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Ready to catch more salmon?

Salmon fishing is bathed in tradition, folklore, and adventure. Salmon meat is served in most restaurants in North America. There are cities and towns whose economies and cultures are entirely based upon salmon fishing. Even many Native American tribes had lifestyles that depended in large part on salmon. Perhaps no other fish have inspired as much specialized fishing gear, from dedicated reels and rods, to purpose-built boats and equipment, to single-species lures and attractants, to unique bait rigs, to special ways to prepare bait. Perhaps no other species can provide meat that is both so delicious and so healthy, or that has inspired so many recipes. Even bears and other predators hungrily look forward to the annual migrations and spawning runs of the numerous salmon species.

It is easy for someone trying to learn how to fish for salmon to feel overwhelmed and confused by the variety of species, not to mention the multitude of options and equipment decisions. The author hopes to shed some light on both how to use the specialized salmon equipment and how to use regular fishing equipment to effectively catch salmon.

Salmon are anadramous, which means that they are capable of living in both saltwater and freshwater. The typical salmon life cycle begins and ends with spawning in a freshwater river. The females swish their tails over gravel to carve out small indentations in the river bottom known as redds. They pair up with males and lay their eggs in the redd, which are then fertilized by milt from the male. The eggs are not guarded or attended by either parent. They will roll and bounce downstream until they hatch in 70 to 200 days. The young hatch and are entirely on their own, but quickly form schools of the same age class for safety in numbers and remain in those schools until they die. As they mature, the growing salmon make their way downstream to the ocean (with a few exceptions of landlocked species that spend their lives entirely in freshwater). The salmon will then grow to full sexual maturity in saltwater (or a large lake if landlocked), then travel distances that may reach thousands of miles to return to the same stream where their lives began to spawn. This is one of the miracles of instinct and is a subject of ongoing scientific research. Before they spawn, most salmon feed heavily to fatten up, since they will eat little or nothing once they enter a river and begin their spawning run. The rigors of running upstream and spawning will eventually leave them completely exhausted, and their bodies and flesh will often begin to deteriorate before they reach their destination.

Atlantic salmon are one of the few species that can spawn multiple times over several seasons before they die, so they are also one of the few species that continue to eat as they make their freshwater spawning runs. Consequently, Atlantic salmon fishing techniques are very different from those discussed in this article. Anglers tend to fish for Atlantics in freshwater rivers or river mouths during the spawning runs, casting brightly-colored wet flies and streamers, a variety of spoons and salmon plugs, or even live bait from shore or from small boats. However, this article focuses more on the Pacific salmon species and techniques, including salmon that have become landlocked by transplantation (such as silver salmon in the Great Lakes) or due to modern dams.

The first step in fishing for salmon is to determine which species will be targeted and when that species prepares to spawn. Since most places where salmon spawn have economies that depend in large part on fishing, there are many people who are willing to share helpful and accurate information to encourage fishermen to have successful trips and return regularly. When booking travel, asking a few questions or performing internet searches regarding the species and location can provide rapid access to the necessary knowledge. In areas where more than one species of salmon spawn, the fish have a hierarchy as to which species will spawn in which order. Anyone wishing to focus on a particular salmon species would do well to make their inquiries as precise as possible. It is also important to obtain information about species-specific regulations. King (Chinook) salmon, for example, are usually subject to the strictest minimum size and maximum bag limits and gear restrictions, and the purchase of special tags or license add-ons is often required. However, to the untrained eye, kings look very similar to silver (coho) salmon, which are not as closely regulated, so it is wise to learn how to tell the difference. In this modern technological age, it is usually easy to obtain all local rules and regulations from government agency websites.

Once the trip dates have been decided, the angler will need access to a boat, because the best time to catch (and eat) the salmon is when they are fattening up on baitfish in the ocean (or lake) near the river mouths they will soon swim up to spawn. In most salmon-based communities, a variety of options are available, from cheap rental boats to fully-guided vessels. There are also full-service fishing lodges at many locations. Whether roughing it on a self-guided trip or having hooks baited, rigs set up, and fish found and filleted by a professional, the angler should be prepared to spend a lot of time on the water. In most northern climates, this means cold, wet weather, even in the late summer. As a result, most experienced salmon anglers have high-quality rain suits, warm clothing, and rubber or water-proof boots.

