Cliff Notes For Would Be River Salmon Anglers

Written By: Cal Kellogg, August 24, 2012
Species: River Salmon

I readily admit that I’m a greenhorn when it comes to river salmon fishing and I simply don’t do enough river fishing for that to change, yet when I do go out chasing river salmon with a guide I generally do pretty well because I understand the basics. This can be true of you too if you keep a few things in mind.

This article is timely because based on what we are already seeing in the ocean, this should be one of the best river fishing season in memory on north state rivers. Big numbers of fish in the rivers inevitably brings a bunch of river fishing rookies out of the woodwork anxious to try their hand at fooling river run kings.

Some of these guys will try fishing on their own off the bank. That’s a tough call if you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re probably going to be disappointed…Just saying.

Other guys will book a trip with a guide, putting them on the expressway to success. Now the guide…he knows where the fish are and has an arsenal of tactics to choose from to get them to strike. While the guide is going to get you the strikes, depending on which method you are using, it might be up to you to execute and turn strikes into hooked fish.

The purpose of this article is to give you a few bits of knowledge that will help you tremendously in the execution department when you hit the water this fall. Let’s go over the most popular methods employed by river salmon guides. We’ll look at an overview of the basics and then present you with a few tips that will stack the odds in your favor during the big game.

 

Pulling Plugs

Pulling plugs, as in medium and large size Kwikfish and Flatfish style plugs either from an anchored or back drifting boat is the No. 1 preferred method among most guides. There are several reasons that this is the case but right up front is the fact that when pulling plugs in shallow to moderately deep water when a strike comes the angler doesn’t have to do anything in terms of setting the hook. In fact in most cases if at all possible the guide doesn’t even want the clients holding the rods.

A salmon hits a plug out of rage. All of a sudden there’s this fat annoying plug in their face and they slam it in order to kill it. Salmon especially big ones have large powerful jaws. When they hit a plug they often lock onto it and hold it so tight that the hooks can’t be set.

To consistently hook salmon on plugs you’ve got to let them maul the lure for a moment. If you’re holding the rod when the strike comes your natural reaction will be to immediately set the hook. You’ll usually fight the salmon for a beat or two and then the fish will just be gone. What happened is that the fish was holding on so tightly that you weren’t able to drive the hooks home. When the salmon decides he’s had enough he simply lets go of your lure and you go home disappointed thinking about the one that got away.

When the guide breaks out plugs, here’s what you need to do. First and foremost listen to everything the guide tells you and do as he says. Basically he’s going to tell you to put the plug out a certain distance and then you’ll put the rod into the holder. He’ll tell you not touch the rod during a strike until you’re certain the fish is hooked.

Okay it’s 15 minutes later the guide is sliding you down a lava wall on the Sacramento River above Red Bluff and your rod slams down and starts to wiggle.

Don’t touch it wait and wait and wait. You want that fish to turn away and hook itself. When that happens you’ll see line start to come off the reel. Now the fish is hooked for sure and that’s when I touch the rod.

Sometimes the guide will tell you to grab the rod. Do what he says, but my philosophy is that unless I’m told, I don’t touch the rod during a plug strike until I’m absolutely certain I’ve got hooks in the fish.

 

Boon-Dog-Ling

Boondoggling, Boon-Dog-Ling, Boondoglin……I can’t even spell it, how can we be expected to do it? And what about that name? Really? You salmon guides couldn’t come up with something a little more vague and undescriptive?

I think they just want to make it sound complicated, because in reality it’s pretty simple. It’s probably the one method that we could use ourselves to catch fish without a guide, provided we didn’t capsize our boat in the rapids and drown.

The basic rig for Boon-Dog-Ling consists of a medium weight 7-foot spinning rod armed with a reel loaded with 15 to 20 pound braided line. Your main line is passed through the swivel end of a snap swivel. Next a bead is threaded on the line and the line is then tipped with a swivel. A slinky of the appropriate weight is snapped on the snap swivel that is threaded on the main line. A 20 to 30 inch leader tipped with a small octopus hook attached via and egg loop knot is attached to the swivel at the end of the main line.

