Spring Chinook with Lil’ Jer
Trolling Tips for Lower Columbia
by: Bill Herzog for Salmon, Steelhead Trout magazine
Ten percent catch 90 percent of Lower Columbia spring Chinook. Jarod Higginbotham of Yakima Bait tells us how to join the 90 percent club.
When I was hosting Northwest Wild Country radio show in Seattle nearly twenty years ago, we invited newly minted head of sales and marketing manager of Yakima Bait, Jarod Higginbotham, to come into the studio for the show. My first thought when he barely fit through the studio door was “his poor mom” and “we ain’t got no chairs in here gonna fit that boy.” Those who know Jarod, and there are many here in the Northwest, call him the “World’s Largest Nine-Year Old” for good reason. He’s probably too big to play offensive tackle for the Seahawks and his sense of sideways humor is just as grande.
His knowledge of trolling for spring Chinook is nearly as vast as he is. I’m proud to call him my great friend, and he agreed to share some of his salmon trolling experience for Lower Columbia River April kings. I spent an afternoon interviewing him recently in his office at Yakima Bait in Granger. When you put two people with uber-nutty minds in the same room, it can be difficult to stay on subject…when the topic wasn’t flying off the rails, here’s what “Lil’ Jer” had to say. Pay attention.
Start by giving us some basic first thoughts before you get to the water.
“It seems obvious, but the separation is in the preparation. There is very little luck when trolling for springers. Luck in the springer fisherperson’s world is prep meeting opportunity. A guy once said, “all my fish are caught in my garage” is never more true. I spend more time getting ready for a springer trip than actually fishing.
“Again, this is obvious to most of us but prep your gear before you launch. The best springer anglers are always ready to drop ‘em at the first hint of daylight. Even if you are not a guide, do as the best guides do and talk to your people on board about what you expect them to do during the day before you hit the river. Explain to them how to work and stay on top of the gear, how to react to a salmon strike, their job when a fish is hooked. You are the main roper in the rodeo.”
Let’s talk about that prepped gear. Rods, reels, lines first.
“Keep all your gear the same. If even one person is using a different outfit, it may be a damned good outfit but if it’s different, that person won’t be fishing the same as the rest. Every rod in the water has to be fishing at its optimum or that’s just one less chance at a fish.
“Start with fresh line. Its stronger and you know it’s the same diameter on all reels. A line that is a different brand or has a lot of use won’t have the same diameter. That and the exact same amount of line on each reel so line counters all match perfectly. It sounds ticky-tack but when you have seven rods out and I’m watching the fish finder and yell out, ‘put em at 34 feet’ they are all fishing ideal depth. All the same knots, too.
“About that gear…lines. Always braid. You won’t find any guide or open division springer troller using mono anymore. Mainline is 65-pound Power Pro. Reels are Shimano Tekota 500LC line counters, rods are all 1265 E6X G Loomis, 10’ 6”, 10 to 40#. The best use the best, so there you go.
We use heavy mainlines with heavy bumpers so when—not if—you find one of the zillions of trees, buoy lines, etc., laying around in the lower river when you have to break off you only lose a lighter pound test leader not fifty bucks in terminal gear.”
About that terminal gear. Whaddya got on there?
“First, slide on a large bead on the mainline. This prevents the angler from reeling up the slider/swivel into the top rod guides and breaking the inset. Then slip on a slider/dropper, a VIP Line Lock slider that prevents line twist, tie off the mainline to a 6-bead chain swivel, then a sixteen inch, 50-pound bumper to another bead chain swivel and large duo-lock clip. On the dropper put on a large swivel on the duo-lock, then a 14” dropper to another clip for the lead ball. The dropper and the bumper are different lengths so the don’t tangle. As far as weight, standard issue round lead balls, 6 to 12 ounce, weight determined by trolling speed/depth/current. Trolling is always done with the river current and tidal flow. All leads must match (same) so they do not tangle, all rods have the same line angle. Now for the good stuff! (Edited for family reading, as Jerod did not say “stuff” in the interview. It was several eloquently connected descriptive expletives punctuated with tear-inducing laughter, all carefully chosen blue nouns and brown adverbs, highlighting the stunning quality and effectiveness of the product) …
“A must for early season trolling is the triangle, in-line Fish Flash. Yakima Bait makes them in four sizes, a #4 (smallest), #6, #8 and #10, the medium (#8) and large (#10) the best for lower Columbia. Colors? Green and chartreuse every day. If those colors don’t produce, try chartreuse and green! Seriously, other combos work well, like UV ‘moon jelly’ and fluorescent red, but for kings its very hard to beat some sort of green.”
“Leaders are all tied with 25-pound Maxima Ultragreen, 36 to 48”, shorter leaders in dirtier water. In the middle of the leader always place a bead chain swivel, this not only totally eliminates line twist but makes a smoother roll on the cut plug herring at slow trolling speed. Fluorocarbon is not necessary. For herring trolling we use a 4/0 lead and a 3/0 stinger hook tied tandem to fit like a green label herring. If the water is clearer (rare) or salmon become finicky, we use two tandem 3/0s instead. Leaders are all tied to six-bead chain swivels and large duo-lock snaps for fast change and easy storage on leader boards.”
