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Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 13, 2012
Mike Tsai and I had been fishing for less than 30 minutes and already we had two kings over 20 pounds in the boat. Excitedly, I dropped the downrigger to 60 feet as we slowly turned for another pass over the fish.
The kings were setting along a three quarter mile long reef, and were busting schools of anchovies. Mike has extensive commercial salmon trolling experience, so I wasn’t surprised that the rigs he’d chosen, a blue hoochie smeared with anchovy scent behind a large chrome and blue dodger, were right on the money.
Action in the commercial boats fishing around us was fast and furious as they landed one big chinook after another. Suddenly, Mike’s rod sprang to life. Throttling down, Mike began fighting his fish as I cleared his downrigger. Just as I got the downrigger weight back up to the surface, my rod got hammered and Mike yelled, “Get that rod! We’ve got a double!”
Snatching the rod, I began frantically working the reel. The king was coming up, and I didn’t want any slack to form in the line. After 10 minutes and four trips around the boat, my second salmon, a beautiful 28-pound fish, was laying on the floor of the boat.
Mike’s fish was another story. After an initial run, it went deep and refused to budge, despite Mike’s best efforts. Finally the stalemate broke, and the king bolted off on a head shaking run. With deft skills and cool nerves, Mike slowly wore the heavy fish down. After an initial bungled netting attempt, (how’s that blood pressure Mike?), I heaved the exhausted 39 pound slug over the rain and into the boat. It was 8:30 a.m. and we had two huge limits in the boat. Trolling had once again produced in a big way.
The mighty chinook…highly coveted by anglers for their powerful fight, trophy proportions and excellent table qualities. No other Pacific Coast gamefish inspires more excitement and fascination. Every year, thousands of West Coast anglers take to the sea to match mind and muscle with these far ranging battlers.
Over the years, salmon fishing has, like most other forms of angling, undergone significant changes as a result of the introduction of new techniques and more advanced gear. Three decades ago, ocean salmon fishing was dominated by trolling. Now through experimentation and technical advances, tactics such as mooching and jigging have opened up other avenues for fishermen. At certain times these approaches can be deadly. However, in terms of consistent fish production throughout the season, trolling remains the best choice and if we consider both the salmon and the vast habitat in which they live, it’s easy to understand why.
Supreme predators, chinook salmon spend much of their lives feeding on the rich marine life along the continental shelf. Anchovies, herring, squid, smelt, krill, immature rockfish or candlefish make up the bulk of the chinook’s diet, depending on the season and location. After an average of three years, the kings begin migrating shoreward, traveling along coastal areas and bays as they seek their rivers of origin. While migrating, they feed heavily, packing on pounds for the journey ahead. Often chinooks will suspend along offshore structure for hours, days, or weeks as they feed on concentrations of bait.
Kings are experts at using currents and structure to their advantage. They are much like stream trout, in that they prefer to hold in relatively slack water and allow the current to push food past them. Typically, kings will be in eddies on the down current side of structure. Here they can rest and ambush schools of bait as they are swept overhead.
Any areas where a fast current meets slower water can represent a hotspot. Such areas are often marked by foam, surface trash or a color change, and should be checked out with your electronics. The rugged Pacific Coast offers salmon literally a zillion spots to post up. To be sure, not every piece of structure will hold fish, nor will every school of bait attract chinooks. Trolling allows the fisherman to cover a great deal of water with a variety of offerings, eliminating unproductive areas and baits while seeking out active fish.
Trolling is successfully done by both private boaters and charter operations. Because of its sheer versatility, I recommend trolling from a private boat, if possible. However, if you don’t have a boat, don’t hesitate to take a charter trip. Charter skippers know the water and are very good at putting fish on your line. The only downside to charter boat trolling is the heavy tackle and sinkers you must often use. Still it’s better than not salmon fishing at all.
