When a salmon river warms and drops, low and clear as air, the skein train pulls into the station. Big kings can be seen sulking abjectly in the deepest, slowest pools of the river. Petulant and lazy, they simply move aside, letting every presentation we try slide on past.
They refuse crankbaits, flies, and plastics. They watch hair jigs dance overhead without moving. Indifferent kings will even turn their snouts up at 12- to 14-mm beads, which I was ready to anoint successors of bait as the most consistent producers of river kings a couple years back.
But the title remains with treated skein presented under a river float—a tactic older than dirt.
“Lots of things work, but nothing takes kings in the river more consistently than fresh, treated skein,” says Captain Mark Chmura of Pier Pressure Charters in Manistee, Michigan. “Especially when the water drops and clears and salmon have been in the river for weeks, getting stale. Low water doesn’t flow as fast. It can warm up quick during those hot late-summer, early-fall warm spells.”
Let’s be real: Skein is messy and a hassle. And it’s nothing new.
We’ve been treating it with borax and presenting it under bobbers in the Great Lakes region for at least 40 years. During that time, spawn and metal seemed to be the only tactics we would ever really need. Fresh kings—those in the river for only a week or so—aggressively crush a size 4 to 6 Mepps or Blue Fox spinner, or a ¼- to ½-ounce Acme Little Cleo spoon. In the past we quartered metal toward the far bank at a slight downstream angle and let the current sweep it along, moving the rod from one side to the other to make the lure change direction at key points. And we were successful enough that we thought for some time we would never need to know much else about kings.
Then Craig Lewis, owner of Erie Outfitters, revealed how he was banging kings with plastics. He visited the Big Manistee just before we did one year and popped double-digit numbers of big kings with Poor Boys Gobies under a float. “The guys fishing skein weren’t catching anything at all,” he said.
After filming a piece using Storm Thundersticks and Rapala Shad Raps, I nose hooked a Berkley Gulp Goby and set it adrift next to Chmura’s boat. The Thill float traveled about 10 feet and suddenly flew sideways. In an instant it flew back in the opposite direction, literally foaming the surface before it ripped under. A king didn’t want to kill the Goby. It wanted to shred it. Chmura was already on the phone declaring, “Gulp works!”
Well, it does and it doesn’t.
“The following year I couldn’t catch a thing with plastic gobies until the weather changed,” Lewis said. “We found out that, when the water’s warm—above 60°F—skein beats plastic. When the water cools into the 50°F range, plastics and other softbaits work a lot better.”
Last fall, many Great Lakes tributaries that entertain kings registered temperatures over 60°F into late September—in some places into October. Warm water is another thing that makes kings sulk. Whenever that happens, messy and labor intensive as it may be, we climb back on board the skein train.
Laying Down Tracks
Skein is basically salmon eggs still tight in the meniscus (membrane) that holds them together inside a female salmon. That membrane begins to loosen and dissolve as kings near the point of spawning on gravel in fast, shallow riffles.
“Best to use eggs still tight in the skein and treat them,” says Chmura. “I use 20 Mule Team Borax to toughen the skein and some Cure to add a little flavor and color. It will last several weeks in the refrigerator once treated.”
Kings caught in summer out in the big lake provide the best bait. Salmon milling out past the pier heads, staging to run in early fall, may or may not work as well, as the meniscus begins to loosen before running the river for some. If you don’t troll for kings in the big lakes, skein can still be easy to obtain.
“Most of the captains and people who have big boats and troll don’t fish the river,” Chmura said. “They dump the eggs with the carcass after cleaning a salmon. Those who don’t troll can spend an hour or so at the cleaning stations and pick up enough eggs in skein to last the entire season. Trollers that have no intent to fish river kings will gladly give up the eggs.”
Treat the eggs on the spot, using the cleaning tables to slice them up and apply cure. Put the chunks in a plastic bag surrounded with ice and keep refrigerated until it’s time to make tracks for the river.
From a boat, the best rod is a 9- to 10-foot, medium-heavy spinning stick with a limber-yet-fast tip and a stout butt rated for 10- to 20-pound line. From shore, a 12- to 15-foot rod with similar specs works better. On a boat, it’s easier to control line and lead fish to net with something 10 feet long or shorter. From shore, the same rod allows too much line to lay on the water, making it difficult to manage line and control the speed of the float.
Chmura prefers casting tackle with the same characteristics. “A round casting reel pays line out evenly,” he says. “You get less line twist and more hauling power. I prefer 17-pound mono on the reel most of the time. It’s user friendly for clients. The added stretch provides a little more shock absorption—and kings are shocking, to say the least. Casting gear coupled with mono allows clients to be a little more heavy handed and haul on kings steaming toward log jams at 36 mph.”
