How to Catch Salmon – Tips to maximize your chances on the river by Clive Morriss

How to Catch Salmon – Tips to maximize your chances on the river by Clive Morriss
Salmon - Five fish from our Eldorado.
Five fish from our Eldorado.

How to Catch Salmon

Clive Morriss offers some expert advice on how to catch salmon – knowledge gleaned from a lifetime of salmon fishing

How to catch salmon isn’t an easy subject because there are so many memories I can draw on; sometimes experiences upset all my own theories! Clive Morriss

I can remember fishing a good stretch of water below the Rakaia Gorge. Another fisherman started fishing a hundred metres below in the main raging current. As his spoon flicked around on top of the water I remember thinking, “he could fish there for a hundred years and never catch a fish.” The next moment he hooked a fish. Another time, my son cast into a dead backwater, and I said to him it was a waste of time. He then hooked a fish!

On another occasion, a group of us were working a good stretch of water unsuccessfully and a young fellow who hadn’t fished before arrived with his new rod and reel. He still hadn’t learnt to cast properly and his gear was going anywhere; much to our discomfort. You can guess what happened next! He caught a salmon, all 25 pounds of it.

Another time my uncle was holding his spoon in the water to see if it was spinning OK and a fish came up and grabbed it! So you can see, anything can happen with salmon fishing.

Most of my fishing is up-river and so finding a suitable area of water is important. With a braided river, like the Rakaia, you need to be aware of the streams below, – are the leads of deeper water heading the salmon in your direction? Many times you will see fish coming up rapids and obviously the lead below has led them into the more shallow stream. They won’t all come up the same stream but I think a majority do follow the leader. You have to ascertain if the fish are travelling through your water and its best to have deep water leading into the area you’re fishing. It’s then nice to have confirmation with fish rising.

Diagram shows perfect salmon fishing water By casting onto the bar and taking a step after each cast, all fish are given the chance to take a spoon.
The diagram shows perfect salmon fishing water By casting onto the bar and taking a step after each cast, all fish are given the chance to take a spoon.

I’ll describe my perfect hole. There should be a shingle bar leading out from the shore below the bend in the river. The main body of river flows past with water spilling over the bar into the sheltered water. This is deep and protected from the full speed of the current until the shingle bar runs out in deeper water and the flow builds up to the same speed as the mainstream. The protected water is an ideal spot for salmon to rest before they move over the bar into the main river again.

Family adoration: Grant and Wayne dwarfed by 27lb fish, February 1970.
Family adoration: Grant and Wayne dwarfed by 27lb fish, February 1970.

Water should not be too dead or have a sandy or shallow bottom that you often get in these comers. There must be life, depth and movement in the water and you must be able to get your spoon close to the bottom and to have it move around at a reasonable speed.

When you’ve found this suitable water how do you fish it? For starters you don’t splash around in the water, – take it quietly. Start fishing at the top of the water – cast onto the bar and feel the bottom. Let the spoon drift off into the deeper water and slowly retrieve. You have to “feel” the gear close to the bottom and retrieve accordingly.

At the top of the hole, water will be calmer and slower so you will be likely to get snagged but this area is always worthwhile fishing early in the morning or after the water has been left for a while and the salmon might be resting there. After each cast take a meter step downstream and cast out to the bar each time. This way, every square metre where a fish could be is covered.

Don’t cast into the centre of the hole and don’t thrash your spoon on the water if you get rubbish on the hook. Take it off by hand. Both these activities disturb any fish that are there.

As you move further downstream the bar will become deeper with more flow of water so you cast further upstream to get that spoon close to the bottom. If necessary you might only have to touch the reel handle to keep the spoon working as your gear swings around to the edge where you will have quite a lot of line to reel in but don’t rush it. Often you can get a strike close in. Your main strike area is about half way around but remain prepared at all times. I’ve had salmon take as soon as the gear hits the water and as I’ve been lifting the spoon to recast.

Wayne with a salmon he landed at the Rakaia Gorge in March 1976.
Wayne with a salmon he landed at the
Rakaia Gorge in March 1976.

Any bump on your retrieve should be treated as a fish biting and you must strike to set the hooks. It soon becomes second nature to automatically strike and when you least expect it, a fish will be hooked. It is important to have the reel tension on a firm setting.  You can let it off a bit if a fish starts thrashing around on top of the water but the first requirement is to set the hooks well. Don’t use blunt hooks. I prefer lighter hooks, which I often bend on fish, but I feel they penetrate better.

From the foregoing I have tried to stress you must cover the water consistently, you cast the same distance and move downstream to cover all the water where a fish might be. Some people prefer to stand in one place and this is necessary if several people are fishing the same water. However, you still must cast consistently to cover the water to best intercept a salmon as it goes past.

How often do we see fishermen lying around on the shingle when there hasn’t been much action and then spring into a frenzy of fishing when one of the consistent anglers catches a fish? You have to keep working and it can be both tiring and be rewarding.

I also like to see the odd salmon rising to keep up enthusiasm. I haven’t got too much patience and if I’ve fished through suitable water two or three times without a touch or seeing a fish, I’ll move off and try to find another suitable spot.

Often you’ll have salmon cruising and rising around a hole and these are the difficult ones to catch. But those that rise below the hole and again as they come in are the ones more likely to be tempted.

Don’t cast at the area where the fish rises, just continue casting as I’ve described moving metre by metre down the river to meet it. If you don’t catch him and he rises above you mov€e back up the hole and start fishing down towards him again.

A salmon comes ashore on a baitcaster reel: Rakaia Gorge.
A salmon comes ashore on a baitcaster reel: Rakaia Gorge.

Don’t forget if you have seen a rise there may have been others you didn’t see. There might be more fish moving through so don’t lose your cool, just concentrate on working the water fully and consistently.

The most productive time is usually after the river is clearing from a flood. The optimum water colour is  when you can just see your feet with the water up to your knees. There is no doubt in my mind that a salmon takes instinctively from its feeding habits at sea. If the water has coloured the spoon comes onto the fish unexpectedly, it snaps instinctively and you hook your salmon. Several times over the years, from a height, I’ve observed salmon in very clear water and have seen them moving aside to let the spoon go past.

Later in the season when the fish have been in the river longer they become harder to catch but you can still catch the ones that are fresh in from the sea. If the water is very clear fish early in the morning or later in the afternoon to get best results.

I mostly use a 28 gramme Zed Spinners and fish the water that allows the spoon to get down deep varying the cast upstream to achieve this. If the water is discoloured I often use a larger blade Zed Spinner. A two-ounce weight with a metre trace and Colorado Spoon can be used in deeper and faster water but you still have to cast so you feel the sinker on the bottom when you first cast. With the weight, you will feel the lead bumping more than a Zed Spinner as your gear swings around. To avoid snagging close to the edge you can speed up your retrieve closer to the bank.

Keep prospecting to find suitable water. I remember coming onto two large streams joining. The water looked fast, rough and uninviting but an exploratory cast came around perfectly. There must have been a hidden bar to shelter the water and within a couple of hours, my friend and I caught 5 salmon. We felt that we had found our Eldorado as jet boat anglers and other fishermen had ignored the water. We went back several times but didn’t catch or see another fish. If we hadn’t tried we would have always believed that we could have caught other fish as easily as the others.

The moral of this story is salmon fishing is unpredictable but that’s the challenge of the sport. I believe that “every dog has his or her day”, and if you are consistent and can spend a reasonable amount of time on the river you can catch salmon.

Don’t forget to put a few back as well. Good luck.

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