Tactics for Chinook Salmon Fishing in Oregon's Rogue Bay
July 11, 2011
Watching intently as one of the workers at the Rogue Outdoor Store in Gold Beach, Ore., showed them how to thread an anchovy onto a leader with a spinner blade, three visiting fishermen from the Medford area asked questions about where to troll and how much weight to use. The trio heard reports of big Chinook salmon being caught — lots of them — at the mouth of the Rogue River, home of the famous Rogue Bay summer salmon fishery. The cool ocean breeze in Gold Beach was welcome relief from the hot late-July weather inland, and thoughts of catching big, bright salmon prompted the group to head to the coast and get in on the action.
They weren't alone. Dozens of boats were already on the water when they launched, trolling the anchovies and spinner blades. Every few minutes a net would fly into the air as several guides working the lower bay enjoyed a hot bite of ocean-fresh kings near the sand spit.
For the past five years, while many of Oregon's coastal bays have produced less-than-stellar fall Chinook salmon fishing, the Rogue Bay has been a bright spot. It is consistently one of the best bay fisheries on the West Coast. And this year, it appears the trend will continue.
"On a typical year, if we have 50,000 fish coming into the Rogue, we are looking at 4,000, or 5,000 or even 6,000 fish being caught," says Todd Confer, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist in Gold Beach. "There are a lot of fish available to catch in the Rogue. It's been one of the best fisheries over the last few years on the coast. The runs are robust enough we can meet our escapement goals."
Fish are caught throughout the Rogue, from the mouth all the way to Lost Creek Dam, more than 100 miles upriver, but it's the Rogue Bay that produces the bulk of the catch. It has the perfect conditions to catch salmon, and fish are present for a long time, often for more than three months.
Aside from a healthy number of fall-run kings, the Rogue has a well-earned reputation of producing big fish as well. It has one of the highest average sizes in Oregon for fall-run salmon. Fish over 30 pounds are common. Even 40-pounders fail to get a double-take. People come to the Rogue with hopes of hooking into a 50-plus-pounder, and it happens multiple times each season. It often takes a fish over 50 pounds to raise eyebrows. Salmon to 70 pounds are not unheard of. The Rogue produced the world record fly-caught Chinook, a 71-pounder, caught in the fall of 2002. The same year, a 68-pounder was caught in the bay.
The Rogue Bay also has one of the longest summer and fall salmon fisheries anywhere, typically beginning in late June or early July, peaking in August and early September, and continuing through October.
Almost every July, a few giant kings are caught in the bay, along with an assortment of 10- to 30-pounders. August produces the hottest action, with some days yielding more than 100 fish to the flotilla of jet boats, cartoppers and drifts boats with motors trolling the bay. Over 200 fish a day being caught in August is not unheard of. By September, the average size of fish increases, as more 4-, 5- and even 6-year-old fish bound for the lower portion of the Rogue or the Illinois River, a major Rogue tributary, show up. Big fish continue to move into the bay in October, along with a large batch of 15- to 20-pound cookie cutters headed to Indian Creek Hatchery.
This year, like the past four or five, a healthy run of fall kings is expected in the Rogue. High water from a dam removal project caused fits for anglers in 2010, but fishing is expected to be back to normal this year, which means hookups will be common and dozens of fish will cover the fillet station tables each afternoon.
The majority of the Rogue's fall salmon are wild fish. They spawn in the tributaries near Grants Pass, including the Applegate River, and in the mainstem itself. Those fish often enter the bay in July and August, and stack up, waiting for the days to get a little shorter before heading upstream. New fish continue to arrive throughout the season, with many of the September and October fish spawning in the lower portion of the river.
The fishery gets a late-season boost in October, when the only hatchery Chinook arrive and return to Indian Creek. The Indian Creek Hatchery is located on a small creek that flows into the tidewater of the Rogue, and before rains allow the fish to complete their spawning run they stage in the bay.
Coho also show up in big numbers in September and October.
