Salmon fishing in the ocean comes in two forms — trolling and mooching.
Mooching. The times I have heard this term in my life meant that someone was trying to get something from me, something for free. I think we all grew up with a "moocher" in our crowd. You know — he's the one who never had enough change for a soda, never brought enough tackle — you remember him, don't you?
Well I am here to tell you that moochers are alive and well and they don't fit the description of my memories. On the west coast from California to Alaska, moochers can be found fishing for salmon. Only these moochers come well equipped, and I found myself "mooching" off them for bait and advice.
Mooching on the west coast is what east coast anglers call drift fishing. With some subtle but important differences, mooching is just that — drift fishing.
Salmon fishermen up and down the Pacific coast are as avid as any land-locked bass angler, perhaps even more. They take their salmon seriously, and when the season opens, the lives of whole cities of people along the coast turn to the fish and the fishing.
The fishing. Salmon fishing in the ocean comes in two forms: trolling and mooching. Trolling involves downriggers or planers that will take a trolled herring or flasher or drone spoon down 150 feet or more. Mooching is a much slower, and some say calmer method of fishing.
Stories abound as to where the term "mooching" originated, all of them involving a scenario where one angler "mooched" a bait from another. Whatever the origin, mooching is a primary salmon angling technique, and anyone with just a little knowledge can mooch for salmon.
King salmon (Chinook) are comparatively deep-water fish. Baits, whether trolled or drifted need to be at least 100 feet deep. With that kind of depth, a mooching weight is necessary to carry the bait down. Most anglers use a "banana" weight, streamlined and bottom-heavy and usually capable of sliding up and down the line. Some banana weights are molded with eyes on each end and are therefore a stationary part of the terminal tackle.
The size of the weight is determined by the combination of current, wind speed, and wind direction. On a good day, the wind is light and is blowing the same direction as the current. This lets the boat drift at the same speed as the current, and a weight as small as one ounce is all that is needed to get the bait down. Conversely, on a day that the wind and current are moving in opposite directions, a weight as heavy as six to eight ounces may be required. I've seen days that it took a sixteen-ounce weight to get the bait down to 100 feet. Whatever the circumstance, use only enough weight to get your bait down. Less is better in this case — don't overdo it.
To the weight eye or to the swivel, depending on the type of weight, is tied a leader in the fifteen- to twenty-pound test range. This leader is usually four to five feet long and ties to another swivel. To that swivel is tied another two feet of leader, terminating on a circle hook. This second swivel helps deter twists in the leader caused by a spinning bait.
King salmon grow to almost 100 pounds. For those questioning the lighter leader, remember that mooching means drifting. That means that the fish have as long as they like to inspect the bait and terminal tackle. Heavy lines and leaders tend to spook fish in the clear waters of the Pacific. Lighter lines and leaders draw far more strikes. A reel spooled with the proper amount of line and a properly set drag will catch an awfully big fish.
Reels need to hold at least 300 yards of line. Remember, you are fishing with twenty-pound test line or less, and a 50-pound salmon will spool you in a hurry if your reel can't hold that much line. In general, mooching reels are conventional reels, although a number of anglers will use spinning tackle. If you choose a spinning rig, make sure the reel has a large capacity spool.
When baits are down and rods are in the rod holders, all eyes are on the tips of the rods.
Mooching rods are specifically designed for this fishing. As long as eight to ten feet, they have a good backbone coupled with an extra fast taper on the tip. This super flexible tip is a key ingredient in the tackle recipe.
Salmon tend to be "up feeders." That is they will take bait while swimming up toward the surface. Many bottom varieties of fish come off the bottom, grab a bait and head straight down. Rods double over when these fish strike, and they generally hook themselves. Salmon are far more subtle.
When baits are down and rods are in the rod holders, all eyes are on the tips of the rods. The flexible tips are bent over because of the weight. Since salmon feed up, they tend to take a bait and swim up, taking the weight with them. Anglers watch to see the rod tip move up ever so slightly, indicating a fish has taken the bait. At that point, it becomes a race of sorts to catch up with the fish by quickly reeling line until it tightens. This has to be a quick reaction, because the salmon will spit the bait once the drag of the weight and terminal tackle is apparent.
Circle hooks are used both by choice and by law. Barbless circle hooks are also stipulated in most locales. As with any circle hook, the trick to hooking the fish is to simply apply pressure and let the circle hook do its job. Fish will almost always be hooked in the corner of the mouth, allowing for an easy catch and release.
Bait used for mooching is almost always anchovies or herring. Live or dead, whole or cut, there are numerous "secret" ways to get your bait on that circle hook. The key to all the dead baits is that they need to spin. Even drifting, the wave action moves the boat enough to cause baits to move in the water. Baits that don't spin don't catch fish! East coast anglers find that hard to swallow, because in general, the exact opposite is true for them.
The art of the "cut plug" bait has a variety of options. Most anglers use a 45 and 45 cut, meaning that the head of the baitfish is cut off at a 45-degree angle vertically and a 45-degree angle horizontally. Like a carpenter's crown molding cut, this combination angle literally makes the bait spin under the slightest water pressure, something the salmon almost require.
Remember, this is slow fishing. Salmon have time to inspect and re-inspect the bait. Baits need to be neat and clean. They need to have as few missing scales as possible. Once a bite is missed, it is fruitless to fish with the same bait, even if it is still on the hook. Missing scales and scars on the bait will deter more action.
Mooching often works when trolling fails to attract a strike. Sometimes the fish just want a slower presentation. So, if you troll for a while in an area where fish are present (fish finders are a great tool to have), try slowing it down to a drift and mooch your way to the fish.
Slow fishing (drifting with the current or wind and watching the rod tips) with a little music and friendly conversation — it just doesn't get any better on the west coast. Salmon fishing like this is like "mooching" a good time away from work!