10 Strategic X’s and O’s for boating more blackmouth
By Kevin Klein
Football time is blackmouth time in the Pacific Northwest. Just about the time the pigskin regular season gets half way through, it’s time to skin some chrome pigs in the salt. Fishing for winter Chinook, primarily done trolling with downriggers, can be a very technical pursuit. Blackmouth are resident Chinook, also known as feeders. And they do like to eat. However, the places they live, and their attraction to bite, can be varied. To be successful, practicing, planning and preparing like a professional football team getting ready for the big game can pay off big time. Whether you’re fishing for real money and a title shot in a derby, or just trying to put the most fish in the boat, catching is winning, and winning is fun. Putting in the effort before, during and after a trip can make the difference between being part of a dynasty, or a perennial doormat. If you’re already flying high like ‘Hawks, or starting down like the Browns, there is always something to learn about catching blackmouth. Hopefully I can share some knowledge that will help you achieve a stellar season. With that, here are my Top 10 plays, drawn up in the dirt (or at least dragged through the mud) for winter Chinook.
1. Game plan before going.
I love to look at charts and tide prediction tables between fishing trips. Taking the information you’ve learned from your last outing, and putting it to work isn’t just “Monday morning quarterbacking”, it’s called being a student of the game. Just like a team watching game film, think about your last trip. What did you do that was successful? What could you have done differently if you got skunked? Write it down. Keep a journal. Hey, Kenny Stabler used to study the playbook by the light of the juke box, and Old Snake did just fine. Check out charts in the garage, or game plan with the crew down at the watering hole, but keep thinking about how to improve your fishing strategy when you’re off the water, as well as on the water. Read as much as you can on the subject, and put that knowledge from the page to use on the water. Things won’t click on the first trip. Or the second. But eventually experience and practice will begin to align the puzzle pieces for you, and you’ll catch more fish.
2. The Captain is the coach and quarterback, but is only as good as his team.
It doesn’t take a fivehead like Payton Manning to realize there can only be one captain. However, a good captain, like a good coach surrounds himself with a talented team. Does one person know how to fish an area you don’t? Go there. You just might learn something, and you just might catch a fish. Is one of your crew a master of rigging bait? Let him fish a herring and do his thing. Keep communication going. Are we trolling too fast? Too slow? What is everyone seeing out there? Don’t be afraid to call an audible. Huddle up and regroup when you can. Be ready to make adjustments at halftime. The best teams are ultra-competitive, but selfless within the organization. Lose the ego, and put the success of the team first.
3. Stick with the basic fundamentals. They worked before, they’ll work again.
I don’t change gear much. For blackmouth I’ll have a Silver Horde Tailwagger, or 3 ½-inch Kingfisher Lite spoon on one side, and a Silver Horde 3-inch spoon or Coho Killer on the other. I tie these 48 inches behind an 11-inch flasher with 25-pound test leader. If one side seems to be getting all the bites, I’ll go to that lure on both sides. I’ve tried lots of other lures and baits, and for the most part, they all work. However, I know these four to be proven producers, day in, and day out. Why switch up all the time? When your gear is being changed out, you aren’t fishing. Keep your downrigger cable angle swept back between 25 and 45 degrees. I don’t worry about speed, as much as angle. Trolling with the tide will be most productive. I run two downriggers, and never a third. That extra ‘rigger rarely buys bites, but it will come back to bite you. It can cause tangles on a turn, and is extra work to clear with a big fish on. Work on doing the right things to fish effectively and efficiently the most often. The team that does the right things most of the time, most of the time wins.
4. Establish the ground game.
Fish where the fish are … on the bottom. Winter Chinook like hanging out in the mud as much as John Madden used to like rambling on about it. Most blackmouth bites will come from trolling within 10 feet of the bottom. If your sonar is showing a flat, forgiving bottom line, then let your downrigger ball down slowly until you hit. This will give you an idea of how far off the bottom you really are, and can also create sound and silt that Chinook key on. Bounce once, and bring your counter up five feet or so. If you’re around rocky structure, you’ll want to stay more like 10- to 15-feet off. But keep your gear near the bottom. It’s where they live. If you come over a drop off, let out more cable and drop down to intercept the fish. Take what they give you, and fish where the fish are.
5. Find a football field sized piece of water and grind it out.
Make sure you’re at the right place at the right time. If you’ve found the fish, stay on them. This usually means sticking to a stretch of water about the same size as a football field. Make turns to stay on the fish. However, this fluid gridiron of fish may move with the tide. Move the chains and move with it. If you hook a fish, or keep marking fish in a spot, make a turn and come back around. Go over that spot again. There’s a reason most fish are caught in a small location. Something is holding them there. Whether it’s bait, tide, or structure.
