Downrigger

The rod furthest back on the boat (black rod with no bend in the tip) is being fished using the flatline method, as in no downrigger. The two closest rods are attached to a downrigger.

I confess that I’m fascinated with king salmon, and it’s not just their potential for large size. They’re different than other salmon in many ways. And, frankly, fishing for them is more like hunting.

While kings will certainly gather in around food concentrations, they’re not “school” fish like the other salmon. I liken fishing for them to the differences between hunting for elk and hunting for moose. Elk, like the other salmon species, find safety in numbers, and you’ll most likely find them in larger numbers. Moose, like king salmon, are more solitary and it’s comparatively rare to find a bunch in one spot.

If I can stretch the comparison a little further, when it comes to big kings or big moose and elk, you find even more in common. The big ones tend to hang off by themselves away from the crowd.

I’ll back those insights with details from over 50 years of king salmon fishing.

We almost never manage doubles or triples when we hook kings, so seldom that the instances are memorable. And we seldom catch big kings in the company of smaller ones. They’re always off by themselves.

Hunting for big kings is exactly that. Hunting. You can invest a lot of time between fish, but in retrospect the long hours of waiting are worth it.

There’s more to report about catching king salmon in general, and especially the bigger ones.

My lifetime of experience spans back to many years before the advent of downriggers. We had to learn how to catch kings at shallower depths because we simply couldn’t fish as deeply as the kings typically ranged. Experience on commercial salmon trollers in my youth taught me that the kings often ranged really deeply, but there was simply no way to reach them with the trolling tackle used on sport boats.

When downriggers came along, I was quick to jump on the bandwagon to reach those deep kings. Not only were downriggers capable of allowing us to reach greater depths, they were convenient to use compared to other fishing methods even at shallower depths.

But we soon found that convenience came at a price when we used them in waters less than about 40’ deep. It took fine tuning to bring our catch even close to what we could accomplish with conventional gear, and without it the fishing really fell off.

I’ll put on my geezer hat for this point, but our long experience without downriggers taught us ways to catch shallow kings in ways now completely lost to folks who grew up with downriggers. The old ways still work, but you have to put yourself through a learning curve to use them effectively.

I’m happy to acknowledge that I am quick to switch to my downriggers any time there is floating weed on the surface that snags on fishing lines and slides down onto my terminal gear. It’s a dandy way to get around the weeds, but the downriggers cost me fish without tuning my gear differently than in deeper water.

Let’s start with tuning your boating strategy and downrigger setup for shallow water, then move on to the old ways of fishing without downriggers. 

First of all, kings closer to the surface and especially in shallow water are more easily spooked than when they move deeper. Sounds and the sight of your boat, even the passage of your downrigger balls all have the potential to frighten them. The presence of other boats in the immediate vicinity also cuts your catch simply because it doesn’t take much activity to chase the kings out of the shallows. If I see many boats at all in an area I want to fish, I choose another location rather than elbowing into line for a pass.

If you’re using wire rather than braided line on your downriggers, you’re probably well acquainted with the humming sound it produces. Aluminum boats, especially open ones, work like big megaphones in the water. In my firsthand experience, the hum of wire can really spook kings in the shallows, especially in less than 20’ of water. 

So, switch to braid. Our downriggers came with wire, and our catch rate plummeted when we moved into shallow water with them. I switched to braid and the difference was night and day. We went back to catching kings at almost the same rate we managed when fishing without downriggers.

How far back from your downrigger wires do you trail your hooks? I know folks who use as little as 10’ in deep water with great results, but that can cut your catch closer to the surface whether in deep or shallow water. Fishing 25’ to 30’ from the surface in deeper water, my catch goes up when I set my hooks back 20’. And in water less than 40’, catch rates are best when I set the hooks back 30’ to 40’.

Leader length behind your flashers can make a big difference too, especially with different sizes of lures and baits. Changing leader length can dramatically affect the action of the things you hang behind a flasher.

As a general rule of thumb, hoochies and small lures or herring work best with longer leaders, while big herring and big lures are best with shorter leaders. I run as much as 5’ of leader behind flashers with hoochies, spoons or small cut plug herring. I bring that down to 3’ with larger Apex or King Kandy lures and blue tray and larger herring cut plugs. For whole purple or black tray herring I have the best luck with leaders in the 28” range.

Trolling speed makes a big difference too. Bigger plugs seem to work best when trolled fast, as much as 5mph. Spoons and hoochies can be trolled a little faster too, up to about 3.5 mph. But especially with whole herring and cut plugs I have my best results around 2.2 mph. And in shallow water less than about 40’, getting down to about 1.8 mph can pay huge dividends. 

Those speeds can vary up or down depending on the lengths of your leaders, but they work best for me with the lengths I noted. If you prefer longer leaders, then likely you’ll do better if you drive a little faster. The best answer is to hang your gear alongside the boat and watch it at different speeds, deciding for yourself which looks most promising with your setup.

As I said though, I have my best luck in water less than 40’ deep when there’s little or no floating vegetation and I can stow the downriggers. I have to let out more line and change weights to reach any trolling depth, but that can pay dividends in not spooking the kings.

I’ll have to come back to this topic in a future column to provide additional details within the space allowed, but I’ll give you the basics now. In water less about 20’, switch from plastic flashers to metal versions. The plastics want to plane to the surface and stay there.

The amount of weight has to be adjusted for the depth of the water and how deep you want to run your gear. At 2.2 mph or less with 40’ of line back 8 ounces of weight will take a flasher down about 10’. To run the same depth without a flasher, 4 ounces of weight is about right. If the light is bright and the fish are spooky, I drop to 2 ounces of weight and a cut plug without a flasher 60’ back from the boat, reaching a depth of around 7’ or 8’. If using a flasher in less than 20’ of water I drop to a 4 ounce weight with 60’ of line out and cut the speed to 1.8 mph. The outside flasher is likely to plane to the surface on turns, but being metal it sinks back rapidly as you straighten from the turn.

 

You’re dealing with 2 leaders when using weight, both the one behind the flasher to your hooks and the one between the flasher and the weight. I find that the length of the front leader is pretty critical. The best round numbers I’ve come up with are 26-28’ of front leader with no more than 3’ of back leader, no matter what is tied on at the end.

There’s a final detail that’s critical when using weights rather than a downrigger. You’ll miss a lot of strikes and lose a lot of fish if you pull the rods from the rod holder to set the hook. It seems to shake the fish off before they’re truly hooked. It’s far better to school your boatmates to holler “FISH” when there’s a hit, then use your throttle to set the hook. There’s no loose line to contend with as the rod is jockeyed out of the holder, and hooks set deeply with the increased pressure from the accelerating boat.

As I said, there’s lots more to trolling without downriggers, and I’ll come back to it in a future column. In the meantime, I’m willing to bet that if you start tuning your king gear for performance, there will be a lot more noise coming from your fish box on future trips.

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