Advanced Spinner Techniques for Salmon

by JD Richey

So, let’s just say you’re heading deep into the Alaska bush on a week-long float trip where you might encounter trout, Dollies, several species of salmon, steelhead, grayling, pike and maybe even lakers or sheefish…and you can only take one lure with you. What’s it going to be?

For me, it’s got to be a spinner. While they don’t necessarily resemble any one specific type of forage, fish of all persuasions find these lures irresistible. They’re also quite simple to use—but I think what really makes spinners rise above the rest is their versatility. You can fish ’em in flat water, in the salt and in everything from tiny creeks to brawling rivers. You can work them deep and slow or burn them near the surface and they can be cast, swung, trolled or even back-trolled. In short, spinners will catch anything in Alaska in just about any situation.

There are times when the fish are chewing like mad and all it takes to get bit is getting your lure into the water, but there are plenty of other instances in which you’d be well-served having some more advanced techniques in your back pocket. Let’s now take a look at some of my favorites…

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The Basic Swing

Just as you can’t get to the Show without first learning the basics in the Minor Leagues, you can’t master advanced spinner fishing without having a firm grip on the basic swing. When fishing in moving water for trout, steelies and salmon, the swing is going to be your most common presentation.

As a general rule, salmon and trout hold near the bottom, so you want the spinner to run deep and stay there as long as possible—which is best achieved by fishing it “on the swing.” To get a proper swing going, start by positioning yourself slightly upstream of where you think the fish are holding. Cast the spinner across and a couple degrees downstream of where you’re standing. Allow it to sink near the bottom and then engage the reel. All you’re trying to do here is to get the blade spinning so that it has enough lift to stay out of the rocks. A spinner is much more attractive to the fish when the blade is slowly turning, so reel just enough to keep the blade from stalling out.

As the spinner works through the run on an arc-shaped swing, follow your line with the rod tip.  Most bites will occur when the lure is somewhere between the apex of the arc—when it’s about 45 degrees below you—and the end of the drift. When the lure gets directly downstream of you, it will start to lift in the water column. Fish are also prone to grab the lure as it starts this ascent, so let it hang straight below you for a few seconds before you reel back in.

To methodically cover a piece of water, take a step or two downstream and cast again. Repeat until you’ve fished an area from the head to the tailout. 

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The Coho Flutter

When you find silvers down near tidewater on a river, they’ll often be in what I like to call “piranha mode”—that wonderful state of aggressiveness that makes them lash out at just about anything you put in their collective faces. As they move upriver, however, their moodiness index goes way up and they can sometimes be as difficult a fish to tempt as there is in freshwater. 

To get temperamental silvers to play, I often employ the “Coho Flutter” technique, which simply adds a little variation to a spinner’s action—and that quick deviation from the norm is usually all it takes to get fish excited. This method starts with the basic spinner swing, and then periodically through the retrieve, I’ll give the reel handle 2 to 4 quick cranks to get the spinner to rise up in the water column. Immediately thereafter, I’ll stop reeling and let the lure flutter towards the bottom. 

Most strikes come as the spinner is on the fall. If none come, I’ll start cranking again to get the blade turning so it doesn’t hang up. Once the lure has swung downstream several feet, I’ll try the flutter again. I’m not sure if the tumbling, flashing action of the lure appeals to some deeply-seated predatory instinct or simply that a change in action catches the fish’s attention—whatever the reason, I’ve turned a lot of tough days into great ones using this technique. 

The Wake Bait

You’ve no doubt heard about the effectiveness of the ’Wog for tidewater silvers. It’s a big, gaudy dry fly tied from deer hair and dyed bright pink that, when fished on the surface, can elicit violent topwater strikes. Well, the technique works well with spinners fished on conventional gear, too! Silvers will smash a spinner buzzed just under the surface film—and I’ve also caught a bazillion chrome humpies and chums this way.

