Spoon and Spinner Fishing With Super Lines for Salmon and Steelhead
Six seasons ago, the author switched mono mainlines for non-stretch super lines when tossing metal and has not looked back. Here’s why.
By Bill Herzog
Twenty-five years ago, spectra fiber braids were still years from practicality on steelhead and salmon rivers. The first braids were difficult to work with. I made no mention of them in a book I wrote on spoon fishing, even though the first generation of super lines just became available. Questionable knot strength paired with zero abrasion resistance made them difficult to use (at the time) for river fishing. I watched a fellow at the outdoor show in Portland “break” a new super line by rubbing it vigorously with a paper towel. Yes, a paper towel. This demo alone turned me off to braids.
Even when braid technology improved, super line properties of the time featuring extra limpness caused irreversible backlashes, all too frequent loops around rod tips, and rough texture while reeling/casting made them, again, difficult and unpleasant to work with. After several ghastly attempts at lure fishing with them did no more than create some impressive trains of compound expletives, I swore off them, literally, leaving them to the world of saltwater jigging and promising to always stick with high quality monofilament for spoon and spinner fishing.
Steelhead and salmon fishers had been quietly experimenting with braided lines for lure fishing for years before I came on board. I read the occasional blurb in magazines, but along with many others just could not get used to the extreme difference when using braid compared to the silence and ease of mono. That, my fellow anglers, has all changed. The last few years, breakthroughs in super line performance has flipped attitudes enough so that super lines have become the “go to” for fishing spoons and spinners for steelhead and salmon. Now that I’ve been using braids for mainlines exclusively for over six seasons, let me explain how this change manifested itself.
Remembering conversations with several anglers who switched over, curiosity got the better of me. So, I filled a few reels up and went fishing. My first season using them I spent two months spinner fishing for coho, then four months of winter/spring steelhead spoon swinging. What I found was the newer braids and super fused lines had changed dramatically. They were ultra-slick, smooth, quiet and stiff — properties first generation lines were missing. I first noticed these qualities when float fishing. The stiffer lines made casting and mending easier. They also casted much easier, and the retrieving smoothness paired with silence through rod guides had me convinced. They were so much more manageable; they did not twist (especially notable when spinner fishing) or leap off the spool of spinning reels. And they resisted backlash on level winds and rarely wrapped around rod tips. To say I’m a convert is an understatement.
It’s been five years since I first adopted super lines, and after having looked through my fishing journal, here are some pros and cons of lure fishing with super lines.
PROS OF SUPER LINES
Feel: Feel is increased exponentially due to near zero stretch. And I would argue this is the number one reason to choose braid over mono. Every movement of the lure, no matter how subtle, is transferred to the hand. Even when using the most expensive, ridiculously light, strong and sensitive high modulus rods, stretchy mono dulls the “thump” of the spinner blade and spoon body. Even the most practiced of the lure flipping clan must watch line movement and simply best guess at where in the water column the lure is, and what precisely, it is doing. One of the most difficult parts of drifting spoons and spinners in rivers is recognizing the exact moment when your lure contacts the rocks. With mono, we watch for a slight line shudder, halting of downstream movement, or a dull pull to identify bottom contact. This is the moment when most lures are donated. By the time mono draws tight enough to feel, the lure is often already wedged. The sharp transfer of feel using no stretch braid allows anglers to immediately identify starting depth. Retrieval begins instantly after contact with structure, reaction time is zero and presentations begin now. Imagine steelheading in hi-def.
Better Hooksets: Hooksets at a distance have always been a 50-50 proposition with mono. We’ve all been there, more times than we can count. After a long cast, the slam of the fish occurs followed by a Herculean hook-set. The rod tip is high and behind your head, you’re reeling faster than a nuclear-powered line winder, and the fish gives two head shakes and without warning it’s gone. What?! Even though your hook was needle sharp, you lost that fish to the stretch of mono. There’s minimal power transfer with mono.
Try this experiment. Have one of your henchmen stand 60 to 80 feet from you with a favorite rod loaded with mono. Hang onto the end of the line and have him set the hook as hard as he can. Amazed you will be (as Yoda might say) at just how little force is transferred to your hand. Wonder why so many fish come off at this distance after a few head shakes, even when they blast the lure? Try it again, this time with no stretch super line. I promise you that the line will ping out of your hand or cut your fingers if you’re not careful. With zero stretch it seemingly doesn’t matter the distance between you and the lure; hooksets are powerful and little energy is lost with super lines. Numbers of bites now become landed fish.
One stat of note. Last year this angler went 19 for 29 when spoon fishing for steelhead and 24 for 29 when fishing fall coho on the Olympic Peninsula. That’s roughly two out of three fish that made it to the bank. Per my journal notes, landing percentages for the last 30 years were nowhere near this high with mono.
Slack line strikes, common when lures fall and tumble in front of aggressive fish (coho are famous for this) are nothing more than a slight tap or a flat drop in the mainline, as if someone has swiftly cut the line when using mono. Slack line hits are now a sharp thump felt deep in the hand with braid. In this brave new world, we work smarter and harder now for less, and every strike counts. Braid helps tip the odds back to the angler.
