For the first time in several years, there is a really good run of Chinook salmon on the American River. The last time it seemed worthwhile to pursue the American’s fall salmon run was about three years ago. Let’s face it, the last few years have been pretty slim pickings.
The other beauty of the American is that it really lends itself to drift boats and bank fishing due to its approachable size. I just so happen to own a beat up old Willie drifter and have a strong set of legs. Jet boats are at somewhat of a disadvantage as the river is on often on the small side for upstream propulsion, and there is 5 MPH speed limit on the entire river.
There are enough fish in the American this year that we have been finding them in some of the more marginal holding spots. In years when there aren’t a ton of fish, it’s pretty routine to just pound out the primo spots for one or two fish. The also-ran spots just aren’t worth fishing when the river is at 1,200 CFS or when there aren’t many fish around.
However, when the river is at 3,000 CFS and there’s an above average amount of fish finning about, it’s common to pick up two or even three bonus fish per day in these mediocre locations. It’s anecdotal, but when salmon aren’t just in the obvious spots but also the nooks and crannies, there’s obviously a lot of them around.
Another real bright spot, pun intended, are the constant convoys of fresh salmon entering the river. Fresh from the ocean salmon have been entering the American since about mid-August. A few quiet guides and local anglers have been discretely plying the river for a respectable 2-3 fish per trip.
Many of these fish were Coleman Hatchery strays lured into the American’s above average cold flows this season. These fish were determined to be Coleman fish by the wire tag implants found in 25% of all hatchery produced Central Valley salmon’s noses.
The August run timing is uncommon for typically mid to late October returning American River Chinook. Anecdotally, Coleman fish tend to be larger than American River fish as well, or at least that’s what many old timers and my own observations have shown over the years.
If I had to choose only one method for fishing the American from a boat, it would be to slowly back a quarter sized piece of bright red salmon roe into a waiting salmon’s mouth via either back bouncing gear or a jet diver setup. I like back bouncing in the American’s deeper holes, think 10-20’ deep, and particularly where there is a good steady walking speed current.
When I back bounce, my goal is to gently and minimally lift the rod every two seconds and feel the sinker lightly tap on the bottom. Since I am also the guy running the boat, I try to keep the boat ever so slowly slipping downstream.
With a jet diver setup, the diver uses the river’s current to pull the offering down to the bottom. Jet divers are super slick, and they often out produce the back bouncing gear.
The reason jet divers work so well is that they are essentially just like a deep diving bass plug, and since they are diving and being worked downstream, they almost never hang up. Imagine a bass plug gently going in reverse along the bottom, and you can picture how a jet diver functions. Jet divers glide right over gnarly clay ledges and washing machine sized boulders.
With either divers and bait or back bouncing gear and bait, the offering will slowly be backed into the fish’s face, and the fish will have ample time to smell it and look at it. It’s a tantalizing technique.
I’d liken it to putting a plate of brownies on the office table. Nobody’s hungry, but sooner or later, if they sit there long enough, somebody is going to make a mistake.
One other shrewd piece of advice for fishing with jet divers is to put the rod in a holder. I just lost a fish the other day ago because I was holding the rod when the bite developed. The key is to let the fish eat the bait and turn. If the fish doesn’t turn, and you set the hook, you definitely will not hook the fish. The hook will be pulled right out of the fish’s mouth.
Plugs like K-14 and K-15 Kwikfish and M-2 and T-50 Flatfish also have a place on the American. These plugs tend to work best in low light conditions like early dawn, but they certainly can catch fish all day long. The big bummer with using plugs on the American is the mandate to use barbless hooks. With barbless hooks, the landing percentage on plugs is usually sub 50%, so one must be willing to love and lose.
If I was restricted to just one bank fishing tactic, it would be to find a deep run along a steep clay bank featuring water depths of 10-20’ and fish roe under a slip bobber. Set the bobber stop at depth where the gear occasionally ticks the bottom, and present a nice nickel sized piece of bright red salmon roe on a dead drift.
Depending on the flow of the river, water depth and how much weight is necessary to quickly reach the bottom, a slip bobber rated for ¾ to 3 ounces of weight may be necessary. A long handled net would also come in handy for landing fish in such a spot. A few years ago, we found some excellent bank fishing utilizing this technique. In fact, the bite was so good that the boat was left at home.
Once a good hole is located, it’s pretty likely that it will produce fish on a daily basis and for the duration of the season. As the season progresses, the fish will often find a spot they are comfortable in and take up residence until they are ready to spawn.
New fish will keep entering the hole and stacking up, while older fish continue their journey upriver to their spawning grounds and ultimately their death’s. Over the years, I have noted individual salmon in certain holes that eluded me.
For example, back in 2011, there was a giant buck in the 30-35 pound range that I would see roll on the surface every outing. He started as a reddish hued gentleman, and by the time I last saw him he was brick red and black.
I never could get him to bite, but just knowing he was swimming in that hole kept my interest maxed. He was so big and out of proportion, that he was impossible to miss. I’ve seen similar things since then.
If you mothballed your salmon tackle over the last few seasons, it’s really time to consider dusting it off. From all the jacks being caught this season, it might be a good idea to keep it handy for 2018 as well.