Casting for Tributary Coho | by Scott Haugen

Casting for Tributary Coho | by Scott Haugen

Standing on the bank, I cast my plug beyond the shallow, gravel flats in front of me. A deliberate, slow retrieve wasn’t slow enough, as the plug dredged the bottom.

On the following cast I retrieved the plug even slower, allowing it to float off the bottom.

The closer the plug got, the slower I reeled.

When a lethargic, steady tug drew my line tight, I set the hook. The fight was on. Instantly a bright coho cartwheeled into the air, wasting no time spinning and twisting the moment he hit the water.

Up and downriver he ran! The river was shallow and the feisty silver had nowhere to dive. He took a while to tire, and when he did, I kept his head up, sliding him onto the shallow gravel bar, to my feet. It was a great start to a wonderful day casting for coho.

coho fishing salmon

Last fall marked one of the best coho runs along the Pacific Coast in many years. This fall is predicted to be every bit as good. Many anglers target coho in bays and estuaries during the month of August, then forget about them. But if looking for a change of pace from fall chinook fishing, or if awaiting the arrival of winter steelhead, traveling to tributaries to target coho can be just what you’re after.

From Alaska to Oregon, I’ve had the good fortune of pursuing coho in many settings. While there are multiple ways to fish for them, my favorite is casting various setups. In past articles in STS, I’ve detailed trolling setups and float-fishing techniques for silver salmon, but this time we’re going to take a look at some of my favorite casting presentations.

Pound for pound, coho are one of the hardest fighting salmonids out there, and catching them by casting minimal gear takes the thrill to a different level.

The great thing about the following approaches, they can be achieved from the bank or from a boat, all season long.

als goldfish

Casting Plugs

When talk of plug fishing for coho comes up, most minds turn to backtrolling. While backtrolling flatlined plugs for coho works well, casting can be even better.

Because coho occupy such a variety of water types, they can be difficult to fish for. While coho will travel through fast flowing water—fast enough to backtroll plugs through—they routinely hold in slack water.

Coho are notorious for staging in the mouths of rivers and small streams, even in lakes and sloughs, where the current is virtually nonexistent. Some of these slack holding waters may be only a few feet deep, some more than 30 feet deep.

Coho will also hold on the inside corner of river bends.

Some of this water can also be very shallow, meaning plugs may not be the best option. But if there’s any depth to these inside corners, especially in the form of ledges where coho might stack-up, then tossing plugs can be very effective. Even if it’s three feet deep, a plug can be worked slowly.

If casting from a boat, try getting the plug to land well beyond where the fish are holding.

By the time the plug reaches its fishing depth, a depth achieved by reeling since most plugs float, you want to be in the thick of the school. Casting into shallow water and retrieving into deeper water is not always the best option, for if coho are gathered tight to shore, the plug may pass over them before reaching the desired depth.

Some of the best plug casting from a boat occurs in deep, slow moving water.

This allows a lot of prime water to be covered, and in deeper waters, coho are more receptive to travel long distances to attack.

fighting coho salmon steelhead

If coho are tucked tight to shore, then the best approach is casting from the bank. Be sure to cast beyond the fish and reel just fast enough to get the plug within a few inches of the bottom, without getting hung in the rocks.

My favorite all-around plug for casting for cohos is the Mag Lip 4.5.

The 3.5 size also works wonders, and last fall I heard of many people loving the 3.0 for casting in smaller, clear, coastal streams. Wrap the Mag Lip with herring, sardine or anchovy, and the presentation gets even better.

While fishing the Kenai River last Halloween with well-known, local guide, Mike Fenton (, he introduced me to how effective wrapped plugs can be when targeting coho.

“These coho love scents, just like the kings do,” Mike pointed out. “But the key to a good casting wrap is making sure the fillet stays in place through all the casting and retrieving,” he shares while putting multiple wraps on a plug with his bulk thread spool.

The 4.5 Mag Lip is also Mike’s favorite casting plug. Coho are so tenacious, this is not too big of a plug by any means. In fact, I like the larger size because it offers more bling, can carry more scent in the form or a wrap and the rattles send out agitating sounds coho seem to key in on. Wiggle Warts and Brad’s Wigglers are also popular casting plugs.


No matter what plug you use, control the depth by the speed of the reel.

For this, a spinning reel along the lines of a Shimano Symetre 4000, spooled with P-Line’s 12 pound CXX X-Tra Strong, works great. A large line capacity reel allows for heavier pound test which is important when controlling fish in shallow water where fish can run great distances. Put this setup on a G.Loomis STR1163-25, fast action 9’8” rod with a 6-12 pound test line rating and capable of working 3/8-1 1/2 ounces, or something similar, and you’re set. Simply tie your plug directly to the mainline, attached by a duo lock snap swivel, and get to fishing.

Flipping & Twitching Jigs

I’ve detailed my favorite coho float fishing jig setup before (see August 2014, STS), but this time we’re talking about flatlined jig fishing. This is a casting presentation I’d done for steelhead in fast moving water, but never in slow flowing, shallow water for coho, not until Mike Fenton showed me how he does it.

