Mooching for Salmon



The description of mooching is just the act of using herring and a sinker and drifting from a boat with the tide, or fishing off a dock for salmon.  There are two explanations of how this name came about


(1) In  the early days, (about 1900), when the first railroads were built to Seattle.  Many of the laborers were Chinese and Japanese immigrants who fished off the docks using herring they had caught themselves.   When the locals saw how successful these fishermen were they would come along and ask if they could get some herring from them.  These Chinese and Japanese referred to them as “moochers” and so became the local name for those who fished in that manner with herring.


As time went by, things progressed and entrepreneurs  emerged providing bait.  The boats of that day were simple small rental rowboats with very few private boats available. 


(2) Shortly after that, we find another explanation, however closely associated with the one above.   The word is that when this method started, the Japanese fishermen in the area did so well using it that when they came back to the dock with their fish, the plug fishermen would "mooch" the rest of their bait from them, so they could go out and mooch themselves.  These Japanese got to calling these other fishermen "moochers" and the name somehow got associated to the method they were using.  

From the best sources we find that mooching got into full swing in the late 1920's or early 1930's in Seattle's Elliott Bay because of the competition between all the boathouses.   Mooching was developed mostly by the Japanese, but the boathouses picked up on the need for bait, and pushed mooching as a popular way to fish to increase revenues thru the sale of bait, rather than relying completely on boat rentals, as in those early days trolling plugs were the method commonly used to fish for salmon. 


A mooching derby was started by Japanese-Americans before World War II and is an annual winter mooching tournament interrupted only by WWII when many members were interred.  It originated at the old Harbor Island Boathouse in West Seattle, and has been ongoing since 1946.   It is known as the Tengu Blackmouth Derby in Elliott Bay, the longest-running derby in Puget Sound and is still carried on even today.   This derby was named after Tengu, a fabled Japanese character known for not telling the truth.  Like the American classic Pinocchio, Tengu’s nose grew with every lie he told.


Only Blackmouth (resident Chinook) are eligible, fishing is limited to the bay where legal-size Chinook (22 inches or longer) are sometimes scarce and only mooching (drift-fishing using only a banana-lead weight tied to a leader with a herring) is allowed.   Derby rules are all fish must be caught with the boundary line of Alki Point to Fourmile Rock, and no artificial lures, flashers, hoochies (plastic squids) or downriggers are allowed.

The Tengu Derby is held every Sunday, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. from October 25th to December 27th at the Seacrest Boathouse in West Seattle.  The fee is $15 for adults and $5 for kids 12 and under.   Boat rentals are also available.  Tickets can be purchased at the Seacrest Boathouse, Linc’s Tackle Shop, Auburn Sports and Marine, Sportco and Outdoor Emporium.

First Involvement ; The first time my uncle and I (I was only 12 at the time) saw the results of it, was about 1948 in Sekiu.  We spent a morning trying to troll flashers using Cuttyhunk line and sliding snap sinkers in a windy-choppy water and we had to come back in early and empty handed because it was too rough even at the outer edge of the bay.   Back at the dock there were two Japanese fishermen with some nice Chinook.  When questioned how they caught them, the word was "mooching".   My uncle, an avid salmon fisherman from southwest Washington, had never heard that term used before then.   These Japanese were helpful in educating us and we soon learned how to go about it.   He moved to Westport shortly later and put the method to work catching salmon.   

I believe that he was partially responsible for the start of the great Westport charter boat fleet, where mooching was used exclusively.   He and my aunt started a mooching leader tying business and sold their product to most of the charters.    They tied leaders all winter and sold them during the summer months.

In the photo below, taken 1968, my son with his first Chinook, mooching off Westport, Washington.  We did not weight the fish, but a guestimate would be about 40#.   When he grabbed the rod and was being pulled toward the gunwale, I grabbed him by the belt and maintained that position for the whole fight.  In this photo, the fish is laying on, and attached to a 2"X4", with Jim just supporting the plank.  He still has a vivid memory of this today.

Here my son at the age of  9 with his first Chinook

The Gear ;
 This method normally consists of using 25# mono main line, a kidney sinker attached to the end of your mainline, and a leader usually 6' long with 2 hooks tied in tandem hooked into a herring for bait. 

