by Tom Ohaus
We arrived at Vitskari Rocks, 10 miles west of Sitka, Alaska, at 7:15 a.m. It was August 26 and my deck-hand had already departed for college, thus I was forced to do double duty - positioning the boat then racing forward in an effort to drop anchor before we drifted off the numbers. The operation lacked a bit of precision, but we ended up close enough to the spot to give it a try. The first plug-cut herring spun down on three ounces of lead at 7:30 a.m.
Typical Sitka fishing boat.
A few minutes later all four rods were rigged and baited. Everyone aboard, except the skipper, worked their bait through the water column. To my surprise, no one got a strike on the first drop. My Furuno video sounder indicated masses of baitfish and good numbers of salmon in the mid-water and shallower. The marks on the depth sounder and the abundance of birds screamed Coho, yet the baits went untouched.
In an effort to learn what was going on, I politely asked one of my customers for his rod. Reeling the bait back to the surface, I cast it out about 20 feet to lay the herring out beyond the sinker. This step is important when you mooch on anchor, otherwise the plug-cut herring ends up directly beneath the sinker on the drop and it spins over the main line making a tangled and unappealing mess.
With the bait properly laid-out, I let it flutter about 10 feet down and stopped the spool with my thumb, then let it fall another 10. Continuing this routine of stopping and starting the bait, I felt the tell-tale pecking of a salmon at about 60 feet. I fed line to the biter until I felt it take off with the bait. I then reeled as quickly as possible keeping the rod tip down and close to the water.
In this situation, setting the hook at the first feel of tension is a troublesome temptation. I fight this urge with every bite. Instead of striking at the first tug, I continued to reel until the rod was well bent, then I gave a sharp set while cranking like crazy. The hooks hit home and I quickly passed the rod back to my customer. In a few minutes we boated a 12 pound Coho. The first fish of the day was in the boat at 7:40 a.m.
Rick Marsi with a 10 pound Coho
My anglers went back to working their baits without much luck for the next 15 minutes. At 7:55 a.m. the chaos began with a single Coho hooked and jumping off the port side. As the fish came to the net I could see countless others following it. I instructed the other fishermen and fisherwomen to get the baits up to the surface. Within a minute we had four silvers on.
I quickly concluded that there was no way for one man, me to be specific, to quickly boat four fish using one net. Opting for the admittedly more crass but expedient landing method of gaffing, I grabbed the leader on the first fish to the boat, whacked the Coho on the head, stuck the gaff through the gills and swung it in the box. Deciding to take care of one angler at a time, I unhooked his fish, baited his hooks and told him to cast far from the other lines.
I then scrambled to the next fisherman who had his Coho along side. Looking down at the fish, I could still see hundreds if not thousands of Coho flashing madly beneath their hooked brethren. I've long believed that all species of fish vacillate between wild optimism and severe paranoia based largely on their blood sugar levels. These hungry Coho reacted to motion as if it meant only one thing - food.
Follow the Feeder
To a human it may seem strange that hooked fish would attract free swimming schoolmates. Don't these fish recognize their comrades in danger? In a word--no. At least not with the blood sugar level low and the hunger level high. Amidst a feeding frenzy most species interpret any erratic and sudden movements by their schoolmates as an indication that the dinner bell has rung. I've seen this in a wide variety of species.
During my youth on the East Coast we fished big wooden plugs for bluefish, an extremely aggressive species. Bluefish have very sharp teeth so we used wire leaders. In time I came to realize that the leader wasn't necessary for the fish that actually got hooked on the plug. Instead the wire serves to keep other bluefish, which are trying to steal the plug out of the hooked fish's mouth, from biting through the line.
Mahi mahi are also notorious for following their hooked brethren to the slaughter. If you've ever fished albacore out of Westport, you know that these fish too, play follow the feeder, keying on the frenzied behavior of a hooked schoolmate. The quickest way to become Mr. Unpopular on an albacore boat is to break a fish off because that panicked fish will drag race for the horizon taking the entire school with him. Coho in the amidst of a wild biting orgy are attracted to the wild flashing of their hooked schoolmates--no doubt about it.
With a pair of silvers in the box, one in the sights of my gaff, two more hooked up, and a fresh bait going down on the other side of the boat, I watched the frenzied school flashing below. I then whacked the next fish into a coma, put the pick through the gills, and threw it in the box. I freed the hooks, baited them, and moved on to gaff the next Coho.
