My 2016 Homer winter king derby planning and strategies
First off, I want to make sure everyone understands that I am no veteran of this derby. I have fished it for three years getting totally skunked the first two years. Last year I caught one fish the day before the derby and got lucky and landed another the day of the derby. I did catch a king February of 2016 but the ocean conditions are different. So take it for what it’s worth, but just as much for my benefit as anyone, I am going to layout how I am going to approach this derby. If you choose to follow any of advice, just remember its being given by a guy who has fished three of these derbies and has only entered one fish. Haha. Buyer beware! Good thing it's free...except for your time!
Before we begin, I highly recommend checking out the rules of the derby at: Homer winter king derby rules
So, first, let’s look at the basic conditions that we will be facing outside of weather. The tides are not favorable in my opinion. Lines in at 9am and out at 4pm means I don’t get the fish the last half of the outgoing tide which has generally been more consistent for me. A significant portion of the derby will be fished during slow/slack high tide which means the fish will be more spread out. I may have an hour or two at the 9am start time to fish some of my low water spots. But location is going to be much more of a crapshoot this year I think.
Now the general lay of the land….
So the above shot covers 99% of the areas I fish. Depth are in feet. I would venture to guess that 75% or more of my fish come in this section between the two mileage pins on th map below. But once again this is at low tide.
My “highwater” fishing tends to be more spread out. I will fish along the contour lines all the way out to the Green can as well as head up the spit if I think the fish are shallower. Basically everywhere. I realize that’s not helpful but it just seems to be the case.
If the pollock are not around (and they seem to be around right now) you can fish off the very tip of the spit. Typically there are too many pollock in the area to fish. But if you can avoid the pollock, like any “point” it can concentrate fish.
So even in the areas I have covered the water is from 1 ft to 150ft or more deep. So where do I plan to fish? I don't know. I will let my sonar tell me. BUT here’s the way I plan to approach things. So a few tidbits of intel to consider:
- Last year I caught both king using a 10oz sinker ahead of a flasher. That means I caught the fish less than 20ft down if my recollection serves me correct, it was in about 60ft of water.
- Many powerboaters I have spoken to fish right off the bottom during the winter months. That’s one of the reasons why if you follow some of the Alaska boards, you will notice a lot of the trollers are also hooking up to halibut.
- My February king came while downrigging in 100ft of water at 85 ft down. But I marked fish at 40ft and cranked my gear up and immediately got the strike.
Well, that intel seems like they could be anywhere. Well once again, that’s the truth of it. But here is my plan….after re-reading it, it doesn’t seem very useful but….
- At lines in, it will be well past sunrise. That’s too bad. I have found that while it is still a little dark, the fish tend to be higher in the water column. I still plan to start my son off with my sinker and flasher combo working shallow at first...20 to 40 ft of water along the condos. I don’t have time to teach downrigger use to my son. I am going to outfit him with a 10oz sinker and the heaviest (double weight) deep six diver in lieu of a downrigger. I think he can get it down to 50ft or more if lets out 100 ft maybe a bit more of line. Unlike normal fishing where we pass time fishing side by side, he is capable enough to fish alone so until we find fish, he will be covering the shallower areas, and I will start scouting the deeper areas.
- I plan to start with my downrigger and start heading deeper always monitoring my sonar and changing depths accordingly. Conventional wisdom says to fish right off the bottom. I tend to fish 10 to 15 ft off the bottom as I believe the an actively feeding fish will have no issues chasing down bait 15 ft above them. The only exception to this concept I think is when the kigns are known to be feeding on polychaetes worms. Then they are probably looking “down” but I have to trust the flasher will get their attention. Also the kings loaded up with these worms tend to come more from the Seldovia side. I haven’t caught any kings off the spit with those worms in them but I have heard of stories where trollers drag up kings with “sore noses” where they have been rooting around the bottom for feed.
- As it gets closer to high tide, if I still haven’t caught anything, I plan to spend at least sometime fishing crazy shallow. Under 20ft of water down to 10ft or so. I think the incoming tide can push them up against the shoreline a little bit. Not as much as during a fast outgoing current.
- As a general rule, the less light available, I fish shallower. The colder it is, the deeper I fish.
- Another primary consideration on where to fish is the clarity of the water. Obviously you don’t want to be in brown murky waters, but there are always subtle difference in water clarity depending on things like surf action, water current and even algae blooms. As a rule of thumb, the clearer the water the better the fishing has been for me. But often time the dirty scummy water you see does not extend more than a few feet deep. It's worth trying for sure, but given a choice, I like to fish the clearest water.
