Grays Harbor / Johns River Fall Chinook

For WDFW purposes, the area we are discussing here is Marine Area 2.2, which is east of buoy #13 between Westport and Ocean Shores, upriver to the Hiway 101 bridge at Aberdeen.

This fishery is located in the Grays Harbor (Chehalis River) estuary. The salmon season usually opens about mid September. There could be non retention of any Chinook in this area as returning wild fish have declined in recent years. So depending on the WDFW’s forecast for returning wild Chinook for that particular year, look at the fishing regs. before you grab your rod and head out.

When you fish : Under most estuary fishing you normally will be fishing from the middle part of the outgoing tide up into the high incoming tide, which should flush the new fish into the lower estuary. Then, if these fish are committed to going upriver, they will then travel against the current on the following first part of the outgoing tide. It has been observed by some veteran fishermen in the lower reaches near Johns River that the best bite sometimes comes after the high slack and up to about 2 hours after that.

However as with many fisheries, the location and the fish sometimes write their our timetables and they can be caught on any time of the tide. This seems to be the case farther upriver near Aberdeen, as I have seen fish caught on the low outgoing tide and near the tide change also.

It also makes a difference if the weather is dry for some time, or if it has been raining. If it has been dry, then the fish tend to stack up in the bay. If it starts to rain, they will move through and head upriver rather rapidly.

Some large Chinook (40# +) are occasionally pulled from these areas when the season permits an opener. The Chinook here would probably be either the Chehalis, Satsop, Skookumchuck or Hoquiam River fish.

There are Different Fishing Areas to Choose From : To get to either, from Westport, you go out of the boat basin, head left (north) to “A” buoy which is the farthest red dot to the left. The next red dot is buoy 14. Buoy 21 is in a straight line at the corner. The blue dot is the “SC” buoy, which identifies the South Channel. In this same area there are high piling with range markers for the ships to line up on heading upriver or downriver for the main shipping channel. The purple dot up the south channel is piling marker #8, where the Johns River empties into the south channel.



The yellow areas are the normal fishing areas






Here is a later Google Earth that shows a better view of the bottom contours of the bay


Buoy 13 : Heading out of the Westport area from A buoy the areas split, straight on out and slightly west is buoy #13. This is the farthest LH green dot on the above chart.

This time of the year the season’s western boundary is at this buoy. There is considerable fishing that takes place immediately east (upriver) from this location, as usually noticed by the concentration of boats, including some charter boats. This area can be either mooching or trolling. Water depth here will be in the 40′ range .

Chehalis River or Shipping Channel : The main fishing in this channel will probably be from buoy #21 upriver to Aberdeen. You will also probably have more success by trolling the 20′ line along the edges of the shipping channel. The channel is dredged to maintain 40′ at low tide. The main channel bends at the range marker piling near the South Channel and runs upriver. Fishing in the main river usually will be from buoy #17 to #27, then on to #44 and closer the the 28th Street boat launch. From the airport up to the 101 bridge is sometimes called the “north channel”.


Here is a nice hooknose Coho taken 9-20-09 More fin clipped Coho

Johns River or South Channel : This area is near the mouth of the “south channel” of Grays Harbor bay which Johns River empties into. You will not be fishing the actual Johns River however, but a portion of the Chehalis River area just off the mouth of Johns River. For this area you head out as before from the Westport launch, but instead of heading left toward the ocean at “A” buoy, you hang a right and start up the river. At low tide there will be Whitcomb Flats (sand) on your right, so you will have to follow the main shipping channel buoys up the river. From buoy “14” all the others upriver are in a straight line to the bend at buoy “21”. There are large range marker piling on both sides of South Channel / Johns River entrance.

Most of the fishing is normally done either near the main shipping channel of the Chehalis near the South Channel (SC) buoy, or in the south channel itself and upstream then past the actual mouth of Johns River. Johns River empties into the south channel at it’s piling marker “8” about 1/2 mile east (upstream) from where the south channel empties into the main channel. There are numerous sand bars separating the main channel and the south channel at low tide. The south channel is smaller and shallower than the main channel as it condenses and gets shallower at low tide as it gets farther upriver toward Aberdeen.