The boat should be equipped with rod holders, a large net, a billy club, a gaff, a fish box with ice, bait, a small cooler for the bait, a selection of lures, a bait-cutting knife, lots of spare tackle (including weights, dodgers, and/or flashers) and rigs (a dozen pre-tied mooching rigs could be used up in as little as 2 days), a fish weighing scale, a measuring tape, food, and drink. Each of these items will come in handy repeatedly throughout the day unless no fish are found, in which case the food and drink will still be useful.

When purchasing gear, the angler needs to know whether the boat will have a downrigger, as this makes a significant difference in the types of rigs used. A downrigger is a pulley system with a cable that drops over the side from a short, rod-like arm, with a sizeable weight (usually 8 to 12 pounds) attached. The fishing line attaches to the downrigger with special clips that release the line when a fish bites. No additional weight is needed for the fishing line, since the downrigger weight holds the line down in the feeding zone. This large amount of weight also allows the angler to use larger spinning "flashers" as attractors ahead of the bait or lure, rather than the smaller spinning "dodgers" that anglers who lack downriggers place between banana or keel weights and their bait or lure. Any attempt to use a flasher without a downrigger will result in the entire rig planing to the surface and proving entirely useless, even if weights of ten ounces or heavier are tied into the line ahead.

Mooching rigs are the most popular way to present dead bait, usually frozen herring or anchovies, to salmon. These usually have two hooks tied in tandem, with one trailing a few inches behind the other. Pre-tied mooching rigs can be purchased with either J-hooks or circle hooks, but carefully check the regulations first, because a specific type of hook may be required for the region or species being targeted. The leader is usually a few feet long. Those who tie their own rigs often use snell knots for one or both hooks. For some reason, salmon seem more likely to take a dead bait if it spins. Some baits may spin slowly just by placing the lead hook in the head with the hook eye slightly to one side and the trailing hook inserted toward the tail. Many anglers prefer to cut the bait at angles behind the gills, which is called a "plug cut," because it gives the bait action as it is pulled through the water, like a plug (a type of artificial lure). With the bait on its side, the cut is angled from the spine slightly back at the belly and from the upper side slightly back toward the downward side. The sharper the angle, the faster the bait spins. Special miter-like cutting boards are available to guide the knife to make a variety of angles for baits that spin slower or faster. Once the herring has been plug-cut, the front hook is inserted straight into the meat below the spine, then up out of the back next to the spine, with the trailing hook inserted across the body near the tail. Special bait harnesses are also available that clamp onto the bait's head and make it spin without cutting, with one or two hooks to sink into the body.

The Finley Cut: The author has developed a special technique for cutting herring for salmon fishing that has been published in the author's name in Sport Fishing Magazine. The author liked mooching with plug-cut herring, but noticed that the exposed flesh became soggy quickly, so that the softened bait would often fall off the hook after a single short-strike or nudge. Then the author noticed that the usual herring plug-cut is made behind the collar bones that could have helped hold the bait on the hook. The author tried laying a frozen herring on its side and cutting across the eye socket, angled backward toward the other side. In addition to removing part of the bait's skull, the cut removed the opposite side gill, exposing silvery skin with a natural angle inward and downward behind the now-missing gill plate. The collar bone remained intact under the skin on that side, with no flesh exposed to the water. Part of the bait's skull, the gill, and the collar-bone remained intact on the side that had been facing up during the cut. The author then inserted the lead hook of a mooching rig into the bait's body in the center alongside the half skull and up out the back, with the trailing hook placed through the body near the tail. The bait spun at least as well as any plug-cut herring or bait harness, looked more natural than either, never got soft, stayed on the hook very well even on a short-strike, and caught salmon like crazy. Look for pictures of the Finley Cut to be posted on this site. This technique is simpler than it sounds and will let you catch more fish while wasting far less bait.

