Sockeye Fishing: Feisty, Ferocious, and Frustrating Silver Bullets
The mid-morning sun beat intensely on the clear green water, small waves formed by the tributary slapped gently on the sides of the boat where it sat anchored, just yards downstream from the tributary mouth. Two anglers and their guide huddled excitedly at the stern of the boat, anxiously watched the 1/8-ounce float and marabou jig combinations as they made their way along the current seam and in between basketball-sized boulders strewn about through the length of the long flat. The shoreward float buried out of sight, the angler came tight to the line, and a brilliantly bright, anadromous bullet sky rocketed out of the water, tail walking and sky dancing out and away from the anglers at a blistering pace.
The 3000-size spinning reel screamed as the drag peeled, and the medium-action float rod doubled over with every violent shake of the fish’s head, as it did everything in its power to shake the 1/8-ounce fluorescent jig from the roof of its mouth. The fight was over as quickly as it began. The line between enough drag to control the fish, and a loose-enough drag to absorb the ballistic outbursts of the fiery and fierce salmonid, had been crossed. To the detriment of the angler, the hook pulled from the soft flesh of the fish’s mouth.
Jordan Larsen, owner of Togiak River Lodge, after a successful battle with a feisty sockeye. ©Togiak River Lodge
Aggressive Chrome-Bright Sockeye
On any other day, and on any steelhead stream in the Pacific Northwest (PNW), the angler on the other end of the line may have been apt to despair, to curse loudly, or throw his hat at the loss of such a fine specimen. The loss of a chrome-bright steelhead of this caliber is enough to make any seasoned angler throw in the towel for the day, or at least the next hour or two. This however, was not a summer steelhead, and cause for despair rested right near zero. In the distance the mating call of a common snipe sounded loudly over the barren hills, fireweed bloomed brightly along the river banks, and brown bears made their way through not yet ripe berry patches amidst the sprawling tundra. This is the Togiak, and the feisty, ferocious and sometimes frustrating fish the anglers were pursuing, were not steelhead, they were aggressive, chrome-bright sockeye!
Sockeye Behavior Can Be Inconsistent
As it turns out, sockeye can and will exhibit the behavioral characteristics of every other anadromous salmon, trout, or char species in the PNW, but it is our job as anglers to figure out which “personality” we are dealing with day to day or even spot to spot within a given river system. It is absolutely not the case that sockeye, as a species, will not bite or are simply uninterested plankton feeders who won’t go out of their way to consider the offerings of an angler. The problem really is that they are wildly inconsistent in what they want day to day or spot to spot, and they are also wildly inconsistent in how they react to “pressure” from anglers. Some days they will literally eat out of the prop wash like aggressive coho and other days a small plug like a 3.0 Maglip is too close to the boat if it is less than 100 feet back in the current. To successfully target sockeye, an angler needs to be prepared to utilize several different approaches, and be willing to not “take it personally”when the sockeye in front of you give you the middle fin!
Sockeye salmon are abundant, exceptionally fun to catch and make for excellent table fare. ©Brian Woobank
Tried and True Sockeye Fishing Tactics
With my ramblings about sockeye and their vague ambiguities out of the way, let’s dive into two of our tried-and-true sockeye tactics that we have developed over the years at Togiak River Lodge. We’ll go over the specifics of getting these notoriously finicky salmon to play along, and allow them to occupy such a prestigious role as the one reserved for summer steelhead. As controversial as I know this is to say, a chrome-bright sockeye will out jump, out run, and altogether out fight a chrome summer steelhead any day!
Keep in mind that the key to either of the following methods, is to find sockeye that are not actively traveling. For those of you who have been around red-colored sockeye approaching death’s door, you might have experienced how downright ornery and aggressive they can be, grabbing and chasing all manner of presentations. I’m not talking about those fish. Rather, look for bright sockeye rolling in an area where they are taking a recess from their upstream journey for even just a half hour. We actively focus on staging fish and not on the impressive lines of sockeye traveling along gravel bars, cut banks etc.; the fish that have paused for even just a few minutes are way more apt to bite!
