But fortune actually plays only a small part in our catch rate.
It has a lot more to do with systematically testing the water and the way we fish, then fine-tuning both our location and our methods.
In the sincere belief that everyone likes to catch fish as much as we do, I’m happy to pass along tips for systematically fine-tuning gear and locations.
Firstly and most importantly, you have to believe with all your heart that there really are king salmon in an area. If you don’t believe they’re around, you’re simply not going to put in the effort to find them and to make them hit.
The throttle is right there in one hand and the steering wheel in the other, as your GPS is pointing out all sorts of possibilities elsewhere. It’s really tempting to give up on a spot and move along to the next.
Meanwhile, you’ll continue fishing with the same techniques and in the same kinds of places that weren’t working in the last place you stopped!
In my nearly 50 years of king salmon trolling I’ve learned that there is no such thing as a surefire killer technique that works all the time. The hardest thing to overcome is the belief that you’re doing everything right and the fish just aren’t there. That leads to simply doing the same thing hour after hour because it worked for you once, and therefore it’s the best way to do anything.
I certainly fish with a best guess about where the fish will be and how to connect. But I’ve learned not to be seduced by that throttle and steering wheel if I don’t connect right away.
I won’t grind away for fish, trolling the same track with the same gear hour after hour in the belief that a “bite” will magically start. It might well happen, but I’d rather create action a whole lot sooner.
Probably the most important thing to realize is that king salmon are fast. Fisheries scientists studying their migration routes and swimming speed have come up with an amazing number that says it all.
The average swimming speed of a moving king salmon is 2.5 body lengths per second! That means a three-foot king’s average swimming speed is 7.5 feet per second, or 450 feet per minute. Carry the math a little further and that translates into 27,000 feet per hour or just over five miles per hour!
And that doesn’t account for bursts when chasing down food. It’s more or less a loafing speed, perhaps comparable to the pace a human might set while hiking.
How fast do you usually troll? I know only a few people who troll so fast, and usually with plugs rather than bait or spoons.
Apply 5 mph to your trolling, and it means the kings are overtaking you rather than you overtaking them. Once you hook and land a fish, the school has moved on. Sure, a school will hang around if there’s plenty of bait, but if the bite in your spot stops suddenly, does that mean the fish have quit hitting?
In my long experience it doesn’t. Instead the kings have simply moved off and left you. You can sit there and troll in your “hot spot” for the rest of the day, but in reality you’re waiting for the next school of kings to arrive rather than waiting for the bite to start again.
I’ll certainly circle back for another pass when I hook a king, but if that pass is a blank I pick up my gear and move anywhere from a quarter to half a mile further in the direction I think the school is moving.
Kings also move shallower and deeper as the tide changes, and especially as the light level changes. In general terms I’ve found them to move shallower on the incoming tide and on overcast days. Conversely they run deeper as the tide is falling, and especially on sunny days.
I regularly troll into water as shallow as 10 feet or so on the incoming tide when the skies are overcast, and especially when the water is choppy. But let the tide start dropping or the sun come out, and watch me move deeper quickly.
I’m a slow troller when it comes to bait, usually moving somewhere between 1.8 and 2.0 miles per hour. My comfort zone extends from about 1.6 to 2.4 mph.
Not many people troll so slowly, and in fact most I know troll a lot faster.
That’s neither here nor there, but with one exception: Your gear is moving through the water and affected by the current. It acts differently as the speed changes.
I have my herring gear tuned for slow trolling, and in fact it doesn’t work worth a darn at higher speeds. Other trollers are quite successful at higher speeds, mostly because they have tuned their gear for their usual trolling speeds.
Now, what in the world is gear turning?
I’m referring to adjusting the length and weight of your leaders, the size of your bait or lure, the distance you run your gear behind a downrigger or diving plane, and even the type of flasher you use.
With larger baits I run shorter and heavier leaders behind a flasher to give the flasher a little help in “kicking” the bait. Too long or two soft a leader for a particular size of bait, and the flasher can move around while hardly moving the bait at all.
But the distance you put your flashers behind a downrigger also affects the amount of kick.
Reel your lines down really tight once you’ve set your downrigger and watch the rod tip. You should see it bouncing a little. With my gear I want the rod tip to bounce about once per second.
I get that rate of bounce by lengthening or shortening the lines behind the wire, but also by playing with that throttle under my right hand while watching the rod tips.
There’s also a difference in kick between flasher brands, models and construction material. I get more kick from most plastic flashers, but that comes at a price.
I mentioned shallow water trolling. I often have as little as 4 or 6 feet of wire out on my downriggers, but plastic flashers sail up to the surface and stay there with such short wires.
Water depths shallower than about 20 feet, or downrigger wires shorter than about 15 feet are the exclusive realm of metal flashers. They track straight and true while staying under the surface with wires as short as about three feet at my trolling speeds.
There’s certainly a lot more to it than that, but simply working harder to get in front of fish and tuning your gear for best action once you find them should set you on course to more king salmon.
I didn’t leave space to talk about the herring themselves. I’ll leave you with one insight: cutplug herring.
We were fishing whole herring a week ago and missing strikes like crazy from kings hitting the tails right behind the trailing hook. The few we managed to hook and see before losing were just barely hooked.
I love using whole herring, but by switching to cutplug herring I was able to dangle the point of the trailing hook about half an inch behind the tail. In the two trips since I switched we’ve landed 12 kings and lost none while missing only two strikes.
Cutplug herring is not the only answer for king fishing, but it’s a very useful arrow in your quiver of king salmon tactics when you’re missing strikes. Go to http://www.salmonuniversity.com/ol_htrh_pc1_index.html for instructions on how to do it.
After 40 years of enjoying Kodiak and over 20 years writing the Outdoor Kodiak column, Hank Pennington still can't get enough. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.