Recreational Salmon Fishing
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How to Catch Salmon

Marine Areas (Drifting/Trolling)
Drift Fishing
Drift Fishing | Trolling

Child holding salmonThe most popular boat fishing methods can be lumped into two general categories, drift fishing and trolling. Trolling consists of fishing out of a constantly moving boat. Drift fishing generally means fishing without a motor, although in some cases a small outboard may be used to slow down or speed up your drift. Drift fishing is most effective in specific areas where salmon are concentrated. Types of drift fishing include mooching, jigging and fly-fishing.

Historically mooching was the most popular form of salmon angling and began many years ago during the winter months in Seattle. The art of mooching is slowly being lost as most modern anglers prefer to troll. Die-hard moochers like the simplicity of the gear, the feel of the bite and the hook up, and enjoy the peace and quiet of fishing without a motor. Mooching requires a dedication to the sport and many years of practice to master. Mooching is essentially fishing with a light banana shaped weight (Photo 1) to pull a hooked herring down to the depth you believe the fish are at. Most moochers use a “plug-cut” herring (Photo 2) which spins as it rises and falls. A plug cut herring is cut with a bevel from front to back and from side to side.

The bevel is what causes the herring to spin as it is pulled through the water. Beginning moochers should probably purchase a miter box cutter to ensure the proper angle is obtained (Photo 3). Moochers will typically fish with an 8 ½ to 9 foot rod with a level wind or bait casting reel capable of holding 100-200 yards of line (Photo 4).

Banana or Trolling Sinker
Photo 1. Banana or Trolling Sinker

Cut plug herring.
Photo 2. Cut plug herring.

Miter box for cutting “cut plug” herring.
Photo 3. Miter box for cutting “cut plug” herring.

Level wind reel with direct drive feature.
Photo 4. Level wind reel with direct drive feature.

A reel that can be put into direct drive works best for mooching, as the bait can be lowered by simply letting go of the handle while holding your thumb lightly against the spool and allowing line to peel out, or raised by reeling in. However, finding a direct drive reel is getting harder each year. You might have to look for a used one. A standard level wind reel will also work. Moochers will generally use a main line of 10-20 pounds, and leaders of 8-15 pounds. Leaders can be tied with either 1 or 2 hooks (Photo 5), and there are many ways to attach the herring to the hooks (Photo 6). You should match your hook size to the size of herring you are fishing. For example, a 4/0 hook closest to the rod and a 3/0 hook away from the rod match up well with “green pack” (5-6”) herring.

Standard mooching leader and hook setup.
Photo 5. Standard mooching leader and hook setup.

Cut plug herring rigged with hooks.
Photo 6. Cut plug herring rigged with hooks.

Moochers raise and lower the bait in the water column using their rod and reel, causing it to spin, or they simply allow the movement of the boat and waves to impart an action on the bait. When mooching, you should attempt to keep your line angle at 45o. You can change the line angle by using a lighter or heavier weight. If the line angle gets near vertical, the leader will tend to wrap around the mainline, leaving a nasty tangle and an ineffective bait. If the current is moving very fast, the angler can use their boat motor to “back” into the current until they achieve the 45o angle. Conversely, if the current is moving very slow, you can move forward in spurts until the correct angle is achieved. You can approach mooching a couple of different ways. Some anglers will work the entire water column, letting the bait down say 10 feet, reeling up 3 or 4, letting down another 10, reeling up 3 or 4, etc… until they have reached the bottom. You can then start over again, or work the bait back up through the water column in the same manner. Other moochers prefer to fish at a particular depth. They let their line out until they are at the depth they wish, then work the bait up down at that depth, or let the wave and boat action work the bait up and down.

Salmon jigs.
Photo 7. Salmon jigs.

Another popular method of drift fishing is jigging. When jigging, anglers use a fish shaped, lead jig (Photo 7) that they move up and down with sweeps of their rod, i.e. jigging. A shorter, stiffer rod works better for jigging, for example a 7 ½ foot rod rated for 4 or 6 ounce lures is a great choice. As with the moochers, a direct drive level wind reel is ideal for jigging. The newer “Spectra” based lines are the best to use for jigging. These lines have very little stretch and allow you to feel every little tap on your jig. Use 10-20# line for your mainline. When fishing at depths greater than 100’, the Spectra lines are almost a necessity. You may want to use a 3-4’ monofilament leader when jigging. Jigs can cause a lot of line twist. So use a good quality swivel between your mainline and leader to prevent line twist.

Jigs can be fished either vertically or horizontally. To fish vertically, let your line out to the desired depth, and raise and lower the jig continuously. You can vary the speed and distance that you jig, or even change after every 4 or 5 jigging motions. To fish horizontally, cast the jig out and let it sink however long you want. The longer you let it sink, the deeper it will go. When you reach your desired depth, pull the rod towards you; this causes the jig to rise. Then push the rod back in the direction of the jig and reel up any slack line; this causes the jig to fall. Pull towards you, push away and reel, pull and reel, etc, until you have retrieved the jig. The jig will be rising and falling all the way in on the retrieve.

While jigs come in many sizes, shapes and colors, you can get started with just a few. Good colors to start with are chrome or white. Jigs weighing 2, 4, and 6 ounces will cover most of the fishing situations you might encounter.

Polar bear coho fly.
Photo 8. Polar bear coho fly.

Fly Fishing
With the recent exploding interest in fly fishing there has been a growing interesting in chasing salmon in the salt with the fly rod. For years some of the most exciting fishing in Washington has been “bucktailing” during the mid-summer period on the outer straits. This entails trolling a skipping bucktail fly in the wake of the boat for the activity feeding coho. The fishery developed in the Neah Bay area during the latter part of the summer and entails trolling at a fast pace with the unweighted fly skipping near the boat in its wake. Traditional polar bear coho flies (in blue/white, green/white, chartreuse/white, etc) were used in this fishery (Photo 8).

With improving fly lines, more and more anglers are looking to take salmon on cast flies. Coho salmon are the primary target for this fishing though Chinook, pinks and chum can all be taken on the fly while they are in the salt. Typically the actively feeding coho have offered the best chance for the fly angler to present their fly to the fish. The feeding coho that have chased one of the baitfish (herring, candle fish, etc) to the surface are the easiest fish to take. The observant angler should be able to detect this feeding activity by the wheeling birds, and slashing splashes of the feeding salmon. Often this activity is along the various tiderips.

Successful flies include any of the bait fish imitating patterns with chartreuse and white and pink and white being two popular colors. Fly size for these streamer type flies range from 2 to 5 inches in length. Many anglers opt to use weighed flies, often the “Clouser” type with lead ‘dumbbell” eyes. Flies with large heads and/or eyes often increase the effectiveness of the fly. Both floating and fast sinking lines are used depending on the feeding depth of the fish. Most anglers opt for fly rods in the 6 to 8 weight range equipped with reels that have decent drags.

While the basic gear used for steelhead and other freshwater fish are perfectly serviceable in the salt waters of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, it is important to remember to thoroughly rinse the gear with running freshwater after each day’s fishing.