When to Mooch & When to Troll

Salmon anglers have two basic fishing techniques -- trolling and drift mooching. Sometimes both will catch fish, but other times one is definitely better.

On the troll for salmon. Photo by Ray Rychnovsky

By Ray Rychnovsky

Drift-mooching was the hot salmon fishing method about 15 years ago. Anglers could make great catches using the drift-mooching technique when conditions were right, and they still do today. But what about when the conditions aren't right? That's when those who troll tend to catch more salmon.

Each of these fishing methods has its time and place, a fact recognized by savvy party boat skippers and other anglers who drift-mooch when the drift-mooching is good but quickly switch back to trolling as their default salmon fishing method.

And so it begs the questions: When should I mooch? When should I troll? Once you learn which technique to use to match conditions, you'll maximize your salmon-catching potential.

Both drift-mooching and trolling are simple fishing methods in which you use anchovy, herring, candlefish or whatever the prevalent baitfish is at the time. Anglers off California usually use whole bait, while off Washington and Oregon they often fish with plug-cut herring that slowly twirls as it moves through the water. Some anglers use lures, such as hoochies or Needlefish, with flashers.

You troll for chinook salmon in saltwater at about 1.5 mph (a little faster for silvers or coho salmon) using a weight or downrigger to take your bait or lure to depth. On party boats you usually use heavy 2- to 3-pound weights on sinker releases. These take your bait almost straight down, minimizing crossed lines and tangles.

The weight releases when a fish pulls hard on the bait, and you play your fish without that encumbrance. On private boats, anglers fishing with only a few lines and little threat of tangles can fish with lighter weights or use downriggers.

Drift-mooching is simply drifting with the current and wind. The boat is moving slowly, so weights of only 6 to 8 ounces are required to pull your line almost straight down.


Trolling from your own seaworthy craft is always a good choice. Private boats typically hold about four people, which limits the number of rods in the water compared to party boats, but you can still cover various depths to find salmon.

By using downriggers or sinkers of differing weights on sinker releases, keeping lines separated is easy. Use the heaviest weights on forward rods, whose lines should go almost straight down. Use lighter weights aft so that the lines trail behind the boat.

Because the boat's forward motion sweeps fishing lines backward, lines enter the water at an angle, giving the impression that the weight is being swept back and up. But the line actually curves at a steeper angle underwater, and you are fishing deeper than it appears. My book, The Troller's Handbook (www.amatobooks.com), contains charts to help determine trolling depths. -- Ray Rychnovsky


In California, drift-moochers could hook almost every fish that bit before barbless J-hooks were banned for this type of fishing. Biological studies showed that about half the salmon released from these hooks died. The same study showed that mortality was low when salmon were hooked and released with a barbless circle hook. Now only barbless circle hooks are permitted when drift-fishing for salmon off California's coast.

For drift-mooching, push a long bait-threader needle through the eye socket of the bait and thread it along the backbone to the tail. Use a 6-foot, 15- to 25-pound leader with a loop at the end. Catch the loop in the open eye of the needle and pull the entire leader through the bait until the circle hook is snug against the eye socket. Flip a half hitch around the bait's tail. Your line should have a 6- to 8-ounce egg sinker and a clip at its end to snap to the leader and lower the bait to the desired depth.

A typical trolling setup uses a sinker release between your line and leader. You have several choices for your rigging, but I like a bait harness hook that goes through the bait with the point of the hook just below the bait at the anal fin. This hook has two "eyes" - the aft one for a clip to hold the bait in position and its mouth shut, and the forward one to clip to your leader.

Snap the desired cannonball weight to your sinker release, and you are ready to fish. If you are fishing from a private boat where you have few tangles, I like a small herring dodger in front of the bait, keeping the leaders short as instructed on the dodger's package.



The depth of the salmon is one of the most important factors in deciding what fishing technique to use. If fish are extremely deep, say 100 to 200 feet down, drift-mooching is the best way to get down to them. In locations where fish are holding in the top 50 feet or so of water, trolling can reach those depths with ease, and anglers can cover a wide range of water faster than moochers can do it.

If fish are scattered, trolling covers a lot of area and catches more salmon. Early in the season, when baitfish are scarce, salmon eat krill and other small foods. They don't seem to take drifting bait but will hit trolled bait. Anchovies, herring and sardines are plentiful by July, and salmon feeding on these baitfish are susceptible to drift-mooching.

Retired party boat skipper Steve Bales had a general rule that he trolled until the 4th of July and then switched to mooching. Of course, each year the date might need some adjustment, based on when the baitfish show up.

I usually like to fish from a party boat with a light load. With fewer people, I can follow my fish and have few tangled lines. However, that isn't best for mooching. "Everyone catches more fish if we have a moderate load of anglers," said Harry Garabedian, skipper of the New Salmon Queen out of Emeryville, Calif. "Salmon don't bite well when only a few baits are drifting in the water. More baits must trigger a feeding instinct and they bite better."

The skipper on a party boat decides if anglers on board will troll or drift-mooch. Make a reservation on the boat where the skipper fishes your preferred method. Anglers on private boats and six-pack boats usually make good catches trolling (see sidebar).

Anglers can use light tackle when drift-mooching but must use heavy gear to handle heavy trolling weights on a party boat. If dropping heavy weights bugs you, and you want to use a light rod, lean toward drift-mooching. Some anglers won't fish with heavy tackle, so they wait until boats are drift-mooching or go to areas where they drift-mooch to fish.



You have to unlearn basic fishing instincts with circle hooks.

First, do not set the hook. You must be patient and let the salmon take the bait.

Party boat crewmember Craig Shimukusu suggests that you reel slowly if the fish seems to be nibbling but not taking your bait. Perhaps the fish thinks its meal is getting away and attacks the fleeing prey. Keep reeling slowly until the rod is fully loaded, the fish is turned and line is coming off your reel, then gently lift your rod and play your fish.

* * *

In a nutshell, when salmon are shallow, salmon are feeding on krill, fish are scattered or when fishing with only a few anglers, trolling may be your best method for catching salmon. When fish are deep, in schools, feeding on baitfish and you are fishing from a party boat, mooching may be the best way to go. If you are spooked by barbless circle hooks and not certain which method to use, lean toward trolling. If fishing with light tackle is important, mooch or fish off downriggers.

(Editor's Note: Ray Rychnovsky is the author of four books, including The Troller's Handbook and the newly published Sacramento Valley Fishing Paradise. You can order his books through Frank Amato Publishing, at www.amatobooks.com or at 800-541-9498.)

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