River Tactics for Coho Salmon

River Tactics for Coho Salmon

Story by Jeremy Anderson
Photos by Alaska Drift Away Fishing

Silver salmon fishing is probably the most relaxing salmon fishing that Alaska offers. You don’t have the anxiety of waiting all day long for one chance at a king salmon and you can stay away from the hustle and bustle of red fishing. But don’t confuse relaxing with a lack of action; there are more than enough fish to go around and keep everyone happy. Silver salmon fishing in Alaska is something that everyone can enjoy, whether you are a diehard salmon fisherman casting until your arm is spent or a first-time angler hoping to catch your first coho.


One of the greatest things about fishing for silvers is that there are many techniques for doing it. You can have success fishing from shore and from a boat. There are many places to bank-fish for silvers, from State Park access points on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers to small streams and a few different boat-launch areas. I personally like fishing from a boat because of the ability to be mobile and chase fish up and down the river.

My three favorite techniques for fishing coho from a boat are back-trolling lures, casting lures and fly fishing. In 2013, the run of silvers on the Kenai River was so hot that it did not matter which option you used. Not every year is like that, so it is good to have a quiver of techniques to deploy when fishing for the feisty coho.

Back Trolling for Silvers
One of the most effective ways to fish for silvers is back-trolling gravel bars and shorelines with lures. It is a slower but more thorough way of fishing an area. There are many lures that work well, but the “go-to” is a K13 or K15 Kwikfish. You can wrap the Kwikfish with a sardine where and when bait is allowed. Spoons, spinners and eggs are also effective when back-trolling.

Other than lures and bait, you also need to consider what gear you use and how you maneuver the boat. As far as gear is concerned, it is very beneficial to have a level wind reel on an 8- to 8.5-foot medium-action rod. A reel with a line counter is even better. Set the drag to your preference, but you should set it firm enough so that when the fish hits, the hook will set and some line will peel out. High-visibility 20-pound mainline is a must to see your line spread in the water, which will reduce tangles. For peace of mind, I use a 4.5- to 6-foot leader of 40-pound fluorocarbon between the mainline and the lure. Connect the leader to the mainline using a swivel. The benefits of fluorocarbon line are important: the lure is going to run better because it won’t get twisted in the current and it is invisible so it will increase the number of strikes.

When it’s time to put the lines in the water, start with the lines closest to the back of boat because they should go out the farthest. Point the rod tips directly off the back of the boat. After the back lines are out, let the side lines out. Make sure to point the rod tips perpendicular to the boat so the side lines don’t cross over the back lines. It is smart to have the back lines 5- to 10 feet farther than the side lines to give more space between lures and allow for a larger spread. I also recommend using rod holders to help keep the lines spread out and avoid crossing and tangles. They also help prevent itchy trigger fingers from setting the hook too soon.

Right away you need to get your bearings straight. I always like to start off by making sure I started my drift where I intended. There is a lot of multi-tasking going on, and this is a good first step. Next, look at the shoreline to make sure you are barely creeping downriver. As you run your drift also make sure you slowly change your distance away from shore if you intend to change your line. Fast or abrupt changes in location and speed will decrease your effectiveness. Finally, as you run your drift, you need to look at the rod tips to make sure they all have a consistent bounce.

Skin-a-Salmon-Alaska-Drift-Away-2.JPGThere are many methods that are successful for catching silvers in Alaska,
and the prepared angler is efficient in all.

Spin Casting for Silvers
Casting for coho is an extremely efficient way to cover a lot of ground quickly. This style of fishing is all about the angler presenting the lure at the right speed in the right part of the water column. When you find a school of fish, often multiple people will hook up at the same time. Casting is a perfect fit for people who want to be active and cast until their arms are sore. The typical lure for casting is a size 4 or 5 spinner, but the sky is the limit on what you can cast. When things get slow, I will throw some of my old walleye, pike and musky lures from Wisconsin and get results that way, too. Use a variety of colors between everyone casting so you can see what color is most appealing to the fish that day.

An 8- to 9-foot medium-action spin rod with 14- to 16-pound line is best. You want a rod that casts easy, and good line choice is critical in spin gear for good casting. High-visibility line is optional, but a snap swivel above the lure is critical so it can spin freely. I recommend a single siwash hook as well. It is usually easier to set a bigger single hook than a treble hook into the fish, and it is way better if you decide to release the salmon.

Anglers need to be spaced out in the boat and take turns casting; one person should reel as the other casts. Anglers should let the spinner sink to the desired depth and then reel at a medium speed. Just because the anglers are casting doesn’t mean that the boat position isn’t important; it matters big time! Always start above the school of fish. Your speed should allow the people casting to present their spinner from 10-2 o’clock. If you are going too slow or too fast downriver, the lures will not be in the right part of the water column and this will result in very few bites. The same goes with how fast or slow the angler is reeling. If you see or feel the spinner at the top of the water column, then slow down your reeling. If it hits the bottom, then speed up the retrieve. This is assuming the boat’s drifting speed is correct.

