There is nothing quite like having your fly demolished by a King salmon still laden with sea lice. The takes often begin with a couple hard tugs followed by a long slow pull. Other times, the fish grab a fly so veraciously that your running line comes peeling off your reel faster than you can say “there’s one!”. King Salmon are a very fun sport fish but their populations have been on a steep decline in a majority of their historic range. Most of the rivers in Alaska have gear restrictions, some are limited to the retention of hatchery Kings only, and some even close completely if the run is too weak to sustain sportfishing. If regulations allow you to pursue these fish, I urge you to fish ethically and responsibly.
Rods and Skagit Heads:
For smaller rivers, a 9’ 8-10wt fly rod paired with a 250-350 grain short Skagit head like the AirFlo Scout will work well. For midsized rivers, an 11’ 8-10wt switch rod paired with a 350-500 grain Skagit head like the AirFlo F.I.S.T. will allow you to achieve some distance when casting without wielding the long rod. For the largest rivers, a 7-10wt full spey rod loaded up with anywhere between a 500-750 grain head will allow you to cover the maximum amount of water with minimal effort. Any of these combinations can be a useful weapon in the serious king salmon Fishermans arsenal.
It can be difficult to choose a running line as there are a lot of options on the market today. Mono running lines tend to shoot better but can coil and knot up if not properly taken care of and stretched before each use. Mono running lines can also be harder to mend as they do not have as much mass as a coated running line. Coated running lines tend to coil and knot less but you may sacrifice some casting distance. During the warmer months, I fish 40-50lb, stiff, and brightly colored mono running lines like Frog Hair or Berkely Big Game. In colder weather coated lines have the advantage as they are thicker and easier to handle when your dexterity has been compromised by fridged temperatures.
Sink Tip and Leader:
On the dangerous end of your Skagit head, will be the sink tip. I bring a tip wallet containing everything from full floating to T-20 sink tips. This is not an area to cheap out on as having the correct sink tip can make or break your day. When I first approach a run or hole, I will often make a cast or two with the tip that I already have on then adjust accordingly. While swinging flies for kings, I prefer a suspended swing roughly 6″-12″ from the bottom of the river. You do not want your fly to be skittering across the surface nor do you want to dredge the bottom of the river. Controlling your swing is very important and Kings tend to like a long straight presentation rather than a fast presentation ripping across the current.
Off of the sink tip, I run an 18”-30” section of 15-20 pound pure fluorocarbon. Kings can take long runs, spin around on the bottom of the river, and roll up in your line after being hooked. The abrasion resistance and strength of fluorocarbon is key factor in landing and releasing the fish as quickly as possible.
Fly selection, while generally confidence based, depends on water clarity, the depth, and speed of the run or hole to be fished. I lean toward smaller sleeker flies for their castability but tie them with various weight to achieve my desired depth. Some popular color combinations for King flies include Chartreuse and Blue, Black and Pink, Olive and Orange, and Purple and Black. If the fish are fresh out of the salt, a brightly colored fly typically works best. If the fish have been in a freshwater system for a while, darker flies tend to work best. A few flies to consider and that I always have in my King box are the Prom Dress, Polar Shrimp, a multitude of Intruder style flies in different sizes and color combinations.
A Few Words for Conservation:
When fishing for any species, please fish responsibly. Utilize a rubber landing net and keep the fish in the water if you intend on releasing them. Use barbless hooks, and do not over work the fish. While fishing for kings, do not be afraid to experiment with different techniques, fly patterns, and sink tips. It may surprise you on just how grabby the mighty King can be.