By Mike Carey
September is a special time for me. Like the change in the weather, I can feel a change in myself, a pent up anticipation that has slowly been building over the summer and like clockwork bursts forth in full bloom. It’s coho time in Puget Sound!
Yes, this is a great time of the year to be a salmon angler in Puget Sound, if the runs are strong and the fishing is open. Last year was unique in that we had closures in the ocean and Straights. The coho arrived to Puget Sound in good numbers and virtually unmolested. This year was questionable what kind of a season we would be given. As of this date, coho is open in areas 8.2, 9, and 10. Check the regs and emergency closures for updates of course. As it stands the daily limit is two coho.
Looking at my fishing reports data from trips going back twenty years, it becomes pretty obvious that September is the time to put away freshwater gear and focus on salmon. August can be productive, but September can be (and often is) lights out. My reports show multiple trips with limits by 9am, red hot fishing and lots of pictures of shiny chrome coho. As the season progresses into later September the fish show a steady increase in size. By late September to early October the 6-8 pound coho are replaced by beautiful 10-14 pound hooknose monsters. It’s the time of year to stock up the freezer on tasty coho!
For those new to the fishery, you’ll find a wealth of information on techniques and locations scattered on the web. I've broken down some of my thoughts on coho trolling into Ten Rules of Coho Trolling.
Coho tend to be a pretty cooperative salmon when it comes to catching them. As these fish stream in from the ocean, heading through the Straight of Juan De Fuca and into Puget Sound they are putting on the feed in preparation for their runs up to the spawning grounds. It’s not unusual to find coho stuffed with herring. Don’t get me wrong, there are days they, like other salmon, will have lock-jaw. But that truly is the exception, not the rule. Speaking of Rules, I offer a list of rules I’ve developed over the years to catch more coho. You’ll likely have your rules to add to this list. Or you may disagree with some of them. But hopefully it will give you some additional ideas when targeting coho in the Sound.
Rule #1 - As Russell Wilson would say, “Separation is in the preparation”. - When you put your boat in the water you should have everything ready to go. No fiddling around with gear or bait the morning of a trip. My fishing ritual is to have everything ready to go the night before. It’s like a general planning for battle. My rods are ready and geared up. My bait has been cut and cured. My boat is prepped and clean, batteries are charged, gas tank is full, snacks are bought, there’s ice in the coolers for the fish. This evening before prep time is actually a ritual I cherish because like Russ, I’m visualizing success and making a plan in my head. I try to never go fishing without a Plan.
Rule #2 – Start early, go shallow. - I try to be on the water as early as possible. Ideally that means running lights on and gear going in the water while it’s still dark or just turning light. I will run my gear in the top 10-30 feet of water to start. This is the time of day when a salmon fly in the prop wash can be deadly. I like Artic Fox Trolling Flies. Denis Peirce ties a nice fly in a variety of effective salmon colors. Try running the fly back 40-50 feet and troll fast (more on that later) with the fly practically skipping on the surface. Just be sure to have the clicker on the reel because these strikes can be vicious. I love the sound of a clicker going off in the morning!
Rule #3 - Watch your Fishfinder, drop your depth – As the morning progresses, drop your downriggers down. I’ve read the “rule of thumb” is ten feet every hour until you’re trolling your gear around 40-60 feet. That’s fine I guess, but I also use my fish finder. If I see bait and fish marks down 50-70 feet I’ll drop down to those fish even if it’s early in the morning. As the day goes on I may even drop my downrigger ball down to 110-120 feet deep. Depth can be a tricky thing because when coho fishing I troll fast which leads us to the next rule.
Rule #4 - troll fast! - In my experience, coho love a fast troll. I have an itroll throttle control and will set it on “hunt” mode to keep my boat going fast, around 3.3 to 3.9 mph. A few years back I did a lot of underwater filming and noticed a distinct increase in salmon aggression when the flasher was whipping around in a complete rotation. If it was only doing a lazy rotation, or not doing a full rotation, coho would tend to swim behind the gear, just watching. But speeding up and getting that flasher fully spinning would illicit vicious strikes. I will troll both with and against the tide and catch fish going both ways. Just be sure to increase your throttle going into the tide to maintain that 3.5 mph speed. I’ll also program my itroll to give a periodic 3-5 second slow down and then speed back up to “wake up” coho that may be lazily following but not biting. It can often trigger a bite. Oh, another thing that will often trigger a bite – if you’re checking gear, pop your line off the release and set the rod in the rod holder. Let the gear come up on its own. I have caught a lot of coho that will chase the gear as it ascends to the surface. Don’t reel your gear in until it hits the surface.
