Chinook salmon, Coho, estuary fishing, bay fishing, 

Estuary Chinook Salmon Rigging  




This fishery will mostly be Chinook directed, however we will cover Coho also.

Shown here is an estuary salmon set-up that has been perfected for this type of fishery

Fishing Regulations & Charts :
  For most of us who do not remember like we used to, it may be beneficial to carry a copy of your state's current Fishing Regs. on your boat.   There will be some location limits as to buoys or points of land for both the lower and upper boundaries of the fishery.   Also check with your Dept of Wildlife either by looking at their internet site or a local sporting goods store for updates as to an early closure or extended catch possibilities in the specific areas.

Another thing to have aboard could be charts of the intended estuaries.  If you happen to be there when the tide is out, sometimes there are sandbars where there was water when you went out.

A nice Chinook in the net, and the fisherman has stepped back away from the gunnel to give the netter a better chance close to the boat.  Persistence does pay off at times

  This time of the year fog can be there all morning, or set in later and then even a handheld GPS with your launch point plus a few buoy locations will give you some references that in addition to your depthfinder will allow you to at least feel not as lost as you could be.   If you venture outside the normal channels, this bay can have shallow sections.   However if you stay on the shore when the fog is in, your fish box will certainly be not have the fishy smell.

Sonar :  Sonar will be your best ally here, but not for finding fish as the sonar cone at 15' to 20' is going to be so small that you will have to be right over them in order to see any.  It will be used mainly to help keep you focused on the bottom depth contour, and since you will want to be fishing near the bottom, to help you adjust your lure depth.

In this shallow water, you will find it best to lower the sensitivity on your sonar unit, as fish can feel this electronic signal on their lateral line and may well shy away.   So if you are using the same boat that you also use in saltwater where you may be in water 200' to 300' and need to remove "clutter" on your screen, remember to make this simple adjustment otherwise you are placing yourself in the 90% who don't catch as many fish.

Fish Travel Times :   It has been my observation that in the early part of the salmon season, (July) in the outer area of the bays during (first 2-3 miles) that fresh ocean salmon will "dip in" at a high tide following the bait.  They also move out with the outgoing tide.  You notice I said FRESH OCEAN fish, these fish are not anywhere near approaching the upstream migrating, spawning fish you will encounter later in say August or September.  These later fish are committed to entering their home streams for a rendezvous farther upstream on the gravel and do travel differently.

Now remember that fish do not normally swim backwards nor downstream.  They may however allow the tide to carry them in if that is where they want to go.  Therefore we may have two things directing the fish on their upstream travels, the being flushed along with their own locomotion.  I believe the later fish may enter the bays on a incoming tide possibly as a dip in, be flushed upstream and then after the tide change if this is their home stream, will swim farther as the tide starts to turn and run out. 


They can now smell their home stream and as the tide is going out have a method of following the smell and current upstream.  If this is not their home stream, they slide back out into the ocean and search farther.  I further think if this is their home stream that they move as far upstream as possible on this outgoing tide.  If they do not get above tidewater where there is no downstream river water movement at all times, they just stay there kind of like in a confused state until the next outgoing tide.  Once they get above tidewater, they move upstream pretty much all the time.  Someone has said that they tend to move better after dark.  I can not confirm this however.

Now taken into account of the aforementioned fish movement, the fish are not normally moving at either the high or low slack times.  It has been pretty well documented that in the bays the best times that fish bite is an hour or so before and after the high and lows.  This is probably because they are slightly confused, are milling around until the next tide change when the water is again running out where they can again become oriented.   During the outgoing tides they are on the move with other things on their minds.  Sure you may catch one between the tide changes, but not with as much regularity as you will at a slack tide.


Each Estuary is Different :   Each estuary will be different because of it's river size/salmon run.  This equates to the number of willing biters that cross the bar on every tide change.  The Columbia River B10 will have a considerable number more fish than say the Willapa system at any given time.  For the smaller systems, (depending on the water conditions and timing) for the sports fisherperson to have any success, there needs to be enough willing biter fish to make it worthwhile.  These fish, as most fishermen know need the right water temperature/new rain flow to move them upriver, otherwise they tend to stack up.  Those fish entering may need to accumulate (in a preferred by them) which may take a few days.  Catchable fish numbers in a estuary at any specified time will be governed by the weather OR if there is a commercial fishery there, by those fish being removed until a new batch moves in.  In either case, this could be from 3 to 7 days depending on the numbers needed to achieve a sports fishery.  In cases like this the sports fisherman is hampered if they are not on the water every day where the week-end fisherman may or may not be successful.

With this being said, then it also applies that somewhat different methods need to be used to be the most effective.  Some estuaries will have different water clarity and therefore your attractor needs to be consistent with the water conditions.  The murkier the water, the larger the attractor needs to be.  Grays Harbor usually is rather murky which will even change with the tide, so use a larger attractor and possibly a shorter leader behind it. 

