My formal salmon mooching education began in 1975 in a classroom at The College of Fisheries at the University of Washington. My professor brought in a guest lecturer, a highly renowned Puget Sound moocher named Gus Zarkades. Listening to Mr. Zarkades infused me with OCD approach to presenting a spinning herring. By the time he got done talking, I was convinced that salmon were the fish equivalent of Morris the Cat, the erudite feline in the 9 Lives cat food ads of the 1970’s.
Fast forward to August 26, 1993: It’s 6 a.m. with four customers aboard, including Harold Brown and his wife Gerry who have fished with me every year since. We arrived at Vistkari Rocks just 7 miles west of Sitka. The Browns had to fly out late that morning and hoped to catch some silvers before takeoff. We dropped four perfectly spinning baits down on long, brand new leaders. Everything looked perfect. We were rewarded with two big silvers. The other two baits got chewed, so I replaced all four and we dropped again. This time we hooked four silvers. Clearly, a frenzied school had taken residence under the boat, but I still checked the spin of each bait, replaced leaders with the slightest flaw, and aimed toward perfection. In an hour, we had 24 silvers in the boat and decided to drop the baits to the bottom for halibut. We couldn’t get a herring down. No matter how beat up the bait, no matter how bad the spin, no matter how curly the leader, the silvers hit everything.
We switched to using long strips of guts from our freshly caught silvers. Those baits got bit repeatedly by silvers on the way down and when they hit the bottom. These frenzied fish ate anything we tried. They even bit bare hooks after chewing off the bait. In the 20 years since that morning, I’ve seen salmon hooked on salmon guts, back strips cut from the carcasses of filleted salmon, and all kinds of plastic baits – Berkley Gulp sand eels being my favorite. We caught a 38 pound king one day on a halibut rod on a strip of salmon back strap and some guts fished on a 16/0 circle fished with 2 pounds of lead on the bottom in 330 feet of water. Five years ago my deckhand put a Gummy Worm candy on a single hook and a king jumped right on it. Four years ago we gutted a king that had four juvenile wolf eels in its stomach. In the gut of kings we find needlefish, herring, krill, shrimp, squid, and Pacific sand – that’s the short list. They also eat juvenile fish including salmon, cod, rockfish, and pollock.
So, which is it with salmon? Alley cat that eats anything or fussy old Morris the Cat? The answer is both.
Salmon swimming near their home rivers, like those returning to Puget Sound that Gus Zarkades targeted, are on the fast fade from the feeding phase of life. They often display a pronounced fussiness that rewards anglers that pay great attention to detail. We’re talking launching the boat at 0-dark 30, precise positioning, and a perfectly spinning herring on a long, light leader. Salmon on their feeding grounds in the open Pacific, which are schooled up and competing wildly for a meal, make far fewer demands. In this setting they sometimes go on bites where they’ll seemingly eat anything. We saw that indiscriminant aggressive side again this summer in Shelikof Bay with silvers eating silver guts intended for halibut.
Despite the possibility of a wide open bite like we see around Sitka, I start each day aiming for the perfect spin and the flawless leader, all fished in a precise location. Gus Zarkades and the Morris the Cat still live with me. If Morris will eat it, any cat will.