- Speaking of water clarity, when novices just look over the water, it’s hard not to wonder where to start. It’s a big ocean out there. As I troll along, I ALWAYS head towards anything that looks different. Of course bird are an obvious sign. Better that they are feeding actively, but I have been amazed that as I troll over an area with just resting birds, there are often bait fish deeper down. It’s like the birds know they are there and are just waiting for them to come shallower. But I am always looking for any subtle differences. Is there a patch of flat calm water amongst the chop? Is there a line of debris floating in a line along the surface? Trolling along the edges of two distinct colored water is also a good bet.
Bait vs lure:
My winning fish last year came on the Silver Horde Coho Killer spoon. I will be carrying a few of those. I will say that I have not seen sandlance or heard of them. My king had two pollock and in late November the fish were 2 to 4 inch herring. So I will also be carrying a couple of slightly larger profile spoons. Every year I gain a lot more confidence using artificials.
But I have to say, I have been a life-long bait guy. It’s going to be hard not to run herring at first. I’m going to use red label. If I can find some quality anchovies, I may even use them.
What’s probably going to happen is I run spoons when I am fishing deep on the downrigger and bait when fishing shallower with a sinker or diver. Checking bait after every little tap from a 100ft down on a downrigger is no fun. Ok, I am lazy.
I have successfully run flies and hoochies. Make sure you sue a swinging flasher and keep the leader length short and the leader extra thick, 50 to 100 lbs test as it helps to transfer the action of the flasher to the lure. I just think spoons are a tad more productive.
I will let my son decide himself what he wants to use, I bet he uses bait. I think that’s actually a better choice for him even if strikes were proven to be 50/50. The two hook trolling rig I use seems to hook fish MUCH better than a single hook spoon. I like the Silver Horde Coho Killer because they are super light. The heavier the spoon you run, the more leverage a fish has to throw it when you are fighting it. The two hook gamakatsu rig is the lightest setup and often times both hooks are in the fish making it better for those a little less experienced in fighting fish.
Personally I think the large flashers that swing side to side are more effective than the triangular flashers that spin on an axis. For flies and hoochies, you have really no choice. You have to use the flasher that swing side to side to give the hoochie or fly action.
Despite saying the large swinging flashers are more effective, the past few years, about 90% my fishing has been with the triangular flashers. Two reasons that when kayaks are factored in, the in-line flashers are the way to go.
First is they seem to have less drag. But it's important to keep in mind that added drag means the flasher is moving more water. There are many that believe that the fish can detect this change in water pressure and it is a primary attractor of the fish. It’s the primary reason I think these large swinging flashers are more effective off of a boat. On a boat you can run heavy weights, troll faster to get the diver down, or are using a downriggger with big weights. Drag becomes less of an issue.
Meaning for the same weight or diver, you can get down deeper. But maybe more importantly, Unlike the swinging flashers that require your sinker to be at least 1 ft or so away, you can attache the sinker directly to the flasher. This means you can increase the distance between the flasher and lure since one of the number one rules for kayak fishing is that your total leader length (i.e. when your gear can’t be reeled in any further) MUST be shorter than your rod length.
I use 50 to 65 lbs powerpro braid as my main line. I use 40 to 60 pound fluorocarbon for leader material. Yah it’s heavy, but I have had at least a half dozen times my leader has come back completely sheared off. I have no idea by what. More importantly, I have had more than too many times where the leader has caught on the rudder or drive briefly. I know guides that run 100lbs. I can’t help but feel I would catch more using 12 to 20 pound leaders but...nah…not during a derby where the big fish will ALWAYS expose your weakest link.
Rod & Reel:
For a reel, I like the lever action reels. It just allows for more control while fighting a fish.
My rod selection goes against I think conventional wisdom. I have two rods. One is a more conventional salmon rod I think 8ft Seeker with a parabolic softer action rated at 20lbs. Love the rod, but I am going to use my other seeker rod, which also happens to be more goto Big Halibut rod. It’s a 6ft Seeker Hercules rated for 40 to 80 pounds. So the rating is much more like a halibut rod.
So let’s think about why the 8ft softer rod is considered a more conventional rod for salmon trolling and also for downrigging vs a stiff 6ft halibut rod. First I think the the whole big bend in a long soft rod for downrigging is better because it snaps up and takes up more of the slack line is a MYTH. When I run the math, unless you are fishing 10ft down and the gear is less than 10ft behind the ball, that extra line pick up is just a very minor advantage that can be overcome easily. Let’s say you have a ten foot rod, just for easy math bent in half. when the rod snaps back up, it picks up 5 ft of line. Even with braid, if you are fishing more than 50ft deep and have your gear say 20 to 30 ft behind the ball, that 5 ft of pickup is irrelevant.
