HOVER FISHING FOR KINGS - by George Krumm

HOVER FISHING FOR KINGS - by George Krumm

Hover fishing is, hands-down, my favorite way to catch summer/fall Chinook in the Columbia. It involves much lighter gear than most Columbia Chinook techniques, allowing you to really enjoy the fight. Gone are the 12- and 16-ounce weights and big 360 flashers.

 

Marcus Weiner is happy with this Drano Chinook.

 

I called out to the crew, “Check bottom.” We’d just drifted over a little ledge, and the water was now two feet deeper than it had been a moment earlier. I heard the clicks of thumb bars being depressed and saw the movement of reels being cranked to position baits two cranks off the bottom. My sons, Marty and Blake, plus my friend, Francis Estalilla, were on it.

I noticed my line angle leaning slightly to downstream as the wind pushed on the boat. I added a little burst of throttle to back the boat into the wind and watched as the line dropped back to vertical. Perfect!

“There he is.” My son, Marty, a soft-spoken hover-fishing assassin, had just set the hook into another nice Chinook. A few minutes later, with four adults and two jacks in the boat, we all took a moment to look out over the fleet just downstream of the mouth of the Deschutes River. It was 7:40 a.m. We drifted through the pack, and once out of the fray, turned the boat downstream towards the Celilo boat launch for the drive home.

We were hover fishing on that nice September morning. Hover fishing is, hands-down, my favorite way to catch summer/fall Chinook in the Columbia. It involves much lighter gear than most Columbia Chinook techniques, allowing you to really enjoy the fight. Gone are the 12- and 16-ounce weights and big 360 flashers. Instead, we use light rods, and two- or three-ounce weights to present baits near the bottom. It’s totally hands-on. The angler is responsible for keeping the bait at the right depth, detecting the bite, and setting the hook. Hover fishing is also deadly effective at times.

 

 

Hover fishing is done from a boat. The idea is to present baits at the depth of the fish, at the same speed as the current. It’s similar to fishing with a bobber, only instead of a bobber drifting down the flow, the boat is, and the angler is simply holding the rod waiting for the often subtle indication of a bite. The key with this technique is to maneuver the boat to maintain a vertical line angle. This is easier said than done, as the places we hover fish are notoriously windy much of the time.

 

Where To Hover Fish

The most well-known areas to hover fish in the Columbia system are Drano Lake, the mouth of the Klickitat River, and the mouth of the Deschutes River. What these three locations have in common is they all have cooler water than the mainstem Columbia. Where this cooler water dumps into the Columbia, migrating Chinook often pull over for a while and stack up. The warmer the Columbia gets, the more attractive these locations become to migrating Chinook. Drano, The Klick’, and the Deschutes are not the only places you can hover fish. There are other locations on the Columbia that have similar conditions. At all these locations, if you go there during September, you’ll easily be able to see the general areas where people are hover fishing.

 

 

I say general areas because the fish in these locations aren’t always along the same contour lines (depths) from day to day, or hour to hour. Some days, you might hook fish at the 25-foot contour in the morning, but as the crowd builds, those fish might go off the bite for a while, or they might move to deeper or shallower water.

For the Deschutes, we generally fish in water from 20 to 30 feet deep. At the Klickitat, we commonly fish water from 20 to 35 feet deep; sometimes deeper. At Drano, we hover fish in water from 20 to 30 feet deep.

 

As the Columbia warms in late summer, more and more fish gravitate to cooler water sources. When you start marking fish as shown in this photo from Drano Lake, hover fishing gets good.

 

For any of these areas, if the 20-foot contour doesn’t produce, start your next pass at the 25-foot contour. Hunt for them, and watch your sonar. You don’t have to be in the crowd to find biters. You’ll often be able to see fish on your sonar, and you’ll also be able to tell how far off the bottom they are. How far off the bottom they are is important; they are unlikely to swim up five feet to grab your bait. You want to present your baits at the depth you’re seeing fish. Usually, this is within a foot or two of the bottom.

 

The Driver

I mentioned earlier that the key to this technique is to maintain a vertical line angle. The reason is we’re trying to present baits at specific depths at the speed the current is flowing. What often separates the highliners from the mediocre in hover fishing is how good the boat driver is at doing whatever it takes to keep those lines vertical.

