Fishing the Bay - The Chinook Fisherman's Primer by Larry Ellis
By Larry Ellis STS JUNE/JULY 2019 ISSUE
What a beautiful day it was when I hooked and landed my first Rogue Bay Chinook.
The thrill of the fight from that 27-pound Kingzilla sent chills up and down my spine, complete with an adrenaline rush that made my heart race for at least 20 minutes. From that day on, I became a born-again Rogue Bay salmon junkie.
That was back in 1982. But if you asked me now what my favorite river is to fish for salmon in the Pacific Northwest, I will always give you the same answer—the Rogue River; but very specifically, the 1-mile stretch of water near the mouth called the Rogue Bay.
The Rogue Bay is a funnel fishery at its finest.
All the salmon that travel one hundred miles or more upriver must enter the Rogue River jaws first. Heavy duty Chinook salmon pull a pit stop in the bay and stack up like cordwood from June until the first major fall rains usher them upstream in mid-October.
They stack up in the bay because during the summer months, the water in the Rogue River Canyon and downriver toward the upper tidewater holes becomes so warm that it creates a dam of warm water ranging from 72 to 80 degrees. That’s a far cry from a salmon’s comfort zone of 52 degrees.
Salmon don’t like that dam of warm water one bit so they hightail it back to the Rogue Bay where cooler water abounds. Every run of salmon that enter the river just adds to the former runs, building up to a crescendo of chrome-bright kings. It’s nothing less than a spectacular fishery.
The Rogue Bay is only about a mile long. It begins at the jetty jaws and extends upriver to Lex’s Landing, but it’s a powerhouse of a fishery.
These fish are without a doubt, the hardest-fighting and best-eating salmon I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
They fight hard and the fillets just melt in your mouth, the reason being—with over 100 miles of river to traverse, they are laden with fat when they enter the bay. When you catch these fish, you’re basically catching an ocean-caught king.
Here’s why an angler should consider fishing the Rogue Bay this year.
BEST RUN OF 3-YEAR OLD CHINOOK IN 7 YEARS
Back in the good old days, calculating runs of spring and fall Chinook, as well as summer and winter steelhead were visually counted through Plexiglas at Gold Ray Dam, until the dam was ultimately demolished in the year 2010.
But counting the fall Chinook of the Rogue has been refined to an art over the years. ODFW has been seining these fall Chinook at Huntley Park since 1977, and have used carcass surveys to enhance the seining. But a more-accurate projection system undertaken in 2015 has eliminated the need to have the carcass counting program altogether.
ODFW’s calculations result in the Rogue Ocean Productivity Index, also known as ROPI. It is a very accurate count of Rogue River fall Chinook that are swimming in the ocean. A large portion of these ROPI kings will be returning to the Rogue River from mid-July through September. That’s over three solid months of returning fall Chinook.
And that doesn’t even take into account all the late-run spring Chinook that go up the Rogue in June, and it doesn’t take into account all of the Indian Creek Chinook that are propagated by the Curry Anadromous Fishermen. The latter fish are designed to enter the River in October and extend the fishery. So this year, a person can look forward to troll the Rogue bay for Chinook for five consecutive months.
So here’s how the ROPI population breaks down.
Members on the Salmon Technical Team, also known as the STT has predicted that this year’s ROPI population will be 383,500 Rogue River Chinook.
To put this number in perspective, it is higher than this year’s (2019) Sacramento Index forecast of ocean salmon abundance which is 379,600 fish. It is also higher than the Klamath River projection of 274,200 fish that will be swimming in the ocean.
Of the 383,500 ROPI Chinook, 305,400 of them will be 3-year-old kings (11 to 15 pounds), 69,200 of them will be 4-year olds (18 to 32 pounds), and about 9,000 of those fish will be 5- to 6-year old monsters (38 to 60-pounds, or even larger).
So saying that the fishing should be over the top in the Rogue bay this year is an understatement. There are statistics to back up that proclamation.
Based on the 7-year average, the 3-year-old population will be the highest return in seven years; the second-highest average in 10 years. And the 4-year-old returns are going to the third-highest average in 9 years.
It is important to note that all of the predicted ROPI Chinook will not be returning to the river. A portion of them will remain in the ocean to become bigger fish next year. So a portion of those ROPI 3-year-old kings will remain in the ocean this year to become 4-year-old salmon next year.
“We’re expecting about 85,000-plus Chinook to come back here in the Rogue this year,” says ODFW district manager Steve Mazur.
A return of 85,000 fish (referred to as escapement) is nothing to sneeze at. Last year about 40,000 Chinook actually escaped back to the Rogue, and the action that year was still considered to be pretty good. If this year’s 85,000 escapement figure rings true, there should be at least twice as many Chinook bending an angler’s rod double this season than last year.
Another thing I can say with certainty is that anglers in the Rogue bay caught a very large amount of 2-year-old jacks last year. That fact leads to the high amount of ROPI 3-year-olds that are predicted to be swimming in the ocean this year, because the jacks that stayed in the ocean last year became 3-year-old adults this year.
