It doesn’t make much sense to spend all that effort to figure out the perfect sockeye rig, and the perfect presentation, if you’re going to lose the vast majority of the sockeye you hook. And that’s exactly what can happens to hundreds of sockeye anglers on the Kenai every season. These fish are unforgiving, relentless, acrobatic, powerful, and they’ll put your angling skills to the test by using the current against you! Because of all these things, no matter what you do you are still going to lose some sockeye, but there are strategies that will dramatically increase the proportion that will wind up in the net or on the bank…. We hope these tips below increase your landing ratio, and put more sockeye limits on the bank for you!
Remember when you were learning how to fish and your dad/grandpa/uncle/weird neighbor guy told you to “keep your tip up” when fighting a fish? Forget everything they taught you. The concept of keeping your tip up is a strategy used to make sure your rod has a bend in it so that the flex of the rod is used as a shock absorber when the fish makes an aggressive move. The problem with keeping your tip up when fighting a sockeye salmon is that if the hook comes out of the fish while the line is under tension, the lead will shoot back at you like a bullet shot out of a gun! Even worse, that speeding lead bullet has a 3/0 hook attached to it….
In lieu of keeping your tip up, it’s best to keep your tip to the side when fighting a sockeye salmon. The same bend/shock absorbing principles are utilized, but the bend is to the side rather than straight up. This keeps the angler safe, keeps the fish in the water more, and also steers the fish towards the bank where you can more easily net it. Whether you point the rod to the upstream or downstream side is arguable, but I prefer to first hold it towards the bank on the downstream side following the downstream hook set, then once the fish makes its initial burst/jump/run I’ll turn the rod to the upstream side until it is close to the net. This seems to be the most effective way to simultaneously stay safe and tame a wild sockeye.
LET IT RUN
When a guided angler hooks into a sockeye you typically hear the guide holler two things: “ROD LOW!” and “LET IT RUN!”
It seems to be engrained into most anglers that a fish taking drag is a bad thing. Untrained sockeye anglers see their fish running, jumping, and taking line off the reel and generally panic immediately, instinctively grabbing the spool of their fly reel in an attempt to stop the fish in its tracks. Bad idea. A fish running away is actually a good thing because it means it’s using energy and will tire out more quickly, and your attempt to stop that momentum is most likely to result in either a pulled hook or a broken line. Save your guide’s voice by avoiding the temptation to grab your spool, and instead simply add a very small amount of pressure if needed. If the fish is hooked properly it’ll typically stop its run in a fairly short amount of time and you can start the chore of gaining that line back (with your row low & to the side of course).
BEWARE OF KNUCKLE BUSTERS
Fortunately or unfortunately, the initial run a sockeye makes usually isn’t its last, and they are absolute masters at baiting you into believing they’re out of energy only to suddenly & out of nowhere burst off again with unbridled ferocity. Sockeye are tenacious, which is why it’s important to always expect the unexpected. If you’ve got a death grip on the reel throughout the fight, when your fish decides to go nuts, your knuckles will pay a heavy price… trust me. The thing about a fly reel that’s different from conventional gear is that the handle is attached to the spool, so when the line leaves the reel the reel spins backwards with it. The faster the fish takes line, the faster that reel handle spins backwards, and it can do some damage to your poor knuckles if you don’t get them out of the way. I explain it to anglers as a game of cat & mouse; when there’s any line to be gained, gain it, but when the tension builds (slowly or suddenly) simply clear your hand away and let the fish run! And repeat.
Another unique aspect of sockeye flipping is that it almost always takes place in a fairly swift current. That current is necessary for the whole flossing principle to work out. But that same current that aids you in hooking sockeye also hinders you when attempting to land them. This is why it’s important to use momentum when fighting a sockeye salmon on a big river like the Kenai. If that fish turns its head downstream, there’s no reason to stop it because you simply can’t do so without risking losing the fish or worse, breaking your gear. But sockeye are programmed to swim upstream, so I promise he’ll eventually turn around and face you again, and when it does you can gain that line back pretty quickly.
Once the fish is in close range it’ll pulse away from you in bursts. When the fish is between bursts you can get its head pointed towards the shore and steer it in the direction you want it to go. Once it’s moving in that direction, keep it going. Momentum is your friend!
LIFT OR DRAG
The ultimate goal is typically to drag your sockeye into a net, or onto a gravel bank. If you’re using a net, then you’ll need to break the “rod low” rule very briefly, only for a timely moment at the end of the fight as you lift your rod tip, and the fish, into the net. An experienced net-man can help you with this timing, but it’s typically when the fish is in close range and relaxes. When you see that fish relax, or the head point towards the shore/net, that’s your opportunity. Sometimes this doesn’t go exactly as planned and the fish dodges the net or makes another unexpected run, and if that happens, you simply drop the rod low again and start over.
Sometimes when fishing a smooth gravel bank it’s actually a disadvantage to utilize a net, especially in clear water, as the net & netter will spook a fish in shallow water and actually add significant time to the fight, increasing the odds of losing the fish. This is demonstrated often on the middle stretches of the Kenai River, above the major tributaries that add chalky/muddy water to the mainstem. Here the water can be gin clear, and if you wade out in attempt to net a hooked sockeye you’re only motivating that fish more. In these scenarios you can steer a sockeye onto the bank using momentum in the same way we talked about above.
We hope you enjoyed this sockeye salmon series and look forward to hearing how you put it into practice, your experience with the methods discussed, and your feedback!