This whole process is a team effort between the person controlling the boat and the people casting.

Skin-a-Salmon-Alaska-Drift-Away-3.JPGProvided you’ve got the right setup and the tactics to go with your gear, bank fishing for silvers can be just as productive as targeting them from a boat.

Fly Fishing for Silvers
In my opinion, fly fishing for silver salmon is as good as it gets. It requires the combination of a quality fly, the perfect cast into the zone, and a great swing. This method is not for everyone, but it is a blast when all the pieces come together and result in a chrome fish on the line. This presentation is similar to casting lures with spin gear, but the drift is slowed down even more.

A good setup includes a medium- to stiff-flex 9-foot 9-weight and a large-arbor fly reel with a good drag. Especially with fly fishing, having good equipment makes all the difference in your performance when casting to or fighting this acrobatic salmon. Fly line is important to consider if you want to get technical, but in most cases a sinking tip is preferred. A floating tip will do the trick, too, however, particularly in slower sections of water.

You are going to want a leader with a stiff butt and midsection tapered down to a 14-pound tippet. Once again, you should have fluorocarbon down by the fly. This will allow your leader to roll smoothly as the fly hits the water. I always bring a variety of colors of flies with me, but there is one thing I can say: coho salmon love flashy flies. In addition to flash, it is critical that you have the right size weighted head on your fly. With too much weight, it will drag the bottom. Even worse, if it is too light, the fly will float and you will only be fishing
the topwater.

The casting and boat control for fly fishing is similar to spin fishing with lures, but you must slow down the drift for fly fishing. Cast slightly upstream, let the fly sink to the desired level and focus all of your energy on the bottom half of the drift. The swing is where you are going to catch all your fish. As it is swinging, makesure to give it a few strips in, let it sit and then give it a few more strips in. The timing and duration of the strips depend on where you are fishing. It usually takes a few casts and a bite or two before you get it down for each hole you fish.

How to Get More Bites
When coho fishing, I ask myself the following questions: when is the best time to catch fish; what bait, lure or fly are the fish after today; and are my setup and presentation correct? These are three crucial questions, but there are others to consider as well. What is the tide doing? What is the weather forecast? How much fishing pressure is there today? All these things matter when targeting any fish, but especially silvers. These are the questions that ultimately help produce better days.

The morning is infamous for being the best time to catch coho, but there are many bites that occur throughout the day and evening. Don’t be afraid to go out and find the afternoon or evening bite, especially if it is an overcast day.

When using bait, where allowed, it is important to figure out if the salmon want fresh bait or bait that has been soaking for a while. When using lures or flies, switch things up until you figure out what is working best. The hot lure on Tuesday might not work on Wednesday, and the effective fly color can change from day to day and even hour to hour.

Setup and presentation are crucial and make the difference between fishing and catching. Your leaders and terminal tackle must be set-up properly for where you are fishing. If you move to a new fishing hole, you might need to revise your setup to make sure it is appropriate for the new location. When fishing day after day, make sure your tackle and gear are clean from the day before and still in good working order.

Putting your Efforts into the Net
When you finally get a fish on the line, how do you increase the odds of putting it in the net? First off, only use sharp hooks. This will drive the hook deep into the mouth. Then be sure to wait until the fish actually bites the bait, lure or fly. Oftentimes people will set the hook too early and will pull the presentation away from the fish. When fighting the fish, if possible, keep the fish’s head under the water. Avoid pulling up when the fish jumps. Instead, lay your rod to the side and keep the pressure tight and the rod bent. Let the fish run if it wants to and set your drag so the fish can pull line out with some ease. If you are in current and the fish is downriver from you, consider floating with the fish to ease the tension. When the fish gets close enough to net, tell yourself you only get one chance. Take your time and wait until you know you are going to seal the deal. You never know how well the fish is hooked and I can’t count the number of times that the hook fell out as soon as the fish was in the net. Finally, get that fish in the box right away because silvers are notorious for jumping out of the net.

Wrapping It Up
As you embark on your coho mission with your friends and family, there are a few things to remember. Silvers can be caught using many methods. Make sure you have the right gear for the style of fishing you prefer and a backup option if your preferred method isn’t working. There are many ways to increase your odds at finding and hooking silvers and a good angler never stops being creative. When you do get a salmon on the line, think about how you are going to get that fish in the net. Finally, remember that fishing is a vehicle for fun and for enjoying your time with friends and family. See you on the water!

Jeremy Anderson, from Winneconne, WI, has lived in Alaska for more than a dozen years, all but one of them spent guiding anglers on the Kenai River to some of best trout and salmon fishing in the world, as part of the team at Alaska Drift Away Fishing. During the winter, he lives in Girdwood and works as Director for Challenge Alaska Adaptive Ski School.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2014 issue of Fish Alaska.