Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Kayak Fishing for Salmon

On some parts of the North American continent you may be buried in cold, cold temperatures and snow or maybe you are living on the West Coast and are enjoying some milder temperatures in late January.  Wherever you are, you may be anticipating the warmer temperatures of Spring and the call of the water and possibly your fishing gear.

JF Marleau is a kayak guide, kayak instructor and kayak fishing guide for SKILS and a member of the Nikki Rekman Sales team.  In this article JF talks all things, Salmon Fishing including where to find them and how to catch them.  Sit back, relax and dream of getting that fish on in 2014!

When September is upon us and fall is fast approaching, the salmon fishing season comes to an end for many motorboat anglers. For kayak angler however, it is just the beginning of the best season for salmon fishing. This time of year provides countless opportunities to catch plenty of salmon without expending much energy.  In the fall, the 5 species of salmon on the BC coast (chinook, coho, pink, sockeye and chum) move inland to the river estuaries (where the river meet the ocean). Estuaries are much more sheltered than the open coastal areas where these fish feed in the summer; this makes accessing the fish much easier. Furthermore, fishing in estuaries is very challenging for most motorboat anglers, as it requires being stealth, maneuverable and having a shallow drafted boat.

I feel that kayak fishing is the most efficient way to fish in estuaries. Some anglers like to fish from the shore; however, in non-urban areas these anglers end up competing for fish with bears (a dangerous proposition when you yourself smell like a fish) and access to the best fishing holes is limited by thick vegetation. A Kayak allows the angler to move quietly and easily from spot to spot and to stay safely out of reach of bears.

Fishing during the spawning season allows anglers to witness amazing wildlife sceneries: salmon jumping and numerous species like bears, wolves, seals, sea lions, raccoons, river otters, bald eagles and gulls, all feeding on salmon. Spawning time fluctuates depending on the species and the location of the creek or river. Some salmon runs do spawn during the summer months, but the spawning season in most creeks on the BC coast occurs in early September to mid-November.

Finding the Fish

It’s crucial that you spend your first moments of fishing locating the ideal school of fish, the larger the better. Much of fishing is a about increasing the probability of a fish biting, and the more fish that are around, the better are your chances. If you are fishing with a friend, go in separate directions in order to maximize your chances of finding the greatest aggregation of fish. Schools of fish can be located anywhere within the estuary up to 2 km away from the mouth of the river. Use VHF radios or walkie-talkies to communicate your findings as you go. In order to locate a large school of fish, look for salmon jumping and for changes in water texture such as ripples or water disturbances. For examples, check out the following video.

A fish finder is also a great tool for confirming fish are nearby.

Once a large school of fish is located. Be stealthy and maintain a good distance of at least 10 metres in order to avoid alarming the fish. Make sure you stick with them as they move around the estuary. If for some reason the school of fish is scared away from their current location (i.e. scared by a seal or a kayak angler) they will often come back to the same location 10 to 30 minutes later.

You will find that the fish are either biting often or not at all. I recommend fishing around slack tide to maximize your chances of fishing when the fish are biting. Slack tide occurs between one hour before and one hour after high or low tide. I personally prefer to fish the slack tide around high tide in my favorite spots.

Lures and Techniques

During pre-spawning and spawning, salmon don’t feed, but instinct will still drive them to bite. Our target is the most aggressive fish and our technique for catching them is “pissing them off with our lure.”

I personally prefer fly-fishing, but I must admit that spoons and spinners are no match for flies when it comes to fishing for salmon during prep-spawning or spawning season. Small spoons like the Koho Killer, the Krocodile and the very reliable Bolo are my favorite lures for chinook, coho and chum. I prefer a heavier Bolo spoon when performing longer casts. For Pink salmon, I like to use a one to two inch pink Buzzbommer or a very small one to two inch Pink Zinger.

Some anglers make their own lures based on local knowledge. Once during a kayak fishing tournament in Nanaimo in 2012 where Pink salmon was the prime target, I was fishing near a man who was successfully catching many Pink salmon. I asked him what he was using as a lure and he simply answered: “A hook and a piece of ribbon.” I was certain he was pulling my leg and that he told me that to keep from sharing his secret. But later I had the chance to get to know him and I realized that he had been telling the truth. This very nice gentleman was simply using a hook and two 1.5 inch long pieces of ribbon, the kind you wrap gifts with, one red and one white.

When casting, I personally prefer a faster retrieve action with some jerking motion to trigger the aggressiveness of the fish. I use scent in the hopes of increasing my chances of a bite, but I admit that my fishing companions who know how to fish and don’t use scent, tend to catch the same amount of salmon as I do. I see no statistical evidences at this point that fishing scents increase my rate of success.

I always tell my students that, if the fish are not biting after 10 casts, change one element of your approach. This could be your location, your lure, the action of your lure or the speed and depth of your retrieve.


As per law in British Columbia, all salmon anglers must use a single barbless hook. I prefer to use the largest hook possible that will not disrupt the natural action of my lures. Especially large salmon like Chinook, Coho and chum have powerful jaws and I want to make sure the hook is well set up in the mouth. I have had numerous small hooks bend or break during a fight with a combative salmon… again the big one got away.

When kayak fishing, a casting rod and reel is your best option. I often like to use a trout rod and reel with eight-pound test monofilament to catch large Chinook, Chum and Coho. The trout rod allows for easier and longer casting, but it takes skill (and a lot more time) to reel the fish in, as you must really “play” your fish to avoid breaking the line. If you want to be conservative, you can use a more robust reel and rod with 20-pound test braided line (this line has an equivalent diameter to six pound test monofilament line).  I prefer braided line due to the higher diameter to strength ratio. Use reputable brands as they ensure an easier cast and greater reach.

20-pound test braided lines work when fishing for all 5 species of salmon indigenous to the coastal waters of British Columbia. If you are targeting mostly Chinook, you may want to upgrade to 30-pound test braided line. Doing so will decrease the distance of each cast, but you will reduce the chance of breaking your line (and letting the big one get away again!) Remember, it is harder to knot braided line and bad knots are a major cause of losing fish. Always double and triple check your knots.

How to know when to eat or when to release your catch

During the pre-spawning season, the color and physical features of the salmon changes. Because they stop actively feeding, salmon burn their fat reserves, which means you no longer get that fatty and delicious grey layer on the meat. As the spawning season continues the flesh begins to slowly decay. The flesh becomes paler and the texture of the meat changes. This slow decay also creates an ideal environment for parasites. I personally release any salmon I catch that is in an advanced stage of spawning, only keeping the “nice” looking ones based on skin coloration. When I fillet my catches, I sort the fillets into 2 categories: fillets for smoking if the flesh is paler, and filets for regular consumption if the meat looks like it is from a non spawning salmon.

Kayak fishing for salmon in estuaries during the pre-spawning and spawning seasons provides outstanding fishing opportunities. The ability to be stealth and easily maneuver in a kayak, as well as the shallow draft, make the kayak a far superior craft for fishing in an estuary than any motor boat.

BC has numerous river estuaries through which salmon travel on their way to spawn. I myself live 800 metres from a kayak launch, which is a 20 minute paddle away from two of my favorite estuaries. I feel so blessed to live in beautiful British Columbia.

Fishing is just not about catching fish, it is also about having fun, staying fit, creating lasting memories with friends, watching wildlife and of course enjoying good food! To review all I have mentioned in this blog, follow this link to our video.

I hope I have hooked you!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Green River, UT

Green River, UT
Photo: Shawna Franklin