Originally published in Fish Alaska Magazine May 2009 issue. Updated Summer 2010.
Frede Stier’s bobber and bait landed softly in the glassy pool, where the bright pink float stood out in the early morning sunshine. The bobber and bait drifted leisurely in the slow current, then picked up speed approaching the shallower and swifter tailout water. As her bobber continued to drift, the line started to belly in the current, so Frede lifted her rod tip high and mended the line to maintain a more natural presentation. The bobber bounced a couple times, as the bait below drug along the bottom, or perhaps a fish had gained interest and started mouthing the bait. Frede watched and waited until the bobber dunked completely below the surface of the iron-colored river, then she dropped her rod tip, reeled up the slack line, and struck, whipping the rod back with both hands, and driving the hook solidly into a salmon’s bony jaw.
The salmon wallowed, thrashed, and exploded across the surface of the once peaceful tailout riffle, then took off downstream on a line robbing sprint. Frede’s reel screeched in protest as the fish ripped more and more line, and Frede wobbled after the frantic fish, leaning first one way and then the other as she fought to maintain her balance traversing the large slippery cobble near the bank. “Do we need to follow it with the boat?” she hollered while lurching past.
“I don’t think we’ll need the boat,” I replied as I caught up, then suggested she tighten her drag slightly, and keep her rod tip low, as an alternative strategy to chasing the salmon. Sure enough, Frede’s heavy salmon stopped for a breather and she was able to turn it’s head back upstream. From there, with a slow, steady pump and reel strategy, she battled the fish back upstream into the slower water. The heavy salmon continued to thrash and tussle, and even turned down river a few more times, but eventually the salmon tired, as Frede applied constant pressure guiding it toward the bank.
Deshka River can be extremely shallow, and in this spot where the fish had drug us downstream from the deeper hole, the shallow water extended out from the bank for such a distance that it was difficult to land the fish. Frede gently lifted the salmon’s head with her rod tip, and simply keep the salmon’s head directed toward the bank. In this position, when the fish pushed forward with his tail, it powered itself onto the shallow water covered rocks, then tipped over, lying on it’s side. I pounced, reaching down to grab the salmon by the base of the tail, then dragging the rose-tinted bemouth out of the water and onto dry land. Frede was right beside me, wearing an ear to ear grin, as she inspected the bulky buck, whose weighed topped 30 pounds, and ranked as her largest Deshka River king salmon to date. For Frede and me it doesn’t get much better than this, but the Deshka River king salmon fishery produces several thousand similar moments for South central Alaska king salmon anglers on an almost yearly basis.
Deshka River Characteristics
According to Dave Rutz, Area Management Biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the entire Deshka River drainage including the Moose Creek and Kroto Creek forks measures only about 70 miles in length. The lower 17 miles of this slow moving river, which drains flatlands on the West side of the glacial Susitna River system, are open to king salmon fishing. With recent documented king salmon spawning escapements ranging from 7,500 to over 58,900 of the big salmon per year, the Deshka ranks as the most productive clear water king salmon tributary in the massive Susitna drainage. In addition to the large number of king salmon it produces, Deshka River kicks out some of the earliest king salmon available in the entire Mat-Su Borough as well. The first few king salmon are consistently caught near the river month around May 15 (when the lower 17 miles open to bait) and chrome king salmon will continue to be caught through July 13, the last day of the king salmon fishing season. While the river often swells with spring run off in mid to late May, the iron-tinted water is usually clear enough to catch fish throughout the entire period king salmon are available. In fact, rather than get out of shape with rain, a few days of showers often cools the Deshka’s slow moving water and causes the bite to pick up on this river. Conversely, with almost continuous daylight from mid June into early July, in sunny weather river temperatures can top 70 degrees, and even though salmon continue to jump and break water in holes up and down the river, the bite often falls off significantly in the heat of mid-day. Under such conditions nearly all of the actions occurs in early morning, or after 6 p.m. in the evening. Standard king salmon regulations allow fishing from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. on a daily basis, and there is plenty of daylight to fish all the open hours without any need for a flashlight. An added bonus to fishing the magical hours closest to dusk and dawn is that wildlife along the river is often more active and visible at this time as well.
