Fish like a pro for chromer chinook in Tillamook Bay. (September 2007)
Guide David Johnson and angler Derek Pinkerton hold a big Tillamook Bay fall chinook salmon caught with plug-cut herring.
Photo by Andy Martin.
Each fall, top fishing guides from throughout the Northwest tow their boats to Oregon's Tillamook Bay, where five of the world's most fertile salmon rivers empty into the ocean.
Thousands of big, chrome-bright fall chinook stack up in the bay and stage until the major autumn rains draw them into the Wilson, Trask, Tillamook, Kilchis and Miami rivers to spawn. New fish continue to arrive in the bay for four months.
The top guides constantly return to the Garibaldi, Memaloose and Fifth Street boat ramps with limits of tasty fall kings, but many other anglers struggle in Tillamook. The massive bay is nearly 12 miles long and nearly as wide. It can be intimidating to fishermen unfamiliar with the area, uncertain what to use in each part of the bay and when to target the upper, middle and lower sections.
Yet a look at the tide book, plus advice from a few local pros can make all the difference.
Aside from the abundant fall chinook runs located just two hours from Portland, the size of the fish make Tillamook Bay one of the Northwest's most popular salmon fisheries.
"We have a reputation of producing large fish," said Keith Braun, biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"We will occasionally get some in the 60-pound range. But most of the time, you are getting a pretty good-size fish if you get one in the mid-40s," said the biologist who is based in Tillamook.
Tillamook salmon average more than 20 pounds. The total spawner escapement of the Tillamook Bay rivers is estimated to be around 20,000 to 25,000 fall chinook. About 85 percent of the fall kings are wild. Anglers are allowed to keep wild fall chinook in Tillamook.
Every experienced Tillamook angler would agree that tides are the key to finding and catching the bay's fall chinook. Tides also indicate when the first big push of fish will show up.
"The second high-tide sequence of September is when it starts," said Buzz Ramsey, the legendary lure designer for Luhr Jensen who now works for Berkley and Abu Garcia.
"If you are marking off a calendar and telling your wife these are the days you are going to be fishing, you should plan them on those high-tide sequences."
Fishing generally picks up in mid-September in Tillamook and continues through October and into November and December, or until heavy rains flood the rivers and draw all the salmon upstream.
When Ramsey decides to head to his cabin along the Wilson River to spend a week fishing Tillamook Bay, he waits for a series of the highest high tides of the month, which will bring salmon holding offshore into the bay. In timing the tides, Ramsey -- and many successful guides -- will fish the lower bay during small tide exchanges and the upper bay during large changes between high and low tide.
"If it's a large tide fluctuation, go to the upper bay and be prepared to fish on those salmon when they are concentrated at low tide," Ramsey says. "High tide isn't necessarily the best time to fish. When the tide goes out, and there is a lot of fish stacked in the channel, that can be some of the best fishing of the year."
As an example, there is a 7.6-foot high tide around midnight on Sept. 26, and at dawn, the tide is 0.1 feet.
That 7 1/2-foot swing in tides should produce good fishing in the upper bay.
The hotspot during a big tide swing is Memaloose Point, located near where the Tillamook, Trask and Wilson rivers all join the bay.
"Where you have those three systems coming in, when that tide goes out, the salmon are going to be concentrated in the channel," Braun said.
Anglers will arrive early in the morning to launch at Memaloose, a county boat ramp, but it can get crowded. The Fifth Street launch in Tillamook is about a mile away, but anglers willing to boat down the Trask River tidewater to Memaloose often don't have to worry about finding a parking spot.
In the upper bay, the last two hours of the outgoing tide, low slack and then the first hour of the incoming tide often produce the best fishing.
While salmon have plenty of room to move about in the lower bay, the upper bay funnels salmon in the channel as the bay narrows.
During small exchanges -- such as days when the high tide is less than 6 feet and the low tide is around 3 1/2 feet -- guides like Val Perry of Perry's Fishing Adventures will be working the lower bay.
"On smaller tides," Perry said, "I have a tendency to fish the lower bay, either at the Ghost Hole or in between the jetties."
Regardless of the tide, one lower-bay spot nearly every guide tries to hit, is the Ghost Hole, a 12- to 22-foot deep section of the bay beside Highway 101 between Garibaldi and Bay City. It always seems to produce fish at dawn. A morning low or high slack can be unbelievable at the Ghost Hole.
If the tide is continuing to come in, the Ghost Hole or Coast Guard Hole, right in front of the Tillamook Coast Guard station, are good places to hit.
Anglers with bigger boats will also head across the bar into the ocean during an incoming tide, but will hurry back in before the tide starts pushing out and making the mouth of the bay rough.
During an outgoing tide, lower-bay anglers have learned to fish along the north jetty, pointing their bows uptide and holding in the current, basically back-trolling their baits behind the boat. "Along the north jetty on an outgoing tide is a great place to back-troll and wait for the fish to come moving through," Perry said.
3 BEST BAITS
Plug-cut herring, large spinners and sardine-wrapped FlatFish or Kwikfish plugs are the go-to baits, depending which area of Tillamook Bay you are fishing. Herring works best in the lower bay, while spinners are productive in the middle and upper sections.
Plugs are the top choice of anglers who anchor at the mouths of the Trask, Wilson and Tillamook rivers and who fish the steady flow bet
ween high or low tides.