Willapa Bay however seems to be a lot clearer water and it has proven beneficial to use the Mini Fish Flash or no attractor.  For a link to the Willapa Bay Fall Salmon article, which is more defined than this one, CLICK HERE. 


The Columbia River at the Buoy 10 area has a lot of tidal influence and ocean water exchange, so it can be fished very similar to the ocean fishery.   But the incoming tide up until an hour or so after high tide seems the best here.  It usually has considerably less weeds also.

Water depth and current also will determine your method of fishing.  Take Grays Harbor Chinook for instance.  In the south channel near Johns River these fish will be located on the bottom, but here the bottom will vary from 15" to 25'.  Then if you move over into the main channel off the port docks and near the 101 bridge, water depths are in the 40' mark where the fish appear to run about mid depth.

Time & Tides :   Most fishermen will tell you that the catching occurs from the last 2 hours of the incoming high tide and about 2 more hours after the flood.  However as mentioned before it can be worthwhile to fish the final outgoing and into the low slack.   The thinking here is that the fish will be swimming upstream into the out-flowing water, and not being swept in by the incoming tide that seems to be the common perception.  Trolling is usually be best with the tide up until about low slack tide, then the troll becomes both directions at tide change.    On some shallow estuaries with a narrow river channel, on a low tide, the water area has shrunk considerably and this then concentrates the fish in the channels or holes that are left which can prove beneficial to the fisherperson.

However as with many fisheries, the fish sometimes write their our timetables and they have been caught on any time of the tide.  

It also makes a difference if the weather is dry for some time, or if it has been raining.  If it has been dry, then the fish tend to stack up in the bay waiting for a rain, waiting for a shot of fresher, cooler water.  When it starts to rain, even slightly, they will move thru and upriver rather rapidly.

Methods of Fishing - Coho :   The bulk of the Coho do not enter the bay until about mid September and later.   Usually by this time the commercial gill nets move in and things become congested.  However, depending on the river system, a large percentage of these early Coho appear to be non-biters for the sports fisherpersons.  But there are a few that do connect more often than most.  These fishermen fish different areas of the bay than they do for Chinook.  They fish shallow water, at the edge of the oyster beds during low tide and in water even to 4' deep.   Coho tend to follow the shoreline way more than Chinook.

If you happen to see a school of Coho jumping and moving upstream at a high incoming tide, they will be near shore.   Move away from them, run upstream, wait, then cast spoons or spinners in front of the school.  These fish are very spooky, so if you need to move while close to them, use a electric trolling motor instead of an outboard.   If you have to fish these from a moving boat, use a small Fish Flash, a small rudder, no sinker, let your line out 75' to 80' behind the boat and troll near shore in shallow enough water that you get goose bumps.

Do not let the fact that the ones you can see are on the top of the water column fool you.  In most instances the biters will not usually be the jumpers, but beneath them.

Boats :  In this type of fishery you will see about any size and type of boat.   Most common will be 16' to 20'ers.   You will see water ski boats, river jet sleds, even ocean fishing cabin boats.   If the weather permits, and the wind does not blow, creating a lot of chop, even a 12' car-topper can be used.  The Columbia River Buoy 10 fishery where you have a lot of water moving, a combat fishery, commercial traffic, and wind in the afternoon would be an exception here as the larger boats are needed.  The wind usually picks up on all coastal areas in the afternoon and even 18' or 20' open boats can take on a lot of water over the bow when it gets rough if you have to head into the wind, so watch the other boaters, be prepared to head in a little early if need be.


Gear :  There is no need to buy expensive rods and reels for usage here.  I have found that any new rod rated for line between 10# or 12# to 25# is about right as an all around rod for both Chinook and Coho, one economical rod, being the Okuma Celilo, #CE-C-862H-1, Graphite casting rod,  8' 6" Heavy 12-25# and sells in the $45 range.  Couple that with a Okuma Magda Pro #MA 20DX  Graphite line counter reel, which I have found has an excellent drag system and sells again from $45 to $50.  Then use a good 25# monofilament line.


Line that I prefer is the old time monofilament as it gives you some slight stretch.  This can be beneficial in this shallow water whereas you do not have a lot of line out.  Sometimes a sudden final run where a little forgiveness comes in thru the line can be a blessing.   I would not recommend the newer spectra type lines UNLESS it is something you are used to, and understand how little is needed to set the hook.

You may see some downriggers in use, but with all the floating weeds at times it seems to be more of a hassle and not really beneficial in this shallow water.   Plus if you get bound in a parade by many other boats, your maneuverability is restricted. 

