We arrived at the boat launch late in the morning, and by the time we motored out along the river, the couple holes we were planning to fish were already occupied with earlier morning crews anchored in the holes and still fishing on the bottom. I’d done extremely well in those two particular spots in the past, but we continued upstream until we reached a long consistent depth run. To avoid stirring up any fish that might be present, I slowly motored along the shallow side of the hole, until we reached the top of the holding water. Cutting across the current into deeper water, I straightened the boat, cut the power, paced to the bow, and set the anchor.
Although I’d fished this spot a few times in the past, I’d never landed silver salmon here. Still, the conditions looked ideal as the long run of 3 – 4 foot deep water was situated above a considerable distance of faster water, making it likely, after fighting their way through the stronger currents below, salmon would naturally want to mill and rest in this long slow pool. I baited a hook with soft krill-scented salmon roe, and Sheldon Swenson readily volunteered to catch the first fish. His wife, Dorothy, and I watched as he dropped the bobber and bait into the water, released the reel’s bail, and let the bobber and bait drift. Below us in the pool a salmon rolled, but the bobber floated past that spot, without any hesitation, and continued merrily on its way. As the bobber drifted past the mid point of the run and continued into the more shallow tail out, I started to wonder if many salmon were present, but then the bobber went down. Sheldon shut the bail, cranked up a couple turns of slack line, set the hook, and the fight was on.
The salmon flopped on top a couple times, but mainly battled deep, with several spirited runs. It was early August, and prime time for catching silver salmon in Susitna Valley streams, yet from the deep hard pulling fight, one had to wonder if perhaps Sheldon had hooked a chum salmon. When he pulled the fish alongside the boat, and up toward the surface to net, the dark back and bright chrome sides of our first silver salmon were revealed.
As quickly as I could untangle Sheldon’s silver from the net, unhook it, and rebait the hook, Dorothy was in the water. Her bobber only drifted about 15 feet, to where we had seen the salmon roll earlier, then the bobber sank out of sight. Dorothy shut the bail and jerked. Her rod doubled over, and the fish cartwheeled across the water’s surface, and threw the hook. We could see there was still bait on the hook, when the salmon shook it loose, so Dorothy opened her bail, once again, and continued her drift. Within 10 feet, the bobber went down again, and this time Dorothy connected solidly, when she shut her bail and set the hook. In a few minutes she was leading a chrome twin of Sheldon’s earlier silver to the net.
The action continued with Sheldon hooking, but losing a salmon on the next drift, then catching his second silver salmon on what remained of his roe, further downstream on the same drift. I had baited the hook for a second rod that Dorothy was fishing with, and she landed her second silver on the first drift with that rod. Having both landed their limits of silver salmon, Sheldon and Dorothy encouraged me as I caught a couple silvers while the bite was still on. My first salmon was easy enough to catch, but on my second drift with a new bait I hooked a fish, only to lose it and the bait, during the fight. I did, however, manage to land a second silver salmon on the next drift with my third piece of roe. I don’t usually keep such detailed score on salmon fishing trips, but the fishing was simply too good, and the score too obvious: 7 drifts with 7 pieces of bait producing 9 silver salmon hooked, 6 of which were caught and kept. Since each of us had kept a limit of silver salmon I pulled anchor, and we headed back down river.
Why Drop Back Fish with Bobbers and Bait
On our short trip back down river we saw the other two boats still fishing on the bottom, where we had motored past a few minutes earlier. Since I knew one of the captains we slowed and chatted briefly as we drifted by, and finding out they were still working to catch limits, I mentioned our success drifting bait under bobbers a few corners upstream. For sure, starting out on a fresh school of undisturbed salmon had contributed to our success, but the simple method of letting bait, suspended under bobbers, drift slowly back through the hole likely ratcheted up our success rate.
