How & When to Fish Bait Holders & Tandem Hook Rigs


Bait holders have been part of the salmon trolling scene in BC for six decades. Since 1954 when the first herring strip holder was marketed by Rhys Davis, bait holders have evolved and adapted to match the changes in frozen bait preferences as well as requests from fishermen to make bait heads easier for the average angler to use. In spite of fierce competition for retail wall space with spoons, hoochies and plugs, this family of fishing lures remains popular with a large number of west coast anglers. When fished properly with baits like anchovies, herring, herring strip and pilchards they are consistently effective salmon catchers. Like all products bait head brands enter and then disappear from the marketplace. Once popular lures like Nosky Killers, Haida Teasers, Spring Kings and Herring Aids no longer command retail space, or at best are extremely hard to find. The current list of top bait heads are modernized versions of lures that have been proven winners over the last thirty years or more. Anchovies first appeared in volume in 1976 when 5,000 trays were put up by Pender Harbor Packers at Madeira Park, BC. Since then they have become the most popular trolled bait in BC. Prior to 1980 herring strips held that honor but the current popularity of herring strip and strip lures is barely measurable, in spite of its fish catching prowess. Small to medium sized whole herrings are still used by salmon trollers but herring’s popularity was also impacted by the relentless shift towards frozen anchovy baits. Ironically anglers in Washington and northern Oregon still prefer to troll with frozen or fresh herring and not anchovies, while anglers in southern Oregon and California like their BC counterparts prefer the anchovy. Over this time period two whole bait lure brands specifically made for anchovies have dominated the BC market. The reason for their remarkable staying power is that both were designed by old school trial and error lure makers. Jim Gilbert’s Krippled Anchovy was first on the scene followed closely by Rhys Davis’s Anchovy Special. There are other good whole bait lures that have market share, but these two originals remain the standard for BC’s salmon trollers who prefer to fish with anchovies or similar sized whole herring. Most of the bait trolling lures have two things in common. The angler must set the hook into the bait to produce the correct action and most if not all fish best with a treble hook ranging from size #2 to #1/0. However lots of high-liners and guides switch to tandem hooks for certain fishing situations. Fishing these lures with tandem hooks requires an increase in skill level but the pay-offs can be substantial.

What are Tandem Hooks?

The tandem hook concept has been a part of the recreational tackle box for a long time. Most anglers equate its use with cut plugging, where two single hooks are tied on the same piece of leader. Basically a cut plug is a herring with the head removed with diagonal cuts; it is then rigged so that the front hook tows the herring while the trailing hook is threaded through the herring then laid against the bait close to the tail. This traditional style cut plug tie-up, with smaller single hooks, also works with bait heads. However, anglers have the option to construct more tandem hook combinations when fishing with plastic bait holders.

Examples of different styles of tandem hooks: single/single hooks, treble/treble hooks, treble/single hooks and single/treble hooks. Via Tom Davis.

For example, anglers can rig two treble hooks, or they can run a treble-single tandem and even reverse that presentation to make a single-treble combination. These rigs also allow anglers to fish a wide variety of hook styles and sizes to meet their own fishing preferences. There is another special tandem hook system that suits fishing with bait holders perfectly. I was introduced to it about thirty years ago by Earl McDormand from Victoria. Instead of using the full length of leader to tie his tandems he used what I would best describe as a “quick tie tandem”. In other words there was only enough leader to connect the front and trailing hook without any line projecting ahead of the first hook to act as a full length of leader. This system has some real advantages. First you can pre-tie a bunch of tandems then just tie them on like a regular hook as required rather than having to re-tie the complete leader including the swivel, bait head and hooks. This saves a lot of fishing time. Second, because the rigs are quite small they store conveniently in trays. Third, anglers can use heavier pound test line or different material, like durable Dacron, for the tandem hooks than they use for their leaders.

