No Need For Bait! (When Trolling for Salmon)
Jason Brooks, July 12, 2020
After spending a few days in remote Nootka Sound we were beginning to run out of bait. The frozen Anchovies and Herring were all brined and used. Unusually warm weather and little ice to keep them fresh meant going through more bait than we had anticipated in the first few days. Now we were out and still had a couple of days left in our trip. The tide was going to change in a couple of hours and it would have been a great evening bite. But what were we to do without fresh bait; the answer came as I rummaged through my tackle box and pulled out a four-inch spoon with a hologram finish. The spoon looked a lot like the herring I had been using.
That evening we worked spoons along the kelp line and noticed that the bite stayed steady. Best part was that as soon as we released the fish we could simply clip onto the downrigger and get back to fishing right away. A good plug cut herring is hard to beat but it does take a little time to make the cut and rig them correctly. Then when a fish strikes but the hooks don’t bury you need to reel in and re-bait. Fishing lures that mimic baitfish such as herring, anchovies, sardines and squid keep you in the water longer and when fished right they can catch as much fish as fresh bait.
For the angler today there are several lures on the market that can re-create a plug cut herring. One of the best is the Brad’s Super Cut Plug. With multiple finishes that will imitate herring, sardines, mackerel and other fish. Last fall Yakima Bait Company came out with the Spin-Fish. Both of these lures utilize an internal cavity to apply scent. One of the best scents is to start with canned tuna and add Pro-Cure bait oils in either herring, anchovy or sardine. Because these lures can be rigged with either a single hook, a double mooching style rigging or where legal with treble hooks they can be rigged to increase the hook set. This means a higher “bite to hookset” ratio. And when you do miss the bite you can keep on fishing without worry as the lure is always working.
These lures are not just for trolling off of the downrigger. Several years ago I rigged a third rod since we had three anglers in the boat. Not being a fan of stacking on a downrigger, instead I rigged it just like you would if you were to mooch herring. A five-ounce mooching weight with a long leader to the Brads Super Cut Plug. Then simply let it out behind the boat about fifty feet. Turns out this rod caught more fish than the other two rods combined as the Coho bite turned on. We were able to keep the downrigger rods deep for Chinook and let the long line rod entice the silvers.
Mooching is another tried and true herring technique and both the Brads Super Cut Plug and the YBC Spin-Fish can be mooched. Rig and fish them just like you would mooch a herring. Again if you get bit but miss the fish you can just keep on mooching and not reel in. It is really a great way to catch salmon but don’t overlook the use for lingcod as well. Some of my favorite lingcod grounds are in the Tacoma Narrows of Puget Sound where large rocks were placed to build a jetty like structure to keep the shoreline from eroding away where Burlington Northern has their railway. The toothy fish like to lay amongst the boulders. Here tides swing big and fast but just as the tide starts or begins to slow I prefer to drop one of these lures down on a mooching rig and let it flutter while drifting along. Covering a lot of ground like this increases the chances of catching a lingcod. Same with motor mooching for salmon.
When it comes to a Sandlace bite you have a few options. The first being the thin Coho Killer type spoons. These tiny spoons are delicate compared to other spoons so be sure to look them over after landing a fish. They come is just about every color you can image but the cop car and the herring aide colors are two of the top producers. Don’t overlook thin hootchie skirts. Mostly thought of being a squid imitation the are a few on the market that are thin and come with a Mylar or tinsel insert or you can add an insert yourself. Again you can fill them with scents and fish them behind a flasher.
Anchovies are delicate but also deadly when it comes to fishing for salmon, especially along kelp beds or rock walls. When I am fishing up in Nootka Sound I always have a tray of anchovies on some Brine-n-Bite. In recent years I have begun using Brads Superbaits. These lures are thin and spin in a tight “drill bit” much like an anchovy with a hood. There are patterns and colors that look just like an anchovy and again they have a cavity for scent oils or even some mashed up anchovies. In Canadian waters off of British Columbia you can use barbless treble hooks so these can be rigged with a size 2 treble. If you are fishing where trebles can’t be used, then a four bead chain swivel and a 3/0 or 4/0 Gamakatsu Siwash compliments the lure well as it looks like a fluttering tail. A small northwest company, Old Goat Lures, has a similar lure. They have a hollow cavity to put scent and look like a thin wounded baitfish when trolled.
Squid makes up a big part of the salmon’s diet yet it is almost unheard of to fish real squid. This is mostly due to a high demand for squid as food in restaurants and are worth more to the commercial fishing industry than for the bait market. Hootchie skirts otherwise known as squid skirts are pretty common to the salmon angling world. The the plastic squid is fished behind a flasher. That is pretty much the only way to fish them in the salt and it is simple and effective. You can use the small 1 ½ inch skirts to add some action to spoons and other lures but fishing the squid skirt itself is a basic technique. If the squid bite is on then they work but sometimes the fish don’t want them and you need to try something else.
I mentioned spoons at the start of this article and saved them for last. This is because they are so versatile when it comes to mimicking baitfish. There seems to be an endless amount of spoon designs, colors and styles and each one is used for a different reason. The thick spoons like the Dardevil by Eppinger Manufacturing works well when there are large herring and mackerel around. Luhr Jensen’s Coyote spoon is well known to salmon anglers which is about the size of herring and sardines. When it comes to smaller baitfish there are several spoons that work very well. The Needlefish, Kingfisher Lite, Coho Killer, and again the Coyote spoons imitate small baitfish. All of these lures can be trolled and some can be cast and retrieved along kelp beds and rip lines. When it comes to mooching spoons you want ones that will flutter but are heavy enough to get down to the fish in a hurry such as Buzz Bombs and Kastmasters.
Salmon in saltwater are actively feeding and if you can “match the hatch” and imitate what they are feeding on then you will catch more fish. Sometimes bait is best but there are many reasons why you should not worry if you run out. Sometimes I even intentionally leave the fresh bait at home and just head out with a tackle box of lures and see how many fish I can catch. It’s nice to know that you don’t have to worry about the bait. Jason Brooks is an outdoor writer based in Washington and the Editor of The Tailout, an online magazine dedicated to all things Salmon & Steelhead related.