Can you tell if the steelhead you just caught is a wild fish or of hatchery origin?
It’s a question I get asked all the time…”How can I tell the difference?”
It’s important information because in many places, it’s legal to only to keep hatchery steelhead. In other words, wild fish must be released.
And, honestly, even in the handful of places where a wild steelhead can be retained, they should be released voluntarily anyway. There simply aren’t that many of them left and they are of much greater value on the spawning gravels than on a grill.
Hatchery steelhead will be missing their adipose fin, which is the small fleshy one on the back between the dorsal fin and tail.
Prior to release from the hatchery, the fin is removed from juvenile steelhead (via scissors or automated machine).
Since it never grows back, the lack of the adipose fin on an adult fish makes it easy to identify as of hatchery origin…and, therefore, in many rivers, legal to keep (check the regs before you go to make sure!).
You’ll sometimes encounter a fish that’s a “tweener” — one that has a partial adipose fin. While this can occur in the wild (rare), it is more often the byproduct of a “miss-clip” by the person doing the fin removal.
Where done by hand, you can imagine that there are going to be some imperfect cuts when people are trying to get through tens of thousands of baby Steelhead.
One other clue to look for, however, is sign of an eroded dorsal fin. When jammed together in fish hatcheries, baby steelies often rub against each other and the concrete walls, resulting in worn down fins.
And here’s another example…
These two examples are pretty obviously hatchery steelhead but what about this one below….?
The dorsal in the above fish is pretty intact and there’s more than a just nub of an adipose but I’m still sure this one is a hatchery steelie (we let it go anyway). If you have any doubt whatsoever my advice is to let the fish go!
Now, before you get any ideas about bringing a pair of scissors with ya to the river, note that most regulations read something along these lines: The adipose fin must be missing and the wound must be healed…
Unfortunately, there are some pea-brained “anglers” out there who fish in the spring when the smolts are out-migrating and clip the fins off wild ones so they can be kept upon return as adults. Lame lame lame!
Of course, wild steelhead will be proudly sporting a fully-intact adipose fin and should always be released carefully with minimal handling.
When you see that your fish has an adipose, it’s best to refrain from netting it, unless you have one of those fish-friendly knotless nets. Also try to avoid dragging it up in the rocks.
Whenever possible, I’ll gently beach them in the shallows, where I can quickly unhook it and snap a photo. Be advised that in places like Washington State, it is illegal to lift a wild steelhead out of the water for a photo.
That doesn’t mean, however, you can’t get a pic. Simply kneel down in the water with the fish. That way, if it squirms and you loose your grip, you’re not dropping it from altitude down onto the rocks.
Of course, if you catch a hatchery fish and it’s legal to keep it, by all means take good care of it and enjoy fresh fish on the grill. Many hatchery managers encourage you to keep clipped fish so don’t feel guilty if you want to take one for dinner…
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Fall is here and that means it’s time for one of my all-time favorite activities: Plugging for king salmon!
If your plug game needs a little tuneup, check out my eBook Plug Fishing for River Salmon which contains everything you need to know to become a proficient wiggler angler.
It’s a quick read full of diagrams, photos and how-to goodies. And at $ 2.99, it costs less than a single lure!
Here’s a quick glance at what’s inside:
Just click the link above and it will take you to Amazon or google my name and the title of the book and you’ll find it.
I love it when fishing makes me do some outside-the-box thinking — when a situation challenges conventional methods and requires a creative solution.
That’s exactly how casting plugs for kings came about for me.
For me it all started with a spot we call the Reindeer Hole on a favorite king river. The kings always pile by the hundreds…heck maybe even thousands…into that spot. They’d roll and splash around like crazy in there but were always very difficult to catch be- cause the hole has essentially no flow.
It’s a deep, frog water pond seemingly better suited to largemouth bass than fresh-from-the sea Chinook and it’s hard to effectively fish.
