Wiggle My Spoon
by Terry Sheely
On those frustrating days when sweetwater fishing is bang-your-head-on-a-tree-trunk tough it’s not so much the factory installed wobble in a weighted casting spoon that will catch trout, steelhead and salmon—it’s the extra wiggle we can put in the wobble.
Casting spoons have been around since 1848 when Julio Buel put the first one together. In Alaska Time that is the same year that a Russian mining engineer discovered gold in Kenai River gravel and two decades before the U.S. picked Mother Russia’s pocket for title to the state.
And still, in all those years of hurling hardware into salmon, steelhead and trout rivers, most spoon throwers still stop short of full-spoon potential.
Getting the most out of a weighted casting spoon is almost an art, and the few masters of the spoon whom I’ve met are artists who can smoke the rest of us whenever they choose.
Silvers are in the skinny river, belly-down in the gravel, hiding in the shadows, spooked by gulls and ignoring the three hip-booted bankees trying everything in the box to unzip a lip. Globs of stringy salmon eggs, marabou jigs, single eggs, assorted flies, hot-red Blue Fox and even a small Tadpolly plug have not only come up empty but seem to be reinforcing the no-bite clause.
My fishing partner, John Thomas, and I watched from a respectful distance. I suggested we leave the pounded water, move downstream and go find active fish. John said he’d wait. “When one of those guys leaves, I’ll go down, take his place and catch those fish.”
And he did of course, but it took a trick.
Instead of throwing his spoon, a red and nickel Steelie, with the conventional quartering across the current and swinging down on the tailout lie, John flipped it underhanded directly downstream, splashing it down about 10 feet above the row of reluctant salmon. The teardrop lure sank to the gravel. John free-spooled a few feet of line that drifted on the surface below the spoon, snapped the rod tip up and the spoon jumped off the bottom, wiggled downstream and settled back to the stones. On the third lift the lure settled less than a foot in front of the wall of stoic salmon. This time John waited a full minute before bouncing the lure. I don’t know how much suspense those salmon felt but I was riveted by the time John snapped and the 11-pound hen simply opened her mouth and inhaled the spoon before it smacked her in the face.
On another occasion I watched John throw a traditional favorite, a Krocodile spoon, side-arming it into the conventional cross-current swing. He cast, let the spoon settle, tick bottom, tightened and started a slow retrieve. We were confident that steelhead were holding just above the tailout, but in the glacier-green water our targets were invisible.
When the spoon swung downstream, hitting the tailout roughly halfway across the river, John snugged down the line forcing the spoon to pendulum across the shallows at the top of the tailout, swinging his spoon from midstream to our bank across the best holding area in the pool.
And as it swung he twitched.
Snapping his wrist like he’s nailing tacks John twitches the lure across the front of the holding water, causing the spoon to both jump up and down and skitter sideways. The technique added a fourth attraction to the lure’s factory-installed wobble, sonic vibration and come-hither paint job. And it worked.
Several rigging keys are critical to any spoon’s success and none are more important than getting rid of the pinch between line and lure. To maximize action spoons need absolute unteathered freedom.
A good spoon goes bad the instant a knot is tightened on its eye or attached with an angle-clasp snap swivel. Both connections bind the lure and inhibit its action.
The wiggle action of a spoon steps up every time a split ring is used, a loop knot tied and a round-eye snap swivel attached. Knotting directly to the spoon or using a snap swivel with an angled clasp that pinches the lure into a corner restrains the spoon and kills a good bit of the action. A loose, loopy, open connection to the mainline doesn’t bind and allows the spoon to dance freely, which pays off when the spoon is fished slowly—as spoons are intended.
One of the biggest mistakes a salmon or steelhead angler can make when throwing spoons is to allow the lure to drift downriver at current speed or be retrieved like a racehorse headed for hay. Slow and erratic is the way of the spoon masters.
Spoons produce the most action, and the most fish, when they move slowly—way below current speed. The longer a lure gyrates in front of a holding or passively feeding fish the better the odds grow that the fish will strike. The throbbing vibration of a wiggling spoon hits the super sensitive lateral line of anadromous predator fish like fingernails on a blackboard and the longer the nerve-twitching vibration lights up the lateral line the more irresistible it becomes and the more aggressive the strike.
Heavier spoons just naturally kite downstream slower than lighter spoons, but the downside is that these spendy heavyweights also smack bottom faster. I try to find that sweet spot where I match spoon size to the flow of the current. A current push that’s strong but not so strong that my spoon can’t touch bottom is just about right, and spoons nearly always produce best when they’re skittered close to the rocks.
