In this article I will talk about Winter Chinook Salmon (known as Blackmouth to our friends to the south and also referred to commonly as ‘Feeder Springs’) and how to effectively target them with AP Sandlance Spoons using a bottom bouncing technique with a down rigger. Very successful results can be achieved along sandy/muddy or gravel bottoms from California up the West Coast of North America to Alaska and beyond.
In order to properly understand how to catch this species, you must understand some of the behaviours during this stage of their life cycle. Depending on where you are fishing on the coast, you will encounter Chinook from various river systems that ‘hold’ through the winter months to grow to maturity before moving on and back towards their place of birth to spawn.
Most areas will not contain fish that are destined to come back to their local areas to spawn, although they may be relatively close proximity. The local waters where I often fish in the winter months are the flat bottoms around Southern Vancouver Island in the Juan De Fuca and Haro Straits, namely the Victoria Waterfront, Oak Bay Flats, Constance Bank, and Esquimalt. A commonality of all of these spots is the abundant Pacific Sandlance populations and as a result the consistent pattern of winter Chinook arriving in the fall and staying around until the spring. Through this period they can often be found on the bottom gorging on Pacific sand lance and most of the fish are hatchery marked Chinook originating in the Puget Sound. Very often a Chinook that is caught will be stuffed with over 30 Pacific Sand Lance in their belly.
Since these fish are on the bottom aggressively feeding, it takes quite a different approach to fish them compared to fishing migratory Chinook that are traveling high in the water column. While you will still find migratory Chinook on the bottom feeding on sand lance in the summer, the depths that you will find them in the winter will tend to a bit deeper.
The depth will vary from region to region and year to year based on water temperatures and clarity, but a general rule of thumb is that in the winter the fish go deeper and in the summer they will be higher up in the water column. For the Juan De Fuca straight, Chinook will commonly feed on Pacific sand lance at around 65’-130’ in the summer months while in the winter months they will be found more commonly in 110’-180’. In the late winter to early spring the massive schools of herring will be moving through and that will often bring the Chinook off the bottom, so it is a wise move to run a line on the bottom along with one higher in the water column.
Another factor to consider is that although these feeding salmon are holding in a general area for an extended period of time, they will move around the area with each change of the tide/current direction. They move along with the current and concentrate in eddies found behind structures for two main purposes; the first is to conserve energy and the second is because bait will also concentrate in the slow moving water behind structures. The best fishing can often be found in eddies when the current is racing and the fish are finding calm water, or at the current change when the bait (in this case Pacific sand lance) can move around more freely. When looking at your charts, visualize which direction the current would be flowing and make guesses as to where the fish might be sitting behind banks, points and various contour changes.
Once you have chosen the area that you would like to fish, it is time to begin the risky art of ‘bottom bouncing’. This is a proven technique where the down rigger ball is dropped right to bottom (actually thumping on bottom) and then kept very close to the bottom. The closer you can keep the ball the better and it is advised to drop the ball every 10 minutes or so to insure that the gear is still close to bottom. At these depth the down rigger line will have a lot of ‘blow back’ and a great deal of line must be let out to reach bottom. The ‘blow back’ will also lift the gear up off bottom slightly. I often find that simply dropping the gear to bottom and then allowing the ‘blow back’ to lift the ball by a couple of feet will result in a good distance above the bottom. Many people will also use heavier down rigger balls for fishing deep, which will result in less ‘blow back’ and a more vertical line.
Since you are putting your valuable fishing gear close to bottom there is a risk of hanging up and potentially losing gear. These risks can be significantly mitigated in a few simple ways. The first is to know the bottom well were you are going to be fishing. Talk to other anglers to find out if there are any spots that regular hang up gear and avoid those areas. Another way to know the area is by studying and then strictly fishing your charts and trying not to change the depth too much. A successful technique is to choose a specific depth contour and follow that line along the structure that you are fishing, for example find the 140’ contour and keep an eye on both a depth finder and chart plotter to stay along that line. If you see any bumps on the fishing line, take the cautious approach and pull the down rigger up by a couple of feet; this will either pull the ball off the bottom and therefore avoid a potential hang-up or it will often set the hook and pop the down rigger clip if it was a fish. You can’t really go wrong by pulling up and it could save a lot of money in lost gear and the frustration that comes along with it. When fishing these deep waters it can be very helpful to use a braided line on your reel, which has much less stretch (if any) than a mono or fluorocarbon line and therefore it is much easier to see if there is a fish on the line.
Another way to reduce the risk of losing gear is to make sure that the connection to your down rigger ball is very secure and that there is no damage to the down rigger line, swivels etc. Anglers will often use a heavy duty braided line/cord for the last 6-10’ before the ball which is abrasion-resistant and therefore can handle the odd brush with the bottom. If you do hang up, having the heavy line will allow you to possibly get un-stuck. It helps in these situations to have the break on the down rigger slightly loose so that it will pull line out if stuck so that you can turn back on a spot and ideally have the gear come free. I really like the terminal kits from www.riteanglefishing.com that do just this and are made to also act as a down rigger stopper for electric down riggers.
Another factor that needs to be considered when fishing in the winter is the amount of light where the fish are. Once you are below 100’ of water, there is significantly less light and only certain colours and wavelengths will penetrate to those depths. This is a science in itself and for those very interested in how colour/light is effected under water, a great read is “What Fish See” Colin Kageyama. That said, the colours that penetrate the deepest and therefore make good choices in the winter are yellow, green and blue. Ultraviolet rays also penetrate deep and are very effective during the winter months. In my opinion, more important than your choice of colour will be lures and flashers with an element of glow in them, or as some like to say: ‘if it don’t glow, it don’t go’. When down deep, glowing objects will appear very bright and will effectively draw fish in.
While many people will fish with no flasher (to be discussed in another article) the most common method is to use a flasher followed by a lure. My personal preference for targeting these winter Chinook Salmon is to use a Peetz 7” flasher which gives plenty of action to attract fish in and also cuts through the water much easier than a typical 11” plastic or metal flasher, allowing for a more action-packed fight since you and the fish are not fighting as much resistance from the flasher. Whichever type of flasher you are going to use, I recommend putting the flasher relatively close to the down rigger clip compared to summer; 8-15’ is very effective. You will also want to try shorter leader lengths by placing your lure about 24-36” behind the flasher. The AP Spoons have plenty of action of their own so the leader length is less important than if you were running a hootchie or bucktail behind it, which are relying primarily on the whip of the flasher for action. Also, since these fish are actively feeding there is no problem with cranking the speed up a bit with 2.5-3.5kn being very effective trolling speeds.
I hope that you have enjoyed this article and have learned something in the process. Get out there and enjoy the crisp days with fewer boats out there and the result could be what some call ‘the best eating salmon’ there is!