The diver & bait rig is kinda like the Tom Brady of the salmon techniques world. Brady’s got it all, right? The good looks, 5 Super Bowl rings, tons of money and a super model wife. Well, the diver setup has its own impressive list of attributes too: It’s deadly on river salmon, easy to learn, a ton of fun — and almost utterly fool-proof. And, as far as I know…there are no deflation scandals associated with it either!
Perhaps my favorite thing about this technique, however, is the fact that it is really easy for inexperienced anglers to master. I can get a boatload of rookies fishing like pros in a matter of minutes — something I can’t say about other egg fishing methods like back-bouncing. That’s especially important first thing in the morning when we’re most likely to experience the best bite of the day. With diver and bait rigs, I don’t have waste any of that precious “magic time” training guys a hard-to-master skill. Instead, we just put out the bait diver rigs and let everybody get their roe in the water and start fishing immediately.
When properly rigged up, your hooks will always be anywhere from 6 inches to a few feet off the bottom, so snags aren’t a huge problem with divers and bait – another attractive attribute. I also like the smooth and steady presentation of eggs tracking along behind a diver. Sometimes, I think the bait hops up and down too much when it’s back-bounced, which can turn fish off. Another cool thing about fishing this way is the bite. It’s just so cool to see that first thump on the tip, followed by several good pumps and then a screaming reel. Fish on…yahoo!
To start you’ll want to position the boat upstream of a good looking salmon run. Next, hit the freespool button on the reel and keep your thumb on the spool. Gently set the rig into the water, bait-first followed by the diver. Allow the line to slip downstream at a controlled rate under tension from your thumb. If the water is off-color and/or shallow, I may only let out 40 feet of line. In deeper spots and clear water, I’ll go as far as 75 feet back (be sure to run all your rigs out the same distance).
You can keep track of the amount of line you have out by using reels outfitted with line counters. Counting “passes” of the level wind device as it goes back and forth across the spool is another way (though some reel don’t have this feature). Or, slide a bobber stop knot up the line at a pre-measured distance (40 feet, for example) and then simply let out line until the knot comes out the tip of the rod.
Next, kick the reel into gear and allow the boat to start slipping downstream at about one half the current’s speed. At that point, the divers should do their job and send your bait to the bottom. The proper backtroll speed is one in which you can cover the run without taking too long — but not so fast that your divers start to float up off the bottom. When everything is down and working, you should see the rods dipping and pulsing as the divers track the contours of the riverbed.
Keep and eye on where the lines enter the water. If one starts to look like its at a much steeper angle than the others, it is probably hung up. It’s a lot easier to get diver rigs free if you notice before the boat gets downstream of the snag. Also do your best to keep the boat backing down in a straight line. Diver rigs, should they get tangled up, are a real pain to retie (ask me how I know!).
Putting the rods in the holders is pretty key to turning bites into hookups. We want the fish to eat the bait and turn with it before feeling resistance. The problem with holding the rod in your hand is the decades-old, ingrained fishing instinct that usually kicks in and causes a premature hookset. If you set at the first sign of a bite, you will end up missing 80 to 90 percent of your fish. The rod holder, however, gives you a built-in delayed response time. By the time you get there, the rod should be buried with line burning off the reel. That’s when you know you have him properly hooked!
Now that you have the basic gist of this hot technique, let’s have a look at how to rig up.
There are two main diver styles that I’ll use with this system. Luhr Jensen’s Jet Divers are my go-to divers when I need to get the baits down deep in heavy current. They are very stable and can get down in a hurry (more on that in a minute). Brad’s Bait Divers, which are essentially hookless plugs, work really well in moderate currents and shallower depths. There are days when the wiggling and dancing of the Brad’s Divers will help draw salmon to your offering when nothing else will and the wider lateral travel also helps increase the bait’s attraction radius.
Size & Color
To pick the right diver, take a look at water depth and speed — and the size of your bait. In shallow rivers that are flowing at a mellow speed, you can get away with smaller ones. However, a massive cluster of eggs will overwhelm a small diver, so you have to factor that in too.
