I’m among the legions who love king salmon, both on the line and on the table. I’ve fished for them for over 50 years now, and they continue to fascinate me.
In recent years downriggers have become standard equipment for saltwater fishing. They certainly make it easier to catch kings when they’re holding deep, but do you really need them?
They’re expensive, after all, and if you’re not trolling at the moment, they can sure get in the way of anything else you’re doing on the boat.
As a matter of fact, kings were caught quite effectively for generations before the first downrigger saw the light of day.
I did a whole lot of king fishing in the years before downriggers, and only recently put them on our boat. It’s not that I have anything against downriggers. It’s just a matter of seldom feeling I really needed them.
For me they’re more of a convenience than a necessity. Even with nice electrics waiting seductively there on the stern, we seldom use them.
That’s because we catch kings so effectively without them most of the time. To put a number on it, I’m quite sure we catch over 80 percent of our kings each year without resorting to those handy downriggers.
Do you really need downriggers if you want to catch kings?
Of course not.
If you invest in downriggers, should you use them all the time?
Heck no! Many of the places and circumstances where we find kings, there are better ways than downriggers for catching them.
I just called downriggers “seductive.” That’s because it’s really easy to become dependent on them, even lazy, in choosing them over another method. In doing so, you might miss out on some of the greatest fishing imaginable.
It’s up to you whether or not to buy downriggers and when to use them. But with or without them, there are lots of effective ways to catch kings. Often there’s a better way than downriggers to connect.
Before downriggers came along, folks trolled with weights or trolling planes such as the Deep Six to carry baits and lures to the required depth. It works, but with either method there’s a bit of by-guess-and-by-golly in figuring out just how much line to let out to reach a particular depth.
In spite of that, there’s real value in switching to weights or planers when the conditions dictate.
Kings like structure or obstructions in the water, often hanging as close to it as rockfish. If you are dragging expensive downrigger gear beneath your boat, however, you tend to steer well clear of the obstructions where the kings are holding.
I’m particularly fond of weights for trolling in waters less than 60 feet deep because I don’t have to have all that much line out to fish half way to the bottom. But there are other important reasons.
For one thing, I can troll really close to obstructions without risking nearly so much money as with a downrigger.
But even more important is what I can do any time I misjudge and get too close, as seen by the bottom passing under my fathometer. All I have to do is nudge the throttle forward and the weighted trolling gear sails up toward the surface and clears the obstruction. Once I judge the gear is safely past, I retard the throttle and allow the gear to drop back down.
Try doing that with heavy downrigger weights!
But trolling is only a small part of the picture in catching king salmon, another aspect overlooked by guys who are lulled by the ease of using downriggers.
Casting, mooching and jigging are all wildly effective techniques wherever kings are found, but especially near obstructions.
We catch a lot of king salmon, to the point that we release quite a few. But we catch well over half of them without trolling.
Jigging is probably the most straightforward method for anyone just starting out. Basically you pick a depth where you think the kings will be passing, lower your jig to that depth and go to work.
The slender dart-style jigs have been best in my experience so far. But there’s a trick to using them.
Most strikes come as you’re lowering the rod and the jig is fluttering down, rather than while you are raising the rod. You seldom actually feel the strikes. Instead, your line will go slack when the jig stops before it should.
Set the hook!
I have to be frank, though. We catch an awful lot of kings on jigs when we’ve actually started out halibut fishing.
I watch the fathometer intently while we’re jigging for halibut, and any time I see the signs of larger fish somewhere in the water column above bottom, we all quickly reel our jigs up to that depth and go to work.
The results can be extremely rewarding.
Mooching is truly not much more than jigging with bait or hoochies below a weight, rather than an actual jig.
You rig a herring much as you would for trolling, tie the leader below a weight, and lower it to the desired depth and begin slowly jigging.
As with dart jigs, however, most strikes come as you’re lowering the rod. If you feel anything at all, it’s a very subtle tug.
There’s a variation on true mooching which can be even more effective, especially if the kings are scattered or you’re too restless to anchor long in one spot.
It’s called “motor mooching.”
You rig up as you would for mooching, then lower your gear to just a little deeper than where you expect to find the kings. If I guess the kings are holding 40 feet down, I’ll let out about 50 feet of line.
Mooch for a few minutes to see if anything happens, then put the boat in gear and idle forward until your mooching lines are at about a 45 degree angle to the boat.
Now kick the boat out of gear and allow the mooching lines to settle back down directly under the boat. Remember what I said about most hits coming as the jig or mooched herring is sinking?
Put the boat in gear again, and idle forward as before, then kick it out of gear and allow the rigs to settle. You can cover almost as much water as trolling while motor mooching, as you meanwhile spend most of the time with your rigs fluttering downward seductively.
I’m still exploring the final alternative to trolling. Any time I suspect the kings are holding so close to cover or so shallow that I can’t troll or mooch, I cast into promising nooks and crannies much as anglers do for largemouth bass or muskies in other waters.
This also works any time you find a king concentration in open water and there’s no time to mess with trolling gear.
Jigs, casting lures, flies and even rigged herring can all be effective. Surprisingly so, in fact.
If you’ve fallen sway to the ease of using downriggers for trolling, you are likely overlooking lots of opportunities where the fishing might actually be better without the downriggers. It takes a huge leap in faith to quit using the downriggers.
If you happen not to have downriggers, the decision is made for you. Sure, you’ll have to work harder to catch your kings when they’re widely scattered in open water.
But much of the time you’ll be able to find kings in other places where the fishing is even better and you won’t miss the downriggers at all.