Hover Fishing Tidewater Chinook by Scott Haugen
With the motor turned off, my buddy, Chris Stewart, and I, let the boat drift. We sat in silence, gaging the movement of the boat as the outgoing tide carried us slowly downstream.
“This is perfect, and it’s just going to get better,” smiled Chris. “Bait up, we’re going to fish this corner.”
Putting some freshly cured, bright red eggs on the hook, we were ready. As we neared the hole, Chris used the trolling motor to position the boat sideways. Dropping our terminal gear to the bottom, then raising it a foot, we let the current carry us and our terminal gear downstream.
We didn’t go 10 yards and Chris got a hit.
The tap was subtle, like a trout bite, but when Chris set the hook, there was no question a chinook was on the other end. Landing the fish, we went back up through the same spot. This time I hooked a salmon but lost it, and Chris missed another strike.
The action was red-hot through the entire outgoing tide, no matter what hole we hit. We were fishing a coastal stream in southern Oregon, one of multiple rivers Chris and I fished last October.
Throughout our trips, hover fishing was the go-to method, something I’d not done much of other than on the Columbia and a handful of larger rivers. Hover fishing on these small, coastal, tidally influenced streams isn’t rocket science, but being aware of what’s going on around you will definitely result in catching more fish.
While I learned a lot hover fishing with Chris, it’s when we hooked up with Randy Seals of Randy’s Guide Service, that my learning went to the next level. I was impressed with Randy from the moment we met.
He’s owned his own guiding business for 15 years, doesn’t advertise in magazines, doesn’t do sportshows, doesn’t have a website, makes only a few social media posts a year, and is booked all the time.
As I fished and got to know Randy, it became clear that he works extremely hard, is always thinking, and catches so many fish it’s simply mind boggling. Randy shared some of what he’s learned over the years of hover fishing coastal streams.
“Due to the natural flow of the river combined with a tidal surge, outgoing tides usually bring in the most fish,” begins Seals. “Then again, incoming tides produce lots of fish, too. As long as there’s water moving, salmon will keep showing up this time of year.”
One observation Seals has made over the years of hover fishing is that salmon will often bite at certain parts of the outgoing and incoming tide. When and why this is, he’s not sure, but once a bite turns on, keep those lines in the water, as it’s almost like a river-wide feeding frenzy.
“When the bite turns on, it can happen fast, and keeps going for quite a while,” Shares Seals. “When I was trolling, I’d work hard for two or three salmon a day. Now, with hover fishing the same water, we’ll catch five times that, sometimes more. We’ve had many 15 to 20 fish days; I’ve never had anything close to that trolling.”
Seals explains that the toughest time to catch salmon while hover fishing is during the slack tide. “Slack tides are tough to catch them in because you’re not moving. There’s usually about a 30-40 minute window during the slack where we’ll get no bites.” This is a time where trolling or casting lures can get you on fish.
In trolling and casting, you’re moving to find fish, even during slack tides. When hover fishing through the slack, there’s no water flow to move you, so essentially you’re sitting, waiting for fish to come to you. Since salmon don’t move much during the slack tide, hover fishing isn’t productive during this brief window. But once that tide starts moving, get ready to start catching fish on the hover setup.
Stronger tides usually bring in more fish, but this time of year salmon will be coming in on just about every tide. Monitor the tides to make the most of your timing so you can fish through both incoming and outgoing tides, stopping for a lunch break during the slack.
Finding The Sweet Spots
Though tidally influenced, small streams don’t often have a lot of bottom relief, Seals points out it doesn’t take much of a change in depth to hold salmon. “We catch a lot of fish in six-feet of water, even as shallow as four-feet deep. Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to where you’ll find fish. A lot of times we’re catching them on the backside of a subtle hump or mud flat. Sometimes we’ll find them where there’s only a 12-inch depression. But once you find where they are, mark that spot and note the precise timing of the tide, for there’ll likely be fish in there during the next tide, and the next, even in following years as long as the bottom structure hasn’t changed.”
