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Estuary Chinook Salmon Rigging

Shown here is an estuary salmon set-up that has been perfected for this type of fishery

Fishing Regulations & Charts :  For most of us who do not remember like we used to, it may be beneficial to carry a copy of your state's current Fishing Regs. on your boat.   There will be some location limits as to buoys or points of land for both the lower & upper boundaries of the fishery.   Also check with your Dept of Wildlife either by looking at their internet site or a local sporting goods store for updates as to an early closure or extended catch possibilities in the specific areas.

Another thing to have aboard could be charts of the intended estuaries.  If you happen to be there when the tide is out, sometimes there are sandbars where there was water when you went out.

A nice Chinook in the net Ready to net one.  Notice the array of small boats here with Tokeland in the background

GPS :  This time of the year fog can be there all morning, or set in later & then even a handheld GPS with your launch point & a few buoy locations will give you some references that in addition to your depthfinder will allow you to at least feel not as lost as you could be.   If you stay on the shore when the fog is in, your fish box will certainly be not have the fishy smell.

Each Estuary is Different:  With this being said, then it also applies that somewhat different methods need to be used to be the most effective.  Some estuaries will have different water clarity & therefore your attractor needs to be consistent with the water conditions.  The murkier the water, the larger the attractor needs to be.  Grays Harbor usually is rather murky & this can even change with the tide, so use a larger attractor & possibly a shorter leader behind it.  Willapa Bay however seems to be a lot clearer water & it has proven beneficial to use the Mini Fish Flash or no attractor.   The Columbia River at the Buoy 10 area has a lot of tidal influence & ocean water exchange, so it can be fished very similar to the ocean fishery.   It usually has considerably less weeds also.

Time & Tides :   Most of the catching occurs from the last 2 hours of the incoming high tide and about 2 more hours after the flood.  However it can be worthwhile all the way thru the outgoing & into the low slack.   The thinking here is that the fish will be swimming upstream into the out-flowing water, & not being swept in by the incoming tide that seems to be the common perception.  Trolling is usually be best with the tide up until about low slack tide & then the troll becomes both directions at tide change.    On some shallow estuaries with a narrow river channel, on a low tide, the water area has shrunk considerably and this then concentrates the fish in the channels or holes that are left which can prove beneficial to the fisherperson.

 However as with many fisheries, the fish sometimes write their our timetables & they have been caught on any time of the tide.  

It also makes a difference if the weather is dry for some time, or if it has been raining.  If it has been dry, then the fish tend to stack up in the bay waiting for a rain, waiting for a shot of fresher, cooler water.  When it starts to rain, even slightly, they will move thru & upriver rather rapidly.  

Boats :  In this type of fishery you will see about any size & type of boat.   Most common will be 16' to 18'ers.   You will see water ski boats, river jet sleds, & ocean fishing cabin boats.   If the weather permits, & the wind does not blow, creating a lot of chop, even a 12' car-topper can be used.  The Columbia River Buoy 10 fishery would be an exception here as the larger boats are needed.  The wind usually picks up on all coastal area in the afternoon & even 18' or 20' open boats can take on water over the bow when it gets rough, so watch the other boaters & be prepared to head in a little early if need be.

Gear : You may see some downriggers in use, but with all the floating weeds at times it seems to be more of a hassle & not really beneficial in this shallow water.   Plus if you get bound in a parade by many other boats, your maneuverability is restricted.  You may also see the use of some divers, probably by fishermen that are more familiar with the Columbia River Buoy 10 fishery, but estuaries that have bay grass prevalent, these weeds can cause a problem.   When the floating weeds are in/on the water, the divers seem to gather LARGE gobs of weeds & it would be doubtful that they would trip IF a fish would bite, & you can not trip them either.

You can use regular mooching gear to troll in these shallow waters, however unless you use 8 or 10 ounce sinkers you will have a lot of line out & at times the closeness to other boats, this may not be desired.  The set-up illustrated above has been perfected specifically for this type of fishing.  

Another thing DO NOT use your rod holders set at a high angle where the line enters the water far back.  Again consider the close proximity of other boaters.  Plus the fact that most of these fish being larger than normal and the shallow water have no place to go but away.  If you are near other fishing boats, someone may have to move fast to keep the tangles at a minimum.

