By Jason Brooks
It might only be July and coho are far from most anglers minds but resident fish have been biting for a while now. Marine Area 10, the waters out front of Seattle and Bremerton, are becoming a coho primer hotspot the past few years. The smaller fish that mill around in Puget Sound feeding on anchovies, herring, shrimp, squid and anything else they can find. Resident coho are fun to catch but it is the “ocean fish” that get most anglers excited. The sea going silvers start showing up in late July through September, with a few late fish in October. The main bulk of the run is late August and September but July is the time to get excited about coho.
Washington waters are projected to see a return of 2,446,348 coho this year with 1,589,600 of those heading to the Columbia River system. The coast along with Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay area will see 241,800 fish and Puget Sound is projected to get back 614,948. All of those are strong numbers and good reason to head out to the saltwater and intercept coho as they return. (editor's note, 2021 season)
For the open ocean, coho can be hard to find but once you do find them they are easy to catch. Traveling in large schools, and staying in the top water, coho fishing can be fast and furious once the fish are located. Often you find the coho while trying to get the gear out, as it gets tossed around in the prop wash while you are trying to clip the line on the downrigger cable. Coho like turbulent top water and often target baitfish close to the surface. They see the shadow of the boat, the flash of the gear trailing behind in the turbid water from the prop and shoot up, grabbing your bait and hopefully you grab your rod before it goes overboard.
The best way to actually find coho in the open ocean is to look for birds. Anytime you see diving birds splashing into the water means a bait ball close to the surface. Under the bait are coho pushing the smaller feeder fish up and creating a pinch point where the birds attack from above and the silvers from below. Drop the gear down and start circling the area. Once you find the bait ball on your sonar fish through it and under it. Watch the rods and doubles are more likely to occur when fishing a bait like this. Another way to get more bites is to put out a third rod, if you have enough anglers on board. A 5-ounce mooching weight 48-inches in front of a cut plug herring or a coyote spoon smeared with Pro-Cure Herring Super Gel and drop it down about 50 feet behind the boat. The extra rod will increase your bites as it is fishing a bit shallower than your gear on the downrigger.
Mooching for coho can be productive too but it seems trolling gets more bites when searching for fish. This is because you can troll around the bait ball and go find the fish. Mooching means being in the right zone and is a great way to catch coho in areas where they will stack up such as off of points in Puget Sound.
When it comes to trolling you can downsize the gear a bit as the fish are smaller than chinook. An 8-inch flasher like the ones from Bechhold & Son’s Lure and Flasher Company out of Durham, California are great for coho fishing. Their Coral Crush Superglow has a moon jelly crushed tape on them that reflects light as well as glows to draw the coho attention. Trail it with a small spoon such as 3-inch Coyote spoon in the cop car (black and white) color or a Coho Killer spoon in the Herring Aide color. If you prefer to fish bait then a herring hood is a surefire way to get back in the water quick and know you always have a good spin on the bait. New this year are whole bait hoods by Luhr Jensen. Super simple to use and very effective. No need to pull out a sharp knife and try to cut a fast spin while out bobbing around in the ocean. Simply put a brined herring that has been soaking overnight in Pro-Cure’s Brine-n-Bright into the hood, push the pin (a small stainless steel nail, unlike other hoods that use a plastic pin or a toothpick that can break) and either let the hooks dangle free or stick the top hook into the bait. Allowing the trailing hook to be free adds some realistic movement of a tail as well as it is likely to stick into the fish as it grabs the bait.
When tying up my own herring leaders I use a smaller trailer hook. The top or front hook is a 3/0 Big River Gamakatsu and the trailing hook is a size 1 Big River Gamakatsu tied on 25-pound clear Izorline XXX. When I pre-tie my leaders I tie them at 48-inches. This allows me to have leaders ready to go for several applications. If I need one for a hootchie rig set up just slip on the rig and then cut to size. For a plug cut herring, anchovy hood or herring hood/helmet leave the leader longer and add a chain swivel.