August is the peak month for Rogue Bay salmon fishing, since new fish show up every day on each tide, and the salmon stack up, waiting for the right time to leave the bay, head through the canyon and complete the 100-mile swim to their spawning grounds. Warm water in the river keeps the fish in the brackish water of the bay until rains and fall weather cool the Rogue's upstream temperatures. The cool ocean water mixing with the warmer river flows creates a safe haven for the salmon as they hold and wait before continuing upstream. With thousands of salmon stacking up in the bay, fishing can be phenomenal.
Most of the Rogue's fall kings head south during the ocean portion of their lifecycle, feasting on anchovies and herring off the extreme Southern Oregon and Northern California coasts. Their southerly migration is thought to be a factor in why the fishery has been so strong in recent years, while the northern-migrating fish from the Tillamook, Nestucca and Nehalem systems have generated somewhat slower fishing.
"I expect to see numbers real similar to last year," Confer says of the 2011 Rogue Bay fishery. "Pretty decent numbers."
When salmon fishing is at its peak, it not uncommon for many guides and local anglers to have multiple fish days, often limiting their boats, or at least getting a fish per person.
The Rogue Bay is a troll fishery. It's too shallow to mooch, and doesn't have the holes for bobber fishing like the North Coast of Oregon. The vast majority of boaters troll what is known as a Rogue Bait Rig, a spinner blade fished above an anchovy. A few anglers troll plug-cut herring, but the spinner bait rigs really shine here.
For decades, guides trolled plain anchovies. In the early 1990s, the secret of the most successful local guides was discovered — Rogue salmon can't seem to resist a green or metallic spinner blade fished above an anchovy. The concept is used by walleye fishermen back east who put a blade in front of a nightcrawler. The guides who developed the Rogue salmon rig also learned threading a loop through the anchovy's mouth and out the vent and then adding a treble hook led to a lot more hook ups, and helped create a super-tight drill bit spin that Rogue salmon like. The tighter, and faster the spin, the better.
Guides kept the spinner-bait rig a relative secrete for a few years, but in the late 1990s, a crew from the tackle manufacturer Luhr-Jensen fished the Rogue and saw what the local guides were using. The company developed a copy of the local rig, sold as the Rogue Bait Rig, which became a top seller for fishing bay and tidewater salmon in Southern Oregon.
When rigging a Rogue Bait Rig, use a round-bend treble with a straight point, such as a size 2 Eagle Claw L934. A small single hook is used as a nose hook. Anglers will use a rubber band to keep the mouth and gills of the anchovy closed, enabling the bait to spin tight and fast.
Custom-tied Rogue Bait Rigs are available at the Rogue Outdoor Store, where a large selection of blades also can be found. Greens and chartreuses work well on cloudy days, while copper is a favorite in the fog and silver is preferred on sunny days. The last few years a dark green blade on the front and back has been popular, especially with the G Spot hole to increase vibration.
A bait threader is needed to pull the loop from the bait rig through the anchovy.
Most guides troll with a wire spreader, using a 5- to 6-foot leader and a 15- to 18-inch dropper. A bead chain swivel placed halfway down the leader will help eliminate the twists caused by the tightly spinning bait. Since the Rogue often has a large amount of moss and sea weed, local anglers usually add a clear plastic cover to the bead-chain swivel.
Under most conditions, 2 to 3 ounces of weight works well on the Rogue. Sometimes 4 ounces is needed. During a swift outflow near the sand spit, even heavier weights are used.
The bay is shallow, with many of the fish caught in 4 to 6 feet of water. Unlike some bays, Rogue anglers will troll both directions — upstream and downstream.
An 8 1/2- or 9-foot rod rated for 12- to 25-pound test works well on the Rogue. The longer 10-foot and 10 1/2-foot rods can be troublesome when it gets crowded. Wright & McGill's new salmon moocher, a 9-footer rated for 12- to 25-pound test with a moderate-fast action is a good choice. It allows a salmon to bite down on a bait for a few seconds before the rod loads up and the fish is hooked.