Ideally, Seals likes to focus his efforts in eight- to 12-feet of water. “This seems to be the perfect depth to hold the highest numbers of fish. Within these target depths, look for low spots, as those places are where the salmon really congregate. Anywhere there’s a drop, they’ll often lay.”
One place where Chris Stewart and I routinely got into chinook was around pilings.
“A lot of the coastal rivers have old pilings still standing from the logging days,” Seals points out. “These were usually set in deeper holes for big boats to get in and out, and these are ideal holding spots for salmon.”
Sometimes the depths of holes become greater due to high winter flows, and sometimes they fill in with silt and debris. Once in a while new pockets are created, so pay close attention as you fish. “A couple holes I used to fish were eight-feet deep, now they’re 12- to 15-feet deep and hold lots of fish,” smiles Seals.
Proper Depth Is Everything
Once you’ve located the deeper holes, keeping your terminal gear near the bottom is the key to success. Hover fishing finds you working the same water as trollers running their spinners and flashers with bait. You’re fishing the same spots as anglers casting lures and bobber fishermen floating bait. So why is hover fishing so successful?
“What sets hover fishing apart from other approaches is that it keeps the bait in a very precise position at all times, close to the bottom, and that’s where most salmon are,” notes Seals. “Sure you’ll catch the occasional suspended fish, but for the most part, these salmon are moving close to the bottom. For me, we catch the most salmon by keeping the bait 15- to 20-inches off the bottom at all times, that’s the key.”
To keep his bait where he wants it, Seals is continually working his reel.
Sure a depth finder helps monitor the bottom, but these rivers are so shallow, precise bait placement is achieved through feel. “I’m taking my levelwind reels out of gear every 10 seconds because proper depth is everything,” Seals emphasizes. “I’m always letting line out, hitting the bottom, dropping my rod tip to the surface of the water, locking the bail then raising my rod 15- to 20-inches above the water. This way I know exactly how deep I’m fishing.”
You can hover fish with spinning reels, and if you’re more comfortable with those, stick with them. But Seals is an advocate of baitcasters because they’re quick and easy to adjust, allowing you to constantly monitor and change depths. “Hover fishing is so productive because you can control the depth at which you’re fishing, and levelwinds allow you to regulate and maintain those ideal depths at all times,” Seals confirms.
“If you know the holes and regulate the depth, keeping that terminal gear just off the bottom, you’ll do good, as long as your eggs are good.”
Caption: Tidewater fall chinook are scent junkies. The more bait and scent you can throw at them, the better.
The first time I hover fished a little coastal river with Chris Stewart, we were hammering salmon on bright red eggs. Convinced we could catch salmon with regularity on these red eggs, I started experimenting with other cures, hoping to find something better. I tried orange eggs, natural colored eggs, pink eggs and deep purple eggs. Over the course of the afternoon, I caught one salmon on orange eggs, while Chris latched into seven fish on the bright red eggs.
On another river we fished during a morning outgoing tide, the same scenario played out, where we started hitting fish on red eggs. Again, I switched to different colored eggs in hopes of finding something better, but didn’t get a bite. After Chris hooked into his fifth fish of the morning, I couldn’t stand it anymore and went back to red eggs, and caught fish.
“Fluorescent, bright red eggs are hard to beat,” reiterates Seals. “I’ve tried a lot of different colors over the years, and nothing comes close to getting the number of hits as the bright red eggs.”
Seals likes a super juicy egg, something that milks out a lot. He also uses many different scents, with Pro-Cure’s anise oil and anise oil blends being favorites. He’s had good success on scents that release oils, like anchovy, herring, tuna, sand shrimp and more. Seals runs 2/0 and 3/0 hooks, and cuts his egg clusters to fit them.