With hoochie rigs, or squid rigs, you want the flasher to give the lure action so a shorter leader is needed. I have used as short at 9-inches and as long as 36-inches but my standard it 27-inches. The 27-inch rule came from a buddy who fished Puget Sound religiously and that is what he used and it worked so that is why it has become my “go to” leader length. Another “trick” when it comes to fishing plastic squid or hoochies rigs is to use a clear or semi-clear squid and a skirt insert. Again, Luhr Jensen sells their Flash Fly in packets of 3 and are smaller than the standard 4-inch squid skirt. Use a green, blue or pink insert and add flash to your outfit as well as contrasting colors. You can turn a purple haze or pearlescent squid skirt with a blue or green Flash Fly into a bait that represents an anchovy or herring to match the bait fish. Fill the cavity with Pro-Cure Bait Sauce that is super sticky and you have a set-up that will fish for hours, or until you find the fish without worry of the bait being ruined. That is the biggest difference between fishing fresh bait or a lure.
Where to fish really isn’t a problem if you do a little research. The most important thing is to know the regulations. Marine Area 4 and 5, or otherwise known as the Straight of Juan de Fuca, is one of the most productive saltwater coho areas anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. This is because you are intercepting all of the fish heading to Washington, Oregon and even parts of British Columbia depending on how far out you go. As well as Area 5 just out in front of Sekiu is fairly protected waters. Here travel out to the shipping lanes in about 600 feet of water. This might sound a bit intimidating but all you have to do is target the top 50 to 100 feet. Once you find where the fish are traveling through it is a matter of sorting out the hatchery fish from the wild fish.
The open ocean is a great place to intercept the Columbia bound coho as well as those heading to Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay. Marine Area 2 which are waters off of Westport can be really productive but is not for small boats. This past June we headed out of Westport for the Chinook opener in an 18-foot Striper. At the boat launch we met with two U.S. Coast Guardsman who did a safety equipment check. Having everything we needed I asked about the Bar crossing and ocean conditions. They looked at their phone and told me “no restrictions and 5-foot swells at 10 seconds”. Sounded good until my buddy Ted Schuman called me as we launched. He urged us not to go, adding that the wind was coming out of the north at 12 knots and by this afternoon he figured it would be near 30 knots and the outgoing tide in the middle of the day would make it almost impossible to get back across the bar before 3pm. Ted commercially fished out of Westport for over 25 years. We took his pleas with caution but decided to try it anyway. Once we got across the bar the real conditions where 8 foot swells at 3 seconds with breaking wind waves on top. Ted was right, and the young Coast Guardsman did exactly what we did, which was look at a prediction website. The lesson we learned is trust experience and when it comes to the Westport bar use caution. We immediately turned around and went back to the harbor before the tide change. Later that day we talked to the fish checker and learned that most boats came in empty. It is hard to troll with winds pushing your boat 7 miles per hour and no way to troll into the waves or back troll without swamping your boat. Use caution when fishing the open ocean.
Puget Sound anglers have a lot of options and a lot of fish this year. With it being a pink salmon year you might have a harder time catching coho simply because you will be catching pinks, but that is a good problem to have. One river that is getting back a lot of coho this year is the Green, or Duwamish at 77,519 silvers. Look to places like Jeff Head or out in front of Shilshole Marina. Be sure to check the regulations including the “e-regs” or emergency regulations for closures and limits. The Puyallup River is getting back 40,851 and the fishery off of Redondo is popular to intercept southern Puget Sound fish. As the coho near the Puyallup and Commencement Bay they have to go around Browns Point and trolling here can get you into schools of fish, both coho and pinks this year.
Southern Puget Sound is projected to get back 79,338 coho including those bound for Minter Creek and the Sqauxin Island net pens. Try the Narrows by the bridges. Troll along the western shoreline between Point Evans and the Tacoma Narrows Bridges or mooch here as well. Those that prefer to mooch will be in deeper water and do so on the incoming tide which pushes you south. Trollers tend to hug the shoreline and kelp beds and fishing here just before tide change through high tide works best. Once you cross under the bridges heading south you enter Marine Area 13 and the regulations change once again to no wild fish allowed. Be sure that if you are fishing in area 11 and have an unclipped coho on the boat that you don’t go under the bridges and keep fishing into Marine Area 13 or you could get a ticket.
Saltwater coho are a lot of fun and can be action packed. With the amount of fish returning this year be sure to get out early and get these fish before they hit the rivers. Silvers in the saltwater shouldn’t be overlooked. Easy to catch, fun to fight and a lot of fish sounds like a good time to go fishing.