How to Hook Up in Serious Water

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

The Columbia, the Klamath, the Sacramento and other big rivers are deep, ponderous and powerful and the quest for monster fish can draw us to some of the most dangerous water.

To present baits to them, you have to drop anchor. Do it right, and the hook sticks and you slide into position.

Do it wrong and the boat is going DOWN. The depths of any big river are fraught with peril. Submerged logs, abandoned cars, construction debris, boats, tangles of tackle and all manner of jetsam are stuck to the bottom of the river. Water flows vary throughout the day and can change enough that what was sufficient anchor line in the morning, might not be enough later in the day. If the river goes up and there is no give in the rope, the boat sinks -- FAST.

Other boaters pose a danger. Once we watched a fellow back his boat down the ramp to the water's edge. Instead of floating the boat off the trailer, he and his buddy pushed it off, keeping the wheels dry. We kept a careful eye on them and, sure enough, across the river we saw their boat spin all the way around, wrapped in its own anchor rope. Then the pump sucked the rope in! They were a heartbeat away from going for a swim, when they shut the motor off.

Anchoring in big water is not difficult, but it is easy to do it wrong. At STS, we know how important it is to focus on the fundamentals. We consulted the experts for a look at the gear, the attitudes and the techniques they take to serious water.

The Equipment

Louis McMinds, of Troutdale, Oregon, has boated more big sturgeon than anyone else I know. A lot of things can go wrong when an oversize sturgeon takes the bait, but McMinds' motto is: Good equipment equals good luck.

"Start with good equipment that fits the boat and the situation," he said. "Buy the anchor to suit the bottom of the river." In fast water with a rocky bottom, use a Columbia River-style hook with narrow, sharp points that find the crevices. Flapper-style anchors are best-suited to silty, sandy or muddy bottoms.

"Any anchor has to lay flat to stick well," McMinds said. "For that reason, you want chain, not rope, to hold the anchor down. Use eight feet of 3/8-inch chain, at the end of the rope, direct to the top of the anchor." The chain provides the weight that makes sure the anchor lays over and flat in big current.

When you anchor, you'll need plenty of line, between three and seven times the depth of the water. Use solid braid nylon; it is more forgiving, shock-absorbent and not susceptible to attack from gas, oil and bait chemicals.

In depths of 50 feet or more, use a 300-foot set (250 feet from anchor to buoy and 50 feet from buoy to boat). In less than 50 feet of water, use 125 feet of anchor line and a 50-foot tag. For the tag, use 50 feet of polypropylene. Polypro floats and makes pick-up easier. Your anchor will hold best as the line reaches nearly horizontal. Your anchor line should be attached to a cleat on the bow and tied off with a slip knot.

One of the best all around options is the rocking chair-styled Breakaway anchor from Fish Fighter Products For clay bottoms, add the optional bolt-on anchor spades that act like shovel heads.

For a car topper boat up to 14 feet, a 12-inch buoy is best, with 40 pounds of buoyancy and an anchor up to 20 pounds.

Larger boats and anchor systems need more flotation. Use a 15-inch buoy, with 84 pounds of buoyancy for an anchor of 35 pounds or less. Select a large 18-inch buoy, with 135 pounds of buoyancy, for an anchor up to 100 pounds.

Use stainless steel, marine quality hardware for the pulley. One of the things that people take for granted is that an anchor puller will work the same as any other puller. But they don't all have the same efficiency.

Usually, it doesn't matter, because you are using horsepower to move the anchor, not muscles, but when there are a lot of boats or the current is tricky, efficiency matters.

The anchor system should be mounted at the bow. A boat can spin in heavy current. If the anchor is tied to the rear or far along the side, the boat can end up broadside to a wave and sink faster than you can cut the line. Which brings us to the last two pieces of vital equipment.

Mount a sharp, fixed blade knife, in a sheath, within easy reach of the anchor line at the front of the boat and another one at the stern. And then climb into a life jacket each time you head into big water. A captain should not go down with the ship.

Step 1 - Pick a Spot

Fishing guide Steve Leonard knows that traffic in the tailrace below Bonneville can be intense.

"If you're going to anchor around other boats, make sure you have enough room," he said. "You want to be going as fast as the current or faster. Don't hold yourself in the current because when you drop the anchor, the anchor will go down to the river bottom and the extra line will go underneath the boat and may get caught in the prop or the jet." Keep the anchor line visible at all times.

Chris Vertopoulos, a veteran of the Columbia, calls the heavy currents 'power water.' "You're basically at the whim of your first anchor," he said. "Sometimes you have to pull it up and do it again."

During salmon season there can be a lot of boats on the water and people's tempers get short when their fellow anglers put them in danger. "If you need to get in a hog line, you'd better be versed at it," Vertopoulos said. Practice in the off-season or somewhere where there are no hog lines.