You may also see the use of some divers, probably by fishermen that are more familiar with the Columbia River Buoy 10 fishery, but estuaries that have bay grass prevalent, these weeds can cause a problem.   This applies to all divers even the Luhr Jensen jet diver.  When the floating weeds are on and suspended in the water, the divers seem to gather LARGE gobs of weeds and it would be doubtful that they would trip IF a fish would bite, AND you can not trip them either.  The other bad thing is if you are fishing a boat with numerous rods out, IF you get a salmon on, with these divers in the water it takes more time to pull gear in than if you were just using the slider sinker system, which could lead to tangles in this shallow water if the fish decides to make a run.

You can use regular mooching gear to troll in these shallow waters, however unless you use 8 or 10 ounce sinkers you will have a lot of line out and at times the closeness to other boats, this may not be desired.  The set-up illustrated above has been perfected specifically for this type of fishing. 


The use of sliding lead cannonball weights seems the preferred by the more seasoned fisherpersons, where divers are used by others.  Guides may tend to use divers as it is easier for them to set the diver for the novice, and it catches fish.  Using lead weights, he would need to read the water and be ready to change weights depending on the conditions.  It is also a lot easier to eliminate line/gear tangles of the clients own gear with divers as if letting out lead weights too fast will be the prime reason for tangles (especially when using line counter reels).

In Use : The length of line from the rod to the lure is what usually controls the depth for the average fisherperson.  You may hear 15 pulls or something along that line used by fishermen when fishing here.   What they are referring to is that how far out did they let the line go.   In doing this, let the lure out into the water, when it starts to go down, strip out a "PULL", which is from your reel to as far as you can pull, (usually just beyond the first rod guide eye), this is usually 2'.   So if he said go 15 pulls, he was actually out about 30' after the gear is in the water.   Now you take into account that the line is probably somewhere between 20 to 40 degree angle while in the water dragging the lure.   So you need to take into account the how fast you are trolling, or whether into or against the tidal current and whether there is any wind.  This depth can readily be identified so you can adjust your depth to a known level by using the chart below.   You probably don't really need to know how deep you are, but just a reference to how far out you are to a depth where the fish are being caught. 

This is the place where the newer line-counter reels really shine as you can see in the chart below.  There is not enough room on the chart below to give all depths for all line lengths, but you can do some interruptions to get close.  If you your line angle is near 30 degrees and you let out about 40' of line after the lure is just in the water, you will be fishing a depth of about 24'.   As mentioned earlier, the "pull method" will also give you these results.  Also not calculated here is for how heavy of a sinker that you may be using.  You will just have to play it by ear and pick a sinker weight, let it out then guess the line angle.

Now here is another thought that adds to the confusion.  Some do not run heavy weights to keep the lure near the boat (8 to 12oz.) and away from the other boats.  The reason is that most of this fishing will be in basically shallow water, (12'-30' deep).   Since you will be trolling, in a confined space, your trolling motor may well create enough noise if you are basically right above the fish you may well spook them also.  Therefore it may be better to use a lighter sinker, troll it farther back behind the boat.   One local fisherman confided that he just uses a 6 oz. sinker and pulls out 15 strips (30') of line, which would put him down about 14' depending on the current. 


This chart gives some computer driven numbers using the known angle

Other Gear Info :  Also set your drag as light as you can without it being pulled off the reel by weeds.  With it this loose, the fish does not feel a great resistance when he takes the lure.  He may take the bait, follow for just a bit, then turn away, you want him to not try to spit out the bait and hooks until after he turns.  When he turns you will have him, as he will set the hook in the inside of the jaw.  You can then lightly thumb the spool to add more friction to the drag.

In some estuaries, the water may be slightly murky, so a attractant like the Fish Flash that has little drag seems to work best.  In recent years there have been copies of the Fish Flash appear on the market.  Some are made of metal while others are plastic.  I have found that the metal ones do not work well in this instance because of the close proximity of the sinker, then if you don't let the line out VERY SLOW, the metal flasher sinks fast enough to tangle with the sinker dropper.  They work OK when salt water trolling off a downrigger however.  As of 2011 there have been a multitude of copies of the Fish Flash, probably because of the patent may have expired.  And the originator of Fish Flash decided to retire and sold out to Wordens Tackle Co. 


Many of these have a slightly different action than the actual Fish Flash.  The Kone Zone for one has a lesser spin, this can be a benefit if all the other boats are using the faster spin.  Also it is my opinion that in shallower water like 12' or so that the slower rotating flasher may be of a benefit because of less chance of spooking the fish.

In the past, a red or chartreuse flashers have proved excellent, however there are new ones out that are glo-in-the-dark, these should prove good when charged with a camera flash.  My thought here is that the size of this attractor needs to match the water clarity.  For Grays Harbor with a more turbid condition, the large Fish Flash works OK.   The medium size in my opinion is best all around one if you had to pick one, as I believe in this shallower or clearer water the larger size could spook the fish.   For the Willapa, I would use the Kone Zone or even use the small or the mini version of the Fish Flash.

