Trolling for Alaska King Salmon

By Chris Brewer
Author Chris Brewer with the Alaska king salmon she caught while trolling

For many people, if not most (Alaskans included), when you talk about fishing for King salmon, the first thing that comes to mind is river-fishing, either from the bank or from a boat. The banks and waterways are crowded as anglers from Outside (people from anywhere other than Alaska), as well as locals, vie for a chance to land one of the legendary “monster” Kenai River Kings. Everyone is hoping that maybe, just maybe, they’ll be the one to catch the fish that beats Les Anderson’s 97.25 lb behemoth of a fish. Caught in 1985, the fish was nearly 5 feet long and set the world record for a rod-and-reel caught King salmon. That record still stands today.

When it comes to enjoying the fruits of your labor, river Kings are a blast to catch, but much less enchanting on the dinner table. While certainly edible, most people prefer Sockeye Salmon (Reds) and Coho Salmon (Silvers) on their plate over the oily, stronger — “fishy” — flavored Kings. Personally, this is one reason I treat river Kings as a catch-and-release-only fishery.

When it comes to fishing for King salmon around Prince of Wales Island (POW), however, you’re in for a completely different experience. POW does not host a spawning population of King salmon (i.e. there’s no river-fishing for Kings here). This means when fishing for Kings with the expert guides at Alaska’s Boardwalk Lodge, you’ll be on the ocean (aka “in the salt”). Also, because there are no spawning fish returning to the island, you will be fishing a bit farther off-shore for sexually immature fish (aka Winter Kings, Feeder Kings or Troll-Caught Kings).

These beautiful, chrome-colored juvenile fish with iridescent green/purple heads, range anywhere from 10 lbs to 40 lbs. Now, before you get disappointed by the fact that it’s not likely you’ll catch a 50+ lb monster; know that these fish are, at least in my humble opinion, not only the easiest fish to cook and “get right,” but also one of the most delicious fish in the ocean. Feeder Kings taste nothing like their older, more mature, spawning relatives. They are tender, mild and juicy. Their fat content is so high, that even the most inexperienced fish-cook would be hard-pressed to dry one out.  And, if you’re a sushi lover, you’ve never had salmon sushi this good before*.

Not only are feeder Kings delicious, trolling for Kings is one of the best ways to get out and enjoy a day on the ocean because it’s less work (for you the guest) than fishing for halibut. Your guide will rig the lines, usually using flashers and cut-plugs attached to downriggers hanging-off the sides of the boat. Depending on the size of your group and how the fish are biting, they may add a line with a banana weight out the back. For bait/terminal tackle, sometimes they might use spoons, hoochies or flies, but good-old salted herring is usually the best bet. With the rods perched securely in the holders, all you have to do is kick-back, relax and wait for the take-down.

More informationMORE INFO: For more detailed information on techniques, tackle and the best times to fish, along with fish biology, habitat information, and fun facts, check out the Alaska King Salmon Fact Sheet.

When it comes to waiting, there’s no more spectacular place to do it than a warm, sunny day in Southeast Alaska. Sitting on the deck, taking in the mountains, watching the birds, otters, and occasional whale. The sound of the water, and the constant “Hoooooooooo” of the downrigger cables humming like giant cello strings as they cut through the water singing you to sleep. Then, out of nowhere, the “WOO-WOO” sound of the take-down, the “EEEEEEEEEEEE” of the clicker as the fish takes drag, and in a flash, everyone jumps into action. A literal boatload of sleepy people, springs to life. Everyone, instantly, on the move.

Saltwater fishing for king salmon on Prince of Wales Island, southeast Alaska

One person grabs the rod with the fish, and carefully lifts it out of the rod holder using both hands.Everyone else stands poised, waiting to see. Will we get a double hook-up, maybe triples!? The captain is at the helm ready to follow the fish if necessary.

Follow the fish? Yep, follow the fish. Even immature Kings can weigh up to 40lbs and when you hook into one of these dandies, they will spool you faster than a brown bear can steal your stringer of fish. Not only that, they’ll still have all that fancy tackle and a couple hundred yards of line dangling from their lip. Seriously, what a drag.So, if the fish doesn’t stop swimming, brace yourself because you’ll be off; chasing the fish before you run out of line.

As you’re gaining on the fish, your boat captain will be executing a well-practiced routine. They’ll position the boat at a good angle for you to fight, and also keep the boat aligned so that the fish stays out of the motor. All you have to do is focus on working the fish toward you. Remember: Don’t reel as you lift the rod tip, and stop reeling anytime the fish is taking line.

Pro tipPRO TIP: At some point, you’re going to hear somebody tell you, “Keep your rod tip up.” This might be a little bit confusing because the rod tip will likely be bent over and maybe even pointing down. The key here is to think of keeping your rod handle and backbone (the part of the rod not curling over) generally perpendicular to the direction of the fishing line. More importantly, never point your rod at the fish. If you point the rod at the fish so there’s no bend in the tip, you lose the mechanical advantage of flexibility, and the line will stretch and break off.  Keep this in mind as you hear people coaching you to “Pull-Up” and “Reel-Down;” never lower the rod tip so far, or in a way that it points at the fish.

As the fish comes closer to the boat, the flasher will pop-up and out of the water. You’ll realize just how much drag the flasher creates when, much to your chagrin, your fish suddenly seems to lose 10lbs. Continue to reel in, keeping the fish’s head in the water, until about 12 to 24 inches of line remain above the bead or swivel.

As the fish comes up beside the boat, don’t let your guard down. You’re not done yet. That puppy has at least a couple more good runs in it. It may be when the fish sees the boat, or it may wait until it sees the net, but be prepared for that fish to run again. In the event that the fish dives under the boat, be ready to lean right over the side and put the rod tip in the water. It is imperative that you prevent the line from rubbing on the boat or catching the motor so it doesn’t break.

Mrs Brewer holds her King Salmon for the cameraOnce you’ve reeled in all but the last foot or two of line, stay calm and focused; don’t get in a hurry. More fish are lost right at the boat by excited anglers, than at any other time in the fight. Keeping the fish’s head in the water, gently raise the rod tip and step backward away from the gunwale. This brings the fish up-close to the side of the boat. Now, is when your experienced captain will really shine. In this moment, nothingis more important than an adept netter. In one quick swoop, they’ll have your fish securely sequestered in the net…

Or, your fish will be diving and you’ll be hustling back to the side of the boat to drop your rod tip in water before it breaks the line. Even the best of netters occasionally have a fish outsmart them, so stay alert and be prepared – constant vigilance!

Once the fish is finally in the net, and before you start celebrating with your buddies, pull out some arm-lengths of line and grab the flasher. This will give your skipper some room to work and also keep them from getting repeatedly bonked on the head by the flasher. It’s a small thing, but trust me, if you do it before they have to ask, they’ll sure appreciate it.

Once the lines are back in the water, and you’re fishing again, make sure to get a great picture with your fish before it goes in the box.

Happy fishing and Guten Appetit!

*Note: If you’d like to try to make your own salmon sushi, please make sure to read up on safe preparation techniques first. This article seems like a pretty good place to start. ALWAYS freeze salmon for a minimum of 24 hours before eating it raw to kill any parasites present in the meat. Infectious, microscopic juvenile tapeworms can be present in the meat, even if you can’t see them. Tapeworm infections from fish are generally not dangerous, but if you’re worried about it, cook your fish thoroughly before eating it. As with anything, consuming raw or undercooked food can result in illness. So, use your best judgement when it comes to deciding how to enjoy your fish.