Salmon Capitol of the World cranks in July
WESTPORT, Wash. – The tightly packed bait school appears as a distinctive red blob on the sounder. I quickly make adjustments to my downriggers so the tackle is passing just at the bottom edge of the bait school.
Another minute goes by and I hear the all-too-familiar sound of a rod popping off the downrigger release. As I turn around, the rod is standing straight up and then takes a vicious dive, pulling the tip into the water as the drag starts to screech out line.
“RIGHT RIGGER! RIGHT RIGGER! FISH ON!”
My guest grabs the rod and 15 minutes later I net a 28-pound Chinook, the first of three beautiful kings taken that morning trolling several miles out of the town of Westport, Washington, in the wide-open Pacific Ocean.
Local history: Westport has been known for years as the “Salmon Capitol of the World”. Literally hundreds of charter boats fished out of Westport and nearby Ocean Shores before the salmon crash of the late 1980s, and thousands of anglers from the Pacific Northwest and the entire nation made an annual summer salmon pilgrimage to this area.
The charter fleet is much reduced today. Despite all of the changes the Washington central coast’s Marine Area 2 – which includes waters between Ledbetter Point on the south and the mouth of the Queets River on the north – this area still remains the most popular and most productive Chinook destination on the Washington coast. The Westport salmon season normal gets cooking in early July, with the bulk of the Westport-caught salmon being Columbia River fish; consequently, schools of fish will tend to move southerly direction especially later into the season.
Finding fish: Look for salmon to concentrate where the bait is located, and the best fishing will be where you find schools of herring. These salmon will be actively feeding in these areas. For years, the process of finding feeding birds or marking bait on your sonar as you pass over it has translated into some long days before finding feeding salmon. One of the newest methods of locating bait is the Terrafin SST satellite chlorophyll charts. This subscription service usually used by tuna anglers to find warm water on temperature charts now includes chlorophyll charts.
Chlorophyll in the water is generally produced by plankton, so in effect you’re measuring the amount of plankton (herring food) in the water. High levels of chlorophyll indicate off-color, nutrient- rich water. Lower levels of chlorophyll indicate cleaner blue water. For ocean salmon fishing, you typically look for the nutrient rich, off-color water. You want the areas on the chart with the higher levels.
These charts will get you into the general area by providing GPS locations and distance from port to the location on the chart, but after that it’s back to locating bait by feeding birds and putting your sonar to good use to locate bait.
Bar crossing: When heading out to fish the ocean from Westport, you will be crossing the Grays Harbor Bar. Tidal exchange is the key to crossing this bar. The best time to cross is on high slack or an hour or two each side of it, but as fisherman wanting to be on the water early, that doesn’t always pan out.
The key to remember is the roughest bar crossing will occur on the last part of an outgoing tide, when the river’s outgoing water is being resisted by the ocean. The bar tends to flatten out on the incoming tide, with the flattest at the high tide change to several hours after.
The tidal exchange and offshore winds will govern how rough the bar is going to be to cross each day. When it’s rough, keep your boat speed down and be ready to throttle down as you crest waves so that you do not slam your boat into a trough on the backside of a crest you just crossed. If the ocean has been churned up by a storm, it may take several days to lie down.
Foggy conditions can make for interesting bar crossings, and those conditions can last all day at times. Good GPS and radar are worth there weight in gold. The typical wind here will come from offshore, and usually from the southwest.
It pays to be prudent when fishing the ocean: go out in groups, and if you’ve never crossed the bar before, follow a more experienced angler out the first time. Also be on alert for commercial crab pot strings just after you cross that bar – they tend to be in this shallow water when the commercial crab season is open.
The 2008 season: For me, “typical” never seems the same from year to year when it comes to ocean fishing. I have caught large Chinook right on top of the water on bright sunny days and other times fishing for them right on the deck in 120 to 150 feet of water. You just never know, so be ready to cover the water column.
You’ll find coho from right on top to down 10 to 40 feet. Coho anglers must release any coho with an intact adipose fin. Only hatchery origin coho missing an adipose fin clipped off before the fish were released as juveniles may be kept in this selective fishery.
Last year was a tough one for Chinook anglers fishing Westport, but those putting in their time were still rewarded with some nice fish. I had my best luck fishing west of the harbor in 200 to 230 feet of water.
What’s the secret to catching large 30- to 40-pound kings? With a one-fish daily Chinook limit, you have to release many keeper fish, and sometimes many in the mid- to upper 20-pound range. Sounds easy right?
Well its not: most anglers will not let a 20-pound king go and take a chance of coming home empty handed.
Herring tips: The most-used techniques for ocean salmon fishing is mooching, motor mooching and downrigger trolling. The fresh cutplug herring is the number one bait in this neck of the woods.
Begin your bait preparation with a sharp knife. Lay the herring on the cutting board with the head to the right, make one clean cut at a 45-degree angle behind the gills, with the knife slightly angled toward the tail. Remove the head and viscera from the body cavity.
Pre-tie several leaders with 3/0 and 4/0 hooks in 12- to 14-pound test about 6 to 8 feet long. Take the first hook and run it through the abdomen and out through the lateral line on the side of the herring, leaving it to hang free. Take the top hook (the 4/0) and run it out the top of spine of the herring near the front of the cut. If you did it right, it will spin like a drill bit in the water. Big kings like a tight spinning herring.
Add a 2- to 6-ounce mooching sinker (depending on the current) and you’re good to go.
Mooching: Fish the total water column while mooching by dropping your bait below where you mark bait and reeling up slowly. Or, you can watch you sonar and target feeding Chinook under the bait schools.
