Lock-jawed kings can hold up on the bottom in deep frog water, and refuse every offer pulled across their noses.
Photo by Terry W. Sheely.
Typically, frog-water salmon are a bad but all-too-common scenario.
Unless you’re resourceful river guide Jerry Brown. Specializing in salmon and steelhead, Brown runs into his share of frog-water skulkers, but he’s found a technique that will predictably provoke enough of those monstrous jaws into opening for his thin-wire 2/0 hook for his clients to have a good day on bad water.
He calls it “hover fishing,” a name that accurately describes the technique of boat-fishermen “hovering” over deep pools above skulking kings (and coho and every so often a steelhead, too) while presenting a scent-oozing golf-ball sized clump of dyed salmon eggs sweetened with sardine smack into the faces of these lurking giants. Even the most insolent chinook can tolerate only so much of this temptation before opening up and crunching the succulent annoyance.
“Patience,” Brown emphasizes, “Patience is the key.”
That, a strong battery and the right terminal rig.
Springers are the most coveted of the fall, summer and spring chinook cousins, but like all big fish, they prefer the easy route to their spawning destiny; a route that leads away from strong currents, through deep sullen runs and slack-water pools — two of the most frustrating and difficult places to fish with typical river techniques.
Hover fishing, though, is anything but typical.
It’s a technique that steals small bits from long-proven salmon techniques like back-bouncing, float-jigging, plunking and drifting and blends those parts into one rig specifically created to unlock lock-jawed kings in impossibly difficult slack-water situations.
It’s so successful that hover fishing is now a standard rig in the bag of tricks that Brown and other salmon guides depend on for producing chinook in the lower Lewis, Cowlitz, Willamette and other Washington-Oregon king salmon rivers with the requisite water conditions.
It works best in so-called “holding water,” where the bottom is a minimum of 10 feet deep, and the current is so slow that it’s negligible. “Slow, slow water,” Brown explains, “this is where you’ll find big schools of springers staging up, holding before moving on upriver. These are the salmon that are notoriously toughest to get to bite, and it’s perfect water for hover fishing.”
Line control is critical to the presentation, and Brown favors bait-casting reels that allow him to position and hold his baits at exactly the right depth, which is just 2 to 4 inches off the bottom — eye level with skulking chinook.
The tackle he’s put together for this technique is built around a medium-action steelhead rod, and a conventional bait-casting reel loaded with 25-pound-test mainline. A barrel swivel is attached to the end of the line, below an Easy Slider. A 10-inch-long dropper is knotted to the terminal swivel and tied into the appropriate size lead ball weight.
To the Easy Slider, Brown knots on from 4 to 6 feet of 10- to 12-pound-test monofilament leader. “These are big fish, which tempts some guys to use heavy 30-pound leaders,” Brown says, “but that’s a mistake, I think. Because the heavier leader has a thicker diameter, it tends to catch more current and will pull, or kite, the baits up out of the strike zone. Twelve-pound-test is plenty strong enough to handle a springer, especially when you have a boat to chase it. Because the line diameter is half the size of the heavy leader, it doesn’t kite out of the strike zone.”
To the 4 feet of leader, Brown attaches a 2/0 Owner’s or Vision ultra-thin wire hook. The thin wire penetrates easily into the jaw of a lazy king while it’s holding in position, crunch-munching the bait, requiring little if any hook-setting rod action.
The egg loop in the hook is packed with a super-sized cluster of salmon eggs. “Typically, when hover fishing, I use golf-ball-sized clusters, but sometimes I’ll have to give them a bunch of bait — something that resembles a tennis ball,” Brown notes.
He sweetens the bait with natural and artificial scents and “because you never know what flavor they want today,” he carries an array of artificial scents that can range from shrimp to night crawlers, anise to blueberry.
For a pièce de résistance, Brown adds meat to his hookups. “Red label herring, right out of the package, or for springers, small anchovies. I also use chunks of sardine or tuna out of the can and bacon.”
Bacon and eggs!
“Seriously,” the guide says without a wink, “I’ve used salmon eggs with a wad of bacon before, and it works. You just need something that milks oils and scent into the water. Stick a little greasy bacon on with your salmon eggs and you’ll see,” Brown says. “It works.”
The bacon and egg or one of Brown’s other tasty but oily combination entrées is free-spooled to the bottom, retrieved exactly two cranks of the reel handle and then ignored. “Guys who pay attention usually set the hook too quickly,” Brown explains. “You got to let these fish take it, and take it, and take it.”
“Everything about hovering is patience, and then more patience,” he cautions.
With the bait suspended eyeball level to the belly-down salmon school, the boat is held in position in the near-dead water directly above the bait with the help of an electric motor.
“If your bait is drifting downstream faster than the boat, it’s wrong. That means it’s drifting above the fish instead of hitting them in the face. Remember, salmon holed up in deep pools won’t chase bait. They need it to be right on their noses. Add more weight until your bait hangs straight down and it should only move downstream when the boat moves,” Brown tells me.
The productive downstream movement is painfully slow, the salmon guide emphasizes. The bait needs to dangle and ooze in front of a salmon for as long as it takes to provoke a strike. For an example, Brown points to the Lewis River, “at Johnson Flat which is oh, 40 yards long or so, it takes m
e 30 minutes to fish it down,” Brown points out.
“I go through a lot of egg bait when hover fishing,” he notes. “Even ball-size gobs of salmon eggs tend to milk out fairly fast, and it’s critical to be using fresh bait that’s always milking. The scent is important.
“The hardest part of hover fishing is getting guys to not set the hook,” says Brown, who sees a lot of anglers and attitudes from his vantage point at J&L Guide Service (www.columbia-river-fishing-guide.com). “For this to work, the fisherman has to do exactly what he’s told. Guys who think they know better than the guide won’t be successful at hover fishing,” Brown noted.
When big chinook eat Brown’s big baits, they chew them, spit ‘em out, suck ‘em in, spit ‘em out. They play with the bait more than attack it. There are no big, rod-torturing, reel-screaming heavy strikes when hover fishing — the salmon just suck in the baits, and lie on the bottom chewing. Strike before the hook slides in and nothing good ever happens.
“It takes a while for springers to get that big ball of bait in their mouth,” the guide explains, adding, “If you pop the hookset and bring up a chewed bunch of eggs, it means you’re setting the hook too early. Wait. Take your time. Let the fish chew up the eggs, and when the rod loads up, the thin hook has usually already gone in.
“Patience, again patience. Let them chew,” Brown says. “When the line tightens and doesn’t slack off, just reel down on him. He probably doesn’t even know he’s hooked. When he finds out, that’s when it gets interesting,” Brown laughs.
Because there’s no casting involved, hovering is a comfortable technique for anglers physically unable to stand and cast all day. It’s also a great way for beginners to hook into big spring chinook, and it’s the only way to catch the uncatchables — those lock-jawed kings skulking belly down on the bottom in deep frog water.