Better Presentation: The wind has been, is now, and will always be the sworn enemy to the proper presentation of river anglers, spoon and spinner fishermen occupying the pole position. A pregnant bow in your line upstream or downstream guarantees most, if not all, feel to lures is kaput. With braid, the all-important “thump” of the lure can still be felt, even with the presentation-killing, unavoidable bow. It’s still difficult to keep lures moving at the correct speed and depth when fighting the wind, but the increased feel tells the angler how to adjust the rod angle to best remedy this no-win situation.
Easier to Mend: We love spectra lines for float fishing because they do just that, float. When spooning, like a fly fisher, we mend our line to ensure correct line angle from lure to rod tip. It’s simple with floating braid. (Yes, there is a way to get the lure to sink properly, we’ll get to that shortly.) This floating property of the line not only allows for extended presentations, acting like an elongated float, it’s great for presenting a spinner when casting upstream. This allows anglers to keep lures “floating”, away from structure. When switching to floating super lines, we must learn to give more slack to the moving lure to allow it to sink and change angle.
Better suited to casting reels: Normally, when choosing lines for salmon and steelhead we stay in heavy realm; 15- to 20-pound test mono is common. Heavy monos require larger-spooled reels for capacity. Most casting in-hand reels today do not feature larger capacities. This can be an issue when frequenting larger river systems and trophy fish with a penchant for ripping off ludicrous amounts of mainline. Larger diameter monos restrict casting distance and the thicker diameter retards the sink. Enter tiny diameter super lines. Most braids for lure tossing will be 20- to 40-pound test, diameters akin to 12- to 14-pound monos, approximately .011 to .013. Which is insanely thin. This means a reel that may hold 170 yards of 12- pound mono can hold the same amount of 30-pound braid.
Easier to see: Super lines are easy to follow during a presentation. Either the lines are opaque in natural tones or bright, both can be followed in bad or low lighting. Which is important to the lure angler, as we can get very close (or stay away) from tackle grabbing (fish holding) structure and see slack line strikes, which are nearly impossible to do with natural toned monos.
They Tame The Beast: The number one reason I switched to super lines? Encounters with oversized, angry creatures. What I would have given to have these lines at my disposal all those years ago on the Skeena system targeting giant steelhead. Plenty were landed on mono, but I can promise there would have been many more of the largest beasts sliding up on the gravel bar had braid been available. Thin diameters mean higher capacity for long, uncontrolled runs and heavier lines can turn big Chinook, coho and steelhead away from potential hazards. Heavier mainlines land big fish quicker, which is important in catch and release fisheries. Like those fellas from BC were trying to tell me, when trophy hunting, spectra super lines really make a difference.
High-sticking: The complete absence of stretch presents several concerns. Playing large, crazy salmonids means keeping a low rod angle, far less than with mono to prevent exploding rods. If I only had a buck for every person who walked into a sporting goods store (when I worked behind the fishing counter) and handed over a splintered rod that blew up due to a higher than 11 o’clock angle while playing a fish with braid, I’d be on a beach in Mexico right now. No rod company will warranty a dead brained high stick maneuver like this.
Lighter drags: A lighter drag than normal must be used. Stretch helps when a hot fish rapidly shakes its head or bolts off to the sea. Hooks may easily rip loose or bend out, reaction time to a sizzling fish has to be immediate to prevent swift break-offs or hook failure. When fighting fish with a low rod angle, the normal cushion provided by the rod bend is absent, combined with zero stretch lines make lighter drags mandatory.
Sink Time: The floating property of braids can slow ever so slightly (but enough to make a noticeable difference) the sink time of your lure. Remedy this by casting a bit farther up current than normal, allowing a beat or two more of the blade to get down. It’s a slight handicap, and open division anglers will notice.
Careful hooksets: While landing fish becomes easier with braid, just like playing them requires a bit different approach, so does setting the hook. Slack line grabs still must feature a hit-yourself-in-the-ass-with-the rod-tip hook set, the classic slam, rip down when spoon and spinner fishing takes more of a Zen approach. And believe me, this is one part of the program that no one ever gets used to no matter how many strikes experienced (myself included). But trust me, solid hookups go way up when practiced. No stretch does not allow a fish to turn with the lure/hook, necessary for firm hook placement. Percentage of strike to solid hook up goes way down when the old air ripper is deployed on a hard grab. Take a leaf from the Spey fisher’s book on swinging flies. When a steelhead or salmon grabs the lure, a firm but not fast-raising of the rod will transfer all the power needed to set the hook. Plus, it allows that extra second for the fish to turn ensuring optimum hook placement. Most of the time, any reaction will still land plenty of fish but practicing the slower, calmer hook sets prevents lightly hooked fish from going bye-bye.
Cost: Expense is another disadvantage. Quality braid costs three times as much as the best mono. Expect to pay approximately $15 to $20 for a 150-yard spool. That’s a small trade off considering you need to change mono frequently while braid may last an entire season of hard use.