The next trick to mooching is to know that salmon may bite bait at the same depth, the same speed, and the same distance from the boat for an extended period that may last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Specialized gear and techniques have therefore been developed to help the angler put the bait in the same exact spot every time. Mooching reels allow the angler to crank backward to let out line while the boat is slowly trolling. Each backward crank is counted. Different distances are tried until the salmon start biting, then the angler keeps counting back the same number of cranks every time until that distance no longer works. Other anglers accomplish the same result with line-counter reels or clip-on counters that show a digital display of the exact number of feet of line that has been let out. However, anglers using regular fishing gear can also measure and repeat their line length by pulling line out of their reel by hand and counting the number of "pulls," then trying different distances until the fish demonstrate their preference by biting the bait. No matter which technique is used, it is a good idea to pause every few feet, because the salmon will sometimes hit the bait on the drop-back, so an angler with slack line will not feel the bite and may lose the bait and unknowingly troll for a long time with an empty hook. In addition to drop-back distances, mooching depths can be affected by the amount of weight, the use of adjustable dipsy-divers or jet divers, lead-core line (often used on a line-counter reel with a monofilament or fluorocarbon leader), or by simply raising or lowering a downrigger. Anglers tend to develop their own preferences for whether or not to use a dodger (with or without a downrigger) or flasher (only with a downrigger), what colors to use for these flashing attractors or the in-line weights, and the line lengths between each segment of the rig. However, it is wise to be open-minded, share information with other anglers, and be willing to try something new if it will help catch fish.

Other anglers like to use live bait or lures instead, either alone or often with a dodger or flasher and possibly with a trolling sinker ahead in a setup that looks very much like a mooching rig. Lures commonly used for salmon include spoons, specialized plugs that wobble or spin, plastic or tinsel squid bodies, and Howie Flies or similar lures that look more like a decorated treble-hook skirt for a bass lure than a true fly-fishing fly. Using live bait may require considerable extra work and equipment to keep the bait alive and healthy, but the bait moves and smells real, because it is. Lures are wonderful when the salmon bite them, because they require the least maintenance and re-rigging and the angler can get a line back into action more quickly. However, the line should be checked frequently for signs of wear and damaged line should be cut off and the rig carefully re-tied. Perhaps the biggest reason for the mooching technique's popularity is that it provides a solid middle-ground between live bait and lures that produces consistently good results.

Another type of attractor that is commonly used instead of a flasher or dodger is the lake troll, which is a series of smaller, spinning blades that can either be connected by a wire or by fishing line, with or without a keel, that are used ahead of the lure or bait (live or preserved) while trolling. The spinning blades often have colorful names like "cowbells," "ford fenders," "beer cans," "willow leafs," "bolos," or "hot wings," and they resemble the blades seen on an in-line spinner bait. These can help catch a variety of salmon and related species, but are most commonly used for catching kokanee.

Salmon trolling or mooching spreads for multiple anglers require careful spacing and boat handling to prevent lines from crossing and tangling. Outriggers are not unheard of in salmon spreads, but planer boards may be more common for spreading lines out to the side. Boats vary, as do trolling speeds, flasher and dodger behavior, line lengths, and so many other variables. It may be necessary to experiment with different speeds and turning angles to determine how to turn the boat around without tangling the particular set-ups that are being used at the time. If it takes longer than expected to get bites after the turn, it may be necessary to reel in one or more lines to untangle them.

The choice of a salmon rod can depend upon whether or not a downrigger will be used. After the line is dropped back on the troll and clipped to the downrigger, the rigger is lowered to the desired depth, then the reel is engaged, the rod is placed in a holder near or on the downrigger, and the line is tightened until the rod is bent heavily downward. When the fish bites hard enough to release the line from the clip, the bent rod will spring upward, setting the hook. Many anglers prefer specialized, somewhat lengthy, trolling rods for this use. While a long rod might not be a necessity for successful mooching or other salmon fishing without a downrigger, it is still necessary to have a rod with enough backbone for a solid fight, but with enough flex at the tip to provide some shock absorption at the strike and to keep from ripping hooks out of slightly soft mouths. King salmon, usually caught at a considerably larger minimum size, may require stouter gear than other species, but the rod should still have some flexibility.

If the angler is not using specialized mooching or line-counter reels, it is possible to select from a wide variety of options. While the author prefers two-speed, lever-drag, conventional ocean reels for many saltwater fish, the nature of the fight does not lend itself to guiding the line onto the spool with a thumb while battling a salmon. However, salmon do not run as far o dive as deep as tuna, so anything from a medium-to large spinning reel to a small-to medium baitcaster or level-wind reel can be used, so long as it holds as least 150 to 200 yards of line. The author also finds it difficult to not tear the hooks out of a salmon's mouth with a high-speed reel, such as one with a 6.3:1 retrieve ratio, although a more flexible rod or a more careful retrieve could still make it work.