Bobber/Float & Jigs
The classic steelhead presentation of a small lead-head marabou jig under a float, is one that I personally would not fish sockeye without. It is the most user friendly, and easiest to learn for less than expert anglers. My preferred setup is a 1/8-ounce Beau Mac adjustable slip float paired with a 1/8-ounce inline sinker, a 1.5- to 3-foot leader of 8- to 12-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon, and a 1/8-ounce marabou jig, fished on a medium or medium-light action spinning rod in the 8.5- to 9.5-foot range. Our most utilized color patterns for jigs are variances of red/ pink/purple/orange but one should not be afraid to try different color patterns. We have seen great success on “off” days with black, blue, and green so experiment away!
Regardless of color, we often anchor the boat directly upstream of where the fish are, and simply allow the current to deliver the presentation directly to the fish. Usually this is an eddy or a current seam at the mouth of a small tributary or side channel. Look for summer steelhead water and you’ll be on the right track! When the bobber buries, reel like a madman/crazy lady and drive the hook home as soon as the line comes tight. An important note, actually the most important note here is when it comes to sockeye; they LOVE Shrimp and also, they LOVE cured salmon eggs. Where legal, a handful or two of crushed up salmon eggs used as chum, and a piece of salted shrimp/prawn on the jig is an absolutely unbeatable combination, turning these docile plankton and krill feeders into ravenous piranhas.
This fresh sockeye inhaled a well-presented jig. ©Togiak River Lodge
Like other species in the PNW, sockeye can be very fond, at times, of a properly “twitched” jig. Most notably, this method has worked well for us during high-water seasons where the Togiak is abnormally high and cold, causing large numbers of sockeye to stage in sloughy side channels and backwater areas, much lower in the system than they otherwise would. Think late season coho staging zones. Light jigs and light line are very helpful here, and a rod well suited to twitching them. Our preferred rod is a medium or medium-light spinning rod, extra-fast action if possible with a very light tip and a whole lot of backbone, in the 7- to 7.5-foot range. 20-pound test braided mainline and 10- to 15-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon leader are coupled with 1/4- or 1/8-ounce jigs.
The same colors apply here as with fur/feather jigs under a float, but it should be noted that great success has also been had at times with 2.5- or 3-inch curly tail grubs (hot pink) on a lead jighead. My personal experience is that most days, a 3/8-ounce jig won’t yield a single bite, in a spot where 10 bites could be expected with 1/4- or 1/8-ounce jigs. Along with this more “finesse” approach of lighter line and lighter jigs, one should expect to “twitch” more subtly as well. Slower 4- to 6-inch twitches as opposed to faster, 12- to 18-inch twitches yield much better results. Look for sockeye rolling actively in these slower water zones, and approach cautiously so as to not spook them. As quietly as possible, anchor as far away as your casting ability will allow, and cast into these active fish.
Cousin Jeremy loves to battle sockeye on the Togiak. ©Togiak River Lodge
If The Bite Dies, Mix It Up
Willing biters will likely bite at their first opportunity. If no bites occur within 10 minutes, or the bite dies after a handful of bites, mix it up by changing colors, chumming (where legal) with cured salmon eggs, or tipping your jig with a small piece of shrimp. If this doesn’t make an almost immediate difference, move on to another fresh spot without a second thought. If they are willing, you will know it right away! Be mindful that sockeye have notoriously soft mouths, and subsequently, your drag setting is extremely important, especially when using a shorter, stiffer, twitching rod that won’t absorb the shock of them generally going crazy when you hook them. Remember the comparison to summer steelhead? It most applies here when twitching. Sockeye go nuts!
It should be noted that these two very productive methods are not the be all end all when it comes to targeting sockeye. I have personally caught sockeye on everything from giant thumper blade Chinook spinners and K-16 Kwikfish, to 2.5” Mag Lip plugs and 1/16-ounce jigs, and everything in between. The common factor though, in most cases, is that these various presentations were either wrapped or tipped with salted shrimp or cured salmon eggs. There are some days where the sockeye don’t care at all if there are eggs or shrimp associated with your offering, but there are many other days, where your jig is merely a shrimp-delivery device. I highly encourage you to spend some time pursuing these amazing fish with these methods, when it all lines up, you will not be disappointed!
Zack Larsen, and his brother Jordan, are the owners of Togiak River Lodge. Captions