Add a Sampo ball bearing swivel at the end of your mainline when using a Fish Flash or KoneZone rotating type flasher to help eliminate line twist.  Also place a golf tee on the mainline above all the other gear.  This golf tee is to help divert floating grass off.   It has been observed that a knot on the terminal end of the mainline seems to not allow grass to pass off, whereas this golf tee seems to help in this respect.

Use a plastic sturgeon sinker slider on the mainline to attach the sinker onto.  This helps to prevent the fish to use the weight of the sinker to throw the barbless hooks, since the slider will slide if the fish tries to shake to dislodge the hook.  Attach a 12" to 18" lighter (12-15#, or at least lighter than the mainline) monofilament dropper to the sinker.  Just tie large loops on each end using a simple granny knot.  The reason for this dropper is that you want your bait NEAR the bottom, in some of these bays you may encounter snags at times, with the lighter dropper, if you hang up, the sinker is what usually get hung first and the dropper will break off.  Make up some spare droppers ahead of time, as when the bite happens, you do not want to be tying gear.  Tie on a cannon ball sinker of from 4 to 10 oz depending on the current and depth by just poking the loop thru the sinker eye, then running it far enough that you can tuck the sinker back thru the line eye, making a simple looped attachment.  You may have to increase or decrease the sinker weight as the tide changes.

There needs to be a distance between the slider and the Fish Flash slightly longer (2") than the distance of the sinker dropper.   This is so that the sinker does not get tangled with the Fish Flash.  If this happens, it is usually because you did not have a heavy enough sinker on OR you let the gear out way to fast.   If you do not catch it soon, the whole mess is tangled badly.  Here I have found that 60# mono works good for me usually use a spacer as this helps decipher which leader is which in a tangle and provides a more positive weed cutter when I try to remove the weeds.   I put a standard swivel on one end and a bead chain swivel/snap on the other end, again using a golf tee ahead of the lower swivels/snap.  This allows me some flexibility as it is quicker in setting things up, or if it does get tangled, I can unsnap different sections to help untangle things later.

The above gear can be used for trolling about any form of bait/lure by simply changing what you hang behind the flasher.

You will see many combinations of trolling gear.  Some simply attach a cannonball weight directly to the slider, or no slider and a kidney mooching sinker used instead.  However I have found that this does not allow you to read the bumping on the bottom if the depth shallows as compared to using the dropper.

The leader should be heavier than normal because of the possible larger fish encountered, and it can be shorter than a normal 6' mooching leader if used in murky water.  Since you are fishing in shallow water (usually 15-25') when a fish is hooked, he has no place to go but run.  Originally the preferred leader length started as 72" of a mooching leader, it got shortened to 36-48" and fish were still caught.  But on some instances, (maybe the murkier water applies here) more fish were taken on even shorter (18") leaders, so you  may want to experiment in this aspect.  

I have found that a cut plug bait works better here, BUT sometimes with the volume of weeds here at times, the bait gets battered a lot, damaging the cut that you tried so hard to produce.  I tend to go farther and use the herring bonnets over even a whole rigged herring.  The best I have found are Rhys Davis made in Canada.   The regular size is the Anchovy Special, while if you insist on LARGE herring then their Super Herring Special is the one needed.   These utilize a plastic pin, but they get lost but any round toothpick works OK to secure the head of the herring into the bonnet.   In use, they protect the herring bait when subject to weeds. 

With these bonnets, you can use a standard mooching tied leader.  The preferred would be a solid tie, tied the distance between the hooks to match the size of the bait.   The leader should be of a heavier material than the standard ocean leader because the chance of hooking a large fish here is rather good and they can not go down in this shallow water, so you need to either chase them or wear them out.   40# leader seems to be about the size that most experienced fisherpersons use.

Do not set the rods in the rod holders with the tip at a straight up position like you would if you were using a downrigger.   First off it adds to the distance your lure is away from the boat.  This may not be that bad, BUT if many boats are congregated in your area, you are just adding to the possibility of tangles with the other boaters gear.   The picture below on the left illustrates a workable rod position.  This gives you your own space, and also seems to allow more readily accessed rods when a hit does occur.

Lessen the drag and put the clicker on your reel so that if a fish hits you can hear it.   At times with the trolling motor running and you are busy with something else or your drag is looser than it should be without the clicker on, the line may be pulled out and you don't realize it.  Or even a fish could even be on the other end.

A tolling set up, you  want the rod low like this. Weeds, but notice the Fish Flash is fairly clean, so the line swivel & the sinker appear to intercept most of them.

