Swingin’ for Kings, by Jason Hartwick

Swingin’ for Kings: The Idiots gear guide for Spey fishing for Chinook Salmon

The mighty Chinook salmon or “King” as many refer to them, might be one of the most prized anadromous fish an angler can hook in fresh water. They also might be the most difficult. Diminishing runs and more angler pressure have made King Salmon all the more difficult to catch throughout the world. Destinations such as Alaska, BC, and Chile are now where anglers typically find larger populations of Kings willing to eat a swung fly. That’s not to say that it’s easy though. Countless hours can be spent fishing empty runs and then one stumbling upon a place where rolling fish are everywhere but will not grab your fly. There are also times when they are everywhere and crushing a large swung fly with abandon. Either way, it’s King fishing and nothing beats that adrenaline rush of a hard grab and line ripping off the reel!

The most common method of chasing kings is with the swung fly. What can make this challenging at times is that once Kings enter the river they seem to prefer deeper holding lies and will sometime sit in some pretty heavy current making it difficult to get a large profiled fly down to their depths and keeping there throughout the swing. Conditions play the biggest factor in equipment and line selection than anything else. The sweet thing these days is that we have equipment better designed to fish for Kings than ever before and a huge variety of fly lines to cover any and all conditions an angler might be presented with.

When chasing Kings in places such as Alaska, BC, or Chile, these fish are typically coming in on the higher flows caused by runoff in the spring and early summer months. This is where the challenge begins , casting a large fly on a sink tip or shooting head, tying to keep the fly down where the kings are holding.

The Gear…

Rods:

When chasing kings in the spring or early summer, spey rods offer a big advantage in the higher flows during runoff. They allow anglers to cast rather large profiled flies on heavy sinktips to keep the fly down here these fish are holding. Rods in the 12-14’ range rated for #8-10 are the most common. These heavier sticks will not only help to cast Skagit lines, heavy sink tips and large flies with ease. They will also help to fight and hopefully land fish in the 10-50 plus lb range.

Reels, backing, and running lines

Reels are important as these fish can pull hard and take a lot of line. A larger reel, say rated for a #10-12 rod with a strong drag and 200 plus yards of 30 lb backing is a must. As for running lines, this is personal preference and there is a lot to choose from. RIO’s SlickShooter, GripShooter, ConnectCore, and Powerflex shooting lines are all excellent and this comes down to personal preference. Whether it’s SlickShooter mono or a coated running line like the Powerflex, stronger is better for kings. I wouldn’t recommend anything lighter than 30 lb breaking strength and would favor the 35-50 lb stuff. You don’t want to loose the fish of a lifetime due to a crap reel, not enough backing, or a weak running line.

Lines, heads, and sink tips….the x factor:

When it comes to lines for these setups the most preferred system would be a Skagit setup. RIO’s large selection of Skagit heads offers an angler a variety of different style Skagit heads for every situation encountered. The most popular being the Skagit Max and Skagit Max Short. These floating Skagit heads are a great all around Skagit system for casting sink tips such as T-14 to T-17 but more on that later. The main difference in the Max and Max Short is length. The shorts are all 20’ heads and are better suited for switch rods and spey rods up to about 13’6”, while the Max varies in length and can cover most any spey or switch rod. It’s all personal preference.

Another great Skagit head option for Kings are Rio’s iFlight and iShort which are intermediate Skagit heads to help cut through the current, slow down the swing, and gain more depth. Similar in lengths to the Max heads, the iFlight is slightly longer than the iShorts. These lines have become very popular for chasing Kings in the last couple of years and it would be a good idea to carry a floating head such as the max/max short and an intermediate iFlight/iShort. This will allow for versatility under most every condition. For more info on what head and weight to choose, take a look at Rio’s Spey Central page where you they can help you choose the correct line and also have line recommendations for most every spey rod on the market.

Sink tips can be the most important part of your spey setup for kings. Rio’s line of T material is a must for Skagit casting. Weights vary from the lightest material (T-8) to the heaviest known as T-20 and everything in between. The most common sink tips for Kings would be T-14 and T-17. These tips can be custom cut to differing lengths, most commonly 10-15’. Another sink tip approach would be to buy Skagit MOW and iMow tips to cover every basis. The most important factor when choosing the proper tips for kings is make sure you are carrying enough grain weight for the spey rod and Skagit head being used. T-14 and T-17 are favored when using heavy Skagit heads and large flies that will not only help to keep the fly down in the zone but also turn over the larger flies typically fish for Kings. As for leader material off the end of your sink tip, keep it short and stout. We like anywhere from 3-6’ of 15-25 lb test. You don’t want to be under gunned when you hook a chrome slab over 30 lbs! Again, for more info on sink tips consult Rio’s Spey Central page.

When I am out guiding or chasing Kings on my own, be it in California, BC, or Alaska here is typically what I like to carry….

- A few spey rods varying in length from 11’9” to 14’ in #8-10
- A few high quality reels with a good drag
- 30 lb backing
- Rio’s GripShooter in 35 and 44 lb test
- Rio’s Skagit max and max short heads
- A couple of Rio’s iShort and iFlight heads for deeper, slower presentations
- Rio T-14, 17, 20 in 10’, 13’, and 15’ lengths
- Rio Skagit iMow T-14
- Rio Mow T-14, T-17
- Spools of 15, 20, and 25 lb mono for leader material
- Boxes for my favorite King flies

This might seem like a lot of gear and it is, but when your chasing Kings you want to make sure you are prepared for any condition presented as conditions change by the day. While these fish might not always be easy to hook, it’s well worth the time and effort. Plus, all your friends are going to be jealous when you bring home pictures and stories of massive chrome bright, sea-liced slabs that took you way into your backing or even sometimes back to the ocean.

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