By Terry Rudnick
My first-ever trip aboard a Westport charter boat back in 1969 turned out to be a red-letter event for a couple of reasons. Not only did I somehow manage to land the top chinook in the annual Orting (Washington) Lions Club Salmon Derby despite polishing off three-quarters of a case of lukewarm Heidelberg beer (anyone remember those keg bottles?), but, more importantly, I learned from an old logger named Charlie Hardke the right way to tie my own salmon mooching leaders
Now, more than 40 years later I can’t remember much about that prize-winning king (or any of the trip home), but I never forgot how Charlie tied that knot, and I use it almost every time I go salmon fishing. I think the tandem-hook mooching leader is the most important rig a salmon angler can have in his or her arsenal, and if you don’t use it, you may not be catching as many salmon as you should.
Although virtually every Northwest salmon fisherman calls it a mooching leader, the tandem-hook rig isn’t just for mooching. Most of us who troll whole or plug-cut herring, anchovies or candlefish also use the two-hook rig, and it’s also the standard hook set-up most anglers like peaking out from beneath their hoochie skirts. That may have sounded a little too much like it came out of Cosmopolitan, but you get the idea.
And, not only should every saltwater salmon angler carry a supply of mooching leaders and know how to use them, it’s even better to know how to tie your own.
Home-tied mooching leaders offer several advantages over store-bought leaders, one of which I learned the hard way. Once during the late 70s I ran out of hook-tying time before a late-winter blackmouth trip to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, so I stopped along the way at a now-defunct chain store and scooped up a handful of packaged mooching leaders. Trolled herring, fished just off the bottom with my fishing partner’s then-state-of-the-art manual downriggers was the winning combination the first morning, and we got into some good-sized blackmouth right off the bat. My buddy had a 12-pounder in the boat 10 minutes after we started fishing, and a few minutes after we resumed trolling it was my turn. But less than half a minute into the fight, and with only moderate pressure on the running fish, my rod tip popped into the vertical position and my first salmon of the morning was gone. When I reeled in to check my gear, I was surprised to find only one hook at the end of my leader. I started to utter “dogfish,” but it hadn’t been a shark that had peeled 30 or 40 yards of line off my reel in a few seconds, and on closer examination I spotted the curly-cued end of the leader that led to the obvious conclusion: knot failure.
Writing it off to bad luck, I took another leader from its package, threaded on a fresh herring, and sent ‘er back down. A few minutes after we got back on track, both rods popped off the ‘riggers simultaneously. Both salmon seemed to be in the double-digit range, and a couple of minutes into the battle my fishing partner and I were needling each other about who was going to have to net his own fish when, as suddenly as the first, my second blackmouth of the day was gone. Thinking it had simply come unhooked, I quickly reeled in the slack line, stowed my rod out of the way and soon netted by partner’s second chinook, a near-twin to his first. After another celebratory high-five and a few pictures, I pulled a fresh herring out of the bait box and gathered up my tackle to get a line into the water as fast as possible. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a second case of knot failure, only this time it had occurred at the top hook. Following a long string of expletives, I thought of the line that former President George W. Bush couldn’t remember: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
I don’t remember whether I eventually caught one or two blackmouth that day, but I do know that whatever I ended up catching I caught on leaders borrowed from my fishing partner, leaders that he had tied himself.
Now I know that there are some quality mooching leaders out there being tied and sold by very reputable tackle companies, but I don’t know any of the people tying them, and I have to assume that they don’t know me, and they probably wouldn’t give a damn if I lost a fish while using their rigs. If, on the other hand, one of my home-tied leaders fails, I know who to blame, and I’ll be a lot more careful about it while tying my next two or three hundred leaders.
Besides depending on someone else’s competence at tying hooks, when you buy pre-tied mooching leaders you may not know much about what you’re really buying. Who makes those hooks and how much work is it going to take to put a decent point on them? What’s the real breaking strength of that leader and how long has it been baking and getting weaker here in the window of the tackle shop or charter office? Unless you pay premium prices for brand name rigs, you may be buying poor-quality hooks and poorer quality leaders.
And, speaking of premium prices, you’ll almost always save money if you buy your hooks in bulk packs, your leader material on large spools, and tie them yourself.
What’s more, you may have trouble finding exactly what you want for your specific needs, especially if you buy your pre-tied rigs on the fly as you head for the fishing grounds. Murphy’s Law pretty much ensures that lots of big, mean chinook will move in and want nothing but 9-inch herring when all you could find at the Wal-Mart the night before were three-packs of 2/0-1/0’s tied on leaders of unknown breaking strength (but looking mighty puny).
I’ve never had good results with slip-tied mooching leaders, so I use nothing but the solid-tied rigs I’ve been tying for over 40 years. Those who have never tied their own salmon rigs may be a little intimidated by the thought of adding a new, two-hook rig to their inventory, but it’s really quite easy. Follow the illustrations and written steps above, tie a couple of practice leaders and you’ll master it in no time.
As mentioned earlier, tandem-tied salmon leaders aren’t just for mooching. They’re also standard equipment for trolling with herring and other bait fish. As in mooching, I match hook size and leader test to the size of the bait I’m using and the size fish I’m targeting while trolling. I tie a variety of combinations, ranging from 1/0 hooks on 12-pound fluorocarbon leaders to 6/0 hooks on 40-pound Big Game Clear mono. Whether mooching or trolling bait, I have a supply of leaders to cover every situation.
Also, when I troll hoochies behind a flasher, I have a supply of leaders with the hooks tied a little closer together than those on my bait rigs, so that the front hook protrudes at the back of the squid’s head and the trailing hook dangles just beyond the tips of the tentacles. And, because I want that flasher throwing the hoochie from side to side as it swings through the water, the leader is shorter and heavier than those used for fishing bait. Hoochie leaders range from 28 to 36 inches, depending on whether I’m fishing them behind an 8-inch or 11-inch flasher, and the leader material is stiff (30- to 40-pound mono) whether I’m targeting 4-pound pinks or 40-pound kings. The leaders I tie for mooching or trolling bait range from 6 to 7 feet.
Although this is a column about saltwater salmon fishing, I’d be negligent if I didn’t mention the fact that I use the same knot illustrated here when I’m fishing yarn, fresh roe or yarn and roe combos for steelhead or river salmon. I tie them exactly the same way, except that I wind the first series of wraps several more times, extending the “bumper” between the hook eye and the back knot, thereby forming the leader loop that holds the yarn and/or roe cluster. The loop knot for holding bait has about 12 wraps in the first series, compared to only 6 or 8 wraps on a mooching or trolling rig. And, I use only one hook (usually) on my steelhead rigs.