The setup is simple. Tie a ¼, 3/8, or 1/2 -ounce jig directly to the mainline and you’re good to go. The fact there are no swivels, leaders, floats or sinkers attached to the line makes for an exciting fight when you latch into a feisty silver. In the cold waters Fenton and I fished, an extra slow retrieve was what elicited strikes. But in warmer waters of the Pacific Northwest, a faster, twitching and jigging action works well. 

As with casting plugs, get the jig beyond the holding fish and bring it toward them.

Twitch, or quickly lift the rod, reeling up the slack as you drop the rod tip. Most strikes come when the jig is dropping.

Since you’re working directly with the jig, which sinks under its own weight, then controlling the depth at which you’re fishing, is easy. Don’t be afraid to let the jig hit the bottom, especially in shallow situations. Jigs will also work in deeper water where coho are suspended, but they need not fall all the way to the bottom.

Be sure to keep working the jig all the way to the end, for coho often follow them great distances before attacking. This is especially true in deeper water and sloughs. Then again, plop a jig into the middle of a school of holding coho and fish often attack in sudden aggression. Pink colored jigs on sturdy hooks are ideal.

Due to the lightweight nature of fishing bare jigs, a spinning setup is the way to go for most anglers. For reference, and what I use, a Shimano Stradic CI4 3000F spooled with 10- or 12-pound CXX X-Tra Strong is perfect for this approach, and can be attached to one or two rods. Early in the season for smaller coho or in any open water setting where structure isn’t an issue, a G.Loomis Twitching Rod, such as a 7’6” setup that fishes 6-12 pound test. Another option for jig twitching rods, would be GLoomis 10-20 medium-heavy rods. Those capable of holding 10-20 pound test line, yet maintainsensitivity for fishing a light setup.

Slinging Lures

Of all the casting approaches there are for coho, perhaps nothing is as versatile as tossing lures. Due to the size-range of lures on the market, and the speed at which different designs can be fished, there’s not much water a lure can’t be fished in. If fishing fast currents or deep holes, a ¾-ounce to 1-ounce lure works well. In more shallow, slow moving water, downsize to a 3/8-ounce jig.

Keep in mind, coho aren’t shy of big lures, so the only reason I downsize to smaller presentations is to prevent hanging up on the bottom.

A favorite lure of most coho anglers is one that offers the most movement, specifically, skirted models. The Coho Bolo has been a standby for years, and the highly popular 1/2 ounce Flash-Glo Casting spinner with the squid skirt and large beads, is a favorite of many. Flash-Glo spinners come with a treble hook and a siwash hook, and are easy to change out in fisheries requiring a single hook. The original Rooster Tail is also tough to beat when it comes to coho, and the range of sizes, all the way up to 1 ounce, allow a lot of different water types to be covered.

pink coho spinners
When it comes to spinning rod setups, I like the Stradic 3000F reel on two different rod options. In small coastal streams the IMX 9000 Twitching rod is ideal, as the short length allows for accurate casting and hitting pocket water with more control. In bigger water and where heavier fish are targeted, the new IMX 1165S is a 9’8” rod capable of handling 8-17 pound test. I’ll go with 12 to 15 pound test CXX, depending on the type of water and size of fish being sought.

As for lure color, start with pink and end with pink. Anything pink works best for coho. Invest in a variety of pink colors, from bright to light. Chartreuse and orange can also produce, but overall, pink is the go-to color wherever coho are fished.

Drift Fishing

Drift fishing for coho is an approach that’s fallen off in popularity in recent years, but it’s still very effective. In drift fishing, target coho where you would steelhead and chinook in rifles, chutes and faster flowing currents. The edges of seams are a great place to hit, as are the edges of eddies and swirls where coho often hold.

Cured eggs are a favorite bait for coho, but be sure and top them with a drift bobber.

While many anglers think drift bobbers are strictly for adding color, the big benefit in coho fishing is their ability to float your bait. The added buoyancy will lift the bait off the bottom, allowing it to move around in the current. Not only does this added movement increase the amount of scent released from the cured eggs, it also increases the presentation’s visibility.

As with lures, pink is the go-to color in drift bobbers.

Pink with silver flecks and different variations of pink are tough to beat. Lil’ Corkies, Lil’ Corky Clusters and Spin-N-Glos are all effective drift bobbers that, collectively, can be fished in many types of water. In fast water, stick with the Corky and Corky Cluster. Go to the Spin-N-Glo in slower moving water where the spinning action of this driftbobber really adds to the presentation’s buoyancy and visibility.

As for drift fishing rod setups, I like a Curado 201HG baitcasting reel spooled with 12 or 15 pound test P-Line CXX X-Tra strong. A G.Loomis IMX 1163, a 9’8” 6-12 test, moderate powered rod, is a good all-around choice, as well. In smaller streams, I’ll use an 8’8” IMX 1043-2C with a 6-12 test line rating and fast action.

These highly specialized rods aren’t cheap, but the sensitivity, feel and power they offer make them the Cadillac of the rod world. If these are beyond your current budget, a rod with similar specs’ will do.

Go Fish

Get ready for what could be a banner year of coho fishing. Organize that gear, diversify with multiple setups and you’ll be surprised at how each approach has a place, and how many more fish you’ll put in the freezer.

Written by Outdoor Personality & Writer Scott Haugen



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