How to Fish for Silvers in Saltwater
By Marcus Weiner
Coho fishing in the saltwater can often be spectacular. I’ve been lucky to witness wide-open bites in many salty locales around the Great Land, and a battle with any chrome buck in the 15-pound-plus range will give you plenty to remember. I landed one just south of 21 pounds in Sitka in 2014 that had me thinking I was fighting a hefty Chinook, and needless to say, the fish will remain forever etched in my memory.
When the bite is white-hot, a boat can be limited in a few hours. In some cases, this means six coho per angler, as the species is fairly plentiful across Alaska and limits are generous. As a general rule, coho get larger the longer they remain in the food-rich saltwater surrounding much of Alaska, so fish caught in the latter half of the season are generally larger.
Successful anglers look for schools of bait, bait congregation structure, migration lanes, birds working bait, and rip lines. Coho will also venture into open water without structure. Finding the depth where the silvers are schooled is another important element for success. Start high in the water column and work your way deeper. Coho can congregate anywhere from the surface to several hundred feet down, but in general, they are found higher in the water column. In low-light conditions, particularly dawn and dusk, baitfish often congregate in the top 30 feet of water and so do the coho. Tide change is also a particularly effective time to target silver salmon.
For the most part, anglers in saltwater catch coho by trolling and mooching. Additional techniques include jigging, power mooching, and casting and retrieving spinners, spoons and flies. We’ll start by examining these techniques as well as the basics of gear and tackle.
Trolling is the general term for putting baits and / or lures in the water and using the boat’s motors (or human power via oars) to move the boat and impart action to the lures. Generally, anglers troll for coho from 1.5 to 3.0 mph and are usually more effective when trolling with the current, as coho face into the current. Coho are fast-moving and prefer a lure with some action, so if you aren’t getting bit, consider changing your troll speed. If during turns and coho hit the outside rod, that tells you they want a faster moving lure. If the inside rod gets bit, that indicates that the silvers want a slower presentation.
Saltwater trollers generally use either downriggers or divers to get baits to the right depth. When salmon are high in the water column, another effective means is to flat-line the offering—use a 1- to 6-ounce banana weight to get the bait down to the fish. Typically flat-liners let out 50- to 150 feet of line.
In my opinion, downriggers are the most effective means of consistently presenting baits to salmon and also offer the advantage of fighting the fish without a weight. Downriggers are available in both electric and manual options, with many models and brands to choose from. Typical units use a 10-pound downrigger ball to get offerings to the right depth. Let out about 20- to 30 feet of line, attach the mainline on your rod to the downrigger clip and free-spool the rod. Let the downrigger ball down smoothly to avoid fouling your gear and choose a starting depth. On a well-equipped vessel, each angler has a downrigger to use. If space or budget is a factor, then multiple rods can be stacked on a downrigger. For example, attach one rod to the first downrigger clip and lower to 20 feet. Next, attach a second clip to the downrigger cable, attach that to a second rod and drop the ball another 40 feet. This would allow you to fish one rod at 40 feet and the other at 60. When a coho grabs the lure, the force of removing it from the clip usually sets the hook.
Since coho are a school fish, I’ve often found that when one fish bites, more will soon. So don’t be quick to get the other gear out of the water. I’ve been on boats where the captain would continue to troll while the angler fought a coho and this often resulted in more fish biting. When the action is fast and furious, anglers are fighting coho, netting fish, pulling up downrigger balls and dropping another lure into the zone. When the anglers work as a team, and the fish are biting, a lot of coho can be caught in a short amount of time
Divers are another effective means of getting the lures to the right depth but are limited to their designed diving depth and are less versatile than a downrigger. Still, they are very effective. A popular diver is the Luhr Jensen Deep Six and it comes in three sizes—the 000 dives to 40 feet, the 001 to 60 feet and the 002 to 90 feet. Tension can be adjusted on the diver to accommodate a range of currents and troll speeds, while still tripping when a fish strikes or when the angler wants to retrieve the diver.
