The King of Salmon
From northern Southeast to Norton Sound, most of the fishing effort for Alaska's chinook salmon involves drifting, trolling, or casting lures or bait in freshwater. In the big rivers, this is most effectively done from boats, but significant innovations in gear and increased access to prime waters have made shore casting (with spinning, bait-casting, and fly-fishing gear) more popular than ever. Here's a rundown of the more popular techniques used:
Drifting and Trolling
Alaska's most deadly chinook lure is nothing more than a bright, buoyant plastic whirligig, commonly called a drift bobber. Rigged off a swivel on a 24-inch section of 25- to 40-pound leader, with a lead dropper (three-quarters to three ounces lead), and drifted along the bottom, the bobber is deadly for all salmon, as well as trout and charr. Spin-N-Glo and Cheaters are the two most popular brands, the larger sizes (0 to 4 and Super Spin-N-Glo) and brighter fluorescent colors (red, orange, chartreuse, and yellow) being the standard for kings on all major Alaska chinook rivers from the Gulkana to the Unalakleet. The addition of flashy hook skirts, colored yarn, drops of fish scent, or cured salmon roe (attached with an egg loop hook snell) considerably enhances their appeal.
You can fish the Spin-N-Glo or Cheater from shore with a 'quartering' cast upstream and a steady retrieve to reel in slack as the rig bounces downriver along bottom; you can prolong the drift considerably by walking downstream as you reel, if conditions allow. Or you can use a side planer. But most anglers fish bobbers from a skiff, drifting or trolling with 25 to 75 feet of line, depending on water depth. Since the drift bobber is buoyant, it's nearly impossible to foul on the bottom, and it's effective fished slowly or fast. The important thing is to have enough lead rigged to keep it on or near bottom. You'll see the rod tip twitch with each bounce if it's properly weighted. You also need razor-sharp hooks, as chinooks have super-hard mouths. Anglers generally wait on the strike until the fish takes the rod down hard, especially when fishing with bait.
Next to drift bobbers, plugs are the most commonly used trolling lures on Alaska's king rivers, and you'll see great boxes crammed full of them in guides' boats along the Kenai, Naknek, Gulkana, and other popular big rivers. Big diving plugs like Magnum Tadpollys, Wiggle Warts, and Hot Shots, or the Flatfish (T-55) or Kwikfish (K14-16) in blue/silver, chartreuse/silver, fire red-orange, metallic red or green, and chartreuse seem to be the most used.
Back trolling is a very efficient and frequently used technique. For this, you point your skiff upriver. Use the motor to slow the drift considerably, so that the lure is essentially working in the current with little or no actual upstream movement. The idea is to probe the bottom slowly and intercept kings holding around underwater structure or moving up deep channels. Drift bobbers, plugs, and spinners are the lures most commonly used. They're usually rigged off a diving planer, which is a fan-shaped, flat plastic device that planes downward in the current when pulled behind the boat (see illustration above). Plugs with deep diving lips, like the Model 25 and 35 Hot Shots, Magnum Wiggle Warts, and Tadpollys, can usually be fished alone. For rigging, use three to four feet of heavy mono line, 20- to 40-pound test, run off the back of the planer with a clip swivel for the terminal end and a clip for attaching to the planer. Then let out the whole thing gradually at speed until it's about 30 to 75 feet behind the boat, depending on the depth of the river. You can sit and wait for the fish or drift slowly backwards and probe bottom; depending on how many kings are in the river, either method will produce strikes. Note that since kings have a tendency to 'slap' the lure two or three times prior to the actual take, most anglers wait for the fish to bury the rod tip before setting the hook. Planers will pull a lure or bait down to about 20 feet, and can even be rigged alone as lures, as they're available in a variety of bright colors.
If you back troll with plugs, always check the action of your rig in shallow water before using it to ensure that your lure is swimming upright in a straight line. You may have to 'tune' the action with a pair of pliers, especially if you're using a plug and bait combination. To do this, bend the eye on the nose of the plug to compensate for the direction of lean so that the lure swims upright. Adjustments can also be made on the belly eye or eyes, holding the hook, if the plug is really out of balance. It's important to check the lure's action at fast speed, too.
Like back trolling, back bouncing is an intensive technique that can be very effective in deep holes or eddies. The boat is faced upstream and motored or anchored against the current. The lures are fished off the back, but by hand, like jigging raising and lowering off bottom and playing more line out as the lure is worked farther downstream from the skiff. The rigging is virtually the same as is used for drifting, although you may want to shorten the leader somewhat, with a sliding sinker setup being slightly more efficient than swivel rigging; you should usually use more weight (up to six ounces). The boat can be slipped backwards in a strong current to help keep the lure on bottom. Spin-N-Glos, plugs, and eggs are most commonly used. Like jigging, most fish taken by back bouncing will be hooked on the upstroke, so a quick and powerful motion is required and hooks must be kept razor sharp by frequent honing.
Spin Fishing and Spinners
Spin fishermen have traditionally relied on large 'flasher' spinners like the Jensen Tee-Spoon (sizes 5 and 6) or Skagit Special (sizes 6 to 8) in hammered nickel, brass, fire red, chartreuse, or rainbow blades as their standard Alaska chinook drift lure, rigged like a drift bobber with a lead dropper and 24-inch leader off a three-way swivel. The spinner can be used alone or with bait like salmon roe. Dragging it behind a boat requires more attention than with a bobber, however, as the big spinner will hang on bottom if worked too slowly. For casting, these big spinners are too clumsy and unbalanced, especially in heavy wind. Spin-casters instead should opt for the 1.25-ounce Mepps Giant Killers (in silver, gold, prism, or fluorescent red or orange blades, dressed in bright bucktail) or the superbly balanced, seven-eighths-ounce no. 6 Super Vibrax Series spinners (silver, black, or gold blades with a fluorescent orange, yellow, or green bell, or the new 'Firetiger' finish). Big spoons like the seven-eighths-ounce Pixee (green or pink insert) are also extremely effective. The trick is to fish slowly and deeply, allowing the lure to sink properly after the cast, and using a retrieve just fast enough to keep it off the bottom. Depending on the current and depth, additional weight may be required use a half-ounce rubbercore sinker attached above the lure or rig a dropper and swivel as you would for drifting. For more efficient and enjoyable casting, if conditions allow (such as in bigger, slower water), you might want to try dropping down a notch in tackle, say to 12- to 15-pound test and a medium-weight salmon rod. You'll be making obvious sacrifices in your ability to handle big fish, but you'll be able to cast the big spinners farther without adding extra weight.
In glacial, extremely deep, or turbid waters where the use of bait is still allowed, its effectiveness on kings is unmatchable, either alone or as an attractant on lures. Most anglers use salmon roe, herring, sardines, and even shrimp. Spin-N-Glos and cured salmon roe have perhaps taken more Alaska kings than any other lure and bait combination, but big spinners and even plugs benefit immensely from the addition of a 'natural sweetener.' A short strip of herring or sardine, wound flesh-side-out with fine thread to the bottom of a plug, is a standard enticement used by many Southcentral river guides. Remember that you'll definitely need to 'tune' the plug before fishing it in this manner. Some anglers even add fish oils and other scents to their baits or lures.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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