Some people will fish up this south channel clear up to the water tower on the south bank hill. It gets narrower and shallow but some fish are even pulled in 8′ of water. However most will troll, (depending on the tide) from the “Goal Posts” near the SC buoy up to past the cell tower and O’Leary Creek on the south side then turn around at the congregation of rotted off piling.

There are a few depressions in this shallow channel that hold fish. The upper section of this is usually is not fished as heavily as the rest of the river system. The good thing here is that the bottom is sand with no logs, stumps or underwater debris. The water depth is usually from 8′ to 15′ deep but it gets shallower and narrower as it extends upstream.

Since fishing is easier and possibly more productive in the early season if water is warm and low, the Chinook may possibly stack up here before the upriver migration. IF according to WDFW, the wild Chinook escapement level appears to not be high enough for any particular year, the whole bay, including the south channel may be closed for a few weeks early in the season in the name of conservation.

Kelly & Peggy with a 45# buck Chinook 3 Johns River Chinook

Upstream near Aberdeen/Hoquiam, or North Channel : Upstream more, the fishing boundary at the start of the season is the Hiway 101 bridge across the Chehalis River in Aberdeen. The not so good Wall-Mart launch is just upstream from this bridge. The 28th Street launch is downriver about 1 mile and right in the middle of this section of the upper fishery. Most of the fishing takes place from just above the 28th St. launch to downstream near the airport. There is a newer abandoned concrete dock on the NE shore that has a deeper hole near the downstream end. Many fishermen will backtroll this hole when fishing the tide incoming. The shipping channel here where most of the fishing is done is about 45′ deep. Here you DO NOT want to fish the bottom like other areas as this area has lots of debris and WILL grab your gear.

The Method of Fishing for Chinook : The preferred method seems to be trolling, one thought is to keeping your bait NEAR the bottom if fishing the south channel or on the edges of the main shipping channel. Some experienced fishermen here will troll the 20′ depth line along the edges of the shipping channel with good success.

For a link to my estuary article that may describe some aspects of these type of fisheries CLICK HERE or to my Willapa bay article which will have some similarities CLICK HERE.

There are occasionally underwater snags in or near the shipping channel furthering the idea of not dragging bottom here, lessening the chance of hanging up. The fishermen who fish the shipping channel seem to prefer about mid-depth to slightly deeper, but off the bottom. So take your pick.

This type of fishing is shallow enough that downriggers can prove to be to much of a hassle and normally are not used.

The preferred gear usually is a standard mooching slider rig, or a sturgeon sinker slider on the mainline to which a lighter leader of about 12-18″ is attached to a round sinker, with a large purple or black label cut plug herring pulled behind a medium or large Fish Flash. It appears that the best 2 colors are green/prism and red prism for either of the above. Water color his is dark and very turbid so a large attractor like the large size Fish Flash is recommended. The Port sometimes uses divers in the upper river near the docks with the word is that they can not see their hand in front of their face.

The most important aspect is to use a Sampo ball bearing swivel off the rear of each to keep leader from kinking. Some fishermen use a Les Davis crippled herring bonnet and use smaller bait that can equal the length of a large cut plug.

Use the standard estuary set-up with a slider and 12″ to 16″ dropper to a 6 to 10 oz sinker. Put about a dacron line of about 2″ longer than the dropper between the mainline end and the fish Flash. Use enough weight to get the bait to the bottom at a line angle of 45 degrees. Most fishermen use too light a sinker. If fishing more than one aboard, but an 8 ounce for the forward fisher with a 6 oz for the rear rod.

The standard 6′ leader will work, but when the water is turbid, then shorten this leader down to 48″ or even 24″. Also a 40-50# leader is used many times, as you are fishing shallow, (10-20′) the big fish have no place to go but run, and those big Chinook can cut a 20# leader with their teeth quite easily if they are hooked deep in the throat and not in the jaw. With the turbid water here the fish are not leader shy. You may want to inject those herring with scent, to aid in attracting the fish, since the water is so murky. If targeting Coho, then shorten the leader to the shorter dimensions OR less.

Use the Hi Vis mainline especially if there is more than one person on the boat, as this allows you to see where the lines are at all times.