Flat-lining is the least effective means of targeting coho but can work well as another searching mechanism while anglers are also using downriggers and divers to pinpoint depth. When coho are near to the surface, fishing a flat line is very effective.
Trolling Rods, Reels and Tackle
Since there are a wealth of rod makers in the market that make quality sticks, today’s anglers have a lot of good choices. A solid coho trolling rod is rated for 10- to 20-pound-test line (that’s a rating for monofilament), is 7 1/2- to 9 feet long, has a solid backbone with a soft tip, and is a baitcasting-style rod. We recommend Lamiglas, Okuma, Penn, Ugly Stik and Cousins.
Reels will need to have strong, smooth drags, ample capacity and an aggressive gear ratio so that anglers can pile line back on when a coho makes a long run. If you aren’t using a downrigger, then it’s especially advantageous to get a reel with a line-counter as this will allow you to better pinpoint the amount of line you’ve let out and replicate that distance when you find the coho. There are many reel manufacturers covering this segment; we recommend Penn, Daiwa, Quantum and Okuma.
We recommend using braid for your mainline and fluorocarbon for leaders. Thirty- to 50-pound braid is strong, has a small diameter and no stretch. We use braid from Ande, Izorline, Western Filament, Seaguar and P-Line. We generally use 20-pound fluorocarbon for the bottom part of our leaders; P-Line, Izorline, Ande and Seaguar make good options, and 30- to 50-pound monofilament above the flasher.
In general, saltwater anglers use either herring or artificial lures to attract coho, and most use flashers to impart motion to the lure or bait. Popular artificials include trolling spoons such as the Silver Horde Coho Killer or Luhr Jensen Coyote, hootchies, which are roughly 2- to 4-inch squid imitations; we prefer those by Silver Horde, Macks and P-Line, flies such as the Silver Horde Ace Hi Fly, spinners like the Mepps Aglia, and combo spinner / hootchies like the Macks Sledge Hammer or Cha Cha Salmon series. Many different flashers are on the market, and we prefer those by Hot Spot.
We recommend that you add scent to any artificials that you use and consider it on bait as well, especially if the bite is slow. We like many of the oils, gels, bait wax, super sauces and scents that Pro-Cure makes.
Rigging for Trolling
When using a downrigger, tie your mainline to a barrel swivel. The leader will be about 6 feet of 30-pound monofilament tied above the flasher and then 12- to 30 inches of 20-pound fluorocarbon tied below the flasher that attaches to the lure or hooks that secure cut-plug herring. The shorter the bottom part of the leader, the more action the flasher will impart on the lure or bait.
Herring are typically plug-cut—a compound angle just back of the gill plate—steeper for a tighter roll, and we use a Folbe plug-cut guide, which gives options for Chinook and coho and makes it easy to cut the desired angle every time. If you don’t have a mitre, tilt the knife at about a 20-degree angle and angle the knife at about 30 degrees.
It’s best if the herring are semi-frozen, as this makes it easier to make a clean cut. It’s imperative that the cut is done with a very sharp knife so that there are no ragged edges, which will cause the bait to tear when fished.
Having good herring is the start of success. Look for herring that are vacuum-packed, bright and have their scales, and avoid herring that is freezer-burned, has blood in the tray and those with sunken or bloody eyes. If you can get fresh herring or catch them yourself on sabiki rigs, even better. Brine the herring before fishing as this will preserve the scales and firm the meat. We prefer Pro Cure’s Brine ’N Bite. Laying the herring on a tray of salt will also help firm up the meat and let the baits last longer while fishing.
To rig a cut-plug herring for trolling on a pair of hooks, first insert the lower hook through the short side of the herring as far back into the cavity that you can reach and out by the lateral line. Work it in slowly and try and keep the hole as small as possible. Pull the leader through so that the lower hook is hanging by the tail of the bait. Salmon are short strikers so that dangling back hook will often hook fish. Insert the top hook though the first hole so that the eye of the hook resides close to the hole that the hooks went through. What you are after is to get the hooks aligned along the center of the herring on the short side, which will help impart a tight spin. Some people hook the back hook into the herring just above the tail, while others leave it to dangle.
