Biggest fish of blackmouth season
PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. – The sky was gun-metal gray and sullen, the distant, snow-covered Olympic Mountains seemed devoid of life and the chilly winter breeze blew salt-tinged mist into my face. Blinking hard, I reassessed my surroundings.
My Lowrance electronics told me I was where I needed to be. Despite that, I revisited the mental checklist:
Three miles from the city of Port Townsend. Check.
Downriggers trolling just off the bottom in a 120 feet of water. Check.
Diving birds and tons of baitfish dimpling the surface of the Puget Sound. Check.
Everything was right, but the fog hung over me like a cloud of uncertainty. Only when my fishing partner’s rod bent over, throbbing with a large winter blackmouth – followed seconds later by my own – did I stop second guessing my whereabouts. Mid Channel Bank, located on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula has the ability to mess with your brain like that.
Bank on it
During its peak, the Bank – the narrow chute that cuts through Admiralty Inlet – acts like a funnel for all salmon returning to the Puget Sound. It’s not unusual to see winter blackmouth caught up to 20 pounds early in the season; and the spring kings that pass through the expanse of water that separates the Olympic Peninsula and Whidbey Island can weigh well up into the upper 20s later in the season after gorging on baitfish for two solid months.
The bigger salmon are taken near the closure date, around mid-April. That, combined with the great fishing for blackmouth from February and March, makes Mid Channel Bank one of the premier winter blackmouth fisheries in the state of Washington.
Finding your fish
Many first-time Mid-Channel Bank anglers are surprised to learn that the best fishing doesn’t take place on the Bank itself, which is nothing more than an underwater plateau that stretches from Marrowstone Point to the Fort Worden Lighthouse. Certainly it can offer some quality fishing, however the depths are comparatively shallow. It’s 50 to 60 feet deep here, which doesn’t compare to the prime fishing water outside the bank (where it’s not uncommon to take fish in 90 to 140 feet of water). Most of the blackmouth you catch will be taken within a couple of cranks of, or right on, the bottom.
Along with funneling salmon through the Admiralty Chute this fishery is also a collection area for baitfish. South of Port Townsend, candlefish spawn on a series of flats, giving the salmon plenty of reason to hang around. When the schools of bait are concentrated in the open water, which happens frequently, salmon bust through them with abandon. These flats are troughs for the blackmouth, and finding these schools of candlefish can lead to some of the area’s most spectacular fishing.
Troll ‘em up
Over the past 15 years, I’ve tried just about every method there is. They all work, but none better than trolling with a Scotty downrigger. Mooching bait was once an extremely popular way to fish here, as was jigging, however modern-day Scotty downriggers have since taken over as the method du juor. You not only cover a lot of water, but trolling allows you to get your lure in front of the more actively feeding fish. Given the expanse of fishing grounds here, that is key.
The trick I’ve found is to be on the bottom. When I say “on the bottom”, I mean ON THE BOTTOM. Don’t be afraid to bounce your downrigger ball on the bottom. In fact, a lot of times I like to take the boat out of gear, and then drag the weight along the bottom again before putting it back in gear. This stop/go/flutter motion can really get a stubborn blackmouth to hit a lure. Otherwise my lures are close to the bottom where the salmon are holding.
Reading the signs
It’s important to watch your sonar close for bait balled up on the bottom. Often you’ll find blackmouth actively feeding near the bottom under the schools of bait. Don’t expect to find fish suspended early in the season, and look for seabirds crashing into bait balls on the surface. The Rhinoceros Auklet will almost always be on top of the schools of bait, and seagulls and Ancient Murrelets will be close behind. This is an obvious indicator that schools of baitfish are nearby, which in turn attracts salmon.
Fishing the right stage of the tide is also important when salmon fishing here. Instead of a tide change, I like to fish during a good tidal exchange. The best tides to fish have a 3- to 7-foot exchange. Big tides move the baitfish to calm water near kelp beds, or in the extremely deep water. The best fishing is going to be one hour before the tide change, through the change, and again one hour after the tide change. Always troll with the tide and when you reach the end of the troll pickup you’re gear, run up and repeat the process.
Over the years, I’ve found that running a flasher and lure 15 feet behind my 15-pound downrigger ball is most effective. I prefer to fish the Silver Horde Coho Killer spoon, a clone of the small candlefish. Rig it 42 inches behind a HotSpot flasher, give it a liberal coating of anchovy scent and troll it between 2 and 3 miles per hour. The other setup I’ll troll is a Needlefish size squid rigged with two 4/0 hooks. Tie this with 40 inches of 50-pound clear monofilament line behind a large flasher, preferably a ProTroll glow flasher, when you want to try something different.
Adding scent to your lures can make a world of difference. A good lathering of Smelly Jelly will do the trick
Jigging and mooching is still used and people catch fish all the time using these methods. That’s because they’re proven, and they work. Mooching, free flowing with the tide with a herring at a 45 degree angle below your boat, is best when the fish are suspended. When I can find suspended fish, I’ll mooch red label herring, or candlefish if I can find it, tied on a two-hook mooching rig with size 1/0-2/0 hooks. Use a crescent-shaped sinker and a 7-foot leader.
I like to spool my reel with 20 pound mono and 10 pound leader material. After locating a school of fish, either on your sonar or by seabirds feeding, mooch your way through floating with the tide. Again, the best time to mooch is during a good tidal exchange.
