The Perfect Plug

For chinook anglers, the time-tested banana-style lure has proved its worth over and over again. That's why virtually every salmon angler's tackle box contains Kwikfish and Flatfish.

By Doug Rose

If a dedicated spring chinook angler had the time to drive on U. S. 101 and I-5 north from California to the tip of Washington, they would discover that each region's anglers have localized ways of targeting early-returning salmon. Anglers display variations on everything from watercraft to attire to the way salmon are cooked, and certain baits and lures are favored on different rivers.

However, one thread connects passionate springer fishermen from the Sacramento River to the Cowlitz - the use of wobbling, banana-shaped plugs.

Anglers who have fished throughout the country know that these plugs, which float on the surface but dive steeply and wobble enticingly when trolled or retrieved, are productive on a variety of game fish. Just as they take largemouth bass in Michigan, northern pike in Minnesota, walleyes in Wisconsin and rainbow trout in Colorado, so too are they effective on chinook salmon.

"The Flatfish was designed in the early 1930s in Detroit," said Rob Phillips, spokesman with the Yakima Bait Company, the current manufacturer of the lure. "It was originally designed for bass." Phillips isn't sure when West Coast anglers began using them for salmon. "But I know they were fishing them as early as the 1950s."

Over the last half century, the Flatfish and Kwikfish, a Luhr Jensen product, have become inextricably associated with salmon, especially the choice, early-timed, succulent spring chinook.

"We acquired Kwikfish in 1989," said Luhr Jensen spokesmen, Dave Tonn, "but they've been using them for chinook forever."

Photo by Dave Vedder

According to most accounts, California's Sacramento River was the site where banana plugs were first fished for spring chinook. The plugs were originally fished as they came out of the box, but during the 1960s anglers discovered that adding a strip of baitfish to the belly of the lure made it even more productive. Bait wraps, as they came to be known, were perfected and popularized by Clancy Holt, one of the West Coast's legendary river guides, and today most anglers troll the plugs with a strip of sardine, anchovy or herring meat lashed to its underbelly.

Indeed, Flatfish and Kwikfish have become so established as integral to chinook salmon angling that the manufacturers now publish detailed instructions on how to rig and fish bait-wrapped plugs on their Web sites.

SPRINGERS LOVE WOBBLERS
The fact that banana-shaped plugs take such a variety of game fish suggests there is something universal in their appeal. It is impossible to know with certainty what features are responsible for their success, but it is likely that the side-to-side, rhythmic wobble is critical.

All fish use their lateral lines - the dark, horizontal stripe down the side of a fish - to sense objects in the water much like we hear sounds. A slowly pulled plug sets up a detectable pulse in the water that the fish hone in on. As with wobbling spoons and spinnerbaits, this sound is more like a vibration to the fish and is often the first thing that attracts a fish's attention. Once the salmon investigates, the seductive flutter of a Flatfish or Kwikfish probably triggers the fish into attacking it.

"If I knew what made them work I would be a millionaire," explained Tonn. "But it's got to be the action. The design just trips their trigger."

Phillips agrees. "There's just something about that wide wiggle and action," he said. "But I think more than anything, these plugs just tick the salmon off."

Although they were not originally designed for salmon, the physical properties of banana plugs are ideal for attracting spring chinook. For one, springers, as with all aggressive predatory salmonids, key in on wounded fish, and the plug's action clearly represents an injured baitfish struggling in the water column. Moreover, the soft to moderate flows where Kwikfish and Flatfish are most effective tend to be the same type of water that large spring chinook often hold in on their upstream migrations.

Of all the lures manufactured for salmon, banana plugs are also the most versatile in the manner in which they can be fished. The majority of anglers work them from boats, but shore-bound anglers also regularly take chinook by plunking from gravel bars or by wading and casting. Moreover, there are several different techniques of fishing plugs from a boat.

Back-trolling consists of slowly fishing a plug downstream through salmon holding water, while back-bouncing uses more weight to search the deeper holes where spring chinook often congregate. Instead of lead weights, some anglers employ Jet Divers to pull their lure down into the productive depths.

GEARING UP!