You need a few basic elements to make surface fishing all come together. First off, it only works well on fresh-from-the-salt fish in the very lower end of a river system. Once you get above tidewater, your chances of getting salmon to rise to the lure drop dramatically. You’ll also need a pretty good pile of fish in the area you’re fishing. I think the combination of fresh salmon moving out of the vastness of the ocean into the confines of a shallow river, along with the overcrowding aspect, is what makes these fish crazy enough to attack lures on the surface. Ideally, you’d also like to find a spot that has at least a little current to it.

Once you locate a likely looking zone, position yourself upstream of the fish. You’re going to use the basic swing approach here, only you want to keep the lure running just under the surface—ideally, the blade will throw a wake as it goes. To accomplish this, you’ll have to cast at more of a down-and-across angle than the basic swing requires. Just how much depends on the speed of the current: The lighter the current, the greater the downstream angle needs to be and vice-versa.

When waking a spinner, you have to retrieve it much more quickly than when fishing other methods to keep it high in the water column. The use of lighter lures outfitted with wide Colorado blades will help you stay up in the strike zone. Bites can come anywhere along the swing, though they typically come as the lure is moving laterally across the pool on the final third of the swing. 

When a fish crunches your lure, it’s important to ignore what your eyes and ears are telling you. You’ll see the spray and hear the splash, but if you set the hook at that moment, you’ll miss about 80 percent of your grabs. You need to allow the fish to grab the lure and swim back towards the bottom before you set up on him. Trust instead your arm—wait until you feel the weight of the fish load the rod up and then hit ’em.

Back-trolling

On larger rivers, it’s often difficult to keep a spinner down where it needs to be. In that situation, back-trolling a spinner from a boat is deadly. This works especially well on big migrating kings in off-colored, fast-moving streams. 

To rig up, you need to begin with a weightless spinner like a Luhr Jensen Clearwater Flash—or you can make your own. To do this, take a 4-foot section of 60-pound mono and tie a 2/0 to 5/0 Owner Octopus hook (or two where legal) to the end. Next, slide two large Corkies down onto the leader and then three to five plastic beads after that. Finally, slide a plastic quick-change clevis on top of the beads and snap a No. 4-7 Hidlebrant Colorado blade into the clevis and you’re in business.

Tie a three-way swivel to your mainline and then run 3- to 5 feet of leader from there down to your spinner. Off the other end of the swivel, run a 12- to 24-inch dropper line and attach a Jet Diver to it (size depends on how deep and fast the water you’re fishing is). 

With the boat slowly backing downstream, carefully let the rig out so that it doesn’t tangle or snag. When it gets 30- to 50 feet behind the boat, click the reel into gear and then put the rods in the holders. Keep a close eye on your rod tips—you’ll want to make sure that you can see a slight pulsating that indicates the blade of the spinner is working. You can efficiently work your gear down travel lanes this way—spots that a spinner cast from shore would only intermittently come in contact with. 

Most bites on this rig are extremely savage in nature, but there are occasions when strikes are less obvious. Every now and then a salmon will grab the lure and then simply keep swimming upstream with it. Your only clues may be that the spinner blade stops transmitting vibrations up the line and that the rod trip straightens up a bit. In either case, you need to work fast—crank down a few turns on the reel and then set the hook as hard as you can. 

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Spinner 101

Wander down the aisles of your local tackle shop and you’ll quickly notice that there is no shortage of spinner varieties out there. There are so many, in fact, that picking a few can be a bit intimidating. To make the best possible selection, consider the species of salmon you’re after, how you plan to fish them and the conditions of the river. 

Generally, spinners outfitted with French-style blades are my go-to lures. They seem to spin best in the widest range of situations but you may also consider lures with Colorado blades when you need a little more “lift” or the longer willow-leaf style when you need to get really deep in slower waters. 

For kings, I generally run No. 5 to 6 blades, though I will scale that back to No. 3 and 4 in small streams with gin-clear water. My all-time favorite color for king fishing is a chartreuse body/silver blade, followed closely by metallic blue body/silver blade. Most of my coho fishing is done with No. 4 blades, but again, it sometimes pays to scale things back a bit when the water’s low and clear. Silvers really seem to like hot pink spinners with silver blades and models with orange bodies and gold blades. When the fish are down low in the river system, the addition of a pink hootchie skirt to the spinner can really turn silvers on. When they get staler upstream, try a dark black or purple lure.