Anchoring at the top end of a hole, then dropping bobbers back behind the boat is a simple method to learn, let’s anglers cover lots of water quickly and thoroughly, has low tackle cost, can produce lots of salmon in a hurry, and is a fun way to fish. When Sheldon and his wife fished with me, it was only the second time they had fished bobbers in this manner, and the first time was when we all limited on silver salmon a day earlier. By anchoring at the top end of the drift, we positioned the boat so we could drift our baits through the entire hole without moving the boat. Since the hole was too long to cast from one end to the other, and the current was slow enough to make it impossible to back bounce a bait to the end of the hole, I know of no other method we could have used to cover the entire hole from one anchor or bank position. While rods, reels, and line may cost a considerable amount of money, they are required for most types of Alaska sport fishing. For that reason I consider them a fixed cost, while the cost for a hook, split shot sinker, swivel, and bobber is a minimal investment, especially when one considers that fishing with a bobber can greatly reduce the amount of gear lost to snags as the hook often drifts completely over many bottom obstructions without getting caught. The story of our fishing trip clearly illustrates how successful this method can be in producing limit catches of salmon in a short amount of time, and while fishing conditions may often be tougher, drop back fishing with bobbers and bait remains a top method for catching silver and king salmon. Fun is the number of bites even first – time anglers can detect when drifting bait under a bobber for salmon. Fun is seeing nearly every bite experience by every other angler in the boat. Finally fishing trips are more fun when no one has difficulty casting, with few line tangles, and little gear snagged.
If you already own a rod, reel, and line that you currently fish with for salmon, it should work for fishing by dropping back bobbers and bait. A second option would be to specifically purchase a rod, reel, and line for this method of fishing, and a third option is to fish with a friend or a guide who already owns specialized gear for this method of fishing. Joining a friend or guide with specialized gear allows anglers to evaluate whether the benefit of using a specialized rod, reel, or line is worth the expense over using gear they currently own.
When considering rods, reels, and line, I rank fishing a specific type line as providing the biggest advantage. Those who have fished in my boat, attended seminars I’ve taught, or read articles I’ve written likely know I prefer using one of the new super braid lines when fishing with bobbers. Sufix Performance Braid and Power Pro are two of my favorites, although I plan to experiment with an additional brand this year as well. I prefer using 30 lb. Sufix or 40 lb. Power Pro, as these sizes handle well, while providing more than enough strength. In addition they are limp, hold knots well, float, and have very little stretch, so hook sets are immediate. All of these attributes are beneficial when drop back bobber fishing for salmon. These super braids also have small enough diameters that they thread through the smallest bobbers or floats I fish.
Even though, I recommend fishing a super braid line with little stretch when drifting floats and bait, I still prefer a fairly stiff rod with plenty of hook setting power. As an angler drifts a bobber behind the boat, slack line tends to develop between the angler and the bobber. When a fish grabs the bait, pulling the bobber underwater, the angler should drop the rod tip and attempt to reel in as much slack line as possible, before setting the hook. The fisherman must be careful, reeling only enough to straighten the line, otherwise, the baited hook may be pulled away, or rejected by the salmon. Therefore, a rod with a little extra backbone allows the angler to jerk any remaining slack out of the line, while retaining enough power to bury the hook past the barb. Rods I use, specifically for drop back bobber fishing, have a fast action, and are rated to handle up to 1 1/2 ounce weights and line strengths to 20 or 25 lb. test. Two of my favorites include the one piece 7 foot Quantum Cabo CBIS70MH and the 8 1/2 foot St. Croix Avid AVS86HF2. If you like catching salmon, either of these sticks is well suited for drop back bobber fishing, and should help you catch more fish.
Because line flows easier off a spinning reel than a bait caster, I choose spinning reels for drop back fishing. When the bobber and bait are floating through a hole I want them drifting naturally, with as little resistance as possible. Spinning reels with larger diameter spools facilitate smooth line flow during a drift, while also reducing line twist and tangles. There is a sweet spot in reel size, where the spool is large enough to provide good line flow, while the overall weight of the reel remains light enough to provide an enjoyable all day fishing experience. Spinning reel sizes I suggest from various manufactures include: Quantum size 40, Daiwa size 3000, Shimano size 4000.
