It is an early summer morning and you are cruising across the Sound, on your way to the fishing grounds. The moment before sunrise has lit up the thin horizon with a brilliant pink light at your stern. There is a crisp breeze on your face. These are the mornings we live for as moochers. You are more than ready for a day of salmon fishing. The tide chart looks perfect and you have just the spot in mind. When you finally stop, you look at the sonar and find a plume of herring schooling on the screen… bingo! Those big arcs surrounding it sure do look a lot like salmon. It’s time to mooch.
The motor gets turned off and you drift in silence with the current, dropping and lifting your cut plug herring. Finally, the tides bring that happy hour where the salmon start biting. You hook up to a hefty Chinook and the only thing between you and that fish is a light mainline, a small sinker and two hooks. The battle is on! And no other salmon fishing technique rivals the the fight, enjoyment and fulfillment you will get from mooching.
The beauty of mooching for salmon is in it’s simplicity. Beyond finding the fish and bait, there are no fancy gadgets that can buy you a fish. It’s only you, the salmon, concentration and experience.
Mooching is Effective Coastwide
Mooching is a time honored technique that is used to fish for Salmon across their entire saltwater range. From California to Alaska and deep into every bay, sound and passage that they swim. It is the most widely used light-tackle technique that allows you to fish for salmon with a rod in-hand. It is by far my favorite way to fish. In this post, I will cover all of the intricacies of mooching, and hopefully you will be sold on using this technique during your next Salmon fishing trip!
Fishing for Salmon with a Mooching Set-up and Cut Plug Herring
All you need to mooch for salmon is a rod, reel, line, mooching sinker, two-hook leader and a couple dozen herring for bait. Buying the gear is the easiest part of the experience. But once you get out on the water, you still need to find a good location, set up a good drift, cut and rig the bait. And effectively work the baits up and down until you get bit!
Salmon Mooching Equipment
I feel very fortunate to have learned how to mooch from some of the best. One theme that has stuck with me is that once you have the basic rod/reel/line/tackle/bait set-up, there isn’t much you can improve upon with the gear. It then becomes a game of finding salmon and catching them. It is a welcome change from other techniques like trolling; where I always start to second guess my tackle if fishing isn’t productive right out of the gate. Here is what you need for mooching…
Mooching Rod Selection
You want a rod that is between 8′ and 10’6″ in length, has a light enough action to sense any subtle mooching bite, but has enough backbone to control a nice salmon once you hook it. I opt for the shorter and lighter. I fish off my 18′ Boston Whaler most of the time, so a shorter rod allows for an easier time netting fish in tight boat quarters. To make things simple with rod selection, if you have an 8’6″ rod rated 10-20# line you are going to be just fine.
Mooching Reel Selection
If you hit the location just right for the tide, you will be able to identify on your sonar screen where the bait is and how deep you need to work your gear. For the most part, a line counter reel is critical. My preferred reel is a Shimano Tekota 300 Line Counter, but any reel that can hold at least 150 yards of 15# monofilament and has a counter will be perfect. You don’t need a honkin’ huge reel for this technique, remember that you will be managing the rod/reel in hand the entire time so something more low-profile and lighter weight will serve you well as long as it has enough line capacity.
Best Fishing Line for Mooching
Fishing Line: Mooching is one of the only salmon fishing techniques where I feel that monofilament main line has a huge advantage. As you drop your bait down the water column, or retrieve it up to the surface, a Chinook Salmon will follow and mouth it until it commits, and the soft give of mono helps an eager and observant moocher from reeling down on a fish too quickly. Some of the best catches I’ve seen on my boat were from novice moochers that let a salmon chew on their bait much longer than my patience would have allowed!
When there is no breeze and your gear is dropping straight down, tangles will happen… often. Unraveling a tangle with a mono mainline and mono leader is pretty easy compared to braid. My preference is 15# to 20# mono as a mainline. I also prefer a high-viz green or yellow line that makes seeing line angle easy.
Salmon Mooching Sinker
Mooching Sinkers: The mooching sinker is very specific. It is a crescent shaped lead sinker with a swivel on one end for the mainline and a bead-chain swivel on the other end to attach the leader. The bead-chain helps eliminate any leader line twist that can occur from a constantly spinning cut-plug herring. Plain lead sinkers catch plenty of fish, but I prefer a vinyl coated red or chartreuse sinker for a little added attraction, plus I don’t have to handle raw lead every time I bring it up to change baits or location. I will typically fish a 3 ounce or 4 ounce sinker, but if the winds are howling, it doesn’t hurt to have a couple spare 6 ounce sinkers on board the boat.