A seaworthy craft is at the center of salmon trolling success. Beyond this you’ll want two heavy-duty downriggers, a quality sonar unit, with GPS capability. If your boat doesn’t’ allow slow trolling in the one knot range, a pair of sea anchors will also be necessary.
Select a downrigger that will handle 350 feet of 300-pound cable. For easy rigging, go with a model that has a swivel base. A cheap rubber snubber inserted between the weight and cable can save wear and tear on the cable and downrigger arm when the ocean turns choppy. For a release, pick a moderately priced fully adjustable model. It’s a good idea to stow an extra weight and a roll of cable aboard the boat, just incase you snag or break a cable.
Electronics play a key role in effective salmon trolling. A salmon fisherman’s sonar unit plays the same role as a hunter’s optics, so the same adage applies: Buy the best you can afford, and if you can’t afford a good unit, borrow some money!
You want a high speed, high-resolution unit that can identify schools of bait while running at 15 to 20 knots. A properly adjusted transducer greatly enhances sonar performance at high cruising speeds. Remember that you may need to cover a lot of water and you don’t want to do it at half throttle.
GPS units have become standard equipment on most offshore boats. I wouldn’t be without one for serious trolling. Salmon travel in schools. When you hook one, you want to be able to relocate the school after the fish is landed. A GPS makes this a snap. When a fish strikes, simply punch in a waypoint. Bingo! The school is pinpointed for a second pass.
Powerful engines and lightweight hulls often make for boats that are incapable of trolling slowly. Fortunately, there are several ways to remedy this problem. I favor the use of sea anchors over motor mounted trolling plates because the seas anchors also have applications when drifting or even when anchored.
To slow your troll, deploy two sea anchors. Attach them at the forward cleats on both sides of the boat for balance. Let out just enough rope for the devices to open and keep them well clear of the propeller.
Added benefits of anchors include a smoother ride and better boat control, especially when conditions are rough.
With the advent of downriggers, gone are the days of broomstick rods, heavy weights and in line releases. Today’s trolling rod is a downrigger rod. These are 8 or 9 feet long with a slow “noodle” action, which is forgiving. It puts great sustained pressure on the fish and wears them down with little chance of the line breaking. The rod should be balanced with a high-speed level wind reel that can handle 200 yards of 17-pound monofilament.
Chinook salmon are voracious consumers of baitfish. Therefore, any serious discussion of the various offerings available should begin with natural baits. The most commonly available natural baits for Pacific Coast salmon are anchovies and herring. I like to have both on board, as the kings will often change their preference from day to day. Some guys like to begin with live bait, killing and rigging them as needed. I find freshly killed baits soften and difficult to rig. I prefer frozen baits that have been partially thawed in a saltwater brine consisting of seawater, ice cubes and liberal dose of rock salt. Baits that soak in this solution will remain partly frozen, firm and easy to rig.
Don’t go for cheap “bag bait”, as it varies in quality, and often contains many damaged baitfish that are useless for salmon trolling. Instead go for premium tray baits. These baits are selected and packed by hand, ensuring top quality. Salmon are finicky. They prefer a bright, perfect bait to a dull, damaged one every time.
There are a number of rigs and harnesses available for trolling natural baits. Most commercial fishermen opt for a crow bar rig. This is simply a hook attached to a 3 inch steel pin. The bait is impaled on the pin with the hook trailing from the vent. The main line is snapped on the pin and the bait’s mouth is fastened shut with the fine copper wire provided. This rig is inexpensive and results in a straight, natural looking bait. The rigged bait can be fished alone or can be trailed behind a dodger.
Chinooks rely heavily on their lateral line for detecting baitfish and other salmon feeding around them. A dodger effectively simulates the impulses of a feeding fish. This excites and attracts salmon from a distance in search of an easy meal. When they spot that ‘chovy struggling from side to side, wham! Fish On!
