How to Catch Salmon
Special Tips from Dick Pool
Dick Pool has spent many years researching salmon techniques. He is best known for his work using an underwater TV camera. He produced two movies showing the results to thousands of salmon fishermen. "Salmon Attack" played at the popular West Coast Sport and Boat Shows for a number of years. His other movie "Pacific Ocean Salmon Fishing" was released on home video. These pages present some of the results of his work not covered in other sections.
A lot of salmon fishermen are concerned about trolling speed. I tend to discount speed in its absolute sense. Some salmon fishermen are successful while barely moving. Other boats catch fish at speeds where you could almost water ski. The key is not speed itself but lure action. Salmon can swim twelve miles per hour so they will never have a problem catching your lure if they want it. Most salmon lures perform very well trolled between two and two and one half miles per hour. This would represent the most common trolling speed. Every time you put a lure in the water you should watch its action to see that it is shaking, wobbling or rolling fast and in an erratic manner. This is what will get you fish. If you are not getting good action either adjust your trolling speed or change lure to better match the speed you are going.
How Salmon Attack
Most fishermen do not realize that salmon frequently miss your bait. In fact the average salmon will miss your lure two or three times before he gets hooked. In one of our movies we show a salmon that hits twenty two times before he gets hooked on the twenty third try. Salmon usually attack so fast that they can't make the final adjustments to hit your lure. They will graze it or miss it altogether. If he likes it, he will make a quick turn and
come back for another hit. The lesson is this: By the time the salmon finally gets your lure, he has usually slowed down and ends up chasing it down by the tail. For this reason, you want your hook at the tail or behind the tail of your bait or lure. You also want your hook a sharp as you can get it. If it is razor sharp frequently it will dig in as he grazes it and you have hooked a fish. Fishermen used to think salmon hit the head of a bait fish because they almost always swallow the bait fish head first. What they actually do is kill or seriously injure the bait fish and then swim around and swallow it head first.
Most of the time salmon pay no attention to your boat or the noise of the boat. However, there are some instances where Chinook (King) salmon are spooked by the boat. The condition arises if the fish are shallow (top 20 or 25 feet of water) and the water is very calm. In this instance the boat appears to spook the fish and they will not hit directly under the boat. The trick in this instance is to get your bait or lure 50 to 60 feet behind the boat and 20 to 25 feet down. You can accomplish this one of two ways. Either pull very long leaders before you hook your line in the downrigger release or fish with a planer (deep six, pink lady, dipsy diver etc.) that runs shallow but rides way back. When the wind is blowing and the surface of the water is disturbed with waves and white caps you don't have to worry about this. The action of the water and noise from white caps drowns out your boat noise. I once hooked a thirty pound salmon eight feet under the boat in a rolling sea.
Extra Deep Salmon
Often you can find salmon in the top 100 feet of water but sometimes you need to go much deeper. The larger salmon spend more of their time near the bottom sometimes hundreds of feet down. I have some favorite reefs I fish each spring where I can always catch salmon between 200 and 250 feet down. They will criuse the deep reefs picking up schools of herring and baby rockfish. I drop my downrigger until I feel the wire go slack when the weight hits the bottom. I then pull the downrigger up five or six turns and troll a flasher and bait in the bottom ten feet of water. It is very productive. I have used this system as deep as 350 feet and sucessfully caught salmon. To get this deep I use 20 pounds of weight on electric downriggers and I slow my trolling speed to about 1.5 MPH to minimize the water drag on my wire. When you slow down to troll this deep you need to change your lures to ones that have good action at the slower speeds.
Underwater TV Lessons
Our research into salmon behavior using underwater TV cameras provided insights into salmon mysteries that have baffled fishermen for centuries. Much is known about salmon but no one has ever been quite sure what exactly happens in that last split-second before he either attacks your bait with the savagery of a half starved wolf, or turns away and is lost forever because something about your rigging gave him that turnoff signal. Through the miracles of television, video recorders and stop-action we can now study his every move and almost read his mind as he decides his fate. Here are some of the lessons we learned from this video research and how you can put it to work.
Salmon catch bait by chasing it down and grabbing it by the tail. There is a popular myth that salmon hit bait from the head because when fishermen open the stomachs of salmon, they find they have swallowed the bait head first. The facts are that salmon wound or kill a bait by grabbing it first at the tail. After grabbing it several times to be sure it is dead, they finally swim around it and swallow it head first.
In spite of their speed and maneuverability, salmon have a hard time catching your moving bait. Most salmon miss your bait at least once or twice before they get it. If they approach at high speed from underneath or the side, they will almost always miss. After they miss, they will turn around and run your bait down from behind often just grabbing it by the tail. Larger salmon, particularly those over 20 pounds, almost approach at very high speed and invariably miss your bait on the first pass.
