FORUM: King Salmon in the Root River

For decades I monitored the start of the fall salmonid spawn run in north-eastern Illinois and south-eastern Wisconsin, along dammed lake-run rivers (and one power-plant discharge channel) spilling into Lake Michigan. When the water flow rate is high these streams propel scents associated with spawning fish out into the Lake, leaving a “trail of crumbs” calling all predators—Smallmouth Bass, Northern Pike, Atlantic, Chinook and Coho salmon, and Rainbow, Lake, Brown and Brook trout—to come, eat spawn, and fatten-up for the rapidly-approaching winter.

Every year, in early October, fish which are ready to spawn begin to arrive and loiter in the Lake near the stream discharge—waiting for the perfect moment to charge upstream. Behind them, loitering in the deeper water, predatory silver fish wait to follow the spawn fish and eat the caviar (spawn is thus the most effective bait in these waters, this time of the year—“match the hatch”). All of the fish wait for the correct conditions: it is essential that the water is “just right”, or fish might slice their bellies on submerged rocks.

Every year, in late October, a strong storm brings lots of rain and a strong wind which blows many leaves off about half of the trees. When this storm occurs near the time of a full moon the fishing is best. The morning after the storm, when the stream flow-rate is high, spawn fish charge upstream followed by the hunters—both fish making frenzied rooster-tails like speed boats. Fishing at the dams suddenly becomes spectacular. Three or four weeks later a second big storm signals the end of the fall spawn run.

This story describes the event which put me onto the path of discovery, which led to my insights regarding the Lake Michigan fall spawn run for salmonids—summarized above.

***

I’d fished most of my life, across the country, in fresh and salt water, but I never fished for (or caught) a salmonid. I moved back to Chicago and began casting wobble spoons in Montrose Beach Harbor in the fall each day—100 casts using various lures. No matter where one looked in the harbor, at least one 15-pound or bigger Chinook was in the air at any given moment. After two years and thousands of casts I had nary a single hit—it was maddening. I thought I could obtain a bow-hunting permit and try to bag them in the air.

A new sports store opened nearby and I decided to check it out. In the fishing department various photos were taped on a pillar. Looking at the photos made my heart beat faster. There are big salmonids of different species in the pictures, and always the same dude with the fish. Someone came and stood beside me, and asked me if I like to fish. I turned to face the person and recognized him as the angler in the photos!

Tony is an avid life-long fisherman—a good soul, a great bro. We made a plan. I got the “noodle rod” (a parabolic carbon steelhead rod), reel and waders he told me that I needed. I helped him make the dipping goop (cod liver oil, anise, and fresh steelhead spawn), and tie a mess of wooly-bugger flies. We waited for the fall storm. It hit, and then we were off to the Root River! Tony briefed me on wading rivers the whole ride—I am a newbie with zero experience.

At the concrete ramp, I pause to study the water. There is a log there, and I am trying to decide how to enter the water and step over the log. I am afraid of drowning. As I take my first measured step, to the side of the log, the water explodes as if an M80 firecracker detonated—and then there is a runaway torpedo heading for the pool at the foot of the dam! That was no log, it was a Chinook!

I wade to the dam, find some room, and make my first roll cast. The fly lands in the foot of the falls and begins its drift—nothing. Recast, nothing. Recast and–a big one, rod bent to the handle! Zippp, POP! Busted off in three seconds! I take a moment and look around. I see other anglers hooking up along the banks of the river: they are silent when fishing and when reeling in a fish. The idea is to disturb the water and the air with as few sound vibrations as possible—after all, unaware (i.e., “stupid”) fish become dinner fish! I was amazed how quiet so many anglers could be, when it was necessary.

After an hour or two I calculated that 90% of the hits happened within the first four feet of the drift. “Running out the drift” may be a classic fly fishing technique, but I can hook 400% more fish staying in the optimal zone (optimal in the ODA sense, of course)!

Another hour goes by and Tony comes to see how I am doing. I tell him I had 19 hook-ups, and asked how he fared. He tells me only 10 hook-ups. I jest that I am having better luck than he! He tells me the hook-ups don’t matter, just the catches. He is correct, of course—and I had zero catches.

I keep trying—another hour, eight more missed fish. But, I’m getting smarter! Observing the catchers, I see how one steers the fish in the pools beneath the falls. Point the rod up and to the right, and the fish dives to the left. Point the rod down and right, and the fish jumps to the left. Point the rod up and to the left, and the fish dives to the right. And, point the rod down and left, and the fish jumps to the right. To keep a fish out of the central channel where it can swim downriver, simply drive it in three-dimensional figure-8’s in the pool until it is exhausted!

The next fish I manage to slow down, sloppily making it turn several times in the deep pool. The winded fish side-floats into the channel, and I’m running after him, splashing water like a buffalo. The fish gets his breath, and starts to motor toward the first bend. I slosh to the far side, extending the noodle rod as far as possible to keep the line away from the trees lining the river. I increase the reel’s drag on the fish, he is increasingly tired. I am gaining line, but that fish motors around the bend, heading for river bend number two! Nooo! Like a tunnel vision killer Big Foot, I motor after him. Tripping in the river and getting back up, my waders heavy like lead, my heart pounding like a bass drum, I’m sucking air like a jet engine. The King Salmon starts to fade faster than I—while I can hardly move and barely stand, but he is floating and sucking air like a carp! Har-har me matey! The current is pushing him toward the side of the river at the second bend, where there is a sandy outcrop. I am screaming at him: “You are mine! You can’t escape now! You’re MINE!” I reach the fish, throw the rod on the shore cradle the fish holding him in a bear hug, stagger to the shoreline, throw him up on the sand, and then collapse like a fish out of water myself. Head pounding, seeing blackness, trying to stop gasping I softly exclaim: “I got you! You are mine! Har har!”

I look up as I gather my wits, the ringing in my ears subsiding, wipe my eyes of sand and water. I see the banks are lined by a myriad of fishermen. I destroyed the river channel and the solitude during my myopic battle. I was holding my King Salmon, looking at their faces. I felt so selfish and stupid, rude and useless—the opposite of a fisherman…

Slowly, one after another—until all joined in, they started clapping and cheering, and hollering and laughing and smiling, and high-fiving me and the other anglers.

My first big Chinook—about killed me and the fish—it was epic.

Anglers are brothers and sisters.

And now, like they, I too was finally a salmon fisherman.

Tight Lines!

King Salmon in the Root River
Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.
December 29, 2020

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