The bait should be frozen herring in either blue or purple label size. In the morning before you leave, in a small insulated cooler, place the herring in 2 qt water, 3 cups rock salt, 1 cup powdered milk & 5 drops Pro Cure Bait Bright or Mrs. Stuarts Bluing as used in washing clothes. As a substitute for bait bright, simply use a blue food coloring. The salt toughens them, the powdered milk, having lactic acid sets the scales, & the blue coloring adds the iridescent blue color of a live herring.

I keep my bait in a Tupperware 2 quart refrigerator drink container (that has a large lid) that is placed inside a small cooler. This allows me to brine down the bait and then pour a sack of ice around the Tupperware container, inside the cooler. This keeps the bait cold all day long as the ice lasts for over 24 hours and does not dilute my brine. When the day is over, do not throw this bait away, especially if you are going to fish again soon, just put the Tupperware container in the refrigerator. If you are going to be longer than a week, then but place them in a good sealable “zip-lock baggie”, place the brined herring along with enough of the brine to cover the bait and place it in a protected place in a deep freeze. This solution is so saturated with salt that it will not freeze. When you need them again, they will be good and tough, except do not expect them to last indefinitely, as they may freezer burn or turn mushy after about 3 months.

If using a cut plug, use cutting block, where hook placement determines the roll. For blue label you need 3 1/2″ between back of front hook to front eye of rear hook. Bury the larger heavy hook in the tail. Use Octopus type hooks for better hooking and KEEPING HOOKED ability. Run a size 5/0 hook in front with a 6/0 in the rear.

If you use a herring bonnet, then you can get by with the smaller green label herring along with getting 2 more herring to a package.

What works best in the Grays Harbor area is a cut-plug that has a “Big Flop” spin. The Buoy 10 fishery however seems best when using the medium “Bullet” spin. Practice cutting herring and watching it spin. Placement of the hooks also govern the spin.

The tide difference between Aberdeen and Markham is -14 minutes. Be there 1 1/2 hrs before the high tide and be prepared to fish the 1 hour before high slack, thru the slack plus 1 hour after. Otherwise you will be spending much of your time removing grass off the line. If you have a high run-off the bite will usually be only at the tide change. However if the tide has a low swing, then the bite will usually last clear thru the tide and into low slack.

Tide difference farther upriver at Aberdeen is near 1 hour later than the tide book says for Westport.

Troll slow and WITH the tide. The biggest problem with experienced fishermen who now try this fishery that is new to them, is that they usually try to set the hook to soon. You want to put the rods in the rod-holders so that the rod tip is within 2-3′ of the water. The fish will tap, the bait 2 to 3 times, when he does, speed the trolling motor up immediately to FAST for a short while. What this does is the fish thinks the bait is getting away and he will chase then attack it. When this happens, the fish hits it hard enough to basically set the hook himself, and the rod tip will be buried in the water when the fish take offs. This is now the time to grab the rod, then just pop the tip lightly to be sure the hook is set.

For those of you who have to watch and hold the rod, many times you will not detect the dramatic hit when these Chinook pick up the herring, as they simply pick it up, then follow you if that is the way they are moving, so be ever watchful of your rod tip. You may set the hook on seaweed, but then it may be a nice fish. This hand held method will miss many more fish than the above rod holder method.

Have extra rods rigged and ready, so that you do not miss any prime fishing time when the “bite” occurs when you need to be re-baited or to remove weeds.

Line angle is important to get proper lure action. You may have to change trolling speed many times as the tide and currently changes. Check the bait action when ever you are putting new bait in the water.

There is a Chinook salmon hatchery on the Satsop River, but also there are some wild fish from the other rivers that have no Chinook hatchery in the rest of the Chehalis system.

 The Method of Fishing for Coho : Coho can be found anywhere in the system. However if you plan on targeting them, it makes more sense to look for them on the flats between buoy #25 and Ocean Shores at high tide, before they funnel into the river channels.

The preferred method again seems to be trolling but trolling higher in the water column, using a medium Fish Flash colors from red to green, (however a combo of red/chartreuse works great) 2ounces of lead and out 30 pulls (60′) behind the boat.

The one thing here, is that if the salmon have lockjaw, a well prepared fisherman could try for sturgeon. You have your choice of fishing the sand flats, or the deeper holes. The usual bait for these is either smelt or sandshrimp, however your salmon bait (herring or anchovies) can be also used.