Mooching Leader Set-Up
Mooching Leaders: When mooching in most areas, you can legally fish with a tandem hook set-up. Here in Washington State we are required to fish with barbless hooks. I fish in areas where Red Label and Green Label Herring are the best bait size. Therefore, I usually fish with tandem 3/0 or 4/0 sized hooks. I don’t get too caught up in exact sizing beyond this, but most commercially tied set-ups have a 4/0 front hook and a 3/0 rear hook, a great set-up for mooching Chinook and Coho.
Regardless of how heavy your mainline is, the best mooching leaders are tied with 20# to 30# clear monofilament. When salmon are in marine areas, they are usually actively feeding, and are not line shy. Their mouths contain small, sharp teeth that are designed to shred apart their prey. You don’t want to get caught fishing a light leader only to lose them during the fight. I fish with shorter 8’2 mooching rods, so I will typically run a 5′ to 6′ leader. If you fish with a longer rod you can lengthen the leader, and some of the more experienced moochers I fish with will run up to an 8′ leader on a 10’6″ rod, but remember that the longer you go, the more difficult it is to net your catch!
Salmon Mooching Bait
Across the entire Pacific Coast realm of salmon fisheries, there are a number of baits that moochers fish with, but a cut-plug herring is by far the most popular. Where I fish in Washington’s Puget Sound, this is the only bait that is used! Almost all of the moochers out here rely on frozen and packaged herring. If you can catch your own fresh herring on a sabiki rig, you have the best bait on the planet. What better to target salmon than the very live herring that they forage on. If you have the ability to buy live herring, do it! Great baits for mooching!
Selecting the Perfect Herring
Frozen and pre-packaged herring is sold by the tray, and available in multiple sizes. Most bait companies organize the herring sizes for sale by label color. We try and match the size of the natural bait that is swimming around that the salmon are feeding on. For Washington State, especially in the inland marine areas of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, Green Label is the most available and popular size. But availability is subject to what local bait companies can catch and preserve. Most salmon moochers will fish anywhere from a Red or Green Label for Coho and Chinook in Puget Sound. In the ocean, Blue Label can be the best size.
|Herring Label Color||Herring Size Range|
|Orange||3″ to 4″|
|Red||4″ to 5″|
|Green||5″ to 6″|
|Blue||6″ to 7″|
|Purple||7″ to 8″|
|Black||9″ to 10″|
When purchasing frozen herring, make sure you try and pick the best quality bait you can find. Seek out trays of herring that have all the scales intact. This increases the flash and attractiveness of the bait. Avoid trays of herring that have visible blood as this indicates that they have been thawed and refrozen.
Brining Herring for Salmon Mooching
Quality frozen herring, or live caught herring need very little to turn them into great mooching baits. Herring in pure saltwater often does the trick. The baits don’t need to be super tough, just firm enough to handle the drop and reel. If you want a little security that comes with a firmer bait, check out My Favorite Herring Brine. Whatever you decide to do with your herring to prepare them for fishing, always keep them chilled! Keep your brined herring in a cooler on ice. Or put a frozen water bottle to sink in the brine container. You don’t want warm and soft baits.
My Favorite Mooching Bait is the Cut Plug Herring
Cutting a herring is both the simplest thing and an art, all at the same time. We cut the head off the herring and rig it so that it spins and creates an attractive presentation as it drops and lifts through the water column. A good spinning cut-plug herring is your ticket to salmon mooching success. Here is how it’s cut and rigged…
Take your bait knife and cut the head of the herring off, beveled both from the side and top-to-bottom.
Then take the bottom hook and pull it through the stomach cavity and out through the short side.
Take the top hook point up through the top of the stomach cavity, right through the backbone and up through the top of the herring. If it doesn’t spin just right, retry and insert the point on the long side of the backbone and have it exit barely towards the short side. Check it and make sure she spins, and it he does you have a winner!
Watch this epic video and it will share with you everything you need to know on how to cut and rig a herring for mooching!
