From Bodega Bay to Crescent City, you'll find salmon fishing opportunities and the pleasantries of small towns to be a welcome break from all of that Bay Area traffic.
Fort Bragg angler Kirk Bingman caught this Chinook while trolling a Hoochie/dodger combination.
Photo by Cal Kellogg
Hundreds of squawking sea birds take turns diving at the ocean's surface, frenetically looking to pluck a finger-sized anchovy from a baitfish school concentrated beneath them. The skipper slows the charter boat to a crawl and the mate yells, "Okay guys! Drop 'em down to 40 feet." The air is electric with expectation as everyone lowers their baits and secures their rods in rail-mounted holders. Everyone keeps their eyes pasted to their rods, which bow at the weight of 2-pound balls of lead.
Minutes drag by and then your rod suddenly snaps up straight as if it were a Marine in dress blue uniform preparing to salute the Commander in Chief. Almost as instantly it bends again, and pumps violently -- the telltale sign that a king salmon has inhaled your anchovy and triggered the sinker release. You snatch the rod and feel the surging power of a heavy Chinook as someone up the rail yells, "Fish on!"
The next thing you know the mate is behind you with a hand on your shoulder, "Keep working the reel and head for the stern," he instructs. Gaining line is nearly impossible as the salmon's weight and strength combine with the boat's forward motion. The king is determined to stay deep but the steady pressure you apply ultimately breaks the stalemate. When the fish materializes off the stern its bulk and appearance startles you. The king is thicker than your thigh! Its bluish green back and prominent black speckles give it the appearance of a massive rainbow trout on steroids. Tense seconds pass. The mate eyes the Chinook and then takes aim with the net. In one motion he scoops the fish and hauls it over the rail.
Welcome to ocean salmon fishing, Northern California-style! This scene will be repeated thousands of times between now and the end of summer, and you too can be a part of it.
With albacore, lingcod, halibut and at least a dozen varieties of rockfish available to anglers in a wide variety of places along the Northern California coast, nothing rivals the fish-catching fun, excitement and popularity of Chinook salmon. While the San Francisco Bay Area represents the center of operations for the north state's salmon fishing scene, other options do exist. Look northward and you will find a number of lesser known ports that offer abundant salmon, outstanding fishing, small crowds and ocean scenery that is second to none. Bodega Bay, Fort Bragg, Eureka, Trinidad and Crescent City are top salmon fishing destinations for anglers who possess a zest for adventure, a need for elbowroom, and a love of big Chinooks.
Alfred Hitchcock's classic film, The Birds, brought notoriety to the sleepy Sonoma County town of Bodega Bay during the '60s. These days, it's not Bodega Bay's birds but its salmon and other game fish that attract people.
Captain Rick Powers of the Bodega Bay Sportfishing Center says Bodega Bay's salmon season kicks off in April and extends through November. The area produces its biggest kings -- some to 50 pounds -- during July and early August.
Depending on conditions, either trolling or mooching produce fish for Bodega anglers. During the early season when the salmon are spread out, trolling is the way to go. Top offerings include rigged anchovies and herring, Krocodile spoons, Apex Lures, J Plugs and Hoochies. Later in the season, when the kings begin targeting concentrations of baitfish, mooching whole anchovies and herring becomes productive, and trolling will still produce plenty of fish. Mooching is popular because it allows the use of lighter tackle than that used for trolling.
Bodega Bay offers charter boats, a marina, boat ramp, lodging, food and campgrounds. For information, contact Bodega Bay Sportfishing, 707-875-3344, or the Bodega Bay Chamber of Commerce, 707-875-3422.
Visit Fort Bragg at the right time and you can experience some of the best Chinook fishing available anywhere. Fort Bragg's salmon season gets under way about mid-May and extends through mid-August, peaking from mid-June through July, when Klamath and Sacramento river kings concentrate outside Noyo Harbor.
Kings weighing more than 40 pounds are caught just outside the mouth of the Noyo. Good nearshore fishing extends about 3 miles to the north and south from the river's mouth. The nearness of the salmon makes Fort Bragg a great destination for private boaters.
This is trolling country. The preferred offerings are rigged anchovies, plug-cut herring and Hoochies, often run behind a dodger or flasher.
Fort Bragg boasts charter boats, a marina, boat ramp, food, lodging and one of the state's best campgrounds. For information contact Telstar Charters, 707-964-8770 or the Noyo Marina, 707-964-4719.
The north coast's biggest city, Eureka began life as a 19th century seaport, and a number of buildings from the Victorian era remain. Situated on Humboldt Bay, Eureka provides a unique angling experience.
Inside the bay small boaters catch crabs, California halibut, rockfish and the occasional salmon. Outside Humboldt Bay the focus for private craft and charter boats is the area's abundant salmon. The king salmon bite begins in mid-May and runs through mid-August. Early in the season limits are the rule, says Captain Larry Williams of King Salmon Sportfishing, but the fish average only 6 to 15 pounds. The kings get larger as the season progresses.
The period from mid-July through mid-August is the time for trophies. "In late July we see fish in the high '40s," Williams said. One of his clients landed a 51-pounder in 2003.
Trolling is the order of the day here. Top producers include rigged anchovies, plug-cut herring and Hoochies. Good concentrations of fish can usually be found between the mouths of the Mad and Eel rivers and near the mouth of Humboldt Bay.
The Eureka area provides charter boats, marina, three launch ramps, food, lodging and an RV park. For information, contact King Salmon Sportfishing, 707-441-9075, or the Eureka Chamber of Commerce, 800-356-6381.
On June 11, 1775, Brunu de Hezeta claimed the area for the King of Spain by erecting a cross on Trinidad Head that still stands today. With its rock-studded bay and rugged bluffs, Trinidad today is one of California's most picturesque towns. Trinidad's historic lighthouses and small population only adds to its charm.
"Schools of salmon begin arriving offshore of Trinidad in early June," says guide Trent Turner. These early salmon are typically school fish running 6 to 20 pounds. "If you want the really big fish wait until late July or early August." Early in the season limits are common. As the fish increase in size later in the season, they seem to decrease in numbers. It's a good trade.
As with other north coast destinations, trolling is the preferred method off Trinidad. Natural baits and Hoochies teamed with dodgers are effective. If you take your own boat to Trinidad the rocks around Trinidad Bay offer good rockfish and lingcod fishing minutes from port.
Trinidad provides charter boats, a boat hoist, food, lodging and a nearby campground. For information, contact the Trinidad Chamber of Commerce, 707-441-9827.
Crescent City, named for the crescent-shaped cove that forms its harbor, is in the heart of California's Redwood Empire. Deep-sea anglers that make the pilgrimage to this north coast outpost don't come for the big trees, but rather for the big fish that swim offshore. Trophy kings, lingcod and pacific halibut can be caught outside the harbor.
Salmon fishing gets hot around June 15 and stays hot through September. The biggest fish show up in July and August. If Crescent City has a drawback it's the distance you have to run to the salmon grounds. Typically you'll need to travel at least 8 miles to find the best action. Combined with the possibility of heavy fog and volatile north coast weather, private boaters have several factors to consider before venturing out. Stick with a charter boat if you question your boat's seaworthiness or your navigating skills.
Trolling pays off at Crescent City. Early in the season salmon will be found to the west near St. George Reef. As fall approaches they move inshore toward the mouth of the Smith River.
Crescent City provides charter operations, a marina, boat ramp, food, lodging, and campgrounds. For information, contact the Crescent City Marina, 707-464-6174, or the Chamber of Commerce, 707-464-3174.