Trolling Flashers, Super Baits for Columbia River Chinook Has Proven To Be Super Effective
By Andy Schneider
The rhythmic thumping of the rod was nothing short of hypnotic as the boat noiselessly cut through the glassy smooth water. The fog had settled in during the warm night and now hovered just inches above the water. Fellow boaters could only be identified by their dark shadows pushing closer and veering slightly away through the enveloping haze. An occasional muffled laugh or clatter of a coffee thermos on aluminum would reassure everyone that they were not alone in their pursuit of these prized upriver bright Chinook.
Each angler paid attention to their own bobbing rods, but also kept their gaze roaming over the other three rods surging and bouncing to their individual rhythm. A creak of the rod holder alerted the entire crew that something was going on with the aft-most rod. While the rod wasn’t folded over and bucking, the lure action was missing and it was definitely sitting a little heavier in the holder. My initial thought was that we just trolled through some seaweed. As the slight surge of adrenaline dissipated the rod tip took a hard and sharp jerk towards the water where it stayed as line peeled from the reel too quickly for as heavy as the drag was set.
Just when something was about to give—rod, line or fish—the heavy Chinook changed directions and made a blistering run at the boat creating a giant belly in the line. As the rod was finally lifted from the holder, wrists and fingers were put to the test as the angler franticly reeled hoping to feel some tension return to the line. Somehow the barbless hooks stayed pinned and as the fish made it’s first run past the boat. Everyone onboard saw that this wasn’t just any old ‘cookie cutter’ hatchery Chinook; oh no this was a thick beast heading for the fast water in the Hanford Reach of the upper Columbia River.
As hopes started to climb that this was going to be a trophy of a fish to compare all other fish this season to, the jaws and head of the Chinook broke the surface and started thrashing back and forth. Somewhere in the frothing water the dinner plate sized head found a way to escape the hooks and resume it’s 200-mile journey upriver. A quick inspection of the hooks, tackle and line revealed nothing wrong and as gear was redeployed, a surreal feeling came over the crew: did we all just witness the same thing? It was hard to ignore what just happened. The erratic movement of the lure caught the attention of an aggressive salmon cementing our belief that a Super Bait trolled behind a flasher was deadly effective. And while the short battle was a ghost of a memory the point was clear: this is a technique not to be ignored.
It was just a couple years ago that a morning incoming tide in August and September meant empty parking lots and an empty river except for the occasional paddle boarder or kayaker. But something has changed: upriver bright fishing isn’t just for the anglers on anchor anymore. In fact, an angler targeting upriver brights could leave his anchored stowed all season and have a more consistent season than someone who relied heavily on their tide book and only targeted the Chinook during an ebbing tide. In a matter of a few short years, anglers willing to experiment and venture away from tried and true tactics that were developed for a very successful fishery below Bonneville Dam for URBs, a strain of Chinook that returns to spawn in the far upriver reaches of the Columbia River.
Trolling herring, spinners and the now highly popular Super Baits has become a very reliable and consistent producer for Chinook below Bonneville Dam, just as they have been productive above the dams for years.
The Super Baits, manufactured by Brad’s Killer Fishing Gear, include Brad’s Super Bait, Cut Plug and Mini Cut Plug. They have all proven their worth behind an 11-inch Pro-Troll or Shortbus Super Series flasher. While anglers fishing pools behind dams have found success utilizing downriggers with these combos, many anglers downstream of Bonneville Dam have begun to use them with inline cannonball weights rigged up with 9- to 12-foot, medium action herring rods combined with a line counter reel.
Rigging a Super Bait starts with 50- to 65-pound braided mainline tied to a beadchain swivel. On your mainline, utilize a plastic weight slider with a large Duo-Lock Snap to attach 8- to 20-ounces of lead. A tee bead above your weight slider will help shed seaweed while a 8mm bead below the slider will help protect your knot from the heavy weight. Position 24 inches of 40- to 50-pound monofilament between your beadchain swivel and your flasher to allow the proper rotation of the flasher. Because they have a tendency to tangle gear lead dropper lines are not used with this rigging. Plus, most fish being targeted with this setup tend to be suspended.
