Salmon – The Commercial Way

Salmon Commercial Way – Commercial Salmon Fishing

There are certain phrases, heuristics, and sayings that you will find in American society. One would be ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. And one that I’m sure you’re all familiar with “Fish where the fish are”. These seem like pretty simple concepts until you try to operationalize them.

“Fishing where the fish are” can be a daunting task that is as dynamic as the tide, wind, and moon, especially when chasing our coast’s Chinook salmon. This means that your global position on the earth’s surface has to be correct at the right time of the day and that your bow is pointed in the right direction related to the current. But there is one other ‘location’ that has to be correct and that is DEPTH.

Ever been around commercial salmon trollers and you see them catching and you’re not?

salmon commercial way

You know that you have the right GPS location and you can tell which direction they are trolling. You can see that they are using flashers and hoochies as well as spoons. However, you don’t know what depth they are getting them at.

Having a good fishfinder that can see fish and more importantly bait in deeper water (up to 500-feet) is the first step. Fishing deeper than 200-feet can be a foreign concept to a large portion of the salmon fishermen population, but when you’re in Rome….you better drop the hammer on the downrigger and put that ball deep! You have to fish where the fish are, and quite frequently, I will find myself fishing 430-feet on the downrigger in 450-feet to 500-feet of water. If I fish Swift sure Bank, I almost always have one downrigger near the bottom (around 300-feet). The same goes for fishing out of Westport in deeper water. A lot of time, the bait will be stacked on the bottom, and you need to have the confidence and the tools to fish deep.

For this article, we’re taking a page out of the commercial salmon fishing bible and I will break down how you can do this on your own boat. A month ago, I had the opportunity to listen to a seminar that was provided by Greg Mueller, President of the Washington Trollers Association. While commercial salmon boats can run enough lines to make Tred Barta‘s Porcupine Trolling Set look like a walk in the park, sport fishermen are limited to the number of downriggers they can successfully manage.

Greg emphasized speed as ocean salmon do not prefer a slow presentation and the trolling speeds range from 2.8 knots to 3.2 knots. This is one of the common mistakes made when trolling deep-water from a sport boat. Fishermen look at the large amount of blowback on the downrigger line and try to slow the boat down. When they reduce their troll speed below 1.7 knots, they start to pick up bottom feeders, including halibut and rockfish. This seems like a great problem to have but halibut and rockfish are not open coincidentally with salmon and must be released. Reeling in a 20-pound halibut from 450-feet on a noodle of a salmon rod will drive this point home and you won’t want to run that drill more than once. A 15-pound downrigger ball is the absolute minimum that will get you to the desired depth at a speed of 1.7 knots or more. 20-pound downrigger balls are preferred.

There are three primary tools that make this approach possible:

1. Good Downriggers: Both Cannon and Scotty make downriggers that have the torque and speed required to lift a 20-pound downrigger ball from the depths in a hurry. I load my downriggers with 200-pound spectra to reduce the blowback and avoid potential kinks in the factory loaded stainless steel cable. Spectra also removes voltage from the equation.

2. High Speed, High Capacity Reels: When a fish takes the bait and releases the line from the DR clip, there will be a fair amount of slack that needs to be reeled up, especially when fishing deep. In order to keep up with the fish and make my bait/lure checks more time efficient, I use the Fin Nor-Marquesa in the 12 and 16 sizes. These reels pull multiple duties for me including live-baiting tuna and inshore bottom fishing. The drags are super smooth and the gear ratio is a speedy 6.1:1. I love lever drags for salmon fishing as I can single handedly stack two rods on a downrigger, drop the rigger to the desired depth, and quickly adjust the drags to strike. I load my Marquesas with 50-pound and 65-pound spectra, with a 100-foot topshot of 25- to 30-pound monofilament. When a King takes my favorite spoon off of the release clip, I can get tight in a hurry!

3. Downrigger Release Clips: When fishing deep, you do not want any false releases. In other words, you don’t want the line to release from the clip due to water drag, when you are on your way down with the downrigger ball. To address this issue, I prefer the Pro Release downrigger releases when fishing any kind of gear. These releases only release from the fish side of the release and ensure that your gear can get down quickly without prematurely releasing.

Once your gear is in order, you can focus on the terminal end of the equation.

Greg prefers to run a flasher and hoochy rig off the Cannon Ball (downrigger ball). He crimps all of his 60-pound leaders to help prevent jellyfish slime from hanging up on the leader. The recommended leader length is 37-inches from swivel to swivel, and Greg prefers a 6/0 Mustad 95170 hook. One single hook provides a greatly overlooked advantage. There is a lot of throat on a Mustad 95170 and once it finds its mark, the fish stays hooked. It also allows for an easier release of a fish and a resulting lower mortality rate. We already use single hooks on our spoons. Why not our hoochies?

salmon commercial way

And everyone loves the “fishy” gear details so I will give you Greg’s top recommendations:

  • Use bright spoons in the spring (copper/brass) and painted spoons from July on.
  • When the fish are feeding on krill, use the 92-series North Pacific hoochies.
  • The #5 ‘Best Bets’ spoon is deadly. Try the chromed dill pickle color.
  • Use green colored spoons and hoochies when the Salmon are feeding on anchovies and blue colored gear when they are feeding on herring.
  • When stacking multiple lines on a single downrigger, only put a flasher on the bottom rig. The top rig should be a spoon or plug without flasher.

salmon commercial way

And that’s how we successfully fish like the commercial salmon fleet. Some days, this is the only way to fill the fish box. Get the required gear and you will not be disappointed!


Capt. Tommy Donlin, the BD Outdoors Pro Staff representative for the Pacific Northwest, has more than 20 years of experience fishing the waters from Sitka, Alaska, to Clarion Island off the coast of Mexico. He chases everything that swims off the Washington coast, including tuna, salmon, lingcod, ha...