From Westport to Neah Bay, Washington anglers can once again enjoy catching saltwater Chinook salmon. Here's your guide to the best places.
Photo by Dave Vedder
You don't have to be a grizzled old-timer to remember when succulent, nearly indomitable, 30-plus-pound Tyee Chinook salmon were the prize early summer catch in Washington's coastal waters. As recently as the early 1990s, it was still possible to target mature early returning Chinook in some Puget Sound waters. Spring and summer Chinook populations have been in decline for many years, however, and even when waters such as Middle Channel Bank near Port Townsend remained open, traditional summer Chinook destinations such as the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca, San Juan Islands and north Puget Sound were consistently closed until fall Chinook appeared in August. The other shoe dropped in 1999, when the federal government responded to the regionwide decline of all wild Chinook by listing Puget Sound and lower Columbia River Chinook as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Since then, coho have provided the overwhelming bulk of the summer salmon fishery in coastal waters and the western Strait, both in terms of the number of fish taken and in angling effort. Saltwater anglers closer to Puget Sound have focused most of their early summer angling attention on hatchery blackmouth. For the last decade, the best place for Evergreen State salmon fishermen to connect with a spring or summer Chinook has actually been in fresh water -- in southwest Washington's Cowlitz, Kalama and Lewis rivers.
It hasn't received that much attention, but anglers still have a chance to fish for early summer Chinook in saltwater in Washington. The fishery takes place along the Washington coast, and it is targeted at adult Chinook migrating south in late June and July. Unlike Puget Sound Chinook, the kings that return to rivers that drain the western flanks of the Olympic Peninsula are not listed under the ESA. And while southwest Washington Chinook stocks are listed, there is little natural production in the region any more, and nearly all of the salmon returning to Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay streams are cultured fish. Even more significantly, the vast majority of early-timed Chinook that support the coastal fishery are actually bound for the Columbia River or other rivers to the south, and they are also overwhelmingly hatchery kings. As a result, the state has been able to open a targeted, quota fishery along the coast without a significant impact on wild fish.
COASTAL FISHING TODAY
Of course, anglers old enough to remember the glory days on the coast won't have any problem confusing fishing in 2005 with the 1960s and 1970s. In 1974, salmon fishermen took 30,000 Chinook out of the Westport/Ocean shores area in June alone and 24,000 in July. The harvest at Ilwaco was slightly less -- 21,000 in June, nearly 16,000 in July -- but the harvest rate in early June was the highest on the coast, at nearly three Chinook daily per angler. In recent years, fewer than 15,000 Chinook have been recorded annually along the entire coast, and those numbers include fall kings as well as summer fish. Those numbers reflect both a decline in participation in the fishery and today's smaller bag limits.
Any way you look at it, having the chance fish for summer Chinook is a lot better than not being able to fish, as anyone who has ever tangled with a 30-pound king will tell you.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife manages coastal waters under Marine Areas (MA) 1 through 4, and they have all opened to Chinook fishing for several days in late June in recent years, and they remained open through summer unless quota numbers were attained.
Because there are really no hatchery blackmouth in the area, the minimum size for Chinook is 26 inches on the coast, which ensures that only 4- to 6-year-old adult salmon are harvested. There is no requirement to distinguish between wild and hatchery fish, but the daily bag is one Chinook. This has tended to dampen the interest of some anglers, who delay trips to the coast until coho numbers increase later in the season. But the allure of bright, 20-plus-pound Chinook is more than enough to pique the interest of many anglers, especially when compared to the 4- to 15-pound silvers and blackmouth.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect to Chinook fishing along the Washington coast is the wide variety of settings and techniques available. Virtually every angler will be able to find a fishing experience that matches his or her interests.
Westport and Ilwaco are famous for their highly developed charter fleets and a full range of angling services. All you have to do is show up with a sandwich and rain jacket; they take care of everything else. To the north, only a couple of charters work out of La Push, and angling services are essentially absent. The crossing from the Quillayute River mouth into the ocean is usually manageable for private boat owners. Neah Bay, which is on the Makah Reservation, offers limited sport fishing charters and services. It has been popular recently, because several miles of the extreme west end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca have been open in June and parts of July, allowing anglers with trailered boats access to Chinook in the relatively protected waters east of Cape Flattery.
