Traditionally I’ve always marked July 4th as the “unofficial” opening to my ocean salmon season. From Neah Bay, down through La Push and into Westport, thousands of migrating Chinook salmon will be on the salmon highway looking to get fat and get to their destination (mostly the Columbia River) during the month of July. This “early” run of kings aren’t those big bruisers that will be taking the same path come later in August, but their abundance, aggressiveness and outstanding table fare more than makes up for any shortcomings these teener fish might have.
These fish will consistently run between 12 and 18lbs, but make no doubt about it, once hooked, they are in fact a king and they’ll let you know by the line screaming runs and desire to avoid the boat at all cost. Also thrown in will be those few that have already got a jump on gorging themselves and may push the mid 20’s.
If I have the luxury of following history, Neah Bay would be first on the list in the first week or two of July. The head of the largest run should be peaking on the northern tip of Washington and the majority of kings will be boated just off the coast. Of course those fish are running south, so if I plan on fishing La Push for kings, I’d want to be out there during the 2nd and 3rd week of July. From the 20th of July through August Westport is my home! The largest part of the largest run will be peaking the last 10 days of July and from then on there will also be an abundance of Coho, and the smaller quantity but larger sized Chinook run during August.
Massive schools of salmon will be traveling during July and pigging out all along the way. Because they’re traveling, we have to try and find their travel lanes and intercept them rather looking for structure and contour lines that we normally try and identify when fishing inland, or in the Puget Sound. Think of the depth contours as lanes of highway with the fish traveling from Neah Bay all the way down to the Columbia. You’ll be heading West coming out from whichever port you launch at, so you’ll essentially be cutting across the traffic (of fish). All these fish will be heading in a North/South direction. Once you find the travel lane it’s crucial that you travel with the tide in the North/South direction that the fish are traveling. Heading East/West you’ll cut across the schools and occasionally pick up a fish, but you want to be along the same path as the fish, not just crossing them occasionally.
Look for Bait! Look for Birds! If you see birds working, their working bait! Your fish finder should also be pickup up bait. When bait is located, either by your fish finder or birds, try and work the outside edges of it. You want to keep the bait from scattering so the fish you’re after, the kings, keep devouring them. A downrigger works best and you can control the depth but for you moochers and jiggers this is a great way work your presentation up and down through the bait ball. A herring falling out of a bait ball has “King Me” written all over it.
Your GPS is very important when fishing the ocean. Actually, your GPS is essential to have no matter where you fish. But rather than using your GPS to go to “old” already marked spots, you need to find the fish and mark them for each trip. Once you find the fish try and stay in that travel lane. If you have a GPS with mapping or charting capabilities than you have a huge advantage. Follow the contour lines and you should consistently be on the fish. The fish you’re on top of may move, but there are thousands of fish coming and they’re going to be using that same express lane.
By July the fish usually aren’t that far off shore yet. I like to start “looking” for fish around the 120ft mark but generally I’m at about 180ft before I find the fish I’m looking for. If the signs are there (birds or bait balls) don’t hesitate to fish where you find them, whether is 60ft or 300ft. There are no boundaries when it comes to where the fish will choose to travel. My own history tells me 180 to 200 feet is money. Another thing about these earlier fish, they also don’t tend to hang in shallow around the cliffs and “normal” areas we look for in Puget Sound. These fish are on a mission, they’re not looking to wait for anything – they’re moving and eating on the way.
When in Westport be cautious fishing in the shallower waters. 120ft is popular not only with the salmon, but the crab pots as well. You DON’T want to get tangled in one of these contraptions.
Now we’ve found the fish, but the number one question asked? How deep do we fish? For the most part up near the surface is going to produce a lot of fish, say in the top 30 feet of water. This time of year the bait is going to be concentrated more towards the surface so that’s where the kings will be as well. I like to fish the top 30 feet of water to start out with, then drop one line down to 60 feet. If the fish finder has a different story, or I’m not locating the fish in numbers, I won’t hesitate to drop down to 90 to 120 feet, but for the most part that 30ft mark is magic. But the answer to the question of how deep? The fish will dictate that! Make sure and fish just above where you’re marking fish, or the bait. These kings may swim down when hooked, but they can only see forward and up.
So what about bait? I said earlier a nice cut plug herring mooched through a bait ball is killer (in other words), but this is spoon time. I’ll use an 11” Pro Troll Flasher in Green Spatterback , Green Coyote or Purple Haze followed by a 3.5 or 4” Silver Horde Kingfisher Spoon tied 55 inches behind. Size of the spoon is determined by the size of the bait in the area, remember to “match the hatch”. Smaller bait, smaller spoon, larger bait, larger spoon… pretty simple. Make sure and scent your spoon, leader and flasher! As far as spoon colors, I do have my favorites, Purple Haze, Green Haze, Green Spatter and Blue Spatter – all in UV finish. Popular choices as of late are Cookies and Cream and the Irish Flag, both by Silver Horde. If you’re a diehard bait fishermen, wait until you find a huge bait ball and then mooch your cut plug. Smaller baits going to work better. It’s hard to find green label so red label might have to suffice. Live bait if available should be the same size as what’s out there in the ocean so would be your best bet. I’m still going to suggest using a spoon at this time so you can travel more distance with your presentation intact.
Something Silver Horde has done that I’m a 100% believer in is switching their spoon hooks to sickle hooks. The catch ratio has significantly increased after they switched – something I did myself about 5 years ago.
Small herring or anchovies fished behind a deep six can be deadly too. Smaller baits this time of year work best. I like to use this setup directly behind the boat in the prop wash. You’d be amazed how many times this setup has produced kings only out 20 to 40ft.
If I have all spoons on (no bait), I’ll generally troll 2 – 2.5mph – enough to keep the flasher whippin around. If I have bait on I’ll kick it down a notch so the bait won’t have to be replaced as often. Now if it’s being replaced because of fish than that’s a different story, I’ll switch to all bait and try and troll the same speed as we hooked up with. Another way of trolling both spoons and bait effectively together is to use inline flashers with both – I like the new X2 flashers as they provide superior flash even at minimal trolling speeds.
This is going to be a banner year. The forecasts are excellent. Don’t wait for the reports, plan now to hit the coast in July and you won’t be disappointed. Fireworks or not, the kings will be rockin.