River Coho

By Jason Brooks

Slowly drifting along with the current until we reached the next hole, I heard a splash along the shoreline. Looking to my right I could see the rings in the water where a fish jumped near the tall grass that lined the river. Instead of continuing on, I quickly dropped the anchor and told my fishing partner to cast his float over to the shoreline and be sure to do so a bit upstream. As the float neared where the fish jumped, it disappeared underwater and he set the hook. A large coho leaped out of the water and took off to the fast water below. All the while, line began peeling off of the reel. 


That is what I love about river fishing for coho: you think you know where they are, then you find one in a spot you normally would have just rowed right by. After he fought that fish to the net, we slid it into the fish box and just looked at each other for a minute. Then we saw another boat coming down the river. The quiet discussion we had was if we should pull anchor and try to stay ahead of the other boat to get to the deep hole we were heading to first, or to stay put. Electing to do the latter, we waved as the boat went by and never said a word about the fish we just caught. Once out of sight, we cast towards the shoreline again and the float went down once more. After pulling three more fish from that grassy bank, the fish had moved on and so had we. 


Normally, anglers who head to the rivers target coho with spinners or twitching jigs, and mostly concentrate in known areas for chinook with the float rods. This works well, and is what I like to do too, but I also always have the float rod ready. Last year, we were almost to the take out and I saw a fish roll under a tree. Just downstream from this overhanging branch was a fallen tree with a large root ball sticking out. I cast ahead of the branch and let it go under it, but nothing happened. Then, just before I decided I needed to get my gear out of the water, as it neared the root ball the float went under. Thinking it was part of the roots, I pulled back, hoping it would free my gear, but instead a fish jumped out of the water with my float in tow. Coho are known to be acrobatic, and I was once again pleasantly surprised to have one bite the eggs. 


The reason why I threw a float with eggs to this fish wasn’t because I thought it was a chinook that was hiding under the tree branch that I first saw, but instead it was the only way I could fish this spot. Tossing a spinner was an option, except I didn’t have one tied on my rod. Twitching was out, as I knew that if I tried to lift the line from the water it would catch in the branch, so I threw out some eggs and it ended up being the right choice. The float would easily drift under the branch and continue down to the hazard below. 


I always have a float rod rigged and ready as we make our way down the river, for this very reason. But when I come to a spot that is known to hold coho, it is time to break out the twitching rods. Deep holes often strewn with logs means coho. Knowing how to twitch is important, but also knowing where to twitch will lead to more coho in the box. For deeper holes I actually use the lightest jig possible. This means 3/8 ounce or ¼ ounce jigs if the water is very still. Twitching has been given a bad name in the past because anglers tend to foul hook fish. Most of the time this happens because the heavier jigs fall fast and end up below the fish. What the angler should do is use a jig that will fall slowly and into the fish, then when twitched will jump up in their face and again fall slowly, allowing the coho to grab it. If the jig is too heavy it often falls too fast, and when you go to twitch again you end up foul hooking the fish. By using the right weight, you not only reduce the chance of foul hooking fish, but also increase your chances of them biting. 


Spinners are a top technique for good reason. When fishing spinners, they are always working. A good cast into a seam, and then the swing of the spinner and the thumping of the blade reinforces the confidence of the lure to the angler. There is nothing like a hooknose coho violently grabbing your spinner and yanking the rod nearly out of your hands. There is no guessing if it is a bite, and the fight is on right away. Spinners also work well in different water conditions. Several years ago, we were fishing during a hard rain. The water was getting murkier by the minute, and after the bite seemed to go off on twitching jigs we began throwing spinners. That thumping silver blade reflecting the sunlight was all it took to get the bite back on again. 


On sunny days, try using a dark bladed spinner, or alter the ones you have with a black permanent marker. Dark bodies like black and purple tend to do well, but on dark days or in murky water try chartreuse or fluorescent orange bodies. A Blue Fox Vibrax spinner in sizes 4, 5, and 6 are top producers for fall coho.   


Knowing when to go and which river or part of river to fish will lead to more success. A couple of years ago we were going to hit my favorite Olympic coast river for the opener on September 1st. Normally this time of year the river is running as low as it will get all year, but that night a rainstorm approached. The river went from 400 cfs to over 3,000 cfs in twelve hours. Waking up and seeing the brown murky water flowing quickly, we should have canceled for the day. Instead, we launched the boat and had a nice ride down the river, and a fast one at that. We didn’t touch a fish or see another boat all day. Returning a few weeks later, that same run was back to normal and we caught fish. 


This particular river has several access points and can be broken down to three main runs. The upper run is usually unfishable until October, when the rains fill the banks and make it floatable. That part of the river is where we should have gone to that day. The middle section is good almost all of the time, but offers very few holes which tend to get crowded early in the day. The lower part is tidal influence, so not only do you need to keep an eye on the river flows, but also the tides. 


Fishing tidal waters is often overlooked by anglers. Fish only stack up here when there is a really low tide and that can also be at different times of the day. Personally, I prefer to fish tidal areas because they are predictable. You know that with each tide a new push of fish will come in. I try to time it to fish as the high tide is over and water is pushing out. This is best when it is mid-day to late afternoon, because most anglers will want to be on the water at daylight. Instead, I like to fish “clean up” or after everyone else has gone down the river. The fish fresh from the salt haven’t been harassed all day and anglers are gone, often leaving me in holes all to myself. 


If you don’t have a choice but to head to the river early, then remember that during high tide fish will be on the move. This is a good time to drop anchor and let the fish come to you. One year during a high tide time, we sat on the anchor for several hours, casting jigs to a small pocket along the shoreline. This area had a back eddy and the moving fish would stack up here to rest. When they showed up, we would catch a fish, and when they moved on we would take a break. One way to keep fishing during times when fish are moving is to throw out diving plugs or plunk. Plunking tends to be a lost art, but the idea is to cast out and let your lure or bait sit in a spot where the fish will come along at some point and bite it. Why not do it from a boat while taking a break, as this will lead to more fish and it is a great way to know when fish are arriving. 


There are a lot of ways to catch coho in rivers, and learning to fish them all not only adds to the experience but also keeps you engaged in fishing. Once you learn to twitch, then learn to float eggs, and then throw spinners. Discover where the holes are and where to fish when the tide is in or out. Best of all, most of the river conditions and routes will change each year, so each time you go to the river it is like learning a new spot all over again. Just like when we were drifting along that grassy cutbank and heard that fish jump; you never know where you will find coho, and that is what makes river fishing for them so fun.