In some estuaries, the water may be slightly murky, so a attractant like the Fish Flash that has little drag seems to work best.  In the past, a red or chartreuse Fish Flash have proved excellent, however there are new ones out that are glo-in-the-dark, these should prove good when charged with a camera flash.  My thought here is that the size of this attractor needs to match the water clarity.  For Grays Harbor the large Fish Flash works OK.   The medium size in my opinion is best all around one if you had to pick one, as I believe in this shallower or clearer water the larger size could spook the fish.   For the Willapa, I have even been known to use the small or the mini version.

Add a Sampo ball bearing swivel at the end of your mainline when using a Fish Flash to help eliminate line twist.  Also place a golf tee on the mainline above all the other gear.  This is to help divert floating grass off.   It has been observed that a knot on the terminal end of the mainline seems to not allow grass to pass off, whereas this golf tee seems to help in this respect.

Use a plastic sturgeon sinker slider on the mainline to attach the sinker onto.  This helps to prevent the fish to use the weight of the sinker to throw the barbless hooks, since the slider will slide if the fish tries to shake & dislodge the hook.  Attach a 12" to 18" lighter (12-15#, or at least lighter than the mainline) monofilament dropper to the sinker.  Just tie large loops on each end using a simple granny knot.  The reason for this dropper is that you want your bait NEAR the bottom, in some of these bays you may encounter snags at times, with the lighter dropper, if you hang up, the sinker is what usually get hung first & the dropper will break off.  Make up some spare droppers ahead of time, as when the bite happens, you do not want to be tying gear.  Tie on a cannon ball sinker of from 4 to 10 oz depending on the current & depth by just poking the loop thru the sinker eye & then running it far enough that you can tuck the sinker back thru the line eye, making a simple looped attachment.  You may have to increase  or decrease the sinker weight as the tide changes.

There needs to be a distance between the slider & the Fish Flash slightly longer (2") than the distance of the sinker dropper.   This is so that the sinker does not get tangled with the Fish Flash.  If this happens, it is usually because you did not have a heavy enough sinker on.   If you do not catch it soon, the whole mess is tangled badly.  Here I usually use a spacer of braided dacron left over from my sturgeon leaders as this helps decipher which leader is which in a tangle.   I put a standard swivel on one end & a swivel/snap on the other end.  This allows me some flexibility & is quicker in setting things up, or if it does get tangled, I can unsnap different sections to help untangle things later.

The above gear can be used for trolling about any form of bait/lure by simply changing what you hang behind the flasher.

You will see many combinations of trolling gear.  Some simply attach a cannonball weight directly to the slider.  I have found that this does not allow you to read the bumping on the bottom if the depth shallows as compared to using the dropper.

The leader should be heavier than normal because of the possible larger fish encountered, and it can be shorter than a normal 6' mooching leader if used in murky water.  Since you are fishing in shallow water (usually 15-25') when a fish is hooked, he has no place to go but run.  Originally the preferred leader length started as 72" of a mooching leader, it got shortened to 36-48" and fish were still caught.  But on some instances, (maybe the murkier water applies here) more fish were taken on even shorter (18") leaders, so you  may want to experiment in this aspect.  

I do not like the cut plug bait here, in that with the volume of weeds here at times, & the bait gets battered a lot, changing the cut that you tried so hard to produce.  I tend to go farther & use the herring bonnets over even a whole rigged herring.  The best I have found are Rhys Davis made in Canada.   The regular size is the Anchovy Special, while if you insist on LARGE herring then their Super Herring Special is the one needed.   These utilize a plastic pin, but they get lost & any round toothpick works OK to secure the head of the herring into the bonnet.    In use they protect the herring bait when subject to weeds.

With these bonnets, you can use a standard mooching leader.  The preferred would be a solid tie, tied the distance between the hooks to match the size of the bait.   The leader should be of a heavier material than the standard ocean leader because the chance of hooking a large fish here is rather good & they can not go down in this shallow water, so you need to either chase them or wear them out.   40# seems to be about the size that most experienced fisherpersons use.

Do not set the rods in the rod holders with the tip at a straight up position like you would if you were using a downrigger.   First off it adds to the distance your lure is away from the boat.  This may not be that bad, BUT if many boats are congregated in your area, you are just adding to the possibility of tangles with the other boaters gear.   The picture below on the left illustrates a workable rod position.  This gives you your own space, & also seems to allow more readily accessed rods when a hit does occur.

