At the first hint of autumn, kings return to reclaim their roost, a blustering horde of silver that shoulders into harbors and river mouths, fresh from the freshwater sea. Their faces morph into pliers that grab precocious cousins by the peduncle and fling them into the air during the spawning dance. Their sides fade from silver to gray to black, and their mood darkens accordingly.
Staging, the process of arriving early to mass near spawning tributaries, is a kind of holdover activity for Great Lakes kings. For many thousands of years, chinooks returned home from the Pacific Ocean to the rivers of the Far West. There, staging has long been viewed as a process through which kings reacclimate themselves to freshwater.
For decades, the Great Lakes think tank has approached staging salmon with plastic plugs, tentacled plastic bugs, flies, or blades of brass adorned with paint, colored tape, or plating beads. The objective: imitate the look, feel, and moves of a natural baitfish. Several wily old midwestern salmon slayers have thoroughly researched the art of intercepting “stagers” back to the native range.
They learned that, out West, practical fishermen use livebait and cutbait herring for staging kings. Mooching—a form of deep vertical jigging that involves whole live herring—is perhaps the oldest of these tactics. It was here that we gleaned the rudiments of bait-strip trolling from commercial trollers. “Way-too-long” phone calls with trollers from Washington and Oregon resulted in the transference, bit by bit, of the cutbait strategy.
Some differences regarding staging behavior between the Pacific and Great Lakes theaters began to emerge. On the Great Lakes, rather than schooling tightly, the clear water (and lack of huge predators) seemed to cause mature kings to stage in a more loose-knit fashion. The bait of choice for many years, regionwide, has been “the plug.” Luhr Jensen J-Plugs and similar baits fashioned after classic wooden baits used in the West for most of the past century became mainstays of the Great Lakes fleets in fall. But the alarm is spreading: “Cutbait alert!” Derbies and tournaments for both salmon and trout have been won in recent years with cutbait tactics. Some experts say a spread of cutbait rigs can draw fish away from “non-meat” boats.
Lake Ontario is the focal point of the cutbait revolution on the Great Lakes. Practiced here and there throughout the Great Lakes, cutbait tactics found a popular home off the mouth of the Salmon River. Now it’s spreading west. The “wave” of cutbait influence has washed over Point Breeze, Toronto, and the Niagara Bar and is currently headed for Manistee.
Kings On Stage
As kings mature from immature feeder pigs to adult breeder sows, they change morphologically and behaviorally. These 3- to 5-year-olds leave prime feeding grounds and perfect temperature zones, sensing, sniffing, searching for a path to natal streams. Feeding action tapers off in late summer as reproductive needs become the dominant concern. The hunger urge is replaced by strong competitive, aggressive instincts. Reproduction is all about ensuring genetic lineage, and throughout the animal kingdom, this means fighting, bullying, pushing and persevering against the odds. Salmon are prime examples. Competitive instincts drive them across improbable distances and over seemingly impassable cascades and waterfalls. Aggression clears the path to redds built by the strongest females. Huge males literally grab and throw smaller specimens out of the way.
As schools of hormone-intoxicated matures sally into the harbors, these competitive-aggressive instincts become the focal point of savvy anglers. As salmon wad up in staging areas across the big lakes, erratic, wide-wobbling plugs have been the lure of choice because their wild action and thump triggers an aggressive response. So, why use cutbait instead?
Dodgers trailing plastic squids, flies, or small spoons are a triple threat. First, the flash of the dodger has a potent, long-range appeal that draws salmon to the bait. Second, the powerful thump of a dodger also attracts from a distance. Finally, the dodger itself, perhaps perceived as a salmon slashing into a school of bait as it imparts action to a trailing fly or squid, triggers strikes. Today’s fussy kings demand that we go one step farther to create a quadruple threat by adding meat to the equation.
To reiterate for newer members of the trolling “pack:” (1) The slowly revolving flasher was developed to send out waves like those made by rolling, slashing salmon. Salmon use their lateral line to sense friend or foe. The flasher draws ‘em in for a closer look. (2) A spinning strip-bait setup positioned well behind the flasher appeals to predatory instincts that condition fish to grab the cripples resulting from feeding-slashing action. Salmon home in on the scent, natural appearance, and scale trail of the cutbait trailer. (3) Once salmon get in tight for a close look, they see the complete illusion of a group of whirling flashers and spinning cutbaits within the entire spread, increasing the likelihood that they will abandon caution and enter into what appears to be a feeding frenzy.
The most prevalent form of this presentation involves factory-cut herring strips with meat on one side and skin on the other. The strip is rigged into a plastic teaser head of some kind. Various examples are on the market today. Some clip the meat in, others use a toothpick to secure it. Some spin the bait with a fin on the head, others are curved by design. Color is an option and ranges from glow to printed patterns to metallic plate finishes. Lure action is tuned boatside using speed, curvature, and spacing of the hooks to achieve a slow-rolling action to both the flasher and the cutbait trailer.