Regulations May Change : Check the WDFW regs. carefully each year as to what you are allowed to keep. It changes year to year, from no season at all, to release all Chinook, to keep 1 Chinook plus 1 clipped Coho, or even 1 wild Coho for the year 2000, so depending on the estimated returns the catch also changes. Also look at the online WDFW website as in the 2007 regs, there was many mistakes for this river in the printed manual, but changed in the website version. Same for the 2010 regs. The problem is that the change was not where you would normally expect it to be & you had to dig for it, so the average person would miss these changes.

For 2010 the regs. for the marine area 2-2 restricted Chinook take to ZERO but allowed 2 Coho no matter whether they were hatchery or naturals. The thinking was that in 2009 the return rate of naturals was considerably higher than hatchery returns so instead of catching and releasing MANY naturals, to keep 2 hatchery, just keep the first 2 Coho you caught, decreasing the mortality on the Coho AND cutting down on the possibility of hooking Chinook which have to be also released.

Weather : The weather governs the fish timing in this location. If it is a warm fall with no rain, the fish tend to stack up here waiting for the first rain to move upstream. If that is the case fishing can be fantastic. However if there is some rain, it will usually last for over a couple of weeks, these fish scoot right by and head home giving the fisherman in the bay little chance to score.

This time of the year you can get “bluebird” weather if we get a nice fall season. Or if mother nature skips a season and the summer turns directly into winter, you can very easily get wind, rain AND fog all at the same time.

Normally you will be inside the estuary enough that even a normal fall afternoon, the wind will not really effect you in the fishing area. You might however encounter more wind chop heading back from the “goal posts at the south channel” to the Westport dock if that is where you departed from. Or if from the north channel, then from #30 on up to past #44 near 28th street launch. The one good thing about this fishery is that there are many boat launches, which gives you options depending on the weather. The farther up the river you go the wind normally dissipates as you hide behind more land on the south.

If bad weather is the case, the recommendation is to have a good GPS/plotter showing the water depth, shipping channel and marker buoys. There may be times when a southerly or SW wind is blowing where your trolling may be more like side-drifting in a river if you are to maintain your course. When this happens it is hard to fish and even harder to maintain the boat, so even the most dedicated fishermen may even call it a day. Somewhere in one of the boating classes I took it said that you will not get wind and fog at the same time. Believe me here it can happen and if you are out here without good electronics, you may not end up where you think you are. Could even end up on a sandbar or worse.

The wind is blowing this boat sideways while trolling & trying to maintain a course, hence all the rods on one side

Grass : This can be a problem in the lower areas at times, especially if you are there at a high flood tide, as the weeds seem to be pushed upriver with the tide. These weeds can accumulate enough on the line to foul the swivels, therefore creating twisted gear. It is advisable to pull your gear every 15 min. or so to check it. If troubled with seaweed or grass on your line, adding a golf tee on the mainline as your uppermost gear, will help divert many weeds off and keep the swivels free. The tapered small portion of this golf tee seems to allow the weeds to be passed off, where a knot at a swivel seems to stop and hold the weeds.

Normally in the upper section normally called the “North Channel”, there will not be many floating weeds. And it is a whole lot better than the weeds encountered on Willapa Bay.

It is accessible from at least 3 or 4 decent launches, listed are, starting at the downriver one first.

(1) Westport launch –Port of Grays Harbor

(2) Johns River launch WDFW

(3) 28th Street Boat Launch — Port of Grays Harbor

(4) Wal-Mart Launch — (not recommended)

(5) Ocean Shores

Not mentioned here would be the Cosmopolis launch upstream a couple of miles of the Highway 101 bridge. This would be an option when fishing the upper section, and 28th street parking lot was full.

Westport Launch : It would probably be best for the larger boats to launch at Westport, as at Johns River, the ramp is OK even at a low tide but getting out that channel in a deeper draft boat may be a problem. The launch at Westport is next to the Coast Guard Station, go north from the stoplight on N Montesano Street, (the main street leading to the dock area) then at the Hungry Whale gas station/bait shop at the intersection of Wilson Ave., take a right heading east to its end. The parking lot will be on the right, with the launch straight ahead.

This is a good 2 lane blacktop ramp with docks, and another ramp on the north of the north dock that is not paved as far down, but still very usable. The launch fee is $5.00. There is plenty of paved and gravel parking available adjacent and to the south.