With no current with which to work, backtrolling plugs is out and fishing bobbers and eggs is also tough because your gear doesn’t move downstream. Trolling is no bueno either be- cause you end up spooking the fish by driving your boat over them in the clear water. You can catch a few on spinners but we never really had any good days in there until I started casting plugs.
The fact that the hole looks like a bass pond got me thinking about casting crankbaits to bucketmouths — and that’s essentially where the concept came from.
But instead of tossing shad or crawfish pattern plugs, I simply started throwing around the lures we already used for salmon: FlatFish, Kwikfish, MagLips and Brad’s Magnum Wigglers.
In short: It worked! Really well. The technique was so effective that I started trying it elsewhere. I wanted to know if was just something that worked on that particular stream or would fish bite castes plugs everywhere?
Well, the Cliff’s Notes version of the tale is I have found kings from Alaska to California and back very receptive to this technique. In fact, what start-ed out as a quick fix to get those pesky slow water kings of the Reindeer Hole to bite has now has morphed into a family of techniques that I use almost daily in my salmon guiding.
Let’s take a look at where and how to cast plugs for kings:
FROG WATER From the above story, it’s obvious that plug casting really shines in all those slow spots that are hard to fish with more traditional methods.
What’s cool about that is now you’ll have a way to fish a bunch of spots you previously just passed by!
I like to get off to the side of the pool (either in an anchored boat or on the bank) and toss plugs in all directions when there is absolutely no flow. I’ll start with a few casts upstream of my position and then make some straight out and then a few below me.
If there’s even the faintest bit of current, I normally cast straight across or slightly downstream.
In either case, the trick is to make several fast turns of the reel handle as soon as the plug hits the water. That helps get the plug down deep, at which point you can slow the retrieve to a slow crawl.
The idea is to get the lure down as far as you can and then work it just fast enough to keep it in the zone.
Since plugs float, keep reeling until you are finished with the cast — otherwise the lure with rise up towards the surface.
Speaking of that, kings in deep holes aren’t always on the bottom. So it makes sense to cover a few different parts of the water column.
To do that, I’ll cast my shallowest diver first to try to pick off fish hanging closer to the surface. Then, I’ll use a medium diver to work the mid depths and, finally, a deep lure to probe the bottom.
When you get bit, a king will often nudge the plug before he inhales it. You might feel a “thump” in the rod tip, followed by some heavy pumping. At that point you should do do…nothing. Set too soon and you will jerk the plug away from the fish.
Trust me, it’s extremely but if you can delay your strike for a bit until the fish really loads up the rod, you will convert a lot more bites into salmon in the net.
SEARCHING TOOL After I got confidence in casting plugs for kings, I started adapting the technique to other situations.
As it turns out, it’s an excellent “searching” technique that allows you to quickly cover a lot of water. I particularly like it on long, wide flats on which the kings can kind of be here, there and everywhere.
Searching works best from a moving boat but you can also cast from shore. What I like to do is point the bow of the boat upstream and use the motor to slowly slip downhill, transom first. I’ll keep the boat off to the side of the preferred holding water and have my guys cast straight across.
As they crank the plugs along the bottom, the current will sweep the lures in a downstream arc. Instead of backtrolling down one specific lane, this sweeping approach, combined with slow-ly sliding downstream, gives you a lot more bottom coverage. And fishing often boils down to a simple math problem. The more ground you cover, the more fish you are likely to get your lure in front of.
In addition to being effective, casting plugs is oh, so fun! It’s just like bass fishing…only the fish in this case are much bigger and a lot more shiny!
PLUGS There’s a wide variety of plugs that work well for this method. The right one for you depends on the situation, and you sometimes just have to tinker around until you get the right combo.
Some plugs dive too deep for a given spot while others may not get down far enough. Some have rattles and that can be the ticket in off-color water but you may want a quieter lure in low, clear water.
