If you spend much time traveling across Oregon right now, you will begin to see and feel the early signs of the changing seasons. For me, one of the surest signs of the transition from summer to fall is the chance to cast a lure or troll bait for salmon along coastal Oregon.
This week, a uniquely Oregon fishing adventure finds me on the ocean during lingering summer-like conditions as a strong run of Chinook salmon is staging for return to coastal estuaries.
Come along as we learn what it takes to catch a fall Chinook salmon.
On a recent September morning, it seemed quiet summer conditions near the mouth of Tillamook Bay might never end. The ocean had been flat calm and smooth for days - enough to tempt our small party of anglers to break out water-skis and go for a run, but that wasn’t our sport on this fine morning.
“We’re going to motor out to the end of the jetty since the ocean’s so nice,” said our guide and longtime salmon fisherman, John Krauthoefer, of the Firefighter’s Guide Service. ”So, welcome to ‘John’s Lake,’ he added with a chuckle.
He waved his arm against the morning seascape and offered: “Ocean doesn’t get any flatter than this gentlemen, so we’ll go out here and find a couple ‘cuz they’re here.”
He was right!
“It’s a perfect tide for fishing along the jetty,” noted Krauthoefer. “There’s a small tidal exchange. What those fish do is smell that out-going Tillamook water and because the current isn’t very strong and they’ll come in against that tide – we’ll slip outside the south jetty and fish just around the south end through slack tide and then come back inside when it turns to flood tide.”
John quickly baited up the rods and reels with plug cut herring.
John's a big believer that a plug-cut herring makes the best bait when fishing for Chinook. He makes a bevel cut with his razor sharp knife just behind the herring's head to make the bait spin when it's trolled in the water.
He explained: "This is their (salmon) natural feed out in the ocean and they'll eat it like candy. You just have to get it in front of one. That's the big trick. So just slowly drop down it down to the bottom. When you hit the bottom, bring it back up about 2-3 cranks of the reel."
We dropped our lines over the side and John began a slow troll with the tide.
As the tide turned to flood, signs of salmon life began to appear as nearby anglers hooked up. It happened to us too!
“Get him, get him,” Krauthoefer yelled.
Suddenly, Todd Davidson had his hands full with a hard charging king that had decided to head out to sea. A longtime fisherman, Davidson had hooked a dandy salmon just five minutes into the morning’s adventure!
Krauthoefer put his motor in gear and followed the salmon.
With a wry smile, he noted, “They're strong and full of muscle and they let you know that they're on the other end of the line.”
After a twenty-minute tug of war, the gleaming 20-pound salmon came to the net and it was scooped aboard.
“It’s a beauty! That’s really a pretty one and they don't get any nicer than that,” noted Krauthoefer. “The only thing nicer is that we must get the gear back in the water and get some more.”
It was a thrilling moment not lost on my fishing partner who was thoroughly impressed with the salmon’s strength, endurance and downright beautiful silvery sheen:
“You’re somewhere between a place of reverence and exuberance in our relationship with these fish,” said Davidson. “For Oregon, salmon are so emblematic for what we do and how much we love this place we call home. Plus, they’re just a ton of fun to catch.”
Krauthoefer added that the Chinook salmon return to home waters has been remarkable all summer long and along the entire length of the Oregon coast:
“It could be a number of factors – very good outflows, a healthy ocean when they swam into the ocean as baby salmon; plus survival rates were good. When you put those three things together and you’re going to have good runs of fish.”
John employed 10 ½-foot “St Croix” salmon fishing rods with bait casting reels that were loaded with 80-pound test line tied to a flasher, then to four feet of leader with twin 5-ott hooks. A cut plug herring was bait of choice and the entire rigging was carried toward the bottom with 10-ounces of lead.
“Ok, let’s make another pass along the south jetty,” said Krauthoefer.
John added that anglers who fish here must be on guard against a dreaded fishing disease:
“Don't get salmonitis!” he said with a chuckle. “That’s a disease where you get so focused on fishing that you forget about your surroundings. This area of the bar can be dangerous. You can get in trouble if you don’t pay attention at all times. Things change out here very quickly.”
It can be a he challenge to fish along the jetty because as Fall months take over, the weather changes and the ocean swells and the waves and the tide can grow and combine to change conditions in a heartbeat.
We wore our inflatable life jackets at all times.
John would not give us – or any of his passengers – any choice.
For him, the angler’s safety is personal: “These are self-inflating life jackets and we wear them all day in my boats. I had a friend drown a few years ago and if he’d had one on, he’d be alive today. They’re very comfortable and you don’t even know you’ve got them on.”
Fifteen minutes into our pass along the south jetty, my fishing rod doubled over from another fresh king salmon.
“Ok, just let him run if he wants to run,” noted Krauthoefer. ”I can tell already, that fish is full of fight.”
The battle was on but soon as another twenty-pound King charged down away from the boat. But after twenty minutes, the shimmering silver Chinook came to the net and I smiled broadly.
“What a beauty,” I said. “It's funny; after you've fished for years and years, your knees still shake when the fish is in the boat. It's a great experience.”
I looked over to Davidson and wondered aloud: “Would you rather catch one or eat one?”
He laughed heartily and said, “Easy! I’d rather eat one that I caught myself!”
“There’s something really magical about being out on the water with good friends,’ added Davidson. “And catch a beautiful salmon and then take it home and have it on the barbeque that night – it doesn’t get any better than that.”
For more information on purchasing an Oregon Angling License and locating an Oregon Fishing Guide.
You can find the perfect launch point with the Oregon State Marine Board’s Boating Access Map that offers hundreds of boat ramps along the coastal rivers and bays.