Put the clicker on your reel so that if a fish hits you can hear it.   At times with the trolling motor running & you are busy with something else or your drag is looser than it should be the line may be pulled out & you don't realize it.  Or a fish could even be on the other end.

A tolling set up, you  want the rod low like this. Weeds, but notice the Fish Flash is fairly clean, so the line swivel & the sinker appear to intercept most of them.

Bait :  Most fisherpersons use cut plug herring, & you might try the largest you can get (purple or black label).   For cut plugging, (or any method for that matter) soak the bait at least overnight & up to 4-5 days in 1 quart water, 2 cups rock salt & 1/2 cup of powdered milk in a refrigerator.  The rock salt toughens while the powdered milk sets the scales.  You can also add a few drops of blue or green food coloring to replace that live iridescent color.  In addition you can even add some scent to this mixture.  And inject the bait with scent after it is rigged.   One method is that after you cut the head off, clean the entrals, & then make a slit in the rear belly cavity at the anis.  This slit will allow water to flow thru the bait, putting off more scent, & allowing the bait to stay together longer.

For cut-plugging, some fishermen use a large toothpick or barbecue skewer just inside the skin, start outside & forward of the hook exit hole.  Push this back just inside the skin the full length of the bait.  Break it off slightly in front of the herring.  This stiffens & protects the bait & allows it to be trolled longer.

Or my preferred method, is to use a smaller green label bait & then use a herring bonnet.  These bonnets will help to keep the bait from being torn off when weeds attach it, and keep it fishing longer. 

However don't stick exclusively with bait, as many fish can be caught using lures.  These lures can be about anything that a salmon has been known to take when they enter the rivers, like large spinners, large Spi-N-Glo's, Coyote spoons, Kwik-Fish, etc.   Ocean fishing plugs like the Apex or Sting Kings can also be experimented with.   I like to have at least one of each, (bait & lures) in the water at the same time, as explained in the following "Observances" section.

Drifting Eggs :   The use of a large gob of salmon eggs near the bottom, drifting under a large bobber is a method that can also be effective in some estuaries in the upper reaches of tidewater.  Here you try to locate a hole that has fish stacked in it, which may well be non-biters.  The free-floating salmon eggs can prove effective in a situation like this. 

Hooks :  Tie your hooks, 4/0-5/0 or up to 5/0-6/0 close, (3/4") between the bend & the eye.  When tying, the smaller hook is to the rear, allowing the larger hook to be inserted into near the head area of the bait.  Hook only the front hook into the bait, with the rear trailing.  Use 36" to 48" of 40# or 50# leader on the hooks as the water is murky and a large Chinook, if hooked deep, can cut lighter leader with its teeth.

Observances : Troll with the tide if possible and slow (1.5+-mph).  At slack tide you can troll either way.  Pull your line OFTEN (like every 15 minutes) & clean any weeds off, check your bait, & re-inject scent.

It has been observed that they do not go with the deepest part of the bay or shipping channel, but may travel on the edges of it.   Most shipping channels will be maintained at 40'.  The fish will usually be found on the shelf or edge of the channel in water from 12' to 25'.  This is where a GPS may come in handy, or if there are piling markers or buoys, take reference on them & guide your fishing locations around them. 

These fish, like most, will travel in certain paths.  If you stop & think, they are probably taking the route with the least current, thereby making their progress easier.  If there happens to be a secondary channel away from the main channel that ties back into the main channel, do not fail to look at this.  This secondary channel will normally be off of a bend & will have a lesser flow, but will make for easier fishing.

Another location I have encountered is different however, in that there is a good sized hole in the channel, & usually on the high incoming tide, the fish tend to hold up in this hole.  The fisherpersons will troll slow enough, or backtroll so that the bait simply drops into the hole & slowly pushed thru the hole with the tide.  It is these peculiar locations that you need to learn & make notes of.   All the more reason to pick a area & fish it enough to learn it instead of hopping around & never really know what or where you should be fishing at.

It is a proven fact that fall salmon will move into the lower reaches of an estuary & stay there until they are ready to move upriver for a pre-spawn.  They may drift back into salt water on the following outgoing tide.   They then may move back in again on succeeding tides.  This can happen numerous times before they move upriver or stay if there has been no rain.  So what you can have are some virgins to the estuary, & some repeaters that are about ready to head farther upriver.   As they get ready to move upriver they tend to loose the feeding instinct & will also loose their bright coloration.

