King salmon fishing in Kodiak

Paul Litzman poses with a 28.5 pound king salmon he caught on a charter with Salmoncrazy Adventures.

KODIAK — With the prospect of herring, then capelin or “grunion” and needlefish or Pacific sand lance spawning around Kodiak over the next couple of months, it’s high time to get serious about king salmon fishing.

Local kings will be returning to their home rivers as migrants stop by to nosh on the congregations of rich baitfish. Any time you come across schools of bait, it most certainly pays to search around them for feeding kings. But don’t get too focused on the bait schools.

The kings also hang out in high energy areas to wait for passing food. By “high energy,” I mean places such as headlands, passes and reefs, anywhere the currents build and passing food is concentrated within reach of faster, more powerful king salmon.

Depending on the location and the presence or absence of bait schools, a range of strategies will work for kings. 

Kings are critical about depth and speed, as well as what you tie on the end of your line, however. The best idea is to try lots of different offerings, but also to vary the ways you present them.

You can certainly catch kings by trolling in straight lines at constant speeds, and lots of folks do just that. But in my mind, that’s mind numbingly boring and a lot less productive than other ways of fishing.

If you know anyone with underwater video capabilities on their downriggers or if you’ve seen footage online, the footage can be surprising. More often than not, king salmon will swim right up behind your hooks, look them over, then swim merrily away.

Over 50 years of king fishing has shown me a very effective countermeasure that often stirs kings to strike rather than follow. The strategy was learned the hard way — without video footage — but owners of video setups have reconfirmed its effectiveness.

Follow me when I troll, and you might think I’m either drunk or just plain nuts. But what you’re seeing is the strategy at work.

I make frequent sharp turns, sometimes even reversing course, then reversing again right away. I also vary my trolling speed — often, and a lot. 

And, I troll directly at obstructions, then turn sharply away to troll directly away from them.  That’s true around deep water obstructions, but also along shorelines. I’ll troll right at the shore, make a sharp turn and troll away from shore, then reverse course and troll right back at the shore.

All those turns and changes in direction and speed do the trick.

I’ve never kept records, but I’m betting over 75% of our takes come on turns, changes in speed or changes in direction. And, it seems to work as well in open water as around obstructions.

For whatever reason, those changes will often stimulate a following king and turn into a hit.

I’m also delighted to have electric downriggers. That’s because I wildly vary the depth at which I’m trolling.  I’ll certainly tow for a while with my hooks close to bottom, but if that doesn’t produce, I’ll raise them 20’ higher. And, if that doesn’t work, I’ll raise them another 20’.

Though I might start in 150’ of water, in no time at all I’ll have my gear up within 20’ or 30’ of the surface.

No luck there? I’ll start sending it back down in 20’ increments.

Here’s the interesting point: Very often our hits come as the gear is rising or falling to a different depth.

That insight led me on to our favorite and most productive way of catching kings. It’s so wildly effective that I can honestly say I never once used our downriggers last year.

I’ve written about it before, but I’ll give a few details here.

Of course, I’m talking about motor mooching.

The rods are rigged the same as for mooching and in fact you start by mooching, lowering your rigs to within about 10’ of bottom and mooching for a few minutes.

No luck?

Put the boat in gear and troll forward until your lines are at an angle indicating the hooks are about 20’ below the surface.

Then kick your boat out of gear and allow the rigs to slowly plummet back toward the bottom. It’s downright amazing how many of your hits will come after you’ve kicked the boat out of gear and are allowing the gear to settle back toward the bottom.

Once your lines have sunk about all they’ll sink, spend a few minutes mooching or slowly jigging your lines up and down to attract hits. If that doesn’t produce, kick the boat back into gear and do it all over again.

Of course, the routine changes the moment you drive over a school of bait. 

Quickly adjust all your lines so the hooks are at about at the bottom of the bait school and start mooching in earnest. We’ve experimented a lot, and the bottom of the school always seems to be most productive.

If you’re seeing bait scattered over a broad range of depths, it’s time for another strategy. I’ve heard it called “vertical mooching,” and it’s very popular and effective in Southeast. And, I’ve certainly proven its effectiveness in Kodiak waters, as well!

In vertical mooching, you slowly lower your bait almost to the bottom, stop it and jig it up and down a few times, then slowly reel it back up toward the top. You’ll get a few hits on the way back up, but most are going to come as it’s sinking.

Here’s the weird part of the hits that come while your gear is sinking. You’ll almost never feel the hit. Instead, your line will go briefly slack as a salmon grabs the bait and stops the descent. All the way down you’re feeling for slack line rather than hits.

I use cut plug herring for most of our motor mooching, but when we’ve run out of herring, I’ve done surprisingly well with Apex spoons, conventional spoons and even hoochies.

Depending on water depth, along with winds and currents, we use a range of weights. If there’s one that we use more than any others, it’s a 6-ounce weight. I almost never use heavier than 8 ounces, while with no wind and slight currents will go as light as 2 ounces.

One final note is worth passing along. Take a look at our rods, even when we’re trolling.

You’ll find a sinker slide above the snap swivel at the end of the line.

That’s because it’s not in the way when conventional trolling and it’s just easier to leave it there rather than cutting off the swivel to remove it.

But we’ve moved completely away from “banana” sinkers for our mooching and motor mooching. Instead, we use the round “cannon ball” sinkers familiar to halibut anglers.

The sinker slide makes it easier to feel subtle hits while mooching, as the round balls are particularly good at snagging seaweed sliding down your line, keeping it off the hooks.

However you choose to fish for kings, it’s certainly time to start tuning your gear and watching the weather for fishing opportunities.

If the kings aren’t there yet, they’re just around the corner.

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