The Rod ;  The original rods were steel or solid fiberglas in lengths from 5' to 7', now they are usually from 8' 6" or 9' medium  or heavy mooching rod.  You will however notice a few 10 to 11' rods being used.  Lately you will see graphite rods slightly lighter, especially if spectra type lines are being used.

The Reel ;  The reel is usually a spool type reel with a star drag.  In the last 30-40 years the level wind has become the dominate type.  Size is usually anything that is designed to hold about 200 yards of 25# mono. 


Some dedicated "moochers" will use a direct drive reel so that they can be in more direct control while letting the line/lure out by thumbing the spool, and this reel will usually be associated with the 10' or 11' rods, as these long rods act as shock absorber due to the inability of the reel to spool out on the drag without you letting go of the handle.   These outfits are commonly called "Canadian Mooching outfits".

The Penn 310 GTI was designed as a mooching reel with a feature built in it with a switch lever to disengage the anti-reverse.  This allows you to let line out and then just crank the handle to reel back in without moving the anti-reverse lever.   Many fishermen will use the Ambassadeur 5000/5500/6000/6500 steelhead reels.  With the advent of the line counter reels, many fisherpersons are getting spoiled.

The Line ;  Line can be either the mono or spectra type lines.  The old mono line does have some stretch so the bite may not be as dramatic and you could miss a light bite.  And you will need a angler applied hookset, no dramatic big swing, but at least a more than a flip the wrist.  Mono having the ability to stretch slightly, also creates a shock absorber between you and the fish if they decide to make a quick turn or run if you are using a slightly stiffer rod.


However with the advent of the spectra type, they have taken over and are now being used by more fishermen all the time. The good thing about this type of line is that you can feel the lightest tap and you don't have to "rip the lips" hookset, just sweep the rod tip to set the hook.  Using spectra lines you can use from 14 to 20# however I suggest going up to about 35 or 40# to keep the line diameter size up to help eliminate the smaller line cutting into the edge of the spool and getting under other wraps, creating a "Bird's Nest". 


So there are pluses and minuses for either type of line.

The Swivel ;  If the swivel does not work, your mainline will get twisted. The kidney sinkers will have  barrel swivel on the front and a bead chain swivel on the rear of the sinker to keep the line from twisting.   It has been found the best swivel is a ball bearing type and many use them on the lower end of your mainline.  There are different prices on these swivels, the cheaper ones being about $1 each while the Sampo brand running $5 a package of 2.  To make your own test, take one of each, the bead chain, cheap ball bearing, then the Sampo, and tie a looped line long enough to go from the top of each swivel, around your hand, back to the swivel.  Put a short leader, 6" to a 2 ounce cannonball weight and tie it to the bottom side of the swivel.  Now spin the weight and watch the reaction on the line you are holding onto above the swivel.  If  the swivel is working right, the line you are holding above the swivel should not get twisted.

The Sinker ;   Since the advent of barbless hooks being required for most all salmon fishing, the method has changed slightly.  Everything is the same except the sinker is different.  Place on the mainline above your terminal swivel to the leader, add a sinker slider, sometimes called a Slido, (the same that the sturgeon fishermen use)  on this you can snap a round cannonball sinker.  Or some will simply use a barrel swivel with one eye onto and sliding on the mainline with a snap attached to the loose eye.  The cannonball sinker will go deeper for the same weight than the kidney, as the kidney has a tendency to to "float" somewhat because of more surface exposure.  There is less resistance for the cannonball.  Metzler also makes a slider similar to a kidney that is removable, that attaches to their slider.  The reason for the slider, is that with the barbless hooks, this slider does not give the fish as much advantage to use the weight of the sinker to shake and be able to throw the hook.  With the kidney sinker tied solidly into the system, when a fish that jumps and shakes it's head, it can use the sinker to help pull the barbless hooks out if not hooked deeply.

One good thing when using the round cannonball sinker is that, if conditions change, you can quickly change sinker weight simply by snapping on a new different weight sinker.  If you have rigged the kidney sinker with snaps and a swivel into the leader, yes you can also change them out, but with the cannonball AND the slider it is a lot simpler.    Remember, you want to use the lightest sinker that will get the bait to the bottom.