How to Mooch for Salmon
Mooching is the act of fishing a cut-plug herring down through the water column and then retrieving it back up to the boat at the same speed as the drop. How deep you let your bait drop is entirely up to your judgement call for the location you are fishing. The most important takeaway is that you want your bait actively spinning the entire time. Depending on the location, and how you feel about the situation, you may be working your cut-plug down to 30’ in depth or as much as 300’. With a good drift and favorable wind conditions, you will be amazed at how easily a 4 oz sinker will allow you to fish super deep if you want to.
Setting Up The Drift
One of the challenges of mooching is to figure out where you think the bait and salmon will be concentrated and then set up your boat to drift over that location. The drift can be determined by the wind direction or current direction, and often it is a combination of both! If you locate a concentration of bait on your sonar and know where you want to fish, it’s best to stop the motor. Allow the boat to drift naturally. Observe which way your boat drifts on your chart plotter. Even in the areas that I fish regularly, I will make an experimental first drift to determine the direction that the boat will move, then the second drift is usually money! Sometimes the drift is different every time, do the best you can.
Rule Number 1: You always want to be facing the wind while you are mooching. This will allow your lines to drop down out and away from your boat and not under it. You don’t want the lines underneath the boat. Reel up and shift to the other side of the boat and continue with your drift.
Dropping your Bait
Once you have set up your drift, have hooked up your bait and are ready to fish, you want to make sure it is rigged to spin. Lower your rod tip and pull it to the side to check and ensure that your bait has that beautiful spin. If it ain’t spinning it ain’t fishing! Once it’s spinning, you are ready to work the water column as you drift.
Mooching With No Wind
Mooching with no wind can be a challenge, because your line will drop straight down, your leader will follow and tangles can happen regularly. Put your thumb on the line spool and hit the free-spool lever to allow the bait to freely drop. Drop the bait as slow as you can while still maintaining a spinning cut-plug herring. If you don’t trust your free-spool thumb, you can hand-pull line out from the reel to regulate the speed of the drop. As you are dropping, once you start to see the line angle out away from the boat you can stop hand-pulling and let it slowly free-spool to the desired depth.
If mooching with the motor turned off seems impossible without tangles, fire up the kicker and kick it in and out of gear to create a slow artificial drift. I will say that regardless of conditions, fishing a natural drift with the motor off is ideal.
Mooching With A Light Breeze
I will typically hand-pull for the first 25′ and then let the line naturally freespool, with just enough tension on the spool from my thumb to slow the line down and avoid tangles on the reel. You want your line to be angled away from the boat, there will be fewer leader tangles and you can drop the bait a little faster if desired.
Mooching When It’s Windy!
During windy days, mooching for Chinook can be tough, because you can’t get down fast enough. But mooching for Coho can be phenomenal because the bait is moving quick and staying higher in the water column. If there is a strong breeze, I will start free-spooling immediately and work the bait fast, to get down as deep as I can. If I’m trying to get down to 100′ or deeper I might even switch up to a 6 ounce sinker if I’m feeling like I have a strong work ethic that day, if not I’ll stay lazy with a 4 ounce sinker and pray that there are some hungry Coho up on the surface.
Retrieving your Bait
As soon as you have dropped to the desired depth, engage the retrieve and start reeling. Salmon will follow the bait up and down the water column for a great distance. The second your bait stops moving, they usually lose interest. Keep that bait moving from the drop to the retrieve! Focus on a steady retrieve to keep the bait spinning. I spend most of my summer months in Puget Sound and we have more than our fair share of Dogfish. If you find yourself hookup up baby sharks constantly, a little faster retrieve can keep them from burning through all your leader and bait!
The Mooching Bite
Once you get your first bite mooching, you will be completely sold on mooching! When a salmon hits your bait on the drop it will seem as subtle as a change in the drop speed, or a dead stop. When you are retrieving and get bit, the bite is either going to seem like a subtle tug or a a little more obvious tug-tug-tug. Salmon swim after the bait, sometimes for quite a while before they pick it up and start mouthing it. This means that you will usually not feel the full weight of a hefty salmon when they are grabbing your bait. If you focus on what you are doing, you will sense more bites, so pay attention!
