Richie Gurb of Olympia holds up a coho caught in Grays Harbor. Photo by Mark Yuasa

Good return of Grays Harbor coho salmon expected

The waters between Westport and Aberdeen can be thick with eel grass, but also coho — and this year’s forecast calls for 120,000 more than last year

Originally published by Northwest Sportsman Magazine

Now that summer fisheries are winding down, it’s time to focus on bays, estuaries and lower tributaries as waves of migrating salmon make their way upstream with every rainfall.

Nestled along Washington’s pristine south central coast is Grays Harbor (Marine Area 2–2), the gateway to some of the best fall salmon fishing opportunities, where coho are known to grow to bragging-size proportions.

“We’re expecting a good coho return, well above anything we’ve seen in the past five years, and for the natural coho stocks it’s the best dating back to 2014,” said Kyle Van de Graaf, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) ocean fishery manager. “The big driver for why coho forecasts are better is a higher marine survival rate due to improved ocean conditions.”

WDFW is forecasting a relatively decent Grays Harbor basin return of 198,719 coho (120,381 are wild and 78,338 are hatchery) in 2022, which is up dramatically from 76,518 (44,843 and 31,675) in 2021. This forecast is based on ocean abundance of three-year-old adult fish prior to the start of any fisheries.

The Humptulips River forecast is 26,129 hatchery and 4,358 wild coho, and the Chehalis River is 106,624 wild and 36,854 hatchery coho. The Chehalis forecast includes production from the Hoquiam, Johns and Elk Rivers and is also comprised of fish released from the Bingham Creek, Satsop Spring, Lake Aberdeen and Skookumchuck hatcheries.

If the coho returns from last year are an indicator of expectations this coming fall, anglers might be wise to put Grays Harbor and neighboring rivers on the “to do” list.

“We don’t have the exact number of coho that returned last year, but early word says it was a little better than predicted and we saw improved fish escapement,” says Mike Scharpf, a WDFW coastal salmon biologist. “The coho harvest was better (in 2021) than it had been in previous years.”

A nice batch of coho caught in Grays Harbor sits on the beach. Photo by Northwest Sportsman Magazine

The harbor’s coho fishery is a focal point this fall, and occurs in the south channel (referred to as the East Bay Grays Harbor fishery opens Sept. 16) just outside of the Johns River boat launch — located just west of Aberdeen off Highway 105.

Anglers start their trolling pattern at the “Goal Post” (a set of rotting wood pilings), which is the entrance marker to the Johns River, and then point the bow of the boat due east into the south channel.

At this location is a trough running east to west along the shoreline toward the Chehalis River mouth. Many anglers use the O’Leary Creek mouth or Stearns Bluff, a landmark hillside just east of the Johns River, as the ending spots for their troll pattern.

Fishing gear consists of a 6- to 10-ounce sinker ball to a three-way slip swivel with a triangle-shaped rotating flasher and a 6-foot leader attached with a cut-plug herring and/or a spinner lure.

Let out 12 to 25 pulls of fishing line — this is a shallow-water fishery, with depths of 15 to 35 feet — so your bait or lure presentation is spinning just off the sandy bottom or at mid-depth when you mark fish higher up in the water column.

The best timeframe to be on the water in Grays Harbor is during the flood tide, but you’ll still catch fish even on an ebb tide. In most other salmon fisheries getting out at the crack of dawn is usually most productive, but here it’s more about timing. The early morning bite isn’t a factor. It’s all about the tidal exchanges.

The Grays Harbor salmon fishery east of the Buoy 13 line is broken into two seasons. The “Humptulips North Bay” — north of a line running from the south end of the eastern jetty at the Ocean Shores Marina east to the Brackenridge Bluff Tripod — is open daily through Sept. 15 with a one-salmon daily limit, release all wild coho. The “East Bay Grays Harbor Fishery” is open Sept. 16 through Oct. 31 with a two-salmon daily limit, release all Chinook, and then from Nov. 1–30 the daily limit is one salmon, release all Chinook.

Just upstream of Grays Harbor, there is an active troll fishery on the lower Chehalis River from the Montesano boat launch to the lumber mill and from the Friends Landing boat launch to a couple miles below the Wynoochee River mouth.

