1. Pacific salmon are different: They don’t behave like most fish and it has to do with how they drive through their feed. Most fish drive into baitfish, grab and turn away. Salmon just keep swimming straight ahead, looking for more. They react to something not being right with what they ate by swimming up in the water column. The sensation of feeling the weight of your sinker or hooks often puts them on a sprint to the surface. Thus, setting the hook on a bite seldom works. With the fish moving up and/or towards you, you’ll be setting on slack line. The mantra you’ll hear from your captain and deckhand once you know a fish is biting is “reel, reel, reel”. By reeling fast, you catch up to that rising fish which prompts it to turn and swim away, at which point it will hook its self.
2. They don’t nibble. Back to how they feed – driving ever forward into schools of baitfish. At your end of the rod the sensation may be a light jiggle, jiggle, jiggle. Anglers new to salmon fishing often interpret this as nibbling. We’ve observed enough bites next to the boat to know that 99% of the time, when you’re feeling a bite, the bait is fully in the mouth of the salmon.
3. Salmon have a hard mouth: It’s almost impossible to hook a salmon that is pointed straight at you. They must turn at an angle to get hooked. The cookbook method on hooking your bites is to stop the moment you feel the bite – don’t set the hook, don’t reel. Confirm it’s a bite for as long as it takes to say, “I know I’m getting a bite” inside your head. Once you know it’s a bite, keep the rod tip steady and low – no jerking or hook setting – then reel.
4. Reel fast: don’t walk the dog. The purpose of the short pause on the bite is to give the salmon a chance to hold the bait and start swimming in a direction other than straight at you. The purpose of the reeling is to put the hooks into the hard mouth. If you reel just fast enough to keep pace with the fish, what I call walking the dog, it will eventually shake the hooks. If you reel faster than the fish moves toward you, it will hopefully clamp down on the bait and turn away. When it feels the tension of your line, it will swim away faster. If you’re tight to the fish and reeling at that point, the fish hooks itself.
5. Resubmit your proposal. Once you get a feel for when a fish has your bait and when a fish has dropped your bait, you will know when to give up on the reeling and offer the salmon a second chance. The basic rule is to reel when a fish is holding a bait, but the moment you know it has dropped the bait, let your sinker and bait drop back to the fish – and I mean fast dropping for 30 or 40 feet. Make the bait move away and try to motivate a second bite. If it picks it up and drops it again, resubmit again. I’ve watched some very accomplished moochers on my boat and one of the things that distinguishes them is working a bite over and over until they hook the fish or are certain the bait is gone. Sometimes it takes multiple submissions of that proposal, your bait, to get a fish committed and hooked up.
6. Follow your fish. Once you’re hooked up, follow your fish around the boat. We use bright green main line so you can see where that line is pointed. If you’re in the bow and your line is pointing toward the stern, head that way. The captain and deckhand will help you figure that out, so you avoid tangles and hanging up on the boat’s propellers. Also, trying to yank a fish away from where it’s going is a good way to pull the hooks out.
7. Net no fish before its time. A panicky urge to get the fish into the net results in lost fish. Salmon are erratic fighters. They will come to the boat in a hurry, but they aren’t the slightest bit exercised or tired. If you play tug of war with them and try desperately to horse a “green”, as in not tired, fish into the net, all sorts of bad things happened like pulling hooks out or breaking the line. For us to net your salmon, it must be tired enough so you can lead it into the net head first. Everyone wants the salmon on the end of the line in the boat, but rushing it works against that outcome.