I use a dodger 90 percent of the time. That’s how effective they are. Color isn’t a major consideration, since it’s the dodger’s impulses, not its appearance, which attracts the fish. Chrome makes sense because salmon are silver and that’s what an approaching fish expects to see.
Day in, day out, natural baits catch the most salmon, however, there are quite a few excellent artificials that run a close second. These baits are predominately used by commercial fishermen. If private boaters would give them a try, they too would find that artificials consistently catch fish. Artificials allow the angler to experiment with action and color while providing the luxury of minimal re-baiting when an effective bait is found. Lure selection needs not be vast. A few lures in basic colors combined with the option of natural bait round out the troller’s arsenal.
Hoochies and spoons are favorite choices of commercial skippers. A hoochie is a simple rubber skirt that looks like a small squid. These baits are cheap, have a realistic feel, and come in a myriad of colors. When slid down a leader onto a 6/0 hook and trolled, they closely resemble the shape and swimming action of a baitfish. Put a hoochie 18 to 36 inches behind a dodger and hang on!
Most recreational trollers overlook spoons. Highly used by Great Lakes fishermen and the commercial fleet, spoons are a great choice when the fish are actively ripping baitfish. A variety of great spoons can be found on the market. For king salmon go with a large 4 to 6 inch spoon with a big, slow wobble. Spoons can be trolled alone or behind a dodger. If fish are chasing bait near the surface, a spoon flat lined 200 feet behind the boat can produce outstanding results.
Artificial hard baits, such as the Apex, J-Plug and large Rapalas, have steadily grown in popularity. In many areas they have a reputation for attracting trophy fish. These lures are usually fished alone without a dodger. You’ll have to change the hooks on these lures to match local regulations.
Lure color is primarily dictated by water depth. As water depth increases, visible colors gradually fade out. Red fades to grey at 30 feet, yellow and white fade at 60 feet, while greens and blues maintain their color the longest. When fishing from the surface to 60 feet, rely on lighter colors like white, yellow, light blue, chartreuse and metallic finishes. Below 60 feet, focus on darker blues, purples greens, black and ultra violet finishes.
Before rigging baits or lures, wash your hands in salt water to eliminate unwanted odors and then apply a coating of Pro-Cure Bait Oil to your hands.
I’m a huge believer in applying scent to my rigs. I liberally smear my leaders, hooks, baits and lures with anchovy or herring scent.
As a final consideration, be sure your hooks are needle sharp and check your baits often. If they pick up debris, the salmon won’t hit them and you’ll be wasting your time.
Once you’ve got the proper tools, tackle and baits, the first step in a successful fishing strategy is picking a port. With scores to choose from, this can be difficult. Watch the fishing reports and make some phone calls. I generally lean toward smaller remote ports. The fishing is often outstanding and fishing pressure is typically light.
Having determined where to fish, it’s time to decide when. Tides play an important role in salmon feeding patterns. Chinooks feed most intensely one hour after the change of the tide. The abrupt current changes during these periods disorient baitfish, making them vulnerable to predators. Salmon do feed at other times, but if you can, fish during a tide change to experience the most intense action. The light level also plays a significant role in feeding. Kings feel comfortable; move shallower and feed aggressively during low light periods. This makes dawn, dusk and dark or overcast days key times to be on the water. This is especially true if your goal is a trophy fish. More big kings are caught at daybreak than at any other time.
Obviously then, the best time to be on the water is when a tide change coincides with a low light period.
Once on the water, you’ll have an idea where to fish, provided you’ve done your homework. Use your sonar to check out areas of current change such as reefs, points, peninsulas and bottlenecks. You’re looking for bait balls scattered along the down current side of structure.
Use binoculars to watch for feeding birds. Diving birds often betray the location of bait schools. Watch other boasts too, especially commercial boats and charter boats. You can bet that they know where the fish are holding.
“If heavy boat traffic develops salmon will often stop feeding,” advises California skipper Jackie Douglas. “If this happens, pull out and find some un-spooked fish.”
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