You gave a few hints in there on how to. Details!
“I mentioned trolling with the current and tide. Always. A wounded or distressed bait fish does not go against the current. Line angle…standard 45 degrees. Springers travel and bite best in 30 feet of water or less. Target areas with current breaks, the edges, the ends of points or islands. If you can find spots that are 1 to 3 degrees warmer, stay in that area, as salmon will gravitate to the slightly warmer water. And remember, sand warms more quickly than rock, so stay sandy!
“Fish s-l-o-w!!! Watch your gear in the water before letting it down. And let it out s-l-o-w to avoid tangles. You really want a tight spin on your herring, too. Aggressive springers will always right on the deck. Rarely do you get one that’s suspended. Knowing that, your gear must literally bang the bottom. The biggest key to find travelling/pausing springers is look for the humps in the sandy bottom! Moving salmon will lay immediately behind those humps, mini current breaks. Let your lead ‘puff’ the sand. Now pay attention, this one is golden…allow your lead to ‘tick’ the humps. (We both broke into a really bad ‘Tick The Humps’ rap right there, off the rails again.) Salmon will lay on the other side of the hump. When you see your bumping lead stop and it drops over the edge, get ready, as a smokin’ strike will happen now!
“About that strike…no reaction is the best action. You hear different opinions on this one, but this is the correct reaction to a salmon trolling bite, especially with herring. Leave the clicker on, leave the drag as loose as possible, just tight enough so line does not slip off the spool when trolling. When it eats it—you’ll know, it’s pretty violent- leave it in the holder until it begins to smoke away! And DO NOT set the hook! Allow the rod to fully load and the fish to turn so the hook(s) find purchase. This is plenty of power to drive hooks home. Setting the hook only results in the bait or lure being pulled out of the fish’s mouth. Bites in the early season are few and far between as a rule, actually hooking and landing a prized springer is better than the horrors of a blown bite…and cheaper than $100 bucks an hour for therapy!”
Sounds like bait over lures for what’s on the end of the leader.
“Well brined, firm, tightly spinning green label cut-plug herring is always the first choice. Salmon immediately out of the ocean, travelling hundreds of miles and not spawning for half a year are still feeding. They want meat! However, our Spin Fish in either 3.0 or 4.0 work well when bait is hard to find or, sometimes springers just want that “kick tail” action. Spin Fish work like bait because you can put any bait you want in the hollow, two-part chamber. (See the sidebar for Spin Fish stuffin’s) Rig those on a thirty-six”, 25-pound test leader with tandem 3/0 hooks.”
Colors of Spin Fish?
“Like Buzz Ramsey says, let the fish tell you what they want. I would say the Top Three colors are Double Trouble, Mad Clown and Doctor Death, the old steelhead color. Salmon love metallic pink, it seems. We’re working on new colors, really excited about the Mexican Hat and the Smooth Goat. They’ll be killers!”
Any other tips? I’m sure you have several more.
“A lot of common knowledge stuff. Trust your electronics! If you are marking salmon, don’t leave fish to find fish. And if you don’t find fish, move around until you do. Stay dialed in, don’t be a lazy troller! The anglers that do best in these really difficult early season fisheries are constantly adjusting their gear to stay on the bottom…not dragging the deck, but ‘tickling’ it, so to speak. It’s a marathon down there, remember, rarely a hook-fest. There’s a huge difference between one and zero when trolling for early season lower Columbia spring Chinook.
“Be sure to check/change your gear every 15 to 30 minutes. A fresh, tight bait gets springers, not a blown-out poorly spinning herring. Check for grass too, same 15 to 30 minutes. One little piece of the oh-so-common grass will foul a bait, lure or Fish Flash. Always keep your boat super clean, prevent any negative smells from possibly getting to any part of your gear. I gas up my boat the day before. And no smoking in my boat—no cigars, cigarettes or laughing lettuce…nothing.”
Some last thoughts?
“Early season springer anglers are, well, just ‘different’. Hard Core! I love it, as many do because its so difficult. You’re grinding, some, heck, most days dawn till almost dark. Not to mention these are the finest eating salmon, no, check that, finest eating fish on this green Earth. Best of all, the camaraderie in the boat, the time you get to spend with special people. Can’t wait!”
Thanks for your time, man, and save me a seat!
- Sidebar -
Lil’ Jer’s Cosmic Funk Bait Recipe
for Spin Fish
You know a lot of time on the water and trial and error that Jerod put in for this recipe. You need:
- 1 can of tuna in oil, drained
- 1 tsp non-iodized sea salt
- 3 tsps Shane Magnusen’s Sand Shrimp Formula
- 3 tsps same Salmon Formula
- 1 to 2 tsp Pro Cure krill powder
Fill Spin Fish cavity. Set in the water and brace yourself…