Frozen anchovies are available at the Rogue Outdoor Store, McKay's Market, Lex's Landing and Jot's Resort in Gold Beach. Many anglers will fish the anchovies right out of the package, but most guides brine their baits in a mix of bottled water, rock salt and Mrs. Stewart's bluing. Baits are brined in a plastic container and kept in a small ice chest to keep the anchovies cold. Six- to seven-inch anchovies seem to work best on the Rogue.
Before fishing the Rogue for the first time, watch were the guides are fishing. Look at the directions they troll. Many will troll upriver on the south side and go back down on the north side.
Typically, the fishing is best high in the bay at high tide, and low in the bay at low tide.
Directly above the Highway 101 bridge, the river shallows to just a few feet in some places, before dropping off by the power lines and up along the mouth of Indian Creek and the Riverview Restaurant. The deepest water begins on the north side, below Lex's Landing, and then toward the south bank and the restaurant.
Below the bridge, the deeper areas are in front of Jot's, then across to the mouth of the boat basin, and then again to the north side near the sand spit. Don't troll from the Coast Guard station to Jot's on the north side — it's too shallow. Same thing from the boat basin to the bridge on the south side. It shallows up quickly.
The Rogue usually has a good bite near the sand spit an hour before low tide to the first few hours of the incoming tide. It can get crowded, but fish are usually caught near the spit and along the jetty near the boat basin entrance. The fish will move upstream, above the bridge as the tide rises, and then retreat back to the lower bay when it turns again.
When trolling the Rogue Bay you want your bait near the bottom, but not on it. About a foot to 15 inches above the bottom is best. Your weight should tap bottom fairly frequently, but not continually drag. Because the bay is shallow, most anglers will troll fast enough to keep the weights just off the bottom. That's why the 12- to 15-inch dropper is used from a wire spreader.
The majority of anglers fishing the Rogue Bay launch at the Port of Gold Beach, where the best boat ramp is located. It has two loading docks and a vast parking area. The ramp can get crowded at dawn, but there are several prep areas to load gear, put in drain plugs and ready boats before launching.
There are private, pay launches at Jot's Resort and Lex's Landing on the north side of the river.
BANKING ON IT
The Rogue Bay is primarily a boat fishery. More than 90 percent of the salmon landed each year are by boaters. Anglers without a boat can rent them at Jot's Resort.
Fish can be caught from shore, however. Some anglers will fish from the sandspit near the mouth of the bay, tossing large spoons or spinners. The North Jetty also is a good place to toss spinners and spoons.
Bank anglers also score on the north side of the river above the Highway 101 bridge near the mouth of Indian Creek. Aside from casting spoons and spinners, such as large Kastmasters, Little Cleos and Blue Fox spinners, anchovies or sand shrimp fished below a bobber will work.
Above the bay, below the old mill site on Jerry's Flat Road, is a location that is known as Cannery Riffle. At times it produces excellent catches for shore anglers drifting Corkies and yarn.
Anyone who has fished Gold Beach knows it can get windy. To avoid the wind, fish early, from daylight to noon. On days when it is not windy, plan on fishing well into the afternoon, as the afternoon low tide often produces the best bite of the day.
While temperatures in Southern Oregon often top 90 degrees in July and August, the Oregon coast is cool. Highs in the mid-60s to lower 70s are common. Morning temperatures can dip below 50 degrees, so dressing in layers is important.
There is little shade on the bay, so sunscreen, sunglasses and hats are vital to avoid a sunburn.
Salmon anglers can keep two adult salmon over 24 inches each day, including wild fish. Up to five jacks, which are smaller salmon under 24 inches, also may be kept a day. The bay is open to salmon fishing year-round.
For up-to-date information on the Rogue Bay, contact the Rogue Outdoor Store at (541) 247-7142. It is located on Highway 101 and is a great place to stop in and see how to rig up and learn where to fish. Dozens of motels are located in Gold Beach within two miles of the Rogue Bay. For guides, visit www.wildriversfishing.com.