Behind the flasher, the Super Bait, Cut Plug or Mini Cut Plug should slide down a fixed mooching rig; the total length should be 36 inches. Fluorocarbon leaders don’t seem to be overly important when fishing a Super Bait, but can’t hurt the cause. The most popular test leaders are 30- and 40-pound monofilament; this is mostly to ensure that the rig can be fished again after catching a fish. Since rigging a Super Bait can be fairly labor intensive, and can be downright tricky on the water, it’s every angler’s goal to have a rig survive a full day of fishing. There are countless different ways to rig hooks with Super Baits, but starting off with simple mooching rigs made of 4/0 single barbless hooks and/or 2/0 trebles is the simplest way to start.
As you look at the body of a Super Bait, you’ll find that it is hollow. This cavity is part of the genius design. You’ll find that it can be filled with whatever concoction you would think a Chinook would prefer. Herring, sardines, anchovies, shrimp, salmon roe and albacore are the most popular and productive ingredients. Give salmon fishermen some room for imagination and a one cubic inch to stuff it into, and well … you have some interesting cocktails. I’ve heard of cat food, garlic, Kosher salt (and other household seasonings), catfish bait, aquarium fish food, Berkley PowerBait and who knows what else. Of course all these ingredients can be served fresh and unmodified, but that might ruin all the fun of prepping the night before. The most popular way of ‘enhancing’ your Super Bait’s bait, is to use egg cures and scents. If using large pieces of fish, make sure to cut them into small manageable pieces so they can easily fit inside the cavity of the Super Bait. Put your freshly chopped baits into sandwich bags or small containers and add enough of your favorite egg cure to cover the baits. Adding too much cure can dry out your baits to a point where they are unmanageable to insert into the Super Bait. While the Super Baits come with a little sponge to add scents, they are good for a one-time use and are more often discarded by anglers in favor of pieces of bait.
While a flooding tide is usually the most productive time to target URBs on the troll, fish can be caught throughout the entire tide series. When fishing a flooding tide, pay close attention to your fishing electronics for suspended fish. Any significant mark on your screen could represent your target species, dropping or raising your gear to the depth of that mark is the only way you will have a chance at catching that fish. While it’s always easier to just, ‘set-it and forget-it’ like Ron Popeil would do, it’s not the most productive way to target upriver brights on an incoming tide. URB’s have a tendency to stratify throughout the water column on flooding tides and can be found as shallow as 10 feet below the surface, especially in the mornings. These same Chinook may also move tight to the bottom or hug some sort of structure or underwater contour, during the peak of the day or when there is heavy boat traffic.
During an ebbing tide Chinook tend to be a little more predictable and have a tendency to cruise 3 to 6 feet off the bottom as anglers on anchor have figured out long ago. Trolling with an ebbing tide tends to be the most popular way to fish Super Baits, but may not always be the most productive. While you will be covering a lot of water, sometimes holding against the tide or making a little headway against it can be the most productive way to fish. Along with finding respite from the 70-degree water in the Columbia, these URBs are on a mission to get to their spawning grounds. That said, sometimes it’s most productive to just let them come to you.
The proper speed to troll a Super Bait can vary from angler to angler, but most would agree than a slightly faster troll is needed than when trolling herring. The ProTroll and Shortbus flashers tend to provide the proper rotation with a water speed just shy of 2 mph. This speed should give the rod a distinct ‘thump’ every second. Trolling with the current or ebbing tide, your ground speed could soar to as high as 5 mph, but as long as your flasher keeps it’s productive ‘thump’, everything should be working properly.
Well-established Super Bait troll fisheries have been around the mouth of the Deschutes and Klickitat for years. And it’s more than likely here that downriver anglers mingled with upriver anglers and saw the effectiveness of this technique and adopted it for targeting fish below Bonneville Dam.
Just in one season’s time, Super Bait’s have seen success from directly below Bonneville Dam to Buoy 10. There really is no wrong place to troll Super Bait’s, but one area they constantly seem to produce are in areas close to tributaries, between wing dams and pile dikes and over bottom contours that are transitioning from deeper to shallower and then back to deeper water again. But as Super Bait anglers have found, this technique has been very versatile and productive in waters that are generally ignored when targeting URBs.
Super Bait’s are not the be-all-end-all of fishing techniques to come along, but it’s impossible to ignore their success. Just like any new technique arriving on the water, there will be those who jump head first into it, those leery but also inquisitive enough to pay attention to results and those just flat refusing to step out of their comfort zone. While there is sure to be another technique to surface that promises to be just as effective, there is no reason to doubt that Pro Troll and Shortbus Flashers effectiveness will continue. Having a well-stocked arsenal of fishing techniques, tackle and tactics and the persistence to utilize them all is the only sure way to consistently produce results day in and day out.