Contacting the Fish
Over the years, the successful angler learns more and more about salmon fishing. The first years are spent understanding rods and reels, downriggers, depthsounders, tackle and knots, and also learning the behaviour of five
. Along with this, a great deal of information about nature is assimilated; about tides, currents, effects of sun and moon, habits of bait. The angler who sticks with it becomes one of the few who consistently comes home with fish.
One of the tricks I have learned through long experience is that almost the most important determinant of success is contacting the fish. This may seem obvious advice to a non-angler - and useless advice to an angler who has not mastered the basics - but it is a hard-won nugget of fishing truth. If you are surrounded by others who are catching fish and you are not catching anything, this tells you two things: you have contacted the fish; and, your technique is wrong. The successful angler immediately changes gear and catches fish.
It is when no one is catching fish that contacting them becomes difficult. I decide ahead of time where the fish should be, and devise a plan of attack. Let me illustrate with summer fishing for sockeye, coho and pink salmon. The area I fish is open water about 15 miles wide and 15 miles long, ie., about 225 square miles; a huge area dotted with sprinklings of salmon.
First I consider behaviour. Sockeye, pink and coho, normally school within 60 feet of the surface regardless of water depth and as much as 10 miles offshore. Each is interested in plankton or the small baitfish that accompany them. Plankton floats passively and is concentrated where two portions of tide flow together. This produces a tideline, visible as a dark line, chop or calm in wind-ruffled water.
Then I consider tides. Tides may move bait and migratory salmon as much as 15 miles before changing and flowing the opposite direction. (And, of course, spawners may travel as much as 25 miles per day). Accordingly, I go directly to where the tide should have pushed the fish in the previous 6 hours. Using advice from the marina, I select lures and fish from the surface to 45 feet. Binoculars come out and boats in the distance are scrutinized. If fish are in evidence - someone will be holding a net - I turn and mosey toward them.
Usually, however, I do not fish near other boats. I increase trolling speed to cover water more quickly and circle the chosen area for one hour. If fish are contacted, ie., caught, I visually fix the area with a shore reference or a floating object such as a log or raft of kelp. Keeping the object close by, I circle. Thus the object, boat and fish, all moved by the tide at the same rate, remain together.
Now comes the important advice. If you do not contact fish within an hour, alter your plan. Your chances of contacting migratory fish are far higher if you turn and move quickly - all three species will take a quick lure, particularly one which has had its action dampened by a longish leader: 42" for lures; and, 5 - 7' for bait - in the same direction as the tide, motoring resolutely from tideline to tideline, covering space as quickly as possible. Fish on the moving side of the line or cross back and forth. Many many summer days, I have putted along for 10 miles before hitting the main school. Then the fishing proved fast and furious as I trolled in circles within the school. This past summer I was rewarded with many 10 salmon days, then arrived back at the dock to find other fishers - those who resolutely stayed where they were - skunked.
The advice to make contact with the fish works for all species, all year round. Behaviour plays such an important role that the foregoing tactics work only for the species mentioned. For halibut, mark the exact spot of hooking - not landing - with a GPS; as mentioned in the last column, these fish are highly migratory and highly specific in bottom structure preferred. Also mark red snapper reefs in the same way; red snapper stay over the same few yards of watery real estate for decades, so precision is important, as is keeping the location to yourself. Remember that bass are migratory mid-water fish, but rock cod are not. Ling cod prefer rocky ledges in fast moving water.
Let me end with chinook. Unlike other sport species, chinook are virtually always associated with bottom structure. This behaviour proves true year round, whether migratory summer spawners or resident winter feeders. Summer spawners often are closer to the surface and show a marked preference for holding up overnight out of the main current in backeddies. Accordingly, these should be closely researched and fished methodically; summer chinook are fussy and prefer slow speed; contacting them is more related to knowing their holes than searching miles of reefs.
Resident for about 6 months, winter chinook have different habits. While strongly structure- related, and seldom found in open water, winter chinook do move around and are deeper - 120 - 180 feet. Contacting them usually results from intimate knowledge of bottom structure - the spires and valleys, the mud bottoms carpetted with needlefish - and tidal action. Be prepared to search a few miles, and carefully consider the effects of tides; time and time again, when skunked, I motor to where the fish should be (because they were not where I thought they would be) and find that the tide has conveniently rounded up the spread-out fish and deposited them together in a backeddy that formed during my fruitless hours.
When I first started fishing, I would have considered the suggestion of staying in contact with the fish as silly. Decades later, when basic technique has been ingrained, and my success ratio has increased, it looms as probably the best piece of advice I can give to a competent angler. So far this year, and it is nearly over, using this piece of gold, I have not been skunked once. May you be as fortunate.