Look forward to fall coho salmon fishing, and more
Following up on his Washington 2023–24 summer salmon planner last issue, Mark Yuasa scopes out October 2023 -April 2024 opportunities
Story originally published in Northwest Sportsman Magazine June issue
We kicked off Washington’s 2023–24 salmon fishing season possibilities in the May issue, and now let’s visualize more places to get out on the water from October to April!
Many anglers tend to hang up their gear once September rolls past, but you’ll be surprised to know that fall and winter fisheries are worth your time. Just don some layered clothing and raingear and get out to catch some fish!
For more than a decade, Evergreen State salmon fishers have become more adaptable, as no salmon season mirrors another. In other words, don’t keep your boat tied up at one place or your boots planted on the shore of one river system. Instead, be willing to move around from location to location to maximize your time on the water, as well as success.
Fall is peak time for migrating coho and look for them in central and southcentral Puget Sound (Marine Areas 10 and 11). Both areas are open for a nonselective coho fishery from Oct. 1–31.
The combined Puget Sound hatchery and wild coho forecast is 800,560 — up from 636,952 in 2022 and 614,948 in 2021 — and should provide good fishing in some marine areas.
In Areas 10 and 11 work the deep-water shipping lanes off Jefferson Head, Kingston/President Point area, Richmond Beach south to Meadow Point north of Shilshole Bay, Point Monroe, Shilshole Bay south to West Point, Elliott Bay, Blake Island, Fauntleroy Ferry area southeast to Dolphin Point, both sides of Vashon Island, Redondo Beach to Dash Point and the Tacoma area.
In the Strait of Juan de Fuca, both Sekiu (Area 5) and Port Angeles (Area 6) are open Oct. 1–15 for a nonselective coho fishery.
The Sekiu area is known to produce some large-sized ocean-run hooknose coho and they can be found just about anywhere if the baitfish schools are present.
Keep in mind that the coho highway along the entire stretch of the Strait is located well offshore, usually anywhere from a mile to 2 miles out in 200 to 300 feet of water and even deeper off the edge of the main shipping channels. Keep a sharp eye out for tide rips and current breaks where krill, baitfish and hungry birds tend to attract coho.
It is a relatively easy fishery, and coho are usually found early in the morning and late in the day from right on the surface down to 50 to 125 feet. Even though downriggers are effective when trolling at those depths, many fish are caught by anglers simply using a 4- to 6-ounce banana weight trolled behind a whole or cut-plug herring. On some days when the coho are thick you can even skip-troll a bucktail fly or a “cut-plug hot dog wiener” — verified by yours truly — with scent along the surface.
In the eastern Strait, the Dungeness Bay coho fishery is open Oct. 16-Nov. 30. The 2023 coho forecast for the Dungeness River is 14,654 compared to 9,133 in 2022.
In southern Puget Sound’s Area 13, fishing is open year-round for salmon. From Oct. 1-May 14, 2024, the hatchery Chinook minimum size limit is 22 inches, and release wild coho and Chinook and all chum. In deep South Sound, try around the Squaxin Island area, where a good number of hatchery-produced coho — the 2023 forecast is 45,417 — should yield decent action.
In Hood Canal (Area 12), the 2023 forecast of 112,710 coho (up from 81,614 in 2022) should provide excitement and areas south of Ayock Point are open from Oct. 1–31 for coho only, release chum Oct. 1–15. Areas north of Ayock Point are open daily through October 31 for a fishery directed at coho only.
The La Push Bubble Chinook Fishery (Area 3) is set to be open Oct. 3–7 only, but you should recheck the regulations before going, as this fishery had an emergency closure in 2022. The daily limit is one Chinook with a minimum size of 24 inches.
Many anglers tend to give up on Buoy 10 at the mouth of the Columbia River once the Chinook have passed, but others stick around for a robust hatchery coho fishery that is open daily in October. A decent return of coho should keep the good times rolling well into fall.
Along Washington’s south central coast is Grays Harbor (Area 2–2), and east of the Buoy 13 boundary line is the gateway to some of the best fall coho fishing opportunities. If last year’s coho returns are an indicator of expectations this coming fall, anglers might be wise to put Grays Harbor and neighboring rivers on their to-do list.
For the second year in a row, anglers should see a coho return larger than any seen in the past six years, as well as a run of natural coho that could be one of the best dating back to 2014. Much of this is thanks to higher marine survival rates due to improved ocean conditions.
WDFW is forecasting a relatively decent Grays Harbor basin return of 214,271 fish (102,841 wild; 111,430 hatchery) compared to 198,719 (120,381 wild; 78,338 hatchery) in 2022, which was 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 harbor’s coho fishery mainly occurs in the south channel (referred to as the East Bay Grays Harbor Fishery) just outside of the Johns River boat launch, just west of Aberdeen off Highway 105. It is open in October and through Nov. 30 with a two-salmon daily limit, release all Chinook.
Anglers start their trolling pattern at the “Goal Post,” a set of rotting wood pilings that is the entrance marker to the Johns River, and then point the bow of the boat due east into the south channel.
The south channel 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 cannonball 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.
Just upstream of Grays Harbor, there is an active troll fishery during the fall 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.
Several Puget Sound rivers open for salmon fishing too, including certain sections of the Nooksack, Skagit, lower Snohomish, Green, Puyallup, and Nisqually (only hatchery coho may be retained). Be sure to check specific regulations, emergency closures and when fishing is open by going to the WDFW website or regulation pamphlet.
