When the coho bite is on the action is fast and furious. Often you can catch and release several fish before finally landing the “marked” or “adipose fin clipped” hatchery origin fish you are allowed to keep.
There is nothing better than chasing after coho salmon in my drift boat on the small rivers and streams feeding Grays Harbor. This coho hit a twitched jig.
Twitching jigs is one of my favorite ways to catch fall coho. But we would be fools to forgo all of the other techniques used to catch these silver-sided rockets. And those techniques can vary depending on where you are fishing and even what time of year you chase after them. Southwest Washington is one of those places where you can target coho in every aspect of angling opportunity they offer. From the open ocean to saltwater estuaries and then larger rivers to streams. Bank bound, drift boat rowers, jet sledders, and ocean captains alike can catch silvers in the Grays Harbor area of Washington.
Coho salmon fishing begins in early summer out in the ocean. The small town of Westport is home to many charter boats that take happy anglers across Grays Harbor bar, one of the most violent and deadly bars in the Northwest—only second to the Columbia River bar a few miles to the south. Here the ocean can calm down and lay flat or north Pacific winds can kick up against the tide and cause high seas. Those that venture out in private boats do so with an understanding that this can be a very dangerous place to fish. But the rewards are great. When the coho bite is on the action is fast and furious. Often you can catch and release several fish before finally landing the “marked” or “adipose fin clipped” hatchery origin fish you are allowed to keep. For the ocean angler trolling a plug-cut herring behind a dodger is most common. Others like to troll spoons such as the Coyote Spoon or Coho Killer, again behind a dodger. Silvers are so aggressive that they will come up into your prop wash and strike your spoon as you let the gear out.
The small town of Westport is home to many charter boats that take happy anglers across Grays Harbor bar, one of the most violent and deadly bars in the Northwest—only second to the Columbia River bar a few miles to the south.
For me there is nothing better than chasing after coho salmon in my drift boat on the small rivers and streams feeding Grays Harbor. Fish start arriving in the rivers in late August but the main runs are in late September and the entire month of October. November usually sees a slowing of the coho returns as the chum salmon arrive. After the chums are spawned and dead a second run of coho occurs on several of the Grays Harbor area rivers with fish showing back up around Thanksgiving and continuing through Christmas and even into the New Year.
Though the preferred fish for table fare are the bright “silver-sided” ocean fish the coho does provide a great meal after they enter freshwater. A slightly red fish is still good to eat but once their bellies turn a dark black it’s best to release the fish because the flesh is no longer of any value. For the sport angler the coho is a very aggressive fish and fun to catch. Fly anglers often fish the tidal waters where the fish will stack up awaiting a rain or large tide influence before entering the river or stream. Here a 7- or 8-weight single-hand fly rod and some bright Bunny Leeches in chartreuse or cerise is perfect for a day of action. For gear anglers coho have been known to chase down and attack spoons as well. Of course one of the most unique ways to catch a coho is by twitching jigs. Coho will chase down and attack jigs much like a bass. A 3/8-ounce jig in back and purple is the top producing jig in the Northwest, followed closely by a black and cerise or white and pink.
Coho are aggressive biters, but they are also lazy in terms of their river migration. The fish tend to congregate in deep holes and the soft waters of back eddies and sloughs along the river. Long grass along the edge of the river often indicates a coho hole. This shows slow water and provides cover. The depth is not nearly as important as the cover. I have caught coho in two feet of water as well as in twenty-foot holes, both of which had trees and limbs in the water for concealment. Pitching jigs into the cover and then letting them settle a few feet followed by a subtle “twitch” of the rod and a crank of the reel handle makes the jig “dance.” This drives coho crazy and causes a violent take of the jig. Coho don’t shy away after one has been caught either. My best record yet is three fish in three straight cast out of one small hole that had a few logs in it. For twitching jigs a short 7 ½-foot rod with a sensitive tip and a strong backbone is needed, paired with a 3000 series spinning reel spooled with 30-pound braided line tied directly to the jig. Some anglers will add scent or tip the jig with a piece of prawn, but I have done very well with just the jig itself.
Southwest Washington’s Grays Harbor is fed by several rivers including the large Chehalis River drainage. The town of Westport lies on the southern tip of the harbor as it juts into the Pacific Ocean and offers several hotels and motels that cater to the angler. The original Bennett’s fish house offers great food and is right at the fisherman’s wharf. The small town is a tourist hub with charter boat fishing being one of the main draws. Coho are often caught right off the docks in town and annual fishing derby is held by the Chamber of Commerce. This unique derby is free to enter and runs from September 15th to October 31st each year. All you need to do is catch a coho off of the docks inside the marina. The fish are raised in net pens by local volunteer groups and return to the marina each fall.
