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Written By: Cal Kellogg, April 26, 2014
On the throne of the West Coast’s ocean food chain sits the mighty king salmon. These sleek open water predators spend their lives cruising the murky depths of the ocean, ambushing baitfish and gorging on krill. Anglers have long loved stalking chinooks due to their willingness to strike, their amazing fighting ability and the outstanding table fare they provide.
Over the years king salmon have been planted in a large number of lakes across the northern half of the United States. As long as the lake in question provides cold water and plentiful 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. These waters 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.
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 more compact package.
I’ve spent many a day trolling and mooching for kings along the California coast and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. One of the main reasons I like targeting landlocked kings so much is that the methods used to fool them are largely the same as those used in the ocean, only on a smaller scale.
Successfully targeting landlocked kings requires a boat outfitted with downriggers and a quality sonar unit capable of detecting schools of baitfish. Early in the season when the surface temperature is still in the 50’s or lower 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 become concentrated at the depth of the thermocline. Obviously, finding salmon is the key to catching them. The key to finding them is pinpointing areas that 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 lurking nearby.
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 size tackle. Kings are found in large expanses of open water, so it makes sense to utilize light gear and savor the battle. One of my favorite king, kokanee and trout rigs for downrigger fishing consists of a 7’6” Vance’s Tackle downrigger rod teamed with a round Abu Garcia line counter baitcaster filled with 8 pound Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon line.
As with ocean chinooks, trolling and mooching are the two accepted approaches for tempting landlocked kings. Trolling is the most popular method, but it’s a good idea 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 weight, known as “ball flashers” and run their lures just behind the flashers off a stacker release attached a foot or so up the downrigger cable.
Another nifty trick is to replace the ball flashers with a large 8, 10 or 12 inch dodger attached to a 2 foot piece of parachute cord or 100 pound test braid. Whether you go with the flashers or a tethered dodger, slather the blades with Pro-Cure Super Gel to create a scent trail.
Kings move in to check out the vibrations and scent put off by the flashers or dodger working off the weight, spot your lure working above and behind the attractor and it’s FISH ON!
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. You’ve got to have at least a 20-foot difference in the depth of your lures when long lining off downriggers in deep water to avoid tangles. Even then you’ll need to avoid sharp turns and other erratic maneuvers.
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 line 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 they will never see it.
The basic trolling set up consists of a spoon, hoochie, plug or fly fished behind a 4, 6 or 8 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 and UV finishes. 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 my favorite landlocked king lures are hoochies, Ace Hi Fly Juniors, Apex Lures and Excel Spoons. Chinooks are notoriously fickle, so it pays to experiment with different lures and colors until they tell you what they want. I remember a day on Shasta a while ago when the only thing I could get the kings to hit was a pearl Shasta Tackle Matrix Paddletail rigged with a blue hoochie resting over its head.
Well folks, we are out of space for now. I’ll be back in the next issue and we’ll talk about things like rolling shad and mooching in the conclusion of this landlocked king tutorial-Cal Kellogg.
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