Some people insert a toothpick along the spine of the herring while keeping it as straight as possible. This will increase the durability of the bait, particularly when trolling.
Some anglers also use a whole herring while trolling. In order to get the right spin, there are several products that you can use to hold the herring in place and get the correct spin to attract fish. Pro Troll Roto Chip Baitholder and Pro Troll EChip Baitholder Heads as well as Angler Innovations Sure Spin Herring Helmet and Krippled Fishing Herring Heads are all good options.
When using a diver, tie the mainline into the diver, run 4- to 6-feet of 30-pound monofilament to the flasher and then 12- to 30 inches of 20-pound fluorocarbon to the lure or bait. Use the same recipe when flat-lining: mainline to banana weight (1- to 6 ounces), 4- to 6 feet of 30-pound monofilament to flasher, and 12- to 30 inches of 20-pound fluorocarbon to bait or lure.
Mooching is the technique of lowering a bait or lure to a desired depth and reeling it up through the zone in which the fish are residing. If a school of salmon are sitting at 80 feet in the water column, anglers would lower to about 80 feet and work upwards to the surface. Some might choose to bring the bait or lure all the way to the surface, while others may work from 50- to 80 feet and repeat. One of the advantages of mooching is that anglers can continue to fish while an angler is playing a salmon. And since coho salmon are a school fish, when one is hooked, others will often come over to investigate, which can result in multiple hook-ups at once. Anglers should keep their baits moving at a steady pace, but you don’t need to rush or slow down the drop or retrieve.
Most often, anglers use a cut-pug herring as the bait. When rigged properly the bait will spin tight and fast when descending and being reeled up, which is just what coho like. In general, anglers use a 1- to 6-ounce banana weight attached inline to the mainline, then add about an 8-foot leader that is tied to a pair of Octopus-style hooks. Hooks range in size from 1/0 to 5/0 depending on herring size. Many anglers use two-hook mooching rigs that have one size larger hook at the front. On average, I like a 3/0 size for my front hook and 2/0 for the back. We really like Trokar hooks—the Pro V Octopus is a great choice—and their pre-tied two-hook mooching rigs using Seaguar fluorocarbon are awesome. If you want to tie your own two-hook mooching rigs, there’s ample instruction on the Web. Some prefer slip knots so that you can adjust the hooks to the bait size. Others prefer a solid tie so that the top hook doesn’t slide down and potentially cut or foul the line. If tying a solid tie, leave about 2 inches between hooks
Good herring that has been properly cared for, brined, plug-cut with a sharp knife and properly hooked will be integral to an angler’s success, so refer to the pointers in the trolling section for plug-cutting herring.
Bites can be anything from light nibbles to brutish strikes. In many cases, salmon take the herring on the way down and you feel slack. Rather that jerk the rod to try and set the hook, which is an ingrained behavior for most anglers, reel fast until you get tension and that’s usually enough to bury sharp hooks. A small hook-set is acceptable.
For a variation on the technique, consider motor mooching. Kick your motor into gear to get the boat moving at about 2 mph. This variation will allow you to cover more ground and potentially find more salmon, as well as alter the presentation, which might turn on the bite. Every now and then, put the motor in neutral and also try making zig-zags or try speeding up and slowing down. Note what elicits a strike and repeat.
Gear and Tackle for Mooching
Rods for mooching coho need not be terribly long, 7- to 9 feet is in the ballpark, and rated for 10- to 20-pound-test line. A medium-fast action rod is well-suited to the technique, providing some forgiveness should the coho make a wild run and also being soft enough so that light strikes are detected. Some anglers use an even larger rod, which acts as a rubber band to pick up slack line on a fast fish and provides more forgiveness. We prefer a shorter rod as it’s easier to handle when netting fish.
