Fishing for salmon in rivers of the West can be extraordinarily easy one day and amazingly difficult the next. No other fish can be as persnickety as a salmon bound for their spawning grounds, and no other game fish can be so easy to catch—sometimes. First let’s look at the basics of how to trick salmon in our rivers, then I will give you some hints to make those easy fishing days a little more frequent—and the skunks a little more rare.
Folks love to say timing is everything, and never is that so true as when we go after salmon in rivers. After all, many rivers have absolutely no salmon from January through July, and only a few fish are around in August and December. In most West Coast rivers the first fishable number of salmon arrive in September, and the good times are usually over by late October. Each species has a different timetable and each river has its own unique runs. For example, there are chinook that enter the Columbia in February and Coho that enter the Humptulips as late as December, but by and large your best fishing will be from late summer through late fall.
Whether it's fast and furious or excruciatingly slow, fishing for running salmon can pay off big time.
Since it’s impossible to catch a fish that isn’t there, you need to do some homework regarding run timing in the rivers of your choice. One good resource is local tackle shops; another is your fishing diary. If you keep good records of every fishing trip, within a matter of a few years you will have an excellent database that, among other things, tells you specifically when each species enters your local rivers. You can also get good information from the Corps of Engineers' fish ladder counts for the dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. This free site, at http://www.fpc.org/adult.html, tells how many fish of each species pass over each dam on the Columbia and Snake River each day.
Once you have the run timing figured out, you need to find where the fish are in the river. Again, tackle shops, guides and other fishing fanatics can usually give you an idea which part of the river is producing fish. Because salmon are constantly migrating, it is often best to try a few miles upstream of yesterday’s hotspot.
When it comes to finding the fish, the good news is salmon are not at all shy. If there is a decent amount of fish in the area you will quickly see them rolling and splashing on the surface. Why they do this is subject to numerous theories; but who cares why they do it? How many other game fish are so cooperative to show you where to begin fishing? If you stay in an area more than a few minutes without seeing a rolling salmon, it’s time to move on.
Luring Lockjawed Fish
The good news is it’s often easy to find salmon. The bad news is it’s often very difficult to elicit a strike. Since salmon quit feeding when they enter fresh water, we can’t appeal to their appetite. But we can use their instinctive predatory habits to elicit strikes. Failing that, we can occasionally trick a salmon into picking up our lure or bait out of curiosity.
Aggressive salmon will strike spoons, spinners and plugs. Each species has distinct preferences, but silver plated 2/5- and 3/5-ounce spoons are deadly for coho, chinook and pinks. Spinners also work well on all three species, as do plugs. The trick is to match your lure to water conditions and to the size fish you are targeting. When fishing huge chinook salmon, spinners with two inch wide blades are appropriate, but seldom will a diminutive pink salmon attack such a huge spinner. The same goes for plugs. Pink salmon are suckers for 2-inch pink plugs. If you are after chinook, the K-15 Kwikfish, at more than 6 inches long, is absolutely deadly. Two things that all species of salmon have in common is a fear of rapidly moving lures and a distinct preference for the bottom third of the water column.
Slow presentations in the deepest third of the river are key to hooking up with kings and other salmon.
No matter whether you chose spoon spinners or plugs, the key to success lies with a slow-as-molasses retrieve and keeping your lure near the bottom. Spinners should be retrieved so slowly that the blade just barely turns; a rapidly whirring blade will scare off more salmon than it will attract.
The same is true with spoons. Try to keep your retrieve just fast enough to keep the spoon wobbling. This will scare fewer fish than a rapid retrieve, and it will keep the spoon near the bottom where the salmon hold. Plugs must be retrieved so slowly that they wiggle back-and-forth in a slow deliberate tick-tock pattern. Again, this keeps the fish interested and it keeps the plug near the all-important bottom.
Even though you will often see salmon rolling on the surface, the vast majority of the school will be near the bottom. The fish we see rolling on the surface are simply fish that break out of the school, come to the surface, then immediately return to the bottom. While you can take the occasional salmon near the surface, your best odds are with the main school, which is holding near the bottom.
All Pacific salmon seek slow, deep runs where they can rest and save their strength for the arduous journey ahead. Coho tend to hold in the slack water side of river bends, while chinook favor deep stagnant pools. If you hit the river when a big rain has the river running high and dirty, look for the narrow slots at the edges of shallow bars. The fish will travel through these slots as they move up river.
Egging Them On
Those who prefer tempting salmon with bait really have only one choice. For reasons that are as yet unclear to us, salmon are drawn to salmon eggs like a magnet. Coho, chinook, pinks and chums will all take a well-presented cluster of fresh or cured salmon eggs. To fish eggs, use a float that will allow themto drift along at the speed of the current. Simply attach a weight beneath the float and a leader beneath the weight. For coho, try bait about the size of your thumbnail. For chinook, a cluster the size of a ping-pong ball is best.
While almost all salmon will pick up a cluster of salmon eggs, most will only mouth them for a few seconds then spit them back out. Learning when to set the hook while bait fishing is a real art form. If you are too quick, you snatch the bait away from the salmon. Seldom will a fish return to bait that has been jerked away from them. If you wait too long, the fish will lose interest and drop the bait. I find the best bet it to wait until the float is completely under water before setting the hook. But don’t wait too long after the float goes down.
River salmon can be extremely frustrating. On occasion, they will pounce on everything you throw at them. Those are the rare moments to remember. More often than not, you will be surrounded by leaping fish that seem to be taunting you as they ignore every lure and bait in your arsenal. Never give up. Many times the fish will suddenly go on the bite—sometimes for only a few moments each day. Many experts believe the river biting cycles correspond with the tide changes, even though the fish have long left the ocean. We do know for certain that salmon will bite much better on cloudy or rainy days than they will on sunny days, and daybreak is almost always the best time to be on the water.
If you put in your time and use the tricks I have described you will be there when the bite come on, and you will experience one of sport fishing’s greatest thrills. It’s tough to keep plugging away when the fish are leaping all round and no one has had a bite in hours, but the ones who succeed never give up. There is no feeling worse than hearing that everyone got their limits after you gave up and went home.