Quick October nibbles and bites: Lake Washington north of the Highway 520 Bridge is open for coho through Oct. 31. On the mainstem Columbia from west Puget Island upstream to Bonneville Dam, salmon fishing is open Oct. 1-Dec. 31 for hatchery coho. From Bonneville upstream to the Highway 395 Bridge at Pasco, fishing is open through Oct. 15 for Chinook, release wild coho below the Hood River Bridge, and from Oct. 16-Dec. 31 it remains open but release Chinook and wild coho downstream of the bridge
Be sure to also keep tabs on the Lower Columbia tributaries, as certain rivers like the Lewis have a proposed salmon season open from Oct. 1-Dec. 31 and the Cowlitz can produce some fun for late-season hatchery coho.
Hood Canal is open Nov. 1–30 for chum and popular places include Hoodsport Hatchery terminal fishery area, Eagle Creek south of Potlatch State Park and the public-access shores off Highway 101 from Eldon to Hoodsport. The Hood Canal fall chum forecast is 231,153.
Many coastal river fishing options come to life for salmon in the fall and early winter, including the Humptulips, Hoquiam, Wishkah, Chehalis, Wynoochee, Satsop, Skookumchuck and Newaukum. The Chehalis from the Highway 101 Bridge to Fuller Bridge is open through Dec. 31 for salmon (release all Chinook). The Chehalis upriver of Fuller, plus the Hoquiam, Wishkah, Wynoochee, Satsop, Black, Johns and Elk are open Oct. 1-Dec. 31 for salmon (release all Chinook). The Skookumchuck and Newaukum are open Oct. 16-Dec. 31 for salmon (release all Chinook).
Of all the coastal rivers, the Humptulips stands out for late-season salmon options. Fall Chinook and coho begin to arrive in early October and can be decent well into December. Fishing is open Oct. 1–31 for salmon (only hatchery-marked Chinook and coho can be retained) and from Nov. 1-Dec. 31 for hatchery-marked coho only.
On the southern coast there are also some options to catch coho, including on the Willapa, Naselle and North Rivers. The normal-timed coho run is typically made up of hatchery fish and the late run is typically wild coho. The best time to fish for these fish is November through January.
In the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Dungeness River is open for coho from Oct. 16-Nov. 30, and up to four hatchery coho may be retained.
Whatever water you choose, be sure to check the WDFW regulations for when fishing is open, what salmon species you’re allowed to keep and any gear or special rules in effect.
The marine area fishing options are slim during this timeframe, but you can still find some winter hatchery Chinook and resident hatchery coho lurking in southern Puget Sound (Area 13).
Under proposed 2023–24 permanent regulations, the mainstem Columbia from the I-5 Bridge down to Buoy 10 is open daily from Jan. 1-March 31 for early spring Chinook fishing. Next year’s springer forecasts will come to light sometime in early winter, and these fish primarily enter freshwater from February through June — although some poke their noses in by January — with the peak occurring in March to early and/or mid-April.
Winter Chinook fishing opportunities begin in earnest with Puget Sound’s Areas 10 and 11 opening March 1-April 15. Each marine water could close sooner if the total encounter threshold or sublegal fish under the 22-inch minimum size limit and wild “unmarked” fish encounters is achieved prior to mid-April.
Locating baitfish, knowing key underwater structure, and understanding tidal influence are key during the winter fishery. Most fish tend to hunker down right off the bottom, with trolling, mooching bait or jigging the preferred methods.
Most fishermen will target winter Chinook — commonly referred to as “blackmouth” for their dark gumline — off the Clay Banks at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma, Point Dalco on the southwest side of Vashon Island, the “Flats” outside of Gig Harbor, Southworth, Allen Bank off the southeast side of Blake Island, West Point off Shilshole Bay, Point Monroe, Richmond Beach to Shilshole Bay, Kingston/President Point, and Jefferson Head.
Area 13 is also open year-round, and most will work Gibson Point, south of the Narrows Bridge on the west side, Hale Passage, Fox Island, Johnson Point and Anderson Island.
In the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Sekiu will be open for winter Chinook from April 1–30 with a total landed estimate of 1,400 fish (1,400 in 2022 and 1,726 in 2021). That opener is a month later than this year, but here’s a pro tip: Make sure to book your trip on the front end of the season rather than later because fishing could close if the preseason projected catch is exceeded.
Sekiu is known for producing larger-sized fish in late winter and early spring. Chinook range from 5 to 13 pounds, with a few hitting 15 to 20-plus pounds. The key to success is locating baitfish and fishing certain areas during an outgoing or incoming tide.
Most will start at the “Caves” located around the corner of the breakwater from the resort docks, and head toward Eagle Bay. Other choices are the green buoy off Slip Point, Mussolini Rock, the Coal Mine and Slide areas, or further east to Cod Fish Bay and Pillar Point. Troll with downriggers using a rotating flasher with a whole or cut-plug herring, plugs, spoons, Needlefish, or a variety of plastic squids. Others will drift or motor mooch with herring or use jigs like a Point Wilson Dart, Crippled Herring, Dungeness Stinger, or Buzz Bomb.
Lastly, be sure to check the regs for any updates or emergency closures. To find a complete list of planned salmon fisheries throughout Washington in 2023–24, go to the WDFW webpage.
(Editor’s note: Mark Yuasa is a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife communications manager and longtime local fishing and outdoor writer.)