A little-known trick while mooching is to use either a reel with a bait clicker or a spinning reel with an adjustable bait feeder. The adjustable bait feeder can actually be preferable here, because it can be set just a notch or two above the point at which the trolling speed takes out line. Then, when a salmon bites, it begins to take out line and doesn't immediately feel the rod's resistance. Also, a short-striking fish is more likely to just take out a little line, rather than pulling a dead bait off the mooching rig. The bait's reaction looks more natural and makes a stronger follow-up strike more likely. When the salmon has the bait firmly in its mouth, pulling line again, the reel is engaged and the hook is set.

Salmon use a variety of tactics to win their freedom, including running away from the boat, running towards the boat, swimming in circles around the boat, diving for the bottom, jumping through the air, shaking their heads, and wrapping the line around anything they can find (including the prop or other fishing lines). An angler who is not ready to change tactics to keep up with the fish will most likely lose it. There must be enough tension on the line at all times to prevent slack that will allow the fish to throw the hook, whether the angler must reel faster to pick up line from a rapidly approaching fish, stop reeling for few seconds as the fish goes on a run or a dive, follow the fish around the boat, stick the rod tip underwater to keep the fish from wrapping on the prop, or learn to pump-and-reel like a tuna angler to gain line on a larger salmon. The most counter-intuitive technique comes when the salmon jump. Free from the water, they can shake their heads back-and-forth quickly, causing a split-second of slack that can throw the hook. If the angler simply pulls harder as the fish jumps, it gives the fish greater momentum for a higher jump, with more time out of the water and more mid-air, slack-making, head shakes. It is best to ease the tension just a little as the salmon heads for the surface, reducing the fish's momentum and motivation to jump. However, if the tension is eased too much, the hook will pop loose anyway. There should be just a slight downward bow with the rod, while still maintaining some bend to keep the line tight.

The presence of multiple anglers and multiple rigs presents both challenges and opportunities for success. Again, the use of downriggers presents a different set of methods. Since the troll is slow, the baits are set low in the water column below the likely range of the fight, and re-setting the riggers is time-consuming, most captains of boats using downriggers will neither cut the motors nor reel in extra lines when a fish is hooked. The moving boat helps keep the salmon from diving deep enough to wrap around the other downrigger line or lines, from making a rapid run at the boat, or from swimming around the boat in most cases. The speed is therefore kept steady and the salmon is battled until it can be guided to the point where it can most easily be netted from the boat. After the fish is boated, there is only one downrigger to re-set. For anglers fishing without downriggers, it is an entirely different story. All other lines must be reeled in quickly to prevent tangles, the boat's motor must be stopped, and someone should get the net ready. Unless the fish is completely exhausted, the net should not be thrust toward the fish, as it will likely spook and fight harder. The better practice is to lower the net into the water and let the angler pull the fish over it, at which point the net can be lifted. Salmon will keep thrashing violently in the net, making hook removal dangerous, unless they are knocked out with a billy club (not an option for healthy catch-and-release). Many anglers who fish for meat also like to cut the gills while the fish is in the net, held out over the water, and let them bleed out for a few seconds. The subdued salmon should then be put in a fish box and covered with ice to keep it as fresh as possible. Many resorts and salmon towns have flash freezers, sub-zero freezers, or smoking and canning services available.

Salmon anglers study their quarry; learn about special equipment, regulations, spawning times, and techniques; plan trips well in advance; prepare to brave cold, wet, rugged outdoor conditions; and spend several hours each day on the water. The reward is delectable smoked salmon, salmon steaks, teriyaki salmon, salmon in soy sauce with garlic butter, salmon in brown sugar glaze, or any of at least a hundred other unbelievably delicious recipes. It brings out the grizzly in all of us.

