Boating fussy chinooks with cut bait

by Lonnie King | June 1, 2012

cut bait - Man holding fresh bait
From the perspective of most pleasure boaters, conditions couldn’t have been more ideal: calm seas, a cloudless sky, and not another boat in sight. With the Toronto shoreline seeming distant, overlooking that we were so close to a bustling metropolis was easy. In spite of the comfort and serenity, our rods had remained quiet for the better part of the morning, except for a few small shakers taken on spoons just as the sun rose.

Even when no fish were biting, our guide, Greg Amiel of Fishing4Tails Charters continually kept busy ending to lines, adjusting the sonar, and monitoring the radio. Other anglers were also reporting slow catches, so rather than run to a new spot, Amiel opted to stick it out and tinker with our spread of lures, in hopes of finding a combination that would trigger a few big chinooks into eating.

Catch your own

If you’re on the water a lot, buying bait can become expensive. An alternative is to catch your own.While out with Greg Amiel last summer, we used sabiki rigs to catch live ones. This rig is popular in saltwater for catching bait, but it works in freshwater, as well. On each hook of the sabiki rig is a tiny tied fly or flap of plastic, which is durable and doesn’t need baiting.

The best sabiki flies are made from a tiny piece of fish skin. Search for schools of alewife by using your sonar and/or watching for flocks of birds feeding on them. Once over top of fish, simply lower the sabiki rig into the school and lightly jig the rig until fish start loading on.

The rig is best fished directly below the boat. Use a 3- to 4-ounce sinker to get it down, depending on the depth and roughness of the water. Don’t reel up immediately when you feel a fish on. You can usually wait until all hooks are loaded.

Most sabiki rigs come with 6 to 10 hooks, so you will have to cut off some to accommodate general Ontario regulations, which only allow 4 hooks per line. Alewife are not listed as a legal live baitfish in Ontario, so you’re not permitted to transport or fish with them while they’re alive. Kill or cure them first to ensure you stay on the right side of the law.

You can preserve alewives by quickly curing them with pickling salt and putting them on ice. Don’t put any more than six per package, so you won’t have to thaw more than you need to use at any one time.

As the afternoon dragged on, our attentive guide pointed to a disturbance in the distance. A group of cormorants had located baitfish, which were drawing in other birds from all directions. As we approached, gulls joined the fray. While incapable of diving down to catch the baitfish themselves, the gulls cleverly waited up top to snatch food from the cormorants as they returned to the surface to swallow their prey – a National Geographic moment if ever there was one.

As we neared the chaos, we began marking baitfish on the sonar. Almost immediately, we also saw a number of salmon on the display streak up to look at our cannonballs, yet were reluctant to strike.

Even though the fish had refused to hit the downrigger rods, Amiel instructed us to stand ready, given that our long lines, rigged with flashers and cut bait, would soon be entering the productive zone. The words had barely rolled from his tongue when one of the rods slammed down hard and the reel’s drag started screaming.

The hours of anticipation had only heightened the thrill of locking up with a silver summer salmon. The speed and power of the fish were remarkable, emphasizing some perspectives Amiel had shared earlier about the importance of every aspect of the presentation being faultless. There’s no room for worn line, chipped guides, or substandard terminal components when chinook fishing. True to his teachings, Amiel’s gear held strong, and after a considerable amount of elbow grease on my part, we eventually found ourselves admiring a chinook in the respectable mid-20-pound class, a summer average.

A few more 20-plus-pounders followed in short succession on the cut baits, before all turned quiet again. The flurry was over as quickly as it began and, if not for the contribution of the cut-bait lines, we might have been convinced the fish were simply not biting.

But, they’re there
The advent of affordable underwater fishing cameras was the start of a revolution on the Great Lakes. For many, it offered irrefutable proof of what experienced anglers had long suspected. Far more fish come in and look at your lure than you actually catch.

For Amiel, cut-bait rigs became a mainstay for turning these lookers into solid hook-ups for his clients, especially in summer. “Don’t really need to use them in spring,” he noted. “The fish are generally less picky then. But, in summer, if you’re not running some cut bait in the spread, then you’re simply not catching as many salmon as you could be.”

The options
Fishing cut bait makes a lot of sense for catching wary fish. After all, what could be more enticing to a finicky fish than a real baitfish?

Traditional Pacific West Coast anglers used a tandem-hook rig, relying on hook placement and the cut of the bait to impart just the right action when trolled. More modern cut-bait artisans tend to use small plastic heads that firmly hold the bait and help it roll at just the right cadence. Some require the use of a toothpick to hold the bait in place, while others snap on and firmly grip it.

Herring are one of the most popular for cut baits, but anchovies, sardines, alewives, and big sea smelts can all be effective.

Many of these options can be purchased whole from a local fish market, although most anglers, especially along the Great Lakes, use prepackaged cured strips where available.

Supply and demand
Tom Davis of the Rhys Davies company was one of the first to introduce cut-bait tactics to the Great Lakes. His company grew rapidly as the technique caught on, but more recent restrictions on the importation of baitfish from the West Coast caused trouble with supply. Herring strips currently offered in Ontario stores are from the East Coast. Two of the most popular are from Fish On and Erie Dearie.

Accessing a steady supply of quality bait is an important consideration for serious salmon anglers wanting to apply this presentation. Natural baits are also perishable, so carefully manage your supply. Allowing baits to spoil or become too soft can become expensive.

Amiel freezes baits in small individual packages, which he carries in a cooler with ice. This allows him to only thaw baits he’s planning to use immediately, while preserving the rest. While out with Amiel, he also demonstrated how to catch alewives yourself.

Artificial solutions
A number of soft-plastic options have been developed recently, as well. Baitrix offers lifelike soft-plastic baitfish imitations. Trigger-X has also has a cut bait and realistic-looking teaser heads. The K.O. Herring by Set the Hook lures is also popular with Great Lakes anglers, as it has a metal fin embedded in it that can be bent to provide even more refinement of the bait’s roll.

One advantage of soft plastics, of course, is they last longer and there are more options for playing with colours. Bait heads come in various colours and sizes and should be matched to the size of the strip you’re fishing. The head is either angled or sports fins that cause the bait to roll when trolled.

Hook placement and leader length also effect the roll, so a bit of practice and experimentation is required to get it just right. Ideally, strive for about one or two rolls per second. Most products come with detailed instructions on the packaging.

Thirty-pound-test monofilament line is standard for most cut-bait rigs, although Amiel reties them with 40-pound fluorocarbon and incorporates a heavier-gauge hook. While you can run rigs with single hooks, the majority of anglers, and especially those who fish tournaments and derbies, prefer trebles.

Adding action
To add even more action to the seductive roll of a properly prepared cut-bait rig, most Lake Ontario salmon anglers fish them behind a dodger or flasher. Amiel pointed out, however, that they also work great all by themselves, especially if you run them on a short lead behind a flashy downrigger ball.

The Wigglefin Action disc is another neat action-adding option, which slips on your line in front of the bait, offering yet again more room for experimentation.

Seasoned salmon anglers don’t put all their eggs in one basket, so while you’re not likely to run all your lines with cut baits, it pays to have a few in your spread. For summer kings, in particular, using cut bait will produce bites when nothing else will.

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  1. Joseph mama wrote: The real deal Amiel!