The smell of your lure or bait is important, but it is more of a turn-off than a turn-on. Salmon do not find your bait by smell. Once they do find it, however, if it smells wrong they will turn away. The best example is a bait that has snagged a jellyfish. The salmon will always turn away as soon as he smells the jellyfish. Remember that a salmon has an uncanny sense of smell. This is how he traces his way to his place of birth when on his spawning mission. He can smell differences in the water so minute that sophisticated instruments cannot even measure them. The lesson: Keep your bait and lures clean. Avoid getting obvious strong smelling substances like gasoline, motor oil or tobacco on your hands. If you hook a jellyfish, always change your bait.
Salmon will quite often follow your bait or lure for a long period of time. They are particularly likely to follow a dodger or flasher. I have one video sequence showing a salmon following a bait behind a dodger for four minutes. He periodically hits it but never gets hooked. The lesson: Do not be over anxious to pull up your bait once you have a hit. If the bait is still acting properly, even though it is damaged, you may catch the salmon yet.
Salmon frequently do not get hooked even when they hit the bait clean. We have watched hooks bounce off a salmon's mouth in every possible direction. It can be hard to believe this until you see thye incredible speed and violent slashing action of a charging 20 to 30 pounder. Our movie showed one salmon grab a bait to kill it with the hook sticking right out the side of his mouth - and when he lets go to grab again, the hook slides right through his mouth, clean as a whistle. Fortunately, he kept returning for more until we finally hooked him. The lesson: A single relatively large (4/0 to 6/0) and extremely sharp hook is your best bet. It will dig in better and will not bounce off off or miss hooking like a treble or smaller hook.
Time and time again we have watched fishermen do everything right until they finally hook that monster they have been after for five years. At that point something upstairs can click into gear and Mr. Salmon's chance of survival improve dramatically. We've seen fishermen literally freeze in their tracks unable to perform. Even worse, some will forget all logic and proceed to do everything wrong. They suddenly act as if that fish must be in the boat in 20 seconds or it will get away. Mistakes are common but the solutions are just as simple.
Mistake No. 1: Tightening the drag.
A large salmon hits and your reel is screaming as the fish makes that first frantic run for freedom. Your reaction: I've got to set the hook and stop him. Result: You tighten the drag and boom -- something breaks or the hook tears out, and he is gone. This error probably causes the loss of more big salmon than all the other mistakes put together. When you hear the story, "He was so big that he broke my line," then you know exactly what happened. Some people never learn. Instead, after a hookup, partially loosen the drag immediately so the fish can run. Meanwhile you can assess his size and lay a plan to work him in slowly. As long as you hold your rod tip up with some tension on the line, he will rarely get away. Sometimes a little mental exercise will help. Keep in mind that that somewhere, your line likely has a cut or nick in it and if you tighten the drag, it will break at that weakened point. This outlook can do much to help fight a fish properly. Since I use light line, I always loosen the drag when a fish first hits. My salmon rigs are wound with 20 pound test line.
Mistake #2: Trying to land a fish too quickly.
Even if they handle the drag properly, most fishermen still get an anxiety attack and try to bring in the salmon far too quickly --- quite a distressing experience for the fisherman and often a lifesaving one for the salmon. A big salmon has a tremendous ability to fight and thrash about in the water. The closer he is reeled to the boat, the more he wants to dive, jump and spin in an attempt to throw the hook. The first time he sees the boat you can expect to see another frenzied burst of energy --- this is when many salmon are lost. By far the best technique is to exhaust the fish completely before bringing it to the side of the boat. This takes a light limber rod (held tip up), a light drag set so so you wind line only when he is resting, and a lot of patience. With a large fish, this frequently can take 30 minutes to an hour. Believe me, however, you will come home with far more salmon if you use this technique, and a lot more excitement to boot. Don't worry about the salmon throwing the hook. I only use barbless hooks and haven't lost a fish yet as long as I keep a steady tight line. Don't ever let the line go slack, or you are likely to loose him. The extreme in trying to land a salmon too quickly is hand lining. I cringe every time I see someone grab a fisherman's line and start pulling it in hand over hand. It not only removes the sporting element, but the salmon is frequently lost.
Mistake No. 3: Improper netting.
Some fishermen will practically climb out of their boats as they desperately thrash a net at a salmon.
One of the most common mistakes is to try to reach too far or too deep with the net. To net properly, the salmon's head should be at the surface and he should be close enough to the boat to knife the net under him in one quick movement. Don't ever try to net him by pulling the net over his tail --- he'll see the net and swim or jump right out of it. We emphasize that his head should be at the surface, head upward. If he lunges from this position he can only go one direction --- up and right into the net. If his head is down, he can lunge deep and you can't move fast enough to get the net under him. When I net salmon, I like the boat to be moving slowly forward, the fish at the side. The
fisherman working the rod should step forward so the netter can get behind him and net the fish near the stern. With this technique, you take the doubt out of the task and with it, the misery of losing a big fish. Another rule with netting: Don't rush it.Your better off slowly working the fish into that ideal position even if it takes numerous attempts and what seems like an eternity of time. And don't skimp on net size.. We like a hoop 30 to 36 inches in diameter. You'll sure be glad you have it on the day you hook that monster you've been waiting for.