Hover Fishing 101

Hover Fishing 101

By Mike Carey

Each year the Northwest Fishing Reports Crew gathers at Maryhill, Washington, on the Columbia River as part of Ed Iman’s Fish Camp. Fish Camp is an annual event put on by Ed that brings together outdoor gear manufacturers, media, and guides. We have an opportunity to go fish with product reps to try out the latest new innovations that will be coming to stores and online to sport anglers. It’s a fun event and one we look forward to immensely.

The weather for the week could not have been nicer. We had sunny days in the 70-80s and cool, crisp nights that made for good sleeping. The winds were very manageable this year. Years past we’ve had some real Columbia River gorge windstorms so we were grateful for the calm winds.

Each day Aaron Borg, Rob Holman, and I would set forth to fish prime terminal fisheries where major rivers flow into the Columbia River. These terminal fisheries are locations where returning Chinook salmon stage at the mouths of the rivers prior to departing the Columbia and heading to their final destination to spawn. In our case, we fished the mouths of the Deschuetes and the Klickitat Rivers.

We were targeting the Chinook salmon using the hover fishing technique. Hover fishing is a method of slowly drifting with the river while the boat operator keeps the boat drifting in such a way that the anglers bait is suspended straight down under the boat. The angler then waits for the (usually) subtle tap tap or pulls of the line as a king salmon mouths the bait. On rare occasions the king will have a violent “suicide” bite, but usually it’s a very subtle bite and requires constant attention on the part of the angler. It’s a simple technique to teach, but exceedingly challenging to get good at. As with many things in fishing, some angles are more skilled than others. That said many can catch beautiful Chinook salmon that range from 10 to 40 pounds and up using this method. As for the boat operator, his lot is not only focusing on his rod tip for that subtle bite, but also avoiding the dozens and dozens of other boats that are all squeezed into a tight area as they all try to stay on top of the fish. Guides that I’ve talked to all agree it’s challenging and stressful. Imagine fifty to a hundred boats of all sizes and types with operators of various skill levels from expert to amateur drifting five to ten feet apart on the mighty Columbia River. Now throw in a “Fish On” and thirty pound salmon peeling line off fully tightened drags. In short, it’s the most amazing fishery you’ll ever have the good fortune to participate in.

The terminal gear each angler uses varies based on personal preference, but there are some similarities. Guides I’ve fished with tend to run with rods in the eight to nine foot range, fast tips and good backbone. We used new Cousins IM8 9 foot spinning rods and were very impressed with the feel and strength of the rod. When that Chinook taps you need to A) feel the bite and B) be ready to give a solid hookset. Rods that are too heavy or have slow action tips will be a disadvantage. You need to feel that light bite and be ready to rear back and set the hook! For reels most use a level wind, spooled with at least 30 pound and better yet 50 pound braid. You need to be able to have some control over your fish because there will be a lot of lines in the water in very close proximity to that wild running salmon. You’ll also want a fast retrieve; say 5.5 to 6-1 gear ratios.

The working end of your set up consists of a sliding cannonball weight at 2-3 oz, depending on how hard the wind is pushing the fleet downriver. Next a barrel swivel, then around 36 to 48 inches of leader, 25 to 30 pound test. This isn’t clear water finesse fishing! It’s all about controlling that fish. Next, and most important, is the hook. Our guides uniformly used 2/0 and 3/0 hooks, which (check your regs) are generally barbless. We got to try out some great barbless hooks from Angler Innovations, Maruto barbless grabber hooks.

These hooks are made as barbless, but have a unique sickled inner ridge that, while barbless, provides for additional holding power. And yes, the hooks are approved by Washington and Oregon as barbless. Your leader will need an egg loop tied in.

So that’s the gear, but you can have great gear and not catch fish. These Chinook can be picky so it’s important to have well cured eggs. We used ProCure eggs and bite enhancer powder and fresh shrimp. As to the size of the egg cluster, we went a bit bigger, not a finesse glob. Go bigger than a quarter, maybe more like a dollar coin. Put the egg cluster on first, then a half a shrimp, and secure with the egg loop. I was putting the new Hevi Beads super soft bead, which come in various scents, ahead of the hook. These beads are a new Hevi Bad product just out this year. Super simple to run through the hook to the line and they stay on all day. It never hurts to add a bit of attractant to your terminal gear!

Lower your offering to the bottom and when you feel the canon ball touch bottom crank up two to three reel revolutions. If you don’t do this you’ll be catching sturgeon all day. Fun, but not what you’re out there for! Be sure to frequently “check in” with the bottom as there are some underwater shelves and depth changes you’ll be going over. A good boat operator will alert anglers on the boat to changes in depth and when to recheck bottom.

OK, we’re drifting along; our boat operator is doing a great job keeping our lines straight down. So what does it feel like to have a 15-40 pound king hit your bait? In word, not much, and that’s what can make hover fishing so challenging and maddening. Oh, on rare occasion you’ll get a fish that gives you a suicide bite, burying your rod tip in the water. But most of the time, you’ll feel a subtle tap tap, or maybe a bit of drag or pressure on your rod. When you do, don’t hesitate, set that hook! The fish are mouthing your offering, not swallowing it.

Concentration is essential in this fishing technique. Watching that rod tip should be your sole focus. Of course, it’s hard sometimes when all around you anglers are hooking up with beautiful king salmon. But stay on your game and be ready. Because when that subtle bite comes you don’t want to miss it!

As in most salmon fishing, there’s generally a nice morning bite. But you’ll also see waves of “biters” periodically come through the fleet all morning and into the afternoon. So keep hope alive because that big fish may be biting your bait next.

Finally, once you catch your first hover fish, please, don’t drag it around in the water for the next four hours. Get that fish bled and on ice. These Chinook are delicious but proper care is essential. The Columbia River is warm and the sun beats down on the water all day. These fish can be hard to catch so treat them right and you’ll be rewarded with amazing tasting fish. Bleed and ice, and repeat, hopefully until your boat limits out.


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