Bait :  
Most bay fishermen here use large (blue label) cut-plugged herring, however you will see many whole herring being fished there.   After seeing so much bait, (Anchovy) in the bay at times, I will use green label which matches more to the Anchovy size.  I have in the past had problems with using cut plugged bait here, in that with the volume of weeds that are here most times, the bait gets battered a lot, changing the cut that you tried so hard to produce.  

I have went another step and have found that the herring bonnets perform even better than a whole rigged herring here.  The best I have found are Rhys Davis made in Canada.   The regular size is the Anchovy Special, while if you insist on LARGE herring then their Super Herring Special is the one needed.   These utilize a plastic pin, but they get lost, any round toothpick works OK to secure the head of the herring into the bonnet.   I do make one change, in that if I do not like the spin I get, so use the round toothpick and once I get the body shape of the herring I like, inset the toothpick lengthwise down the herring's body at the backbone line, pretty well holding that bent shape.  This gives me more of a better roll instead of having a sharper kink at the head giving a faster spin.   I have found that the Chinook here prefer a spinning rotation of the bait a bit faster than when being used in Puget Sound, but slower than a normal Coho roll.   A second choice which is very similar is the Les Davis herring bonnet.

In using the bonnet and the faster spin facilitated by the toothpick up the backbone, my catch ratio has increased.   With this all said above, I have recently (2011) become a convert to cut plugging and my catch ratio on the boat has increased dramatically when having guests onboard.   Possibly because the toothpick method is hard to teach someone else to get the proper roll, and the more bait in the water the better chance of getting the fish-box bloody.   OK, I am a bullheaded German/Swiss and it takes me longer to concede (like about 15 years).

Time for a change again in 2012, where I went to the plastic Brads Super Cut Plug, which is made in 2 parts with a hinged lower rear section where you can load it with herring/anchovy or even scent.  This hinged section is held together by a special rubber band.  These plugs come pre-tied with one triple hook, or unrigged with just 2 bodies for about a dollar more than the single rigged.  I like to tie mine using 40# mono leader with (2) 5/0 Octopus hooks tied as a solid tie moocher leader.  I place (5) 6mm beads on the leader above the hooks, but only to space the hook back just behind the plug.   I also like to have at least 3 of these beads fluorescent red and red hooks which would simulate a wounded, bleeding herring.  My two trailing hooks seem to slow the action down slightly, but it still catches fish, even Coho can't seem to resist it.


This lure has the lower rear part hinged with a sponge to absorb scent.  I pull the sponge out so I can insert a herring/anchovy/tuna strip as a scent.  Or recently I have gotten lazy and simply have been squirting liquid smelly jelly anchovy scent into the cavity without removing the rubber band.

I have, when running 2 rods here, run a cut plug herring or a herring in the bonnet on one rod and this plastic lure on the other, at same depths.  I finally quit using the herring after a week as 95 % of my hits were on this plug.  I however juice it up with herring or anchovy scent.  As for colors, Shamrock / Blue Hawaiian / Seahawk / Pirate or Watermelon, even Wonder-bread seem to produce well.   However in 2012, late in the year I ran a bright orangish one, hoping to target Coho, but caught a small Chinook on it


Here the Brad's Super Cut Plug is shown with the hinge part open & showing the rubber band.  But with the hooks retied so the front hook hangs just behind the tail of the lure & the trailer hook about 5" farther back.  The beads just act as a spacer to position the front hook.

Hooks : 
  Hook style is something that you may look into.  Normal salmon hooks used tied to a leader will be an Octopus style as shown in the upper left in the photo below.  This has a turned up eye.  There is also a Siwash style that is designed to be used on spoons.  This hook has a straight shank but the eye is open so it can be in stalled into a swivel or spoon as shown on the top right below.

Then there is a newer style that has appeared since about 2009 and it is known as the Sickle style as shown in the bottom of the photo below.  These are made in either the Octopus style turned up eye or the Siwash open straight eye.  The benefit of these Sickle hooks is that once the fish has been hooked, the hook penetrates the jaw or whatever part of the fish that is hooked, slides down into the Vee of the hook.  With this Vee design, it is harder for the fish to throw the hook.   This hook has been made and patented by Matzuo so you will not see it sold by other more well known brands.   Recently Gamagatzu has came out with a close copy called the Big River Bait hook.   Many of the sporting goods stores have not figured out the benefits of stocking a supply of them.

Different hook styles

There are 2 schools of thought on the distance between the hooks.  Some tie their hooks, 4/0-5/0 or up to 5/0-6/0 then tie them about 2 1/2" between the bend and the eye.  This would be the normal ocean mooching set up.   When tying these, the smaller hook is to the rear, allowing the larger hook to be inserted into near the head area of the bait.  Hook only the front hook into the bait, with the rear trailing near the tail.   This can change, depending on how you place the hooks.  Others will tie the hooks  5 -7" apart as described below and use the same size a 5/0 front with a 6/0 at the rear as defined below. 