Jet Divers come in size 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50. The number refers to how many feet it will dive — the No. 20 dives to 20 feet, the No. 30 goes to 30 feet and so on. On most Southwest streams I fish, the No. 30 and 40 sizes are perfect but when on big, brawling rivers like the Kenai, the 50-foot models are the only way to go.
Brad’s Bait Divers come in three sizes Junior, Standard and Magnum. In Alaskan waters, I’ll use the Standards in water that’s 5 to 15 feet deep and the Magnums with large baits and water that’s 9 to 24 feet in depth.
As far as colors go, I prefer stealth, despite the fact that both companies have some nice pain schemes. My thinking here is: let’s make the bait the focus, not the unarmed diver. So, with Jet Divers I like clear or pink crystal. With the Brad’s I’ll go with clear or black. I just think that the less junk the fish see, the better off you are. I do have friends, however, who swear that they get more bites when using metallic blue or green divers.
Jet Divers don’t need tuning and generally run great right out of the box. There are a couple things you can do however, to make them even run better. As soon as I get a new one, I’ll flip it belly-up and twist off the plastic tab and crane swivel with a set of needle nose pliers. I always run divers off a dropper, so there’s simply no need for that extra stuff hanging off the bottom.
Since Jet Divers don’t snag all that often, I wear more of them out than I lose. The biggest problem that I encounter is a crack in one of the wings. Unless you’re looking specifically for a crack, you may not notice it – until your driver starts doing corkscrews in the water and tangles up all your other lines. When you find you have a cracked wing, toss the entire unit it in the garbage.
Occasionally, you’ll also find water seeping into your diver’s body, which is often caused by a hairline crack (from the diver smacking the side of the boat or a fish flopping on it in the net). It’s hard to get the water back out of such a thin fracture, but you can take a tiny drill bit and make a hole towards the back of the diver to drain it. After everything dries out, hit the drill hole with epoxy and cover the crack with Crazy Glue or AquaSeal.
Brad’s Divers run true as well, but sometimes need a little tuning to get them perfectly dialed in.
Rigging the Diver
I prefer to run my divers off dropper lines. I’ll make my drop line 12 inches to 3 feet in length, depending on the conditions. As a basic rule of thumb, go with a shorter length in fast water and a longer one when you’re fishing slower, deeper water.
The next step is to decide how to tie your dropper leader to your main line. You have two choices here: hard-tied or on a slider.
In most cases, I run my divers on sliders – in other words, I’ll tie the opposite end of my dropper line to a barrel swivel and then run the main line through it. Next, I’ll slide 2 to 4 plastic beads up the mainline and then tie another barrel swivel to the tag end. To the opposite end of that swivel, goes the bait leader. The swivel and beads between the main line and leader keep the diver from sliding down to the bait but it is free to move up the line (towards the rod).
When a fish grabs your bait, he’ll feel less resistance when the diver’s free-sliding. A sliding rig is also a good thing if you happen to get your diver caught in the net while attempting to scoop the fish. Though your diver’s tangled up in the mesh, the fish can still run without the hooks getting ripped out of its mouth.
And if you break off on a fish or snag, there’s a chance your diver will float to the surface, where you can recover it – no small victory considering these things aren’t cheap.
A case can be made for fixed rigs as well, however, especially when you have inexperienced anglers on board. One of the downsides of a diver on a sliding rig occurs when the hooks get snagged. As the boat continues to back downstream, the diver keeps going, working on the bow between the rod tip and the snag. A trained eye can tell something’s amiss, but a rookie may not know anything’s wrong until his line’s upstream of the boat…which is often too late. You can fix this problem by “hard-tying” your mainline, leader and dropper all to a three-way swivel.
THE BUSINESS END
Okay, now we’re going to take a look at what to put on the business end of your diver and bait rig.
Of course when we’re using roe, octopus-style hooks are the standard. On smaller streams, where you are using down-sized clusters, a 1/0 or 2/0 maybe be sufficient. On big rivers where you’re using egg clusters the size of golfballs, 5/0 to 8/0 is the way to go.