Adding bait parts to the eggs also helps, offers Seals. “I’ll often add chunks of anchovy, herring, tuna or sand shrimp tails to the hook, as this added scent really seems to turn on the bite. Having just come out of the ocean, where they’re actively feeding, these salmon really seem to key on scents.” Often, adding a whole sand shrimp to the eggs is very effective.
As for leaders, Seals’s runs 20- to 25-pound test, and makes them as short as legally possible for the river being fished. The purpose of the short leader is to keep the bait in the strike zone, not moving around at uncontrolled depths. He likes a 60-pound braided mainline because there can be quite a few snags in coastal streams, and this helps save gear.
The leader is tied to a barrel swivel, the mainline to the other end of the barrel swivel. Before tying the mainline, run it through a sliding egg sinker. “I’ll usually run a 1-ounce sliding sinker,” Seals shares. “You can run a sliding sinker on a drop-snap swivel setup, too, or just slide a little piece of surgical tubing up the line to hold a pencil sinker in place.
There are lots of sinker options, I just like the slider as the bites are usually really subtle, much like a trout bite, and I don’t want the salmon feeling any resistance.
If you feel or see a light tapping, gently lift the rod and if there’s any resistance at all, set the hook. If the nibbles are real erratic, it’s likely a sculpin, so don’t jerk hard or you’ll lose your eggs.”
The hover fishing setup is simple and lightweight, but you have to pay close attention when fishing it, Seals confirms. “You want that line going straight down from
the rod tip, not being carried out at an angle. If the line starts to move faster than the boat, add more weight. Once a bait starts traveling, we rarely get bites as the bait is carried too high off the bottom.”
In hover fishing, the boat acts as the bobber, and keeping the line going straight down is important. That’s what sets this approach apart from bobber fishing, because in bobber fishing you can’t adjust for depth as the gear moves through a hole. In hover fishing, depth is quickly regulated with the push of a button or flip of the bail, something that might be done many times as you move through a single hole. Constantly monitor the depth and keep that terminal within 20-inches of the bottom and you’ll encounter more fish.
When does hover fishing small coastal streams stop? “Once that first heavy rain comes, the fish all push upstream, and just like that, hover fishing in these small rivers is over,” Seals summarizes. “I’ve talked to biologists who’ve found chinook stacking up in larger numbers, in many holes, but once the big rain hits, they suddenly clear out. And once the river is high from rain, fish keep moving through and never stop, they’ don’t have to because there’s so much water. That’s when I go back to trolling.”
A little bit of rain helps encourage more fish to move in during September and October, but too much rain quickly brings an end to it all. Many years Seals has caught salmon all the way through the last week in October, until that first torrential downpour hits.
Don’t let visibility discourage you, no matter when you’re fishing. Sometimes big tidal swings turn the water chocolate brown, but the fish will still bite,
Caption: Hover fishing allowed these four anglers and guide, Randy Seals (taking the photo) to tie into limits of fall chinook. The success of hover fishing comes down to paying attention to multiple details. (photo, Randy Seals)
Seals adds. He also confides that optimal water temperatures for hover fishing these coastal streams is around 58º and less. “It’s tough getting bites when the water is 60º, but once it hits 58º you’ll get more hits, and as it continues to cool, you’ll get even better action,” Seals points out.
With the cooling temperatures of fall comes the opportunity to apply one of the most effective, underutilized approaches to catching salmon in tidal zones of coastal rivers. Last season, of the coastal streams we hover fished, I saw fewer than five other boats using this technique, while dozens and dozens of boats trolled and casted hardware.
There’s a reason Randy Seals devotes so much time to hover fishing this time of year, and why he’s always booked up. “People love catching salmon,” Seals concludes. “But what I really like hearing are the reports when they go back to their home rivers up and down the Pacific Cast and use the same technique with success. To me, that’s what fishing is all about.”
- Written by Scott Haugen
All Photos by Scott Haugen, unless otherwise specified.