal) almost on cue each year, the location of where they start their trip is important. It has been shown that after a colder winter, salmon are further south in latitude than in a warmer winter. This helps us understand a later arrival to northern streams and an earlier arrival to watersheds further south.
Once salmon reach coastal waters near their estuary destination, they often move in unpredictable, erratic patterns. This is what makes fishing for them a challenge at times as we have all seen a hotspot turn frigid on a moment’s notice for no apparent reason. While there are “traditional” hotspots in many marine locations around the state, they are by no means written in stone in terms of timing.
To this day relatively little is understood, or I should say know, about the mechanisms involved in salmon navigation. There are many, many theories from magnetic guidance, map-sense navigation and even smell; however, most of these theories have loopholes and cannot be proven across the board.Annual and seasonal trends are most trustworthy and in a general sense can be followed as long as fishermen remain as adaptable as the fish. I have clients that come to Alaska the same calendar week each year but often encounter totally different fishery conditions, but I suppose that’s what keeps it interesting. I think it would become a little mundane if you came to expect and encounter the same thing year after year.
The good news is that for the most part salmon are feeding aggressively when they arrive in coastal waters. Find the fish, and you’ll put a few in the box. Again, this isn’t a daily phenomenon that you can take to the bank especially after the fish have been in the area a while, but they are putting away the calories needed for their trip upstream.
Do your own “scientific” studies. Keep logs of what, when, where and how you caught fish and after a few years you’ll probably notice a trend. Perhaps not by the human calendar but most likely on a seasonal calendar at least. Mother Nature has a sense of humor, I’m sure one of her favorite activities is watching us flail around on her sea, just like we watch football in November. God Bless You, Aunt Annie!
Captain T.A. “Tat” Tatterson has over twenty-five years experience fishing the salt and fresh waters of Alaska. He operates charter boats in Seward, Alaska; San Jose del Cabo, Mexico; and Panama. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his websites at: www.pacificfishing.us; www.pfishmexico.com or www.pescapanama.com