The shipyard uses this launch to launch their 100 plus foot yachts. The problem is that they have built up a flat gravel landing that goes a ways past the end of the dock. So when you have a low tide you really have to back down a long ways to get your boat off the trailer. Some boaters have had to back past the dock and really jack knife their trailer to the side to find water deep enough to get it off the trailer. It can be done IF you have a 4X4, but it’s a pain in the butt during a minus tide. All in all you should be all right, just plan around the minus tides.


Westport  boat launch in the winter at a moderate tide

Johns River Launch : This launch is on south side of the Johns River, just upriver just east of the concrete bridge at Markham. Johns River empties into the Chehalis River in Grays Harbor. Coming from Aberdeen, at Markham, and the Ocean Spray Cranberry plant, you cross the high bridge, then take the next road to the left (Johns River road), which is a short tie-in road to the old highway which parallels the newer road you just left. There will be a “Public Fishing” sign at this intersection and then again where this road intersects with the old highway. Take a left at this intersection, which will take you north and then down a hill to the river and the Johns River Recreation Area and the WDFW launch.

There are restrooms and a small parking lot at the launch with a large overflow parking field to the south and adjacent to the launch area. If you are there during a busy fall day, this launch can be hectic getting your trailer in line as there is only one way out of the overflow parking and if that road is blocked or if you happened to park your vehicle and trailer in the smaller lot at the head of the ramp, getting in line may be a problem.

This ramp is a single wide concrete slab ramp with muddy shore on both sides except at low and high tides, then there is enough rocks to beech a boat and stay out of the mud when walking up. There are some scattered piling left in the north side of that you could tie up to when waiting to recover the boat if the launch is busy.



It is best for a first timer using this launch to go out on a low tide as you can see the channel well then. It is easy to see the channel at low tide, but once the mud flats are flooded that becomes a different matter.

After launching you need to stay in the center of the river going downstream under the bridge, staying in the river channel when entering the bay you will have to still stay in the center until you pass second Ocean Spray complex and dock. There are marker piling # 3 and #1 on your right going out. Stay on the left of BUT near them. You will see hemlock poles pushed into the bottom to mark the channel out to the west side of the channel with the above mentioned piling on the east side before it enters the Chehalis. The tricky part about the JR channel is right at the confluence with the Chehalis South Channel.

Every GPS I’ve ever seen has the JR channel veering off at about 10:30 – 11:00 o’clock for the last 75-100 yards in a NNW tack. It absolutely-positively does NOT go that direction! Keep headed north aiming for the blinky and/or the giant red rock on the other side of the bay until you reach deeper water as there are shallows at low tide on each side of this channel. Better yet, follow someone who knows the way, and mark it on your GPS as you go.

A car-topper boat could be fished here if you launched from this launch, as you are coming into the upriver fishing area from the East and with a shorter run and have less exposure if the wind picks up.


Johns River at about a 0.0 Tide, with still some ramp left Ocean Spray cranberry plant with the Johns River launch in the center foreground, looking downstream & then out into Grays Harbor bay.  Photo taken at a low tide

 28th Street Boat Launch : This launch is in East Hoquiam, and will be on the upper-most section of this fishing area. It is operated by the Port of Grays Harbor. Go West on Simpson or Wishkah Ave, take a left at 28th Street, follow it less than 1/2 mile to the parking area and boat ramp. It is a good 2 lane concrete launch with dock. It has a protective upstream log breakwater. This launch also has it’s down falls during low tides.

The parking lot is limited, but you can park along the north side of the road leading into launch and the port has an overflow lot somewhat close by as you drove in. The Hoquiam River empties into the Chehalis River just downstream from this launch. No restrooms however.



28th Street boat launch

 Walmart Boat Launch ??: This launch is situated immediately downstream (west) from the Walmart parking lot, but is not accessible from that lot. You have to go past the gas pumps and take a immediate left. It appears to not be used to any degree. This launch is a 4 wheel drive show only and then for a small boat, in that the gravel appears to be not packed and loose, creating possible tire spinning as shown in the photo below on the left. Better for a car-topper boat it seems. At the same time it is probably only a higher tide launch than most fisherpersons prefer. Also the upper portion of it usually covered with debris from ranging from smaller sticks to larger logs that may have to be moved in order to use it. This picture was taken 12-08-05 and shows a Quinault Indian gill net in the left photo.

