Salmon At Sea

Take the guesswork out of finding big schools of chinook outside the Golden Gate. Here's one expert's take on catching the kings of the coast. (May 2007)

Capt. Greg Squires caught these nice chinook off the North Coast. This time of year, salmon will likely be between 30 and 50 feet deep and shallower early in the morning. Trolling baits and lures is a good way to locate schools.
Photo by Chris Shaffer.

In 2006, many salmon anglers, salmon guides and commercial anglers took time off work to fight a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to close the entire ocean salmon season outside the Golden Gate.

Dozens of protests and thousands of letters later, anglers were permitted to chase salmon in the salt -- under tighter restrictions.

It's still unclear if recreation fishermen will have another battle this year with the Feds and environmentalists. Time will tell. We do know there will be salmon to chase in the ocean this year.

Nevertheless, most anglers are cautious with predictions about how many will be there.

In 2005, the Fish and Wildlife Service predicted an enormous run of 1.6 million fish -- a run that never played out.

In 2006, another bold run of 1.5 million fish was expected. (This is because commercial fishermen took nearly a half-million fish from the normal allotment.) Still, 2006 was anywhere from fair to fair.

So we come to the million-dollar question. Will 2007 be our third big disappointment? Or will the salmon make a comeback?

"I think 2007 is going to write history when the season opens," said veteran six-pack guide Capt. Greg Squires, of Access to Angling Outfitters.

"Anyone who wants to try to predict the ocean season at this point, based on the poor river returns, is an idiot. I don't want to go out on a limb about it. I don't think anyone does."

Squires said that to hazard a guess at the river in 2007, we have to go back to 2003 and 2004.

Those years were below average as far as numbers go. California had decent runs of fish in September 2003 and in 2004.

But it wasn't good in August and October as it normally would be. We had a heyday of three weeks, and that was it.

"That's when the salmon fishing in the Sacramento River started to decline," said the skipper.

In 2006, ocean salmon fishing was way below average, Squires said.

"Last year, we had much warmer water in the Bay and outside the Golden Gate near the shore," he said.

"The temperatures were way up from where they normally are."

That pushed bait way offshore. To catch fish, captains had to go farther out and farther north. The fish were looking for cooler water where the zooplankton, the krill, anchovies and sardines are, Squires said.

"The commercial guys were fishing in 1,500 feet of water, fishing 300 feet down and catching salmon at a time when we should have been fishing in 300 feet of water and catching fish in 50 feet of water."

As for the size of this year's run, only educated guesses can be made at this time -- as always.

Nonetheless, at the worst, a below-average run will occur. No one is predicting a banner run.

"Based on what we saw in the river three and four years ago, I think we had a decent escapement," said Squires.

"Not a great one, but a decent one, which would equate to at least a sustainable population in the ocean."

Unlike the river, which holds mostly three- and four-year-old fish, the ocean is made up of four years of size-classes, all mixed together. It's rare to catch first-year fish. However, second-year fish -- known as shakers -- tend to run 18 to 22 inches.

Third-year fish typically run 10 to 15 pounds. Four-year salmon historically run 20 to 30 pounds, depending on feed in the ocean.

"There's the potential for larger-than-average-size salmon this year in the ocean," said Squires.

"I believe some of the salmon stayed in the ocean and didn't go up the river in 2006, which means those fish could have put on a lot of extra weight."

When you're getting geared up, don't fret over the closure threat that loomed last year. Those were intended to protect Klamath River salmon. The runs that swim under the Golden Gate and head up into the Feather, Yuba, American, Merced, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Mokelumne and Sacramento rivers are in good shape.

Late-winter storms can keep salmon anglers grounded and inside the Golden Gate. But in mid-May, weather patterns stabilize and water conditions improve.

The good news is that in late May and early June, anglers can find salmon north and south of the Golden Gate. To find those salmon, you'll have to find the bait first.

It's a challenge to predict where they'll be in May because they move around in search of bait. And there's normally lots of bait available.

Here are a few areas that can be productive this time of year:

'¢ South to southwest of the Farallon Islands

'¢ Duxbury Reef

'¢ Point Reyes is also a possibility for good fishing.

Keep in mind that the depths will vary. The salmon will likely be found between 30 and 50 feet deep. Most salmon tend to be shallower early in the morning. Some boats will mooch, but trolling is best.

ROLL TO

LOCATE SALMON

By late June, upwelling will be taking place, and there will be concentrations of bait close to shore. Early in the season, the easiest way to locate schools of salmon is to put lines in the water and troll.

Trolling is always best unless you are marking large concentrations of bait, or if you can locate a group of boats that have already found the bait -- and the fish.

Trolling allows you to cover ground to find the bait. Trolling lets you fish while you scout, and that maximizes your time on the water.

When trolling early in the season, several lures and baits can be effective. Because of rod restrictions, what you choose to troll will likely correlate to the number of anglers on your boat.

On a six-pack boat, you'll be able to fish five rods. In this case, Squires sets up two with bait, one with straight bait and two with lures.

When targeting salmon outside the Golden Gate, a 6-inch Apex and 1/2-ounce Krocodile can be found tied to nearly every line.

Colors are important. You've got to match the hatch. If you have anchovies in the water, you want to use something blue. If you have herring or squid, you're going to want to use something green or white. And if you have krill in the water, you can't go wrong with pink and reds.

As for your bait rigs, if you can run five rods, three should be used for bait. Set one with a Rotary Salmon Killer (RSK), another with a Franco Bullet Rotator (FBR) and one with straight anchovies, sardines or herring. Keep in mind that you're trying to match the hatch.