6. Use technology to give your team an edge.
Field position is important. Use the contours on your chart plotter to run the routes that are most productive. Most of your bites will come in 90- to 160-feet of water. If you catch a fish out in 200-feet of water, suspended, ask yourself why was the fish out there? Or did it follow you out? I’m becoming more convinced that the fish follow our lures for a long time before striking. This means we can get their attention and pick them up in 100 feet of water, and they can finally bite in 200 feet. So, instead of thinking the fish are all out deep, get back to where you know they have been, in that 90- to 160-foot line. With new 3-D chart capable electronics, we’re able to see that the bottom may look different than what you might think. Winter Chinook do hold close to the bottom, but may actually hold on the “side hill” of a slope as well. This make sense because their flank and underside would both be protected by the hillside slope. When they are drawn off their holding position, and the depth of water increases underneath them, they become anxious, and that can trigger a strike. Are you fishing in an area with no bait and no fish marks on your sonar screen? You may want to consider a move. Good sonar will let you know if you should stay or go. Are you marking suspended balls of herring, or candlefish on the bottom? These are clues you can use to match the lure you’re using to what the bait fish look like. Mark your chart when you get a fish. That exact spot may produce fish for you again and again. Use everything available to give yourself an advantage.
7. Don’t be afraid to throw a “Hail Mary”.
Have you been to a few of your favorite spots with no success? Spread the field. You can catch fish just about any place at the top of the flood. Know a spot that is traditionally fished on an ebb tide? Fish it at high tide. If the tide is slack, try a point or pinnacle you’ve never fished before. Why wouldn’t the fish be there? There may not be a reason. I’ve seen quite a few derby winners come from throwing up a last minute “Hail Mary”. Makes the victory that much sweeter, with a better story!
8. “Be ready for the “snap”:
Will you and your team be ready for success? Do you all know your role when a good fish is on? If a big fish hits, and pulls the line out of the downrigger release clip, we spring into action. First, DO NOT slow the boat down. You want to keep making forward progress with the boat to keep tension on the line. Next, get both downriggers pivoted forward to the side of the boat, and get the clips out of the water. Keep communication going with the person on the live rod. Is the fish running? Coming at the boat? Three people is perfect for fighting a fish. Four is even better because that fourth person can get a video! One person drives the boat. This function can be huge for landing a fish. Slowing down, and turning to the correct side at the correct moment can bring a fish right to the net. Take the boat out of gear at the last minute if there is a chance the salmon might head for the motor. Conversely, sometimes speeding up can keep tension on the line, or get the salmon right where you want him. Second is the rod man. Reel hard, always keep tension on the fish, and let it run when it wants to. Lift and step backward when the fish has played itself out near the boat. Then give slack after the salmon is netted. The third person is the net man. Concentrate on keeping the net free from hanging up, and concentrate on the fish. When the fish comes within reach, slide that net under and scoop. Don’t jab with it. Then, when the fish is in the bag, pull the handle straight up and close the purse. Then lift up and in the boat (assuming the fish is legal). Of course, these positions can all be filled by two people, or even by yourself. I like to fish alone sometimes, and take pride when I accomplish the challenge of landing a big fish by myself. It’s difficult to teach all these assignments in a written playbook. Practice, patience, and perseverance will make the team gel.
9. If the weather is borderline, consider punting.
Unless you’re fishing in a tournament, going when the wind is blowing may not be the best choice. Even when fishing a derby, I’ve been out in some stuff that wouldn’t be considered “prudent” for boating, let alone fishing. No matter how seaworthy your vessel is, trolling in high winds can be more trouble than it’s worth. Depending on direction, you may be able to fish the leeward side of a land mass, or troll with the wind. But, you still gotta get out, and then get back. Don’t get blindsided. If it’s not looking safe, punt.
10. The right boat, and the right gear will facilitate winning.
Starting with a solid vessel is key to blackmouth success. A good rough water hull and reliable propulsion that will get you out and get you back safely is a must. A pilot house is nice for keeping dry and warm, but arguments can be made for any style of covered cabin boat. Enough room to maneuver on the back deck will make fishing a whole lot easier, and more productive. A trolling motor that is easy and functional to steer is a big plus, especially when the wind inevitably blows.
Modern electronics, operational and well maintained downriggers, rods and reels that work, sharp hooks, fresh line are the trademarks of a well-run organization. And when it comes to winter Chinook productivity, organization is very important. Is everything you will need to keep fishing effectively within easy reach and untangled? Things will go wrong, getting the gear back to work again quickly, and fishing effectively will buy you bites.
Fishing is fun. Getting towed back in, or not being able to go in the first place because of a boat break down, not so much. Fuel issues, due to ethanol in gasoline, and phase separation of water in the tank, cause by far the most problems with boats these days. Just like a team needs the right fuel for its training table, a boat needs the right fuel to run. Whenever possible, use non ethanol gasoline. If you can’t get non ethanol, make sure and use a good fuel additive every fill up. And if your boat is diesel powered, don’t put any kind of gasoline in it, because that would just be stupid. Kinda like throwing on the one-yard line to lose a Super Bowl, when you’ve got a guy whose handle is Beast Mode in the back field.
So blackmouth fishing has a lot of football metaphors that can be used to describe it, kinda like life. Guys like Steve Largent and Jerry Rice aren’t considered the greatest wide outs of all time because of talent, but because they out worked everyone else. Luck is preparation meeting opportunity. When you get good, and if you work hard and concentrate, you will succeed. Folks will begin to say, “You’re lucky”. Just smile and nod. We ARE all lucky to be able to pursue our passion for fishing. Some just have a bit more “luck” than others.