“Generally it’s going to be a 3-year-old return,” said Mazur. “We also had some good jack returns last year, and that all points to fish coming back. No matter what happens, we should have a lot of Chinook running around in the Rogue Bay this year.”
And I still believe that there were more jacks and 3-year-old Chinook caught last year in the bay than was written on paper. In reality, I believe there should be plenty of 3- and 4-year-old kings caught in the bay this year.
THE INCREDIBLE EDIBLE ANCHOVY
I only live a few miles from the Rogue Bay. It’s my stomping grounds, so I come here to impart over 36 years of Rogue Bay wisdom to you. Over the years, I learned a lot of tricks from the best guides in the biz. The person who gets the most hookups always gets the most looks and the most questions, and I’m not afraid to look or to ask.
First of all, the best baitfish to use, bar none, has always been the anchovy. A well-frozen anchovy that is full of blood and contains all of its scales is worth its weight in gold.
So why haven’t I been talking about trolling cut-plug herring?
Simply put, an angler only has about a mile or so of water to troll in, and trolling cut-plug herring and whole anchovies in the same boat or in opposing boats are incompatible techniques with each other.
Allow to explain why.
An anchovy can be trolled anywhere from 1.7 to 2.3 miles per hour to be effective, depending on the strength of the current. Cut-plug herring on the other hand, must be trolled much slower (like 1 mile an hour or less). So trolling a cut-plug herring at anchovy speeds would end up with the herring being ripped to shreds.
So if you find a group of experienced fishing guides all trolling the same speed, you can bet on them all trolling spinnerbait/anchovy rigs.
When you encounter up to 70 boats that are trolling the one-mile distance from the Rogue’s mouth up to Lex’s Landing, I can guarantee you that they will all be trolling anchovies. If you decide to troll a cut-plug herring in this group, you’re just going to get run over by the other boats, as well as being pelted with a profusion of profanity. So as the saying goes, “When in Rome.”
Besides, anchovies just work better in this bay, and they work really great when rigged up properly inside a spinnerbait rig.
THE SPINNERBAIT RIG
It’s simply known as a spinnerbait rig, but when rigged up properly with an anchovy, it catches salmon like nobody’s business.
Now we’re not talking about spinnerbait lures that bass anglers popularly deploy. This is a different animal entirely. A fellow once used a bass angling spinnerbait in the Rogue bay. You could hear the laughter clear down to Cucamonga.
The rig that catches the most salmon by anglers trolling in the Rogue bay is also often called a spinnerbait/anchovy rig, but more commonly, it is just called a spinnerbait rig.
The Rogue Bay spinnerbait rig uses a sliding number 1 front Gamakatsu Octopus hook. It also has a rear loop to put a treble hook into, which can be a number 2 or 3 Gamakatsu Octopus hook.
The front hook is designed solely for adjusting the bend of the anchovy, and is not used for hooking the salmon at all. The rear treble hook does all the hooking, while the front hook adjusts all the spinning.
“It’s all about the spin,” says John Anderson from Memory Makers Rogue River Guide Service. “You want your baitfish to look like a spiral football being tossed down the field. That will give them the perfect spin.”
A number 1 hook is hard to tie up for the neophyte angler, and it would take an entire article explaining how to do this. Thankfully, there are a handful of people who are experienced in tying the spinnerbait rig, and they usually make these for a nominal fee. Spinnerbaits are available in most tackle shops in Gold Beach.
I was informed by Sam Waller of Jot’s Resort and Jim Carey from the Rogue Outdoor Store that they will all be selling home-tied spinnerbait rigs this year. Larry Prestininzi from Lex’s Landing will also have them for sale, and he ties them all up himself.
You can use spinnerbait rigs without beads and a spinner (also called naked baits), or you can add the beads, quick-change plastic clevis and the spinner blades yourself. If you do decide to add beads, make sure that you have seven 4 mm beads with a plastic clevis rotating on the top bead. These quick-change clevises allow you to add the spinner blade of your choice, which is almost always a number 4 blade.
Rigging up a spinnerbait rig is simple.
First, you’re going to need to thread your mainline (usually 30-pound Maxima Ultragreen monofilament) through a Glido Sliding Spreader. After your mainline has come out of the spreader, tie it off to a 6-bead beadchain swivel. Now tie a 10- or 12-inch piece of 30-pound Maxima to the end of the beadchain and tie another 6-bead beadchain swivel to the end of that line.
This is all the ammunition you need in order to prevent line-twist.
Rigging up the anchovy is the most critical part of this article.
Assuming you are using a naked bait, measure out a 6-foot piece of your home-tied spinnerbait leader. 6 feet is the maximum amount of leader that is allowed in the Rogue bay, but you can add this leader to your beadchain to attain about 7 feet of leader.
Rigging up your anchovy to the spinnerbait leader is also a simple process and can be done in 8 simple steps.