I remember several years back at Ed Iman’s Fish Camp (also known as the Northwest Outdoor Writers Rendezvous), I was fishing with a guide who’d volunteered his time to take writers fishing everyday during the event. This guide was inexperienced with the nuances of hover fishing as he hadn’t done it much. We had great bait (cured at the event by Jason Hambly and Steve Lynch of Pro-Cure Bait Scents) and we were at the right place (mouth of the Klick’) at the right time (early September), but the wind was blowing about 15 mph and our guide wasn’t skilled at keeping lines vertical. Noticing my line scoping out about 25 degrees from vertical, I tried to tactfully explain the importance of a vertical line angle, and tried to explain to him how to do it. He bristled. He didn’t like me suggesting to him how to hover fish, and he didn’t seem to believe how important it is. “It’s close enough,” he said. It wasn’t. While Hambly and the usual highliners limited their boats in a couple hours, we were still flailing away, with one fish in the box. And that’s what we ended up with when we quit at 2:30 p.m. One fish. Same bait, same area; the difference between the other boats and ours was having a skilled driver working diligently to keep line angles vertical.

 

 

To keep line angles vertical, use your kicker motor in reverse and back into the wind. Watch your line angle. When it begins to deviate from vertical, take that appropriate action. That could be giving the kicker a little burst of throttle, a little less throttle, turning the motor a little, or putting it into neutral. The driver will be busy, watching the fish finder, watching his line angle, putting the motor in and out of gear (reverse, usually), and adjusting throttle. Whatever it takes to keep those lines vertical is what the driver should be doing. I sometimes wonder how many times I shift the kicker in and out of gear during a long day of hover fishing. 150 times? 300 times? A lot.

Because hover boats are often concentrated rather tightly, the driver also has to pay attention to the boats around him. The driver should be dividing his attention between other boats, line angle, and sonar. The depth at the Klick’ and the Deschutes changes, and since the driver is often the only person on the boat who can easily see the sonar, he’s able to call out to the crew when depths change. The best thing he can do for the crew when the depth changes is to call out: “Check bottom.” All the anglers should then let their lines to the bottom and crank up to the desired depth.

A lot of people think the egg cure you use is the most important element in hover fishing. While I agree that matters, I think it’s equally or even more important to keep those lines vertical.

While we’re talking about the driver, Drano presents a different situation. There is no current. But just like the other locations, it’s often windy. The skill of the driver is still critically important, as you still want to maintain vertical line angles. The same principles apply. Use the kicker motor to combat the wind by backing into it, adjusting throttle as necessary to keep line angles vertical.

 

Marty Krumm with a nice fish from the mouth of the Deschutes.

 

Since there is no current in Drano, sometimes people anchor. The usual technique I see them employ is to use two anchors. They drop one anchor, then motor up wind 100 or more feet, then drop the second anchor. Then they pay out line from the bow anchor while gathering in line from the stern anchor, to position their boat halfway between the two. This works, and is less work than using the kick motor to maintain vertical line angles. However, it takes up a lot of space in the fishing area, and it’s not uncommon for boats to either snag those stretched-out anchor lines, or to have hooked fish wrap around anchor lines, resulting in a lost fish. I do not recommend anchoring to hover fish in crowded fisheries like these. The more courteous action is to use a kick motor to maintain vertical line angles.

For Drano, there is another way to maintain vertical line angles. If you have a Minn Kota bow-mounted electric trolling motor with Spot-Lock, you can motor to the exact location you want to fish, hit Spot-Lock on your remote control, and the Minn Kota takes over, keeping you right on that spot. I’ve used this feature in Drano for the past five or six years, often in very windy conditions, and it makes life easy. You can also use the “Jog” feature to move the boat in five-foot increments, either forward, back, left or right. This makes it really easy to move the boat from say, the 20-foot contour out to the 27-foot contour; or later-ally to a slightly different spot.

