There are only a few places in the world that an angler can have realistic chance at getting bit by a truly giant salmon. Even in these very special places opportunities are rare, so when that extraordinary chance presents itself, you want to make it count. I’m not talking about your everyday nice catch. I’m talking about true giants – salmon that can only be found in a couple places on Earth, salmon that test even the best gear and tackle out there, salmon that stretch out over 50 inches long!
Even though they are becoming increasingly rare, the Kenai River is still the best bet for an angler to bump into a massive king salmon. I’ve done battle with quite a few monsters in the past, and learned my lessons the hard way, by making all the mistakes! I’ve been lucky enough to land some, but I’ve also had my heart broken by far too many that didn’t make it to the net. Some were lost on the bite, while others were lost right next to the boat, mere inches from being a done deal. Sometimes you seemingly do everything right, and the fish still manages to slip the hook, but the bottom line is that if you use the right gear and do the right things, your odds of landing that fish of a lifetime increases dramatically.
Obviously, if you want to land a big fish, you need the right gear. Trying to land a big, powerful king salmon on a rod or tackle meant for a lesser species is not a good plan, and you’ll almost certainly regret not using high quality gear.
The Rod – A rod that’s rated to a minimum of 30lb test will usually get the job done, and rated to 40lb test is ideal. Both G-Loomis and Lamiglas have designed several models of salmon rods that are perfectly suited to handle any king salmon you might bump into. A lesser rod will bring a fish close to the boat, but you’ll have a heck of a time finishing the deal. Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight!
The Reel – The most important things to look for in a reel are the line capacity and the drag system. A high quality level-wind trolling reel is by far the best tool for this job, and the Shimano Tekota 500 or 600 reel is tough to beat. The Tekota has a fantastic drag system, and it can pick up line at a fast rate to keep up with a charging king salmon. There are several other makes and models that are similar to the Tekota, and they’ll all work just fine as long as you can get a couple hundred yards of line on there, and the drag system can hold up to A LOT of pressure.
The Line – When it comes to choosing a line to use when targeting the biggest salmon in the world, head straight to the braided line section of your tackle store. The reason I prefer braided line is that I almost never have to worry about it breaking (it’s extremely abrasion resistant), and you can fit more than enough 80 lb test braided line on your reel (80lb braided line has the same diameter as about 17lb test mono-filament). I could get away with 30 or 40lb test mono, but one nick in the line and the fight is over. Since braided line has no stretch, I’ll often utilize a mono-filament leader in the 60lb test range in order to provide a bit of shock absorption.
Terminal Tackle – Of course you’re going to need high quality swivels, snaps, and other terminal tackle, but another important piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked is the hook. I would never recommend purchasing cheap hooks when in pursuit of a big king salmon. Kings have rock hard mouths, and hook penetration will only happen if the hook is razor sharp. Remember to check the point every so often because it can be dulled when being drug over rocks and other debris. My recommendation is to use a 6/0 or 7/0 Gamagatzu or Owner Octopus style hook.
The fight actually begins with the bite. When back bouncing or trolling in big water such as the Kenai River, these fish rarely bite subtly. Even though the bites are ferocious, it’s important to have good timing in your hook set. When a king salmon bites a bait or lure they usually start by facing upstream behind the bait, and decide to grab on (the reason why is debatable). When the fish initially realizes they made a mistake, they go through a series of head shakes that can last anywhere from a split second to a few seconds. Once they have unsuccessfully tried to shake the hook by head thrashing, they make a run downstream. This is the point in which the rod goes from a hard tug to being completely buried, and a salmon of any size at all will easily strip line off the reel with their initial run. It’s imperative that the angler wait until the fish turns away pulls line off the reel before they raise the road and set the hook. This is probably the most common mistake, and I’d bet that most big king salmon are lost on the bite because the angler lifts the rod as the fish is still facing upstream, pulling the hook right out of the fish’s mouth. The best advice I can give is to keep your eye on the spool of the reel, and never grab the rod or pull back until the fish is taking line consistently. Your odds of hooking up will increase dramatically if you can stay disciplined here.
Once the fish is hooked up it will make an initial run that will test even the best of knots and tackle. Even a medium sized king salmon can easily peel line off the reel in a real hurry immediately after being hooked. A smaller fish will run out of steam after a few seconds, while a large fish may often continue their initial downstream run to the point in which you’ll need to back down on the fish to ensure it stays within a reasonable distance. One thing I’ve realized over many years of fishing for the biggest kings in the world is that your drag can be set much tighter than you think it can be. It’s amazing how easily a fish can pull line off of a very tight drag. A tight drag will also make that fish work hard on every run, decreasing the overall fight time.
