West Coast salmon guides make their living by catching salmon when the rest of us smell skunk. I’ve picked the brains of several top guides to learn how they consistently hook salmon, even when the fishing is tough. Here are 10 tips that will dramatically increase your catch.
1. All Baits Are Not Created Equal
Fresh, bright baits are considerably more effective than the dull, soft bait most of us sometimes use. If possible, use only fresh, live baits — even if you do not intend to fish your bait alive, you should start your day with live bait. Keep your bait lively in a simple live well. Anything from a bucket to an ice chest will do. Keep replacing the water with fresh seawater every 10 minutes to 15 minutes. If you plan to fish with cut-plugs or fillets, wait to kill the bait until you need it. Fresh baits are firm. They have all their scales intact and they smell great.
2. Scents Make Sense
Take care to wash your hands in seawater before touching your bait. Once the bait is on the hook never let it touch the floor of your boat, where it may pick up the smell of oil or gasoline. Be especially careful not to have strong smelling scents such as sunscreen, gasoline or motor oil on your hands when touching bait. And don’t be afraid to use attractor scents to increase the appeal of your bait.
3. Show Me The Bait
Salmon are almost always where the bait is. To increase your success, constantly be on the alert for the presence of bait. Your depthfinder will show you bait that is suspended in the water column, so will sea birds. When you find bait stay near it and try to work your gear just above the bait. If there is no bait where you are fishing there are probably no salmon. Don’t be afraid to pick up and move until you find bait.
4. You Don’t Have To Dance With The Girl You Brought
Keep your eyes open, and if you have a radio, keep your ears on. Do as much investigative work as necessary to find out what the locals are using today. Don’t stubbornly stick to the lure that worked last time, if you know that the locals have switched to something else. Salmon are notoriously fickle. What worked yesterday may not work today. Don’t be afraid to switch to today’s lure de jour.
5. Get Your Stuff Together
Before you leave the pier you should have all your rods rigged, your bait cut and your boat fully organized. Every top guide I have ever fished with has been a marvel of efficiency. The reason is simple. Every minute you spend on the water represents a chance to catch fish. If you are drifting around aimlessly while you rummage through a tackle box that looks like a hurricane hit a tackle shop you are not fishing.
Take a few minutes the night before you head out to tie at least a dozen leaders. Then put them on a cork board or a roll of foam style pipe insulation so you can instantly replace a damaged leader. Cut at least half dozen baits before you leave the dock. It’s a lot easier to cut bait in the calm water at the dock than it is in a pitching boat. Before you pull your gear out of the water to change lures, have the next lure selected and rigged. In the same vein don’t pull all your rods at one time. Change one rod while the other is still in the water. Remember you can’t catch fish without a hook in the water.
6. When In Doubt, Fish Shallow
Coho, pinks, and chum all tend to feed in the top 20 feet of the water column. When you consider that fact and the fact that salmon always look up when they feed, it’s clear that you need to keep your bait or lure near the surface. The problem is, fish that are near the surface tend to be spooked by boat noise. The solution is to use a very lightweight and a very long line. A deadly technique for all salmon, except chinook, is to use a 1-ounce weight with a cut-plug herring on a very long line. Fish with at least 100 feet of line out, and you will find the fish are much more receptive to your offering.
7. Never Say Die
Top guides don’t give up just because the fishing is tough. Especially on the tough days you need to plan to stay around as long as you possibly can. Salmon are as unpredictable as any game fish we have in the Northwest. Some of the hottest bites happen after hours and hours of absolute dead zone fishing. If you know there are fish around, put in your time until the bite comes on. If all else fails, you may often pick up a fish or two just before sunset. If you give up just before the bite comes on you will know it. Your fishing buddies will be sure to tell you all about it!
8. Be Consistently Inconsistent
Salmon hate consistency. Underwater video shot by Charlie White show that at least a half dozen salmon will follow your lure for every one that actually strikes. If you want to trigger a salmon into striking you must do something to make your lure behave erratically. Steering a constantly zigzagging course will keep your lures slowing down and speeding up. The lure on the outside turn will speed up and lift toward the surface, while the one on the inside will slow and fall. Often that small change in speed and depth will trigger a strike. Another excellent way to give your lure an alluring action is to slip the motor into neutral every few seconds. As the boat slows the lure will drop. When you shift back into gear the lure will lurch forward and begin to climb. That’s usually when the salmon will attack. A third trick to vary your lure’s action is to grab the mainline between the reel and the first rod guide and pull hard. This will make your lure leap forward a then drop back as you release the line. That trick will often trigger a following salmon to strike.
9. Stay Sharp
No list of tips would be complete without mentioning the importance of sticky sharp hooks. Sure, you have heard this a hundred times, but that’s because it’s true. Razor sharp hooks will more than double your hookups. Few hooks are sharp enough when they come out of the package. You have two choices, either pays the higher price for extra sharp hooks or keep a hook file handy.
Hook files are important but they will ruin a hook if you get too aggressive. For best results, try using very gentle strokes and keep the file at a gradual angle to the hook. Your goal is to remove as little metal as necessary to make the hook so sharp it grabs everything that touches it.
10. Go Longer, Go Lighter
There seems to be an inverse ratio to a salmon angler’s success and the weight of the tackle they use. The pros almost always use lighter gear than the once-a-year crowd. There are several reasons why lighter gear will give you an edge.
Light lines let your lure do its magic. The heavier your line and leader the more it tends to dampen the action of your bait or lure. By dropping down from 20-pound leaders to 12 pounds, you will dramatically improve the action of your lure. In addition, salmon are often leader shy. By switching to long, light leaders you will draw strikes from fish that are put off by heavier, leaders. This rule is doubly important when fishing in the gin clear water we often find in the Northwest. The new fluorocarbon leaders like Berkley Vanish should dramatically increase your strikes.
To properly fish light lines you need a long light rod. Most British Columbia anglers use rods in the 10-foot to 12-foot range, built from fly rod blanks. These long rods are extremely sensitive, which lets you see strikes you might otherwise miss. In addition, long, light rods are very forgiving. You will lose less fish when using a long rod that can quickly absorb shocks and will keep slack out of the line much better than the short stout rods many anglers now use.
Putting It All Together
Coming home with the smell of skunk will always be a part of salmon angling, but you can increase your catch by remembering the above tricks. Every time you head out, go over Dave’s list to be sure you are giving yourself every possible advantage. By approaching your sport like the pros do you will dramatically increase your success.
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