The Ilwaco area (Marine Area 1) encompasses Washington coastal waters west of the Buoy 10 line at the mouth of the Columbia River and north to Leadbetter Point, at the tip of the Long Beach Peninsula. Nearly all of the salmon angling here during the early season occurs in offshore waters, rather than within the Buoy 10 fishery boundary in the estuary, where the action comes on strong later in the summer.
This is primarily a charter boat fishery, but many anglers launch their own crafts in the protected waters of Ilwaco and cross the Columbia River Bar into the ocean. The Columbia Bar is the most dangerous estuary on the West Coast, of course, especially on an outgoing tide, and the Coast Guard maintains a permanent rescue station there to cope with the boats of all sizes that get in trouble on it every year. Unless you are an expert and have a large and well-equipped boat, you are better off paying to fish. The last time I crossed the bar, the bow of our boat spent more time pointed toward the sky than the horizon, yet our charter mate called the day "pretty normal."
In recent years, anglers have taken about 750 Chinook off Ilwaco in June and early July, and an additional 800 fish in August. During the early season, anglers often range farther offshore, over a wide area northwest of Cape Disappointment. They target migrating, maturing fish in the 8- to 14-pound range.
The effort shifts closer to the Columbia later in summer when fish begin to assemble for their long runs upriver to their natal rivers. Trolling is the traditional method among charter operators at Ilwaco, and herring and anch
ovies are the most popular baits. Until a few years ago, Pink Lady dodgers and Deep Six divers were the most popular rigs, but many anglers fish downriggers today. Downriggers allow anglers to work a bait, spoon or plug at depth with excellent control.
Accommodations are available in Ilwaco. A popular base camp for anglers, Fort Canby State Park, 360- 642-3078, on the north shore of the Columbia River, offers scores of campsites. Pacific Salmon Charters (800-831-2695), Tight Lines Sportfishing (877-483-0047) and Sea Breeze Charters (360-642-2300) provide charter trips. Tackle, bait and information are available at Dave's Shell Bait and Tackle, 360-642-2320.
The "Salmon Capital of the World" is how the coastal community of Westport has described itself for decades. Literally hundreds of charter boats fished out of Westport and nearby Ocean Shores before the salmon crash of the 1980s and '90s, and tens of thousands of anglers from the Pacific Northwest and the entire nation made an annual salmon pilgrimage to the area.
The charter fleet is much reduced today as proprietors diversified to include bottomfish, albacore tuna and whale-watching trips. Despite all of the changes and an increasingly professional image, the central coast's Marine Area 2, which includes waters between Leadbetter Point on the south and the mouth of the Queets River on the north, remains the most popular and most productive Chinook destination on the coast.
The mouth of Grays Harbor, which is accessible from launches at Westport, is also a safer crossing than the Columbia, although the bar can get nasty and there are many days when only charters venture out.
Salmon fishermen took more than 4,000 Chinook during June and July and another 2,000 in early August in MA 2 during the last year for which harvest figures are available. As is the case to the south at Ilwaco, the bottom is relatively smooth and flat and relatively free of offshore features.
Chinook may be taken from a vast area off Westport in the 20- to 30-fathom range. During early summer, the waters off Port Greenville can be good. The action shifts closer to shore and south of Point Chehalis later in the season. Mooching with herring has always been the standard practice at Westport, rather than trolling, but downriggers have become more common here in recent years, as they have everywhere else in the Pacific Northwest.
Everything a saltwater salmon angler and their family could want are available in or near Westport. The Westport/Grayland Chamber of Commerce (800-345-6223) has information on accommodations, charters and tourist activities for non-anglers. Deep Sea Charters (800-562-0151), Ocean Charters (800-562-0105) and Westport Charters (360-268-9120) provide salmon trips.
The La Push Marine Area (MA 3), which runs from the Queets River to Cape Alava, is transition country along the Washington coast. Its southern portion is similar to the southern MAs, with flat, sandy shorelines and essentially featureless nearshore waters, but as you travel north of Kalaloch, you begin to encounter the looming headlands, islets and reefs of the Olympic National Park's coastal strip.