When you get bit, start reeling as fast as you can! When you feel a bite, you want to set a goal of connecting with the fish by the time you’ve reached 10 fast cranks and the rod buries over, set the hook. If not, slow down and continue reeling that bait up to the surface… they often times come back and bite again. Don’t get too excited and reel fast to the surface without a hookup, there is zero chance you will coerce a salmon into picking it up again. Keep your cool!
Motor Mooching for Salmon
Most of my time fishing is what is called drift mooching, where the motor is turned off and the boat drifts naturally with the winds and currents. There are a number of really great moochers that motor mooch. Utilizing the propulsion from the main motor or kicker, the captain kicks the motor in and out of gear, to create an artificial drift. This can be really effective in some areas. In fact, many of the charter captains in Southeast Alaska exclusively motor mooch. The angler can either work the baits up and down the water column while the boat is moving, or put the rod in the holder and let the boat do the work. I prefer the simplicity of drift mooching, but this can be a great way to catch salmon as well. Give it a try!
Where to Mooch for Salmon
Mooching for Salmon can be a very location-specific technique. Before I deploy any mooching gear, I need to have confidence that I’m fishing a drift where the Salmon are concentrated. Schools of Coho can be spread out anywhere from around underwater structure where bait is stacking, to the tide rips that form in open water. Chinook tend to be way more structure oriented. At least in the protected inland marine areas of Washington where I fish. If mooching in the open Pacific Ocean, it’s all about finding concentrations of salmon in a wide open ocean, and yes there are alot of them out there and can be easy fishing when you find them. Fishing in our inland passageways like Puget Sound, San Juan Islands and the Gulf Islands, structure will huge part in concentrating bait.
If you are just learning where to mooch, it can seem a little intimidating. If you are cruising out and see more than one boat mooching in a specific area, that is a good sign that you need to be fishing there. Respect other moochers, and decide how close you can fish from them based on how crowded it is. If I go to an area were there are a couple moochers, I will give plenty of distance, at least a 100 yards. If I cruise up to a spot that has 20 mooching boats in a confined area, I know I can nose in and get cozy with them. Spacing between boats is completely relative to the number of boats in an area. I fish many areas where there isn’t another boat within a mile, and also in areas where 50 mooching boats are almost bumping into one another because that is where the bait and salmon are!
Tides, Currents and Bait
As the tides ebb and flood, the currents that they create will push bait up and over underwater structure. Early in a tide there may be no bait found in an area, but the currents will build. The bait will push from deep water up a ledge or bar and over it. At the end of the tide the bait might be miles away from where it was found at the beginning of it. As the tide changes and the currents reverse, the bait will follow an opposite track.
Our West Coast tides are classified as semi-diurnal. Which means we have two high tides and two low tides each day, and they are of different velocities throughout the month based on the lunar phase. The intensity or lack-thereof really makes following the patterns of bait and salmon a challenge. That keeps even the oldest and saltiest salmon fishermen working hard to find their spot.
Learning the Tide Variations
Let’s look at one of my favorite mooching spots and the tides. Jeff Head is located within 5 miles from Seattle, Washington. As the tide floods in on an extreme 10′ exchange, the bait will start to build on the very northern end at the beginning, and as the tide progresses it moves from the deep waters up the ledge from 200′ up onto the top at 100′. The salmon follow, and feed, and bite.
At the height of the flood, the bait moves across the top, then scatters at the tide change and gets pushed off the south ledge. By the time the currents reverse on the outgoing ebb tide, the bait stacks again, but on the opposite side and pushes up the ledge to the north. The ebb and flood of the bait movement coincides with the movement of the currents. The mastery of this concept is what separates those that catch fish mooching daily, and those that struggle. Find the bait, fish over it, and catch the fish.
Honing In Your Mooching Game
Once you have the basics down, it’s just a matter of time before this technique proves itself and you start catching some truly memorable catches. Every day of slow fishing early on will yield a learning experience.
As you start to hook salmon mooching, you will start to pay attention to every little detail; what today’s tides are doing to the bait, how the winds impact your boat drift, how changing the speed of the drop or retrieve yields more bites, and ultimately, how your catch at the end of the day acts as a scorecard for all the other days that you have been out mooching. Pay attention to what other moochers around you are doing, learn from them. At some point soon, you will earn the confidence that only comes by putting in the time and I promise you, this will eventually become your favorite way to fish for salmon. Best of luck out there everyone!