Most spring chinook anglers prefer relatively heavy tackle to fish wobbling plugs.

 

Standard rods are 7 1/2 to 9 feet long and feature a relatively soft tip that tapers quickly into a stiff butt section. A flexible tip telegraphs the plug's action, while the power end lets you drive hooks even with the dampening weight of a diver or lead.

 

Virtually all plug anglers use traditional levelwind bait-casting reels that are beefy enough to handle the terminal tackle, heavy water and one of the strongest fish in fresh water.

 

Depending upon the size of the water and the average size of the fish, main lines can range from 30- to 50-pound monofilament or 60-pound braid or high-tech lines. Leaders between 15 and 40 pounds are popular.

 

Finally, maintenance of hooks is critical. They should be sticky sharp at the day's beginning, and it's smart to touch them up as the day progresses. -- Doug Rose

 

COLORS & SIZES
The major manufacturers currently market literally dozens of models of banana plugs. They range in size from small frog finish lures that can be cast on a fly rod to enormous silver monstrosities designed for tarpon fishing. However, spring chinook are usually only native to the largest river systems, and they typically don't range quite as large as summer and fall kings, typically in the 10- to 20-pound range. As a result, anglers can usually get by with a relatively small selection of plugs, and the same plugs can usually be fished effectively all up and down the West Coast.

"We even find that the same plugs work on the rivers that drain into the Great Lakes," Phillips said.

According to Phillips, the T4, M2 and U20 Flatfish are the most popular Yakima patterns for spring chinook, although the U20 may be on the small side in some areas. As a rule, bright fluorescent finishes tend to be effective on dark days, while softer colors are usually more productive under a bright sun. "Fluorescent red is popular," Phillips said. "So are the chrome finishes and the ones with fire tails." These models are effective trolled behind divers or bounced along the bottom with lead. The T-50 is the deepest-diving Flatfish, and is capable of probing the depths without added weight of diver.

The K13 is one of the most popular Kwikfish for spring chinook, and Luhr Jensen recently offered it in a new configuration. "We have a new side-by-side molding process," Tonn said. "It can dive deep without a diver and you don't need to tune it. They have been an absolute total success."

The K14 and K15 Kwikfish are larger and common on bigger systems, and they are often used with bait wraps. The most common combinations are multi-colored Hot Tail plugs in silver/green chartreuse, silver/purple cerise, silver/fire and gold/fire. "We also introduced a new Dill Pickle finish that is a glow green," he said. "It has been very good early in the morning or late in the day."

RIGGING & PRESENTATION
Back-trolling is one of the most popular and effective methods of fishing a wobbler. It consists of positioning your boat above the suspected lie and free-spooling the plug downstream. Once the plug begins to work against the current, the angler uses oars or the motor to back down through the holding water.

When the fish are in water less than 10 feet deep, flat-lining is the easiest and least cumbersome approach, because it allows you to fish the plug without additional weight. The amount of line you release downstream depends on the current's speed and depth. Plugs tend to fish higher in the water column in soft currents and when less than 30 feet of line are out. When you need to fish deeper, up to 50 feet of line may be necessary, and the plugs also dive deeper in heavier currents.

Adding a Jet Diver to your line will allow you to probe deeper water without additional weight. It is fished similarly to back-trolling, but the planing action of the diver pulls the plug down as deep as 20 feet. The diver is attached to the main line with an 8- to 12-inch dropper line with a 1/0 barrel swivel. The plug rides above the diver, usually at the end of a 4- to 5-foot leader to which four 6mm beads are secured.

When the fish are holding in even deeper water, back-bouncing becomes an effective presentation. Back-bouncing is usually done with bait, but plugs can also be productive. The terminal rig is similar to that used when fishing a Jet Diver, but a 1- to 8-ounce round sinker is secured to the swivel on a 12-inch, 15-pound lead dropper. "You can either anchor or slowly troll," Phillips said. "You let the weight hit the bottom and sort of walk it downstream. It's slower. With back-bouncing you have your lure right down near the bottom." It is necessary to experiment to determine the right amount of lead to allow the plug to hover six to 12 inches off the bottom.

