Fish Talk: How It's Caught: Salmon Trolling Season
As much an art as commercial enterprise, salmon trolling represents the archetype of the small-boat Southeast Alaskan fishery. A close cousin to sport fishing for salmon, commercial salmon trolling involves selecting the right lures for the right conditions and finding the fish to entice them with. A lot of the gear is the same between commercial and sport fishing, just scaled up in both size and quantity for commercial fishermen.
There are five types of wild pacific salmon species. King salmon, Coho (silver) salmon, Sockeye (red) salmon, Pink salmon, and Chum (Keta) salmon. Of those five salmon types, we primarily target two as a troller – the King and Coho salmon. Sockeye, chum and pinks are primarily targeted by the net fisheries like gillnetting and purse seining. There is a directed commercial troll fishery for chum out of Sitka, but that’s primarily a terminal harvest operation and focused on harvesting the eggs for a product called Ikura. Fishing in a terminal harvest area holds little appeal – there is a small area with a lot of boats in it, and it feels more like fishing at PetSmart than the open ocean.
When gearing up for the big Southeast Alaska King Salmon opener on July 1st, you usually select from a variety of lures. There are several types, and most fall within four categories – bait, spoons, plugs, and hoochies. We also can opt to use an attractor called a flasher. A little about each-
Bait is just what it sounds like – bait on a hook. Most of us use herring of a specific size that we salt ahead of time to toughen it up a bit, and when it’s ready we’ll hook it up on our line just so. This is called “threading” or “choking” a herring, and is a skill that takes many years of practice to perfect. If we do our part, the herring will rotate at just the right speed and width to attract the fish closer, and when a hungry king gets a whiff of the scent trail in the water it’s all but over for him. Herring can be very effective to use, but catch everything! If you inadvertently trolled through a school of the smaller and far less desirable pink salmon, every herring bait sent down would have a pink salmon on it. Not what you’re after during the very short King salmon season. For this reason, herring is mostly used where king salmon are the primary predators in the area, and other salmon and rockfish are less likely to be.
Spoons are metal lures with a hook on one end that are shaped just so, and that shape causes the spoon to flutter like a wounded baitfish while it’s being trolled along. All spoons are either painted or polished metal to maximize their attractiveness to our quarry. King spoons can range widely in size from a 1” long spoon designed to mimic small baitfish to large 10” and longer units that are meant to represent large herring or other fish of that approximate size. Every fisherman that uses spoons has favorites, and we lovingly polish each bare-metal spoon before the opener to bestow the greatest amount of luck in each one.
Plugs are some of the oldest types of salmon lures. They were originally wooden baits carved out of cedar or spruce to mimic larger baitfish. Typically designed to “wobble” when being trolled along, they used a large single hook to prevent a hungry king from spitting it out when he realized that tantalizing meal was not as it appeared. Plugs are mostly all made of plastic now, and are very expensive to buy. There are still a number of die-hard plug fisherfolk in our troll fleet, but the use of plugs has seen its heyday and they are slowly falling out of favor. We still use plugs from time to time, and have several that are older than most of you readers. These old warriors are scarred with king salmon teeth marks and their paint is completely gone – but they still catch due to their unique action. If we feel the conditions call for it, we will send a few of our old trusty plugs down to find the largest of the king salmon around. They do catch bigger fish on average, but even we will admit they don’t catch as many fish as other options. If we lost one of these plugs to a shark or a poorly tied knot, we think we would wear black for a week…
Hoochies are vinyl skirts that go over a hook and come in a nearly infinite variety of color combinations. They have a hollow head that the eye of the hook nestles into, and a skirt that is cut lengthwise into many “tentacles.” Most hoochies used for King Salmon are 3-5” long, and the preferred colors vary as widely as the fisherfolk that use them. Hoochies by themselves don’t have much of an action while being trolled along, so you almost universally rely on teaming a hoochie up with an attractor called a flasher.
