Tactics for spring kings

Posted: Friday, April 14, 2006

The first rule about fishing for spring kings is to forget all the other rules!

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This is a whole different fish from summer salmon.

"It's a whole different fishery," long-time Juneau guide Mike Duby said. "I have a hard time figuring these fish out myself."

For the last dozen years Duby has been fishing Juneau waters, first with a local lodge and the last several years as captain of his own boat.

"This is a whole different king. It doesn't even look the same. They have more fat content, which they've stored up because they're going to be in fresh water longer. That's why they command such a high price and why they practically melt in your mouth. They're so oily they practically cook in their own juices.

"They are the premier salmon."

It's believed that most of the early kings in Juneau waters are just passing through, headed for the Taku River, rather than ending up here to spawn.

"This time of year the kings are not schooled up yet. You're not getting doubles. There just are not that many out there. You are fishing where there may be only 20 fish on the whole Bread Line."

Those scattered fish making for a lot batting average-or high number of rod hours per king caught, as Alaska Fish & Game measures angler success.

"It's tough. I've gone six days, fishing every day, without a bite," Duby said. "Last year was our best May ever and we got 40, fishing every single day."

So when the percentages are so low, the effort so high, why are Southeast Alaska anglers so crazed about fishing for these early kings?

"Everybody's been waiting all winter to go fishing!" Duby laugh. "People have been skiing, maybe hunting a few hooters, working on the boat, but this is the first thing to do fishing. Nothing else is there yet-even the rock fish and halibut aren't in yet.

"And there are some absolutely beautiful days, fantastic weather in May. It's just nice to be out there. The whales are starting to show up. And when you do get a king, it's really something. One fish can make the day."

While early kings are present in small numbers throughout Southeast Alaska, it's pretty easy to decide where to fish, he said.

"The Bread Line (a deep drop-off from Tee Harbor to the Shrine of St. Teresa) and False Outer Point (on Douglas Island) get 90 percent of the effort," Duby said. "I prospect other places and find fish, but the Bread Line is close, and is one nice big long drag."

Unique geography, and traditional salmon migrations, make these two easily accessible spots the focus for most anglers in May. Both spots feature a steep drop-off and large concentrations of bait fish, mostly herring.

"You can cast off the rocks into 150 feet of water," Duby said. "And those fish are often packed right against those rocks. The little skiffs pulling herring 15 feet behind the boat (and the bank anglers) will get most of the fish."

Duby, who operates a 30-foot Bayliner, says the productive water is often too shallow for his boat and operating down riggers.

"Those fish are along the drop-offs, which I think has a lot to do with the feed. There are always herring on that breadline, and the bait moves in with the tide."

Anglers need to especially vigilant of tidal changes during May, he added.

"Tide changes are critical in May. There always seems to be a bite at the tide change, on one end or the other of the Bread Line. I like the low tide, when the bait is just coming in on the tide, but it can be either high or low tide.

Shore bound anglers are at no disadvantage during May.

"That shoreline fishery off False Outer Point is really good. They catch as many kings with herring and a two-ounce weight as we do trolling. There's always a big school of bait in there, and it's too shallow for boats to get in there (so the shore anglers have it to themselves). The water's less than 30 feet deep there and you're fishing back into 10 feet."

The 2005 Spring King Champion, Wally Frank Jr., caught his 37.95-pounder from the rocks at False Outer Point on Douglas Island.

Rigging is simple, with a plug cut or curve-hooked herring spinning on a stout leader behind a swivel weight heavy enough to cast far off the rocks, although many very successful anglers never cast more than 50 feet from the shoreline.

The only draw back is lots of competition, both from other shoreline anglers, and at least one marine thief.

"There is a seal that seems to sit in there and gets half the fish," he laughed.

While anglers are accustomed to catching king and the other species of salmon on artificial baits, fresh herring take center stage as the only serious bait in May.

"These fish are not as aggressive," Duby said. "The water is colder and they want a slower presentation. Herring are just what they've been eating for a long time, and the smelt have not shown up yet. Later when the smelt are in they'll be pretty aggressive and we'll start fishing hoochies, about the first of June.

While anglers are accustomed to trolling deep for both kings and silvers, May is the time to come closer to the surface.

"Spring kings are the shallowest of all," Duby said. "They will be really shallow, especially on the tide change. I don't know if they're deeper and just follow the bait shallow with the incoming tide, but that's where they'll be.

"We rarely catch them deeper than 40 feet. And flat lines (trolled straight off the reel and without a downrigger) will catch most of them in 10 or 15 feet of water. I try to keep it around 20 feet.

"Lots of the locals will fish no more than 20 pulls of line off the reel."

That puts that spinning herring almost in the wash of the outboard prop, but it doesn't seem to bother the kings.

While hoochies are highly effective for fall silver salmon, there's no disputing that May kings prefer fresh meat-in the form of a hefty herring. After all, herring has been the majority of their diet for five years or more.

"I like to fish the regular green size herring, but some go with those little firecracker 3-4 inchers and do well, fishing a whole herring.

"I like a cut plug herring, because it gives an unreal action, that slow roll that you want for kings. However you rig it, you want that roll, and for me the easiest way is with a cut plug.

"I'll sometimes use a whole herring behind a flasher, but I prefer not to run flashers this time of year. The fish are not as aggressive and I don't think they're as attracted to those. And having four cut plugs rolling out there behind the boat looks like a nice little school of herring."

In other areas, mooching is still popular, although most Juneau anglers stick to trolling. Mooching is the tactic of drifting or very slowly trolling one or several baits, using a banana weight to keep a spinning herring near bottom, which come to think of it, is almost exactly what the shore anglers are doing.

Regardless of bait, depth, location or any other variable, spring king fish demands the patience of a saint.

"You have got to put a lot of time in. But there usually will be some kind of patter, if you're paying attention and catch a fish. And if conditions remain the same, that same pattern will repeat itself the next day, say if they're biting at the tide change. You might get a week going with the same pattern every day."

Anglers fishing with guides are eligible to enter and win the spring derby, and Duby said he has many anglers who book May trips specifically because of the derby.

"A lot of them just want to get out, and maybe have a chance at a derby winner. We'd like to catch a derby fish too!"

• Lee Leschper is regional advertising director for Morris Communications in Alaska and an award-winning writer who has been writing about the outdoors for more than 20 years.

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