Regardless of the technique, it is usually a good idea to let the salmon tug at the plug for a while before setting the hook. Indeed, both manufacturers suggest waiting until the rod tip dips several times before slamming the hooks home.

TUNING YOUR PLUG


While most Kwikfish and Flatfish have the appropriate side-to-side wobble out of the box, a prolonged fight with a big fish or some other strain on a lure may cause it to veer to the right or left. Fortunately, it can be fixed.

 

First, determine the direction the plug is pulling, right or left, then use needle-nosed pliers to twist the eyelet on the end of the plug in the direction you wish it to go. If the plug dives to the left, twist the screw to the right. If the plug veers to the right, turn the eyelet to the left.

 

Now test the plug. It should dive in a straight line and wobble rhythmically.

 

A bait wrap can also cause a plug to work erratically when one side is thicker (and consequently heavier), resulting in an unbalanced action. To correct this, trim the bait so both sides match. -- Doug Rose

 

BAIT WRAPPING
The most effective thing a springer fishermen can do to increase their odds is to wrap it with a slice of sardine, anchovy or herring. Bait wraps, as noted above, were first developed on the Sacramento River in the 1960s. Over the intervening decades, however, the technique has worked its way up the rungs of rivers to the north.

Whatever bait an angler uses, it is important to only use fresh baitfish. Many guides will not use an individual bait for more than an hour or so, believing they lose their scent-producing qualities after that. In addition to the their scent, bait wraps also slow the wobble of these plugs, which seems to appeal to salmon.

The first step in creating a bait wrap is to remove its sides and trim it into a rectangle that will fit on the belly of the plug. Under most circumstances, the filet should be about three-fourths the width of the plug and roughly one-half its length.

Many anglers prefer to work with cold, even partially frozen, baits, because they are firmer. Sharp scissors allow more accurate cuts than most knives, and they also facilitate the slit on the bait to accommodate the belly eyelet. Removing the hooks facilitates seating the bait over the body eyelet.

The skin side of the bait lays against the belly of the plug. Var

ious types of threads are used to wrap the bait, including 2-pound monofilament, elastic nylon sewing thread or Luhr Jensen's Kwikfish Stretchy Thread. Usually 20 or 30 wraps will secure the fish to the plug; tie them off on the end with half hitches.

Bait wraps are usually only effective on the larger plugs - K14, K15 and K16 Kwikfish and M2, T50 and T55 Flatfish. The K12 or K13 Kwikfish and U20 and T4 Flatfish can be enhanced with liberal doses of pasty scent, such as Berkley's Power Jelly or Pautske's Krill Gel.

PLUNKING & CASTING
It is more difficult to take a spring chinook from shore or wading than in a boat. Unlike trout and steelhead, which tend to hold in a wide variety of habitat niches and distribute themselves widely throughout a river system, chinook are usually only found in deeper holes and slots. This makes it hard for a non-boating angler to achieve the correct angle of presentation or to reach productive water.

However, an angler willing to prospect can usually locate a pool or two that can be fished effectively from the bank or wading, and Flatfish and Kwikfish are two of the best lures to try it.

There is a deep pool on one of my favorite rivers, for example, where I have taken several chinook over the years from the bank. It is typical springer water, with a deep-green, moderately heavy current. The river above the pool is a waist-deep riffle punctuated with large boulders. The pool itself is vaguely comma-shaped and is situated on a dogleg of the river. This makes it possible to stand on a logjam that has formed on the upstream side of the pool and cast directly down into the holding water. Once you hook a fish, you can hop off the snags and fight it from the gravel bar downstream.

Most shore-bound anglers simply cast their lure downstream, tighten the line to set the plug into action, and then work it in an arc across the likely salmon-holding water. However, some salmon fishermen plunk.

"That works well in some places," Phillips said. "But the current has to be right. It can't be too fast or too soft."

Some plunkers fish terminal rigs similar to those used by trollers, except the dropper lines are longer, typically between 18 and 30 inches. Others favor more traditional plunking arrangements, with a Flatfish or Kwikfish on an upper dropper and bait on a shorter leader beneath it. Slightly smaller plugs are often productive when plunking, especially when the water is low and without much color.



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