 

Rigging Up

Hover fishing is rather specialized, and it’s a method where a technique-specific rod will be more comfortable to fish, and will help you detect, hook and land more fish while hover fishing. Perhaps my all-time favorite hover rod was the Cousins Tributary series GTS 711MH-1TG, a 7’11” one-piece rod rated for 10- to 20-pound test and 1- to 5-ounce weights. That rod was designed by Josh Cooper specifically for hover fishing. I nearly cried when I found it in a rod locker with the last four inches or so sheared off, probably due to the rod locker being shut on it. This rod is no longer in production. If you see one on Ebay, grab it!

 

 

Okuma used to make a hover rod, the SST-C-7101 MGMH. It was very light in hand; lighter than the Cousins hover rod by quite a bit. However, of the six I bought, four of them broke while fighting fish. That rod performed like a Ferrari, but if you high-sticked even a little, it broke. The four that were broken in my boat all broke about 2/3 of the way up the blank; probably a design issue. I still have two left; I suspect they’ll break in time, but I’ll enjoy them until then. This rod is also no longer produced.

Rumor has it, Josh Cooper has designed a new, Okuma X-series Hover Rod that a little bird told me should be available in July. The rod model will be XH-C-710MH. Here are the specs: Premium 40-ton Toray carbon blank, medium-heavy, fast action, 7’10”, rated for 10- to 20-pound test, and 1- to 5-ounces of lead. As good as Josh’s Cousins hover rod was, I anticipate the X-series hover rod will be even better. I can’t wait to get my hands on one.

A rod I frequently use for hover fishing wasn’t designed as a hover rod, but rather, a plugging rod. The KastKing Krome KKR-KR-2C82HS “Hot Shot” rod actually makes a great hover rod. I like it enough that when I could no longer find the Cousins or Okuma hover rods, I bought three of these. They are a little longer than I like for hover fishing (8’2”), but they are very sensitive, light, and none of them have broken even when abused by relatively inexperienced anglers. It’s rated for up to three ounces of weight, and 10- to 20 pound-test line.

Stryker rods out of Eugene, Oregon makes the HLB710C Salmon Hover/Anchor Rod. It’s rated for 10- to 20-pound-test line and 1- to 3-ounces of weight. This rod is very light and with its blue Batson Alps components, very attractive. The tip is plenty sensitive while it has a stout butt section which really helps with setting the hook and bringing fish to the net. This is a fine hover rod, and it’s not a bad plug rod, jigging rod, or light backbouncer, too.

 

The author caught this Drano Chinook on a typically windy day in early September. The bow-mounted Riptide Terrova holds the boat in place via Spot-Lock.

 

Lamiglas makes a couple different hover rods (Redline series, X11 series). Edge makes at least one hover rod. There may be others out there, too, but I haven’t used them. What you’re looking for, regardless of brand, is a casting rod from 7’6” to 8’ long, rated for roughly 10- to 20-pound test line, and capable of fishing up to three ounces of lead. A light backbouncing rod will work. What you get if you buy a rod designed specifically for hover fishing is a little softer tip than your typical back-bouncing rod, but with similar power in the butt section.

Any number of small, low-profile casting reels can work for hover fishing. They should hold about 150 yards of whatever line you plan to use. I’ve used Daiwa Coastal reels for hover fishing quite a bit, and they work well. Light, but with plenty of drag—they’re a joy to fish. Coming in slightly larger and heavier, the reel I use most for hover fishing is the Daiwa Lexa 300LC. I like the line-counter feature, and this reel gets passed around to various rods for other fisheries during the year. Though these two reels do most of my hover-fishing duty, there are plenty of similar-sized reels that could work for you. Ambassadeur 5500? Sure. Shimano Curado 300? Yep. Okuma Coldwater Low-Profile Line Counter? Absolutely—I’ve used them quite a bit for hovering. For the average hover-caught chinook, a bass baitcaster and 30-lb braid is enough. However, the extremely rare 40-pounder or better still exists in the Columbia, so I like the durability and line capacity of reels a little bigger than those designed for bass.

The best line for hover fishing is braid. I like TufLine 4orce and Daiwa J-braid X4 or Daiwa X8 Grand, all in 50-pound test. You could use 30- or 40-pound braid for hover fishing. If I could afford to buy reels that would only be used for hover fishing, I might put 40-pound braid on them. But since my reels wear a lot of hats, I use 50-pound braid. It is helpful if all anglers in the boat are using the same diameter line; this helps ensure all lines are affected the same by vagaries of current and wind.

