By Chris Vertopoulos
Skateboards, Pro-Trolls, 360 flashers or whoompty whoomps, whatever you like to call them, they have created a reckoning that salmon fishing will not soon forget. When I first witnessed skateboards trolled on our coastal bays and lower Columbia I scoffed. One evening after fishing, having a cold one around the campfire with some of my guide peers I proclaimed, “Those Texas-sized pieces of Chinese plastic are just a gimmick. They will never compare to the drill bit spin of a precisely cut, well presented herring.” Someone else said they were “a fad” that only the young, inexperienced generation of salmon fishers can get away with because “they have yet to master the artistry of fishing cut plug.” You name it, we came up with every excuse as to why the young guns were catching fish on 360s. I will admit, I was growing tired of getting my butt kicked by rookies who were almost half my age. It took the jaws of life to remove my foot from my mouth, but now I can say, “The damn things work and they work very well.”
Especially if you pay attention to some details.
The phrase “skate or die” reminds me of another evening at the campfire. I remember expressing how my world had been turned upside down because I had always been sure you had to get your bait at least 36 to 42 inches behind a rotating flasher to catch kings. Too short of a leader and any chinook worth his salt would shy away. And now I realize that you can put your lure or bait only 18 inches behind a huge plastic blinger and school the chinook one after another. It was a rough go for me mentally. Hypothetically, it would be like my mother telling me I was adopted.
Many of us were also astounded that if skateboards were in the water, no other technique could compete. For example, over ten years ago, one day in early October there were forty boats fishing Tillamook Bay’s storied Ghost Hole. Everyone was fishing the standard blue label, plug-cut herring, most without any flasher at all. Just a herring on a 7-foot mooching leader and an 18-inch dropper with an 8- or 10-ounce cannonball. Some of the best herring gurus on the planet were gathered there and the amount of street cred was intoxicating. Now here comes a couple greenhorn boats towing 360 flashers and 3.5 spinners. They are all getting the stink-eye, not only because they are simply doing something way different, but because they troll faster than the bait trollers and mess up the standard trolling pattern. Well kick me in the rear again, the two boats trolling skateboards and tiny spinners kicked everyone else’s butt. I’ve seen it happen a dozen times and a dozen times too many. Maybe it was time for a change of heart. That night, back at the campfire, accomplished salmon fisherman Robby Davis raised his Rainier tall boy and blurted out, “Skate or Die!” It was his way of saying, if you want to keep up with the Joneses put on a Pro-Troll.
Sometime in the early 2000s guides started fishing Pro-Troll flashers and tuna-filled Super Baits on the upper Columbia near Hanford. Who started it, I haven’t been able to discern. But in a recent phone conversation with Dick Pool, the originator and owner of Pro-Troll, told me that charter boats were fishing Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay with his 11-inch flashers more than 25 years ago. They were catching mostly coho, but getting the occasional chinook. He and some of his accomplices were convinced that if they could slow down the presentation, while keeping the flasher rotating 360 degrees, their anchovies would appeal to more chinook. The problem with the flashers they had at the time, was if you slow down the presentation, the flasher quit rotating and just pendulated from side to side, rendering it less appealing to both coho and kings. They came up with the added kicker fin and the 360 flasher was born.
Today you have a rotating flasher that completely rolls over at slower speeds. Now it seems, anywhere you go in the Pacific Northwest, B.C. and Alaska, the Pro-Troll rules. I recently read an article that says the guides in Chile and Argentina are now using them for monster kings that were transplanted down there a few decades back. I suppose the Kiwis will conform too, if they haven’t already. Several years ago 360 flashers there were recommendations from some Oregon sportsmen to ban them because they are so effective. Fortunately, law enforcement stepped into the commission meeting and begged for no more “gear bans” as they are a nightmare to enforce.
There are now a handful of manufacturers putting out full rotating flashers. Pro-Troll, was the first, then came Shortbus and the short-list continues to grow. Leo Flashers are a somewhat different concept design-wise, but achieve the same full rotation. With Leos, you have the option to fish them in-line or in 360 mode and they work well both ways. If you can get past their goofy look, they flat-out put fish in the boat. Brad’s just released a new rotating flasher with a built in release system and shock absorbing bungee. I purchased a couple and when the water warms up I’ll be giving them a try. Pro-Troll flashers have the addition of a proprietary device called the EChip. It’s a small stainless steel cylinder with a tiny ceramic bearing inside that rolls back and forth as the flasher rotates, creating an electrical impulse that all fish are able to detect along their lateral lines. Pool says that impulse imitates a wounded baitfish. Well, we never can really ask a salmon what they think but I will say that I have had Pro-Troll flashers that have gone cold on me. After inspection, I discovered the EChip had entirely fallen off or was damaged under normal wear and tear. Maybe that’s why they went cold. If you can find them at larger tackle stores, or online, you can glue a new one on and you’re back in business. I’ve gone as far as hot gluing EChips to other brand flashers just to get the extra edge. There is definitely something to the EChip in my opinion. Not long ago Pro-Troll released the 11-inch flasher with a strobing, red, green and white light that is water activated. A nice addition in deep or murky water.