To get you stared, I’ll give you a look at my arsenal. My all time favorite, go-to lure for this technique is the Yakima Bait Co. MagLip 4.5. This thing has caught me more kings while casting than any other lure. I think it’s ability to dive quickly, combined with its good action is what makes the 4.5 so deadly.
It’s larger brother, the MagLip 5.0, gets bit a lot too. And if i really need to get down, I’ve been known to throw some HawgNose Flatfish from time to time.
I have also fared well with the K15 Kwikfish in shallower spots. Brad’s Magnum Wiggler is another must-have lure that will cover you in a lot of situations.
As far as colors go, I usually don’t get too fancy. Good ol’ chrome/chartreuse bill is my number one king getter. I also like chattreuse/lime and chartreuse/metallic blue patterns.
It doesn’t hurt, however, to have some other plugs on hand too — just in case the fish are playing hard to get on a given day. Metallic pink is another solid choice, as are straight chrome, chrome/fluorescent orange and copper.
Where legal, I always spice my plugs up with some sort of bait wrap on the belly. Sardine or herring fillets work well, but you can also wrap canned oil packed tuna — or even cured roe — onto the lure.
Affix the bait to the plug by wrapping it on tightly with Miracle Thread. If bait’s not available, try smearing the lure with something like Atlas-Mike’s Lunker Lotion in sardine or shrimp flavors or Pro Cure’s bloody tuna
TACKLE When casting for kings, I prefer baitcasting gear, but you can do it with spinning tackle too.
Either way you’ll need a rod that’s somewhere between 7’9″ and 8’6″. The tip needs to be soft so that a fish can slurp down the plug without feeling a lot of resistance but you also need power in the bottom end to turn rampaging fish — or lift them up off the bottom.
A nice smooth reel with a buttery drag is essential too. Spool up with 30- to 50-pound braid and then run a 4- to 10-foot section of clear 25- to 40-pound mono for a leader.
You may also want to look at the hooks on your plugs. Sometimes factory trebles won’t hold up to big bruising, kings, so I normally replace them with 3x strong aftermarket up- grades. For casting, I like to run just one hook on my plug. With two trebles on there, you can get some mid-air tangling on the cast. Each lure has its own balance point, but when possible, I like to run either a single treble or siwash hook off the back of the lure.
Sometimes, to get the lure to run true, you’ll need to add a little weight to the belly hook attachment eye when that hook is removed — something like a couple split rings or a split ring and a barrel swivel. Just something to replace the weight of the hook you took off.
OTHER SPECIES Now, here’s where things get really cool! Kings are just the tip of the iceberg. All salmon species (except sockeye) can be readily caught by casting plugs. And since coho, chums and pinks are often found in slow water, they make perfect targets for this method.
You can occasionally catch some reds too, but I haven’t been able to consistently score with plugs yet.
The key to catching these other species is to scale down your offerings. The plugs listed above will catch fish but you will get a lot more grabs by customizing your lure selection to match your target fish. When chums and silvers are on the menu, the 3.5 MagLip is about as effective as it gets. Brad’s Wigglers are also good and I have caught quite a few fish on K11X Kwikfish too.
Metallic pink, hot orange and chrome/chartreuse are my top three colors for silvers and chums but there are also times when metallic purple also works.
Humpies are pushovers on small pink plugs like Brad’s Wee Wigglers and the 2.5 size MagLip.
If you grew up anywhere in the Lower 48, there’s a high probability that your very first fish on a fly was a bluegill.
Their abundance and willingness to take the fly (even a poorly presented one) have made bluegill a favorite of beginning fly – and conventional – anglers for eons.
Of course, there are no bluegill in Alaska – but you do have Dolly Varden which are the perfect beginner fly fishing species.
Dollies in Alaska aren’t lavished with the reverence that the state’s rainbows receive. In fact, they are often considered a nuisance…gasp…even a “trash fish.” But let’s give these guys some credit here! Dollies are sporty little guys and exhibit some of the same attributes that make bluegill such popular fare down south. Most notably:
Where you find one, you usually find a bunch of ‘em — and they love to bite. Plus, they can grow to several pounds! What’s so wrong with that?