Another reason for a longer softer rod is that it protects the line and hook pulling out when a fish suddenly surges. Well I am using 50pound test gear so I don’t need the line protection. My drag is set at a super light 5 to 8 pounds and my kayak easily gives so I lower considerably the odds of a hook pulling out versus say a angler fishing 15 pounds of drag on a several thousand pound boat that also typical continues to troll hoping for multiple hook ups. We kayakers don't need to do that. I think that really increases our hook up to landed ratio over a power boat.
The advantages of a shorter stiffer stick (oddly my halibut rod would be considered a softer parabolic action I think if we were using big halibut gear) shines when the fish is coming to the net. It is a HUGE increase in fish control as you try and guide a fish into the net. I can show you multiple videos of the difficulties in landing fish with long soft rod whether it is for halibut or salmon. I would add the caveat that I try and land fish as quickly as humanly possible. I do NOT subscribe to the make sure they are worn out before you net them school of thought. The simple truth is the longer they are on the line, the greater chance of them coming off given you don’t just horse them in.
Another advntage is when I set the hook, I set the hook by pedaling as fast as I can until the rod is fully loaded up. Once the line tightens up, I think the stouter rod transfers the motion of the kayak more powerfully making for a better hook set.
If I can get the fish close to the kayak quickly, the instant my gear touches the tip of my rod, I am immediately thinking about netting it. I will say that I try and take a very good look to see how well it is hooked. If it is lightly hooked, I of course back way off the pressure and it takes longer. But if I see the hook is firmly in the corner of the mouth or I have two hooks in the fish, I will just clamped down and guide the fish into the net. With a stiff rod and thick line, the fish is much less likely to be able to take off and miss the net.
I am convinced you MUST use either the folbe or the scotty orca holders. I have seen too many fish lost as a good fish pins the rod to the rod holder and because we are often sitting and off to one side, rod removal is difficult.
A few more random thoughts.
- When using a downrigger and you want to check bait or whatever, first pop the line off the downrigger clip. But then put the rod back in the rod holder and reel up the downrigger ball first. I’ve had an abnormal amount of strikes on the free floating gear while I have been dealing with the downrigger ball.
- When you catch a fish, obviously secure the fish, but IMMEDIATELY get your line back in the water. Even if it’s just drifting around. Once the bait is in the water, you can more properly deal with the fish. I have had a few strikes due to the few extra minutes of “bait in the water” time...which coincidentally is the ONLY time you will ever get a strike. LOL.
- Obviously you must show common courtesy in terms of fishing proximity of others. BUT without a doubt the best fish finders on the planet are your eyes...or more accurately seeing other boats hooked up to fish. If you see a fish hooked up, you’d be foolish to not immediately head that way. Often times on a power boat where we deploy 4 lines or more, a bad day turns into a great day when multiple rods go off. These fish do seem to school around and stick to an area for a while.
- Most of us are pretty good anglers. But one of the things I notice but don’t often comment on because I think everyone has their own style but in my opinion the second biggest error I see when landing fish after too long of a leader is that people have their drag set way too tight. yah I realize that I am using 50 pound main line and 50 pound leader, but I always set my drag to not much more than 5 pounds or so. Part of it is because I use braid. Instead of the line being the shock absorber. I let the kayak and the drag take that place. 5 pounds of drag will still allow the kayak to be pulled around. Right as I net and or when I need to turn the fish, I just thumb down. This also allows me to use the shorter stiffer rods I prefer.
- As a general rule, especially when i mark good fish while using a sinker, I will slow the troll down if the fish are below where I think the lure is running. Then as I thhink my lure is getting to where the marked fish are I speed up. Two reasons, if its pollock, it discourages a strike. If its kings, I think they strike more aggressively. But I continue trolling until I am confident my gear has passed where I marked the fish. Then I make a hard turn in a direction which lowers the speed and gives a different look and as I complete the turn, I am also passing over the same general area of the good marks. I get a lot of strikes as I am turning hard and the gears changes speed. Often as it slows, then suddenly picks up speed as the line straightens out.
- Do NOT be afraid to try something new. Last year, I had a guide friend tell me the fish were in 8 ft of water. Of course I was totally skeptical. Moved into 8ft of water and 4 fish on in 30 minutes between my son and I. Another example is if a lot of boats are in the area, I might fish a bit without a flasher. Hoping something a little more subtle might get a strike. I’ve caught enough kings without flashers using a barbie rod to know it at least has a chance. During lunch breaks and rests, I plan to just drift around with a herring.
- Finally, perseverance pays. The difference in this derby is one fish. Zero fish sucks. One fish is awesome. The area is proven to hold fish, It may not be hot fishing, but I GUARANTEE there is at least one respectable fish in that area. As long as the bait is in the water, you have a chance, Keep in mind, even off of powerboats, only one in 5 or 6 anglers land a fish.