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Trolling Tactics for Fall Chinook

West Fishing Playbook: When, what and how to fish this popular salmon run.

Trolling Tactics for Fall Chinook

Now is the time to get after fall Chinook in the bays and river mouths of the Pacific Northwest. Here, the author is more than pleased with this hard-fighting, great-eating Chinook salmon taken on a trolled herring. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

In August, Pacific Northwest fishermen get serious about trolling for fall Chinook salmon that begin entering bays and river mouths—locations that make it possible for anglers to target them. While there are many good places to fish up and down the Pacific Coast, the timing and most effective setup to use are the same in every spot.


Ask any fall salmon angler what the best time is to troll for Chinook salmon entering rivers from the ocean and they’ll likely reply, "Any time you can fish." But ask a seasoned veteran and he’ll suggest fishing an incoming tide, through the slack and ensuing outgoing tide. Many anglers travel a long way to troll for fall salmon, so they usually fish all day long, sometimes for a week or more straight.

However, the biggest push of fish typically comes on the highest of incoming tides. The more water surging into a bay, the more salmon ride the wave against the river current, allowing them to more easily cover water en route to their spawning grounds. Conversely, outgoing tides create an ever-stronger current flow, causing salmon holding in the bay to move upstream to resting areas rather than be pushed back to sea.


Fall Chinook anglers are diehards who do not skimp on gear. I’ve been pursuing these fish for more than 40 years, and I prefer a G.Loomis 10-foot 6-inch SAR rod. These long rods offer separation when multiple anglers are in the boat—if one angler hooks up, he can often play the fish in such a way that his fellow anglers can keep their rods in the water. Fall Chinook travel in schools and multiple hookups are very common, so anything members of a fishing party can do to keep rods in the water will increase the bite.

Aug. West Playbook
The author and his buddy, Mike Perusse, who’ve have been fishing for fall Chinook together for more than a decade, are all smiles over this double taken on the Columbia River near famed Buoy 10. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

Chinook rods must also have another important characteristic for trolling bays and big rivers in heavy tides — they need to handle a lot of weight. The rod you use should be able to withstand trolling weights of 12 to 16 ounces, and sometimes up to 24 ounces on big tides.

Shimano’s Tekota 300- and 500-series reels are hard to beat, especially in heavy tide swings with a lot of moving water. These durable reels hold a lot of line, and their line counters allow everyone on board to keep track and maintain control of their terminal gear. Chinook salmon travel deep. They are almost always on the bottom while moving during incoming and outgoing tides. If you don’t have a line-counter reel, let out your line until the gear hits bottom, then bring it up one crank of the reel to avoid hang-ups.

As for the line, a 30-pound monofilament is simple to handle, doesn't easily tangle and offers stretch so hooks won’t straighten out when fighting big fish. Some anglers prefer the toughness of a braid, with 65-pound PowerPro being a popular choice.


If you’re trolling red-label herring, use 3/0 or 4/0 hooks; for larger green-label herring, employ a 5/0 hook. Two hooks are the norm, but tying leaders with three hooks, where legal, is better, especially in fisheries requiring the use of barbless hooks. Herring is the most common baitfish to troll, but anchovies and spinners are also very productive.

The terminal gear setup can be weighted with a cannon ball sinker or a weighted diver. In less than 20 feet of water, 6 to 8 ounces of lead will usually keep you on the bottom where the salmon are. The deeper you fish, the more weight you’ll have to use, so have some 12- and 16-ounce weights handy. Rigging sinkers on a slider setup reduces tangles and is easy to manage over a big, fixed wire spreader. Anglers using a weighted diver won’t need as much weight, as the diver’s design allows it to dive deep when trolled.

Aug. West Playbook
Cohos can be an added bonus to Chinook salmon this time of year, as the smiles of the author, his father Jerry (left) and good friend and guide, Austin Moser, reveal. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

Next comes the flasher. An 8-inch flasher is common for fall Chinook as well as cohos, with a Big Al’s Fish Flash being a favorite of many anglers due to its efficient design. Shortbus flashers are also popular in the Pacific Northwest. Tie on a 3- to 5-foot leader and you’re set. Bead-chain swivels are ideal for attaching gear, as they reduce line twist.

If you use a 360-degree flasher, like the 11-inch-long Pro-Troll, a 28-inch leader is plenty. Tip this with a VIP 3.5 custom spinner blade and an 8- to 16-ounce sinker (depending on water depth) and be ready, because salmon love this combination.

At the end of the day, be sure to wash down all your gear with fresh water, as salinity levels in bays and river mouths can quickly ruin gear. From the boat to the motor, reels to swivels, give everything a rinse and you’ll be ready to hit the water the next day.


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