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Salmon Basics part 1: Trolling


The sound is like a soft thummpff; or maybe it’s more of a sharper thuunk. Although sometimes is a double tunk tunk. The sound is often so soft that even though we are listening for it, it can be very easy to miss. Of course we are watching for it too, but we also have to keep an eye on where we are going, other boats, obstacles in the water, the depth sounder, the awesome scenery, etc.

When it happens though, that’s the moment. When we get a “pop”, our placid little boat ride on the scenic waters of Puget Sound instantly transforms into a flurry of frantic activity and adrenaline fueled excitement. These are the moments we are waiting for.

Confused? Maybe I should back up a little.

Reel Ultra

The “Reel Ultra” downrigger trolling in Puget Sound.

It occurred to me that I’ve spoken of a number of different fishing techniques, and while I have mentioned several times that I go out trolling for salmon, I haven’t yet broken down in detail for you the type of fishing I do more than any other.
I know for you local boys, this is going to be like me explaining how your tie your shoes or brush your teeth, but I want to be sure the mechanics of what we do is clear to those whom I don’t see passing by me in the trolling lanes.

We’re trolling using downriggers to control our depth of presentation. Downriggers are just small winches that are mounted on the back of our boats. They have a spool of steel cable with a large lead ball on the end. I generally use 15 pound balls on my downriggers, which is pretty standard around here. The downrigger has a counter on it, so you can tell just how deep you’ve lowered the weight. Attached to the lead ball is a short piece of strong line with a “release clip” attached to the end. There are a few different types of release clips, but for the sake of simplicity, picture a clothes pin. You clip your fishing line from your rod into the clothes pin…er, release clip, so that when you lower the ball into the water, your line, and therefore your lure, is carried to the depth you set.

Ok, just to set the stage, the boat is moving slowly at trolling speed, say about 2 miles per hour. You put your lure in the water and let out 15 or 20 feet of line so that the lure is trailing that far behind the boat. Now you grab the line and clamp the release clip onto it. You then lower the downrigger ball while letting out fishing line as it’s getting pulled down. Now you’ve got the downrigger ball at the depth of your choice. Your line is attached to the release clip and your lure is trailing back 20 feet or so behind the ball.

The reason it’s called a release clip is that it holds the line and the lure in place right up until a fish strikes and the line pulls free of the clip; then it’s released from the downrigger ball, and you’re fighting the fish.

As to the lures themselves, they almost always fall into one of four categories.

Blackmouth Spoon_thumb


Whole or cut herring


flasherWhen we are running spoons, hoochies, and herring, we are usually running a flasher in front of them. That’s basically a large piece of metal or plastic that moves in a rotating fashion when trolled through the water. The first time I saw them used, it was described to me as something that mimics a salmon perusing bait. The idea, as I was told then, was that salmon would follow the flasher, looking for the food the decoy salmon is chasing. Since then I’ve heard that it’s simply the sound or vibration created by the flasher that attracts the salmon. Whatever it is, one thing the for certain, the flasher adds additional action (motion) to the lure. In the case of hoochie style lures, that is essential, since they have no action on their own.

Alright, going over it once again, you’ve got a flasher attached to your line, trailing behind that is your lure. You’ve let out line so that your rig is trailing behind the boat as you are moving at trolling speed . You’ve clipped the line into the release clip, which is attached to your downrigger, and you’ve lowered your downrigger to your desired depth, carrying your lure/bait to that depth with it.


Still confused? No? I didn’t think you would be.

Anyway, now your lure is being trolled along, held at the depth you chose. The rod is in the rod holder, and because you’ve got the line reeled taut (and because of the force of the water moving past it) your rod is bent over pretty far, like it is in the photo at the top of this post.

That brings me to the “pop” I was yammering on about at the beginning of all this. When a fish hits the lure and the line pulls free from the clip, the bent over rod suddenly pops up. There’s your thuunk.

Ideally, the rod tip will immediately bounce back down as the fish fights against the line. Although sometimes the fish moves toward the boat after taking the lure and the rod stays up. Or if you’re my friend Buck, the rod tip stays up because he’s already lost the fish.
The point is, when the pop happens, it’s important to move fast, and grab that rod and maintain line tension. (Unless you’re my good friend Buck, then you might as well take your time because you’re only reeling in a bare hook). That’s why we instantly go from relaxing and enjoying the scenery, to jumping up and running for the rod.

You can see I reset my rod on the downrigger before posing for this picture with this coho.

You can see I reset my rod on the downrigger before posing for this picture with this coho.

Serenity punctuated with periods of excitement: that’s what’s so beautiful about Puget Sound salmon fishing. That’s why we love it so much.
Well, that and the delicious fish we get to bring home.

Alright, that’s the basics of how we troll for salmon here in the Northwest.  Of course there are plenty of variations and details, but those are the broad strokes.

I’ll cover more salmon basics later on, next time probably a cooking basic, like this crispy skin pan sear.
Crispy Skin Salmon

Stay tuned.

1 Comment

  • Stephan Wolf March 19, 2019 at 5:17 am

    THANK -YOU…!!!!!!!!!! I’m NEW to Salmon Trolling…Trying to LEARN…before this SUMMER, in GREEN Bay…!!!! WI


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