It seems that most of these Chinook salmon tend to be close to the bottom.  One explanation, is that in these estuaries, where the fresh water mixes with the salt water, since salt water is heavier, it will be on the bottom.  This puts the fresh water on top with a mid level mixture of salinity in between.   Since most of these fish are pretty fresh out of the ocean, they apparently take a while to acclimate to the lesser salinity of the upper bay/lower river.  This puts the newcomers initially in the deeper parts of the lower bay for a while.  As they become more accustomed to the fresh water, they then move upstream & therefore may be found higher in the water column.

I have talked to a WDFW fish checker who relayed his experiences at La Push checking the Quileute Indian nets.   He says that the Chinook will be within 1' of the lead-line or bottom, while the Steelhead will be right on top at the float-line.

It is my theory that these first or second timers being the brightest & freshest fish may be the ones take the bait.   The repeaters may have been conditioned into NOT taking bait the longer they are in freshwater.   These fish may be the ones who will possibly take a lure more readily.  And this lure can be a aggressive one like a spinner or plug that they just hit as a defensive reaction.  It therefore seems to be prudent to have one each of both bait/lures in the water at the same time in these situations.

You can encounter MANY boats in close quarters in situations like this.   I counted 126 boats on the Willapa Bay between the river marker #2 at Tokeland & marker #26 during the Tokeland Marina/Willapa Gang's 2005 salmon derby on August 28th.   I am sure there may have been more that were out of sight.   When this happens, you have to be observant.   You may not be able to troll exactly where you want to go because of the other traffic close to you.   One constant problem is a troller setting at the rear, hand steering his motor with his back to 1/2 of the boats usually never looks over his shoulder at what is on his blind side.  It seems to be no problem if at a slack tide that some of the boats are trolling upriver & others are moving downriver.  But when a boat or two wants to zig-zag thru the parade, things can a little hectic, especially when these boats are larger than the rest & think they have the right of way.   Remember, this is supposed to be fun.

More Observances:  Every year I see many salmon lost close to the boats.   Some fish simply don't get hooked good enough to stay on, & it appears that here, there is a surprising number that spit the hook before they get to the boat.   My observances can usually be split into about 3 mistakes which cause this. 

(1)  Using inadequate tackle.  This can be from too light & limber a rod, too long a leader/distance between the sinker if inline & the flasher creating a say 9' distance from the lure to the end of the mainline & using an 8 1/2' rod.  Then with the fish putting an arch in the rod, this then lengthens the distance.  This creates a problem of the fisherman not being able to control the fish so the netter can do his job effectively.

(2)  The netter being inexperienced in that they dip the net in the water & expect the fish to simply swim into it.   Or they make numerous passes before the fish is tired & ready to be netted, spooking the fish or knocking it off the hooks.  And they many will NOT hold the net bag in their off hand so it does not dip into the water, again spooking the fish.   Sometimes the netter, under special circumstances, may HAVE to net early IF the hooks appear to not be a good hookup,  but this takes experience & luck.

(3)   This may be hard to prove, but it is my suspicion that faulty hooks may come into play many times here.  Either the design of the hook, or most probably just DULL hooks.  If the fish just spits the hook, most will simply blame it on having to use the barbless hooks.   While in reality the hook was simply not sharp.  Most experienced fishermen test the sharpness of the hook on their thumbnail.  If it slips & does not READILY dig in, use a hook file or stone.   In this category, could also be placed that the hooks may not have been rigged properly if using herring for bait.  Where do you place the rear hook?   The bait needs to "swim", not with a fast spin, but rather a lazy roll is the preferred style.   Here again will be your personal preference. 

Just because you use one method that works in your normal salmon fishing, if you are not catching as many fish as others, ask them, & you may just get told how they do it.   Why go to all the effort to get your time on the water, your boat ready & all the other things lined up, only to almost totally ignore the one thing that WILL effect your catch percentage, that being your condition & presentation of the bait.

(4)  You may be putting yourself at a disadvantage if you DO NOT USE BAIT here.  OK, I have pulled fish on lures here, but if the numbers of fish that are there on any given day are not that great,  you may be helping to stack the deck so that your fishbox will come up short by not using a proven local bait.

Copyright 2004-2006 LeeRoy Wisner  All Rights Reserved

Originated 9-29-2002, Last Updated 09-20-2006
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