Let’s talk about 360 theory. I’m of the opinion and I know a bunch of other salmo-philes that feel the same way. The skateboard imitates another feeding salmon. Salmon are attracted to bright flashes because they are aware that “feeding” salmon slash at their prey, sending strobe-like flashes in every direction. The bright flashes are a signal that they need to get over there and get in on the feeding frenzy. Once they locate the feeding salmon, they are now in competition with other salmon (or flashers) and it’s every salmon for itself. When a chinook comes over to investigate your strobing skateboard, he will soon see the bait or lure that is whipping around behind the flasher and rush to get it before the plastic salmon does. Crazy huh?
This brings me to colors and finishes. You all know what color a salmon is, especially the ones we are always bragging about; they are so shiny you need welding goggles just to squint in their general direction. Chromers, that’s what we’re after and that is the best clue to what should and will be your new favorite color when we talk about 360 flashers. Solid chrome, silver or chrome prism tape in more patterns than you can imagine, silver UV moon jelly, silver scale, chrome, chrome, chrome, that’s all you need to know. Now my disclaimer is, every salmon angler has a red or chartreuse flasher that works at times. Don’t throw it away. I have a white Pro-Troll that frequently gets bit early in the morning. I like to add some accent tape to my flashers mostly so I can identify them from others in my vast collection. Flashers are like good plugs, when you get one that catches more fish than the rest, treat it like your own child. Clean it after every trip with a soft brush with Lemon Joy and warm water. Lube the swivels with WD-40; replace swivels that don’t roll easily; and store your babies in a safe place where they won’t get scratched and marred. Just like a baby, never put them to bed wet. Always let them fully dry before you stow them away. Flasher folders are a good idea that have individual pockets for each flasher. Take care of your flashers and they will take care of you.
How to rig skateboards is the number one question I get from novices who want to learn the trade. Bumper length and leader length are at the top of the rigging question list. The bumper is the length of mono or wire above your flasher, between the flasher and your main swivel. The leader is the length of mono between the bottom of your flasher and your lure or bait.
There are reasons to lengthen or shorten your bumpers and leaders. Starting with bumpers, a longer bumper, say 4 feet, gets you a super-wide roll. It’s plausible to achieve a 4- to 6-foot roll if your bumper is long enough. But then you will find your overall leader (bumper+flasher+leader) is so long that it’s difficult to get a fish close enough to the net. If your bumper is too short, you will get a tightly spinning flasher that doesn’t give your bait or lure the desired movement. I would strongly recommend using shorter bumpers if you are fishing in very shallow water like upper Tillamook Bay. But in general, start between 18 and 36 inches and you will find your own happy place. I like 24 inches most of the time, but reserve the right to move up to 30 inches if I feel like it.
Bumper material and thickness also plays an important role in success. There are a lot of smaller tackle companies coming out with their own version of the ultimate flasher bumpers; adorned with crimps, heat shrink tubing, grommets and anything else they can think of to make it easier. By all means look at what they offer, because they all offer something unique and different. Of course, you can always build your own. It doesn’t have to be fancy; 60- or 80-pound test hard mono, tied to quality stainless steel swivels with a simple three turn clinch knot is all it takes. If it was necessary to use 200-pound test leader (bumper) material, I’d agree that crimping your own was the way to go. But 150- or 200-pound mono is thick stuff and it will only have more water resistance and slow and dampen the sexy thump we are trying to achieve.
For bumper material, think thin but strong. I sometimes use the Titanium wire bumpers by Simon-Hawken and like them. The super strong, ultra-thin titanium wire gives your flasher the ultimate, unimpaired action. But once the swivels go bad, you gotta toss them in the trash. It’s hard for me on a guide’s wage to toss ten dollar bills into the trash if I don’t have to. Fishing in saltwater is hard on gear and no doubt decreases the shelf life of components like swivels. Here-in lies another good reason to keep a can of WD-40 close by. Using the red straw that comes with each can, blast a quick squirt of WD up into the swiveling connection. Do this every day after fishing in saltwater and your swivels will last a lot longer. If you do choose to make your own bumpers, the larger sized stainless steel ball bearing swivels by American Fishing Wire (AFW) are the best available. They swivel at both ends instead of only one end, and being that they are constructed of 100% stainless steel they have a shelf life that agrees with the wallet. If you only fish freshwater, it is less of a concern but still a good idea to use quality stainless steel swivels and keep them lubed.
