Harrison sees potential down-under for the North American techniques used for salmon fry feeders.
Every spring, the North American salmon rivers come alive with hatching salmon fry. The offspring of salmon that spawned in autumn, begin making their way out of the gravel redds. This ‘hatch’ is anticipated by the trout and char that inhabit the rivers; and also eager anglers returning to the river after a long winter.
In a similar way to regular insect hatches, the hatching salmon fry can activate the fish into feeding mode. The intensity with which trout and char feed during this time is only increased as fish look to put on condition before the rivers blow out when late spring snowmelt gets underway in earnest. The normally shy bull trout (actually a species of char) come to surface, rolling and crashing fry like longtail tuna. At the same time, sea-run cutthroat trout return to the rivers to make the most of this smorgasbord prior to beginning their own spawning journey.
Fishing for salmon fry feeders is some of the most exciting and productive sport of the year. Significantly, it seems likely the tactics used have promise for catching baitfish feeders in Australian and New Zealand rivers and estuaries. But first, a bit more detail about what happens in America.
The salmon fry hatch
Salmon fry begin hatching as the rivers start to warm up after a long winter. This is the trigger for the buried salmon eggs to hatch and for the fry to emerge. Depending on the river and climate, this can begin as early as the end of February. By late March, salmon fry become a common sight across the Pacific drainages.
There are five different species of Pacific salmon, and each river receives different volumes of each species. The colour and size of fry varies across the species; however they all emerge from the gravel with the egg sac still attached. This egg sac is very prominent on these clumsy young fry, providing them with energy as they make their way downriver. As they undertake the journey, they are at the mercy of the river. They are bullied by the currents and flows as their small tails are incapable of fighting back.
As weak swimmers, the fry do their best to avoid heavy currents, instead sticking to areas with cover and slower flows. This includes log jams, backwaters, and the slow, shallow edges of faster runs. The fry are sometimes seen in small, disorganised schools, looking for safety in numbers as they make the journey. When they do hit the faster currents, they try to stick to the surface where they are better able to orientate themselves.
For anglers, places where the fry are funneled into an ambush point are ideal, as are back eddies where fry can be trapped in the swirling current as predators pick them off while they grow tired and try to escape. Fry will follow a ‘soft’ edge but when this ends in a fast section, they end up having to brave the current. Trout and char know this, and stack up in these locations in anticipation.
Long glides below slow water are another favourable feeding zone for the predators, as the current is relatively easy for them to swim against, and the payoff is well worth it as fry again stick to swimming along the surface, making them easy pickings.
Overall, any location where fry are likely to congregate and then be carried into more difficult water, is perfect for the flyfisher.
Although trout and char will feed on well-presented fry patterns year-round, in the early season it pays to be fishing a fly with a small orange egg sac tied in. This acts as a trigger, with early season fry feeders fixating on these orange spots as they stand out from the ‘noise’ of all the other bits and pieces drifting down the river.
As the season progresses and the fry move further downstream, these sacks are eventually absorbed, and the fry start to look more like a normal baitfish. As the fry grow, it becomes more evident which species they belong to. This means in clear water, it can be helpful to match the colour of the predominant fry species in the river.
Anglers on these rivers use a variety of different fry patterns, from small epoxy minnows to simple bucktail streamers. One common inclusion across all successful fry patterns is a good helping of flash. The undersides and lower flanks of the fry are a bright silvery colour. Their pronounced swimming style means a wing made with some ‘wavy’ material and flash, helps create an accurate representation of the real thing.
Significantly, patterns tend to be lightweight, which means they swim in the current naturally and can be fished near the surface.
There are a few different ways of fishing fry patterns, with the angler choosing the presentation best suited to the situation in front of them. As we’re mostly talking about fishing fry patterns in rivers, the fly is generally cast slightly downstream and then swung on a tight line.
Some anglers get stuck in the pattern of casting the fly out 90 degrees from the bank, then high sticking and dead-drifting the fly momentarily, allowing it to sink before it comes around on the swing. In cases when the fish are sitting deep this approach can be productive. However as discussed earlier, the fry often stick close to the surface and so do the predators. Allowing the fly to sink can actually end up having it swim under the trout and char while their attention is overhead. This is evident when you are fishing down a run, only to look upriver to where you just fished, to see several fish crashing fry off the surface.
When the trout and char are visibly feasting off the surface like this, the fly needs to be near or at the surface, behaving like the real salmon fry.
One proven technique involves high-sticking short casts (around 30ft) with sharp wiggles of the rod tip from side to side. This imparts action to the fly which suggests fry trapped and attempting to escape the heavy main flow, while keeping the imitation near the surface. This often results in an aggressive take. The other technique involves ‘waking’ or skating a fly pattern on the surface with the use of a full floating line and long leader. The fry pattern is cast at a 45 degree angle downstream and swung in the current, allowing the fly to create a small V-shaped disturbance.
Both methods mimic the behaviour of all small baitfish in flowing water as they swim close to the surface, creating a wake behind them. The techniques are highly visual: it is quite nerve-wracking watching your fly wake until it is suddenly engulfed by a hungry trout. All that is needed is a little foam or deer hair tied to the head of lightweight fry pattern.
Waking or skating flies works best in laminar flows where the surface is smooth and not broken up by pressure waves or whitewater. The smooth surface provides a clear window to the predators looking up from below.
Whether to wake or skate depends on the situation in front of you, and it can require testing to work out which is most successful.
Applications for Australian conditions
Annual fry migrations in North America bring out some of the largest trout in the river, and in Australia and New Zealand, the reaction of trout to baitfish runs and congregations is similar. When I first pitched this article to our Editor, it immediately caught his interest; not so much because he was going to jump on a plane to North America (unlikely in the short term!) but because flyfishers down-under also encounter river trout ambushing baitfish. Most notably, these baitfish are Lovettia and juvenile galaxias as they migrate up the estuaries and into freshwater, particularly in late winter and spring. The real hotspots are numerous coastal rivers in Tasmania and New Zealand’s South Island, but the action can also occur in the lower reaches of some rivers on Victoria’s West Coast, particularly around the Otways and Warrnambool.
Philip also pointed out that similar excitement can be found on other river systems, such as tailwaters like the Goulburn and Mitta Mitta, as trout attack minnows on the edges and in backwaters (see the latest ‘Effective Flies’ by Craig Coltman).
In all cases, the trout on the job tend to be bigger than average, and unlike their stillwater counterparts, are likely to be vulnerable to the salmon fry techniques; noting that these rely on a combination of current and ‘holding’ trout to work. While many anglers already tempt these Australian baitfish feeders by swinging or pulling wet flies, Philip hadn’t encountered the idea of deliberately skating or waking baitfish patterns as the main game. He has, however, seen something very similar work incidentally on the lift-off to recast, or when repositioning a swinging fly.
What makes the salmon fry techniques described above so interesting, is they are designed to fish the fly on or very close to the surface, and right through the presentation. I’ve seen this work brilliantly on North American river trout and char chasing salmon fry in flowing water; it has to be effective on baitfish feeders in down-under river systems.