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Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 13, 2012
For eons people have converged on the Sacramento River and its tributaries in the late summer and fall to take advantage of the bountiful runs of chinook salmon returning to their spawning beds from the ocean. If there is a more inspiring and exciting spectacle than a river full of spashing and jumping kings I don’t know what it is. As I write this anglers from all over the west are converging on the Golden State’s rivers in hopes of testing rods and reels, hooks and lines, against the explosive power of mature fall run chinook.
Fishing for river salmon is at the same time simple and challenging. When there are good numbers of fish moving up river hooking them is often easy. Landing them on the other hand is seldom simple and never easy. King salmon posses great reserves of brute power. Combine this with the rocky confined environment of a river and you begin to understand the challenge inherent in landing a mature river run Chinook. With the river salmon season underway and the fall run heating up this is a great time to take a look at the ins and outs of successfully targeting river salmon.
Back bouncing and side drifting are the two primary methods employed by guides and sport anglers for catching river salmon here in California. As in most angling endeavors the rod and reel are at the heart of the well heeled anglers arsenal. For back bouncing, a quality fast action casting rod teamed with a level wind reel is the best choice. If I had to name an ideal rig for this type of work I select an 8’ Lamiglas Certified Pro X80MBS rod. This rod is for use with line up to 25 pound test and is capable of handling weights up to 6 ounces. I would team the rod with an Abu Garcia Ambassadeur Big Game 7000 reel loaded with 65 pound Berkley Fireline. Even though the rod is rated for 25 pound test line it will have no problem handling the Fireline since it has the same diameter as 17 pound test monofilament. The advantage of using Fireline is that it has virtually no stretch ensuring a solid hook set and its fine diameter allows you to use less weight than you could get away with when using monofilament.
When side drifting is on the menu you’ll be doing a good deal of casting, so an 8 to 9 foot spinning rod with a sensitive tip and plenty of backbone is indispensable. A steelhead rod will do the job, but ideally something a bit heavier will give you an advantage. My personal preference is a 8’6” Laniglas G1311 medium heavy rod. This rod is rated for 10 to 20 pound test line and sinker weights up to 1.5 ounces. I’d balance the rod with a Abu Garcia CSW176 spinning reel loaded with 15 pound Berkley Vanish Transition line.
Throughout the course of the season back bouncing accounts for the largest number of salmon hooked and landed. The basic back bouncing terminal rig is built off a 3 way swivel. The main line attaches to one eye, a 48 inch 25 pound test Vanish fluorocarbon leader attaches to the second eye, and a 16 inch 20 pound dropper sporting a 1 to 6 ounce ball weight attaches to the remaining eye. The leader is tipped either with a T-55 Flatfish sporting a sardine fillet tied along its underside or a #1 Gamakatsu red octopus hook baited with a one inch chunk of fresh roe.
The term back bouncing refers to bouncing your rig through pools and runs down stream of a slowly drifting boat. Many beginners make the mistake of letting their rig drag on the bottom and quickly become snagged. The key to successful bottom bouncing is staying in touch with your gear. You do this by lifting the rod and then lowering it until you feel the sinker hit the bottom and then you lift it once again. The idea is to keep the bait near the bottom where the salmon are holding, while only allowing the sinker to make occasional contact with the tackle grabbing rocks. Whether you employ a plug or bait the strike is generally a very distinct tug. When you feel, it drive the hook home hard and immediately start working the reel to move the salmon away from the rocks.
Side drifting is method employed to reach salmon holding in areas that aren’t accessible to back bouncing and can be done from a boat or from shore. To construct a side drifting terminal rig slide a slinky weight on the main line and then attach a swivel. To the swivel tie on a 36 inch 20 pound Vanish fluorocarbon leader tipped with a #1 Gamakatsu red octopus hook. Once the hook is baited with a half to one inch chunk of roe your ready to fish.
Cast the rig slightly upstream of areas that are thought to hold fish and walk the sinker along the bottom using the rod tip. This method is a lot like drifting salmon eggs for stream trout the only difference is the heavier tackle that’s employed. The strike is seldom hard. Most often a bite is signaled by a few taps or the line stopping for no apparent reason. When that happens reel down and set the hook with authority. When you’re getting started you’ll often mistake the feel of the bottom for a strike, but with experience you’ll begin to distinguish the salmon from the false alarms.
I’ve described the basics in terms of tackle and technique. Using this information, you should be able to head out to the river and hook a few salmon. Having said that, if you are new to the sport I encourage you to take a trip with a guide before setting off on your own. By spending one day on a guide’s boat you’ll pick up on some of the finer points of the sport that would take a long time to learn on your own through trial and error. Just be sure to mention when booking the trip that you want to learn the basics of river salmon fishing in addition to catching some fish. This way the guide will provide you with information that he probably wouldn’t have mention otherwise.
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