After baiting the hook with a quarter size chunk of cured roe the rig is tossed out to behind a drifting jet boat or drift boat and basically dragged through prime holding areas. If the line goes slack or if you feel any taps or pressure, set the hook. If there’s a salmon at the end of the line, it’s game on. Boon-Dog-Ling is as simple as it is effective!

When I Boon-Doggle I like to hold the rod at about a 30 degree angle. I both watch the line and feel for strikes. Most of the strikes I’ve gotten have been signaled by a series of sharp taps. Some of these fish have been smallish jacks, but some of them have been fish over 20 pounds. When Boon-Doggling, the strike is not an indication of the size of the fish doing the striking.

When you set the hook you don’t have to rear back on the rod super hard. The small octopus hooks used are super sharp and braided line has almost zero stretch. A sharp jab is all you need to drive the hook home.

 

Back Bouncing

Ah, yes, back bouncing. This is the least favorite of the big three river salmon techniques that most guides employ. Why is it the least favorite?

That’s because it is the approach that puts the most responsibility in the hands of the client. When back bouncing not only is the client responsible for hooking the fish, he’s also responsible for working the gear across an exceedingly snaggy bottom without hanging up.

If you hang up, not only does it mess with the whole boat’s mojo, as you have to motor upstream time and again to free your gear, it can also get expensive in terms of heavy weights and plugs if your efforts to free hung gear are unsuccessful.

If you are a black bass guy that works the bottom with jigs and plastics or if you are a lingcod jigger that loves probing offshore reefs, you’ll take to back bouncing like a duck takes to water. On the other hand, if you come from a fishing background like trout and kokanee trolling that doesn’t require the angler to manipulate the gear and feel for the bottom, get ready for a long frustrating day as you learn the ropes.

Back bouncing works like this. You’ll be using a fairly stout conventional rod. The reel will usually be loaded with braid. On the end of the line will be a three way swivel with a dropper sporting a 1 to 8 ounce weight on one eye and a longer leader either armed with a roe baited hook or a plug on the third eye.

As the angler the first thing you’ve got to know is that you can’t just drop this rig into the water and free spool it to the bottom. If you do it will tangle. You need to put it into the current and allow it to straighten out. If all is well slowly lower it down and the current will keep things from twisting and tangling.

Okay you’ve got the rod in your hand and the guide has baited it with either a plug or roe. We’ll talk about the different strikes that come with each bait in a moment, but first we’ll look at the presentation, which is identical when using both bait and lures.

The guide will motor the boat upstream of an area he believes holds kings. He will swing the boat into the current. Using the motor the guide will keep the boat drifting downstream at a rate slower than the current.

When the guide tells you to drop your gear lower it to the bottom and begin raising it and setting it back down…gently bouncing it. This way you’ll actually be walking the rig downstream. If it drags it will snag, but if it bounces along it won’t…Usually!

Guys that have a “feel” for the bottom are excellent back bouncers, but rest assured that “feel” is something that can be learned with experience.

If you are using a plug and you get hit the rules are the same as when fishing plugs out of a holder, namely don’t set the hook right away. Let that fish really chew the plug and let him turn away before crossing his eyes!

A roe bite will either be signaled by taps, tugs or pressure. When you feel any of the above strike and reel. When you hook a salmon it will usually react by coming up toward the boat. If slack develops at this critical moment it’s pretty easy for the fish to toss the hook, so set and reel….FAST!

 

Final Thoughts

River salmon fishing is special. The surroundings are often beautiful, running big rivers in drift boats and jet boats is a lot of fun and river kings put up a savage fight!

If you haven’t done it don’t let river fishing intimidate you. Book a trip with a competent guide, follow his instructions and you’ll be on the fast track to success. If you do book a trip, you’ll likely be using one or more of the techniques I’ve outline here, so go over them a time or two and you’ll be ahead of the game on the big day!

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