Once you’ve got the fish within a reasonable distance it’s important for the boat driver to have a good understanding of how to position the boat in order to increase the angler’s effectiveness. The more side pressure that can be applied to the fish, the more the fish has to work, the quicker the fish will tire out. The driver will also want to be sure to stay clear of snags, obstacles, and other boats as much as possible. A strong fish goes where it wants, but you can coax it away from hazards in most cases with a little strategic boat placement.
The first half of the fight with a big king salmon is highlighted by long runs, some vicious head shaking, and sometimes even some aerial acrobatics. The line is stretched out, and the fish does what it can to keep its distance. At some point in the fight, every big king salmon gives up on staying away from the boat, and decides to stick to the bottom rather than making long runs. It always takes at least as long to get the fish off the bottom as it does to reel it up close to the boat. This is a very important part of the fight, and I see so many anglers mess it up. At this point, the boat driver has very little to do with the fight, other than keeping the boat away from potential hazards, and on top of the fish. The angler must now do most of the evasive maneuvers with the rod. The most problematic and dangerous thing the big fish can do at this point is to shoot quickly under the boat. Sometimes the angler can maneuver the rod around the back or front of the boat in order to clear the line, but usually they’ll need to stick the rod down into the water until the boat can be spun around to clear the line. Sticking the rod in the water doesn’t come naturally to a beginner, so an explanation of this technique in advance goes a long way during the heat of battle. The other thing to watch out for at this point is head thrashing at the top of the water on a short line. The angler can keep the fish’s head down in the water by changing the rod angle, and keep most of the head thrashing down in the water where water resistance decreases the overall force applied.
Moving a giant king the last few feet to the net is by far the most difficult few feet of the fight. A sturdy rod comes in very handy when steering a king to the net, and when the king is facing the net and moving upwards keep the pressure on and use that momentum to bring it all the way into the net. So many times an angler will try finishing off the fish when it’s just a bit too far away, and when they drop the rod to make another pull the last couple feet, that hesitation is enough to allow the king to dive back down to the bottom. Wait until the king is in range. When the fish is near the surface in clear water the net man will need to keep the net back from the water until the last second; seeing that net gives every king a little extra motivation and energy, and adds unneeded extra time to the fight. Once the massive king is ready, the net man will be sure to always net the fish head first. Never try to net any fish tail first because the fish will repeatedly kick out of the net, and you won’t be getting invited on the next fishing trip! The boat should always be in neutral and in the channel if at all possible to avoid floating into any snags or other obstructions. When the boat floats in neutral it’s the same as being on a lake with no current. If the boat is in gear and you’re trying to pull a big fish upstream, you may be there all night.
The Safe Release
Once you have your trophy in the net it’s important to have everything ready for a safe and effective release. You’ll have 2 options – either continue to float with the fish in the net and release it from the boat, or slowly move the boat to the shoreline in order to get in the water with your fish. I prefer to be in the water with a big king if at all possible because I feel like I can more effectively remove the hook, remove the fish from the net, and support the massive fish for a great picture opportunity. Many times there isn’t an easy place to pull over, and you definitely don’t want to drag the fish too far across the river, in which case I’ll simply release the king from the boat. Just continue to float, being sure the boat is safe from obstacles. Hurry, but don’t be in a hurry. As long as the fish remains in the water and able to breathe it will be okay for a bit, and you’ll want to support the fish upright for a minute to let it recover and kick off with vigor. The minute the fish is recovering is the perfect time to snap a few pictures. Leave the fish mostly in the water and support it at the tail and just behind the pectoral fin. If shooting pictures from the boat, take the picture down the gunnel, and bringing the camera down close to the water makes for a great angle to shoot from. If shooting pictures on shore, try a few different angles, and odds are one of them will be much better than the others. Of course the camera man needs to be ready well in advance so no extra handling time is necessary. After a short time you’ll begin to feel the fish gain its energy back, and a salmon will kick off on its own. Now it’s time for high fives, hugs, or whatever form of celebration you prefer.
No matter how many time I get the pleasure of doing battle with and releasing a huge king, I am overwhelmed with an amazing sense of accomplishment, stewardship, and a connection to the river that I can’t explain in words. I’m confident you’ll feel the same way if you get the awesome chance to encounter these awesome Kenai River king salmon with the right gear, the right techniques, and the right attitude.