Before trolling herring, anglers will brine them since they hold up better after being plug-cut. If using whole herring, green-label baits are the best choice. Purple- and blue-label herring work best for plug-cut baits. A plug-cut herring has a flash and spin that big salmon just can't seem to resist. The baits also release more scent.
"I like the biggest herring I can get," Perry said of the baits he'll be plug-cutting.
A basic brine consists of bottled water (you don't want the chlorine in tap water) and rock salt. Let the baits soak in the brine overnight. While fishing, store them in an ice chest to keep them as cold as possible. Soft, mushy bait is nowhere near as productive as fresh, clean bait.
For trolling herring in Tillamook Bay, the best set-up is an 8 1/2- to 10 1/2-foot rod rated for 20- to 30-pound-test line and able to handle 6 to 10 ounces of weight, combined with a level-wind reel spooled full of 20- to 30-pound monofilament or 65-pound-test braided line.
A rod with a softer tip and moderate to slow action works best when trolling herring, since a fast-action rod will often result in fish letting go when biting after immediately feeling resistance.
"The salmon are going to chomp, chomp, chomp," Perry said of the bite. "If you jerk too quickly, you are going to miss a lot of them."
The new 8 1/2-foot Ugly Stik Lite rated for 12- to 30-pound-test, or the 9-footer rated for 15- to 40-pound-test, works well for Tillamook Bay's big salmon. It allows the salmon to mouth the bait without feeling the rod. And by the time the rod is loaded up, the fish is hooked.
The combination of graphite and fiberglass in the rod allow the salmon to pull down on the bait without feeling the rod pull back.
The basic Tillamook trolling rig includes a spreader or large 3-way swivel tied to the mainline. A 6- to 8-foot leader is tied to two solid-tie hooks. Eagle Claw has developed a stainless steel, thin-wire hook exclusively for Tillamook Bay. The hooks hold up to the saltwater conditions. They easily pass through the herring when hooking them and don't tear them up.
Size 2/0 to 5/0 are used. When using plug-cut herring, it's vital to add a bead-chain swivel halfway down the leader to avoid line twist.
Many guides will also add another bead-chain swivel directly to the 3-way swivel or spreader where the leader is attached.
A 1- to 3-foot dropper is attached to the other end of the swivel or spreader to attach the weight. Depending on current, 4 to 8 ounces of lead are generally used. But up to 12 ounces may be used on an outgoing tide along the jetties.
When trolling herring, move just fast enough to keep the herring spinning. Because salmon will often let go of a herring if they feel any resistance, many guides will have their clients lower their baits to the bottom, reel in one turn, and then place the rods in their holders to prevent a premature hookset. Watch for weeds or other debris catching on the line.
Tillamook guide David Johnson has his clients regularly check their gear. By being vigilant about keeping them weed-free, they often enjoy some of the highest catch rates in Tillamook Bay.
Unlike herring fishing, when you troll spinners, an immediate hookset is required. Because of this, most Tillamook Bay guides will have their clients hold onto their rods when trolling spinners.
"When spinner-fishing, two-thirds of my strikes are slack-line bites," Perry said. "A lot of times, the chinook will grab the spinner and go forward and give you some slack line.
"Anytime you feel slack line, you want to jerk as hard as you can."
Well-known Tillamook guide Bob Toman has developed a series of spinners manufactured by Worden's Lures, the same company that makes Spin-N-Glo, Rooster Tails and FlatFish. A size 6 1/2 or 7 Cascade blade and a size 13 BT Thumper are the most popular Tillamook spinners.
The unweighted spinners have large painted or metallic blades and a few beads.
"The go-to thing is red and white," Buzz Ramsey said. "That's what a lot of people use."
If it's a real hard overcast, red-and-white, chartreuse-and-white and chartreuse with green dots work well. If the sun is out, it's good to have something with at least a metallic back, or a spinner that is part metallic. That's when metallic or a metallic and paint combination works, Ramsey said.
A lightweight graphite rod with a faster action is an ideal spinner rod. Pflueger's 8 1/2-foot Trion rated for 8- to 20-pound-test is a good choice.
Since spinners are most popular in the upper portion of Tillamook Bay, where it's shallower, only 1/2 to 1 ounce of weight fished off a dropper is needed. In the shallow flats between holes, flat-lining the spinners without weight can be productive.
"We've had times when we've caught salmon in only 2 to 3 feet of water," Ramsey said about trolling near Memaloose. "It's amazing how many fish will be between the holes."
Although it's often hit or miss, one of the easiest ways of catching Tillamook Bay salmon in the upper bay is to anchor near the mouths of the Trask or Tillamook rivers and run plugs. Size T50 FlatFish work best, while K15 Kwikfish are also a good choice. Productive colors include chrome with a chartreuse bill, chrome with a chartreuse tail and bill, and Fickle Pickle, a metallic chartreuse.
A fillet of fresh sardine is tied onto the belly of the plug to add scent. "You want a real oily wrap," Ramsey said. "Make the bait one-third the length of the lure, put it skin-side down and balance it. Wrap it a lot to leach more scent out. Change the wrap every hour or so."
Anglers anchor when the tide starts running in or out. The current gets the plugs to dive.
A rod similar to what's used for trolling herring works best. When salmon hit the plugs, they will turn them in their mouth. As in herring fishing, it's best to let the salmon eat the plug before setting the hook.