Fishing with bucktails is a blast. It takes normal salmon trolling and kicks it into high gear. Instead of puttering along at 2.3 kts, you get to rip around at almost planing speed. Also, instead of the fish taking your lure 200′ down, aggressive coho can take it right on the surface, allowing you to see the strike.
Coho salmon (a.k.a. silvers or bluebacks) are your main target for this type of fishing. They often feed on the surface and have the explosive speed and agility to grab a fly zipping along. When a feisty coho grabs your bucktail, he is right beside the boat, fresh and ready for an acrobatic, tail-walking fight. This is in stark contrast to a half played-out fish on
a downrigger being dragged up from the depths.
The History of Bucktailing
Bucktailing was invented and developed on the waters of Georgia Strait, likely starting in Cowichan Bay. There are references to salmon bucktails from as far back as the 1920s. At this time bucktail flies would be cast from shore at river mouths and gravel beaches. British Columbia’s first Game Warden, A. Bryan Williams, refers to salmon bucktails in his 1935 book Fish & Game in British Columbia. He writes “The Coho is an excellent sporting fish; he will take the fly well both in the sea and fresh water whenever conditions are favorable.” And “… he jumps much more frequently and dashes about in such a wild way that considerable skill is required to play him.”
Later, Cowichan Bay fishermen developed bucktail trolling techniques. At that time, they only had rowboats to fish from. Therefore, it is unlikely that even the rugged pioneers of Vancouver Island could maintain the required high speeds by rowing. Although I like to imagine Stanfield-wearing loggers blasting around the bay in rowboats, I suspect they used the skip fly method of trolling. This is when the angler points the rod straight back at the trolled bucktail, then pulls it forward laterally parallel to the water. Then the rod tip is dropped back to point at the lure again. This causes the bucktail to fly forward, skipping across the water’s surface, before dropping back. This technique is still used today, but in a power boat. In fact, it was the advent of outboard motors that really increased the popularity of bucktailing for coho.
By the 1970s and 80s, it was not unusual to see dozens of speed boats laden with fishermen and Lucky Lager racing around, doing loops and figure eights around schools of surface-feeding coho. (Island life really was “awesomer” back then!) Today, with the advent of downriggers, the popularity of bucktailing has fallen off.
Coho Bucktail Fishing Gear
Bucktails are essentially a large double-hooked version of a normal fly-fishing fly. Bucktail flies are traditionally made of deer hair (hence the name), feathers, or best of all, polar bear fur. However, polar bear fur is getting harder and harder to get, and thus more expensive. After all, polar bear hunting is now rare, and sourcing it from live polar bears has proved to be a challenge.
A lightweight 9′ to 11′ mooching rod, or an 8- to 10-wt fly rod and smaller single action reel would be my preferred set up for bucktailing. A spinning or levelwind reel would also work, and in fact would be more effective. However, at least to me, it also would leave something to be desired for this type of fishing. Long leaders are necessary as surface-feeding coho seem to be a little line shy at times. I prefer a 10′ or longer leader of 20-lb fluorocarbon line knotted to a braid mainline.
Bucktail Fishing Technique
Basically, you take your bucktail of choice and drag it behind a fast boat, often right in the propwash. However, some fishermen suggest trolling the bucktail 20′ behind the boat. Speeds vary considerably—4 to 5 kts is typical, but double this is also common. The speed may seem excessive, but trust me, the coho will not mind. The fly can be right on the surface, just under the surface, or a few feet below, weighted with a sinking tip fly line or a weighted head on the bucktail.
On bright days choose a bright lure; on dark days a subtle lure is best. Sometimes spinners can be placed in front of the bucktail for more flash and action. Metal ones are fine, but if you can find them, old mother of pearl spinners are works of art. (So is a well-tied bucktail).
Often, as with sockeye fishing, less is more. A minimalist approach with a sparse, basic lure will outproduce a large flashy one. Experienced bucktailers often trim down their bucktail to look like the small, silver baitfish that the coho feed on.
Coho Bucktailing Fishing Tips
Late summer and early fall are the best times to go bucktailing. The coho will be moving around, feeding on schools of baitfish on the surface. A calm August morning or evening is ideal for this type of fishing. This is more of a sight fishery, so use your eyes and binoculars instead of your fish finder. In fact, I have seen schools of shallow coho leave an area when a powerful fish finder was turned on right above them. Look for feeding birds and shoals of baitfish jumping out of the water. It is a sure bet that there are hungry coho feeding beneath them.
While there are not that many fishermen out there practicing the fine art of bucktailing, there are still a few. The great thing about catching coho this way is that you can sometimes see the salmon take the lure. First you see a V-shaped wake approaching the bucktail and then a flash of silver as the fish strikes. Then the fun really begins. No other salmon fights like a coho. Airborne acrobatics and tail walking are not uncommon with these impressive fish.
If you want to experience this classic fishing style, track down some bucktails and try the most fun type of salmon trolling there is.
This article appeared in Island Fisherman magazine, never miss another issue—Subscribe today!