Here is the kidney sinker unit shown on top, with the cannonball unit on the bottom


The Leader ;  The average length of pre-tied leaders are 6 foot with no swivel tied in as some fishermen prefer different lengths.  Some guides however recommend a leader of up to 10', however you need a LONG rod with these otherwise getting it close enough to the boat for a good netting job is a chore. 

The hooks can be either tied solidly into the leader with about 2" between them, or the top hook being tied as a slider.  In use, the solid tie is used mostly for cut-plugging herring, while the slider will be used with whole bait.  The slider can be adjusted after it is inserted into the herring to bend it and give it the desired action.  Sinkers will range in weight from 2 to 8 oz. depending on the depth fished and the current, with a 4oz. the most commonly used size when using mono.  The kidney sinkers are equipped with a swivel on both ends.  You want to tie the barrel swivel onto the mainline, leaving the bead swivel rearward to allow the leader to rotate but not twist your mainline.  Hook size for ocean fishing typically will be 3/0-4/0.  Leader strength will usually be 20# to 25#.  Hook size for Puget Sound fishing can be smaller as the baitfish and therefore the bait should be also smaller with a lighter leader in the 15# class.

The Bait ;  When buying bait herring, look at the eyes, they should not be bloodshot, but have a white dot or clear in the center.  This white dot indicates the bait was fast frozen and will usually be a better bait than the ones you find that have bloodshot eyes, which means the bait may have been dead for some time before it was frozen.  These bloodshot bait could be somewhat deteriorated before they were frozen.  During the peak part of the season, good herring will get hard to come by.  Buy what you will need ahead of time and keep it frozen yourself.  When you thaw your bait out, it is best to cut a hole in the vacuum bag otherwise the bait will have blood drawn out during the thawing process and the bait may become mushy.

To toughen the bait, some fishermen soak them in a mixture of 1 cup rock salt to 1 quart of water.  Also many will add 1/4 cup of powdered milk.  This has lactic acid in it that sets the scales.  Then you can add a coloring, the old formula is Mrs Stewarts Bluing that your mother used to use when doing the laundry.  Others just use blue food coloring.  This coloring adds a bit of a bluish sheen back to the dead herring.   I even add a FEW drops of anis oil. 


We have found a better bait cure.  It's name is MagicBrine, but seemingly only available online from a Florida marine bait shop.  This stuff is a white fine granular powder that can be sprinkled on the bait as a dry cure or in water as a brine and 4 hours does it.  The one thing I like when using this over the salt brine is that the bait does not shrivel up after a few days in it.  And this cured bait is tough enough to last a number of hours as a cut plug herring, if it does not get bit.

The most important thing is to ALSO keep them cool.  Add ice if you want, but compensate with more salt when the ice melts.  Put the brine in a refrigerator.  This brined chilled bait will last for 2 months or more.  You can add more herring as needed.  When using, take a small insulated lunch box / 1 quart large mouth thermos with the bait and keep it in a larger iced cooler until needed.

I have found that a insulated 10 quart "Victory" model Rubbermaid cooler works great.  In that for the actual bait container, I use a Rubbermaid plastic container, model 7M71 which has a removable, sealable lid.  This unit is 4 3/4" wide by 3" deep and 9 1/2" long.  It fits inside the cooler on top of a 1/2 gallon square plastic milk jug filled with frozen water.  This will hold one package of herring.  Makes a neat unit that I then place inside my 54 quart seat/cooler, so the double insulated coolers keep the bait cool for at least two days.

Hooking the Bait ;  Most fishermen in recent years will use cut plug herring for mooching.   The size of the bait should match pretty close to the size of the herring/anchovy in that area.  Depending on where you are fishing, this will then dictate what you buy.  If you are cut plugging, many will go for blue label size herring.  If however you are going to run whole herring, you need to drop down a size to green label.  Also note that the  blue label only have 8 to a package while the smaller greens have 10.  Same price however.

