Saltwater Coho Forecast By Jason Brooks
There is something special about coho fishing in the salt water. Most anglers think of deep diving, hard fighting chinook, but with quotas being filled early, this year the chinook fishery has been unpredictable. The coho fishing is yet to come, and it looks like a great year. The fast-swimming topwater salmon of the Pacific, coho tend to have an aggressive bite and will jump and skip along the top of the water, giving the angler a heart racing show. Barbless hooks are required, and keeping an acrobatic coho on the line is one of the most challenging angling opportunities offered in the Pacific Northwest.
Looking to this fall, there is good reason to get excited for the upcoming fisheries. Coho, often called “silvers” for their bright silver scales that tend to stay nickel well into the freshwater rivers, are due back in big numbers this fall. Looking at the overall forecast for Washington waters, there are 2,118,361 fish due back, compared to last year, when 2,446,748 returned. So far, this year the chinook bite has been way above the model predictions, as has the sockeye bite, which came in nearly 3 times the model prediction, with over a half million fish making it back to Washington waters. If you can use both of those as indicators, as well as the great resident coho fishing in Marine Area 10 back in June and July, then we can hope for some fantastic coho fishing this fall.
The true shining star for ocean coho will be Marine Area 2, better known as Westport. Here you will find Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay bound fish, mixed with the 997,200 Columbia River bound fish. Westport is slated to be open through September 30th or until the 62,120 hatchery coho quota is met, whichever is first. Depending on the weather and wind, the Westport Bar can be very dangerous and keep anglers off the water. This can help extend the season into September, but if you find a day with calm seas, then head to the coast and fish Marine Area 2.
For Puget Sound anglers, the predicted return of silvers is 619,948, with the southern end of Puget Sound seeing the bulk of the fish at 220,164. This means the fisheries between Seattle and Olympia will be good places to intercept fish bound for rivers and net pens in Marine Area 13 and 11. Don’t overlook the other Puget Sound fisheries that will have a season, such as Marina Area 9, where most of the 619,000 plus coho will be traveling through to get to their natal rivers. The Everett coho derby is set for September 24th and 25th this year and it is timed for the “prime time” silver salmon fishery. Mid to late September is the best time to be on the water, but fish will show up in early August. Some of the larger ocean fish will push in with the tides in late August and stage in Puget Sound, feeding on the herring, squid, and anchovies- so don’t think you have to wait until September unless the WDFW rules say so. Be sure to check the emergency rules as well, as our chinook fisheries can dictate some closures, which we saw in June and July with the Marina Area 11 closures and Neah Bay restrictions.
The Straits is where it is at for a lot of coho anglers. Last September, we made the long drive up to Sekiu for the last weekend of silver season and the fishing was incredible. We learned to fish shallow in the water column but in very deep water. Starting at the 550-foot line and fishing from the topwater to about 30-feet deep, we hooked coho after coho. This is a clipped fish only retention area, and a lot of these fish are headed for Canadian rivers where they don’t clip all of their fish. Both Puget Sound and Canadian bound fish will be going through the Straits and it is a melting pot of average hatchery sized fish in the 6 to 8-pound range, and some seriously large 12 to 16-pound giant coho. Be ready to fight an unexpected chinook as well, which must be released unharmed. This is a fishery where you will be thankful that you must use barbless hooks. Learn how to use a de-hooking device, so you don’t have to reach over the boat with a pair of pliers.
When fishing the straits, most anglers look at the tides, keeping an eye out for large swells and big swings. You should also look at the wind forecast, as wind waves can create a chop, and strong winds being funneled through the straits can create a small craft advisory. The tides might be calm, but wind can keep you from being on the water.
When it comes to finding Puget Sound fish, you can work the deep water and keep the gear shallow just like in the straits, but don’t overlook points and kelp beds as well. As the fish start to near their natal rivers, they tend to move away from the deep shipping lanes and start using the shoreline. Points offer great places to intercept saltwater coho, as the baitfish tend to be pushed around points during strong tides.
Since this is a topwater fishery, you don’t need downriggers. A dipsy diver or even just a mooching weight to a spoon works well. The most common lure is the Coho Killer, which mimics a small baitfish such as a needlefish. You can downsize your dodgers and flasher to 8-inch models as well. Be sure to smear a good amount of scent on the lure and flasher as these are feeding fish and when they come up to investigate what is going on and get hit with a face full of scent, they attack the lure. The best scents are Pro-Cures Bait Sauces in herring and anchovy as this is a main food source for coho. Don’t overlook squid skirts with UV inserts as well. My “go to” ocean coho set up is a Bechhold and Son’s Flasher in white/chartreuse, with a Gold Star OAL12R Purple Haze squid skirt, over a Luhr Jensen Flash Fly UV insert. I use 27 inches of 40-pound Izorline XXX leader, with two Gamakatsu Big River 2/0 hooks tied so that they are touching each other in opposite directions. Then, I fill the squid skirt with Pro-Cure Bait Sauce in herring scent. The rig is clipped into the downrigger clip that is 5-feet above the downrigger ball. Attached to the downrigger ball is a Mack’s Lure Scent Flash triangle flasher and filled with Pro-Cure water soluble herring scent on a Mack’s Lure scent pad. This attractor adds some flash and produces a very large scent cone out of the Scent Flash triangle flasher. Just above it is the Bechhold and Son’s flasher that looks like a feeding coho that just missed a bait. I am creating my own school of feeding coho, and it seems to really draw the fish to my gear.
For those that want a real challenge, try flyfishing for coho in the saltwater. Tube flies with lots of UV sparkle flash and a fast-sinking line will get you into the fish. Either cast out towards the kelp line or troll along the points where you will find the fish. Be sure to use a stout fly rod, starting with an 8-weight. If you have one, a fly rod in the 12-weight range it would be wise to use, as chinook will still be around and feeding in the same waters.
Saltwater coho can be one of the best fisheries of the year. It is often overlooked, as many other anglers head to local rivers to chase fall chinook, leaving the salt opportunities for silvers all to yourself. The feisty coho are fun to catch in the salt, and they are one of the best eating fish as well. With this year’s runs being another banner year, don’t forego the salt in late August and well into September.