(c) Copyright 2008 by Michael Finley

Chinook "King" Salmon (onchorhynchus tshawyscha): These salmon are silvery with black spots on the upper body and both the upper and lower tail lobes, and have a black mouth, tongue, and gums. They are the largest salmon in the Pacific, averaging 15 to 20 pounds as adults, with a maximum size of about 120 pounds. However, they may not be the largest salmon in the world, being rivaled by the taimen of Siberia and Asia, a freshwater species that regularly reaches 5 to 6 feet in length and is reputed to be capable of weights exceeding 150 pounds. Kings have delicious flesh that is high in ultra-healthy omega 3 oil. Their meat's flavor is usually ranked 2nd or 3rd in the salmon family, behind sockeye/kokanee, but either just before or after silver salmon, depending on personal preference for the king's stronger and oilier meat or the silver's milder flavor. In rivers used by multiple salmon species, kings are usually the first sport-caught species to spawn. The males turn a slightly coppery or brownish color and develop long, hooked upper and lower jaws.

Coho "Silver" Salmon (onchorhynchus kisutch): The coho's silvery color, black spots on the upper body, and black mouth and tongue cause anglers to often mistake them for kings, or more dangerously, to mistake undersized kings for silvers, resulting in a heavy fine or worse. The difference is that silvers have some light-colored areas in their mouths and especially on their gums and have black spots only on the upper tail lobe, while kings have much blacker mouths with black gums and black spots all over the entire tail fin. Silvers are a wonderful game fish, averaging 5 to 12 pounds as adults, and reaching a maximum size of about 33 pounds. One of the best breeders and fighters of the Pacific salmon, with strength comparable to kings of similar size, they have been successfully transplanted to the Great Lakes, where they have become very popular with anglers and on dinner tables.

Sockeye/Kokanee Salmon (onchorhynchus nerka): Many people consider these fish as having the tastiest flesh in the salmon family. In saltwater, sockeye feed primarily on plankton their entire lives, so they are almost never caught on hook and line. However, when landlocked in freshwater, they adapt to feeding on small baitfish and are called "kokanee." Anglers catch kokanee mainly by trolling live bait or small spoons behind a series of small spinners called a "lake troll" or "kokanee troll," but they can also be caught by fly-casting or using lures on spinning gear. As sockeyes, their maximum weight is about 15 pounds. As kokanee, they rarely get larger than 5 pounds. Sockeye are normally silvery with very fine spots along the upper body, but the males turn bright red with hooked jaws and a slightly humped back while spawning.

Atlantic Salmon (salmo salar): Atlantic salmon are one of the few species that can spawn repeatedly over several seasons before they die and actually eat occasionally during the spawning run. This also makes them one of the few salmon species that are normally caught by anglers in freshwater while the salmon swim upstream to spawn. They are often caught at weights of 10 to 20 pounds, but are known to reach about 70 pounds. They are good table fare and their special spawning abilities make them the choice of salmon farmers, so Atlantics are the salmon most commonly served in North American restaurants. However, many fisheries biologists have become very concerned that if Atlantic salmon were to escape from fish farms into Pacific Ocean tributaries, their spawning habits could allow them to wipe out many Pacific salmon species that are already threatened by reduced water flows, new dams, rebounding sea lion populations, fertilizer and chemical runoff, and poaching (fishing that violates regulations). Atlantic salmon have silvery sides, with medium spots on the upper body, though not normally on the tail fin. While spawning, the males change to a coppery-brownish color and some of the side spots turn red, so that they look a lot like brown trout. The difference is mainly in the tail, which is more squared off and has a thicker "wrist" in the trout than in the salmon. Also, the spots on brown trout often extend a little further down the sides.

Pink Salmon (onchorhynchus gorbuscha): The pink salmon is also called the "humpback" or "humpy." None of these names seem to fit these plain, silvery fish with large black upper-body spots until the males turn pinkish and develop humped backs as they prepare to spawn. They average about 3 to 5 pounds and reach a maximum of about 12 pounds. They are the most common salmon in the Pacific and their meat has good flavor.

Chum Salmon (onchorhynchus keta): These salmon can be fun to catch, but their meat is not well-regarded, as demonstrated by their name. Their size is similar to the coho (10 to 15 pounds average, maximum 33). Their coloration is similar to the sockeye when not spawning, with silvery sides and fine upper-body speckles, except that chums have a dark edge at the end of their tail. When preparing to spawn, the males turn slightly brownish with a red stripe down the lateral line that seems to bleed upward and downward at random intervals.