 

 

Weights for hover fishing are generally two- or three ounces. Most anglers use cannonball weights. Some anglers use egg sinkers. The fish don’t know the difference, and the two styles of weight fish the same way. I’ve used both styles, but most of the time I use cannonball weights. I attached cannonball weights to BnR Tackle EZ Sliders. You simply put a small duo-lock snap on the slider and attach your cannonball to the duo-lock snap. Then you pass your main line through an 8 mm bead, then through the slider, through another 8 mm bead, and tie it to a barrel swivel.

If you’re fishing an egg sinker, you simply thread an 8 mm bead onto the main line, then the egg sinker, then another 8 mm bead, and tie the mainline to a barrel swivel.

Speaking of barrel swivels, for hover fishing I like P-line rolling barrel swivels in size 5. They’re black, and have a breaking strength of 71 pounds. Any swivel of similar size and quality will work.

Hover fishing is a situation in which the fish have a fair amount of time to look at your presentation, especially in Drano. Because of this, I use fluorocarbon leaders for all my hover fishing. I’ve used leaders as light as 15-pound-test, and as heavy as 30-pound-test. That said, I generally use 25-pound-test leader material. There are lots of good fluorocarbon leader materials out there. Two really good ones for hover fishing are P-Line CFX fluorocarbon, and Seaguar Gold Label. Both of these are somewhat spendy, but for hover fishing—where the fish have plenty of time to eyeball your bait, I think they’re worth the cost.

 

 

I tie my hover-fishing leaders 30 inches long. I’ve leaders as long as 36 inches, and as short as 6 inches, trying to find what is best. I’ve settled at 30 inches. While I caught fish on every leader length I tried, the shorter my leaders got, the less confident I was that fish would commit to the bait since the sinker was so close. 30 inches seems to be long enough to not spook any fish and allow for natural bait movement, but not so long that the fish spits out the bait before I know I had a bite. I’m sure that still happens sometimes, as your bait could be anywhere within 30 inches of your weight as you drift along. If you’re drifting downstream and your bait is downstream of your weight, if a stationary fish picks up your bait, you may not feel it. If the fish doesn’t move, you will have to drift 60 inches before you feel any weight. By that time, the fish has probably done one of two things: either swallowed your bait (remarkably, this isn’t very common when hover fishing) or has spit it out. That’s a worst-case scenario. In reality, your bait is probably not going to be straight downstream of your weight. If the driver is doing a good job, your bait will be below your weight. If that’s the case, you will feel it when the fish sucks in your bait. I use size 3/0 red Octopus hooks for hover fishing. My favorites are the Maruto Barbed Sickle Hook, the Maruto Grabber Barbless Sickle Hook, and the Gamakatsu Octopus hook in that order. All of these are sharp, high-quality hooks that won’t let you down. Note that you can fish barbed hooks in Drano, but not in the Columbia. I always have at least a dozen of each (barbed and barbless) tied in advance and stored in Mack’s Pip’s Boxes. For hover leaders, I like that the Pip’s boxes keep my leader material straight, with no kinks from being bent around a leader board. Plus, I can get 20 or so leaders in one of these little boxes, saving space, and it’s really easy to pull a leader out of a Pip’s box.

 

Bait

Bait matters. The primary bait for hover fishing is cured salmon eggs. Since these fisheries are all more than 100 miles from the ocean, hotter egg cures tend to work best most of the time (but not always). Some good off-the-shelf cures are Pro-Cure’s Wizard Egg Cure (their hottest cure), Pro-Cure Fuze Salmon Blend, and the one that started it all, Pro-Cure Redd Hot Double Stuff.

 

Good bait is important. The typical hover bait is cured salmon eggs with a piece of a sand shrimp. We usually cut up baits in the morning in the dark so we don’t have to burn fishing time messing with bait.

 

All the above cures, if applied correctly to good-quality eggs, will catch fish while hovering. However, sometimes it pays to dive a little more deeply into developing your own cure. When there are 100 baits in the water near you, having something a little different sometimes makes a difference. I have used two cures that are not available in stores which have worked quite well hover fishing. One, I can’t share as only five people on the planet know it and I’ve been sworn to silence.