Bobbers or Floats
In my experience the greatest value in bobbers comes from purchasing a product that is tough enough to survive several battles with jumping and thrashing salmon. I tried several different bobbers before I found ESBs (Everlasting Slip Bobbers), and this product has worked so well that I’ve never needed to try any others. ESBs come in 6 sixes, and and, when I started fishing them, I believed #6 (the largest size) was the best size for drop back bobber fishing for salmon. Indeed, the #6 does have advantages: its larger size shows up better at longer distances, in rough water, or under low light conditions. The #6 will also float a very large piece of bait and more weight, so for these reasons I still use this large size bobber for specific situations. A few years back I experimented by fishing #5 ESBs, and aside from a slight difference in visibility, I decided I liked them even better than the #6 size. In the past two years I’ve progressed to fishing #3 and #4 ESBs, and have seen significant increases in the number of salmon caught. I’ve found these smaller floats drift slower, giving salmon more time to inspect and grab the bait as it travels with the current. Once a salmon mouths a bait, the smaller float, because of less water resistance, induces the fish to hold on longer and signals lighter bites better. After drifting through an entire presentation, when a smaller float is reeled upstream back to the boat, it creates less surface commotion, and therefore, is more likely to continue catching salmon for a longer period of time before the bite slows. The trade offs with smaller floats is they are more difficult to track or find if you look away for a moment, they only suspend smaller bait – sinker – hook combinations, and smaller floats are more difficult to thread on the line when getting set up.
While my guide service guests have caught thousands of salmon fishing #6 ESBs in the past, I now fish size 6 only for specialized situations. Likewise another bobber I only use in specialized conditions is the size 3 ESB; which I fish in extreme low and clear water conditions and for spooky salmon reluctant to bite. Bottom line, the #4 ESB is my choice of float for about 75% of drop back fishing situations with the #5 ESB my choice when conditions dictate a more visible option. 3 Rivers Fly and Tackle in Wasilla, Alaska carries #4, #5, and #6 ESBs and Sportsman’s Warehouse with locations in Anchorage, Wasilla, and Fairbanks, Alaska carries an extensive assortment of bobbers or floats in different sizes, colors shapes, and brands that should cover most fishing needs.
Bait — Quality before Quantity
Cured chunks of salmon eggs, or roe as it is called, is my preferred bait, because I’ve yet to find anything fresh run silver or king salmon seem to prefer more, and fresh roe is readily available from salmon caught on my charter trips. Maintaining bait quality directly increases it’s effectiveness. Before curing I keep roe in a cooler with ice. Depending upon what I’m attempting to achieve with my roe I use a variety of Pautzke Bait Company products including, Fire Cure, Borx O’Fire Cure, Nectar, Liquid Krill scent, or Fire Power powdered krill scent. For simplicity I mostly follow the product directions printed on the packages to cure the bait. To maintain quality after curing, I package bait in quart–sized containers, then freeze that which I will not be fishing right away. I keep the remaining bait either in a refrigerator or cooler with ice until I’m ready to put it on a hook. When baiting up I use an egg loop to hold the bait on the hook, because it lasts longer that way, and it also leaves the hook point exposed, to more easily hook the salmon. Further facilitate hooking more fish by keeping pieces of roe small enough that there is always sufficient gap between the bait and hook point so the point will stick when chewed. One quart bag of quality salmon roe is usually enough to last a group of 4 guests for an entire 6 hour charter in my boat, but it pays to be prepared and bring extra to avoid running out on the unusual trips when more bait is needed.
Standard Mustad or Gamakatsu octopus style hooks tied with an egg loop knot on 30 lb. monofilament leaders are readily available, and work well when bait fishing for salmon, however, over the past couple years I’ve switched to where I now fish Gamakatsu’s Finesse Wide Gap Hook #230412 almost exclusively when drifting bobbers and bait. This style hook features a sticky sharp point, wider gap between point and shank, and is built on finer wire for easier penetration. With the lighter hook, I’ve been able to increase hook size slightly while maintaining a good strike to hook up ratio. Once a salmon is hooked, I believe the larger hook gap holds better, resulting in higher catch rates. When fishing standard octopus hooks I prefer size 5/0 for king salmon and size 3/0 for smaller salmon species. I am now fishing a single 5/0 or 6/0 Finesse Wide Gap hook, for all salmon species, about 80% of the time when drop back fishing with bobbers and bait.