The difference between those two lures, Squires said, is that an RSK spins differently than an FBR. An RSK more or less swings the tail of the bait in a circle. The FBR spins faster and on a tighter axis. Either one mimics the natural action of a wounded baitfish.

WHEN TO MOOCH

Mooching can be effective at times during the early season. However, most anglers won't mooch unless a tremendous amount of bait is being worked up. Sardines proved to be a hot mooching-bait season.

"Last year, a lot of captains kept it a secret, but if you could find No. 10 or 11 count sardines, that was the ticket when you are trolling," Squires said. "It could have something to do with the sardine's oil lasting longer on your bait, because the sardines last a lot longer on your bait than anchovies do."

Over the last two years, marinating baits has helped Squires and many other anglers increase their catch rates.

"The first thing I do in the morning is dump a whole bottle of the Liquid Krill in the tray, so it helps marinate better. My thought process is that it actually soaks the scent into the bait. All I'm trying to do is solicit a strike from a fish, and if that fish smells not one but two scents, you are in good shape," Squires said.

"A lot of people think that two scents confuse the fish. But come on, a fish isn't that smart. All they know is how to eat and how to spawn."

There are times when fish do want just one single scent, and anything else might be a deterrent. But more often than not, the added scent helps.

Scent in the ocean is vital for more than just cut baits. In fact, many believe it's more important when lure-fishing.

"Lures in and of themselves are strictly attractors. Once the fish locate the attractor, you want to have some scents in the water to get them to feed. And because krill is so plentiful out there, the Gel Krill paste is a marriage made in the water," Squires added.

With baits now in hand, deciding where to fish is next on your to-do list. Many factors contribute to where salmon can be found. They are often on the move, following bait.

One of the best ways to keep track of pods of salmon is to subscribe to an online fishing report -- or call harbors, guides or tackle shops and ask them.

You can also use Mother Nature to help you find salmon. Eyeing whales and birds is important because they are feeding in the same areas as salmon.

Whales feed on krill, anchovies and sardines. And if you can find feeding pelicans, you can bet there are schools of salmon underneath them.

In the early season, you typically fish south of the Bay Area. Salmon are on the final end of the southern migration and feeding heavily in Monterey.

Finding fish may not be too challenging. Often there will be a congregation of boats trolling around them. In June, a lot of anglers will be fishing the waters between Monterey and the Farrallon Islands.

This is a large area to cover but historically, the fish have been found throughout this region. You'll want to be fishing in 30 to 50 fathoms of water. When targeting these depths, you'll be in areas where the feed is more plentiful. And consequently, you'll find more salmon.

"You'll be in 30 to 50 fathoms of water," Squires said. "But your lines will typically be between 50 and 100 feet. Sometimes you will find yourself going deeper. If you find fish near the bottom, you may have to drop down 150 feet."

In late June, going too far south might not be the answer. Many opt to head north to Duxbury Reef instead. By July, salmon will likely move closer to the shoreline. Trolling near shore, 60 to 70 feet down in 180 feet of water is common.

By the time July arrives, you'll start shifting more towards mooching. Given the ocean's normal upwelling, bait should start to concentrate near shore -- which opens up the door for mooching.

Key to mooching is the ability to cover the water properly. You have to have a GPS and know how to use the tracking capabilities. It is vital to obtain a proper drift. Squires said that you should always set up your first drift, be it right or wrong, and drift it.

Don't try to change it once you've started. The purpose of this drift is to establish a direction of the drift. Once this is done, you can position your boat over bait balls that you've marked with a GPS.

"You can use a quick point or a man-overboard waypoint on a GPS to establish your next drift," said Squires. "You'll use those quick points that marked bait balls to get a good drift."

"If you don't establish that bait line through the drift, you will not know where to set up your drift to drift through the bait. You'll be just another boat out there fishing."

Now, use that drift line as your benchmark and fish incrementally different drifts. Space them apart so you are covering water all around the bait.

The analogy is straightforward: To try and catch steelhead, you wouldn't go down to the river and stand in one place. You move throughout the hole and cover different areas.

In the ocean, the same principle applies. It's more effective to fish all around the bait ball, rather than in just one small area. Also, keep in mind that you are fishing currents, so bait will move with the current.

If you hit a line where you are picking up fish, go replicate that. Do the same drift they move along.

Standard mooching outside the Golden Gate occurs with a circle

hook, sliding sinker with a ball weight and anchovies, sardines or herring. The bait needs to be threaded with a bait threader. It should always be fished head-down.

Before you go mooching, pick up a packet of orthodontic rubber bands at your local drugstore. They can hold your hook close to the head, keep the bait from sliding around and, more importantly, keep the gill from flaring.

"For some unexplainable reason, if your bait -- be it anchovies or sardines -- are flaring up, the salmon won't bite it," Squires said. "I don't have any explanation for it, but it's true."

In August and September, boats needn't venture far outside the Golden Gate to catch salmon. Come August, you'll be fishing straight out from the Golden Gate where a lot of fish are staging to swim upriver.

In August, generally, the northern waters get really good. The main shipping channel outside the Golden Gate between buoys 1 and 3 is a mainstay.

For those boats that can run farther, fishing can be fantastic between Point Reyes and areas north. If you want to fish any farther, launch in Bodega Bay.

August and September are prime for mooching. If Mother Nature kicks up a late-summer storm, then the bait often scatters. If this occurs, you'll have to go back to trolling for a few days to find the fish again. Then once the bait regroups, you'll be able to go back to mooching. Always be prepared to do both regardless of the season.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Shaffer is the author of The Definitive Guide to Fishing Northern California. You can reach him at cshaffer@fishingcalifornia.net.

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