To the uninitiated, the technique of motor mooching looks like a no brainer. All you do is hook a plug-cut herring to a set of tandem hooks on a seven foot leader. Tie the leader to a mooching sinker of four to eight ounces, drop it all in the water and putt-putt around with your kicker motor until a salmon rings your bell.
This no brainer illusion quickly evaporates when you fish next to a master of the art. On many a day on the waters of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the British Columbia coast I’ve watched an elite four or five anglers catch fish while the rest of the fleet goes home with the skunk. The gear may be simple, the technique is pure finesse.
For those who know how, motor mooching works anywhere chinook salmon swim – from Monterey Bay to Bristol Bay. For anglers switching over from downrigger trolling, you must understand that you’ll cover less ground motor mooching, so you need to narrow your fishing down to areas where the salmon are concentrated.
Large offshore banks and shorelines without well-defined structure aren’t the province of the motor moocher. Rocky headlands, slots at the entrance to bays, and shoreline points with tidal back eddies that concentrate king salmon make ideal haunts for the motor moocher to work his magic.
The magic begins with the bait – a plug-cut herring rigged to achieve a king salmon enticing spin. The angle at which the bait is decapitated and the placement of the hooks determine the action. I’ve travelled the coast from California to Alaska and seen a million ways to skin this cat.
Ultimately, you want a bait that spins tight to the axis and develops a good rate of roll at a slow speed through the water. Bait action alone can spell the difference between those that catch and those that merely fish.
Although the size of the preferred bait matters less than achieving the right spin, most of the top motor moochers try to match the size of herring the salmon are feeding on. When the kings are dining mostly on Pacific sand lance (a.k.a needlefish or candlefish), good moochers often opt for a large seven or eight in plug-cut herring. The big bait really stands out when fished amidst schools of smaller sand lance.
Fresh bait is preferred to frozen but is often hard to come by along remote stretches of the coast. If you have to use frozen, look for bait that has good color and no sign of brown around the gills and eyes. Long skinny baits develop much better action than short plump baits.
Top moochers are real sticklers about the bait having exactly the right look. They never fish a bait that looks merely okay. Either the herring has the right flash and roll or it’s tossed over board in favor of one that does. Attention to detail is the name of the game.
Hook, Line and Sinker
The size of the bait determines the size of the hooks. Most moochers rig a leader with a tandem hook set-up with the forward hook one size larger than the trailer. For a six inch bait a 2/0, 3/0 hook combination or a 3/0, 4/0 combo works well. Smaller baits require smaller hooks and big baits demand bigger hooks.
The weight of the leader is usually in the 20 to 30 pound test. In areas where the fishing pressure is heavy and water is clear the salmon sometimes become leader shy and the finesse moochers go to 12 pound test leaders and lighter. You may break off the odd fish on the light leader, but it is better to have fought and lost than never to have fought at all. With a bit of care, you can land nearly any size salmon on 12 pound test.
Leader length is generally in the seven foot range, but in areas of heavy fishing pressure where salmon get “educated” a longer leader, up to 10 feet, can prove more effective. Leader length is partly determined by rod length. If your leader is longer than your rod, it’s makes delivering a salmon to the net difficult. Many motor moochers favor long rods of 10 to 12 feet.
As for the main line, 20 pound test is the most you’ll need. If you fish northern British Columbia and Southeast Alaska you’ll want a reel that holds at least 300 yards of line. Believe it or not, a big king can empty a reel of 200 yards of line in one run.
As for sinker size, that’s determined to some degree by the depth of the fish. Kings along the coast often move up fairly high in the water column. On the inside haunts of Puget Sound they can be quite deep. I fish primarily with six to eight ounce sinkers and I use Metzler sliding sinkers as opposed to fixed mooching sinkers.
Given that you’ve got a good tight spin on your herring, the next step is to present it to a king salmon. Effective motor mooching requires that you find fish concentrated in smaller areas – on a point, in a slot at the entrance to a bay, in back eddies, along a shelf, etc. You also want the right angle on your line – roughly 45 to 60 degrees off the tip.
Heavier sinkers allow you to fish the right line angle at a higher speed through the water – which means you cover more ground. Trolling with the current means you cover more real estate as well. Many motor moochers troll only with the tide. When they go beyond the fish, they pick up the gear, run back up- current and do it again.
Aside from zeroing in on a location where the fish are, you need to determine the “strike zone” – the depth at which the salmon are currently cruising. Nothing beats a good depth sounder for this task. You can set your baits to troll from 25 to 40 feet down, but if you pick up a school of bait or the mark of a salmon 60 feet down on the screen, bomb a bait down and check it out.
Mother nature can also help you locate fish. The presence of diving birds, nervous gulls, baitfish jumping on the surface, and other cues indicate the potential for good salmon fishing. You can even get some idea of the depth of the baitfish by checking how long the diving birds stay under water.
The tendency to grab the rod and set the hook at the first sign of a bite costs the novice motor moocher many fish. When a king salmon first gets after your bait, it approaches from behind, thus it is facing the transom of your boat. A quick set all too often does nothing more than pull the hooks out of the salmon’s mouth and put him off your bait.
A better tactic is to keep the rod in the holder. When a fish bites, begin accelerating with the kicker motor. If the salmon stays with the bait, he will turn and pull the rod tip down. With the fish headed away from the boat, you have a better chance of setting the hooks. This is called “power setting” and it’s very effective.
For those who prefer to keep the rod in hand, you can accomplish similar results by reeling steadily when a fish bites and refraining from setting until the rod tip is pull down heavily. When the king yanks the rod tip down to the water, a short sharp set of the hooks while continuing to reel is most effective. The screaming drag on your reel will let you know you made the connection with the king.
The beginner should bear in mind that motor mooching isn’t easy to master and it’s not the best technique for scattered fish on the open ocean. For working inshore haunts with concentrations of fish, however, it’s downright deadly.
The learning curve is long. You can motor mooch for a lifetime and never run out of ways to refine your methods. This technique can be incredibly subtle – that’s both the agony and ecstasy of the game.