Now enters a different school of thought especially for the bays where you will be fishing in a current.  Since here you need to be trolling WITH the current or tide, AND fish do not normally swim backwards, this kind of changes the game as compared to ocean conditions.   Here the fish will NOT normally be following the lure, but engaging it as it is passing them head on (possibly rather quickly) where they need to make a snap judgment if it is something they want to go for.  Where as in the open ocean, where they are have no real current, they can locate your lure by sound, vibrations and scent, then follow it (sometimes it's a good thing for them as they get to observe it better), so the attach is different.   In the estuaries the attach will be from the side, where if the fish miscalculates the speed then misses it because he is going one way and you are going the other, the will usually strike be behind the lure.  Here he would seldom get hooked by the now front hook, but by the rear hook.  Now in essence, you will be flossing him with the leader in his jaws and the trailer hook on the outside of his far jaw.  Since they have no reverse, but can turn rather sharply, when he turns to make another pass he will turn into this trailing hook.  Since he is turning and away from the current, usually this hook will miss the outer jaw but hook inside the opposite jaw.

For this setup, I think you need the rear hook back behind the bait by at least 5", up to 8".   The fish will not see this trailer hook.  If you have ever watched any of the underwater videos of salmon trying to take bait, many times they miss it or they simply open their mouth then spit it out.   You need to create a situation where once he has it in his mouth, that he is hooked before he knows it.   This also will usually place the hook in the jaw in a position where not a lot of the leader is subject to tooth abrasion.    Also this makes for easier releasing if need be and creates less chance of the fish swallowing the hooks where the fish becomes a bleeder. 

Use a shorter leader than in the ocean with 36" to 48" of 40# or 50# leader on the hooks, as the water is usually not as clear and a large Chinook, if by chance they are hooked within the mouth, can cut lighter leader with its teeth if engaged in a lengthy battle.

Below are illustrations of rigging designed for estuary fishing where you are trolling with the current.  Using this setup could make the difference of putting fish in the box instead of just having a "Drive By".   You will notice the herring strip on top of the Apex as described below.


Herring Bonnet / Helmet :   You will have to make a judgment call as to the size of your bait.  Some swear by large blue label bait while others just use what is available.  My preferred method, is to use a smaller green label bait and then use it in a herring bonnet, sometimes called a helmet.  This name of bait holders can vary depending on the manufacturer.  These bonnets are made in 2 different sizes, one the Anchovy, which fits the smaller herring, then the Super Herring size for the larger bait.   Bonnets or sometimes called helmets are made by Les Davis or in Canada by Ryes Davis.  The nose of the bonnet or for the holder has a angled fin shaped to give your bait a natural spin.  They allow you to push the nose of the herring into the bonnet, then use a plastic pin crosswise to hold the bait into the bonnet.  You will quickly loose this plastic retainer pin, but a round toothpick works well instead.   I prefer the Canadian version myself as they are a lime green Glo in the Dark.   These bonnets will help to keep the bait from being torn off when weeds attach it, and keep it fishing longer while giving it's own spinning action.     For some of these, I like to add a round toothpick shoved up along the spine of a bent herring.  This can add to the bend of the bait giving a more desired roll when trolled.

One suggestion is to purchase stick-on eyes and add them the these bonnets, which may increase your hits.

There are other types that clamp onto the bait, but they do not work well here because of the weeds.   These are a couple of slightly different styles made by Pro-Troll called a rotary salmon killer, which uses protruding teeth that penetrate the bait's head to hold it in place.  It has a angled fin on one side that imparts the spin.  The other is basically the same as the Pro-Troll but made by Hot-Spot and called a rotary bait holder.  I do not like these last 2 brands for estuaries where you may encounter lots of floating or partially submerged weeds as they tend to accumulate more weeds than the others. 

Lures :   However don't stick exclusively with bait, as many fish can be caught using lures.  These lures can be about anything that a salmon has been known to take when they enter the rivers, like large spinners, large Spi-N-Glo's, Kwik-Fish, Coyote spoons, etc.   Ocean fishing plugs like the Apex or Sting Kings can also be used with with success.   When using the Apex, you can take a small filleted strip (1/2" X 1"or so) of Sardine or Herring, slit the meat down the middle lengthwise, being careful to not cut thru the skin.  Now you can place this bait strip under the leader that passes over the back of the plug, allowing the tension on the hook to hold it in place.   When rigging the Apex as shown above, use (2) large 5/0,  6/0 or even 7/0 mooching hooks instead of the standard Siwash that comes on it.  Here you can place 6mm plastic beads to space the front hook behind the lure.   I like to place the hooks about 5 to 6" apart depending on the size of the lure. 