In dark, glacial water a 3- to 4-foot leader is fine. If you have clear water conditions, it’s a good idea to stretch that length out to 5 or 6 feet. Kings, for the most part, aren’t leader shy so go with heavy mono. I’ll run at least 40-pound test and sometimes 60 or 80 if the fish are really big.
I’ll always start my day off by running some sort of drift bobber with my bait to give it buoyancy and some extra appeal. My all-time favorite bobber to run ahead of eggs on a diver rig is a lemon-lime Spin-N-Glo. Hot pink is my second favorite, followed by metallic silver/red head and metallic silver/green. When the water’s a little off-color or I’m using larger globs of bait, I’ll switch to Spinning & Fishing Cheaters, which I feel float a little better than do Spin-N-Glos.
In glacial or dark water, a glow Hootchie between the bait and the spinning device can sometimes be the ticket to getting more hits. This rig also seems to work well on fish that are straight in off the tide.
When I want a little more subtle presentation I will pin a Fish Pill puffball behind the eggs, just above the bend of the forward hook. The puffballs are cool because they’re soft – a fish can chomp down on one and not even notice that it’s there.
With Fish Pills, Corkies and Cheaters, I’ll pick a color based on water conditions. When it’s gin-clear, I like to match the bobber to the color of my eggs. If there’s a bit of color in the water, I’ll go with a contrasting color like chartreuse or orange – just to give the fish a little extra something to key in on.
The size of your BFD (bait flotation device) is determined by the size of your hook and bait. You’ll need a large enough one to lift the roe off the bottom, but not so a big that the bite of your hooks is compromised. The way to test that is slide the BFD through the hook gap. If it can pass between the hook point and the shank, you are good to go.
Occasionally, I’ll encounter a situation in which the fish are extremely finicky and won’t touch a glob of eggs unless it’s completely “naked.” In that case, the baits I’m using are generally very small and will stay off the bottom on their own. When I need a little more lift, however, I’ll use a toothpick to peg 1-3 drably-painted Corkies a few feet up the leader away from the bait. That way, the egg cluster still gets some of the buoyancy from the BFD’s but they’re not going to distract the fish’s attention from the good stuff.
Diver & bait rods need to have good backbone down low and plenty of softness in the upper third of the blank so that a king can yank the tip down and not have the hooks pull out of its mouth. In the length department, 8 to 9 1/2 feet is just right.
My Favorite is the Douglas LRS C9652M, which is a 9’6” casting rod that is awesome for divers & bait.
As far as reels go, level winds with smooth, dependable drag systems are the only way to go. As I mentioned earlier, ones equipped with line counter devices are handy. I prefer models that have the freespool release button located on the spool frame (rather than the thumb bar style) such as the Shimano Tekota 300LC. I’ve just had too many clients over the years accidentally hit the thumb bar in the heat of battle when setting the hook…and you can imagine how that turns out!
The good ol’ classic Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6500 is also a good choice for a no-frills reel.
When it comes to line, braid is the way to go. Because of its small diameter, you can get your divers down deeper in a shorter distance — and the lack of stretch gives you solid hook sets. Braid is also very abrasion resistant which is very useful when dealing with big fish in heavy water thats full of logs and rocks.
I’ve had good success with P-Line’s TCB8 Teflon coated braid in 50- or 65-pound. I like the bright yellow color so I can easily keep track of where all my lines are.
Fresh cured salmon roe is the number one offering to pull behind a diver. Kings seem to really prefer sodium sulfite based cures, particularly when dyed bright red. In smaller rivers, you might use a cluster that’s nickel to quarter sized. On the big fish streams (especially glacial ones), the size of the bait can go from pingpong ball sized up to nearly that of an apple.
There are also times you can also catch kings on other baits. Tuna balls (oil-packed canned tuna wrapped tight into balls with netting) are effective some days, as are raw prawns and sand shrimp. You can also backtroll lures with the help of divers. Unweighted spinners, plugs and Brad’s Superbaits are all effective.
When the kings start piling up in your favorite stream this summer, bust out the ol’ MVP of salmon techniques and give it a try!