A King Thing: Experts Weigh In on the Ultimate Anadromous Quarry

Ken Morrish and Friends December 08, 2023

Whether you call it a king, a spring, a tyee or a chinook the largest of the Pacific salmon is a formidable and fabulous game fish.

When they return to the river, every form of conventional angler comes out in hot pursuit. It's a form of madness for the angling masses and now also for fly fishers and spey anglers. Today, in part due to the maturation of modern spey techniques and the insatiable urge to have a swung fly crushed by a big sea-run fish, there are lots of options for fly anglers keen on targeting kings. A movement is underway and for the committed, it may well be the ultimate anadromous quarry, as there is no arguing the fact that the king is The King.

It has taken me decades to make the leap into becoming a king fisherman. But when I realized that what I wanted most was to tangle with fish that are big and brutal…fish that present the ultimate test of tackle, technique, physical strength and mental resolve… fish that are all too happy to beat you down, take all your line and leave you a helpless blubbering mess, I committed to the quest.  And while I now consider myself a convert and a fan, I am far from an expert and accordingly have invited some true experts to share their insights on these fish, their life history, why they love them and the rivers they frequent in search of them.

What is a King?

By: Guido Rahr, Executive Director of the Wild Salmon Center, Portland Oregon and obsessed coastal salmon fly angler

As a lifelong salmon angler and advocate, there has never been a question as to which species is my favorite. It has always been the chinook. There are actually six species of Pacific salmon, all members of the genus Oncorhynchus, which means “crooked snout” in Latin. Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, better known as the king or chinook is the largest species of “true” salmon in the world and has been known to grow to over 120 pounds.

Chinook spawn in the rivers of the northern Pacific Rim, historically as far south as the Ventura River in California all the way across the Pacific arc to the rivers of the northwestern Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. After less than two years in freshwater, chinook smolts swim downstream with spring runoff. Once in the ocean, they roam thousands of miles, contouring vast submarine canyons and seamounts where the edges of the continents plunge into the deep ocean forcing plumes of nutrient rich water towards the surface. Here the chinook gorge on baitfish and crustaceans often adding ten pounds a year.

After one to eight years at sea (average three to four) they return to their home rivers. The first to arrive are the spring chinook, which come early because of the long distances that most of them travel inland to spawn. They arrive loaded with fat and energy reserves for the trip, making them the most delicious and most expensive salmon on the market. Many also consider them the strongest fighters. Next come the summer chinook of British Columbia, Alaska and Russia. These runs start in June and last through August and favor the big rivers like the Skeena, Kenai and Nushagak as well as Kamchatka’s larger systems. These are the longest lived of the kings and there are still giants among them.

As the northern runs fade in August, a new wave of bright fall fish arrives off the coast of Oregon and northern California. Having a short distance to travel to their spawning grounds, these fish arrive late with the fall rains. Fall chinook season starts in September and the last bright fish arrive in December. These runs of large, heavy bodied fish produced the world fly-caught record, a mint bright 71.5 pound buck from the tidewater section of the Rogue River in southwest Oregon.
The largest chinooks become monsters because of a life history pattern that delays spawning migrations until they have spent 5-8 years in the ocean. But fish this size have become scarce in many river systems. This is because every additional year in the ocean exposes them to the pressure of coastal commercial salmon fishing fleets. The odds of surviving this troll fishery decline with each season in the salt. Additionally, the tendency of fresh and saltwater sport fishers to kill the biggest salmon has made the issue worse. So when and if you are lucky enough to catch one of these amazing fish, be sure to do your part and release the largest specimens so that the genes that create these giants live on.

Kitimat and Lower Skeena:

By: Jeroen Wohe, founder and previous owner of Skeena River Lodge, Terrace BC

The reason I love kings is because they get my adrenalin pumping and my heart racing at a dangerously high pace that no other fish comes close to. Pound for pound these fish are stronger than tarpon and when you hook a big one there is a feeling of having no control whatsoever. There is no other anadromous fish more powerful than a sea liced, ocean bright spring. I have landed Atlantic salmon up to 40 pounds and some really big steelhead over 30 pounds but for me a big king is “the” fish on a spey rod. It is like a hybrid between a steelhead (fast) and an Atlantic salmon (strong) but on steroids. For me they are the last step in the evolution of a spey angler; when the time is right and you are ready, the final step will be chasing and hopefully hooking these magnificent fish!

Fishing for these big brutes it is not much different than fishing for steelhead or Atlantic salmon in cold water. That means we have to present the fly close to where the fish are holding. The anglers that do best can cast a long line with heavy tips and big flies all day long.

My favourite king rivers are the Kitimat and the Skeena. The Kitimat has strong returns of large fish and it is relatively easy to cover the best holding water and traveling lanes. Also the majority of fish that we hook have been in fresh water for less than 24 hours so they are bright and immaculate. The Skeena is tougher due to its size but there are few places on earth where you can lose more line in the blink of an eye. It is also less crowded than most of the great king rivers and it represents the best chance of hooking a fish over 50 or 60 pounds. Landing these fish is another matter altogether. If you are looking for a real challenge and potentially the fish of a lifetime, you won’t be disappointed!