Another lure that is becoming very popular is a large spinner.  These usually have a single #5 up to a #7 blade.  One old standby is the Luhr Jensen Tee Spoon.  Colors are your choice, however a red/white seems to be a popular color.  Take the triple hook of and replace it with a 5/0 or 6/0 Siwash hook.  For these lures, you need to adjust the speed of the boat to match the rhythm of the blade spinning.  You should see the rod tip slightly bobbing at about one  half a revolution per second (or 120 a minute) if the spinner is rotating right.  Your rod needs to be stiff enough, yet sensitive enough so you can count the revolutions, (thump, thump, thump) of the blade at the rod tip.

Shown below are a couple of additions to the spinner, namely a herring or a hoochie.  These combos can be deadly under the right conditions.

Here a herring was added to the spinner Note the bright color & combo hoochie

For these spinners, I try to purchase commercial stainless steel hooks as they survive better in the salt water mix.  Also the salt mix in the estuaries tend to discolor the spinner unpainted blades.  A tube of common tooth paste will remedy this situation by simply rubbing it on the blade with your fingers, then washing it off with water.  Some of the other polishing compounds require a petroleum based liquid to clean the stuff off, not so good here.

I like to have at least one of each, (bait and lures) in the water at the same time if more than one person is fishing, as explained in the following "Observances" section.

Anchoring or Drifting Eggs :   If at times the current is really moving, it may be the time to drop an anchor in a likely spot, put out a Spi-N-Glo with eggs down.  You do not see this many times in the bay, but if it works, you could be the one who is smiling.

Also the use of a large gob of salmon eggs near the bottom, drifting under a large bobber is a method that can also be effective in some estuaries in the upper reaches of tidewater.  Here you try to locate a hole that has fish stacked in it, which may well be non-biters.  The free-floating salmon eggs can prove effective in a situation like this. 

Observances :   Troll WITH the tide if possible and slow (1.5+- mph).  The one most largest mistake made is to get in the rut of trolling and when the tide changes, to not realize just how much it is later moving, you may well be standing still as far as covering ground.  This is not as effective if you want the fish to come to you as when you are covering ground all the time.  At slack tide (either high or low) you can troll either way.  Pull your line OFTEN (like every 10 minutes), clean any weeds off, check your bait, re-inject or apply scent.  Some estuaries are more weed free than others.  This can also be depending on the tides, where a large run-off tide may conducive to more weeds congregating the fishing areas.

It has been observed that Chinook do not go with the deepest part of the bay or shipping channel, but may travel on the edges of it.   Most shipping channels will be maintained at 40'.  However the channels in the Willapa Bay are not being maintained because there is now no commercial freighter traffic out of the Weyerhaeuser mill.  The fish will usually be found on the shelf or edge of the channel in water from 12' to 25'.  This is where a GPS may come in handy, or if there are piling markers or buoys, take reference on them, then guide your fishing locations around them. 

These fish, like most, will travel in certain paths.  If you stop and think, they are probably taking the route with the least current while following a contour bottom line, thereby making their progress easier.  If there happens to be a secondary channel away from the main channel that ties back into the main channel, do not fail to look at this.  This secondary channel will normally be off of a bend and will have a lesser flow, but will make for easier fishing.

Another location I have encountered is different however, in that there is a good sized hole in the channel, then usually on the high incoming tide, the fish may tend to hold up in this hole.  The knowledgeable fisherpersons will troll slow enough, or backtroll so that the bait simply drops into the hole and slowly pushed thru the hole with the tide.  It is these peculiar locations that you need to learn and make notes of.   All the more reason to pick a area, fish it enough to learn it instead of hopping around and never really know what or where you should be fishing at.

It is a proven fact that fall salmon will move into the lower reaches of an estuary, stay there until they are ready to move upriver for a pre-spawn.  They may drift back into salt water on the following outgoing tide.   They then may move back in again on succeeding tides.  This can happen numerous times before they move upriver or stay if there has been no rain.  So what you can have are some virgins to the estuary, and some repeaters that are about ready to head farther upriver.   As they get ready to move upriver they tend to loose the feeding instinct and will also loose their bright coloration.

It seems that most of these Chinook salmon tend to be close to the bottom.  One explanation, is that in these estuaries, where the fresh water mixes with the salt water, since salt water is heavier, it will be on the bottom.  This puts the fresh water on top with a mid level mixture of salinity in between.   Since most of these fish are pretty fresh out of the ocean, they apparently take a while to acclimate to the lesser salinity of the upper bay/lower river.  This puts the newcomers initially in the deeper parts of the lower bay for a while.  As they become more accustomed to the fresh water, they then move upstream, therefore may be found higher in the water column.  Then at a slack tide they tend to raise in the water column, as they have lost their direction.