When doggies are on the menu, size 4 spinners are a good choice. While chartreuse is the color you most often hear associated with chum, I think hot and metallic pinks are much more productive. Speaking of pink, humpies are super suckers for it, too. Just be sure to drop down to a size 2 or 3 spinner when fishing for them in most situations. 

There are, of course, exceptions to all the above lure choices. When fishing in muddy or glacial water, it pays to use fluorescent UV-treated lures. If the water’s extremely cold, you will sometimes have to wake the fish up by running a lure that’s one or two sizes larger than what you’d normally throw. And if you’re fishing on a stream that’s low and clear and/or is subject to a lot of fishing pressure, going smaller is always a good bet. 

Gearing up

As with most fishing, the better the tackle you use, the more effective an angler you’re going to be and that’s certainly the case with spinner fishing. While spinning gear is fine for this style of fishing, I strongly prefer fishing with conventional tackle. Level-wind reels are much less susceptible to line twist and I like the fact that I can add my thumb for extra drag when necessary. I can also extend my swings with a baitcaster by slowly playing out (under tension) extra line towards the end of the drift.

Spinner fishing requires a very specific type of rod—one with plenty of backbone to allow for positive hook-sets and wrestling big fish out of fast water. But it also needs a sensitive side. The best spinner rods feature soft tips, which give the fish a chance to grab the lure without feeling a lot of resistance. 

It’s impossible to suggest a rod that’s suitable for all spinner fishing, but I do have one that I use more than all others combined and that’s Lamiglas’ X10MTC, which is a 10-foot powerhouse that can whip everything from silvers to big kings. I pair it up with a Shimano Curado 301 loaded with 30-pound braided line and then add a 6-foot section of 20- to 40-pound fluorocarbon leader to the end. 

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SPINNER TACKLE BOX

There are lots of spinners you can choose from these days…here are a few of my favorites to get you started. 

KINGS

For swinging deep runs, I use Mepps No. 6 Long Cast spinners in the silver body/chartreuse fin color scheme along with Kodiak Custom Tackle’s size 6 G.I. Spinners in silver/green. Panther Martin’s 1-ounce Stainless Steel Salmon Spinner in metallic blue is also a good one. For back-trolling and regular trolling, Luhr Jensen’s Size 8 Clearwater Flash in Gatorade/Green works well.

SILVERS

A good all-around coho spinner is the ½-ounce Worden’s Vibric in the Sunny Boy (orange body/silver blade pattern) and of course you can’t go wrong with a pink No. 4 Super Vibrax from Blue Fox. Kodiak Custom Tackle’s size 4 hot pink G.I. Skirt Spinner is just the ticket when the fish want squid patterns. When the silvers get upriver and are staler, the Vibric in “Blood Hound,” or a Super Vibrax in the “Red-Tipped Silver Flake” paint scheme are the way to go. In trolling situations, Spinner Dave’s size 5 B10 in hammered gold with the fluorescent tip is a killer. 

CHUMS & PINKS

You don’t have to get too fancy here…Pink No. 2 and 3 Mepps Aglia Brites or Gibbs’ Sil-Vex Spinners in cerise/pearl will cover you for humpies. Chums will eat Kodiak’s No. 4 G.I. spinners in green or pink. 

STEELHEAD

When the water’s really cold, I’ll throw a No. 5 silver-plated Pen Tac spinner for steelies and then use a size 4 copper/yellow Mepps Aglia under normal conditions. 

TROUT/DOLLIES/GRAYLING

A number 6 silver blade/yellow body/red dots Panther Martin is murder on Dollies. Rainbows and cutts will go for the same thing, though sometimes they seem to prefer the black-bodied models. You’ll catch grayling all day long on a No. 1 or 2 1/32-ounce brown Rooster Tail. 

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JD Richey is a contributing editor for Fish Alaska magazine. He can be reached through his website, www.fishwithjd.com.