KODIAK — Each new year of offshore salmon fishing is a new challenge.
Techniques and locations that worked last year just might not be the best this year.
You may find yourself starting from scratch looking for the best places and ways to hook up.
But it doesn’t take a year for circumstances to change.
Fish move around and the ocean changes with each tide. It’s not uncommon for yesterday’s hot producers to be lame 24 hours later.
In over 50 years of offshore salmon fishing, I’ve accumulated a whole “tackle box” of tricks and stunts to help me get onto the fish when they’re hard to catch.
If you’ve been in the boat with me or watched me on the water, you’re likely to have seen me doing things you may never have seen before.
That’s because I’m quick to change my ways if one thing isn’t producing. And I’m not just talking about what I tie on the end of my line!
This year we’ve been doing well in a wide variety of locations using an old technique from the Pacific Northwest and Canada. It was developed long before downriggers and deep trolling were more than a dream.
In fact we’ve caught over 90 percent of our kings that way this year.
It’s called motor mooching.
Any time I’ve mentioned it to friends, I get kind of a cross-eyed look from them and demands for an explanation.
To make it easy on myself while letting others in on the secret, I decided it was high time to devote a column to it.
It’s so simple you almost certainly have the right gear on your boat right now. And it’s the perfect way to help you zero in on salmon when you can’t seem to find them using all your usual methods and gear.
It’s also a terrific way to stay on top of the fish when you find them in one small location.
Even better, it produces halibut, as well as salmon. So many in fact, that we haven’t even bothered with our usual halibut fishing methods this year.
In a nutshell, you rig your rods for mooching and let your line out till it just touches bottom. Then you put the boat in gear and slowly motor forward to raise your lines back up toward the surface.
After a little wait to see if the salmon are hanging at the surface, you kick the boat out of gear and drift as the rigs settle back toward the bottom.
Through the course of that cycle your rigs are searching for salmon from top to bottom. It’s almost like having someone stand by your downrigger and crank it all they way up then all the way back down again as you troll. Again and again!
When you connect with salmon, pay attention to the angle of the line, giving you an important clue about the depth at which they’re hitting.
If along the way from deep to shallow and back down again you spot fish or a bait layer or especially promising bottom structure on your fish finder, leave your boat out of gear and adjust your lines to the right depth to mooch for a while.
A line-counter reel is wonderful at such times, but you can get by with simply counting “strips” of line from your reels.
I particularly like motor mooching because it allows me to combine the best of both trolling and mooching while I cover a lot of ground searching for fish.
Even better, it works with whole herring, cut plug herring, spoons, lures and hoochies. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m betting it will also work well with a flasher in front of any of those.
Just as when trolling, I rig each line with something different until the fish tell me which is right for that day and that spot. Once the first fish is onboard, I switch all the lines over to the same rig, and the catch soars.
Just as with standard mooching, motor mooching starts with a weight above your hook where your leader joins your main line. I tend to use leaders 5- or 6-feet long for mooching, so that’s what I use for motor mooching.
However, the focus is on your weight.
When most people think of “mooching,” they envision banana weights.
They work fine for me, but I prefer to use them only in the lighter sizes of 4 ounces or less for shallow work.
When you get into heavier weights for deep work, it’s not uncommon to lose salmon when they shake their heads and sling around the banana weight.
I have much better luck in general when I use sliding cannonball weights.
For simplicity and ease of changing weights to match the conditions I use plastic “sliders” that you slide onto your main line before attaching your swivel. They’re nothing more than a little tube with a snap on it. You’ll find them all the time on each of our salmon rods, where they live ready for use, yet out of the way, no matter what else I’m doing with the rod at the time.
If you don’t have sliders, you can simply slide a cannonball in your choice of weights onto your line before tying on your swivel. That will require you to cut off the swivel in order to change weights, but it’s easy enough to do.
How much weight are we talking about?
If the currents aren’t strong and I’m fishing in less than about 40 feet of water, I use 1-2 ounce weights. From 40 feet to 80 feet I use 4-6 ounces.
Deeper than 80 feet, I move up to 8 ounces and even to 10 or 12 ounces when currents are strong.
It’s important to play around a little with your weights because the speed at which the weights rise toward the surface, and especially how fast or slowly they sink, can make a lot of difference in your catch rate.
When salmon are in the top half of the water column, I have most of my hits as the lure or bait slowly flutters down, and a weight too heavy moves it too fast for best results.
Down near bottom, especially in deeper water, I have better luck when the lure or bait rises or falls more quickly. That’s where those heavy weights come into their own.
As the boat driver you’re well advised to play a little with the throttle and carefully watch the changing angle of the lines as you alternately drift and motor ahead. Sometimes a little extra speed helps. Sometimes it pays to wait longer before you put the boat in gear for your next forward movement.
But, I get the biggest dividends moments after I change from one to the other. For example, when I guess the lines are halfway down, I’ll kick the boat in gear for a few seconds to raise the gear momentarily before kicking it back out again to continue the descent.
Very often, the strikes come as your baits or lures suddenly change speed or direction, and a little extra “wiggle” in their motion now and then pays dividends.
Once your lines get back down close to bottom, relax and mooch a bit. That’s generally where we get our halibut, though we can catch them anywhere from top to bottom, as I suspect they follow the gear as it rises up.
King salmon often feed very close to bottom when there’s a bait layer down there, so don’t be too surprised if you connect with a king rather than a halibut.
One thing to keep in the back of your mind while motor mooching: You’ll be using your standard salmon trolling and downrigger rods for the most part, but the halibut don’t seem to know or care.
You’re likely to get a sudden introduction to light tackle halibut fishing in the process.
Let the fun begin!