Editor’s note: The 2017 Idaho Outdoors fishing guide cover story was on some of the biggest, baddest fish in Idaho — and the anglers who pursue them. Here is the column introducing the series.
Today: Chinook salmon
Coming up: Flathead catfish (Wednesday) and white sturgeon (Thursday)
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Where to catch them: Salmon River, Clearwater River, Snake River.
Recommended gear: 8 1/2-foot, fast-medium action rod and a bait-casting reel spooled with minimum 20-pound monofilament.
What to use: Spinners, spoons, plugs, yarn, roe, jigs, streamers, canned tuna — barbless hooks required.
State record: 54 pounds, caught by Merrold Gold in 1956.
Catch-and-release record: 41.5 inches, caught by Michael Nicholson in 2016.
Featured monster hunter: Cody Ard, Meridian.
They are angling’s ultimate challenge — acrobatic giants that refuse to eat as they single-mindedly trek toward their spawning grounds.
And if you thought it was tough getting one to bite, just wait until you’re trying to keep one on the hook.
They are the majestic, ocean-dwelling Chinook salmon. And for a few precious weeks each season, they run Idaho rivers and give anglers the chance to catch the fish of a lifetime — or go crazy trying.
For Meridian fisherman Cody Ard, salmon fishing is more than a hobby, or even an obsession — it’s a way of life. He grew up in a household where the annual calendar revolved around Chinook fishing.
“It’s hard, and you lose a lot of fish,” Ard said. “It’s that love-hate relationship, but once you finally catch one, it’s over. It’s a lifelong addiction.”
Depending on the time of year, Chinook can be found in the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater river systems. They are stocked occasionally in the Boise River. No matter where you fish for them, Chinook are tough customers. They will hit a variety of baits and lures, but since they aren’t interested in feeding, the key is to trigger an aggression strike.
“They’re not eating — they’re on a mission to spawn, and that’s the only thing on their minds,” Ard said. “Basically, you’re trying to piss them off. I’ve found that Chinook bites usually are triggered by things they’ve interacted with in the ocean. If you present your lure the right way, instinct takes over.”
Salmon anglers fish with everything from cured fish eggs and canned tuna to spoons, wobbly crankbaits and brightly colored jigs and yarn. Saltwater-themed scents and jellies also are popular.
Once you entice a stubborn Chinook to bite, the excitement truly begins. These powerful muscle torpedoes easily grow to more than 3 feet in length, and hooking one is like hooking a small car — especially in smaller, faster water like the Salmon River. The degree of difficulty is further increased by Idaho’s barbless hook requirement.
“Other than maybe a tuna, Chinook are the hardest-fighting fish you could ever hook,” Ard said. “They are masters at jumping, head shaking — anything they can do to spit that hook. If there’s even an inch of slack in your line, it’s over.”
Ard catches between 40 and 60 Chinook in an average year. On a good day, he’ll hook as many as 15 fish. Depending on conditions and luck, he might only land one of those, or he might land a dozen. To date, his personal best (in Idaho) is a whopping 46-inch fish that weighed 28 pounds — caught on the same stretch of the South Fork Salmon River where he first learned to fish for Chinook.
“Now, my kids are hooking fish in that exact same hole,” Ard said. “The tradition continues.”