Climbing The Salmon Ladder – A Personal Quest

I’m a big advocate for hiring a professional guide when venturing into unfamiliar fishing waters.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of guided fishing experiences over the years.

I count the many talented captains and crews on the boats I ride all the time back home in Southern California into that collection of experiences.  I’ve learned how to filet fish, tie knots, how to recognize certain things on the water, and the appropriate response to what I was seeing to catch fish…all a credit to this amazing group of people.  I want to repay the knowledge I’ve gained from them and see the industry thrive, which is one of the reasons why I started So Cal Salty in the first place.

Guides and the sportboat crews help you ramp up faster to reaching a level of fishing-enjoyment on the water.

salmon fishingI’m convinced of this fact more than ever having gone through my various self-guided quests this year.  A great example is the experience I’ve had with salmon this year.  Prior to this year, I had caught a handful of salmon in my whole life.  There were a couple of times that I wrote about in the Tribute To My Dad…my first sportboat fish when I was 10, and then the magical Vancouver Island trip when I was 15.  When I was in high school, I caught a little pink in the skiff my Eskimo friend and I used to fish in off Redondo, WA.  I caught a nice steelhead in the Columbia River the time my son Jacob caught a 31-pound chinook (right).  That trip was in 2011 with Dan Porter of Fish With Dan guide service.

Since then, I caught a couple off the pier when I was up here last year and that was it…until this year.

I’ve caught more salmon this year than I’ve caught over the entirety of the rest of my life.  It’s been an interesting contrast too.  I had that great trip out on the Sol Duc River out on the Olympic Peninsula with guide Shane Mitts of It’s Fish On guide service.  On that trip, I caught a chinook, a steelhead, and a cutthroat trout to complete a rare (for me) freshwater slam.

salmon fishingIn stark contrast to that trip have been my self-guided trips.  I met some people out there that have helped me in my quest to catch pier salmon.  Notably, Ken Kim (left), has taken me under his wing to share his knowledge with me and show me around to different spots.  I truly appreciate all the help that I’ve been given.  I absolutely love making new friends as a result of my fishing adventures.  At the end of the day though, someone isn’t next to you saying, “Cast over there.”  or “Wait, wait on it…ok set!”  It makes a huge difference having someone guide you at every step of the way.

So while I did relatively well in my pier salmon endeavor (3 kings, 2 silvers), I have to think it could have been better with more guidance.  I had to watch others and adapt my technique to what I was observing.  Also, when I first arrived on the scene, I was just another guy that nobody recognized.  I had to earn my credibility first.  Over about 2 months, going almost daily and putting in hours of work each day, I slowly climbed my way up the ladder…shakers, then jacks, and finally a king.  It was only after seeing me day after day and putting a fish on the deck that people started being more open and sharing their secrets with me.

I’ve had a leg up this time around with Ken being there at the beginning of this chum salmon quest.

Osalmon fishingur first outing was on October 28th.  Since then, there’s been a leveling up process that’s been happening.  Neither one of us caught a fish on that first trip, but I learned a place to go where I’d find my target fish and how to rig up for them.  I also learned the protocol of fishing the river that helped me fit in with the other anglers.  The next time, Ken got one and I got to see my first chum salmon up close.  It was a hen and still pretty chrome (so fairly new to the freshwater), but it was the target species.  The fish needed more seasoning in the freshwater, and I needed more practice with the flossing technique used to catch them.

Next up, Ken took me on the Cowlitz River trip.  The opportunity to catch my target species wasn’t there, but that trip was important to my river salmon fishing development because aside from catching some cool fish, I started to understand what a bite felt like.  It’s so very different from the fishing we do in Southern California, and it was a critical step forward.

salmon fishingWhich brings us to last week.  Tuesday, November 10th, I was back at it in the chum zone.  I was brimming with confidence.  I was excited to pit my newfound knowledge against the fish.  It was the best day of chum salmon fishing I’ve seen yet.  Notice I said “seen.”  Everyone caught multiple fish, but I skunked.  I set on one fish and felt a wiggle, but it didn’t stick.  That was a tough pill for me to swallow.  The only redeeming part of the experience was seeing my first chum buck.  A guy named Kevin caught it who was fishing just downriver from me.  It was one of 3 fish I saw him put on the bank.  While I was discouraged about my performance, seeing that buck chum, pre-spawn colors in almost full bloom, gave me hope.

I came back on Friday (November 13th).  Ken told me he’d be in the spot at 7:30, but when I arrived, he wasn’t there.  The bank was crowded though with other anglers.  Had I not put in the time already, I probably would have left and tried to find a spot less populated.

I stayed though.  Confident I knew enough to fit in.

I’m glad I did.  I was able to find my rhythm, casting in turn with the other anglers, and working my section of the river.  Then it happened.  I felt that slow pull of line indicating a bite and set on it.  Ken had pointed out to me after Tuesday’s trip how you hear a certain sound when a successful set hits paydirt.

I heard it!

The whip of the line as it comes tight on the fish.  That spray of water when it snaps off the tight line.  And then that satisfying feedback of feeling the fish fighting at the end of the line.  Fish on!

salmon fishingIt went upstream at first and I wound up quickly to catch up to it.  When I did catch up, it snapped the fish’s head back and it jumped out of the water about ten feet in front of me.  It changed direction and headed downstream.  The fish leveraged the current to take out some line.  I had to slowly work it back and it finally slid into the net.  I got my first chum!  It was a hen, but less chromy than the first one I saw at the beginning of this quest.  Not the ultimate target fish I want to find, but definitely leveling up.  There are only a couple more weeks before this run is over.  I’m getting closer.  Good luck if you get out there.

Joe Sarmiento is the founder and primary writer of the So Cal Salty blog. The blog covers saltwater fishing, primarily aboard the many sportfishing boats of Southern California. In addition to writing his blog, Joe's writing has appeared in Western Outdoor News, The Log and Griffin Media. Joe is ...