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Tidewater Trolling Tips for Fall Chinook Success

Looking to expand your fall Chinook fishing repertoire? These tips on trolling in bays and river mouths will help.

Tidewater Trolling Tips for Fall Chinook Success

Photo by Scott Haugen

Over the puttering motor, my dad suggested we bring in the gear and move the boat. The tide started going out, and with only one more fall chinook needed to fill our limits, it was a good move.

As we started trolling downstream with the tide and current, I let my spinner out. Almost immediately a hefty chinook attacked it. Minutes later we were hoisting a 23-pound salmon into the boat, marking a fitting end to a great morning on the water.

Dad and I have shared many fishing memories over the past 50-plus years. I've also had the good fortune of pursuing fall chinooks with some of the West's top salmon guides, all of whom have a lot to offer when it comes to learning this tidewater fishery.

West Chinook
The chance to catch big, bright chinooks is what draws anglers like Mike Perusse to the Columbia’s famed Buoy 10 fishery. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN'

"Downstream trolling is my favorite approach when it comes to catching fall chinook on the lower Sacramento River," says J.D. Richey, who has been guiding for many years on this river between Rio Vista and the city of Sacramento.


"I exclusively troll downstream on the lower Sac in order to cover more water and find fish," Richey says. "There's no real holding water in this stretch, so the more water you can cover, the better. My goal is to meet salmon as they're moving upstream. You can catch these chinook any time of day, but my most productive times are going into and out of a high tide, especially if that happens early in the morning."


Richey prefers trolling 11-inch Pro-Troll Flashers, and feels he optimizes gear control when moving downstream with the current. Behind a Pro-Troll, Richey relies on Brad's Super Bait Cut Plugs filled with tuna. Black Jack is the plug pattern of choice for Richey.

While chinook are in the Sacramento River in August, Richey doesn't start targeting them until conditions cool down in September. "When that water temperature is above 70 degrees, I really lose confidence in a chinook consistently biting anything. But from September through November, we're on the lower Sac as much as possible."

West Chinook
Herring is just one of many bait options for fall chinooks. Be sure to check regs for local restrictions on number of hooks allowed and barbless requirements. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

CENTRAL COAST KICKOFF

For anglers eager to start their fall chinook fishing sooner rather than later, the Oregon Coast is where it's at. From the Rogue to the Umpqua to countless other rivermouths and bays, Oregon is home to many fall chinook fisheries, and fish start entering these rivers in August. Of course, separating Oregon and Washington is the most prized drainage of all when it comes to fall chinook salmon—the mighty Columbia River.

I've fished the lower Columbia a lot over the past 20 years with many friends and guides alike. When it comes to guides, Austin Moser is dialed in. When asked about where to start fishing famed Buoy 10 waters out of Astoria, Moser begins by focusing on tides.


"Closely watch the tides, and time it so you can fish two tides in a day," he says. "If you can fish an early-morning incoming tide then follow the salmon back downstream on an outgoing tide, your chances of catching more fish will increase."

This is good advice when fishing any tidal zone for salmon.

THE HARDWARE

A couple seasons ago Moser made the switch to Pro-Trolls and has had great success with them for both chinooks and cohos on the Columbia. "I like using a helmet on my anchovies, specifically a Rhys Davis Anchovy Special in chrome with a red stripe," Moser says.


He also uses Pro-Cure's Brine & Bright to firm-up the anchovies, and run baits on a short 30-inch leader. On really heavy tides, especially a big incoming push, Moser goes back to what he’s used for years—a Big Al's Fish Flash.

I’m also a fan of the Big Al’s Fish Flash and have used them with success in multiple bays and river mouths up and down the coast for years. Legendary angler Buzz Ramsey first introduced me to the Fish Flash five years ago.

"I'm a firm believer that the more hardware you have in the water, the more fish you'll catch," says Ramsey. "Remember, these salmon are voracious predators at sea, and they key in on massive schools of baitfish, so the more flash, the better."

Features I like about the Fish Flash are their rounded edges, which won't harm your line, and their thin design, which allows them to be trolled surprisingly slowly. I also like their stainless-steel grommets and welded rings and their double-ended ball bearing swivel, all of which combine to produce an easy spin in slow conditions. This design also eliminates line twist. Simply spray the rings and bearings with a bit of WD-40 at the end of the day, and they'll last you for years, even when fished in saltwater.

West Chinook
When it comes to fall salmon fishing, quality gear and the right amount of weight for the water conditions are critical to catching more fish. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

The 8-inch Fish Flash is the most popular size when trolling Buoy 10 and other bays this time of year. Chartreuse is a favorite flasher color, but pearl, purple and various combinations of blue/green, red/pink and chartreuse/silver are also productive.

For anglers using sinkers rather than divers, Ramsey emphasizes the importance of getting down to the salmon, especially in fast-moving Buoy 10 waters. "If fish are in less than 20 feet of water, a 6- to 8-ounce sinker will usually suffice, but if they are in 20 to 25 feet of water or more, you'll want 12 to 16 ounces of lead."

If you fish a sinker, rig it on a slider so if it does tangle in a net and the fish runs, you’ll have a chance of landing it. I learned that the hard way. While a wire spreader is nice, it only takes losing a big fish at the net one time before you look for other rigging options.

Running a weighted diver instead of a sinker is another rigging option when trolling for fall chinooks. "Personally, I like divers because they create more flash," says Ramsey. "Get a big flasher down there along with a bright diver and spinner, and you'll be surprised at how much flash it creates."

Mylar-winged divers are very popular and winged flashers are catching more fish, proving that for chinook salmon the more bling, the better.

Finally, don't overlook fishing late-afternoon and early-evening tides. Your biggest challenge on big rivers will be the wind, so proceed with caution. If there is a calm evening and a good tide swing, the salmon fishing can be incredible and the fishing pressure should be realtively minimal.

No matter where your fall chinook pursuits take you, consider some of these approaches when it comes to trolling in river mouths and bays. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different setups, leader lengths, baits and flasher sizes and colors, because when it comes to catching fall chinook, change can be a good thing.

Check for Closures

West Chinook
Confirm that the season is still open before you head out. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

At the time of this writing it was uncertain as to what, if any, changes would occur to the fall fishing seasons in Washington, Oregon and California due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even during normal years, officials can close and open fisheries during the season, so before fishing any waters, check state and local regulations for updates on current restrictions that may be in place.

Go with a Pro

West Chinook
A good guide is the fastest way to catch more chinooks. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

Anglers serious about learning how to troll for fall chinooks should consider hiring a guide. Seeing how they approach this type of fishing will cut years from your learning curve. Here’s a list of guides I’ve fished with and highly recommend.

Columbia River

Austin Moser: 509-668-0298; austinsnorthwestadventures.com

Dan Ponciano: 360-607-8511; columbiariverfishing.com. Dan also fishes the Sacramento River.

Central & Southern Oregon Coast

Jody Smith: 541-643-6258; jodysmithguideservice.com

California

J.D. Richey: 916-952-1554; fishwithjd.com

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