Blackmouth options in Washington’s inside waters are far fewer than in days not far gone by, but this March and April offer chances to catch feeder and early migrating Chinook, including off Sekiu, where this one was landed in early spring 2022. (Photo by Chase Gunnell)

Salty Chinook: late-winter and spring salmon fishing on the western Strait and Puget Sound


Late winter and early spring still offer opportunities to fish for winter Chinook off Seattle, Tacoma and Sekiu, and here’s where to go — just don’t delay.

As the days get longer and winter fades away, March and April mark the beginning of several marine salmon fisheries in the western Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound.

The first waters scheduled to open March 1 for winter Chinook, commonly referred to as blackmouth for their dark gumline, are Marine Area 10 (Seattle/Bremerton Area) and Marine Area 11 (Tacoma-Vashon Island). Word on the street is that if you intend to go fishing, be sure to do it sooner than later.

You may ask, what’s up with the urgency?

That is because the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) manages these fisheries by Chinook catch quotas, guidelines related to impacts of wild unmarked fish encounters or sublegal catch rates. As seen in past seasons, this can lead to a marine area shutting down sooner than expected.

To help extend the season as long as possible, WDFW decided to open Marine Areas 10 and 11 to four days per week — Wednesdays through Saturdays — from March 1 through mid-April, except year-round piers. Marine Areas 10 and 11 stretch from the Apple Cove-Point Edwards line south to the northernmost Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

“Given the popularity of these fisheries in recent years, our goal was to plan the season to give us the best chance of fishing into April,” said WDFW’s Puget Sound recreational salmon manager, Dr. Kirsten Simonsen. “Based on the pre-season test fishing data and the available quota for the winter season, we believe that a four day per week fishery gives us the best opportunity for a consistent winter fishery.”

April might present Washington Chinook chasers with a conundrum: Battle the fleet on the Lower Columbia for springers or slip out to Sekiu for similar-sized salmon and less competition. (Photo by Chase Gunnell)

WDFW fishery managers decided to move ahead with the four day per week opener after consulting with the Puget Sound Sports Fishing Advisory Group and recreational anglers, who indicated a priority for preserving fishing opportunity as long as possible late into the winter fishing season. WDFW will continuously analyze the fishery data collected via test fishing and creel sampling throughout the season.

In Marine Area 10, the winter Chinook guidelines are 4,953 total Chinook encounters, 953 unmarked encounters and 4,181 sublegal encounters. In Marine Area 11, those marks are 1,191 total Chinook encounters, 259 unmarked encounters and 816 sublegal encounters. For weekly updates on the status of these fisheries, anglers can view the WDFW’s seasonal Puget Sound salmon fishery guidelines and quotas webpage.

In the past, these fisheries used to be open daily starting in early January, when an abundance of sublegal fish — Chinook under the 22-inch minimum size limit — were caught and released. This eventually led to areas closing much sooner than anticipated. Smaller fish were commonplace in January, especially at Jefferson Head and other northern portions of Marine Area 10.

To help reduce sublegal Chinook encounters, fishery managers shifted the opener into March or April, when many of the smaller-sized fish had moved out to other areas of Puget Sound.

Working the bottom along Jeff Head, President Point and Richmond Beach on either side of the tide change are good places for Marine Area 10 winter Chinook. (Map by NOAA)

From north to south, here are top spots in Marine Areas 10 and 11:

Jefferson Head/Kingston: The vast underwater sandy shelf at “Jeff Head” is about two miles wide and wraps around two key landmarks known as President Point to the north end and Point Jefferson to the south. Look for baitfish on the sandy bottom in water 90 to 200-plus feet deep. Kingston has a deep underwater bowl that extends out about a mile from the shoreline just east of the ferry landing. By boat it is about four to eight miles from Shilshole Bay Marina and Edmonds Marina.

Edmonds Oil Dock to West Point: The Meadow Point green buoy area located just north of the Shilshole Bay Marina and West Point to the south are two prime locations. Areas along the northeast side of the West Point Lighthouse can be good at depths of 80 to 150 feet. With its gentle-sloping, mostly sandy bottom, the entire shoreline from Richmond Beach south to Carkeek Park can be worthwhile if baitfish are present. Also, don’t overlook the Edmonds Oil Dock just north of Richmond Beach.

