California in its wild state must have been a dream state. As late as middle of the last century, before rampant growth and development and the water diversion, and forest mining that attended it, Bill Schaadt, whose shack sat on the banks of the Russian River near the small town of Monte Rio, was in an angling Eden.
The Russian flows through Sonoma County, past redwoods and vinyards. In Schaadt’s day, the river was at full strength. It was robust and rich, containing healthy populations of bass, bluegills, crappy, carp, suckers, bullheads, flounder, striped bass, and giant sturgeon.
There were steelhead in the Russian too, winter-run fish that slipped in from the sea from November through April in staggering numbers. In 1954-55 season, for example, sportsmen caught 40,000 of them. Of that catch, Bill Schaadt, fishing from first to last light over a period of five months, caught and released 900, a verified feat made more incredible by the fact that he used 3 pound test tippet and flies as small as size 14.
When hunting chinook, Bill Schaadt needed more gun. He rowed out to fish Chinook Salmon – the salmon he called King – on rivers like the Eel with a one piece, one-handed glass fibre rod armed with a Pfleuger Medalist reel that was loaded to its cage with running line. The boat was necessary because the fish crowded into heavy currents of pools 30 feet deep.
According to his unofficial biographer, Russell Chatham, Schaadt always carried lengths of lead core line conveniently wrapped on bits of cardboard with him. The line was essential to get a fly down to where the fish were holding. To accomplish this, Schaadt routinely used lines weighing as much as 800 grains, more than twice the weight of the heaviest lines used by other fishers of the time.
If any of those anglers had built lines similar to Schaadt’s, they would have discovered they couldn’t cast them as well or at all. Any fisherman who spent any time casting lead core lines will instantly appreciate that Schaadt must have been an exceptional caster. Only John Tarantino of the Golden Gate Casting Club, the foremost tournament caster of that time, was Schaadt’s equal, according to Chatham, and then only in distance an accuracy, not in versatility.
Tackle stores still sell lead core line at under 50 cents a foot, but line manufacturers have gotten so proficient at manipulating PVC, they offer unleaded fly lines that sink just as fast. The best of these line systems is made by Rio, which comes with interchangeable heads of varying sink rates. For Kings, Schaadt would have approved of a type 8.
Fly fishing for chinook from boats in deep pools, like Schaadt did, isn’t practical in the Skeena River and her tributaries, largely because of the colour of the water. Instead, the hopeful Chinook fisher should seek out the shallowest slot favoured by salmon on their way upstream.
The way to identify these traveling lanes is simplicity itself. Wade into the tail of a run and look upstream. The places where the current is less demanding will reveal themselves making the path offering the least line of resistance for fish evident.
Once the likely fish way is determined, the point farthest upstream, where the current in the path is strongest needs to be determined; this spot will probably be very close to where the salmon must turn into heavy water to continue their ascent. The best prospects will lie there.
To fish this kind of lay-by, a short cast of about 13 metres at most, will do. The fly should be cast quartering down and helped to sink deeply as soon in the drift as possible by paying out slack line that has been stripped off the reel before hand.
If all the factors are in alignment, a Chinook will be funneling through the selected spot, hesitating to catch its breath when the fly passes in front of its face. Chinook fishers tend to use large lures and large hooks under the mistaken assumption that it takes a large lure to catch a large fish. Not so. As Atlantic salmon anglers learned long ago, small flies are very effective, often more effective, when it comes to taking large fish, and a damned sight more pleasant to cast and fish. A small, stout iron will hook more quickly, stay planted, and do less damage to the fish. For this reason a #8 comet, or an undulant orange marabou dressed on a short shank and made to ride upside down and close to the bottom with the addition of weighted eyes is ideal.
Finally, use a stout rod and short leader of ten pound test Maxima, and don’t move unless there is someone behind you. Oh yes, be prepared to be beaten and don’t be upset when you are.