Mouth Fishery Versus Upriver
The lower two miles of the Deshka River can be classified as mostly slow and deep, and many anglers choose to only fish this section of the river. Often times the Deshka is so slow in this lower section that it can seem more like fishing a lake than fishing flowing water. Still fishing bait on the bottom, casting Vibrax Spinners or magnum Wiggle Warts, and trolling Vibrax or Kwikfish are the most common techniques used by anglers fishing near the mouth. There is a Matanuska – Susitna Borough campground near the mouth, along with several private cabins, and a couple lodges, so both boaters and float plane anglers can readily access the mouth area, and during the early and middle part of the season there is usually a crowd of people and boats fishing here. When fishing is hot near the mouth, this area kicks out incredible numbers of salmon. In addition, while upriver Deshka king salmon usually average about 18 – 20 pounds, every year kings in the 50 pound class, likely headed to tributaries further up the Susitna River are caught near the Deshka’s confluence with the Susitna River. In 2005 a 66.8 pound salmon, the largest king salmon ever entered in the Mat-Su King Salmon Derby was hauled in here.
Starting two or three miles upstream, the river shallows out into riffles with deeper holes situated on the outside of bends. Several boats may still share some of the more popular holes, but the salmon holding areas are smaller, and most propeller powered boaters remain near the mouth rather than beat up their valuable gear, or drag their boats through the shallows. This is the place to fish for those who enjoy fishing flowing water, but even so, many of the deeper holes hardly have enough current to bounce a bait downstream along the bottom, or if anglers try to fish some of the areas with larger cobble, sinkers constantly get caught up amongst the rocks covering the bottom.
Drifting Bait Under Bobbers
Anglers using a bobber or float can suspend their bait slightly above the bottom and achieve a nearly effortless, and for the most part snag less, natural drift. At the same time bobbers can make strike detection easier for people who may have difficulty determining the subtle difference between their bait and sinker bouncing along the bottom, and a king salmon gently mouthing the bait a few moments before spitting it out to continue drifting down the river. The simple rule to follow when drifting salmon roe under a bobber is: if the bobber goes down, set the hook. Drifting bait under a bobber is a simple effective technique, that can be successfully utilized when fishing with a wide variety of rods, reels, and different types of bobbers or floats. A combination of specific tackle and fishing methods may, however, yield significantly larger catches of Deshka River king salmon.
The highest priority item on my list to improve bobber fishing success is using one of the super braid lines. I’ve fished several different brands and my personal favorite is Sufix Performance Braid, as it holds knots well, handles better, and is more quiet when fishing than other super braids I’ve fished. I prefer to fish with 30 lb. or 40 lb. super braid, and then set the drag on my reel as if I was fishing with about 14 – 17 lb. monofilament. Three advantages gained by fishing with super braid are 1. super braid floats, making it considerably easier to mend when drifting bobbers, 2. super braid has very little stretch, resulting in more solid hooksets when you attempt to drive that hook home, and 3. super braid has a smaller diameter for the strength of the line, allowing long effortless casts.
All bobbers are not created equal. After experimenting with several different bobbers with varying degrees of success, I slipped upon one that works well and also stands up to the abuse of catching large powerful salmon. I’m currently fishing ESBs (Everlasting Slip Bobbers) in sizes 4, 5, and 6. ESBs cost more than similar looking slip bobbers, but I might fish one ESB for an entire season of salmon charters, without having it cut by super braid, or destroyed by a belly bumping sumo salmon. El cheapo bobbers I’ve fished have failed to survived a single salmon trip.
Bait and Scent
The importance of quality bait can not be over emphasized. With the prevalence of clear water conditions and slow current speeds at nearly all times during the Deshka River king salmon season, the fish almost always have considerable opportunity to inspect, smell, and taste the bait, before engulfing it, and pulling the bobber under. Consequently for best success, king salmon anglers should strive for an eye catching bait, that appeals to a salmon’s strong sense of smell, and tastes like salmon candy. I prefer homecured salmon roe with Pautzke’s red Fire Cure adding the color and krill scent I’ve found to be very effective on Deshka River king salmon. When the bite is slow, sprinkling cured roe with Fire Power powdered krill or soaking roe in Pautzke’s Nectar sometimes triggers reluctant salmon into bobber dunking action.
