Just about every river has a slackwater salmon spot. You know what I’m talking about here: one of those spots that’s too slow for back-bouncing, backtrolling, drift fishing or even bobbers. Of course, it always seems that the fish pile up into these zones like crazy, right?
I suppose a guy could catch a few fish tossing spinners or spoons in such a spot, but I prefer to cover more water on the troll. The interesting aspect of slackwater trolling is you aren’t limited to fishing in one direction like you’d be if you were freedrifting or back-bouncing.
Going up and downstream both have their merits and shortcomings, and while every slackwater spot is a little different, I follow a couple basic principles that seem to work in most situations.
Generally speaking, I only troll upstream for fish that are holding. That means I normally find myself doing it in the upper end of a river system, where the fish are parked on a slow flat or in a deep, sluggish pool.
In this situation, I’m looking for the absolute slowest presentation possible and that means trolling upstream against the current with K15 Kwikfish or K16 Kwikfish (use fresh wraps!) is the way to go. Even a pool that’s too slow to backtroll may still have a hint of current — which will force you to fish faster than is desirable if you go downstream. Pulling the plugs in an uphill direction, however, allows you to control the tempo. If you’re flatlining your baits without weight, going against the flow will also enable them to dive deeper.
Ideally, your plug will swim with a molasses-slow fwooomp…fwooomp…fwooomp wobble. You can check your lure’s “pulse” by keeping an eye on the rod tip. Everything’s golden when it takes a good second for your rod tip dip and come back up with each wiggle of the lure.
Most of the time, try to keep your plugs just off the bottom. You’re in the perfect zone when they lightly tap the rocks here and there – just make sure the Kwikies aren’t constantly digging. In slackwater spots, you’ll also often find fish suspended up off the bottom. In those cases, switch over to a lure that doesn’t dive quite as deep – say a T-50 FlatFish – if you’re flatlining. Or, when trolling with weight, simply lighten up on the lead.
Rowing a driftboat gives you the best control of your speed for this technique – plus it’s the stealthiest approach, which can be a big plus in clear water. Electric motors with infinite throttle control are the next best things and kickers are my last choice because they’re too noisy and you can’t troll down slowly enough with them.
Grabs are shockingly violent with this method, and in a lot of cases, you have to react differently than you’re accustomed to. Normally, of course, you’d let the fish eat the plug for a painfully long time. I’ve found, however, that I miss more strikes this way when I wait to set the hook. Strange, but the fish just crush a slow-trolled plug so hard…
When the water has color to it, you can do the upstream troll deal all day long. Unfortunately, you have a more limited window of opportunity if you’re fishing in clear conditions. When that’s the case, be on the water and ready to go at the first tick of legal fishing time – that’s when the fish are least disturbed and at their snappiest. In particularly harsh conditions (clear water & bright sun) like we have here in California’s Central Valley, you may only get a pass or two through the hole before the fish give up on you, so it pays to be the first boat on the water.
While I troll upstream for holding fish, I almost always go the opposite direction when I’m fishing and/or searching for salmon on the move. This technique is particularly effective on the broader, silty-bottom stretches you’ll often find in a river’s lower reaches. In these areas, the fish don’t usually linger for long. They’re already above the salt-to-fresh acclimation zone and well below the spawning areas, so they’re typically blasting through. Not only are the kings in these low down slackwater spots moving quickly, but they’re also fresh from the salt and extremely aggressive biters. For all those reasons, trolling downstream is the best way to get at them.
First off, by going downhill, you can crank up the trolling speed — which allows you to cover the water (and find fish) more quickly. I stick to 1 mph, but some of the guides I know do extremely well by throttling up to 2.3 mph and slightly higher. Since we’re not trying to coax stale upriver fish to bite, going slowly isn’t a priority here.
This technique also works because I’m convinced that kings in these areas are still so dialed into their ocean feeding habits that, when a plug or spinner goes whizzing downstream past them, it triggers the “eat me” response. All the salmon I catch this way turn around and chase the lure down – which doesn’t exactly fit into the “they bite lures because they’re annoying” theory. I’m not so sure that a slow wobble would solicit such an excited response from them. After all, an anchovy or herring is going to run like hell when it sees a king swimming by!
For this method, I primarily pull sardine-wrapped K14 Kwikfish, which have a hyper, scared-to-death baitfish kind of action to them. Offshore, our California kings eat a lot of small anchovies so I like the smaller plugs for that reason as well – it’s sort of a match the hatch type of deal. Spinners also work well when trolling quickly. The idea here is to go fast enough to keep the thing spinning but slow enough that you can read individual pulses of the blade on your rod tip.
There are places I’ve found where trolling spinners or Kwikfish downriver without weight works just fine. However, I mainly stick to running a 3-way swivel off my main line, with a dropper for my sinker off eye number two and the leader coming off the third. There are no hard and fast rules governing the length of your droppers and leaders because it depends on they type of lures you’re running and how much lead you’ve got on. What I can tell you is the lure should be running 1 to 3 feet up off the bottom with minimal contact with the riverbed.
As with trolling upstream, getting your offerings away from the boat is critical in shallow, clear water but not such an issue if you’ve got some depth and/or color to work with. I still prefer trolling with an electric motor, but kickers don’t seem to bother fresh kings down low in a river too much when conditions are decent.
The bite you get when trolling down-current is quite different from the one I described earlier. When a king spins on a dime and chases down your lure, he’ll often pick it up and continue swimming with you for a moment. This is known as a “slack line” bite and the only thing that will key you into what’s happening is the rod tip will straighten up and throbbing (from the lure’s action) will go away. At that point, you’ve got about a nanosecond to set up on him before the big slug spits your hardware. For that reason, it’s a really good idea to hold onto your rod all day – slack line bites are hard to capitalize on when you’ve got your stick in a holder.
The other type of bite you may encounter looks more like a traditional takedown – the rod tip pumps a few times and then the rod doubles over. If you get this kind of strike, let the fish eat the lure until your rod really loads up.