To minimize bottom snags I snip off the factory trebles, replace any small split ring with a slightly larger one, replace the hooks with a single-point Siwash and position the Siwash so that the point rides up. With this modification I can kiss the bottom occasionally to maintain the fish zone and only snag up on occasion. There are certain lure-eating rocks out there that can never be avoided but the up-riding single hook will defeat most lesser snags. A friend of mine goes one better on minimizing his offerings to the river gods. He uses thin-wire hooks that will straighten out when lodged into crevices or buried in wood. His thin wire doesn’t leave a lot of room for rod pressure, however, and absolutely no room for horsing a good-sized fish. Me—I like sturdy hooks, sharpened to needle points. I’d rather sacrifice the occasional spoon than straighten a thin hook on a monster fish.
When you reach in your box, spoon selection should always be based on the current and depth of the water being fished and without considering the size of fish being targeted. The old rule is that big fish eat big lures, small fish, small lures—and there’s some truth to that—but no spoon will catch any fish if it can’t be presented naturally.
Be assured, small spoons will catch big fish and big spoons will catch small trout.
I’ve caught resident cutthroat on spoons that were half as long as the attacking fish. Not sure if the cutthroat thought it was eating or dating my spoon but either way… I’ve also caught 25-pound kings, hefty chums and swag-belly silvers on 1½-inch short, densely weighted casting spoons like the Little Cleo and Jewel. One of my favorite salmon, steelhead and trout spoons under all conditions is an inch-long Dick Nite in half-and-half but it has a thin-blade, is not of casting weight, requires split-shot to heave and this story is about casting spoons.
It’s a given that spoon size doesn’t matter as much as speed and wiggle, but color often does.
Brass and copper and light-colored paint finishes earn their keep in clear water; silver and chrome and dark paint jobs when color is in the water.
While absolute rules are made to start bar fights, I’d recommend keeping these clues in mind when picking spoon color. On dark days, periods of low or colored water, light brass and copper finishes get the first test. On bright days and in clear water, start with nickel, chrome or painted finishes.
When targeting feeding fish, resident trout or northern pike, spoons painted to represent the local buffet are best. Rainbow and cutthroat color patterns are hot for pike and big trout, and a splash of blood red near the head or tail will work magic on any spoon in any finish. The shallower the water the more necessary the red, I’ve found.
For river kings and chums, blue, chrome/green and chrome/chartreuse combinations can be very effective. Steelhead lean toward the red, magenta, bronze, copper and nickel (although I’ve found blue to be irresistible to buck steelhead late in the season), and silvers take a shine to red, chartreuse, chrome and nickel. These are general guidelines and good spoon fishermen aren’t afraid to stray. For one entire season I caught most of my steelhead on a pearl-painted clown-patterned Krocodile with blue, red and yellow spots. Go figure.
Resident river trout, both cutts and rainbows, eat whichever spoon color most closely imitates their usual prey,
In deep-river pools and typical king holes I switch techniques to an upstream cast with at least a half-ounce spoon—sometimes larger. I fire the spoon directly upstream from the hole, let it sink on the drift and tumble it under line control down the upriver face.
When the spoon nicks bottom I pop the rod tip, lift the spoon and jig it. Ideally, the spoon will dance wildly but slowly along the bottom with the current. Salmon hunkered in deep holes can be lethargic, bordering on comatose, and it takes a highly active dance to wake one up long enough to eat. This is also a good way to pickup Dollies and rainbows that are hanging behind the salmon.
Upstream casting can be tricky and definitely takes a “touch” to find that fine line between sinking the spoon to the fish zone and embedding it forever in the bottom. It may not be a tactic for the weak of wallet, but it can pull out kings when nothing else will.
In a large, wide pool of a nameless stream in the fly-in zone west of Glacier Bay National Park I watched another friend take silver after silver on freefall. We were less than a quarter-mile above saltwater, the fish were rolling, running and feisty. Jim would power cast his favorite spoon, a red and white Daredevil, as far as he could, reel like a whirling dervish, stop, so the lure sank wiggling in freefall through the current-less depths. Jim repeated the sprint-stop-fall-go retrieve the length of the cast. He caught a lot of silvers that day and every one hit the spoon on the wiggling freefall.
The good spoon fishermen that I know to a man play a mind game, always seeing the bent metal spoon as a living prey. Living prey doesn’t swim downstream in a straight line, a foot off the bottom, with a slight twitter to its tail.
Living prey darts, dodges, changes directions and dances as wild and free as a 15-year-old girl with ear buds and no one else at home.
Throw that spoon across the river and bounce the rod tip until the lure wiggles, gyrates and disappears. Wallflowers don’t get asked to dance and boring straight-line retrieves are rarely eaten.
Good spoon fishermen go out of their way to create a unique lure movement and absolutely do everything possible to stop their spoon from running in a straight line at constant speed.
On every cast put some wiggle into that spoon, twitch the rod tip every few seconds, vary the retrieve speed, fast to slow then slow to slower, and then give it a kick. It sometimes doesn’t hurt, as John so aptly demonstrated, to actually stop the retrieve and let the lure settle dead to the bottom, then pop it to life and wiggle it downstream.
Variety, speed, action—that’s what puts wiggle in your spoon and fillets in the freezer.
Terry W. Sheely is a contributing editor for Fish Alaska magazine.