Walmart launch in Aberdeen shown between the concrete slabs Walmart launch at a +3′ tide showing lower end of launch & drop-off

Ocean Shores Boat Launch : For those that may be staying on the north side of the bay, this launch is the place to depart from. The word out was that the boat basin was sanded in and care was needed if it was accessed at a low tide. For current info I would suggest you try to contact the harbormaster or someone currently familiar with that area. I for the life of me can not see them letting it go without dredging, however the word was that it is now owned the the Quinault tribe.

I drove by in the spring of 2012 and never did find the launch. It seems that it is east of the marina office parking lot. You can not see it until you get right on it (no signs either) and is accessible by a unimproved road off the east end of the parking lot. This launch itself is situated between two concrete bulkheads.

Ocean Shores Side : During this fishery many of the salmon are heading for the Humptulips River. Not many fishermen fish this side. These fish will tend to take a left and head toward the Humptulips, which takes them past the Ocean Shores marina area. There is a somewhat wide deep area (from 40-60′) from here up to the Ocean Shores entrance that is fishable. The buoys here will be #1 & #3 right off the marina entrance. The channel to the Humptulips heads for Goose Island and is about 15′ deep with a slot about 30′ at Goose Island. Here, it may be best to fish on the incoming tide, which flushes the new fish into the river system.

However I suggest you make a exploratory run in this area at a low tide to get some GPS readings as the bay at the mouth of the Humptulips has more than one shallow channels. Do it on a low incoming tide so if you run aground you won’t be setting there for a time.

GPS Locations : This time of the year you can run into fog in the morning, for those of you with GPS the locations are listed below. The following numbers were taken off being near the actual buoys, as they were taken physically after Selective Availability was removed from the system. Readings for the last 4 buoys was taken off a GPS plotter chart. “A” buoy has been replaced with a river marker buoy #4. It may not be in the exact same position however.


Buoy “A” 46-55-02 124-06-93
Buoy “14” 46-55-27 124-06-43
Buoy “17” 46-55-29 124-04-27
Buoy “21” 46-55-29 124-03-46
Buoy “SC” 46-55-33 124-02-85
John’s River #8 46-55-50 124-00-50
Buoy “24” 46-55-59 124-01-97
Buoy “25” 46-55-70 124-01-17
Buoy “27” 46-56-48 124-00-43
Buoy “30” 46-57-47 123-58-92
Buoy “34” 46-57-69 123-57-98
Buoy “40” 46-58-10 123-55-40
Buoy “44” 46-58-04 123-54-17


There Can Also a Commercial Gill Net Fishery Here : So, go to Commercial netting schedule, Grays Harbor or to check with WDFW at the Montesano office as to when the netters are on the river, which is usually shortly after the middle of September. If you call the WDFW, be prepared for them to give you some dates and commercial areas that mean nothing to the sport fisherperson. Here is the Commercial salmon/sturgeon landings. For a map of the non-tribal commercial areas CLICK HERE.

Crabbing : If you drop off a crab pot in the bay, remember that you usually will be going out at low tide and need to allow for plenty of line to compensate for the incoming tide plus any current that accompanies it. Otherwise you may have to go back later and try to locate then pick it up on another low tide. There are commercial crab pots in the area north of buoys “15” to “21”. This water is about 20′ deep for a quite large flat area here. Another area to crab would be hang a right coming out of the boat basin and run up Elk River a short ways. There usually is not crabbing much above this point however, as the water salinity is lesser enough to discourage any crab concentration.

Ships : There is not much commercial freighter traffic in this river and with a narrow shallow channel, these large ships that do use it tend to lay and wait for the high tide before heading up or downriver. However you are more likely to encounter a barge being towed at any time. If there happens to be any commercial traffic coming thru, give them enough room, as the channel is not overly wide. In the photo below, on a foggy day, this freighter blew one long single blast about every 5 minutes as it moved up the river. The small fishing boats, still trolling, just moved to the outsides of the channel and let it go by.

Here is a inbound log freighter in the channel on a rainy, windy & foggy day


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