Recreational Salmon Fishing
Buy Your License Online! Buy Your License Online!

How to Catch Salmon

Marine Areas (Drifting/Trolling)
Drift Fishing | Trolling

Man holding a large salmonThe most popular boat fishing methods can be lumped into two general categories, drift fishing and trolling. Drift fishing generally means fishing without a motor. Trolling consists of fishing out of a constantly moving boat. Trollers will use weights, divers, or downriggers to achieve a desired depth to present their bait or lures. Trolling is more effective than drift fishing when salmon are spread out over a large area. Trolling with a downrigger is probably the most popular method of salmon fishing in saltwater in Washington.

Motor Mooching
Motor mooching is trolling with the same banana shaped weight and cut plug herring used by drift moochers (Photo 1). Most anglers fishing this way troll slowly with a plug-cut herring (Photo 2), although a few anglers will substitute a small spoon for the herring. Some anglers alternately put their motor into and out of gear to change depth and speed, and impart a different action to the bait. This is the simplest form of trolling and is cherished by folks that want to minimize the amount of gear needed and enjoy each fish caught.

Almost any type of rod and reel will work when trolling, as long as it is matched to the weight you are using (Photo 3). Historically, salmon anglers often used 6’ heavy fiberglass rods for trolling (Photo 4). Over the past 3 decades, lighter graphite rods have become more popular. An 8 ½ to 9 foot rod rated for 20-30 pound line and 2-6 ounce lures or weights would make a good choice. Most anglers prefer a quality level wind reel, but in a pinch you can get by with a heavy spinning reel. For trolling close to the surface, use 1 or 2 ounce sinkers. For trolling deep, use 3 to 8 ounce sinkers. You can also vary the depth you fish by the amount of line you let out. Many anglers count the amount of line they let out by the number of times they pull line off the reel up to the first guide on their rod. These are called “pulls” and can be used to either standardize all the baits to the same depth, or set out gear at different depths to find where the fish are. For example, a good combination for coho is 3 ounces of lead at 30 pulls. If you catch a fish at that depth combination, you will want to lower back to the same depth. If you aren’t catching fish, try adding or subtracting weight or letting out more or less pulls of line.

Mooching or banana sinker.
Photo 1. Mooching or banana sinker.
Cut plug herring
Photo 2. Cut plug herring
Motor mooching or slow trolling setup.
Photo 3. Motor mooching or slow trolling setup.
Older style fiberglass salmon rod
Photo 4. Older style fiberglass salmon rod
used to troll with heavy weights or divers.

The standard 20-25 pound mainline works well for motor mooching, but you could also go down to 15 pound. Leaders in the 10-20 pound range all work well. Most anglers prefer a heavier leader for chinook and a lighter leader for coho. For chinook, fish close to kelp beds or other structures and troll slowly, less than 2 mph and close to the bottom. Start with blue or purple pack herring for chinook. For coho, find tide and/or current rips that concentrate bait and coho, and troll faster, 2-4 mph. Use green pack herring or smaller for coho, and stay near the surface.

Trolling with a diver employs a stout rod with heavy line and a diving mechanism or diver (Photo 5) that takes the lure or bait to a specified depth. A diver can actually fish at depths up to 100’. When a fish strikes, the diver “trips” and stops diving. The tripped diver also does not pull as hard against the rod and you don’t have to fight it and the fish at the same time. Before downriggers became popular, divers were a common method that anglers used to fish deep. Divers are still used by folks that enjoy the simplicity of the gear or don’t have downriggers, or in certain situations were anglers feel that downriggers might spook the fish. For example, divers are still used extensively in the lower Columbia River (Buoy 10) during August and September. While a diver will get your gear down deep, they can put a tremendous strain on your rod, which is in part why historically salmon rods were short, heavy fiberglass rods. A quality graphite rod rated for 30-50 pound line will do the trick when fishing with divers. A lighter rod can be used, but the divers are very hard on them and the rod may not last very long. A quality level wind reel is again the reel of choice. Use 30-40 pound mainline to ensure you don’t lose your gear. Because you will be using heavier mainline than used in other types of trolling, you may need a reel with a larger line capacity.

