How To Fish For Salmon Off Oregon’s North Coast

June marks the kickoff of what may be a red-hot season between Newport and Ilwaco, Wash.

By Andy Schneider, Northwest Sportsman contributor

“Red sky at night, sailors’ delight. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.”

This rhyming lore has been around for at least a couple millennia, serving seafarers in port and on the open ocean when they needed something that passed for a forecast. And while we may discount it in today’s modern world – what with all of our high-tech satellite imagery, anchored weather buoys, Doppler radar and suites of computer forecasting ensembles – there still is some truth to the saying.

I’m no meteorologist, but the nut is that it has to do with areas of high pressure being partly cloudy or cloud free, and in those clearer conditions, dust and other aerosols in the upper atmosphere scatter longer wavelengths (red light) more efficiently. A sailor watching a red sunset from the dock or their ship can infer that there is high pressure to the west, and since weather moves from west to east, the mariner can assume that high pressure will be moving towards them, providing some decent sailing – or in our case, fishing!

These days, local weathermen don’t seem to mention red skies very often in their forecasting, so it’s still up to anglers to verify that colorful evenings really will correlate with good ocean conditions. But next time you look out over a beautiful golden-red sunset, just keep in mind that there might be some good ocean conditions out there for you to pursue a not-so-elusive quarry: salmon.

While many outdoor enthusiasts flock to high mountain lakes for camping and trout fishing or shady tributaries looking for summer steelhead as soon as our Northwest weather turns nice, they are missing out on just as enjoyable conditions along small coastal towns, places where anglers and campers are welcomed with festivals, parades and all different sorts of different fests. What better time to bring family and friends down to the coast to enjoy good weather, fun activities and amazing fishing?

The sunsets can be pretty nice too.
sunset

In Oregon, ocean Chinook has been open since mid-March, and hatchery coho season begins June 13 from Washington’s Leadbetter Point to Oregon’s Cape Falcon and June 27 from Falcon to the Oregon-California border. With big fall forecasts expected to return to the Columbia and California rivers, salmon anglers should have plenty of time, opportunities and fish to pursue this summer.

LOCATING SALTY SALMON
The Pacific is a mighty big piece of water, and it can be very daunting to try and find a fish that can be migrating across thousands of square miles. But the ocean gives us some pretty big hints on where to start to look for our prey.

The first clue the Pacific provides are rip lines, changes in current, temperature, color, upwelling, depth or salinity of the ocean. A rip can be identified by a line of unsettled water, boils or eddies often filled with seaweed, grass and perhaps some tsunami debris. When these different conditions collide, they concentrate plankton and baitfish, and where there’s bait, there will be salmon.

Clue number two is birds. Birds feed on small baitfish, and where there’s bait – yep, you guessed it. Murres and puffins are usually the first on the scene, and they feed on the same anchovies, herring, candlefish and saury that coho and Chinook do. Feeding birds can be seen from a long way away, and when they are actively diving and foraging, it’s worth pulling up your gear and making a run to the feeding frenzy that is happening just below the surface.

Clue number three is temperature. Unlike our first two clues, it’s impossible to read from looking at the ocean, but fortunately there are satellites that take daily reading of nearshore waters. Terrafin, Rip Charts and NOAA all offer images of our coastal waters where you can locate salmon-friendly water temps. The fish tend to hang in waters from 52 to 54 degrees, which can be as close as the surf line to as far as 15 miles offshore. It pays to know how far you are going to have to run to start to pursue salmon.

Clue number four is daylight and visibility. While the Pacific doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with daylight, most salmon anglers know that the first-light bite is the best of the day. This holds especially true for ocean salmon, as the schools like to run shallow for the first few hours of the day before moving deeper as the sun rises. If there is a lot of water visibility, expect fish to move deeper quicker, and when vis is poor, expect fish to linger longer on the surface.

And finally, this is more of a tip than a clue, but one tool that tends to be underutilized regardless of what port you are fishing out of is the good ol’ GPS waypoint. While this is a no-brainer for bottomfish and halibut, it tends to be overlooked for ocean salmon. As vast and ever-changing as the Pacific is, specific locations can offer surprisingly consistent fishing year after year. Whether it’s a bottom contour that creates a small upwelling or a nearshore reef that traps baitfish in a whirlpool a half mile away, waypoints where you caught fish in years past will usually be productive for many more to come.

Fishing Oregon Coast Map

PORTS OF CALL
Every navigable port on the Oregon Coast offers good salmon fishing, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife catch data shows, so it’s really up to you to decide which you want to pursue your quarry out of. Most anglers pick ports closest to home, while some stay with those that they grew up fishing, and still others choose the one getting the most attention on the Internet. Each port has its own salty flavor that some anglers may love or dislike, but once you start calling one your home port, it’s time to learn the nuances of the bar, fishy reefs, common weather patterns, currents and where the fish can be found year after year.

Yaquina Bay is usually right in the middle of the action. Since early March Chinook have been pulling in close to the Central Coast on their journey to southern rivers like the Sacramento and Klamath. And through summer, more and more salmon will start their migration towards the Columbia and other northern tributaries.

Chinook anglers tend to target Stonewall Banks, a 12-mile run almost due west from the tips of the bay’s jetties. This 13-mile-long reef parallels the coast and is one of Oregon’s largest. Seal Rock, to the south of the bay, is another popular destination for king anglers.

Those after coho head northwest. The waters 2 to 3 miles due west of the famed Yaquina Head lighthouse are usually where silver slayers have the most success.

sEFuBJ

Depoe Bay is one of the most consistent producers of Chinook and coho all season long, and many times long runs aren’t needed to find schools of feeding salmon. Most anglers start in waters 30 to 40 fathoms deep directly north of Government Point.

There is no major structure like reefs out of Depoe Bay to hold salmon, but rips are usually plentiful and easy to find. If you have to travel more than 5 miles to locate signs of salmon, you probably have run too far out of Depoe.

Tillamook and Nehalem Bays both get healthy runs of Chinook and coho, and some of those fish can be found starting to stage in nearshore waters in early summer. But more than likely, coho you catch here are on their way north to the Columbia. The waters 20 to 30 fathoms deep directly west of Twin Rocks seems to be the most productive year after year.

The author’s son Ayden poses with a boat load of kings and coho put into the sled north of the mouth of the Columbia River last year. (ANDY SCHNEIDER)

The author’s son Ayden poses with a boat load of kings and coho put into the sled north of the mouth of the Columbia River last year. (ANDY SCHNEIDER)

If coho are scattered or being elusive, head north to the waters off of Manzanita and look for the plentiful rips and schools of baits.

Hammond/Ilwaco is one of the most popular destinations for targeting staging Chinook and coho, and for good reason. Over a million fish will be entering the Columbia River in the months to come, and many may already be feeding just off the mouth. The shallow waters directly in front of the condos on Long Beach have been producing amazing results the last five years, and don’t expect that to change this year. Coho and Chinook are caught in waters mostly shallower than 10 fathoms.

With productivity come crowds. Charter skippers and kayakers troll here, and the fishing can become quite busy and challenging to navigate. Good alternatives include around the CR Buoy and south to Seaside.

Ocean salmon is one of Oregon’s most enjoyable fisheries. Look for favorable weather and ocean conditions and make a long weekend trip with the family to one of the numerous campgrounds along the coast. Chances are that if you’re looking west at sunset and there’s a red tinge to the sky, your inner sailor will be grinning in delight. NS

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