Rule #5 – Coho are hungry, feed them! - Coho love a strip of herring on just about any lure. I will add strips to hoochies, flies, and even a small strip on the hook of a spoon (but not too much, you don’t want to kill the spoon’s action). Be sure to brine the herring strips a day ahead of time in rock salt, and/or commercial herring brine. Add scents and bite enhancers as well. Check you gear every 20-30 minutes and freshen up with a new herring strip. If you get a bite but no release bring it in and check it! The one exception to this rule I have is if the dogfish are in thick I will go without bait.
Rule #6 – Experiment – My “go to” set up is a magnum green splatter glow hoochie, herring strips, 26-30” leader, and an 11” dodger (pick your color…). I always start with this set up. On a second rod I may run a different color and smaller hoochie. If there is no action and I am seeing fish on the fishfinder I will start trying spoons and plastic lures like the old Big Al’s Cripple Herring. Sometimes the coho just want something with more action. This year I’m going to be trying the new Old Goat OG2 5”salmon lure. The Old Goats have been awesome on kokanee and I think they will be deadly on coho. They have an amazing action that I think coho will love.
Rule #7 – Fish Where They Ain’t (anglers that is) – coho in Puget Sound can be found pretty much anywhere. We all have favorite starting locations and it’s human nature to follow the crowds of boats because “hey, they must know something I don’t”. Maybe…and maybe not. I try to start my troll away from clusters of boats. Why be surrounded by additional lures in the water? You want to troll over fish that aren’t seeing offerings non-stop. So move away from everyone else – and if you take my advice and troll fast you will, very quickly. You’ll still find the fish if they are there and cover more water to find the biters. When you do, don’t be afraid to mark the fish on your fish finder and troll around and right back over the same spot. Again, in viewing underwater footage, I invariably see groups of 4-6 coho following my gear. A solo fish is very rare. So work over those spots when you pick up a fish.
Rule #8 – Mid Day and tide changes are good – I know I said earlier I like to hit the water at daybreak but there are days when that just doesn’t happen. The good news with coho is that it doesn’t matter. You can (and will) catch coho all morning and into midday. Tide bites are the period before and after a low or high tide and these times can be very productive. My favorite tide sequence is a high tide at around 9-10am. The flood tide pushes fish and as the tide slows down it triggers a feeding opportunity below for the coho salmon. Bait becomes easier to pick off without a steady flow of water and the coho bite often turns on. If you miss that crack of dawn bite fear not, the coho will cooperate. I’ve caught my biggest hooknose fish from 11 to 1pm.
Rule #9 – Playing and Netting your fish – OK, you have a big fish on and are trolling at 3.5 mph. What do anglers often do? Why, slow down the of course. Bad move. In today’s age of barbless hooks, slowing down is an invitation to let the fish go. The second there is slack in that line the hook can slip out. Trolling for coho is not a fishery that is about the fight, it’s about catching fish. If you want an epic battle against coho (and they are a hoot), catch them in rivers. Or, mooch for them. Trolling with an 11” flasher gives these fish a focal point with which they can get slack line. We don’t want to do anything to help them like slow down. Once they are on the surface do your best to keep the flasher out of the water. This will help prevent the fish getting slack line between the hook and the flasher. Make sure you have a net with a long handle and big opening. This will help as the netter reaches out. Remember, the netter scoops as the angler guides the fish into the net. Don’t make the mistake of the netter reaching to net the fish! Once the fish is close to the boat slowing down a bit is OK by the way, just keep that flasher out of the water.
Rule #10 – Take good care of your fish – Non-anglers have no idea what a freshly caught salmon tastes like. As anglers we are blessed to be able to have the freshest salmon on the planet. So take good care of your caught fish. Bonk the fish enough to stun it, then cut a gill and bleed the fish out for a few minutes. After that into the ice cooler it goes. Don’t hang it off the side of the boat to bake in the sun. At the end of the day gut and cut into steaks, or filet the fish out. If possible vacu-seal the filets that day whatever you don’t eat for dinner. Properly cared for, you’ll have tasty fish until the next season when you get to do it all over again!
There you have it. Ten “Rules” that will help increase your odds of success this coho season. Have fun out there and remember to be safe, have life jackets and all the safety equipment required and needed in case something goes sideways.
Good luck fishing and I’ll see you on the water.