Reels must be baitcasting, with level-wind, line-counter reels the best choice. If not using a line-counter reel, determine how much line pays out with one complete pass, or use some model of braided line that changes color every 10 or so feet. When mooching, it is critical to know how much line you have out
Braided line is the way to go when mooching, as it provides maximum bite transmittal, has a small diameter so you can fit more line on your reel and / or use a smaller reel, and does not stretch, which is especially important on a long hook-set. We use 30-pound braid. Leaders should be fluorocarbon and we use 20-pound-test for those.
As mentioned earlier, we really like Trokar brand hooks and use their Pro-V Octopus saltwater hooks in 2/0 and 3/0 to make mooching leaders.
Banana weights are the typical choice for moochers and they vary roughly from 1- to 6 ounces depending on depth and current. They have a crane swivel built into the top and a chain swivel at the bottom. If the top swivel isn’t working properly, add a ball bearing snap swivel to the mainline and attach the weight to that. Some people swear that a colored lead is better, so they paint their leads red or chartreuse.
Rigging for Mooching
Tie the barrel swivel end of the banana weight directly to your mainline. To the bead swivel end, tie on your leader, which is typically 6- to 8 feet long.Next, bait your hooks.
To rig a cut-plug herring for mooching on a pair of hooks, first insert the lower hook through the short side of the herring as far back into the cavity that you can reach and out by the lateral line. Work it in slowly and keep the hole as small as possible. Pull the leader through so that the lower hook is hanging by the tail of the bait. Insert the top hook through the long side of the herring near the spine and push it through so that the hook point is exposed and points towards the head of the bait. You want the upper hook far enough forward so that it has enough herring to hold in the bait, but also has an exposed point to hook coho.
Other Effective Saltwater Techniques
Casting and retrieving spoons and spinners can yield results. That technique is effective when fish are shallow and bunched up, such as when they are in the mouth of a coho river. The same applies for casting and retrieving flies. I’ve also seen success by letting out a fly or spinner when anchored so that the lure spins or fly pulses in the current. I err on the shallow side as coho are more likely to see and attack a lure that’s above them versus below them.
Jigging can also produce results. Metal jigs such as the Ahi USA Assault Diamond and Ahi USA Live Deception represent a variety of baitfish that coho eat. Aggressively jigging them through a school of coho is a usual recipe for success. Often, coho will strike on the drop, as the jig looks like a wounded baitfish as it flutters down. With the extra slack in the line, you’ll need to wind down until you feel weight before setting the hook. As with most lures, we prefer to pull off factory trebles and replace with a split-ring and offset, short-shank hooks such as the Trokar Pro-V Octopus.
A wide open coho bite is one of the most exciting salmon-catching experiences an angler can have. I’ve been on boats that stacked six-fish limits for six anglers in a few hours, both while mooching and trolling. It was nonstop action. I’ve caught them on iron while jigging bottomfish and have cast and stripped Clousers to coho mere feet under the surface where we could witness the race among schoolmates to get to the fly. I’ve drifted through salty bays, coho breaking the surface in all directions, and cast both spoons and spinners that resulted in fat fish in the box. They are each thrilling ways to catch a coho and I’m happy to do them all.
Each person gets to decide which is their favorite technique. When trolling, I like to work the downriggers, net fish and help control the back deck while the captain drives the boat. A boat catches more fish trolling when the anglers can effectively run the back deck. Most salmon trollers have, at best, one deckhand, so getting involved and helping with the several repetitive tasks that are part of trolling will increase the boat’s ability to catch more fish.
I am equally fond of mooching and love the hands-on finesse needed to become a very good mooch angler. Hooking my own fish is preferable to a troll-hooked fish. Ultimately you should get good at both techniques and that will give you the best chance to catch the most coho in the saltwater.
Marcus Weiner is a publisher of Fish Alaska magazine.