School of Fish(ing)
The cool, nutrient rich waters of the Pacific NW teem with sea life. Shellfish, crab, bottom fish, and salmon seasons overlap, so it’s possible to fish for one or more species or types of sea life every day of the year. Among the fishing opportunities available to NW cruisers, our salmon fishery is the best known and most popular. With a variety of spawning “runs” passing through our waters at various intervals combined with our year ‘round resident Blackmouth salmon, salmon season is nearly always “open” somewhere in the region. It’s important to remember that seasons published at the beginning of a year can and do change, sometimes with little notice. Fishermen should check the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website for frequent updates.
Gearing up for Salmon Fishing
It’s possible to catch fish with only the smallest expense for tackle, bait, and a license. Salmon fishing is not exclusively reserved for wealthy anglers, but those most passionate about the pastime or with a gazillion dollars burning a hole in their wallets can invest in a variety of specialized gear to make fishing more fun and potentially more productive. Everything from high-tech hooks to purpose-built, twin outboard, center console sportfish boats is available. It’s a wonder that the salmon stand a chance, but catching one of these delicious fish remains challenging despite the plethora of technology.
A rod and a reel are obvious basics. The choice of rod and type of reel will be somewhat determined by the method with which one chooses to fish. A landing net is equally important; bringing a salmon the last few feet over the gunwale is otherwise riskier than fighting the fish the previous 50 yards.
At times when the fish are at substantial depths, a downrigger permits an angler get the bait down to productive water. The downrigger release mechanism assures the angler will enjoy fighting the catch (rather than several pounds of lead) following a hook-up. Downriggers are available in many price ranges. Some are relatively inexpensive devices with hand cranked cable reels. Available, of course, are high tech versions with 12-volt motors and electrically charged cables supposedly effective for attracting fish.
Generations of anglers learned to find salmon based on tide tables, watching for sea birds diving on bait, observing tide rips, etc. Those methods still work, but most salmon fishermen now rely on electronic “fish finders” and depth sounders. Modern video sounders will alert an angler to the presence of fish, as well as indicate whether the fish are in very small groups or an enormous school. As critical as it is to know where the fish are, knowing the depth at which they are swimming is equally important. Fishing in the right spot is important, from both vertical and horizontal perspectives.
Drift fishing includes both “mooching” and “jigging”, approaches most commonly employed when an angler believes he or she is fishing where large schools of fish are present. Trolling is more popular when a fisherman sees only a few isolated fish on the fish finder and it makes sense to cover more territory in search of a catch.
Mooching is normally practiced using fresh or frozen herring as bait. Anglers cut the bait at an angle, just behind the gills, to remove the head. The cut creates a “plug cut” herring that will spin through the water and attract feeding salmon. “Motor mooching” is a popular approach, with fishermen shifting between a slow forward throttle and neutral to impart an erratic motion to the bait. Salmon mistake the spinning and randomly moving bait for injured prey, and therefore a meal available with “easy picking’s”. Non-motorized mooching is the more traditional approach, with anglers raising and lowering the fishing rod or relying on currents to animate the bait.
Mooching gear is commonly an 8-9 foot fishing rod with a level wind reel Banana-shaped sinkers, in a variety of weights, are used to put the bait at the most effective depths.
Jigging is a specialized version of drift fishing that utilizes lead fishing lures, or “jigs”. Jiggers will customarily choose a shorter and stiffer fishing rod than moochers prefer. Once a school of fish is located, the jig is lowered to the appropriate depth and the fisherman raises and lowers the rod tip so that the jig will behave like a wounded bait fish. It is also possible to cast and retrieve a jig, fishing more horizontally than vertically.
Dogfish sharks can be a nuisance when fishing for salmon with live bait. Dogfish are normally attracted to live bait but will ignore jigs or other artificial lures.
Trolling is defined as fishing from a constantly moving boat. Some fishermen switch between trolling and mooching, preferring to troll while trying to locate the larger concentrations of fish. Trollers often employ diving planes or downriggers to ensure that the motion of the line through the water doesn’t lift the bait toward the surface and above the desired depth. Flashers and spinners are also used to impart sufficient motion to certain types of lures that would otherwise remain still when trolled through the water. Trolling rods are usually shorter and stouter to handle the extra gear. The correct speed is critical. Trolling fishermen will observe their bait and flashers (if used) while still at the surface to select a precise speed that creates the best action. Chinook salmon are normally caught at troll speeds under 2 miles per hour and Coho salmon at speeds between 2-4 miles per hour.