When Sockeye are plentiful, they are quite easy to catch on fly-fishing tackle. Often anglers fishing with conventional gear are amazed to watch fly rodders catching fish regularly while they may be missing out or occasionally foul hooking fish. Believe it or not, Sockeye are the most popular gamefish on the Kenai River. I thoroughly enjoy the battle of a fresh sockeye on an 8wt fly rod. Hook one up and you will to.
An 8wt rod is perfect for sockeye though a strong 7wt will get the job done. For single hand rods, I prefer 9’6” and 10’ rods for increased control on the cast and drift, but most anglers use their standard 9 footers. A 10'6" or 11' switch rod is also a great choice. A premium-matching reel is well worth the money, as a smooth powerful drag will add both pleasure and success to your angling.
Add to your floating line a 3 to 4ft butt-section of 30-pound mono like Maxima. The faster and deeper the water, the more butt you will need. The leader consists of 15 to 20-pound tippet and can range from 2-6ft in length. Add enough split shot above the joining knot to feel bottom through the prime water on your drift. On the drift, a portion of the floating line is pulled down. This creates a belly in the fly-line pulling the weight along and forcing the leader down. Six feet of leader swings in a big arc but it must be near the bottom to reach the fish. Depending on current speed and depth, the leader length is adjusted. If you feel you are drifting over the fish, just keep shortening the tippet until you start hooking-up. While a 20-pound tippet may seem heavy for 4-10 pound fish, sockeye still manage to break off and occasional fish top 15lbs.
To catch sockeye with consistency, the fly must be presented at their level. Sockeye will seldom move up or down in the water column to intercept a fly. The key is to get the fly right in front of the fish. This can be accomplished several ways.
A variety of sinking tip, shooting heads or full sinking fly lines can get the job done. I like the Jim Teeny lines best. Generally, a 200 to 400-grain line will get to the zone in steady current. If one is lucky to find fish in slower moving water, the mini tip can be deadly. The one drawback to this approach is that you need to find exactly the right water for the density of line you are fishing. In order to get your fly to the fish, you might also need a long cast to give the fly line time to reach the proper depth before swinging through the fish. Fishing a sinking line is an acquired skill and certainly worth mastering. If your goal however, is to get right into the fish, there is a quicker way.
The easiest solution to reaching sockeye is to use a floating line. By adjusting the amount of weight and leader length you are fishing, you can work any depth and current velocity where you are likely to find the salmon. The other advantage to a floating line is in creating a perfectly controlled swing. Casts consist of lobbing, flipping or chuck and ducking 10-40 feet of floating line straight out or slightly upstream of the angler. Enough weight is needed to make bottom contact through the prime drift. The prime drift or sweet spot consists of the portion of the drift that intersects the lane the fish are traveling. If plenty of fish are moving, you will soon figure this out.
As soon as the drift begins, the rod tip is lowered to lead the line down and across the drifting lane. This is best accomplished when the angler stands facing downstream, looking toward the fish. Maintaining enough tension to “feel” the drift, without lifting your weight far from the bottom is a key element. Depending on flow volume, either line can be fed into the drift to maintain depth or the line can be drawn slowly across to avoid hang-ups. A perfect drift requires little effort until the fish is felt. The technique is a cross between nymphing and a wet fly swing.
Sockeye often feel like a stick or weed on the line at first. Rocks and gravel bottoms create a solid bump and initially most anglers set on bottom contact thinking they had a bite. Anglers often miss the softer weight of a fish; usually realizing it too late, especially after the fish takes to the air and releases itself.
Hooking sockeye can take some practice. By focusing on the prime portion of every drift and maintaining contact with the line, your hook set is only a heartbeat away from feeling the tension of a fish. Hook setting is achieved by a low and lateral sweep of the rod when a fish is felt. A steady pull is better than a herky combat fishing jerk. Sockeye will sometimes explode downstream and all the angler needs to do is let the fish run, watching out for a knuckle-buster. Other times, the salmon will keep moving upstream requiring the angler to quickly pick up line to maintain control, before they turn and explode downstream. Lines are often broken and occasionally rods. Sockeye fishing is not a cast and wait game. It is cast and get ready to rumble fishing.
After the Hook-Up
One of the great things about sockeye are that trout fishermen get a chance to fight fish like bass fisherman only for much longer. In heavy current, it is important to keep pressure on your fish. Given the chance, sockeye will show you plenty of backing, but the odds of landing them after long runs are minimal. Unless you can follow your fish downstream, you need to stop them after a reasonable run. Then it is a low and lateral slugfest with several fits of jumping likely. Think baby tarpon in current.
Every day of the season, I hear the cry of anglers getting payback as knuckles and fingers are bashed by spinning reel handles from fish that were thought to be under control. Pull hard when they let you and ease up as they burst and eventually you will land your prize.
Adult Sockeye are not predators in the ways of other salmon and are a bit mysterious as a result. During their ocean phase, they typically graze on amphipods, copepods, occasionally squid, and small fish. Trying to tempt them on large colorful and flashy baitfish profile streamers seldom draws a strike. Smaller more sparse patterns are far more effective. You do not need to tie a bunch of specialized patterns if you already have some smaller steelhead fare. As a guide, I go through hundreds of flies in the month or so we fish sockeye, so I rely on simplicity.
For standard durable sockeye flies, I use yarn on a Mustad 7970 hook in sizes 4 and 6. This is an extra heavy hook. I find that the heavier wire helps to hold sockeye better than finer wire hooks. Fresh bright fish have softer mouths and standard streamer hooks are more likely to tear free. You can also fold the barb down on the old Mustads. The resulting bump helps to hold fish but makes release far easier, especially from human flesh. I always carry a hook file and keep the points clean. I start by building a thread base from the eye to midway down the shank. Then I tie on a piece of yarn leading forward past the eye of the hook (about 1.5”). Next, I fold the yarn back and tie it down to form a bullet style head. I typically tie with green, chartreuse, red and black yarns. For better looking flies, mix two colors.
Another simple pattern favorite starts with the same hook. I build the body with chenille and collar the fly with a soft hackle. Tie some dark nymph like colors and some brighter shrimp like colors. Then get them in front of the fish.
While most fly fishers are strong advocates of catch and release, sockeye provide an opportunity for excellent and healthy eating. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game manages the runs intensely to insure escapement for spawning survival. Take only what you will eat and enjoy them. Fresh sockeye is fantastic. Most people take them straight to the grill. However you season them, you can't go wrong as long as you don't overcook them. My favorite sockeye is raw (sashimi), sprinkled with lemon and dreged in soy, wasabi, ginger and followed with an icy cold beer.