I’ve caught my share of king salmon, but always in the remote waters of Alaska or Canada’s British Columbia, surrounded by forested mountains and far from major population centers. The places that are hard to reach and even harder to afford.
So I was understandingly skeptical of my brother Don’s steady flow of reports last summer of trophy king salmon action not far from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and within easy striking distance of those leaving from Bay Area marinas.
But when he e-mailed a photo of himself struggling to hoist a 42-pound king — larger than any I’d encountered on wilderness fishing adventures — I had to get in on the action.
That came within minutes of our joining a fleet of private and party boats trolling an elaborate conga line around Duxbury Reef. Shortly after we lowered heavily weighted dead herring and anchovy baits into the depths that crisp September morning, one of the rods nearly jumped out of the holder, then doubled over as a headstrong king pulled line and shattered the glassy surface 100 yards behind the boat. After some cockpit choreography and adept boat handling to clear the other lines, my brother gently slid the net under the first of many keeper kings we landed that day.
As recently as 2009, ocean fishing for king salmon was closed off central California due to depleted fish stocks. An abbreviated season was allowed in 2010, and in 2011, anglers were given a full spring and summer to pursue these tasty, hard-fighting fish. This was good news for anglers and party boat operators, as both enjoyed sustained action on kings ranging from 24-inch keepers to 40-pound monsters. Local experts expect 2012 to be even better.
“We had a lot of rainfall during the winters of 2010 and 2011, which translated to good flow in the rivers,” says George Lu, owner of Bay Tackle Sporting Goods (baytackleonline.com), in El Cerrito. Kings and silver salmon (the latter of which must be released) feed and fatten up in coastal ocean waters before traveling up the American, Sacramento and San Juan rivers to spawn. “We saw a bumper crop of small salmon two years ago, so based on the usual three- to five-year spawning cycle, we should have some very good fishing this summer and fall,” says Lu.
While salmon season opens in April, it usually takes until sometime in July for a good number of kings to move into popular inshore areas like Stinson Beach, Muir Beach, Rocky Point or Duxbury Point, where they feed in preparation for passing under the Golden Gate. “The key to finding the salmon is finding the bait,” my brother Don tells me. Schools of anchovies or herring can be pinpointed using your boat’s echo sounder. Flocks of birds working the surface — or flocks of boats, for that matter — are also a sign that salmon are in the area. “When you see one of these signs, work the area carefully and circle the bait schools with your boat. Salmon will never be far away from the food,” he says.
Trolling is an effective strategy, as it allows you to cover larger areas of water in search of feeding fish. You need to get trolled baits or lures down to the salmon, which can be anywhere between the surface and the bottom. Downriggers are the best way to accurately target specific depths. By stacking two or more lines on each downrigger at different levels, you can cover much of the water column. Planers and sinker-release rigs are also effective (see the illustration in gallery above).
Frozen anchovies or herring are the most popular baits for king salmon trolling. As with salmon fishing everywhere, the idea is to have the bait rotate slowly and consistently when trolled at 3 to 31/2 knots. For added attraction, these rigged baits are often trolled behind a variety of in-line dodgers and flashers, which impart extra action and long-distance visibility to baits.
Artificial lures like the popular Apex spoons and plastic hoochies should also be part of the salmon troller’s arsenal. They can be effective when salmon are aggressive and add some spice to the trolling spread. “I always start trolling with a variety of rigs and baits to find out what’s working,” says Don. “I’ll also set my trolling lines at a range of different depths when starting out. That way I can see what’s working best that day and adjust my tackle and tactics.” King salmon put up a spirited battle on the relatively light tackle used for this style of fishing, but they have notoriously soft mouths, so you must apply steady pressure throughout the fight, without overdoing it. It tests both skill and nerves to have a 30-pound fish behind the boat, just out of reach of the net. It’s at this stage of the fight that hooks are pulled and hearts are broken. Keep your cool, and you’ll be rewarded with a king’s ransom.