Standard rigging materials include 40- to 60-pound-test mono. (We like 50-pound Berkley Big Game). A Berkley ball-bearing swivel creates the leader-to-flasher junction. Another popular option is a heavy-duty beadchain swivel on the leader to give free-spinning action to the bait. Extra strong hooks are needed, and be careful not to oversize when replacing hooks. The extra drag can kill bait action. Position the hook right at the tip of the strip using a toothpick or by adding beads ahead of the hook as spacers. The flasher is attached to the main line (20- to 30-pound-test Berkley Big Game) via another top-grade swivel snap. Most flashers come pretuned.
The idea is to spin the bait, but not fast. The desired action at the start is about a revolution every 2 to 3 seconds with the bait twirling erratically. Some of Troutman’s favorite flasher combos on Lake Ontario are a white flasher and white head; or a glow/lime-green back flasher with a glow head; and down deep or under low light conditions, a clear midday blue silver prism flasher/blue head. Instructions that come with most rigs are right on the money, so read carefully. If you’re just starting out in the salmon game, stick to hot, standard local colors and work on rigging, the downrigger spread arrangement, and speed and battle plans.
When spoon fishing, we’ve stressed creating the school look to a spread of baits to trick spring and early-summer salmonids into seeing a school of baitfish on the feed. In cutbait tactics, a much thinner spread seems to work better. These flashers tend to wander some, so when we say spread, we mean spread. Tangling up with this much hardware is bad ugly. To create a wider spread, put cutbait flashers on the outdowns (Dipsy Divers). Vary rigs from 20 to 60 feet back so one rig trails behind the pack.
The old trolling adage “shallow longer, deeper shorter” means that in shallow water—or up high in the water column—it’s best to send long lines out behind or off to the sides, while down deep the game is played with shorter lines and shorter lead lengths. Salmon high in the water column will spook from the boat, while deep fish can be reached with less line out. With a fish hooked on either system, allow plenty of time to clear lines, so both strategies can be employed at once. To play that game with flashers and cutbait, add a wire Dipsy or two. We prefer to run the smaller flasher on Dipsys for easier handling and less drag. This is one application where the wire really helps achieve reliable depth when towing high-resistance attractor rigs. In all instances with flashers and cutbait—high and low—diving planers like Dipsy Divers and U-Charter Slide Divers should be rigged slider style, so the flasher and bait can be presented 8 to 60 feet or farther from the diving tackle, for freedom of movement and stealth.
When running a mixed program during early staging periods for browns or steelhead, run spoons on downriggers and flare out cutbait rigs on wire divers to pick off matures while catching hot spoon feeders off the d-rigs. Use a light spread, but play attention to what works and where it’s positioned. Run the center rigger deepest and stagger the outdowns vertically and behind the ball. Watch the sonar screen and make sure you’re running a rig above, through, and below the fish or bait pods. The attractive sound, scent, and visual of this spread can draw fish, so it isn’t necessary to try and cram d-rigs and divers into the same depth plane. Salmon will wander in, then sense and destroy the meat rigs.
Trolling speed is what adjusts flasher action. Check the action of a flasher at boatside before deploying it. For a wallowing zig-zag action, run at 1.5 to 2.0 knots. At that speed, run 24- to 36-inch leaders (from flasher to cutbait harness) to see if a wide dodging, twirling action will trigger the stagers. (Replace packaged leaders and create your own with 50-pound-test Ande Premium or 60-pound-test fluorocarbon.) Some flashers, like the #2 Cuda, a standard, widely used revolving flasher, perform optimally at 2.0 to 3.0 knots. At that speed, run the leads longer—out to 60 inches.
To play with the action imparted to the cutbait, vary leader lengths to the cutbait from 36 to 60 inches. Leader length can add or subtract motion to the twirling strip. Details can make or break the day with choosy stagers. The art of seduction, as it pertains to staging sharks, is a game of change. Chrome-bright feeder pigs in the staging mix hit spoons, dodger-fly combos, and plugs aggressively. But feeding wanes as the days pass. Kings darken in both mood and appearance. The changeover to a competitive-aggressive nature brings them in to slam cutbait rigs. The darker kings get, the fussier they become. Start with slightly different lead lengths behind each flasher in that 24- to 60-inch range, vary speed from 1.5 to 3 knots, and pay attention to the rigging and speed that triggers the first fish.
Early staging salmon, the “scouts,” have seen it all, all summer long. One advantage of cutbait rigging is its ability to draw strikes from staging salmon that are pounded and hounded by the pack day after day.
Captain John Oravec runs Tight-Lines Charter, 800/443-2510.
Company Contacts: Hot Spot Fishing & Luresx, 250/727-9956; O’Ki Tackle, 250/656-1459; Rhys Davis, 250/474-9369; Pro-Troll Products, 925/825-8560; Luhr Jensen, 800/366-3811; U-Charters, (Slide Diver) 920/452-9964; Challenger 800/942-3777.