When you feel the “tap tap tap” on the line, just feed the bait to the fish until the rod starts to bend; a firm hook set and the fish is on.
If you’re motor mooching, start out at a slow troll and periodically take the boat out gear. Let the gear drop, then put the motor back in gear – this tends to trigger a strike.
Running ‘riggers: Trolling downriggers undoubtedly out-produces other methods. I run three electric downriggers on my 26-foot North River Salt Patrol, and they’re hard to beat for producing fish day in and day out on light tackle. If I have four anglers on board, I’ll run one Deep Six Diver right behind the kicker motor wake, not deeper then 10 feet. It not only catches coho but has produced some large kings every year.
Being able to cover lots of water with you’re tackle at a controlled depth is an extremely effective way to fish for Chinook.
My downrigger rod & reel setup is a Shimano Tekota 500LC size reel and 10 1/2-foot moderate-action downrigger rods. Rigged with 25-pound test mainline makes this a killer combination on large Chinook, and the moderate action of the rod survives the daily stress of being bent tight in a rod holder all day.
Trolling gear 1: The large-sized rotating flashers with hoochies are super producers off a downrigger as searching rigs. They create tons of noise as they rotate and will attract fish into a trolling spread from great distances. Once you locate salmon schools and start hooking up on fish, size down to smaller 8-inch flashers or even 6- to 8-inch salmon plugs.
You will catch larger fish and enjoy the fight much more then fighting the drag created by the 11-inch rotating flashers.
If you really want to enjoy the reward of a large Chinook on light tackle, its hard to beat just trolling a cutplug herring trolled solo or with a Fish Flash behind a downrigger. When the only thing between you and a large Chinook is two hooks it just doesn’t get any better.
Trolling gear 2: One of the top-producing big fish baits is a 5- to 8-inch J-Plug. These are rigged with a single swash hook, and various colors will produce. They need to be fished 45 to 50 feet behind the downrigger release clips to work correctly and produce better if trolled faster then a flasher/squid setup.
The trick to producing fish in the ocean is paying close attention to your sonar and GPS. You need to make constant adjustments to the downrigger when you locate baitfish to keep your gear at the same depth as the bait. When you mark a bait school, quick save it to the GPS so you can circle around and troll over it again.
Trolling truths: Troll with the current or across, it but not against it. Fish face into the current and will have an easier time locating your offering. Trolling speed for larger flashers is around 2 mph – just use your downrigger wire as an indicator. If you have about a 45-degree angle on it, you’re going fast enough to ensure the flasher is rotating properly to attract fish. This will keep you at the correct speed when trolling with the current.
If you’re ever in doubt, err on the side of going faster. Trust me, a salmon has no trouble catching a quickly trolled lure.
Final thoughts: As we make the all-too-familiar afternoon run back to Westport, I know it’ll continue to be one of my favorite summer fisheries. You’re always surprised by what you see out fishing the ocean: whales, blue sharks … it’s just the incredible amount of marine life and a course a chance at catching a trophy king salmon.
Like many ocean anglers say “Life begins 20 miles offshore”.
THE SALT PATROL FILE
Where: The town of Westport is located on the central Washington coast and is part of Marine Area 2 which has a northern boundary of Queets River and southern boundary of Ledbetter Point. It requires crossing the Grays Harbor Bar to access the Pacific Ocean.
How to get there: From the Seattle area, take I-5 south to Olympia, take the ocean beach exit US-101 N via exit 104 to Aberdeen. In Aberdeen, take a left onto US-12 W to Westport.
To get to the boat launch, as you come into town continue on Montesano Street, until pass the airport on the right, and next right will be a Chevron service station at an intersection. The name of this station is The Hungry Whale, turn to the east (right) on Wilson Street and the launch is about 2 blocks straight ahead. The trailer parking lot is located on the right. The Coast Guard station is between the launch and trailer parking area.
Boat Launch: The launch is maintained by the Port of Grays Harbor. It is a good three-lane concrete ramp, with nice docks. Launch fee is $5.00. Fill out the launch ticket, put your money in the envelope and drop it in the box. Moorage is available at the port office located at 327 Lamb Street, which towards town on Nyhus Street about 3 blocks. Contact number is 360-268-9665.
You can phone ahead and reserve dock space. Moorage with electrical hookups is available. Log on to www.portofgraysharbor.com for info.
Local Information: Westport/Grayland Chamber of Commerce (800-345-6223 or www.westportgrayland-chamber.org; USCG Grays Harbor Station (360-268-0121), Grays Harbor Bar forecasts (360-268-0622)
Lodging: Chateau Westport (800-255-9101), Islander Resort (800-322-1740), Coho Motel (800-572-0177), Pacific Motel & RV Park (360-268-9325), Glenacres Inn (800-996-3048).
Fishing Charters: Advantage Charters (800-689-5595), Catchalot Charters (360- 268-0323), DeepSea Charters (800-562-0151), Coho Charters (800-572-0177), Westport Charters (800-562-0157).
Tackle Shop & Bait: Englund Marine Supply (360-268-9311), located next to the boat launch, Hungry Whale Grocery/Gas (360-268-0136).
Who to call: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Region 6, Montesano Office (360-248-4628)
Regulations: Barbless hooks are required in all marine areas, only one rod per angler is allowed. Minimum retention size for Chinook is 24 inches; Coho 16 inches. Combined daily limit is 1 Chinook and 1 coho. All wild coho (attached adipose fin) must be released.
License Information: Resident 3 day license is $13, Nonresident 3 day license is $26. Annual resident license is $19.71 and an annual nonresident license is
Westport Weather information:
Wave Height – http://www.lajollasurf.org