Jigging, meanwhile, was the mainstay of this fishery for years. In fact the Point Wilson Dart, one of the region’s most popular saltwater jigs, was developed for this fishery in 1981. Its popularity continues still today. Its namesake, Point Wilson, is a crucial fishing spot located just north of Port Townsend. Jigging continues to be one of the most effective methods here, especially when the salmon are concentrated feeding on the candlefish. When this kicks into gear I like to fish Point Wilson Darts in green, blue and nickel color combinations. Have a variety of sizes ranging between 3 and 6 ounces.
New on the scene in the past year is the all new Shimano Butterfly jigging system. This new system fishes on the way up not on the drop unlike older style lead jigs. It incorporates new style light rods with fast reels and I have found it very deadly technique for salmon fishing.
My reels are spooled with 50-pound super braid. I attach 8 feet of 25-pound leader using a swivel to connect the two.
The best mooching and jigging locations are on the center, and near the south end of the ‘bank. The steep underwater ledges are much better suited for this style of fishing.
Wind is an issue when fishing Mid-Channel Bank. There are times the winds kick up without warning, especially the prevailing westerly winds. During the winter you’ll experience strong south winds. When you’re getting bounced like a cork, don’t pack it up. Instead head to Port Hudson, located near the town of Port Townsend. Trolling across to Marrowstone Point can prove deadly here at times. In fact, I have taken many fish during windy days when you can’t fish the Bank.
Motor mooching a herring just off the town waterfront can score fish too. Don’t be afraid to move south and fish Admiralty Inlet near Mats Mats bay. It’s a short run through the cut on the south end of Indian Island from Port Townsend. Troll this area in the 90- to 120 feet of water in front of Mats Mats Bay entrance.
Most of the fishing I’ve described requires a good-size boat that’s capable of handling big water. On calm seas and in smaller boats, launching at Fort Worden State Park will put you onto the fishing grounds without requiring a long run in the open water. And if you’d prefer to stick close to shore, consider fishing in front of town just before dark. There is a great evening fishery just before dark. Troll a cut plug herring with a 1-ounce lead right where the lights of the town shine on the water. The city lights attracts lots of baitfish and where there is bait the salmon will follow.
Need to know: rules, regs, info
Regulations: The Mid-Channel Bank fishery falls within Marine Area 9 (Admiralty Inlet) under the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regulations. The Marine Area 9 consists of all waters inside and south of the Partridge Point – Point Wilson line, south and west of a line from Possession Point 110 degrees true to shipwreck, north of the Hood Canal Bridge, and north of the Apple Cove Point-Edwards Point line.
Season: The winter salmon season here for chinook runs from 16 January to April 15 in 2008.
Limit: The daily limit is two chinook over 22 inches. Release all wild chinook. Single-point barbless hooks only. Closed south and west of a line from Foulweather Bluff to Olele Point.
Fishing Licenses: Resident fishing licenses cost $21.90 and non-resident licenses cost $43.80. A saltwater fishing license, which is needed to fish the marine waters, costs $19.71 for residents, and $39.42 for non-residents. A two-day combination license may be purchased allowing anglers to fish in both freshwater and saltwater. Licenses may be purchased over the Internet at http://fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov; or by phone by calling (866) 246-9453. Licenses are issued on a uniform April 1 through March 31 cycle rather than by calendar year.
Boat Ramps: From the Port Townsend side launch your boat right in town at the Port Townsend boat basin. Cost to launch $?. Point Hudson, Mats Mats Bay, There’s a boat launches available at Fort Worden State Park (360-385-4730), Fort Flagler State Park (360-385-1259), Mystery Bay State Parks, Oak Bay County Ramp. Each charges launch fees.
Camping: Fort Worden State Park (360-385-473) and Fort Flagler State Park(360-385-1259) have RV hookups and Fort Casey, Fort Ebey and Fort Worden have tent sites.
Contact: The local Fish-In-Hole tackle shop at the end of the pier in Port Townsend and is wealth of information on Mid Channel Bank fishery. They can be reached at (360) 385-7031. For other inquiries call the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in Montesano (360) 249-4628.
Directions: Take U.S. Highway 101 to Discovery Bay. Turn north on Highway 20 and follow it to Port Townsend.
Lodging: Harbor Side Inn Motel (800) 952-5960.
Moorage: Guest moorage is available at the Port of Port Townsend next to the main boat ramp. Call the main office (360) 385-2355 to reserve space.
Basic Gear: You’ll need good electronics, downriggers and a boat that’s capable of running in heavy winter water.
Trolling Tackle: The best trolling rod is a 10.5 foot medium heavy rod and a level-wind reel spooled with 20 pound test. Silver Horde Coho Killer spoons, 11 inch Pro-Troll glow flashers, Needlefish size squids..
Jigging Tackle: A Shimano Trevala 50-100lb butterfly rod with a sensitive tip and heavy backbone is critical for jigging. I use Shimano Trinidad 16N level wind reel spooled with 50lb super braid line, Shimano Butterfly jigs in a variety of sizes ranging between 3 and 6 ounces.
Mooching Tackle: Bring red label herring, or candlefish if they’re available, tied on a two-hook mooching rig with size 2/0-3/0 Mustad fine wire hooks. Use a crescent-shaped sinker and a 7-foot leader.