When it comes to table fare, few species compare to spring Chinook salmon caught from the Willamette and Columbia River systems. Their meat has a rich, buttery flavor and is packed with beneficial oils and nutrients. Nothing says springtime in the Pacific Northwest like springer salmon fresh off the grill served with a side of asparagus spears.
For many anglers, the spring salmon season is an emergence from hibernation. I start with rituals such as greasing up reels, tying dozens of my own leaders, and giving key components of my rigs a nice warm bath. Attention to detail has paid serious dividends for me in the past so it is important to inspect each knot as if it will be responsible for delivering a $200 fish into the kayak. Prep work for me also involves digging up my notes or browsing through reports from previous seasons. I start keeping a closer eye on the temperature and clarity of the rivers, as well as weather patterns that are passing through.
Most of my time on the water chasing these tasty buggers is spent trolling herring. The rig starts with two size 3/0 octopus hooks. It may seem obvious, but sharp hooks are important. In my experience, many hooks pulled straight out of the package are not as sharp as they need to be. Hooks used for salmon fishing need to be sticky sharp. When I troll for these fish, I rely on the fish to hook itself as opposed to applying a hookset. Also, given our local fishing regulations, I make sure to remove the barb from my hooks.
I use an egg loop snell to tie the hooks onto my green, 25-pound test leader material and the total length ends up at around 54 inches with a gap between the top and bottom hook of roughly four inches. I typically add a plastic helmet to my leaders that is designed to give the herring a nice tight spin and I finish it off with a snap on the other end of every leader so I can quickly swap them out if needed. Making all of the components of my rig modular with snaps allows me to maximize the time my bait is in the zone and minimize the time I spend re-rigging.
After I add a trolling flasher and bumper section, which keeps the flasher away from the mainline to avoid tangles, I end up with a total leader length of about six feet. While this is a pretty long setup to deal with from a kayak, I get away with it by using a 10-foot, 6-inch rod. With an 8- to 9-foot rod, a leader length in the 40-inch range would be much easier to manage. In addition to affording me more control of the fight with a fish, this longer rod gradually blends a very soft tip with a stout backbone, providing a deadly combination that makes it easy for the fish to hook itself, but also gives me plenty of power to turn the head of a strong fish.
I keep this whole setup close to the bottom of the river using a sliding lead cannonball weight that ranges between 4 and 10 ounces, depending on the speed of the river. Occasionally, I will attempt to lure fish that are hanging out somewhere in the middle of the water column. Although it is uncommon, I have put fish into the kayak that I first saw on my sonar screen half-way off the bottom so keeping an eye on the sonar can pay off. Plenty of bites have also come while I have been reeling in or dropping down. A sudden change in direction of the bait is sometimes all it takes to force a salmon to make a decision and grab it. Using a Hobie® kayak makes trolling for these fish a breeze since I can keep my rod in my hands to make quick adjustments to my depth and feel even the slightest nibble from a tempted fish.
Spring Chinook salmon can be found in the rivers as early as late January but I typically start my chase around early March. While the bite tends to slow as the rivers swell and slow down from the spring runoff in May, skilled anglers can catch salmon well into June. Get those hooks sharp now because the big ones show up early!
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