Landlocked Kings: The Basics

Written By: Cal Kellogg, September 17, 2012
Species: Landlocked Salmon

At the top of the pacific coast’s ocean food chain sets the chinook salmon. These sleek open water predators spend their lives cruising the shadowy depths of the sea, ambushing baitfish. Anglers have long loved pursuing kings due to their willingness to strike, their powerful fighting ability and the excellent table fare they provide either eaten fresh or smoked.

Over the years chinook salmon have been planted in a large number of reservoirs across the northern half of the United States. As long as the lake in question provides cool water and ample baitfish kings have shown the ability to thrive in a wide range of geographic areas.

Here in California kings are found in several notable lakes including Shasta, Spaulding, Almanor, Folsom, Don Pedro, McClure and Berryessa and Trinity. These lakes provide forage either in the form of threadfin shad or pond smelt and offer year around water temperatures in the chinook’s 50 to 56 degree comfort zone.

In at least two of these lakes…Don Pedro and Folsom, kings have started to reproduce naturally by spawning in tributaries entering the lakes.

Northern California is ground zero, when it comes to pursuing trout and kokanee because there are so many lakes that offer excellent fishing for one or both of these species. Despite the excellent angling opportunities kings provide, they are a sleeper species often overlooked by Golden State anglers and that’s too bad. Our landlocked kings offer all the thrills that ocean chinooks do only in a smaller package.

I’ve spent many a day trolling and mooching for kings along the California coast and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. The primary reason I like targeting landlocked kings so much is that the methods used are largely the same as those used in the ocean, only on a smaller scale.

Successfully targeting landlocked kings requires a boat equipped with downriggers and a quality sonar unit capable of detecting schools of bait. Early in the season when the surface temperature is still low it is possible to find kings holding near the surface of reservoirs, but once things begin to warm up the salmon will drop down in the water column in order to remain in the cool water they prefer.

Once a lake turns over and a thermocline develops targeting kings becomes fairly simple since they will become concentrated at the depth of the thermocline. Finding salmon is the key to catching them.  The key to finding them is pinpointing areas that both hold bait and fall within the salmon’s preferred temperature range of 50 to 56 degrees.

A lot of guys make the mistake of concluding that if they aren’t marking large fish on their sonar unit the area doesn’t hold kings and that’s often not the case. Kokanee salmon, for example are school fish and kokanee anglers rely on their sonar to locate schools. Chinooks often lead a more solitary lifestyle, so when searching for them its wise to assume that if there is bait in the area kings will be nearby.

I’ve also found situations where you’ll mark a loose concentration of fish, drop the gear down and start catching a mix of mature rainbows and kings. When this happens you’ll generally hook a few trout for every king. This leads me to conclude that at times at least, kings will mingle with pods of rainbows.

Most mature landlocked kings average 2 to 4 pounds, but can range up to 5 pounds or more. Despite their power and relatively large size, I like to target kings using kokanee level tackle. Kings are found in large expanses of open water, so it makes sense to utilize light gear and enjoy the fight. I fished Shasta last week and had a ball fighting 1 to 3 pound kings on two different rigs. One was a Shimano combo consisting of a 7’ TLA-7OUL-2 rod teamed with a Cardiff 100A baitcaster filled with 8 pound Berkley Trilene. The other was a bit heavier. It combined an Abu Garcia C4 classic reel spooled with 10 pound Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon line with a Vance’s Tackle 7’6” downrigger rod.

As with ocean chinooks trolling and mooching are the two accepted ways of tempting landlocked kings. Trolling is the most popular method, but it is good to be prepared to mooch at times when the bite is slow and salmon are inactive.

Trolling for kings is a pretty straightforward affair although there are some nuances that will help put more fish in the boat throughout the course of the season. Unlike trout, kings are not spooked by the downrigger weight, meaning that in most situations you can run your offering very near the ball. Many veteran anglers attach a large set of flashers directly to the weigh and run their lures just behind the flashers off a release attached a foot or so up cable.

At times when the salmon are spooky due to a large volume of boat traffic it can pay dividends to get the lure 100 to 200 feet behind the boat to distance the bait from the disturbance of the motor. Even when there is a good amount of boat traffic, I prefer to start out with my lures close to the weights and gradually let them out more and more until I get hit.

As a final word about presentation, remember that salmon feed upward. This means that they look for prey they can attack from below and behind. If you are marking bait at 50 feet run your lure slightly above that level to ensure it is above the feeding salmon. If it is below them you’ll get fewer hits.

The basic trolling set up consists of a spoon, hoochie or fly fished behind a 4 to 6 inch dodger. Kings feed on baitfish and all these offerings do a great job of imitating them. I like to start out with natural minnow colors before experimenting with bright stuff. The dodger is important because it puts out vibrations similar to those of a feeding fish, which can draw salmon in from a distance.

Currently some of my favorite lures are Shasta Tackle Kok-A-Nuts, Silver Horde Hoochies, Sep’s Pro Secrets, Excels, Shasta Tackle Wiggle Hoochies and Hum Dingers. Chinooks are notoriously fickle, so it pays to experiment with different lures and colors until they tell you what they want.

A secret many guides rely on is trolling with rigged baitfish. In lakes where threadfin shad are the predominate forage this technique is known as “rolling shad”. To accomplish this frozen shad are rigged in a special harness or attached to a special snell that causes them to rotate through the water when trolled at a slow speed. Rolling shad can be deadly effective when lures and flies draw a complete blank.

Mooching for kings simply refers to drifting with baits hanging at specific distances beneath the boat. Mooching is most effective when the salmon are spooky or inactive because it keeps the bait in the strike zone for a maximum amount of time while creating minimal disturbance.

Shad minnows, anchovy fillets or tails and night crawlers rigged 18 inches below a large split shot or egg sinker are the most widely used offerings. Again you’ll want to position your bait slightly above the level at which you believe the salmon are holding. Some anglers like to hold the rod while mooching, but I prefer to set it in a holder.

A bite is signaled by light tapping. When a bite is registered don’t pick up the rod. Kings will often mouth the bait for an extended period of time before committing. When the rod loads up and begins to pulse the salmon is hooked and it’s time to begin reeling.

Whether you are trolling or mooching it pays to add scent to your bait. Salmon don’t locate their meals by using smell, but when inactive fish approach a bait scent can certainly help close the deal. I’ve been using BioEdge scents for the past couple seasons and I’m very satisfied.

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