Spinners And Spoons For River Salmon and Steelhead
Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 13, 2012
Here in the north state we once again have a river salmon season, albeit more limited than we might like on the Feather, American and Sacramento Rivers. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the existence of these fishing opportunities has ignited an old contentious debate.
I’m speaking about the bank fishing method known as beading, flossing or lining. For the uninitiated beading works like this, your main line is passed through a slinky or pencil lead weight and tipped with a swivel. To the swivel a 6 to 12 foot leader is attached. A single small bead is slipped onto the leader and the leader is tipped with a hook.
This rig is casted into a riffle or run in a salmon river. The weight and hook/bead are swept down stream by the current and the leader stretched between them forms a belly on the upstream side of the weight and hook/bead.
Salmon face up current when holding in a river and constantly open and close their mouths to allow water to flow over their gills. As the bead rig drifts down stream, the leader lodges in the mouth of the salmon as the weight continues drifting downstream. This causes the leader to be drawn through the salmon’s mouth until the hook eventually lodges inside or outside the salmon’s jaws. When the fish feels the hook, it bolts or moves and it’s fish on!
Beading is a method for snagging fish, since the fish don’t take the offering voluntarily. Based on the observations of most anglers the DFG is apparently willing to overlook this snagging if the fish is hooked in the mouth, but I wouldn’t try keeping one hooked in the fins, back or elsewhere.
Beading tends to ruffle the feathers of boaters that pull plugs and fish roe for their salmon and many of them would like to see the method go away. The beaders often argue that they don’t have a boat and therefore beading is the only method they can employ to hook salmon.
Most discussions of beading come down to a discussion of legality, but for me the issue comes down to personal ethics. Putting what is legal aside, ethics are a narrower criteria that each and every angler has to apply to his or her self.
An example of ethics concerns catch limits. It is legal to keep five trout in most California waters, but many anglers can’t utilize five trout, so they make an ethical decision and keep fewer fish than the law allows.
In my younger days I spent a fair amount of time drifting beads for kings. A long time ago I realized that the fish were almost never taking the beads voluntarily and that left me at a personal ethical crossroads. Ultimately I decided to quit using beads and long leaders for salmon.
Lucky for folks that feel the way I do but lack a boat there is another method of bank fishing for river salmon and steelhead that targets biters and it can become very addictive once you experience success. I’m talking about fishing with hardware in the form of spinners and spoons.
Spinners and spoons will take river salmon wherever salmon are found from the bountiful rivers of Alaska all the way down the Pacific Coast to the Feather and American Rivers. It takes patience and experience to consistently hook salmon while tossing hardware, but the strikes you get are savage and often occur right at your feet.
Let’s take a closer look at this adrenaline filled underutilized form of river fishing.
Rods for tossing hardware don’t need to be heavy, yet this really isn’t a light tackle method. A good rod is either a spinning or conventional stick that is 7 to 8 feet long. The rod should feature a medium action and be rated for 10 to 20 pound mono.
In terms of reels you don’t need a huge line capacity. A baitcaster or spinning reel capable of holding in the neighborhood of 100 yards of 20 pound mono will work just fine.
This brings us to fishing line and this is where any notion of hardware fishing being a light tackle approach goes right out the window. For hardware fishing you don’t want to use less than 20 pound test line. Salmon and steelhead aren’t line shy and since the hits you get on hardware are reaction strikes line diameter and visibility aren’t big concerns.
If you choose to use monofilament, limp abrasion resistant 20 pound test is the way to go. However 20 or 30 pound test braid is an even better choice. 30 pound braid is much finer in diameter that 20 pound mono and this allows you to get lighter lures deeper and cast farther than you could with mono.
Okay now that you’ve got a rod and reel combo rigged up it’s time to pick up some lures. In general, lures ranging from a ½ ounce to one ounce are most useful, but you can toss in a few ¼ ounce models too. For spoons you’ll want to stick with standard wobblers like the Krocodile, the Mepps Syclops or Blue Fox Pixees. Your spinner selection should be a little more extensive. You’ll want lures with Colorado, Indiana and willow leaf blades. Colorado’s run the shallowest while willow leafs run the deepest and Indianas are a compromise in terms of running depth. There are a myriad of different spinners on the market that will work including the Mepps Longcast, Mepps Flying C and the classic Blue Fox Vibrax.
I’d like to tell you that you don’t need a big selection of lures, but that isn’t the case. Color is critical. When you find salmon or steelhead grouped in a pool, initially they will hit just about any color lure, but then the bites and follows will taper off. To get more strikes from that group of fish you have to keep switching lure styles and colors. Once they become accustomed to one lure or color typically no more strikes will come on that offering. Standard must have colors include, brass, silver, pink, orange, chartreuse and firetiger.
When it comes to working these lures there are two basic presentations depending on if you are fishing shallow fast water or deeper slower water. No matter if you are fishing shallow or deep water your lure has to be working near the bottom, so if the lures you have are not heavy enough to work within a foot of the bottom, don’t be afraid to add split shot to the line about a foot above the lure.
The first thing you’ve got to understand about presentation is that if a lure approaches salmon or steelhead from the tail it will spook them. To get strikes a lure has to approach the fish’s head from the front or side.
When working deeper slower water you want to cast upstream and reel the lure across and downstream toward the fish. Getting the lure deep with this type of presentation is seldom an issue, but you’ll have to reel quickly to make the lure work as it moves with the current.
In shallower faster water cast the lure directly across the stream, allow it to sink a bit and then allow it to swing across the current on a tight line. Usually the current is enough to make the lure work, but if not slowly retrieve line. Using this method, proceed to move downstream one step with each cast and you’ll cover riffles and runs very systematically.
Finally as you work your lures remember you want them to be working as slowly as possible. The longer they stay in the strike zone the better your chances. As you retrieve your lures keep them in the water all the way to the rod tip. Very often salmon and steelies will follow the lure all the way to the bank before striking.