Leader length is also very important. Just as with the bumper, everyone has their own go-to favorite length that works for them. Rather than go over all the variables, I’ll just throw it out there. My formula is:
Remember, the longer your leader, the less action your lure or bait gets from the rotating flasher. Also, heavier, thicker, stiffer leaders transfer more action to your lure. It also helps in landing more fish and losing less gear.
When it comes to the terminal end of your line, where you attach your primary swivel, there are umpteen ways to do it. You might prefer to have your sinker snap/lead dropper fixed or you might like it sliding. Some like rudders. Either way, forget everything you know and consider the VIP Line Lock by VIP Outdoors. This is the best salmon fishing invention since the Pro-Troll itself. Now in two different sizes, this tiny inexpensive component will save your bacon from the line twist associated with fishing 360 flashers. By their nature, 360 flashers are constantly spinning and they will easily transfer that spin beyond your swivel’s swiveling capability right up your main line. Talk about a mess. The VIP Line Lock has a tiny slot molded into the plastic that is a perfect fit for the eye of your bead chain swivel. With the weight of a sinker attached to the provided Duo-Lok snap, the twist will be forever eliminated. Not only are they a must-have for “skaters” they do a great job if you’re fishing in-line flashers, too.
A more recent consideration when fishing 360s is whether to use a break-away or flasher release. There are three or four on the market now all using some different mechanism to allow your flasher to break away from its fixed in-line connection. The theory being that it is easier for a hooked fish to freely pull it through the water when it’s running, resulting in fewer losses. I prefer a breakaway system, especially when barbless hooks are required. A fish hooked with barbless hooks, towing a big sinker and a 11-inch barn door has a darn good chance of throwing the hook(s). Cotter pins, magnets, copper telephone wire, bread ties, leave it to salmon fisherman to come up with a backyard, home remedy for anything. The commercially made breakaways by Coldwater Strong, Simon and Good Day Fishing all work well.
Another question that often comes up is, “Should I use a lead dropper, or attach my sinker right to the snap provided with the VIP Line Lock?” The answer depends on the depth of water you are fishing and are the fish on the bottom? In shallow bays, and when getting on top of submerged sandbars, a lead dropper is necessary unless you like all the chrome getting sandblasted off of your flashers. Because they have a wide roll, these flashers will beat the bottom in shallow water if care isn’t taken to keep them suspended off the sand. In these situations I use an 18- to 20-inch dropper line of 25-pound test. Lighten up your sinker size and get those flashers way back behind the boat and keep working the rods to keep your sinkers right off the bottom.
In deep water, like the Columbia River in late summer and fall, the fish are sometimes suspended and no lead dropper will be necessary. Just attach your cannonball directly to the provided snap, locate the depth the fish are at and slowly let it down into the zone. Getting your gear right down into the herd or just above them is the goal.
This is a good time to talk about the fish and where they are in relation to the bottom. Water temp, current speed, turbidity and available light are what drive the fish to either suspend or hug the bottom. Rather than run all these variables through your noggin every time, just use your electronics. Modern depth/fish finders work exactly like they are supposed to and if yours’s is set up properly it will do its job and tell you if there are fish down there and what depth they are running. In short, trust your electronics. If you are marking fish 4 or 5 feet off the bottom in 35 feet of water, dredging the bottom might only get the occasional fish. Bring your gear up off the bottom a crank or two and show those flashers to the salmon. Remember, salmon cannot see down.
Sinker size is critical and generally heavier is better. Most often in the Willamette, Columbia or Tillamook Bay, 10-, 12-, and 14-ounce sinkers covers all the bases. In the shallower water of Tillamook Bay, for example, I might drop down to 6 or 8 ounces and get them way back behind the boat. Fishing the strong tides and depths at the mouth of the Columbia is a different story. In the Buoy 10 fishery, for example, 14-, 16-, and 20-ounce sinkers are the norm with a strong lean towards 20. Some guides use 24 ounces, but personally I lose interest in salmon fishing if I have to use 24 ounces.
Line scope is the amount of line (distance) from rod tip to your flasher. Keep in mind that “skateboards” have tremendous drag/pull when working at the proper speed so you will not easily achieve the favorite 45-degree angle we are accustomed to when using triangle (in-line) flashers or no flasher at all. What that means is that you will have to use more weight and more scope to get to the desired depth.