1. Pull enough line out between the top hook and bottom loop to add a couple of inches to give yourself some room to work with.
2. Insert the point of the top hook through the bottom of the anchovy’s jaw, having the point of the hook come out through the center of the top of the anchovy’s skull (the hardest part of the anchovy).
3. Using your bait threader, insert the slotted point from the baitfish’s anus, through the middle of the baitfish, and have the slotted tip coming out of the baitfish’s mouth. This is one of the rig’s trade secrets—most of the leader will be invisible!
4. Grabbing the loop at the end of the spinnerbait rig with the slot near the bait threader’s tip, pull the loop and most of the line back out of the anchovy’s anus.
5. Insert a number 2 or 3 Gamakatsu treble hook in the loop so the loop doesn’t slip back into the baitfish.
6. With two fingers of one hand holding the top hook, gently pull the slack out of the leader until the hook shank slides into the anchovy’s anus.
7. Most importantly, take one of the points of the treble hook and insert it into the backside of the anchovy. Carefully feel for the spine. When you find the anchovy’s spine—stop pushing!
8. Now you can adjust the bend of the anchovy so that it has either a side-to-side shape, or better yet, a top-to-bottom porpoise shape. Put the leader in the water and make sure that it is spinning tight, just like a drillbit or a spiraling football.
That’s it, you’re done! Should the anchovy lose its bend while in the water, pull the rig back out of the water and re-adjust the bend of your anchovy.
Now tie your dropper leader. Take out about 14 inches of 15-pound monofilament and tie it to the dropper end of your Glido Sliding Spreader. On the bottom end of your dropper line, tie a snap swivel to accept your sinkers.
Cannonball sinkers ranging from 2 to 5 ounces work just great. Make sure that your sinkers come in 1/2-ounce increments. I have run across sinkers that come in 1/4-ounce increments, and I find that you can fine-tune these latter types of setups with more accuracy.
Drop your rig to the bottom and straighten it out. Now let out another length of line until your sinker bottoms out again. It usually takes about three drops until your sinker remains on or near the bottom.
SO WHERE DO I FISH AND HOW FAST DO I TROLL?
You can never go wrong by fishing as close to the bottom as possible. Occasionally, lift up your rod and then lower it quickly. If your sinker doesn’t hit the bottom, let out a little more line until it bottoms out.
You’re going to be trolling anywhere from 1.7 to 2.3 miles an hour, depending on the strength of the current. You might get way with trolling with the current at 2.2 miles an hour, but then you will have to reverse the direction of the boat, going against the current. In this case, you will be trolling in the neighborhood of 1.7 miles an hour.
Your sinkers are going to range from 2 to 5 ounces, depending on the strength of the current. If the tide is in coming, you can get away with trolling 2- to 3-ounces of lead. But when you troll the same water on the way back to the jaws, you’re going to troll slower and use heavier sinkers to keep your anchovy working correctly.
It’s actually simple mathematics to keep your anchovies spinning tight and not being ripped up by the strength of the current—you get the picture.
Generally speaking, salmon will gravitate toward the mouth at lower tides, and progressively move higher in the system as the tide comes in. So usually, you will be working the spit and the cat houses during low tide. As the tide is coming in, you’ll be trolling out in front of Jot’s resort, and when the tide starts peaking, definitely troll under the Patterson Bridge and up towards Lex’s landing, which is directly across from Indian Creek.
As the tide goes out from high to low, work the opposite way, starting from Lex’s Landing at high tide and finally reaching the cat houses near low tide.
Last year, the port dredged the harbor, creating a deeper and wider expanse to deploy your spinnerbaits. They didn’t dredge so much of the jaws themselves, but the sand spit up to the Coast Guard Station should have a lot more water to fish this year.
DON’T BE A HAY BALER
The hardest thing to teach a new salmon angler is to not hold your rod, but put them in sturdy rod holders. It’s a person’s natural inclination to give the rod a quick jerk when he feels a salmon bite. If you jerk too soon, you’ll lose that fish and it won’t be back for seconds.
So please, use your rod holders whenever possible.
The bite may take a while, but exercising patience is the name of the game. When a salmon starts to inhale your bait, it does it in a series of steps. In the ocean, it basically attacks the bait from the front. But when an anchovy is being trolled, the salmon has to grab it and then take a series of steps to turn the lure around in its mouth.
So if you’re an experienced salmon angler with lots of patience, you can hold your rod if you maintain a statuesque position while waiting for the final take down. Otherwise, put your rod in a holder and call it good.
Should the water in the bay warm up in the 70-degree range, the fish and their bites will also be more sluggish. It’s like watching a regular bite but in slow motion. So exercise a lot of patience when you’re dealing with warmer water. You don’t want to be that person who farmed a fish. That one takedown may have been your only chance at a salmon.
Otherwise, tight lines and bent rods to all! The fishing should be great this year.
- written by Larry Ellis