Step 2 - Drop Anchor

Remember, you're anchoring the buoy, not the boat. The buoy should be set 1-1/2 to two boat lengths upstream from the bow.

"When getting ready to drop anchor, strip out 20 to 30 feet of line between anchor and ball, so that when you go to drop the anchor down you have the room between the anchor and the ball. When you start letting the anchor over the bow, get the locking pin pulled back and straighten out the mechanism," Leonard said.

"Once you hit the bottom with your anchor and start drifting back, don't throw all the line out. Let the rope feed out with tension on the line through the anchoring mechanism. If you have a wind blowing against the current, the river might pull the rope faster than the boat is drifting," Leonard said.

Step 3 - Drift into Place

"Take a half turn around a cleat on the bow. To still allow rope to feed out. If you get into trouble, all the tension is on the cleat, not on the operator," Leonard said.

Both McMinds and Vertopoulos make good use of the cleats on the front of their boats. "One saving grace is you can chock your boat one way or the other," Vertopoulos said. By taking a turn on one side of the bow or the other, they can change the angle of the drift, move away from another angler's boat or fish a different location. 300 feet of line will allow the boater to move as much as 100 feet in either direction.

Step 4 - Leave the Buoy to Chase a Fish

Fish on! If it's an oversize sturgeon or a big Chinook, he could take you downriver a mile or more. Here is where the buoy system shines. You can leave it, fight the fish and come back later to the same spot. Where there was one fish, there will be more.

If there is 25 feet of line out, there should be about 25 feet of tag line left in the bow. The rope should float. A small crab float or a duck decoy on the tag rope can help the visibility and make pickup easier.

Don't just drop the rope in the water. Feed it out and then pitch it over. The current is much faster going by the boat and the line could get caught in the prop or the pump if it drifts below the boat.

While you're gone, the buoy keeps your place in the river. On the way back upstream, line up below the buoy, drive up and grab the line. A long-handled hook makes rope retrieval easy.

"It's all about rope management," Vertopoulos said. "I keep my rope in a milk crate. I always have at least 300 feet of rope, but if I think I can get away with not using some, I'll bungee up the rope I'm not using so that I don't have to throw it in the water and risk getting it caught in my prop." Or someone else's prop.

Step 5 - Retrieve the Anchor

One reason to keep a boat length or more between the bow and buoy is to allow room to operate, to change position (by cleat position) and to retrieve the anchor. Keep the line tied off to the front of the boat.

"I make sure to have 20 to 30 feet of rope out in front. This gives you enough distance to swing out and around the anchor ball," Leonard said.

Estimate how much line is out and how far upstream you'll have to go to retrieve it. Pick a spot upriver and go right to it.

Swing 20 feet wide and pull the buoy sideways. Watch the rope go by the boat, not under the boat. Drive at about 10 mph and watch until water starts going over the buoy.

"When driving upstream, go straight up and provide enough room to buy time to bring in all the line. You have to have a visual idea of how much line you had out to start," Leonard said.

Keep pulling until you feel the anchor and see more water going over the buoy. Now, the anchor is caught by the puller and held there for the boater to retrieve. With the anchor held in place by the ball, tow it to open water, away from other boats.

Now, bring the anchor line into a container or hold, coiled with extreme care so it doesn't tangle on the next anchor set.

Step 6 - Back at the Ramp

Vertopoulos, McMinds and Leonard are as fastidious at the ramp as they are on the water. Vertopoulos stores his rope in a milk crate on and off the water.It's all about the next day. When the gear is put away right, there are no problems the next time on the water.

"Make sure all your rope is poured into the milk crate (or laundry basket) hand over hand," Vertopoulos said. "It keeps it coiled up so you can pour it out as you need it. Tangles can get you in trouble out there in a big hurry. Then I pull my anchor and bungee it up and make sure everything is tied."

More manufacturers are making anchor stowage systems that keep the anchor in place on the bow. Make sure the anchor is locked in and the buoy tied down before you hit the road. Or stow the anchor and buoy in boat, so you don't drop them on the freeway.

The big river may have been tamed to generate electricity, turned into a highway for heavy commercial traffic and a playground for pleasure boats, but beneath its benign exterior beats the heart of a beast. Strong currents can pull a boat down and keep it down. High winds can whip up whitecaps that can swamp a small boat. And drifting debris can eviscerate your craft or destroy the motor.

Setting anchor and pulling anchor are dangerous operations in a big river, but experienced fishermen do it safely every day and catch their fish and go home.

The experts each have their own ways of accomplishing the task in serious water, but they share one trait -- a focus on the fundamentals and attention to detail.

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