East side of Bainbridge Island: There are a fair number of areas to try around “the rock,” including Point Monroe on the northeastern side of the island, off Fay Bainbridge Park, Skiff Point, Yeomalt Point, Wing Point and Restoration Point. Numerous nameless drop-offs and shelves also dot the entire east side of the island, so be willing to try out unchartered waters.

Allen Bank near Blake Island: This is a relatively easy place to fish and the outgoing tide is the best period. The drop-off ledge (90 to 250 feet deep) starts on the southeast side of Blake Island and extends south to the northwestern tip of Vashon Island near the black and white channel marker. The area right off the Vashon Island ferry landing is another place to wet a line.

Southworth and Manchester area: The outgoing tide is best at Southworth and the drop-off (90 to 250 feet) starts near the ferry landing and heads in a northerly direction along the row of houses dotting the shore. On a flood tide, work south of the ferry landing while drifting into Colvos Passage’s eastern shoreline. At Manchester, try off the fuel dock in 90 to 150 feet of water; the sandy bottom gently slopes off with no distinct ledge or drop-off points.

Point Defiance Park in Tacoma, south side of Vashon Island and Gig Harbor: The Clay Banks off Point Defiance Park’s northwest side to Owen Beach is usually where anglers head on an outgoing tide. On the incoming, run across to Point Dalco on the southwest side of Vashon or just outside of Quartermaster Harbor. The “flats area” outside of Gig Harbor is another favored location.

The Clay Banks off Point Defiance Park in Tacoma in Marine Area 11 is a good well protected salmon fishing location during the winter and spring. (Photo by Mark Yuasa)

Further afield, Sekiu opens on — no foolin’ — April 1 for winter Chinook. The Marine Area 5 (Sekiu-Pillar Point) season is expected to remain open daily through April 30, but could close sooner if the 3,707 sublegal Chinook encounter guideline is achieved.

This delayed opener for Sekiu occurs at a time when larger-sized Chinook are known to be present. Fish range from five to 13 pounds, with a few hitting 15 to 20-plus pounds. Inside this mix of different size Chinook, it’s not uncommon to find bigger three- and four-year-old fish, including a few migratory fish.

One reason for a Chinook’s speedy weight gain is the species’ ability to gorge on abundant schools of candlefish and herring, and in late winter/spring, these salmon are known to move in from their ocean feeding pastures or shift out from Puget Sound into the western Strait of Juan de Fuca. This is a period when Chinook begin to sexually mature and migrate back to natal waters later in summer and fall.

Access to the salmon fishing grounds off Sekiu is relatively close, starting at the place called the “Caves,” which is located around the corner of the Mason’s Resort breakwater.

Start off the breakwater’s eastern edge in 90 to 180 feet of water during an outgoing tide. Depth is usually dictated by where the baitfish schools are congregating, and if you don’t find any feed, move to another spot. As is often the case, salmon can be found hanging near or right off the bottom, so keep your presentation bouncing off the deck.

Other options to the west include Eagle Bay west to the Hoko River mouth near Kydaka Point. If the bite isn’t happening, head east around the green buoy off Slip Point, Mussolini Rock, the Coal Mine and Slide areas, or further east to Cod Fish Bay and Pillar Point.

Chinook aren’t the only choice around Sekiu. When the salmon bite wanes, switch over to targeting halibut, lingcod, black rockfish, kelp greenling and other bottomfish.

To the west of Sekiu, Marine Area 4 east of Bonilla-Tatoosh boundary line to the Sekiu River mouth is open year-round for bottomfish, and from March 9 to October 19 for lingcod this year. The western Strait in Marine Area 5 is set to be open daily for halibut from April 4 through June 30, and could be extended to late summer if enough remains in the catch quota.

Some boats based out of Sekiu will make the roughly 20-mile trek west to Marine Area 4 (Neah Bay) west of the Bonilla-Tatoosh boundary line, where halibut fishing is planned to be open May 2–4, 9–11, 16–18, 24, 26 and 30–31; and June 1–2, 6–9, 13–16, 20–23 and 27–30. The halibut season could close sooner if the catch quota is achieved before any of the end dates.

Check the WDFW regulation pamphlet or website for catch limits and restrictions for rockfish (including yelloweye) and other fish species. You can find rockfish information by going to the WDFW rockfish webpage.