I highly recommend using a line counter reel, which is the standard for salmon trolling because precise depth and distance is everything. The Shimano Tekota 400 or 500 loaded with 65-pound Power Pro braid is a hard combo to beat. I don’t have a formula for depth and scope when fishing 360s, probably because there are too many variables for my brain to compute. So here is where “guide intuition” comes into play. This is also another instance where your fish finder can help you figure out where your gear is in relation to the depth. My Lowrance depth finder often shows me where my port side bow rod’s gear is working. My transducer is mounted at the port side corner of the boat hull, so that’s the side I get the best picture. When really dialed in, I can see the sinker, flasher and bait on my screen and know exactly what depth it is fishing. Again, trust your electronics. Here is an example of how I would stagger my lines if I had four rods to work with.
Say I’m working 35 feet of water along the sands at Astoria on an outgoing tide. I want to fish close to the bottom because I’m marking fish at 30 to 34 feet. With 16-ounce sinkers on the bow rods and 14-ounce sinkers on the back rods, I’ll have my clients in the front let out 38 and 40 feet on the line counters and the clients in the back will let out 48 and 50 feet on the line counter reels. That’s just one example of how to put them out there using “guide intuition.” Then adjust your speed to get the sexy thump, that pumps 1-1000, 2-1000, 3-1000, just about one beat a second.
Many captains will use the same size sinker all the way around the boat, but I prefer to use heavier sinkers up on the bow rods and lighter sinkers toward the stern. I feel it spreads the back and front rods a little farther apart, resulting in fewer tangles. The crux of my guide life is to avoid tangles at any costs. Commonly, if I’m fishing four rods, my bow rods will have 16 ounces and the back, or stern rods will have 14 ounces. If a fifth rod comes into play it would go way out the back, long-lining with 12 ounces.
Should you hover, or should you troll with the tide? The easy answer is just do what all the other boats are doing. Not a bad plan, but truth be told, I first consider what kind of tide I have to work with. Is it big and strong or is it minimal? With 360s you should try to keep your speed under 5 miles per hour (3 mph is better). The Willamette is a no brainer and it runs so slow you can almost always troll both directions regardless of what the tide is doing. The Columbia is a faster-moving river and “skaters” will be better off trolling downhill with the tide. On the lower Columbia, downstream from the mouth of the Kalama River, you get some pretty strong incoming tides that will push the current back up the river. Most of the time, trolling with the tide is a better choice in these conditions. Down in the estuary, trolling with the tide is most common. But, I have seen it many a time when there is an epic bite holding into the current with your trolling motor whizzing maximum RPMs. Backtrolling with skateboards and anchovies is a common thing down at Buoy 10 especially on big flood tides. Coho respond really well to this kind of presentation. Obviously, if everyone around you is trolling with the tide, don’t get into the thick of them and hover into it, messing up their groove. Use common sense and defer to your best etiquette. In most coastal bays and the Puget Sound, the size of the tide will dictate which direction to troll. Most often, I don’t feel confident going against the tide.
I’ll take a couple moments to talk about rod action and length. A 9- to 11-foot rod rated for 10-30 lbs. (or 12-25 lbs.) is what you’re looking for, especially considering the copious amount of lead we hang off of them. Anything lighter than that and your 12- and 16-ounce sinkers will max out the rod, potentially giving you problems with breakage and reducing your hook-ups. Action is another important consideration and what I can tell you is that magnum taper is not what you’re looking for in a good 360 rod. Action terms like “parabolic”, “slow”, and “uniform” are what makes a good skateboard stick. It’s hard to find a good fiberglass rod anymore that could handle the big cannonballs we use, but I think fiberglass or graphite-glass hybrid would be a good material for the ultimate 360 rod. But leave it to G. Loomis to come up with a lightweight graphite rod that easily gives to the tug, tug, tug of a Pro-Troll flasher. Their line of salmon mooching rods have the precise, slow, forgiving action that you need for this style of fishing. I don’t think any manufacturer gives as much attention to the desired action needed for each specific technique. The 9’9” SAR 1174, in either IMX or E6X graphite is the Excalibur of 360 rods.
Whether you have never tried them, already experimented with them or have it down to your own science, 360 flashers are relatively new to the Pacific Northwest salmon fishing scene. I’m sure there is more to learn about them, and I welcome that. But trolling skateboards for salmon is hardly the end-all, be-all to salmon fishing. No doubt, there will be another “gimmick” or “fad” to come along and annihilate everything we thought we knew about trolling for salmon. Until then, skate or die!