Ocean Salmon Fishing For The Small Boater

Written By: David Hammond, March 13, 2012
Species: Saltwater Salmon

Ocean Salmon Fishing For The Small Boater
Ocean Salmon Fishing For The Small Boater Ocean Salmon Fishing For The Small Boater

Spring, 2011...Wow, what an exciting time of year to be a guide and fisherman in Northern California! Already this year, my clients have seen incredible sturgeon and striper fishing. Halibut is a month away, and now, after a 3 year wait, we have a full ocean salmon season. What's an angler to do? I know...go fishing!

Last year's season was great for me out of Bodega Bay with most trips resulting in limits in the 14 to 25 pound class. The highlight was landing two kings over 40 pounds each within a week's time.

Few things in this world fire me up like salmon fishing in the big blue. The anticipation often results in little sleep the night before the trip for me and my 10 year old son, Carson. Tossing and turning, waking up every hour on the hour...then finally BUZZZZZ... 3AM rolls around. BAM...It's out of bed and down the road. All for a fish we call king salmon. What a fitting name!

Safety And Weather

First off let's talk safety. My boat is a 18.5' North River Seahawk, not the biggest of the fleet. All anglers, especially those in smaller vessels, must pay special attention to weather and safety. Check and make sure you have all the safety equipment required by the U.S. Coastguard. Visit any number of sites such as http://www.boatsafe.com or boatus.com for a complete list of what's required for your size of boat. In addition, I would add a sharp knife on your person, a VHF radio, and a detailed float plan of who, what, when, and where. Give the float plan to a trusted friend or family member in case of an emergency.

When it comes to weather, small boaters (boats from 16.5' to 20.5') must watch the weather and the forecast closely. Go online to the NOAA website to get the current weather and the forecast. Weather changes quickly, so keep a constant watch throughout the week before your trip. I would not recommend going out in a forecast for winds in excess of 15kt. or with a swell where the height is more than half the duration between the swells. Another thing to consider is the weather leading up to the day of your trip. This will let you know the general trend of the weather, whether it's increasing or decreasing, so you can make a more informed choice. Keep in mind, the ocean takes a day or two to calm down after a nasty blow.

If you have never fished in the ocean, I recommend going a few times with a guide or with a friend who has experience. Just as recent as last year we lost some fellow fishermen out of Bodega Bay. Remember, even on the calmest days, the ocean can be dangerous and unforgiving.

When And Where?

Late summer is when I start to focus on ocean king salmon. This is prime time for inshore areas to the north and south of the gate. Returning salmon are making their way down the coast with some of the best fishing less than a mile offshore.

Most of my fishing is north of San Francisco. My favorite area is from Duxbury Reef north to Bodega Head and out to 10 miles. This water produces the majority of my catch.


Locating feeding salmon is the biggest task in front of any angler who heads out to the ocean. Stay in contact with a network of fellow fishermen, captains, and websites such as FishSniffer.com to stay on top of what's going on. Put the information together and come up with a game plan for your day.

Always take note of the tide schedule for the day. The most productive times are at the beginning and ending of the tide. While you are on the water pay attention to what's going on around you. Watch for birds, as this is usually a sign of bait. Keep an eye out for slicks or rips where two currents come together. Many times salmon will be feeding in these areas. Next, watch for brown or dark water, indicating a plankton bloom and krill, which is a staple of the salmon's diet. Finally, try to find that ideal water temperature of 52 to 54 degrees.

Technique, Gear And Tackle

My favorite way of fishing king salmon in the ocean is to troll. Trolling's biggest advantage is the ability to cover a large amount of water, both on top and throughout the water column, in a short amount of time. My "spread" consists of 3 rods. On the two outside positions, I run Lamiglas Classic Glass rods (CG82DR) off Cannon downriggers. In the middle, I run a Seeker Black Steel (G270) with a dropper weight release system. The glass rods parabolic shape and bend allow it to load up on the riggers, which results in a high hit-to-hookup ratio. The heavier rod in the middle can take the pressure of dragging around a 2 to 3 pound ball all day. All three rods are paired with Shimano Tekota 500 LC reels and spooled with 40 to 50 pound Power Pro braided line.

This setup gives plenty of separation for the tackle to run correctly, and it allows you to keep at least one rod fishing after a hookup. Depending on the size of the fish, you may be able to keep both of the other rods out, increasing the chance of a double hookup. If the fish doesn't agree, you probably have a hog and it's time to clear the other lines.

Most of my salmon are caught on a surprisingly small assortment of lures and bait holders. Basic tackle includes a variety of lures such as Apex Lures, spoons, J-Plugs, hoochies, FBRs, cable baiters, and flashers. My most productive colors are watermelon, green, black/white, chartreuse, purple, white, and purple haze. On my bait rigs, I prefer using tray anchovies. They are a durable bait that consistently produce an irresistible spin the kings can't deny.

Take the time and retie all of this gear using quality fluorocarbon leader and high end terminal tackle. Vary the leader lengths on the lures and bait holders between 3 and 5 feet, and on the hoochies vary between 18 and 30 inches. In addition, replace all the hooks to Eagle Claw #L211SS or Mustad #95170 in size 6/0 for the lures and bait holders, size 8/0 for the hoochies. Make sure to crimp the barb and offset the hook with a vise and a pair of pliers.

Typically, I start the day with a mixture of bait and lures to see just what the fish want. I vary my spread of gear in the top 30 feet of water and drop it as the day goes on, but I always leaving at least one rig up high. I do this because most of my kings are caught in water less than 30 feet deep. I watch the GPS to keep an eye on my trolling speed (between 2.5 and 3 MPH) and on the sonar to look for bait balls. I prefer to fish the bottom section of the bait balls were the pigs spend their time eating while allowing the smaller fish to do the slashing and killing.

Presentation and action are key. Before you drop your lures or baits down watch them in the water to make sure they are running correctly. Remember to check your rigs every 20 to 30 minutes to clear any seaweed or jellies and to replace any scratched baits. On tougher days, I will stack my downriggers. I always put a heavy spoon on the bottom and a bait up about 10 feet. This keeps things from tangling, and it makes it easy to check for a scratched bait.

Once you find the fish, stay on the fish. I like to make a gradual figure 8 going back through the area of the hookup. If you see birds crashing bait, don't run right through them, work the outer edges so you don't disturb the bait or the fish.

Caring For The Catch

Carry a large ice chest packed with at least 60 pounds of ice. Upon landing a king, bonk it on the head immediately while it's still in the net. This keeps the fish from going crazy on the deck and bruising the meat. Take a sharp knife and cut its gills on both sides. Put it in the fish box for about 10 minutes while it bleeds out. Next, gill and gut the king. Then, bury it in the ice chest making sure to pack it, inside and out, with ice. When you get home you can finish the job by filleting or steaking the fish. This technique will result in the best salmon you have ever tasted!

In closing, I hope that you've been able to pick up a trick or two to help you land a full box of king salmon this season. If you have any further questions or would like to book a trip for any species from the Delta to the coast, give me a call at (916) 479-3492, visit my website at http://www.deltaprofishing.com, or email me at deltapro@comcast.net. Good Luck and Good Fishin'!

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