So it went for a solid hour. We never had a moment when there wasn't at least one fish on. We had many times with three or four Coho hooked up - a veritable Chinese fire drill. The school of fish remained under the boat in an outright feeding frenzy. At 8:55 a.m., one hour after it all began, we had 30 Coho from nine to 15 pounds in the boat - six fish limits for all including the skipper. I was over stimulated to the point of disorientation.
With all the Coho the government allows in the fish box, and two hours remaining on our half-day charter, the cry for halibut went up. I suggested sending the plug-cut herring to the bottom. The first to try discovered that this wasn't possible. She hooked another Coho which we released after a spectacular series of jumps and runs. The next to try to find bottom with a herring ran afoul of the same "problem." Clearly some problems are worse than others.
In an effort to get a bait down, I began gutting Coho and putting the entrails on bigger hooks with heavier mooching sinkers. The first angler to send that gear down made it to the bottom, but not before a bunch of berserk Coho had pecked, pulled, and run around with the guts. These fish were in a feeding frenzy of shark-like proportions.
Once the bait made it to the bottom, we found the halibut in a similar mood. In short order we had four flatties coming up at once. In the next two hours we sorted through the halibut, releasing the "paddle" size specimens and keeping eight "chickens" in the 20 to 30 pound range. We were back at the dock at 11:30 a.m. with the anglers in a state of excitation and the captain in a state of exhaustion.
Bare Hook Biters
The above tale of 30 Coho in 75 minutes, all running between nine and 15 pounds, by no means belongs in the "once in a blue moon" file. These fish stack up at the ocean entrances to Sitka beginning in early July and basically stuff their faces on abundant baitfish. The first arriving Coho look much like what anglers in Washington and Oregon have come to expect. They weigh mostly in the six to eight pound class--nice fish no doubt. As these silvers slap on the feed bag in their final months at sea, they grow at a phenomenal rate.
I've heard it said that a Coho doubles its weight between June and September of its final year in the ocean. I've also been told they gain a pound per week in their last months of ocean life. Whatever the actual growth rate, by the time mid- to late August arrives in Sitka the Coho average over 10 pounds and frequently top 15. Fish approaching or exceeding 20 pounds are always possible.
J.D. Love with a big 19 pound Coho taken in early September.
The behavior that drives the final big growth spurt for Coho is, of course, their legendary gluttony. I've caught five pound Coho on Swiftsure Bank in Washington that had close to a pound of krill in their gut. From the outside it looked like they'd swallowed a soft ball. In Sitka the primary forage is needlefish (a.k.a. candlefish or Pacific sand lance) and young of the year "popcorn" herring. When gutting these Sitka Coho, it isn't unusual to find at least a couple dozen six inch needlefish in their stomachs.
The wild feeding behavior leads to some fairly interesting happenings. In mid-August last year we were anchored up and mooching one day when an angler of mine missed a bite and lost his bait. He reeled in and, as per my safety instructions, grabbed his sinker and left the hooks in the water. I was baiting someone else's hook at the time when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the guy who had been waiting for bait fighting a fish. At first I wondered if he'd baited his own. Nope. A frenzied Coho had shot up under the boat and taken his bare hooks. Sounds like a tall tale or a freak occurrence, doesn't it?
Two days later in the same location I had an angler dunk a bait and before he knew what hit him a Coho danced across the surface peeling line off the reel. Strangely, I could see his bait spinning rapidly behind the fish. Soon the Coho opened its mouth and out came this guy's sinker. The fish then turned around and hit the bait. The angler, shaken by the suddenness of it all, set the hooks too quickly and lost his herring. He began reeling in when I told him to stop and let the fish eat the hooks. He looked at me as if he was wondering what I'd been smoking. The fish quickly came to my rescue and ate the bare hooks. We put 22 Coho in the boat in the next hour and a half.
The principle technique we use for catching Coho in Sitka is mooching. If you're accomplished with a plug-cut herring, you'll catch silvers from the get go. If you're trying to learn how to feel a bite and hook a fish while mooching, you'll get countless opportunities. You'll get more bites in three days in Sitka than you might get in three years in Puget Sound.
Although much of the attention on Sitka in recent years has focused on the spectacular king salmon fishing, the Coho action in August and September plays second fiddle to nothing I've ever seen. Take these acrobatic fish on light steelhead tackle or fly rods with single action reels and the sport is spectacular. I can't think of a better way to put the finishing touches on the summer season.
For more information contact: Angling Unlimited, Inc., PO Box 17103, Seattle, WA 98107, 1-800-297-3380