I prefer green or gray 20- to 30-pound braid. Braided lines (gel-spun polyethylene) have less stretch, and they float. Mono absorbs water and begins to sink about midway through the morning, affecting hooksets and line control—which is less problematic from a boat. From shore, the need to mend line becomes palpable. A longer rod, held high, holds more line off the water, making it easier to slow the drift of the float, which allows the bait swing out in front, downstream of the float.
More kings accept it that way.
I deliver floats with a 12-foot custom spinning rod—the same stick I use for steelhead in larger rivers. Lewis, who generally fishes from shore, uses 12- to 14-foot float rods of his own design. “I use center-pin equipment,” he said. “The size #2 to #1/0 Owner Mosquito Hook is tied to a 3- to 4-foot, 12- to 17-pound fluorocarbon leader, using an egg-loop knot for securing hunks of skein to the shaft of the hook.”
Unlike steelhead and trout, salmon are best approached with slip floats.
Slide a bobber stop on the main line, then slide on a Thill slip float or center slider behind it. The model depends on the size of the river and the speed of the current. In smaller, slower rivers, the best float might be a medium to large Thill Pro Series Slip Float. In slightly faster or larger waters, a Thill Center Slider might perform better. On big, brawling rivers, the Thill Big Fish Slider is the tool to have. The Big Fish Slider series includes 4 sizes (4, 5, 6, and 8 inches long) that will hold up anywhere from ½-ounce to a whopping 4.5-ounces.
Place a 8 mm bead on the line to protect the bottom of the float (salmon will shred it otherwise) and tie on an 80-pound test barrel swivel. Above the swivel, pinch on enough Thill Center-Cut Soft Shot to stand the float up. (Thill floats list recommended weights on the packaging.) Then tie a 3-to 4-foot, 12- to 20-pound mono or fluorocarbon leader to the bottom of the swivel. Attach the size #1 to #1/0 octopus-style hook with an egg-loop knot. Open the loop, insert a chunk of treated skein, and cinch the loop down, securing the eggs to the hook.
Stand or position the boat at the head of the pool. Best to fish downstream with floats. Keep the line tight between rod tip and float or the current will catch it and bow the line, overspeeding the presentation. Better to keep the line tight and slow the progress of the float just a little, so the bait stays out in front. Foam and sticks should pass the float. Start with the bait held high over their heads to cover the pool, then gradually increase running depth by sliding the float stop up the line a few inches at a time until it drags on bottom. Then it’s time to move to the next pool and start over.
Whether using casting, spinning, or centerpin gear, line has to pay out as the float drifts. Bails are open. Spools are disengaged. When the float dives under, be ready to pin the line to the blank as you lift the rod sharply and grab the reel handle. It’s a heart-stopping moment.
When they feel the sting of the hook, kings go bat-poop crazy.
Hang on and get ready for the train ride, but be ready to sweep the rod down and to the side in an attempt to turn kings away from trouble—like log jams or bridge abutments. It doesn’t always work, but we have to try.
With braid, less power and a lighter drag setting is recommended.
When the hook drives home, salmon tend to rise, boil, and blast off. The hair will rise on your neck. The strength and speed seems overpowering. Odd sensations spiderwalk along your spine. Line melts off the spool. It seems unstoppable, as if you’ve hooked the engine of a speeding train.
“Float fishing with skein for salmon is visual, which is a big part of the excitement for clients,” Chmura said. “It’s a wild, dramatic fire drill. Skein is just consistently effective. When all else fails, a hunk of bright, treated skein drifting under a float is the best way to go for river kings.”
- written by Matt Straw
The Chmura Method For Treating Skein
(Series of photos illustrating how to cure skein.)
Photo 1: Captain Mark Chmura prepares salmon eggs fresh from a king caught the same day for best results. The tighter the skein, the better it holds up.
Photo 2: Slice just the meniscus (membrane) down the middle from end-to-end…
Photo 3: …so the eggs are exposed to the air on one side but still attached to the membrane on the other side.
Photo 4: Using a sharp fillet knife, begin slicing the two halves of the skein into bite-size chunks anywhere from 2- to 4-inches across.
Photo 5: For scent and color, sprinkle the chunks with your choice of cure.
Photo 6: Using a strainer to capture the excess, Chmura dumps on plenty of 20 Mule Team Borax and kneads the eggs around in it by hand. (Best to use plastic gloves.)
Chmura then stores the bait in small Styrofoam coolers and refrigerates until it’s time to hit the river.