Flashers are metal or plastic attractors that are designed to both reflect sunlight and impart action on a lure being towed behind it. They are usually 8”-14” long, depending on the model and purpose. Plastic flashers come in all sorts of colors and have stickers applied to them that reflect light. Metal flashers are polished to maximize reflectiveness. Flashers themselves don’t have hooks, but instead attract fish closer to the bait with the hook in it. Hoochies are the primary bait being towed behind a flasher, but small spoons, baited herring, and plugs can be very effective at times too.
Once You’ve selected your array of flashers and lures you're ready to try out on the opener, you need to decide how many of each to run. Our trollers are designed to pull lures slowly through the water, and this forward motion is what imparts the action on the baits to entice them to bite. But how to pull multiple lures through the water without tangling them all up?
This picture demonstrates the techniques that allow you to keep your lures separated and effective as you troll them through the water. You are allowed up to 4 “wires'' in most areas of Southeast Alaska, 2 per side. At the bottom of each wire is a “cannonball,” a heavy weight that keeps the wire mostly vertical in the water as you troll along. Each wire is kept on its own hydraulically-powered spool, called a “gurdy,” that we use to raise and lower the wires. The wire has evenly-spaced beads, called “marks,” for its entire length. You’ll see that the lures are being drug horizontally a distance behind the wire, and this line between the wire and the lure is called a leader. All lures are connected to the end of this monofilament or twine leader, with a clip on the opposite end of the leader called a snap. The marks are where you attach your fishing lures to the wire with the snap, and the beads prevent the snaps from sliding up and down the wire.
To set the gear, we start in the pre-dawn blackness and put the boat on a course we believe to hold fish, called a “drag.” If you think about what we do, dragging lures around for 16+\- hours a day, you’ll understand why it got that name. Under the deck lights, we’ll start to lower the wire out over the side of the boat. As the wire goes out (being held vertically in the water by the weight of the cannonball), we’ll reach over the side and snap a leader and lure on the wire at a mark. Depending on the type of fishing you’re doing, each wire will have anywhere from 6 to 40 leaders attached to it. Multiply that by 4 wires, and you can see that you’ll run anywhere from 24 to 200 lures at a time. For king fishing, you’ll usually run about 10 lures per wire, for a total of 40 lures in the water at once.
As the dawn breaks and we’re warming our hands around a hot coffee mug, we anxiously watch the wires for signs of fish. There is no mistaking it when a big king grabs a lure! When we see a bite on a wire, the crew will go and haul the wire back, reversing the process we used to set the gear out. Each leader will be unsnapped from the wire as it comes up and stowed carefully on deck so as not to tangle. When the lure with the fish comes to the top, the deckhand will fight the fish by hand the last bit to the back of the boat (this is very exciting for the crew, and nerve-wracking for the skipper!). The crew stuns the fish in the water with a sharp rap on the head with a gaff, and carefully lifts the fish aboard. Usually, the rest of the gear is brought aboard as well to check for fouled hooks, missing herring bait, etc. It is all reset promptly and the lures are fishing again. Immediately after, the fish is cleaned and prepared for storage in ice or slush to maintain the peak of freshness that the commercial troll salmon fleet is known for.
A good day of king fishing (18-20 hours on the 1st of July) can yield 50 kings, a great day is 100. We all dream of getting better than that, of course, and have all done much worse!
King Salmon season is very short, usually 6-9 days in July and about the same in August. That’s it. The entire summer catch of Wild Alaskan King Salmon by the commercial troller fleet happens in about 2 weeks total. This fishery is managed so tightly to ensure plenty of escapement for future spawning runs among other factors. We remember back when the king season ran from April until September. Boy, we caught a lot of kings back then. But as we know better, we do better. We sorely miss the opportunity to fish for the biggest of the Wild Alaskan salmon as much as we could in years past, but we understand and appreciate the need to be very careful with our salmon stocks to ensure future returns. This is where a conscientious consumer like those that buy from Catch Sitka can make a difference. Every king salmon you get came directly from us, or a boat like ours, and was harvested as part of an intensely managed fishery that is focused primarily on sustainability. By choosing Catch Sitka as your source of salmon, you’re choosing to support small-boat fisherfolk and a sustainable fishing model that allows us to continue to do what we love to do – partner with the good folks at Catch Sitka to bring the highest quality salmon directly to your plate.