On the northern side of Grays Harbor is Ocean Shores known for the long sandy beaches and kite flying festivals. Plenty of hotels and restaurants along with a great ice cream shop make for a perfect base camp for the angler. A few minutes away is the Humptulips River. One of the most popular rivers for fall salmon fishing, it offers both bank and drift boat access. If the river is running very low then most anglers concentrate on the tidal influenced section that has a WDFW public access launch site on Lower Dike Road. Float down to the Highway 108 access site or hike down the river a half mile for some deeper holes where the fish will stage while waiting for fall rains. This stretch of river is best fished by floating eggs or throwing spinners; most of the holes are deep but lack much cover or sunken logs.
The Humptulips is a very versatile river when it comes to it being fishable at just about any water level and fishing condition. When the rains hit and the river begins to swell from the summertime lows of 120 cfs or lower to a steady 400 cfs, then the middle section is where most anglers fish. This is the stretch from Reyenvanns Bar, a long gravel bar that offers great bank angler access as well as a put in or take out for drift boaters, to the lower Dike Road Ramp. Bank access is pretty limited here due to private land, but Reyenvann’s is big enough to allow for plunkers as well as float anglers to enjoy a day of fishing together.
Though the preferred fish for table fare are the bright “silver-sided” ocean fish the coho does provide a great meal after they enter freshwater.
As fall turns cold and wet the river continues to climb. Once flows hit a minimum of 600 cfs you can float the upper stretch, but it is best fished by drift boat above 900 cfs. Starting at the Highway 101, or Hanson Road Launch, which is about a mile above the fish hatchery, it is an all-day float down to Reyenvanns. The entire stretch of the river holds fish and you need to be ready to change up tactics. Be sure to carry a float fishing rod and a twitching rod as well as be able to pitch spoons, spinners and plugs. There are several small back eddies and slack water for twitching jigs and throwing hardware; casting plugs in front of the hatchery usually produces a few fish. Be very cautious as you near the hatchery; there is a rapids and you must use the boat chute right along the edge of the hatchery intake gates. As you go through the boat chute the bottom end has a hard left corner and a few years ago a large boil formed here that caused a few drift boats to sink as it sucked you back into the current. Stay aware and be on the oars and ready to row into the far right bank and it will push you through.
Bank anglers have a lot of options for the upper stretch of the Humptulips starting right at the hatchery. Fish will hold here and most anglers either float eggs or throw spinners. Those that want to hike can go down to the famed “wall” and intercept fish in this deep slot that has a clay shelf. Floating eggs is the preferred way to fish here and you will have company so be sure to share the water. Most drift boat anglers push through this spot because it is so popular with bank anglers who are limited to the gravel bank.
Though coho will run from early September through January on the Humptulips; a strong “B run” arrives in December. I have fished this river two-days before Christmas and caught several large coho in the upper teens on a very wet day with the river running 2,200 cfs.
The one hundred and fifteen-mile long Chehalis River is the main thoroughfare for the rest of the Grays Harbor salmon runs. With a basin that drains over 2,600 square miles, the Chehalis provides many tributaries for spawning grounds. The main river slows as it nears the tidal waters and bays where the smolts can survive and grow until they are strong enough to venture to the open Pacific. This makes for strong runs of coho, Chinook, chum and steelhead. The coho do well in the estuary waters and bank anglers target the fish as they swim past a city park in the town of Aberdeen. This logging town, known for its historical buildings, is the biggest town in Grays Harbor county and is another place where fall coho anglers can find a hotel. It also offers many coffee shops and places to get food but no real fishing or outdoor stores so be sure to take any gear you need with you.
Larger prop driven boats can make it up the first few miles of the Chehalis, but those with jet sleds can make it up further and leave the brackish water behind. Once you get above the Satsop River you are above the tidal influence and most boat anglers will anchor and fish plugs. Throw-ing spinners works well for both bank and boat bound fishermen. Since this is the main river where several feeders drain into it, the waters turn muddy and rise with frequent rain. The Chehalis is best fished on sunny and clear days. Another option is to launch in the Satsop River at the Highway 12 Bridge access site and then motor down to the Chehalis. If the water conditions are better in the Satsop then stay there, but if the big river is clear, then this is your best bet to intercept fish bound for several rivers upstream.
A few miles from Aberdeen is the town of Montesano. This is the county seat for Grays Harbor county and offers a hotel and gas station known as “Monte Square” that has a decent tackle section. It is also your best bet to pick up some last-minute bait and other supplies and is minutes from the Wynoochee and Satsop rivers.