Sinkers and Swivel
When rigging up, I first tighten a stop knot about a foot up the mainline. Next I slide a slip bobber onto my mainline, below the stop knot, then a barrel swivel is tied on connecting the mainline to my pre tied leader and hook. Finally, I squeeze on a split shot 18 inches above the hook, and loop a piece of bait onto the hook. For convenience I like to have two or three different sizes of spit shot sinkers, and prefer the eared type that can be easily removed and reused. My standard barrel swivel is a Rosco size 7 — plenty strong and inexpensive.
Drop Back Tips
Once the tackle is rigged and hook baited, position your boat upstream of the section of water you would like to fish. This allows you to drift baits past salmon in all portions of the holding water below, without disturbing fish with the boat. Long straight consistent depth runs are ideal for drop back fishing. Most of the time I like to set the bobber stop knot so that the bait is suspended about 3 feet below the float, but the depth can always be adjusted by simply sliding the stop knot up or down the mainline. No casting is needed, only open the reel’s bail, set the bait and bobber in the current and let them float out behind the boat. With the line flowing freely from the reel, point your rod tip directly at the bobber allowing the line to continue flowing with as little resistance as necessary. Since you are fishing with only a single split shot for weight, know that anytime the float stops during its drift downstream, current will kick the bait up towards the stream’s surface.
While salmon can sometimes be caught near the stream surface, they are much more frequently caught deeper in the water column, so work at keeping the float and bait drifting freely at all times during your presentation. Frequently line will momentarily hang up on the reel’s spool during the presentation, stopping the bobber’s drift, and causing the bait to swing toward the surface. To restart line flow from the reel, simply give the rod tip a long slow lift. Line should immediately start flowing off the reel, but your rod tip is now high in the air. Avoid creating a belly of extra slack in the line by, SLOWLY, lowering the rod tip back towards the bait, then continue your presentation. Repeat as necessary.
When your bobber floats too close to a snag, threatens to tangle with a neighboring line, or you’ve covered all available holding water, it is time to reel in and make another presentation. As mentioned earlier, your bait kicks up near the water’s surface whenever the bobber is not drifting out, and this is exactly what happens when you start reeling. Yes, if you reel slowly there is a chance a salmon may grab the bait on the way in, but you are better off playing the percentages, reeling in quickly, and spending your time fishing deeper in the water column on your next drop back. You can cover a slightly different course with your bait by starting your next drift off to one side or the other.
Detecting Strikes and Hooking Salmon
As a salmon starts bumping and mouthing a bait the float above may start jiggling and jumping around before the salmon finally grabs the bait aggressively enough to pull the float under. When drop back fishing with a float, the angler nearly always hooks more fish by waiting for the salmon to dunk the float before setting the hook. Waiting a bit longer can be even better. The exception is when the float suddenly streaks off to the side. When this happens the fish has already felt the hook and is working to shake it loose, so set the hook immediately. A float that slowly sinks below the surface often indicates the sinker or hook has caught on bottom. In order to save the bait and get the presentation drifting down river once again, slowly reel up the slack and gently lift the snagged sinker or hook free.
When drop back fishing, some slack line usually occurs between you and the float, so for more solid hook sets when you see a bite, point the rod tip at the place where the float went underwater, next reel in slack until you can see the line straightening, then slam the hook past the barb with a long swift rod sweep. If you finish your hook set without feeling any resistance, but the float remains underwater, keep the rod back and reel as quickly as you can until the bobber comes up, you reel up to a solidly snagged rig, or the fish bends the rod over and starts peeling line from your reel. Once you hook up, it’s time to quit concentrating on learning a new technique, and enjoy the fun happening at the end of your line.
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