 

The other is simply a combination of a “Basic Sulfite Cure” and a “Hot Cure” from an old Pro-Cure brochure:

 

  • 1 cup white granulated sugar
  • 1 cup plain or colored borax
  • 1 cup sodium sulfite
  • 1 Tbsp sodium metabisulfite
  • 1 Tbsp sodium nitrite
  • 1 tsp Bad Azz Bait Dye, Brilliant Red (the powdered version)

    You can buy all the components for this cure from Pro-Cure. If you start with good, clean eggs, and apply the cure properly, then drain/dry to the consistency you like, you’ll have success with this cure.

    The application of the cure matters. Get it into all the folds and layers of the egg skein; don’t just sprinkle it on top. I then place the eggs in pint- or quart-size mason jars. When the jar is nearly full, put the lid on. Let ‘em juice up, gently rolling the jars around. I’ll roll them around several times in the first hour, then I’ll put them in the fridge overnight. The next day, I flip the jars over and leave them in the fridge for a few more hours. Ideally, they’ll suck up almost all the juice. If they have, I’ll put them in the freezer, or back in the fridge if I’m using them in the next few days. If they don’t suck up almost all the juice, I dump the eggs out on drying screens to get them to the consistency I want. Generally, I fish somewhat wet eggs when hover fishing.

    Eggs are important. But there’s another element that can turn a good day into an excellent one, or a poor day into a good one: sand shrimp. While I’ve caught my share of hover fish on eggs alone, I’ve caught many, many more with eggs and a piece of sand shrimp. I feel a little naked if I can’t get some sand shrimp before a hover trip. I go to great lengths to always have a few different sources staked out, and I do everything I can to keep them cold and alive in my bait fridge and during the trip. That said, they don’t have to be alive to work. As long as they’re not discolored and smelling foul rather than shrimpy, they’ll work.

    You only use a small piece of sand shrimp, and it’s for the smell, not the appearance. I generally cut large sand shrimp into three pieces. Little ones, I cut in half. I do use the heads, too, but I break off the big claws on the male shrimp. To use them, simply hook a piece of shrimp onto the hook. Then, hook an egg cluster on, slide it up the hook shank and secure it with the egg loop. The shrimp will be somewhat hidden in the egg cluster. You wouldn’t think it would make much difference, but that little piece of sand shrimp really seems to help.

     

     

    On days where I can see fish on sonar, but they’ve stopped biting, then I start experimenting with other baits and scents. Some baits that have worked (in combination with egg clusters) is a small piece of sardine fillet, a small piece of herring fillet, and a piece of coon shrimp. Any of these could be something those stale fish haven’t smelled on that particular day, and it could get you another fish or two.

    The same goes for scents. I fish eggs plus sand shrimp first. If I’m not getting the bites I think I should, then I consider adding scents. Some proven winners are Pro-Cure pure anise oil, Pro-Cure bloody tuna bait oil, Pro-Cure herring bait oil, and Pro-Cure Salmon Slammer bait oil. I don’t add these scents to big batches of eggs; I add them to individual baits just before I fish them.

     

    Technique

    There are two kinds of hover anglers: Standers, and sitters. With either method you freespool the weight to the bottom, then quickly raise it a predetermined number of cranks above the bottom. Usually, it’s two, three, or four cranks. One crank is one complete revolution of the reel handle. For my Daiwa Lexa 300 LCs, that’s about 28 inches of line. Two cranks puts my bait about 26 inches off the bottom, assuming the bait is directly below the weight. The idea is to keep your bait at that predeter-mined depth. Since the depth to the bot-tom frequently changes as you drift (except for at Drano where you’re usually stationary), you’ll need to check bottom every 30 seconds or so. There are reasons for this.

     

    Blake Krumm, the author, and Marty Krumm with some Deschutes river kings. Francis Estalilla photo.

     

    If it gets shallower and you don’t adjust, your bait will be rolling and dragging on the bottom—a sure way to foul your bait with moss, get hung up, or catch sturgeon. If it gets deeper, your bait may be too far above the fish for them to want to eat it. Check bottom regularly to avoid these things. If you’re in a position on the boat where you can see the sonar, that will keep you apprised of changing depths. I have two sonars on my boat; one in the bow, and one in the stern. I often will use both at the same time while hovering. If you keep catching sturgeon and not salmon, you’re fishing too close to bottom, or you’re not checking bottom frequently enough to keep your bait the right distance off bottom.