Traditional full length leader and tandem hook rig and a “quick tie” tandem hook up. Via Tom Davis.
Traditional full length leader and tandem hook rig and a “quick tie” tandem hook up. Via Tom Davis.

It should be noted that herring strip fishermen rarely fish tandem hooks with strip holders unless they are using very long pieces of strip, or thick pieces of strip where the lead hook must be set through the strip to assist in producing the correct rolling action.

When Should Anglers Use Tandem Hooks?

Tandem hookups are really effective on adult migrating adult chinook salmon. So anglers ought to consider using them between June and September. They also provide more hooking power when trolling with big anchovies or herring from six to seven inches long. As chinooks near their home streams they become finicky about striking lures. Anglers call this tendency “biting short” or “biting soft”. This is where the trailer hook, often called the “stinger”, can pay dividends. The same thing applies in late summer when most of the big “northern” coho are passing through our popular fishing areas. Conversely there are situations where I do not recommend fishing with tandem hooks. Avoid using tandems in areas where there are lots of juvenile salmon grilse, sub legal or barely legal sized salmon. I also don’t recommend them when fishing for pinks because of the difficulty in removing them from these feisty little fish. The same applies when there are lots of summer coho mixed in with big chinooks, or if you are required to release most of your catch for conservation reasons. Finally, tandem hooks do not provide any appreciable hooking benefit when fishing with baits that are less than 5 ½ inches long unless you are fishing in an area where only single hooks are allowed. In this case running a pair of smaller single hooks is your best option for maximizing the action out of a trolled bait/bait holder set up.

How Should Anglers Use Tandem Hooks With Bait Holders?

The concept behind fishing tandem hooks in the traditional cut plug style versus using them with bait heads is similar but not exactly the same. When fishing bait heads, it’s the plastic head, not the lead hook that tows the bait. This allows one or both hooks to set the desired curve, fine tune the roll and provide extra hooking power. The front hook is set into the bait above the lateral line from just in front of the dorsal fin to slightly back of the dorsal fin depending on the size of the bait. This hook sets the curve in the bait as it would normally when only using one hook. The position of the trailing hook is very important. It is usually hanging free and level with the end of the tail or just past the end of the tail regardless of the hook combination being used. There is a variation of this system which I regularly use with bigger baits. I use two treble hooks and set both into the bait. To do this correctly anglers have to set the front hook just ahead of the dorsal fin then turn the shank of the hook at close to 90 degrees away from the side of the bait. This creates tension on the line between the two hooks. Then take the trailing hook and set it into the bait on the lateral line about half way between the base of the tail and the dorsal fin. When setting the trailer into the bait you must keep tension on the line between the hooks. Once both hooks are set pull upon the leader ahead of the bait holder and press the lead hook flat against the side of the bait. Then make any final curve adjustments and start fishing.

A normal two treble hook tandem with the trailer hanging free & the same hook arrangement with both hooks set into the bait. Via Tom Davis.
A normal two treble hook tandem with the trailer hanging free & the same hook arrangement with both hooks set into the bait. Via Tom Davis.

I like this set up because the trailing hook controls the action at the tail end of the bait and prevents the trailer from flying away from the bait each time the bait rolls over. All of the popular bait holders can be fished with tandem hooks. However, lures with longer plastic tails and toothpick blisters at the end of those tails, like a Super Herring Special or Krippled Anchovy, have some limitations on the hook sizes and styles that can be used. This is because the long plastic lure tail forces the first hook further back on the lateral line reducing the space available to run tandems properly. Lures like Anchovy Specials and Bulletrolls have a short plastic tail with a recessed toothpick blister allowing for the front hook to be set further forward on the bait which opens up more action options. Regardless of this minor difference the following list of popular bait holders can be fished with tandem hooks- Anchovy Special, Krippled Anchovy, Bulletroll Special, Krippled Herring, Super Herring Special, Roller Baiter, Krippled Minnow and the JDF for anchovies and small to mid-sized herring, along with the Large Teaser and Roller Baiter for herring strip.