BY RANDY WELLS
As a charter boat skipper, there is nothing that puts huge smiles on anglers’ faces like the aggressive bite and fight of silversalmon.
Each July, coho flood into the Gulf of Alaska and make their way to the streams from which they came.
The waters surrounding Seward represent one of the top destinations for these hard-fighting fish, and with a limit of six per angler inside Resurrection Bay, it’s no wonder that anglers follow these bright fish right to this amazing town.
Silver salmon usually weigh 8 to 12 pounds, but individuals weighing 20 pounds have been landed, and Alaska’s state record is a near 27-pounder caught in Icy Strait. Coho in saltwater and when they first hit freshwater are bright silver – hence their nickname – and have small black spots on the back and on the upper lobe of the tail fin. They can be distinguished from Chinook salmon by the lack of black spots on the lower lobe of the tail and by their white gums; Chinook have small black spots on both tail fin lobes and they have black gums.
A SUMMER STAPLE
Although each of the five Pacific salmon species has a similar life cycle, each has a different life span. All are similar in the way that a female digs a nest – known as a redd – and deposits thousands upon thousands of eggs, which are fertilized by the male’s sperm, known as milt. The eggs develop over the winter, hatch in early spring, with the alevin remaining in the gravel utilizing their yolk until emerging as fry in May or June.
The amount of time spent in the ocean is where each of the five salmon species differs. Pink salmon return at less than two years of age, thus their small size, while most Chinook stay at sea for several years. Male and female silvers stay in the salt for 18 months before returning as full-size adults. They usually weigh 8 to 12 pounds but often break 15 pounds in the waters surrounding Seward.
According to Alaska Department of Fish and Game, silvers enter their spawning grounds in Alaska from July to November. In the waters near Seward, silvers begin to show in the ocean as early as June and are regularly filling fish boxes by July 10 each year. Resurrection Bay is jam-packed with silvers by the middle of August, plus local rivers like the Kenai begin to produce these salmon as well.
Once these chrome beasts hit the rivers they are much easier to track down, but when targeting them in the salt it can be a bit more of a challenge. The first thing to do is locate bait, as is the norm in most saltwater fishing – as the saying goes, find the bait and you’ll find the fish.
A good pair of binoculars is a must to scan the water for birds hovering and diving or – even better – salmon jumping. Remember that these salmon are heading to their spawning grounds in various rivers, so studying your navigation charts is crucial. For example, Johnstone Bay, which leads to Excelsior Lake, is located in the Gulf of Alaska just to the east of Resurrection Bay and has a run of silvers that push into the lake and then into streams to spawn. I target these silvers every year as they stack up in the saltwater near the entrance to the lake waiting to push in and spawn. Moreover, I have found thatsilvers follow the shorelines or contour lines, which can be seen on your chart plotter. I believe it’s because the salmon are chasing bait that can be found on shelves and structures along the shore.
If you have fished Seward for silvers in the past, you know there are the regular, everyone-knows types of spots like Pony Cove. But trust me: There are so many more places to fish; just study your chart and you will find new hot spots and come home with some big and tasty salmon.
As for catching them, as a charter boat skipper who chases silvers over 60 days each summer, I have two strategies: trolling and mooching. When the salmon are just starting to show in June, I have found that trolling is the best way to find and catch. And once silvers are thick by mid-July, sitting atop a bait ball and dropping a mooching rig is the quickest way to fill the fish box.
The set-up for trolling silvers is simple: I use a Lamiglas
Kenai Kwik 803 Series rod, with the Tica Sea Spirit linecounter reel spooled with 40-pound mono. This rod-and-reel combo is perfect for trolling silvers and can double as a mooching rod. Just troll between 1.2 and 1.5 mph.
For hardware, there is no better flasher than the Yakima Bait Big Al’s Fish Flash (I use the No. 10 size). The reason I only troll with the Fish Flash is more than the high-quality components or huge selection of colors; when you hook a fish while trolling this flasher, you only fight the fish, not the flasher. Thanks to its design, it spins freely in the water – hence no flasher drag.
If you are not trolling with downriggers, use a B-N-R Tackle spreader bar ahead of your flasher. This set-up will keep your dropper weight down and away from your flasher.
Speaking of weight, I recommend a 6- to 8-ounce cannonball sinker. Use an 8-foot leader from the flasher to your bait or spinner and split your leader in the center with a bead-chain swivel to avoid a true mess.
The final step is the bait or spinner selection. Green-label plug-cut herring brined with Pro-Cure Brine-N-Bite is my bait of choice. For spinners, a pink Rooster Tail is hard to beat. When I am fishing more than one rod – and that’s 100 percent of the time – I split my gear 50-50 – half spinners and half plug-cut herring. This combination will fill your freezer!
Once the silvers are thick enough to mooch for, it becomes a crazy feeding frenzy – and one I often dream of. The first thing I look for are birds diving on bait, which is like a big sign that says, catch your limits here!
I make a straight track to the bait ball while stopping short to be sure not to run through the baitfish and push the salmon deep and possibly turn off the feeding frenzy. There will frequently be a few boats mooching a bait ball and having an amazing bite when another boat shows up and drives right over the bait, destroying the bite –don’t be that guy.
Even worse is when a boat gets their limit and pushes up on step, blowing past the other boats and right over the bait. Instead, slip atop the bait and slip out; everyone around you will appreciate it.
The mooching set-up is as easy as it gets. I use my same Lamiglas 803 trolling rod and Tica reel, a 4- to 6-ounce banana sinker with a bead chain connected to one end of the weight. Add a 12- to 20-inch, 40-pound-test leader with a Hoochie King hoochie skirt to the bead chain end of the weight. The plastic squid is such a versatile lure in the ocean. Color and size matter when it comes to your options, so check out hoochieking.com for a huge selection and the best prices I have ever found. You will lose a lot of these amazing baits, so buy in bulk. Pink and chartreuse are my go-to colors.
Once on top of the bait ball, drop your hoochie skirt down past the bait ball. Reel-stop-reel-stop-reel is the best way to work this bait. The bite can be soft, and you will often get bit while dropping your bait. If you’re fishing 200 feet of water and you’re dropping to 80 feet but your line goes slack at 20 feet, it’s not bottom. Close your bail, reel in your slack and set the hook – you have a fish on! With six lines in the water and a feeding frenzy under the boat, there is no better fishing fun in Alaska.
An additional tip that will help make these sometimes nonaggressive fish bite is the Pro-Cure Chum Bomb. If you are marking fish, but they just won’t bite, it’s chum time. Many charters have learned the importance of a chum bag.
Cut about 10 pounds of black-label herring in thin and small chunks, put the chopped bait along with a 3-pound weight in a chum bag, and then soak the chum with Pro-Cure Herring, Squid or Sardine Oil. Place the bag in the water off your stern about 3 feet down. Be sure to shake the bag as you drift to let the scent and herring chunks float out.
You will bring the silvers right to your boat and start a feeding frenzy, plus the school will follow as you drift along. In addition, dropping chum bags will really put these fish on. Chop up 2 to 3 pounds of herring in the smallest chunks as you can. Put the herring chunks in a bag with Pro-Cure Herring Oil. Place a 24-ounce jig attached to a halibut rod in the bag as well – making sure to tie the bag to your line – and cut slits in the bag to let the air out. Drop the jig down to about 30 feet, jerk aggressively to break the bag and free the chum. I do this every 10 minutes at different depths to bring and keep the school at my boat. Using these techniques will bring on a bite, as my best trip in 2015 was 36 silvers for six anglers in 19 minutes. Trust me, it works! ASJ