By Cal Kellogg
Sacramento River salmon trollers are as excited as grade schoolers counting down the days to summer vacation and with good reason. The salmon fishing outside the Golden Gate is as good as it has been in many years and those fish will be surging through the Delta and up the Sacramento River in a matter weeks.
Once the run starts Delta and Sac Valley trollers should enjoy good action right through the end of the season on December 16. This being the case this is a perfect time for rank and file anglers to bone up on Delta and Valley trolling tactics.
Up river, say from Chico north and in much of the Feather, river salmon fishing is a specialized sport that requires jet boats and the ability to back troll and drift roe in very specific areas. This fishing is best left to the guides and super knowledgeable salmon junkies that have jet boats and the ability to navigate shallows and rapids without getting into trouble.
For the average angler with a standard boat and basic gear, the section of the Sacramento River from say Rio Vista all the way up through the Capital City north to Colusa is much more user friendly.
The water is deep throughout out this huge expanse of river and as a result anglers don’t have to worry about navigating rapids and gravel bars, leaving them to concentrate on catching fish!
Okay, let’s gear up, hit the water and fill a smoker or two with yummy salmon fillets. Salmon are big hard fighting fish with a relatively soft mouth. For this reason a fairly long 7 to 8 foot rod with a somewhat soft sensitive tip is a good choice. Such a rod tip plays a duel role. On one hand it cushions the fight of the salmon, keeping them from ripping out hooks, but it also allows you to monitor the function of the lure to ensure that it is working properly and hasn’t picked up debris.
The rod should be topped with a quality level wind baitcaster spooled with braid. Line counters are preferred but you can get by without that function.
Does this rig sound like the set up you use for Delta striper trolling? Well yes, because striper and salmon trolling rigs are pretty much the same beast, with the only distinction being the end tackle you arm them with.
On the business end of your rig everything runs off a three way system. To start rigging take your main line and attach it to a three way swivel. On the lower eye of that swivel attach a 14 inch dropper made of 10 or 12 pound mono and tip it with a snap. That’s where your sinker, usually in the 2 to 6 ounce range will attach. To the remaining eye of the three way attach a 4 to 5 foot 25 pound test mono leader tipped with a quality lock snap for attaching lures.
When it comes to lures, there are basically three offerings that work well in California rivers, spinners, plugs and rolling baits.
For day in day out success and versatility, spinners are probably the No. 1 lure.
Now as anyone that has targeted them knows, salmon can be fickle once they hit freshwater and the lure you present them has to be just right in terms of the sound it emits and it’s color pattern. There are a lot of salmon spinners on the market, but for me few are as effective as the Bob Toman Spinners from Yakima Bait. Bob Toman is one of the most successful salmon guides on the Pacific Coast and he invested years in refining his trademark spinners. The key is Toman’s “thumper blade” that has just the right pitch to draw aggression strikes from king salmon. I’ve personally seen Bob’s spinners hook fish in Alaska, on the Rogue, on the Columbia and on the Sacramento River in California.
Beyond the Toman Spinner’s unique blade shape they offer a long list of other advantages including a low alloy brass blade that retains its flash over the long haul because it resists corrosion. The paints are UV enhanced powder coats that resist chipping, fading and scratching. The hooks are not only high quality and razor sharp they are also rigidly mounted and aligned for maximum hooking success when that big king comes knocking.
Running a close second in effectiveness to spinners are T-50 Flatfish. Flatfish need no introduction to Golden State salmon junkies, because they’ve been hooking trophy fish for decades. Like spinners, Flatfish can be trolled anywhere from 1 to 3 plus miles and hour, although a speed of 1.5 to 2.2 seems to work best in my experience.
Flatfish come in a long list of UV enhance finishes. For fishing the Delta and Sac Valley fishery, favorites include chrome/chartreuse, chartreuse, hot pink, orange and pearl. Just remember confidence means everything, so pick out a few colors you have confidence in and fish them hard!
When using Flatfish you’ll want to wrap them with bait. A thin strip of sardine fillet is standard, but adding a bit of crawfish or prawn meat can make a big difference when the salmon are playing hard to get. If you’ve never wrapped a lure before using miracle thread, it takes a bit of practice, but when the lure works properly beside the boat you’ll know you’ve done the job correctly. See the illuatration with this article for more information on plug wrapping.
Rolling baits like Brad’s Cut Plugs have come on strong in recent years and they can be deadly, but you know me, I’m a dirty bait angler. I run Brad’s lures at times, but as likely as not if I want a rolling bait you’ll find me rigged up with plug cut herring. Real meat is tough to beat!
Okay let’s put these rigs into the water and troll. Sinker selection is based on the amount of flow, but let’s say the flow is average so you start out with a 3 ounce sinker snapped on a rig armed with either a plug or spinner. To catch salmon while trolling the Delta you want your lure near the bottom, so with the boat moving 1.5 miles per hour lower your rig slowly down until you feel the sinker hit the bottom and then bring it up one turn of the reel. With the lure near the bottom, put the rod in a hold with the drag set fairly loose and the clicker engaged.
You should be able to see or feel the rhythmic action of your lure on the rod tip. As you troll keep an eye on both the rod tip and the depth finder. If the water gets deeper let out more line, if it gets shallower retrieve line. Check your gear frequently for leaves and other junk.
Your line should enter the water at a steep angle. If too much line is scoping out behind the boat, that means you need a heavier sinker.
Salmon will hit a lure moving with or against the current. Naturally when trolling against the current the boat can move slower and the lure will still work well. When moving with the current you need to be moving faster than the surrounding water for the lure to work. I prefer trolling against the current whenever possible.
Some salmon strikes are savage, while others are more subtle with the rod just gradually loading up as if you’ve hooked a large piece of debris. The most important thing is to stay cool and not jerk the rod out of the holder until the rod is really doubled over or the fish begins head shaking which is signaled by a series of sharp jabs that typically yank the tip down a foot or more several times in quick succession. At this point the salmon is hooked. Slip the rod out of the holder and fight your fish!
And by the way, make sure you have a net big enough to net a salmon. I’ve had more than one reader come to me with stories about doing everything right, only to have big 30 plus pound kings escape because the trout or striper net they had aboard simply wasn’t big enough to scoop a 40 inch 14 inch wide salmon….Ouch!