    To hover while standing, hold your rod so that the tip is a few inches to a foot above the water’s surface. Keep it there, when your letting line to the bottom, and while fishing. You must remain focused and keep the rod still if you want to detect bites. The most successful hover anglers are those who can stay focused for long periods of time.

    There is one key advantage to standing, rather than sitting. While standing, your rod is angled down towards the water, a foot or less above the surface. As such, you are in the perfect position to set the hook.

     

     

    Sitting anglers typically rest their rod on the gunnel. Most will put a sponge or a towel on top of the gunnel. Since the rod is resting on the gunnel, many bites are only seen, not felt. As with the standing technique, focus is vital. You need to be watching that rod tip.

     

    The Bite

    Bites while hover fishing can vary from nearly undetectable to impossible to miss. Detecting bites is visual as well as tactile. In other words, you should be watching your rod tip as well as feeling for the bite with your rod hand. I have definitely hooked fish where I saw the subtle bending of the rod tip but didn’t feel much of anything.

    Sometimes, fish bump the bait but not suck it in. Those fish are pretty much impossible to hook, and the bite in this case is a single, light tap. If you set the hook on a single tap, you’ll usually come up empty and have to re-bait. I usually go on alert with a single tap, but don’t set the hook unless something else happens.

     

    Patrick Williams battles a Drano Lake king. Note the KastKing Hot Shot rod—distinctive with its orange tip. This rod was designed for pulling plugs, but makes a remarkably good hover rod.

     

    A good bite—a fish you can hook—of-ten starts with a single tap followed almost immediately by slight weight, as if the rod tip sinks a little. Set the hook! This is probably the most common way a bite manifests while hover fishing. If you’re focused, and you feel that first tap, get ready. The weight will happen a fraction of second after that tap.

    A third type of bite is just a slight amount of weight. You’re holding your rod, and it just gets kind of heavy, or the tip just bends down slightly. Set the hook!

    A fourth type of bite is simply tap…tap. The taps are about a second apart; maybe slightly less. Set the hook!

     

     

    If any of the above happens, (except for the single tap), set the hook. The bites are usually not hard, and are easy to overlook if you’re bird watching, people watching or otherwise distracted. I can’t stress enough that this is a focus game. The best hover anglers are those who can stay on point.

    There’s another type of bite that you should be aware of, and that is the kind of bite you get from chubs. Typically, chubs bite with a rapid, sharp tapping. If you get into chubs, you can go through a lot of bait. The best strategy is to move to a different contour line (depth) to hopefully get away from them.

     

    Though we hover fish a long ways from the ocean, upriver bright Chinook typically cut like this one.

     

    One day, my boss decided we should skip work and go hover fish. The reason? It had been good the previous few days and we couldn’t wait to get back. We fished for about three and a half hours. We landed 17 Chinook. Twelve of them were small, dark tule-strain kings—the least desirable from an eating perspective. It seems like every year there are some days where we have to weed through the tules to find the better-quality, upriver-bright strain. We eventually landed fish we were happy with and went home. On a normal day, we land our one upriver bright each, early, and head home.

    Once the fall Chinook arrive above Bonneville in numbers, it is routine for experienced hover anglers to limit the boat, often early in the morning.

     

     

    Hover fishing is one of the most enjoyable ways to catch Chinook salmon. It’s a hands-on technique, using much lighter gear than we use when we’re trolling 360s or triangles with heavy lead. It can also be deadly effective in the late summer and early fall. I hope I see you out there.

    George Krumm is the Editor of both Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines. An addicted hover angler, there is nothing he’d rather be doing in the month of September. He can be reached at george@fishalaska-magazine.com.

     

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    2 comments

    Hi,
    Great article. Thank you so much. Question..what color braided line do you prefer for hover fishing only in Drano Lake. We’re blessed to live near Drano Lake, it’s an amazing fishery. Thank you! Kristin

    Kristin Koski

    Great article. Not only shows what they caught but all the details of where the good places are and also all about the gear and techniques.

    Delano Valek

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