Indeed, the bay isn’t your only salmon fishing option in the Grays Harbor system, with rivers like the Humptulips, Hoquiam, Wishkah, Chehalis, Wynoochee, Satsop, Skookumchuck and Newaukum can all provide decent fall and early winter angling opportunities.

The Humptulips is a popular location for salmon and the Chinook forecast is a little better than last year. Chinook in the 18- to 25-pound range are common and have been known to exceed 40-plus pounds. You can also catch coho well into late November and early December.

There are public access locations along the Humptulips like Reynvaan’s Gravel Bar, Dyke Road, above the Ocean Beach Road Bridge, the Humptulips Salmon Hatchery, and at the mouth of Stevens Creek.

The Humptulips from the mouth to the confluence of the East and West Forks is open Sept. 1–30 and you may keep all Chinook and hatchery coho; from Oct. 1–31, you are allowed to retain hatchery Chinook and hatchery coho; and from Nov. 1-Dec. 31, only hatchery coho may be retained.

In the Wynoochee, a good number of coho and Chinook return to spawn mainly in Shafer, Carter and Helm Creeks. The Satsop is a popular coho fishery and is known to generate large-sized coho weighing 14 to 20 pounds. Bank anglers can try around the Highway 12 Bridge and off Keys Road.

Most regulars who fish these rivers aren’t eager to give away too much information on their favorite fishing holes, but there are options for the uninitiated to catch a salmon and another option is to hire a fishing guide. To book a guided fishing trip, go to the Grays Harbor Guides Association website.

Whether on the bay or in the myriad rivers, Grays Harbor system anglers will have a chance to experience thrilling fishing adventures in the months ahead, and with a much stronger coho return expected, look for possibly even better times!

Before going, be sure to check for regulations and any emergency fishing rule changes on the WDFW website.

Boats work the entrance to mouth of the Hoquiam River. Photo by Washington DOE

More details on fishing south coast waters for coho

Here are some more tips and tidbits about Grays Harbor salmon fishing.

· There are three boat launches that access the Grays Harbor salmon fishery, with the Westport ramp the most accommodating and suiting all sizes of boats. The Johns River boat launch is a gravelly two-lane ramp and suitable for smaller boats. Both provide the best route to the south channel fishery. Another is the 28th Street boat launch in Hoquiam adjacent to the Port of Grays Harbor.

· Anglers should constantly check their fishing gear, as the harbor is often filled with eel grass, which is especially bothersome on bigger tidal exchanges when the grass gets pulled away from shoreline. The best way to avoid eel grass is by fishing during the softer tidal series. Keep in mind that salmon don’t like eating a salad, so be vigilant about checking your gear and bait frequently.

· Use caution when running your boat from any of the launch facilities, especially the Johns River ramp. Follow the channel markers, as there are many shallow sandbars, unexposed islands and unmarked shallow points where you can ground a vessel. Make sure to keep the red channel markers on the starboard side and the green markers on the port side of the boat. Be on the lookout for large ships heading in and out of the bay’s narrow channel. Fog can also pose a problem in the fall, so having a good navigational/fish-finder unit will cause less stress when getting out and back to the boat ramp safely.

· Another fun coho-only fishery in the immediate vicinity is the Westport Boat Basin, which is open daily through Jan. 31. The best action usually happens from September through October as coho raised in the marina’s hatchery net pens begin to return. The daily limit is six salmon, and no more than four may be adult fish. Release Chinook, no night fishing and an anti-snagging rule is in effect. Only single-barbless hooks may be used.

· Just to the south of Grays Harbor is the Willapa Bay (Marine Area 2–1) salmon fishery, where the forecasts call for 33,142 Chinook and 110,483 coho. Fishing can be good at times, and it is open daily through Jan. 31 (although fishing wanes well before then, peaking in early September). Most of the action occurs between Channel Markers 13 and 19 on the incoming tide. On the bigger tidal exchanges, eel grass can be a problem and will foul up fishing gear. The daily limit is six salmon and up to two adult salmon may be retained, release wild Chinook.

(Editor’s note: Mark Yuasa is a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife communications manager and longtime local fishing and outdoor writer. You can find it published in the September issue of Northwest Sportsman Magazine.)

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