The Dean

By: Adam Tavender, Fly fishing photographer with 22 full seasons on the Dean, previous owner of Nakia Lodge (now known as BC West), Comox BC

Contrary to what you may have heard, size really does matter. A three pound brown trout gets the adrenaline flowing, but a thirty pound chinook electrifies the senses like no other fresh water fish. There’s just something about being attached to an animal weighing that much. For most of the fight, control of the fish is not an option. But of course, this chaos is precisely what chinook anglers seek. It’s a fishery requiring relinquishment of authority... a willingness to give up the driver’s seat. On my home water the landing rate is only 10%, so it’s also helpful to possess a neurotic compulsion seasoned with pragmatic fatalism. Targeting sea-bright springs is the “extreme sport” of fly fishing in fresh water.

Not all chinook are created equal. Some things distinguish turbo charged individuals from run of the mill. As with any anadromous fish, time spent in fresh water runs down the clock on their “best before” date. Sea lice and silvery scales are hallmarks of the fittest fish. Once hooked, chinook in a large, fast flowing river perform better than their pool-bound brethren from a smaller system. Also, through genetic selection, certain strains simply have more strength and vigor. Springs of the lower Dean River have all these characteristics and hold in fly-friendly runs stretching right down to tidewater. It’s here that geologic good fortune has created the perfect fish in the perfect setting.

The Kanektok

By: Jeff Hickman, Full-time steelhead and salmon guide with many seasons on Alaska’s Kanektok, Clackamas OR

What do I love about kings? Their size of course! Also they are magnificent fish, strong, beautiful and despite popular belief they love to eat swung flies.

Chinook are possibly the most moody of all targeted fish species on the fly. They have huge mood swings. Attacking the fly when they are angry, playing with the fly when they are playful, eating the fly when they feel hungry or completely ignoring the fly the other 90% of the time. Therefore those that want to swing flies for them must be up to the huge challenge that they present.

They are very light sensitive. When the water is clear and the sun is out your chances of getting one to eat your fly go way down. Also the farther they are from the salt water and the longer they have been in the river, the less likely they are to eat your fly. In my experience, if you can find chinook within 10 miles or so from the salt or fresh fish that have been in the river for less than a week, they are far more likely to be interested in flies.

It’s all about playing your odds. The more kings you put your fly in front of and the longer you keep your fly in the right zone the more you will catch. They are not always on the bottom or out in the middle. In fact, I have found in times of high water they are often in the slowest softest water you can find on the river. And many times they may only be traveling or holding a foot or two under the surface. This is especially true in low light situations, colored water conditions and in tidewater areas.

What makes a great king fly fishing river? One that has a large run of fish, consistent water color so that they feel safe in shallow areas, some big deep pools for them to stack and hide in, and of course one that has limited crowds if possible. Certainly the one that draws me back season after season is the Kanektok. It is a perfect Alaskan fly river. It meanders through 100 miles of tundra that act as a filter and keeps the river a consistently gorgeous green color even in monsoon rains.

The Kanektok is a great size, not too small to make the fish feel uncomfortable or nervous and not so big as to intimidate spey anglers. It is the perfect manageable size, and the wading is as easy as it gets. Despite its appearance of gentle flow the current runs hard, especially considering that structure is nearly non-existent except for the odd root-ball. This means that the kings travel on the seam lines. If you cast too far beyond the seam line you are not fishing efficiently. Don’t waste time out in the heavy flow. Get your fly to the proper depth and effectively swing through the seam and into the hang-down zone. Especially when the water is high, the tail end of the swing is a very high odds zone.

Tactics and Technique:

Fishing kings is not for the faint of heart or the inexperienced. As mentioned, this is the big leagues and it is a high risk/high reward game. Anglers need to be well prepared to play the game effectively and first and foremost that means casting skills. The primary difference between king fishing and fishing for other anadromous species that most often you will be fishing deep with heavy tips and large flies. If casting sink tips is a struggle, think twice about this arena, as the main component to success is casting far and fishing deep all day long.

Typically spey anglers targeting kings fish relatively square to the opposite bank. In some cases to get the needed depth they might actually cast up and across and mend upstream hard to get additional depth. Likewise, after the initial cast is made feeding slack line is common to enable the tips to drop in deep before the line comes under tension. Many anglers, myself included, like to take their downstream steps after the initial mend to increase the duration of the tip’s  tension free drop. Unlike winter steelheading, king fishermen are typically far less concerned about slowing the fly’s speed and in many cases the preferred presentation has the fly swinging square, fast and deep. A good broadside presentation often leads to the most savage takes.

King fishermen need to be obsessive about fishing sharp hooks as chinooks have very hard mouths. Unlike the steelhead game where you often wait patiently for the fish to turn and hook itself, most king anglers will tell you to hit them hard as soon as you feel anything fishy. How exactly should you hit them? My recommendation is to hit them as hard as you possibly can with the path of your tip traveling towards the downstream bank. In order to accomplish this you might consider pinning your line against your cork with two or three fingers as opposed to just having it under your index finger. Typically one really good set is more effective than multiple hook sets. If you bury it well then it’s between you, your tackle, your fighting skills and the fish. When the fish are hot and strong be patient as landing them might take an average of a minute per pound. Have limited delusions of grandeur as it is a tough game. But when, after hours of effort, they come barreling by and you connect with a big one and your backing melts away ignoring the full force of your drag, you will be elated to have made it to the big leagues!