HOW TO RIG SUPER LINES FOR SPOON/SPINNER FISHING
Here is the standard rigging for winter/trophy steelhead or fall coho. Start with 30-pound mainline (12-pound diameter, approximately .011 to .013). From that, tie 8 feet of 15- or 20-pound “tippet”. For smaller fish, say summer runs or hatchery coho, try a 20-pound main line and 8 feet of 12-pound tippet. Want to fish for fall Chinook, or frequent rivers known for true giant steelhead? Go with 40-pound main line, one foot of 30-pound mono tied with a uni-knot to eight feet of 25-pound clear mono tippet.
Use only the uni-knot for all joints. Uni-knots are the only ones to use for joining braid to mono, as the nature of the knot simply butts up against itself, never allowing the cutting sharp nature of braid to easily slice through mono as a blood knot will do. The uni-knot has 95 percent knot strength, it passes through guides easily when casting and it’s simple to replace. Yes, there are a few other knots but why mess with them? The uni-knot is easy and fast to tie and works fabulous.
When you’re attaching lures, avoid the Cardinal sin of tying your lure directly to your mainline. The reasons are many, starting with snagging up. Yes, you may straighten out hooks to save your $5 spoon or spinner but more often a full line wedge just above the swivel occurs. Breaking off 30- to 40-pound super line is nearly impossible without dangers of severely cutting your hand, bending the spool on your reel or damaging your $300 rod.
Worst of all, when cutting the line is your only option and leaving a section of floating line (that never goes away) ruining a pool for other anglers is the ultimate sin. An 8- to 10-foot section “shock tippet” or “top shot” of mono is the best and only option for river fishing. Super lines do get fuzzy after a lot of casting, especially the top 20 feet or so. Pay attention to mainlines. When wear begins to show, cut back to where roughness stops and re-attach the mono top shot. After a season of use, peel off all the line from your reel, reverse it and put the fuzzy used portion on first.
The name alone should provide the first clue why adding this length of mono is not an option. Hang-ups are simpler to remedy, as the tippet is somewhat lighter than the mainline. What ends up getting lost is the lure, or at worst the tippet and lure. Mono sinks, unlike the floating super line, so revolving lures can be presented at depth faster and at “normal” attitude. It’s called shock tippet for good reason — the stretch of the short length of mono provides a cushion, so to speak, when a hot fish strikes ferociously or makes lightning swift changes of direction without fear of hook(s) ripping free. The rubber band effect of mono shock tippet also prevents a determined head shaker from easily throwing a barbless hook. Lastly, super lines are opaque. While most aggressive salmonids would strike a lure tied directly to a bright yellow line (or an opaque natural toned one), just as many or more turn away at the last second. Numbers of the strikes go way up when a section of camouflaged natural toned translucent mono is tied to the lure. Mono knots don’t slip out and are far easier to tie to the lure.
Build your shock tippets with the highest quality mono. Do not use fluorocarbon; there is no need for this expense. Knot strength is far better, plus steelhead and salmon are not bothered the least by natural-toned monofilament. Yes, this setup is heavy, but so are 20-plus-pound steelhead and salmon. Employing anything lighter when using a trophy technique like spoon fishing and chances are pretty damn good lures will simply be vaporized at the end strike by the one that you waited your whole life for.
The style of rod used for spoon fishing super lines may surprise you. Remember this is my opinion and this comes from talks with several excellent lure fishermen and over a thousand hours of on the water experimentation.
First, we still want to easily feel the movement of the lure through a presentation. A parabolic rod from 9 ½ to 10 ½ feet, rated either from 8 to 12 pounds, or 10 to 15 pounds, is ideal. The rod moves well throughout its length allowing the lure to impart its full action with little restraint, unlike a mag taper or much heavier rated blank. You’re probably thinking that is a light rod. Well, yes, it is, but not when you factor in rod angle. Keeping the rod low allows for greater transfer of power, as we do not want to play a fish any higher than 10 o’clock due to risk of losing that power and/or blowing up the blank. A bit more flex is also handy preventing break offs from zero stretch. Rods rated for 10 to 20 pounds when dealing with trophy-sized fish are fine if that blank still features parabolic action.
Your reel should be light in the hand, have a quality powerful drag and should able to hold at least 170 yards of braid. Because you are tossing a concentrated weight, I strongly suggest level wind reels for spoon fishing. A spinning reel is easier and more efficient when throwing spinners, as the big blades act like parachutes and this will be the start of some impressive backlashes with a level wind. But to each his own.
A common question is which works better, level winds or spinning reels for super lines? Depends on the preference of the angler. Myself, level winds are always first choice when throwing a concentrated weight like a spoon, for controlling large fish and just presentation in general. But for those who prefer spinning reels, a reel with a larger capacity spool should be considered.
Please do yourself a great favor by giving braid/fused super lines a serious try. Those of you that have already made the switch, spread the word. The re-inventing of classic techniques like spoon and spinner fishing is always exciting and adds to the enjoyment of a sport we can’t live without.