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The Boys of Summer

by Tony Floor

Tell me it isn’t so! What happened to our summer? For this salmon fishing junkie, it went by like a Japanese bullet train reaching speeds of 200 miles per hour. I tried everything possible to slow down July and August, chasing king salmon like a coyote on a jack rabbit.

While no human being has ever figured out how to grind the transmission of time into reverse, September is here, like it or not. I choose to like it. Things to do, places to go, and fish to be caught.

For decades, September in the Pacific Northwest means coho salmon time. But to a great degree, this year has been an exception due to all the tough fishing regulations in place designed to protect returning hatchery and wild coho, particularly for Puget Sound stocks. The smoking gun belongs to Mother Nature who produced an El Niño and warm water mass in the eastern Pacific Ocean, raising concerns for negative survival rates for most coho salmon.

About a month ago, the Puget Sound hatchery-only Chinook salmon fishery met its catch ceiling in the central/northern Puget Sound region in early August, slamming the door to stay-at-home Puget Sound anglers. Following this dreaded closure, it’s time to put the trailer under your fishing machine and head for the land of opportunity. Yeah baby, on the road again just like Willie Nelson, but different.

Quietly, on the southwest Washington coast, Willapa Bay’s hatchery-produced Chinook salmon began inhaling angler’s plug cut herring back in late July. Very few anglers paid attention to the catch rates, but not this cat. Reviewing the Chinook salmon forecast provided to the public last March by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), it suggested Willapa Bay would host a strong 40,000 king salmon return, most of which are hatchery-produced stocks. Now, take a look at the Department’s sport fishing regulation pamphlet. It suggests a daily limit composed of four adult salmon per day. Chinook salmon must be adipose fin-clipped and coho salmon can be hatchery-produced or wild. Let me be more blunt. I said any combination of four adult fish, Chinook or coho. Are you kidding me? Buying real estate near and around Willapa Bay this year is an option. And, throughout the month of August, it has been producing! What are you waiting for?

Sept_Floor_pullquoteTo be in concert with full disclosure, Willapa Bay has a couple of issues. First, especially during big tides, there is enough free floating marine grass present every day to bury Safeco Field and not know the ball park exists! Looking for grass-free areas in the bay along the navigational channel from Toke Point east, from markers 2 to 26, is the game. And, during a flood tide, the region known as “Washaway Beach” east to Toke Point will also produce Chinook and coho salmon as this area remains the I-5 for stocks bound for Willapa Bay salmon hatcheries.

Second, two boat ramps are your options to access the fishery. These two-lane ramps are located at the south end of South Bend, along Highway 101 or the Tokeland Marina ramp in Tokeland. Don’t you love the name Tokeland? Not gonna go there. The ramps can be congested around launching and retrieving times, so bring your patience pills.

While the Willapa Bay sport Chinook and coho fishery has been in full swing for August, the fishery will produce until the gillnets go into the Bay this month. Check the gillnet schedule on WDFW’s website for details. When the nets are in the Bay, you’ll have a better chance to catch a salmon in the Sahara Desert.

Although it’s easier said than done, I like to head south in late September across the Columbia and down the coast to Tillamook Bay. As mentioned in this space before, Tillamook gets rocking for quality- sized king salmon around the last week of September and produces wonderful fish through October and beyond. If shallow water and mint bright kings in a very late-timed fishery turns your wheel, then put your time and bucks into Tillamook Bay. I am ready and dialed in!

I like to plan my trips, similar to Willapa Bay, around strong flood tides which provide a shuttle service for king salmon waiting to enter the Bay each day. These fish are aggressive biters throughout the flood tide from the entrance (“The Jaws”) to well inside the Bay, until rising real estate becomes a navigational issue.

Again, similar to Willapa, fishing techniques include a drop sinker with a fish flash and herring or spinner. Business is done within a foot of the bottom, regardless of depth.

So don’t lose too much sleep over the lack of coho fishing opportunity this month. I am a firm believer in Willapa Bay, especially this year, along with an awesome fishery in Tillamook Bay. I’ll see you on the water.

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