How To Floss For Salmon

Are you trying to fill the freezer but have no idea how to floss for salmon? Don’t worry, I didn’t either when I first got started. Flossing for salmon is a technique used to catch fish, such as sockeye salmon, that are no longer eating. Instead of targeting fish with bait or flies, flossing is a technique where the angler uses weights and a long leader to thread the hook into the fish’s mouth. If you think this sounds like an impossible task, you would be wrong, flossing is easy and it works.

Most species of salmon are not eating when they enter freshwater, the Sockeye salmon in particular does not target bait. These animals will die after spawning and their run through freshwater is the last journey of their 3-year life. Experienced fishermen become perplexed when fishing a salmon river because the fish are jumping but none are biting. The flossing technique solves this problem. Instead of presenting a tasty morsel, the line and hook are forced into the fish’s mouth as they swim upriver.

All salmon species, and sockeye in particular, swim up river with their mouths open. And it’s this behavior that is used to catch them. Flossing requires using a long leader, I like to use at least 9ft of line stretching from the weights to the hook. The hook is sharp and I use a #6 octopus style. On the hook I place a piece of yarn or a rubber fish egg. This helps the hook float better through the water column and helps keep it off the bottom. For the weights, I use lead split shot with an aluminum weight at the bottom to keep it from sliding down the leader. A properly weighted setup will allow you to feel the weights bouncing on the bottom, too much and you will constantly get snagged but too little and your hook will float above the fish’s heads.

You don’t need to cast far, I swing with 3 yards of line permanently out in front of me. Cast 10o’clock and pull the weight through the water, faster than the current but slow enough to feel the bottom. As the hook bounces down stream, feel for rocks, keeping your line tight to prevent snags and feel for fish. Understanding the difference between a fish and a log is tricky at first but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. At the end of the drift, give the hook a good pull, just in case the line is inside a fish’s mouth, this last pull will set the hook on any salmon that are entangled with your line. Pull the weights our of the water and re-cast to the 10 o’clock position. With this technique, you will be able to hook a salmon in the mouth with a single hook and line.

What You Need To Floss Successfully

The following is a breakdown of the gear you need and how to setup a flossing rod.

  • Use a heavy fishing rod
    • I like to use a 10 wt flyrod for my flossing setup. Many people use a heavy spin rod or even a baitcaster, it’s up to the fishermen’s preference. The heavy rod is necessary for hauling in the ocean run salmon, which can exceed 30lbs, depending on the species. Even if you are catching 10lb sockeye, the fish are some of the strongest and hardest fighting animals on the planet, you are going to want a strong rod to haul them in. A heavy rod also helps sling heavy weight into the river. Depending on the current, you will have many ounces of lead on your line and a stiff rod will let you cast more efficiently.
  • Heavy monofilament line
    • I prefer monofilament over braided line for this technique because I like the way vibrations travel up the line. Monofilament lets me feel the river bottom and I can fish with my eyes closed, feeling for fish and rocks. I use the stretchiness of the line like a rubber band when freeing my hook from a snag. I pull the line tight and quickly release it, creating a slingshot underwater that usually frees a stuck hook from the rocks on the bottom of the river.
  • Lead and aluminum split shot
    • I attach lead split shot about 9ft above my hook. Use enough to allow the line to bounce off the bottom of the river but not too much where the line constantly gets snagged. The aluminum weight is used as the lowest weight as it will prevent the lead from sliding down the line.
  • Sharp hook
    • The size of the hook is open for debate but I like to use a #6 octopus style. Be sure the hook has a wide gap and is laser sharpened and you won’t have any trouble hooking a fish. On the hook, tie some yarn or put a rubber fish egg on the shank. Adding this final piece of “bait” will help the hook drift better in the current.

Is Flossing Legal? And Is Flossing Ethical?

Depending on where you are fishing, the method of flossing for fish might be illegal. Make sure you check all local restrictions before heading down to the nearest salmon run. Lucky for me, flossing is legal in Alaska and as long as you do it right, the technique will fill the freezer. Many fishermen shudder at the idea of flossing, comparing it to “snagging” and see the technique as “unsportsmanlike”. The criticism of flossing is valid, to a point, and I think much of the criticism stems from folks who don’t understand the life cycle of a salmon and conflate it to other fish, like trout.

Most salmon don’t live longer than 3 years and at the end of their lifespan, will die after spawning. These animals are short-lived, which is different than a rainbow trout, which sometimes take 5 years to reach 16 inches or longer. Salmon are nature’s way of returning nutrients form the oceans back into streams and forests, these creatures are delicious and are an important resource for the ecosystem. Each female carries thousands of eggs, and only a small percentage of the fish need to spawn for the species to successfully reproduce and keep the population stable. There’s a reason thousands of fish swim upriver at the same time, it’s because not all are going to make it and their evolution solves that problem by creating more fish than is required.

In places like Alaska, the fish counts are closely monitored and bag-limits reflect the numbers needed for successful reproduction. When fishermen are harvesting salmon, it’s done in accordance to data collected by fish biologists. Salmon are a renewable resource and flossing is the best technique to catch them with a rod and reel.

Flossing is the act of snagging a fish in the mouth, a fish that is not feeding on anything. How else are you expected to catch them? Harvesting salmon is sustainable and flossing for salmon is an ethical way to fill the freezer. If you don’t want to catch sockeye (red) salmon, feel free to throw flies and artificial lures, don’t worry, you won’t catch any.

Making The Perfect Flossing Setup

The basics of flossing are easy to understand, there is a large weight that keeps your line on the bottom of the river. It needs to be heavy enough to bounce across the bottom but not too heavy where it snags easily. Behind the weight is a leader between 3 – 9ft long; how long the leader is depends on the river, current, and where the fish are. If salmon are running deep, a longer leader is required. However, if you are catching salmon near your feet, a 3′ leader is better. Make sure you test leader lengths and weight amounts to find the perfect setup for the day and spot you are fishing.

If you keep foul-hooking fish, tie some yarn to the hook. This will help it float through the water better and increase your chances of hooking a salmon in the mouth.

1 thought on “How To Floss For Salmon

  1. I am wondering if it is worth using a small corkie, a spin n glo or something that will help the hook to not get caught on anything in the river bottom ?
    I am in chilliwack , Canada , I see people flossing using pencil lead and styrofoam floats . Some are using soft beads or yarn.

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