Using a herring cutting block to make a cut-plug bait

When hooking or cutting your cut plug bait, you want to leave all the scales possible on the bait.  To help facilitate this, put the bait into saltwater to thaw out, plus wet your hands, knife and cutting board.  Wetting everything will help keep the scales from sticking on you or the board and on the bait.  You want to present a bait that is as natural and attractive to the fish as possible.  When cutting a cut-plug, the angles should be near 45/45.  That is a 45 degree angle front to back and a 45 sideways.  To increase the spin change the front to back angle more straight up and down. For hooking cut-plugging herring the simplest and known as the West Port hook up is to just hook the front hook in thru the belly cavity then out the top at the backbone, leave the back hook dangle.  A modified version of this would be to run the back hook thru the belly cavity and out the short side, back about 1", then let it dangle.

One trick when using a cut plug, is to cut a slight "V" notch out of the rear of the lower body cavity.  This will allow the water to flow thru the bait but not create a problem with tearing the cut angle.  It can also allow air bubbles to escape thru this hole, creating an attracting feature also.

For using whole herring, the slider hook is best as it can be adjusted for the proper spin on the bait.  Run both hooks thru the bait, starting just below the lower jaw, coming out the top of the head between and rearward of the eyes.  This helps to hold the mouth shut.  Hook the rear hook into the herring on one side so that the hook is pointing forward, then comes out the side about the location as the anis, insert the slider front hook on the same side and with the eye of the hook laying behind the gill cover.  Hold onto the front hook and pull the leader enough to put a bend in the bait.  Put the bait in the water, pull it thru the water to see if you have gotten the proper spin in the bait.  It should have a spinning action.  The old saying was that Chinook liked a slow roll, while the Coho liked a fast roll, may have some validity, as many fish have been caught using this idea.


Shown in the photos below is a herring that was in a bonnet that the salmon hit.  I was watching the rod and there was the first dip, then a lighter second dip, but no hooked fish.  These photos are of the stripped herring, with the fish having to hit it sideways and it's mouth between the front and rear hook.


Fish are sometimes escape artists like Houdini

Scent ;
   Yes, I would recommend injecting scent into the bait, or smearing Smelly Jelly into the body cavity of a cut plug.

Waiting for a bite

The Technique ;
 Initially the method was just dropping your gear to the bottom, let the tide carry your boat and the bait along.  As time went on, the charter boys at Westport found that if everyone on the boat would drop down and then reel up, they created what the fish thought was a school of baitfish.  This also allowed for the salmon to be "searched out" in different water depths.  So the recommendation is to drop the gear to the bottom, reel it up a handle crank at a time, stopping between the cranks for 20 seconds or so.  You can also let your gear down in this same manner. 

You want your line to run out at about a 45 to 60 degree angle, as baitfish do not swim STRAIGHT UP.  To do this adjust your sinker weight.  If this does not give you the proper angle, then you may want to "Motor Mooch".  This is done by covering the water dead slow, and should not to be confused with slow trolling.   In use, run your kicker motor allowing the lines to raise in the water column, shift it in neutral, allowing the lines to sink, put in gear again, repeat the process, moving along with little movement, stopping, and move again but never actually stopping to allow the lines to hang vertically or to troll the bait.   Some fishermen may use drift socks to slow the movement depending on the wind or current.

Never fish against the tide.   But go with the tide or current, and when you get to where the bait is no longer, or the rip has disappeared, pull the gear in and run back to make another "drift".

This type of fishing means you DO NOT put your rod in the rod holder and forget it until it hopefully goes down.  You want to have control of the rod and reel at all times, and have the rod tip pointing at least horizontal or even downward near the water, so that you can set the hook with the least amount of effort, as soon as you feel a bump.

One thing if you are using the cut-plug setup with the back hook trailing, when you net the fish, do it GOOD the first time, as sometimes the rear hook may not be in the fish.  If you get a near miss with the net and happen to hook the loose hook in the net, you now have the line attached to the net with the fish is outside of the net, spooked and wanting away very badly.

Copyright © 2004 - 2016  LeeRoy Wisner  All Rights Reserved

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Originated 02-09-2002 Last updated 07-24-2016
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