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Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 13, 2012
The conditions were ideal. It was late summer and a dense fog hung over the dark water. The groundswell was low and the surface was dotted with hundreds of marine birds. The screen of the sonar unit was cluttered with yellow and red masses punctuated by multiple arches indicating tightly huddled baitfish being assaulted by feeding salmon. My heart was beating quickly as I fumbled to rig an anchovy with fingers made stupid by adrenaline.
Once I got the anchovy on the leader, I smeared the baitfish with anise scent, snapped the leader on my rod and wasted no time striping the bait down to 35 feet, so that it would be drifting just below all the activity illustrated on the sonar unit. Ordinarily I would have put the rod in a holder, but I expected to get hit right away, so I left the reel out of gear and held the rod with my thumb on the spool. A few moments later when the rod tip wiggled to life I knew my instincts were correct. When you’re mooching, especially when the regulations dictate that a circle hook must be used, you’ve got to be patient when it comes converting a bite into a hookup.
After about 15 seconds of tell tale taps, the rod tip started to draw down toward the water and I allowed the fish to take several yards of line out of the reel. At first the fish moved slowly, but when it picked up speed I engaged the reel and started slowly working the handle. Instantly the rod bent deeply and the salmon was solidly hooked.
True to form the chinook’s initial reaction was to swim nearly to the boat as if it wasn’t aware of being hooked, but a beat after the husky fish appeared off the port side it shot off on a drag testing power dive. Before the fight was over the powerful king took me completely around the boat twice. In the end the reel’s smooth drag overcame the salmon’s strength and the dime bright 18 pounder ended up in the fish box where it was soon joined by a second heavy bodied salmon. Mooching had filled the freezer once again!
When it comes to catching numbers of salmon all season long, trolling is a great tactic, since it allows you to cover a maximum amount of water. Yet, if your goal is to catching a true heavy weight, say a king weighing 15 pounds or more, during the period spanning from the middle of summer on into the fall, mooching is the way to go.
So why is mooching, basically drifting with a bait or jig hanging below the boat, such a great tactic for larger than average kings? To answer this question we’ve got to consider the behavior of ocean run chinooks. You can catch fish mooching at any point during the season, but it is most effective from the middle of summer through the end of the season, because this is when large numbers of salmon can be found concentrated near schools of bait.
Early in the season when baitfish are not plentiful, salmon typically spend their time foraging on krill and small rockfish. As a result the salmon won’t be concentrated, instead they’ll be spread out in open water, making trolling a much more productive option than mooching.
As the season progresses baitfish become more plentiful and move into coastal areas. The kings too are drawn toward the coast as they gradually move toward the mouths of the rivers that will lead them to their spawning grounds during the fall months. Instinctively, the salmon know that they must feed heavily in preparation for the rigors of the spawning season. As a result, during the latter half of the salmon season large concentrations of kings can often be found stacked up amongst schools of bait in relatively close proximity to the mouths of rivers and bays.
The basic areas where the salmon concentrate are typically well known locally. As far as locating feeding salmon goes, both your sonar unit and your binoculars are irreplaceable. As you run, keep your eyes peeled for areas of dark water, concentrations of birds and of course locations that are dotted with other salmon boats. When you locate these promising signs cruise through the area slowly. You are looking for balls of bait that have larger fish scatter amongst and below them. When bait is spread out in a cloud it usually means that no fish are feeding on them, but when the bait balls up it is a sure sign that they are under attack.
Now that you have an idea of what to look for, let’s take a moment to discuss mooching tackle. Virtually any rod and reel combination can catch fish while mooching, but for maximum effectiveness, you’ll want an 8’6” graphite downrigger rod rated for 10 to 20 pound test line. Such a rod provides sensitivity and boasts backbone in its lower section, but the front half of the rod features a soft action that cushions the fight of soft mouthed kings.
The rod should be teamed with a high speed level wind conventional reel. The reel should feature a smooth drag and be capable of holding at least 200 yards of 12 to 15 pound test monofilament.
Mooching doesn’t require an extensive assortment of terminal tackle. You’ll need some banana shaped mooching sinkers from 2 to 5 ounces in weight, along with a spool of 15-pound test fluorocarbon leader material and a small assortment of 1/0 to 4/0 circle hooks.
Natural bait in the form of anchovies and herring represent the most effective offerings for the moocher. Properly preparing and rigging baits is a crucial part of mooching success. Salmon like a perfect bait that is chrome bright with all its scales attached. This means that you don’t want to go with frozen bags of bait. Instead spend a little more money and purchase hand picked green label tray bait. To toughen the bait, immerse a pound of frozen baitfish in a small cooler containing a solution composed of a half gallon of sea water, a half a gallon of crushed ice and a cup of rock salt.
Rigging baitfish is pretty simple. Start off by snelling one of your hooks to a 6’ leader. Using a bait needle thread the leader through the baitfish from the eye socket out through the vent near the tail. Pull the hook’s shank into the bait’s eye socket, so that only the bend and hook point are showing. With the hook in place half hitch the leader around the bait’s tail twice and smear it with scent. Next attach the leader to one end of a banana sinker and attach the main line from you rod to the other end of the sinker.
With such a long leader below the sinker, it is important not to free spool the rig down as this will result in tangles. Instead strip the rig down to the desired depth a foot or two at a time. The largest salmon will almost always be located below the bait where they can pick off baitfish injured by smaller salmon feeding above them, so that is where you want to position your bait.
A typical mooching bite when using bait starts with a few taps and gradually becomes more aggressive. When you get a bite you’ve got to be patient and allow the fish to load the rod before making a move. Once you’re confident the fish has the bait, you don’t need to set the hook, simply begin reeling, raise the rod tip and you’ll be hooked up.
Right now you must use circle hooks while mooching in California waters, so using jigs isn’t practical. In the future this may change so I’ll spend a moment covering the use of jigs. At times using hair jigs and tube jigs can be highly effective when the regulations allow you to use a standard barbed or barbless hook. The rig for presenting these offerings is the same as the one used for bait fishing, except a jig is placed at the end of the leader instead of a rigged baitfish. Before lower you jig into the water, you’ll want to place a two inch long anchovy fillet on the jig’s hook shiny side up.
When fishing jigs you’ll want to hold your rod. Two or more hard taps signals a bite. The moment you feel the taps set the hook and start reeling. A lot of guys that are new to employing jigs will feel the weight of the fish when they set the hook, but will loose the sensation of weight as they reel. As a result they have a tendency to stop reeling. Unfortunately for them, salmon hooked on tubes or bucktails often swim right up to the surface, before the fight begins. If you stop reeling and give the fish slack all it takes is a flick of the head for them to shake the hook.
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