BY DAVE HURLEY
The ocean salmon season began below Pigeon Point to the Mexican border on April 4th and above Pigeon Point to Horse Mountain in Humboldt County on April 11, but the start of the season has been limited by the inability of party boats and six-packs to operate from the coastal ports. Locating salmon early in the season is always a challenge, and with the fleet limited to private boats along with commercial salmon fishing vessels, it has been difficult to find a consistent pattern.
At the beginning of and for most boats throughout the season, trolling is the preferred method of targeting ocean salmon. Captain Trent Slate of Bite Me Charters out of Loch Lomond Marina in San Francisco Bay is a life-long ocean fisherman who will troll at the start of the season until the salmon tell him that it is time to mooch. He is one of the few boats that consistently mooches for ocean salmon starting in late June through August.
Slate is a native of San Rafael and earned his stripes as a deckhand for legendary captains such as Captain Phil of the Butchie B and Captain Jacky Douglas of the Wacky Jacky out of San Francisco along with Captain Jim Smith of the Happy Hooker out of Berkeley. Slate progressed through a career as a commercial fisherman in the Bay Area before heading north for a 15-year run in southern Humboldt County, putting Shelter Cove on the map as a bucket list destination with Shelter Cove Sport Fishing. He returned to his home region in Marin County to operate his six-pack, the Bite Me, out of Loch Lomond.
I’ve been fortunate enough to target rockfish, salmon, and Pacific halibut out of Shelter Cove on numerous occasions with Slate along with trolling or mooching for salmon along the Marin County coastline.
Slate said, “I am looking for bait, fish marks, or birds along with brown water conditions in order to locate salmon. One of the best signs is when you see pelicans diving along with murres working the surface, and these are a real give-away that there is bait in the area. Sea gulls can be dependable, but cormorants lie as I have found that they are unreliable indicators of bait in the area. Once we find the conditions we are looking for, we will drop them in and give it a go.”
Slate will start with a spread from 25 to 50 feet at varying depths, and the depth of the water will determine the starting locations. A normal spread will be 25, 30, 35, and 50 feet with the shallow rods along the bow with the deeper rods in the stern. He will run a 2.5- to 3-pound ball in the bow at the shallower depths, progressing deeper on the side rods and deeper once again on the stern rods, using as light as a 2-pound ball on the stern rods. He said, “People have asked me about using downriggers, but it is difficult to run six rods when you have a downrigger line in the way. I am trying to keep as many lines in the water at the same time with a minimum of tangles. If you have a private boat, stacking on the downriggers is an option, but I learned from Butchie B, and his methods have been very effective for me.”
Techniques and gear
Slate said, “For a leader, I will use fluorocarbon line in either 30- or 40-pound test, and my optimum leader length is 6 feet, no longer than 7 feet. I prefer straight bait of either anchovies or herring, but I will use a small flasher that spins like a Pro-Troll Spin Ray Flasher or a Yakima Fish Flash attached directly to the Hayward Fishing Salmon Release and then to the leader.
I generally troll bait, but if it is either wide open or very slow, I will add a spoon such as a Krocodile or a Pro-Troll E-Lure to see what happens. My friend, Matt Smart of Rodeo, always wants to run a watermelon E-Lure. If I use a larger inline flasher, I will run the leader 4 feet to the flasher and another 2 feet to the bait. I rarely use the large 11-inch dodgers due to the drag, but I have found success on a big dodger with a hoochie. For a hook, I use custom-made cable hooks that have flexibility to move once the fish is hooked. For bait, sometimes the salmon want a small bait, and sometimes they want a larger bait, and sometimes it doesn’t matter so you adjust the bait from anchovies to herring to see which is most effective.”
Landing an ocean salmon
Enticing a strike is only part of the game, but things can get dicey once a salmon is on the end of the line. Slate said, “When you are trolling at 3-plus knots, the fish is already on the hook, and there is no need to try and set the hook. With a barbless hook, it is easy to lose a salmon so it is a matter of the captain helping the angler bring the fish to the net. Once a salmon is on, I will slow the boat down but keep trolling at a speed to keep the lines from tangling. If the fish is in the bow, it is a matter of clearing the lines and moving towards the stern for the fish fight. If the salmon is hooked on the left side, I will nudge the boat to the right and work a wide circle to assist bringing the salmon to the net. You can’t land a salmon in the bow of the boat so you have to work to the back. However, I keep all of the lines in the water since it is very possible to have multiple hookups at the same time. When fighting a salmon, it is a matter of letting the rod do the work and keeping a taut line with no slack since slack is guaranteed to allow the salmon to live for another day. You have to keep the tension on the fish and reel when there is an opportunity. I set the drag so you can pull the line off the reel with some effort but not tight enough to take a lot of effort. You should be able to pull the line out, and the one thing you don’t want to do is break off fish because your drag is too tight.”
The final step – netting the salmon
Slate said, “Netting is really about experience, and once you have done this enough times, you can tell when a salmon is ready to come to the net. You are going to get one shot at this so you have to make it count. I have seen so many salmon lost at the net while watching other boats. Once the salmon is swimming properly, you always net the head and never the tail. If you take a swipe at the tail, that salmon will take off. Once the head is in the net, I push down with my right hand on the base of the net to allow the fish to settle into the net, then put both hands on the handle near the hook while holding the net vertically to the side of the boat before lifting. Once the salmon is out of the water, it’s over.
Switching over to mooching
Slate said, “My key to switching over to mooching is when we start getting hooked up when the baits are barely moving while traveling around 1.5 knots in a circle when another salmon has been hooked on the troll. This lets me know that it is time to start mooching, and this normally occurs towards the end of June through July and August.”
Slate added that the bait has been close to the shoreline early this season as it is generally offshore at the start of the season before moving in later during the months of July and August. There have also been particularly large salmon in excess of 30 pounds landed during the month of May, and he said, “Normally, we are lucky to get one over 15 pounds at this time of year.” He was out on Thursday with Bud Chaddock of Squid Me Tackle and others, and he said, “We found tremendous conditions off of Rocky Point with bird, bait, and brown water, but after trolling for a few hours, we came up empty. I heard about another six-pack finding fish near the Channel Markers so we ran southwest to the area to throw in 5 salmon quickly with all salmon between 15 and 18 pounds, ending up with a total of six salmon for the group. He said, “They are there, it’s just a matter of finding them.”
Captain Slate will be trolling out of Loch Lomond until the salmon tell him it is time to switch over to mooching. He can be reached at (415) 307-8582 out of the Loch Lomond Marina.