An angler reeling in a winter Chinook off Sekiu. (Photo by Joey Pyburn)

Top winter Chinook fishing tips

Find the forage, find the kings: Many winter Chinook are delay-released from hatcheries and spend their entire lives in Puget Sound or the Strait of Juan de Fuca, feeding on herring and candlefish (also known as sandlance), two of their primary food sources. Locating baitfish schools is key to finding Chinook, as they’re voracious feeders and tend to follow the parade of herring and candlefish.

Target the tides: Unlike with their migrating cousins in summer, the winter Chinook bite centers around outgoing or incoming tides. This means you don’t need to be out fishing at first light like you’d normally do in the summer. Time your efforts to the hour before and after tide changes. Winter Chinook are a little more predictable location-wise, so knowing where they’ll be at a certain time of the day during a specific tidal exchange will raise the bar on success.

Best fishing tactics: There are three main techniques when it comes to winter Chinook fishing.

Downrigger trolling allows you to cover a lot of area, especially when schools of baitfish can be sparse or scattered. Deploy a plastic squid, plug, spoon or cut-plug or whole herring (be sure to add scent attractant) with a flasher or dodger and clip your mainline in so it runs 8 to 20 feet behind a 10- to 15-pound downrigger ball. The weight of the ball is dictated by the current and how deep you plan to fish but should be heavy enough to get your presentation bouncing right off or near the bottom.

Drift or motor mooching with herring, anchovy or a candlefish is the old-school method developed right here in Puget Sound more than a century ago. It involves using a cut-plug or whole herring and working it up and down the entire water column. A six- to 10-foot leader tied to two 2/0 or 3/0 barbless hooks is attached to a 3- to 6-ounce banana weight. The weight size depends on the wind and current but keeping a 45-degree line angle is critical. Those who mooch will often back up their boat to keep the right line angle.

Happy anglers with a nice catch of winter Chinook from the Tengu Derby on Elliott Bay. (Photo by Doug Hanada)

Jigging has caught on and is a proven technique. Jig weight size depends on current and wind but keeping a variety of jigs from two to six ounces should cover all aspects. Without keying in on brand-specific names, pack along jigs that simulate candlefish or herring. Color is personal preference, although white/glo is the top pattern to keep in the tackle box. As a reminder, take off the store-bought illegal treble hooks and add 2/0 and 3/0 barbless-style hooks to your jig.

Stick to the deck: Winter Chinook often stay near or right on the bottom to prey on their feed, so bouncing your presentation right in front of them will likely lead to more hookups. This doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t find fish in all areas of the water column. Depending on the location of baitfish, moochers or jiggers should be sure to keep their jig or bait moving from bottom to top, while downrigger trollers need to try a variety of depths.

Map it: Be sure to invest in bathymetric maps to know where drop-offs, ledges and underwater structures are located around Puget Sound. A tidal chart is also a good investment.

Ask for help: When you’re out on the water, keep an eye on what other anglers are doing or even ask them for tips and advice, as anglers are usually friendly, and this could provide benefits in the long run.

Don’t overlook Marine Area 13 (South Puget Sound): Deep South Puget Sound, the waters south of the northernmost Tacoma Narrows Bridge, are open year-round for salmon. Fishing can be off and on during the first part of the winter season, but as we edge closer to March and April, action can pick up, especially when baitfish schools are present. Effort is usually centered around Fox Island off Point Gibson near the “Big Rock” during the incoming tide. Also head to Fox Point on the island’s northeast side during the outgoing; the bottom drops off sharply from 90 to 150 feet and Chinook can be found along the deeper ledges. The Fox Island public fishing pier — referred to as the “concrete dock” and located on the eastern shoreline — can be decent on a flood tide.

Longtime derby returns

The Tengu Blackmouth Derby Board, which puts on one of the West Coast’s oldest salmon fishing tournaments, will host four to five “cracker derbies” on Saturdays in March or until Chinook season closes on Puget Sound. Cost is $20 per person. Fishing runs from daybreak until 12 p.m. and marine areas that are open for salmon fishing are fair game. There will be a shotgun start and the weigh-in will occur at the Armeni boat ramp in West Seattle.

(Editor’s note: Mark Yuasa is a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife communications manager and longtime local fishing and outdoor writer.)



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.