When drifting a bobber and bait in a slow current an angler almost always has to jerk some amount of slack out of the line before the hook will start to bite, therefore, a sharp hook that will penetrate easily is highly desired. Most of the standard Octopus style salmon hooks work well, but over the past couple years I’ve experienced excellent success using Gamakatsu’s Wide Gap Finesse hook style #230314. The barb is small, and hook wire is finer, so this hook penetrates very well. The 4/0 size will hook and hold kings well, but is also small enough to hook some of the bait stealing trout, grayling, and silver salmon that are encountered on Deshka River king salmon trips. I would make one note of caution here, while there is lots of room to play king salmon upstream on the Deshka River, anglers who prefer to horse kings in, or people fishing the more crowded river mouth area, may likely be better served using a 5/0 or 6/0 hook. Pulling too hard on a smaller 3/0 or 4/0 hook may tear it loose from a hard fighting king salmon or sometimes even straighten the hook.
Deshka River King Gear
Reels and Rods
Much has been written about salmon fishing rods and reels so I’ll keep this section brief. King salmon are the largest and in my opinion hardest fighting Pacific salmon species, so choose a reel with a smooth drag that will hold up to 200 yards of the line you decide to use. Quality casting and spinning reels will both work well. When casting and drifting bait under bobbers I use spinning reels almost exclusively on my salmon charters, simply because many of my less experienced guests find them easier to cast without tangling than casting reels.
For several years I’ve been providing one piece 7 foot rods, rated up to 17 or 20 pound line, when guiding trips with bobbers and bait. The main advantages to these rods is they are light in weight and short enough to make fishing easy, while at the same time being stiff enough to provide considerable hook setting power. Over several years time, my guests have caught thousands of salmon using 7 foot rods, however, many bobber fishermen prefer longer rods for drifting bobbers in current, as they make it easier to mend line, and allow an angler a longer hook setting sweep. For those two reasons, and to give guests an opportunity to experience bobber fishing with longer rods, I also provide a few longer rods. One of these rods, made specifically for bobber fishing, measures over 12 foot in length. While bobber rods do not need to be particularly sensitive, since the bobber signals the bites, a rod that is physically light in weight is highly advantageous, and especially when fishing one of the longer rods over several hours time.
Bobbering Salmon in Current — Techniques that Increase Success
When drifting bobbers under bait, make your objective to cover as much prime holding water as possible, with a natural drift, while at the same time directing the bait so it passes in front of as many salmon as possible. Let’s take a close look at the tackle and then examine one specific drift to see how this is accomplished. In order to present the bait in as natural manner as possible, and to facilitate detecting light strikes, use only enough weight as necessary to sink the bait to the desired depth, while simultaneously fishing a bobber just large enough to float the combined weight of the sinker and baited hook. Bobber, sinker, and bait sizes can be adjusted through trial and error, but as a general starting point try a #5 ESB bobber, a single split shot sinker, and a piece of bait about the size of a quarter.
While fishing specific holes on the Deshka River, if there are many king salmon present, you will likely quickly discover their location by seeing them break water or perhaps by experiencing bites in certain parts of the hole. When casting out to start a drift, attempt to cast a bit further upstream and beyond where you believe the fish are holding, as your bobber and bait will not spook fish by splashing down too close, you can then reel in a bit (placing your bait directly upstream of the targeted fish) and your bait will have time to sink to the desired depth before drifting to the salmon.
When the bobber and bait are upstream from where you are standing, your line will belly in the current, and maybe even go slack as the bobber drifts toward you. Lift your rod tip to remove the slack and keep as much line out of the water between you and the bobber as possible. At the same time be careful not to pull on the bobber so much that it leans toward you and causes the bait to drift unnaturally. Next, reel just enough to maintain an almost tight line, while allowing the bobber and bait to continue their natural drift downstream. Watch the bobber to determine how to adjust the drift. If line starts bellying in the current below the bobber, lift, pull, or reel more. If the line is too tight, tipping the bobber toward you, allow enough slack to develop so the bobber once again rides straight up and down.
As the bobber and bait approach your position on the bank, and then drifts downstream, the current will pull your line tight, tilting the bobber toward you, and dragging the bobber and bait unnaturally across the current. To extend and continue your natural bait presentation, mend the line, by lifting your rod tip and flipping some line belly back upstream of your bobber. Next, release line fast enough to maintain a slight amount of slack between you and your bobber, keeping your bobber drifting in it’s normal current riding alignment. As before, watch your bobber to determine how to adjust your drift. Mend when too much line belly develops below the bobber, or release line quicker whenever a direct tight line cause the bobber to tilt toward your position on the bank.
If the past couple paragraphs on bait presentation seem technical or difficult, rest assured that drifting bait under bobbers is an extremely easy technique to master, and can produce great results even for folks, with very little, or no previous fishing experience. In addition, for those who have not tried this method for salmon, it can be very exciting, and a great way to share the experience with each member of your fishing party, as each individual generally takes turns watching everyone else’s bobber. Sometimes while watching another angler’s bobber, my guests forget which bobber is their own, and two or three people may set their hook when a single bobber goes down!