Generally, anglers will use a diver with a dodger or flasher (Photo 6) and either a bait or lure (hardware). The old standby of a cut plug herring is always a good choice. Lures include hootchies, bucktails, spoons or plugs (Photos 7 - 10). Whether you decide to use bait or lures, you should generally rig all of your rods with the same type of gear to ensure that you are fishing each setup effectively. For example, it is very difficult to fish a cut plug herring on one rod and a spoon on the other, because the cut plug herring needs to be trolled at a much slower speed than the spoon. So try to stick with all bait or all hardware.

Trolling divers.
Photo 5. Trolling divers.
Photo 6. Flasher.
Photo 7. Hootchie.
Photo 8. Bucktail.
Photo 9. Spoon.
Photo 10. Plug.

A plug cut herring or a spoon can be used without a dodger or flasher and the fish caught tend to fight better because they aren’t dragging the dodger/flasher through the water. However, if using a hootchie or bucktail, you must use a dodger or flasher to give the hootchie or bucktail action. The dodger or flasher causes the hootchie or bucktail to dart erratically from side to side. A dodger sways from side to side without rotating all the way around. A flasher rotates a full 360o. Adjust the boat speed to achieve the proper motion from the dodger or flasher. Fish with either dodgers or flashers, not both at the same time, because there isn’t a boat speed that is optimal for both. Use 40-60 pound leader between flashers or dodgers and hootchies or bucktails, as the heavy line will transmit more of the action from the dodger/flasher to the hootchie or bucktail than lighter line will. The length of leader between the flasher and lure is the subject of much debate. Each type of lure has a different leader length that it fishes best at, and different leader lengths seem to work better for each species of salmon. The following recommendations are just general guidance, don’t be afraid to experiment with different leader lengths.

Table 1. Recommended leader lengths between flasher and lure or bait.

Flasher Size




Lures or bait


Lures or bait


26” – 36”

26” – 48”

36” – 50”

42” – 72”


20” – 24”

20” – 36”

20” – 34”

20” – 56”


22” – 30”

22” – 48”

26” – 40”

24” – 42”


18” – 24”

18” – 36”



A downrigger is simply a large reel and boom with wire line that is used to lower a heavy lead ball to a specified depth. There are both manual and electric downriggers (Photos 11 and 12). A “release” mechanism (Photo 13) is used to attach the fishing line to the lead “cannonball”. This mechanism releases the fishing line when a fish has been hooked, allowing the angler to fight the fish without the burden of heavy weights or divers. Using a downrigger to control the depth while trolling is probably the most popular method of saltwater salmon fishing today. When used in conjunction with a quality fish finder, the ability to put your gear at the exact depth that fish are at can be extremely effective. Secondarily, anglers can use lighter rods and still fish at great depths. The lighter rods allow you to enjoy the fight of the fish. A good downrigger rod generally is more limber than other salmon rods. Rods from 8 to 10 feet in length and rated for 12-30 pound line work well. Again, a quality level wind reel is superior for downrigger fishing. Your mainline should be 20-30 pounds. Leader weight and length depend on the type of lure or bait fished. Most downrigger anglers use a flasher or dodger, although they are not essential unless you are using a hootchie or bucktail. Behind the dodger/flasher, use either a cut plug herring, a spoon, a hootchie, or a bucktail as described in the diver section above. With the most common plastic flashers, put an 11” flasher 8’ to 20’ behind the downrigger ball, and put an 8” flasher 10’ to 20’ behind the ball.

Electric downrigger.
Photo 11. Electric downrigger.
Manual downrigger with cannon ball attached.
Photo 12. Manual downrigger with cannon ball attached.
Line release for use with downrigger.
Photo 13. Line release for use with downrigger.

Fishing with downriggers requires a little more planning than other types of fishing. If you are fishing with more than one downrigger, you should fish them at depths that are at least 5’ apart to minimize the chance of tangling the lines on a turn. The deeper you fish, the more important it is to separate the lines. You should also pay close attention to the depth of the water, especially if the bottom is rocky or snaggy, and ensure that you are fishing above the bottom. You should only allow your cannonballs to hit the bottom in areas you know are sandy or silty. Retrieving a snagged 10-15 pound cannonball attached with 150 pound wire line can be very difficult and usually results in a lost cannonball, a broken wire, and lost fishing tackle. Finally, it may be helpful to install a stainless steel propeller guard (Photo 14) on your kicker motor (or your only motor if it is 25 horsepower of less). The guard will help prevent your downrigger wires and fishing lines from becoming tangled in the propeller.

Propeller guard for trolling motor.
Photo 14. Propeller guard for trolling motor.