By Jason Brooks
Slowly trolling along on a flat calm sea it was one of those rare perfect days with no breeze or clouds. It was almost too nice out and the fish apparently agreed as the fishing was slow. Looking to the west I saw what I thought were raindrops hitting the water but there wasn’t a raincloud in sight. Then the tiny flash showed it was a school of baitfish being forced up to the surface. Knowing that predators such as Chinook will attack the schools of bait from below and causes them to form a tight ball which is then pinned against the surface as they run out of water. This makes for an easy meal and also means feeding salmon which are much easier to catch as the “bite is on.”
Turning the boat and making several passes through the marked bait ball we came up empty. The sonar screen showed large arches making their way up from the bottom and gorging on the prey. Our cut plug herring didn’t draw a single strike and then it dawned on us, the bait fish were anchovies! Quickly switching out our leaders to some pre-tied anchovy hood’s the new baits were in the water and soon the first rod went off followed by the second rod on the opposite side of the boat. The rest of the day went on like this, working anchovy baits and catching fish, usually a double once we found another bait ball.
Most anglers that fish the salt water and even the brackish waters of our larger rivers know how to properly cut plug herring but few use anchovies. This might be because the smaller baitfish can’t easily be cut plug and thrown onto a mooching rig and tossed into the water. It is much easier to learn to cut plug or even whole rig a herring than it is to use anchovies. But the anchovy is a great salmon bait, full of oil, and the way they are rigged makes them an irrestible bait.
It is the rigging part that probably keeps these baits from being as popular as the herring. Since anchovies are thinner and usually smaller the baits can’t be sliced with a bait knife and pierced with hooks and thrown overboard quickly. Instead the use of a “hood” is used. Several different variations are on the market and it takes some experimenting with them to figure out which ones you like best. The most common is a hood that you push the head of the anchovy into and secure with a toothpick or plastic pin. Some allow for a small metal wire to be attached and this will allow you to skewer the anchovy and then bend it to get the right “roll”. There are also hoods that open like a clamshell or hinged lure and uses a small rubber band to secure it. These hoods also use a bobber stop to keep them in place or to adjust the hooks and have small fins on them to make the herring rotate or wobble.
When it comes to fishing baits such as herring or anchovies there are usually two presentations and each one provides a basis for an argument on which is best. Those that plug cut herring often say that a “slow roll” is for Chinook and a “tight spin” is for Coho. Same is true for anchovies except that really what we are mimicking is either a wounded baitfish-which is the slow roll- or a lone swimming and erratic baitfish-which is the tight roll-to entice the bite. While fishing one day with a friend who is a master at using anchovies he showed me a bait that wasn’t spinning at all. Instead this anchovy was fluttering back and forth subtly and looked like it was swimming. His theory was that if a salmon sees two baitfish, one of which is acting weird or sick and the other is quickly trying to flee that the salmon being a predator will instinctively go for the fleeing fish. After all, when we go to the grocery store do we look for the fresh cut steak or the “managers special”. Regardless of which way you like to fish you can do either with the anchovy.
For rigging the “slow roll” it is best to use the hood that allows the addition of the metal wire. Simply attach the wire into the small hole on the side of the hood and pinch it so it won’t come off. Skewer the anchovy behind the gill plate so it can be slid up the wire and the head fits into the hood. The leader will be running through the hood and the hooks should be tied a few inches apart. Secure the head by pushing a tooth pick or the supplied plastic pin through the hood and the head of the anchovy. You can put some pressure on the fish to bend the wire and make the shape you need to achieve the slow roll or you can bend the wire before you insert it into the anchovy. Some anglers let the hooks dangle while I prefer to put the hooks into the anchovy, one on each side to points are sticking out in opposite directions. This allows for the salmon that is attacking the bait from the side to get at least one of the hooks.
To rig the fast roll try and find the clamshell hoods that have the wings for this purpose. You can also use the regular hoods and buy them accordingly as most will say what kind of action it is designed to produce. Those with the wire can be used as well and just bend the wire until the desired action occurs. Rigging them is simple. Put the head into the hood and use the provided pin or a toothpick and stick it through the anchovy, securing it in the hood. Insert another toothpick into the tensioning hole that has the leader running through it. Put the top hook into the side of the anchovy and pull tight to form a slight bend. You can either leave the trailing hook to hang back or run it into the other side to have a hook point sticking out the other side of the anchovy.
For the clamshell hoods you will need some small beads, a small section of plastic tubing and a bobber stop, preferably the dacron slip knot style. The tip of the hood will have a hole in it for your leader. Slide a small bead, then the plastic tubing, another bead, the bobber stop knot and the hood onto the leader in that order. Adjust it so the head of the anchovy fits into the hood and the hooks are back far enough that you can put them into the sides of the bait. The beads and tubing help keep the leader from tearing into the fish as you tighten it by pulling down to give the fish a slight bend or to just keep it taunt and fish the bait strait. A small rubber band goes around the hood to secure it and keep it closed around the anchovies head.
Regardless of which head you use or how you rig the anchovy there are a few things that are standard for all rigging options. The first is to use a heavier leader material such as thirty-pound monofilament. This helps with the action as well as the plastic hoods can damage the leader and a strong fish can break off. About two feet above the hood be sure to use a chain bead swivel and then another one at the top end of the leader. Using two chain bead swivels helps with proper presentation and keeps the leader from becoming twisted which will weaken it.
Some anglers like to fish nothing but the anchovy since you are fishing for actively feeding salmon. Others prefer to use them behind a dodger or flasher. When fishing anchovies due to their slim body they fill well behind smaller dodgers and “in-line” flashers. The dodger doesn’t need to impart action onto the bait since the hood does that already. Instead they are used for an attractor. The flash that is given off often resembles other feeding salmon or just gives off light and causes salmon to come over to investigate. Last summer while fishing in Nootka we began using the 9-inch Sling Blade dodger from Mack’s lure with our anchovies. The one that produced the most was the color “moon jelly” followed by green. This dodger is sleek compared to most other dodgers and by using a 48-inch leader the dodger was able to “sling” back and forth providing plenty of flash and erratic movement but not interfere with the anchovy.
The baitfish itself needs some attention. They are very oily and since they are smaller than herring it is best to brine them to toughen them up a bit. A bed of rock salt is an excellent and simple way to toughen the soft baitfish. A water-based brine also works well and you can brighten your baits using this method. Sea water mixed with some sulfites and salt along with a bluing agent to keep them bright is all you need. We would have a small container with our brine pre-mixed and add anchovies as needed allowing them to thaw in the brine. Since the hood protects the bait you rarely have to switch them out until bit. Unlike cut plug herring that often tear or fall apart after trolling for a while the anchovy stays together. This allows you to fish them longer and when you pick up your gear and head to another spot you can keep the same bait on. But since it takes more detailed rigging it is best to have three or four pre-rigged and ready to fish. Keep them in your brine along with the other baits and when you find that bait ball and the bite is on you can simply snap on the new pre-rigged anchovy to your mainline or dodger and get back to fishing.
Plug cut herring is a great bait and there is an art to it that takes some time. Same with the anchovy hood. Once you find that bait ball and realize it is not herring the Chinook or Coho are after but instead the slender anchovy you will be glad you revived the anchovy hood.
Jason Brooks hails from North-Central Washington. The son of a fishing guide, Jason is an avid hunter, angler, outdoor photographer and published writer. He resides in Puyallup with his wife and two boys.