The Wynoochee River is best known for its steelhead fishing, both winter and summer. The river offers many access points, and a new agreement between the WDFW and Green Diamond Timber Company means drift boat and pontoon boat anglers will once again be able to fish the upper stretches, known as the 7400 launch. This section of the river has been hard to fish the past few years after Green Diamond closed access to the launch. A bit further down is the White Bridge Launch and the current upriver boundary for “catch and keep” salmon angling—no Chinook can be kept on this river. Flows are of-ten too low for jet sleds to go above White Bridge and most put in at Black Creek. There is another rough dirt launch between Black Creek and White Bridge known as “Crossover” underneath a bridge. This area also allows some limited bank access.
The Wynoochee has a low head dam on it just upstream from Black Creek that jet sleds can’t navigate. If you decide to drift this section of the river be sure to row to the far left side of the river and rope the boat over the diversion dam.
Black Creek Launch is narrow and if you are in a drift boat and not paying attention it is easily missed and hard to row back up to. Parking is very limited here as well. The Wynoochee has a low head dam on it just upstream from Black Creek that jet sleds can’t navigate. If you decide to drift this section of the river be sure to row to the far left side of the river and rope the boat over the diversion dam.
The Wynoochee is also dammed at the top end. This makes the river very fishable during a hard rain and usually stays in shape while all other rivers are blown out. However, after a few days of good weather following a rainstorm water is often re-leased from the dam to drop the reservoir levels; when you think the river will be in shape you might be unpleasantly surprised to find it muddy and high. This river is best fished when the other rivers are blown out—then let it rest after the rain stops.
The Satsop River is best known for its November chum run but it gets a healthy return of coho too. Drift boat anglers put in near Schaefer State Park at Decker Creek (don’t put in at the state park itself due to the river being completely blocked by a log jam just downstream). Decker Creek is a small stream that is closed to fishing, but you can slide your drift boat down the narrow banks until you enter the Satsop. From Decker down to the “S” curves you will encounter many runs and log jams where floating eggs produces the most coho. Bank anglers will hike into the “S” curves as well as Cook Creek where there is a big back slough and the coho mill around. Here twitching jigs and tossing spinners will get you into the aerobatic silvers.
Coho are aggressive biters, but they are also lazy in terms of their river migration. The fish tend to congregate in deep holes and the soft waters of back eddies and sloughs along the river.
This river is split halfway up and forms the West Fork and East Fork. The East is where you want to target fish because the hatchery lies above Schaefer State Park on the East Fork. There is a WDFW access site at the West Fork that drift boaters used to use as a take-out, but the river changed a few years ago and now the current is too fast to row across and make it back up the West Fork to the launch. If the water is low you might be able to still make it back up to the West Fork access site with the aid of a motor. Jet sled anglers can put in here, but most put in down at the Highway 12 ac-cess just below the bridge. The stretch from the forks confluence to the bridge is best fished by a jet sled and even on high water days the fishing can be very good.
The East Fork of the Satsop usually stays low and clear after a normal rain storm. It will take a lot of rain for it to blow out, but once it does the river often returns fairly quickly. This is a very popular stretch of the river so don’t expect solitude; and as the fall turns to winter the steelhead start to show. It is not uncommon to catch a late coho clear until February while steelhead fishing, though the season for retention is closed.
The tiny Skookumchuck River, like the Satsop and Wynoochee, is a tributary that dumps into the Chehalis. This river flows up into the Cascade mountains instead of the southern end of the Olympics like the “Nooch” and Satsop. It is also fed by a reservoir and controlled by a dam making it a clear river on a rainy day. Probably the most notable part of the Skookumchuck River is that it is actually a stream and not a river. You could float it on a very high day in a drift boat or a pontoon, but you will have to portage around a few log jams and pull it up onto the high banks of farming fields.
Fishing is best near the hatchery and below it for several miles as the river flows through WDFW access lands. The Skookumchuck is the best destination for bank bound anglers in all of Southwest Washington. It too gets a very healthy run of winter steelhead that show up in early December when coho will still be in the river. A public road parallels the river for miles allowing those that prefer to plunk an opportunity to park alongside the banks and watch their fishing rods. Most anglers float eggs and jigs tipped with prawns because this will catch both coho and steelhead. If you don’t have a boat then this is the river for you. It fishes well all fall and into late winter.
Grays Harbor offer so many different ways to chase after coho—from the open ocean and harbor, to the Humptulips and the mighty Chehalis system and all of its tributaries. Bank bound anglers and those with boats both have plenty of places to fish.
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