If you like a lot of elbow room when you are salmon fishing, Marine Area 3 will probably be to your liking. It contains as many salmon as any other region along the coast, but the Quileute Reservation village of La Push is the only place with either a charter fishery or a boat launch. Only a couple of charter operators work out of the harbor, and not that many private boaters use the launch at the mouth of the Quillayute River. As a result, the Chinook harvest here is but a fraction of that to the north or south. Anglers who know these waters or book a trip with a guide enjoy good fishing, and they won't see many other boats or spend the day listening to radio chatter. The Olympic Peninsula shoreline is, moreover, one of the most spectacular natural wonders in the world.
The Chinook tend to be relatively small off La Push early in the season, and they are usually taken a mile or so offshore. Much larger fish, in the 30-and 40-pound range, are caught closer to shore in July; anglers need to use extreme caution along the reefs and kelp to prevent having their boat smashed upon pinnacles and sea stacks.
The waters south of the "Rockpile" and the 20- to 30-fathom range northwest of La Push and southwest of Cape Alava are popular destinations. The boat launch at La Push is inside the breakwater jetties and is, consequently, safer than the bars at Ilwaco or Westport. But boaters still need to exercise caution, because several private boats have been lost in recent years and even a Coast Guard rescue boat went down in a rescue attempt in the 1990s.
Salmon fishing services are much more limited at La Push than at other coastal ports, although the Quileute Tribe offers accommodations ranging from cozy beach front duplexes to rustic cabins and tent sites. The La Push Ocean Park Resort (360-374-5267) has beachfront cabins, motel rooms and duplexes. Admiralty Charters (360-683-1097) and Top Notch Ocean Charters (888-501-5887) operate out of La Push. The closest tackle and fishing information is in Forks at Bob Gooding's Olympic Sporting Good (360-374-6330).
The Neah Bay Area (MA 4) offers salmon anglers two distinct fishing experiences.
The stretch of ocean between Cape Alava and Cape Flattery is a genuine marine wilderness, entirely within the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and the adjacent shoreline is all Olympic National Park or Makah Reservation. There are no towns and no roads, and the only way to fish these rich and remote waters is by launching at Neah Bay, motoring around Cape Flattery and continuing south. You are absolutely on your own out here, and only the most experienced boaters should visit these waters.
On the other hand, waters closer to Neah Bay, especially the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Tatoosh Island to the mouth of the Sekiu River, are relatively protected. They are only a short run from Neah Bay and can be fished from modest-sized boats. Even here, oceanic swells, impenetrable fog and high winds can make this area a much different experience than in Puget Sound waters.
Anglers out of Neah Bay usually take the most Chinook in June and early July, then the harvest tapers steadily through the rest of summer. Waadah Island, which is connected to the mainland by a jetty, is popular with Chinook anglers; it is only a few minutes by boat from the Neah Bay boat launch. West of Waadah, the stretch from Koitlah Point to Tatoosh is also productive.
In the ocean, the northwest corner of Tatoosh Island turns out kings, as does Skagway Rocks, a couple of miles to the south. Only a few anglers ever see the waters farther south, such as Strawberry Rock, Spike Rock and Father and Son. They contain not only large Chinook but also husky halibut, lingcod and large rockfish. I must repeat, however, that only the most experienced skippers with fully decked-out boats should even consider fishing these waters, and you should only consider it on a good long-range weather forecast.
The Makah Tribe controls
most services at Neah Bay. Accommodations are limited, but the Silver Salmon Resort (360-645-2388) and Cape Motel and RV Park (360-645-2250) are in town. Bait, tackle, boating-related gear and a fee launch are available at the Big Salmon Resort (866-787-1900). Snow Creek Resort (360-645-2284) is outside the reservation a few miles east of Neah Bay. It has cabins, RV and tent sites and a rail launch. Big Salmon Resort and Tommycod Charters (800-283-8900) offer salmon charters. The Makah Tribal Museum (360-645-2711) is a fascinating place for non-fishermen to spend the day while anglers are on the water.