Detecting and Hooking Strikes
When a salmon first starts working a bait, a bobber will often bounce around on the surface, perhaps several times, before the fish fully engulfs the bait, and pulls the bobber under. While it is easy to get excited, and set the hook as soon as the bobber starts bouncing, waiting until the salmon fully submerges the bobber before setting the hook will dramatically increase the percentage of solid hook ups. Sometimes salmon that have been fished over heavily or fish that are spooky, because of low clear water conditions, will only nip at the bait, but considering giving them several opportunities to fully engulf the bait, before switching tactics and attempting to hook light biters.
Expect bites to most likely occur on your first few presentations in each new unfished hole. When you notice your bobber jumping around, consider it your indication to Get Ready to set the hook. When the bobber fully submerges, drop your rod tip toward the fish, reel up the slack line that invariable develops when fishing bobbers, and set the hook over your shoulder with authority. If the bobber should surface before you have time to set the hook, simply continue your drift or start a new drift, rather than setting the hook too late, and potentially spooking a proven receptive fish.
At times the bait or sinker may catch on the bottom, and the current pushing against the bobber may cause it to sink. If you set the hook at a submerged bobber several times, in the same place, without hooking up, you could be setting on snags, or perhaps having your bait grabbed by some of the river’s smaller inhabitants. Next time, you may want to wait longer, and be more observant if your bobber submerges in the same area. If you see the bobber submerged below the surface, but not moving, you are most likely catching up on the bottom, so consider adjusting the bait depth below your bobber, or cast to a different location. If you see the bobber move one direction or another, after it submerges, something is definitely swimming away with your bait, so set the hook!
Keeping up with River and Fishing Conditions
Consider visiting 3 Rivers Fly and Tackle in Wasilla for the latest up to date fishing reports from the Deshka River, in addition, 3 Rivers stocks all of the specialized bobber fishing gear mentioned in this article, and sponsors prizes, sells tickets and weighs fish for the Mat-Su King Salmon Derby. Sportsman’s Warehouse in Wasilla, is another must visit information source, Mat-Su King Derby sponsor, and has a large selection of bobber fishing tackle. Internet users may visit the following URL address to see daily numbers of chinook (king) salmon passing through Alaska Department of Fish and Game counting weirs including Deshka River Weir: http://www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us/Region2/Escapement/HTML/query.cfm
2010 Deshka River King Salmon Forecast
Based on data collected at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) Deshka River Weir during the summer of 2009, ADF&G is projecting the 2010 Deshka River king salmon return will top 30,000 fish, according to Area Sportfish Management Biologist, Dave Rutz. The river will open to bait fishing and the use of multiple hooks on May 15, and if the number of king salmon swimming upriver is within even 10,000 fish of the forecasted number of king salmon, the river should remain open for king salmon fishing with bait through the final day of the king salmon season on July 13. WIth less than projected numbers of king salmon returning the past couple years, Deshka River has seen inseason restrictions on bait and then total king salmon fishing closures prior to the normal season ending date. For 2010 Anglers are advised to check the latest Deshka River king salmon regulations before participating in this fishery. For Deshka River fishery and regulation updates contact ADF&G in the Palmer, Alaska office at (907) 746-6300.
Additional Deshka River Fishing Techniques
If Deshka River king salmon regulation changes are made during the 2010 fishing season, the first likely change would be elimination of bait during a portion of the season. For that reason Deshka River king salmon anglers should consider what type of artificial lures they may want to use when planning 2010 Deshka River king salmon trips. During levels of higher spring run off in May, or later when significant rainfall raises the river level and increases current flow, back trolling with size 13 – 15 Kwikfish plugs may produce good catches of king salmon. Popular casting lures for Deshka River king salmon include Vibrax and Mepps Spinners, Magnum Wiggle Warts, Pixie Spoons, and Spin-N-Glos. When fishing the backed up lake-like water with in the first mile of the Deshka River mouth, boaters often report excellent king salmon catches while trolling both upstream and downstream with any of the lures listed above. In addition, upriver fly fishermen find ideal king salmon fly fishing conditions fishing some of the quicker and shallower riffles above deeper holding water.
Visit ESB Website to learn more about Everlasting Slip Bobbers and ordering information.