So, if you are yearning to give fluff chucking a try, these “bluegill of the North” are a great place to start. Their aggressiveness makes picking a fly pattern easy and you can get away with a dry (floating) line in just about any situation.
Okay let’s get you outfitted first. I like a 9-foot, 5-weight rod for dolly fishing, but you can go up to a No. 7 or 8 if you are fishing big water with larger fish.
Now, here’s the beauty of it: you don’t need a $700 rod and a reel that cost more than your first car to catch dollies. Something you found for $20 at a flea market is fine when you are just starting out.
Sure, fancy new materials make modern rods much lighter and give them crisper actions…but first things first! Go catch a few fish first and then, if you really get into the sport, consider upgrading your equipment.
As far as line goes, get a floating, weight-forward line that matches the weight of your rod. In other words, a 5-weight line is designed for a 5-weight rod. You can sometimes go up one weight of line to make a rod cast better, but let’s just keep things simple here and stick to the manufacturer’s suggestion ratings.
Next, you’ll need a leader attached to the end of your fly line. The easiest way to go is to purchase a knotless tapered leader. Nine foot is about right and you’ll notice fly leaders will have a tippet rating that has a number followed by X. It’s a bit confusing in the beginning because fly leaders are identified by their diameter in thousands of an inch, not breaking strength.
Remember that a smaller number means heavier line: 0X is 15-pound test while 8X is about 1.5-pound line. For general dolly fishing, something like a 4X (6-pound) or 3X (8-pound) will be fine.
Dolly Tips & Techniques
The easiest way to start hooking dolly varden on the long rod is to tie on a No. 2-8 purple Egg Sucking Leech and head for the water. This fly will catch dollies like crazy…rainbows, grayling, silvers, chums and kings will hit it too so be prepared!
Dollies migrate to stream mouths and lake outlets in the spring to pick off out-migrating salmon fry and that’s where you should try first. Cast slightly down and across the current, give the line an upstream mend (lift) and then start stripping the fly in with you non-rod hand.
Let the bug drift in an arc downstream until it’s immediately downstream of your position and then re-cast.
Strikes “on the swing” like this can be fierce so there won’t be much doubt as to what’s going on when a dolly smacks your offering.
Dolly varden are notorious for eating flies right out of the surface film, but if you feel like maybe you’re not quite getting down enough, try adding a splitshot to your leader 12 to 18 inches above the fly.
As summer salmon start pairing off and dropping eggs, it’s time to start fishing yarn bugs or beads under indicators (otherwise known as bobbers). When dollies get onto the eggs, you can really catch a bunch of them!
The basic rig goes like this: The indicator is set to about twice the water depth and then one or two pegged beads at the business end of the tippet.
The idea here is to try as best you can to match the size and color of the eggs the salmon are releasing. Dollies (and particularly rainbows) can get pretty dialed into a particular look of an egg and ignore anything that doesn’t fit the color and profile they are looking for.
The indicator rig is a bit more of a pain to cast, but it gets easier with time. Toss straight out or slightly upstream and then mend the line upriver by lifting it with the rod tip, to keep any bows out of it.
If you get one section of line that’s getting pushed by the current faster then the rest, it creates excess drag, pulling the entire rig downstream at an unnatural pace.
It takes some practice to get the whole “dead drift” thing down, but that’s the beauty of dollies…you bead could well off the bottom, swinging through the run at Mach 2 and you’re still going to get bit.
Later in the fall, when the salmon die off, flesh flies will be the ticket. Dollies fatten up for the upcoming winter by chowing down on chunks of dead salmon meat so your flies should be whiteish-tan in color to match the washed out meat.
You can fish flesh flies just as you would beads or on the swing.