I have talked to a WDFW fish checker who relayed his experiences at La Push checking the Quileute Indian nets.   He says that the Chinook fresh out of saltwater will be within 1' of the lead-line or bottom, while the Steelhead will be right on top of the net at the float-line.


Now consider this -- at a slack tide the fish have no direction as there is little water movement to guide them.  Now they may move up in the water column, kind of milling around until the tide starts to move which they then tend to move deeper nearer the bottom.

Some estuaries that allow salmon fishing close to the ocean, (like the Willapa Marine Area 2-1), you will get some "Dip Ins".  These are ocean fish early in the season that are following the bait into the river mouth at a high tide and then back out.  Here I have landed a 20# Dip In Chinook Tulie on August 9th of 2013.  This fish was headed for the Columbia River, but followed bait into the Willapa Bay.  

Later when it gets closer to when the fish are actually headed into the river to spawn they may move in, then back out as the dip ins, but will then commit and stay there, waiting for the fall rains, then moving upriver.  It is my theory that these first or second timers being the brightest and freshest fish may be the ones take the bait.   Once they stay in the bay for a few days, they may become conditioned into NOT taking bait the longer they are in freshwater.   These fish may be the ones who will possibly take a lure more readily.  And this lure can be a aggressive one like a spinner or plug that they just hit as a defensive reaction.  It therefore seems to be prudent to have one each of both bait/lures in the water at the same time in these situations.

You can encounter MANY boats in close quarters in situations like this.   I counted 126 boats on the Willapa Bay between the river marker #2 at Tokeland and marker #26 during the Tokeland Marina/Willapa Gang's 2005 salmon derby on August 28th.   I am sure there may have been more that were out of sight west into the bay farther.   When this happens, you have to be observant.   You may not be able to troll exactly where you want to go because of the other traffic close to you.   One constant problem is a troller setting at the rear, hand steering his motor with his back to 1/2 of the boats usually never looks over his shoulder at what is on his blind side.  The same basic problem can occur if the operator of the boat is setting at the steering wheel and watching the rods most of the time.  It seems to be no problem if at a slack tide that some of the boats are trolling upriver and others are moving downriver.  Then when a boat or two wants to zig-zag thru the parade, things can a little hectic, especially when these boats are larger than the rest and are sure they have the right of way because of their size.  

At times like this it is hard to remember, this is supposed to be fun.

A good warm-up way to start a cold foggy morning

More Observances:
  Probably the number one reason salmon are missed or not hooked securely is the reel drag is set too tight.  I like to see the drag set at what I call a moderate to light setting.  And then place the clicker on.  For me, I want the fish to be able to pull off some line off the reel as he/she takes the bait.  When trolling, these fish will take the bait, then turn to the side.  This is when you will hook them in the inside of the jaw.  You will VERY seldom hook them head on in the gullet.  I want the fish to initially not really feel a lot of resistance of the line.  Let them turn, get the hook imbedded in the INSIDE of the jaw before they realize what is happening.  As the fish starts peeling line, (and the clicker is sounding off) pick the rod up and moderately set the hook if you are using mono, NO hookset at all if using braid.  As the battle plays out you may adjust the drag slightly on more, OR thumb the spool (which I like to do).  I think more fish are lost because of a overly tight drag than anything else.


Every year here, I see many salmon lost close to the boats.   Some fish simply don't get hooked good enough to stay on, and it appears that here, there is a surprising number that spit the hook before they get to the boat.   My observances can usually be split into about half a dozen mistakes which cause this. 

(1)  Using inadequate tackle.  This can be from too light and limber a rod, too long a leader/distance between the sinker if inline and the flasher creating a say 9' distance from the lure to the end of the mainline and using an 8 1/2' rod.  Then with the fish putting an arch in the rod, this then lengthens the distance you need to have to bring the fish to the boat.  This creates a problem of the fisherman not being able to control the fish so the netter can do his/her job effectively.

This can be also a disadvantage for younger or shorter fisherpersons.  A 6' leader may work fine for you, but your 8 year old can not stand that high when fighting a fish, so a shorter leader, (3' or 4') one may be more appropriate for this circumstance.

(2)   Allowing the fish slack line.  Keep the line tight to the fish at all times.  Most fishing will be with barbless hooks and any slack given to the fish, the hook has a chance to come loose.  Also don't think the fish has to be brought in fast as if it was a trout.  Keep leverage on the fish, be sure the drag is loose enough so that WHEN it decides to make a last run, it can go instead of tearing the hooks out or breaking a rod.  If the fish jumps, drop the rod tip, even into the water, so you do not have above the water leverage, allowing the fish to throw slack when it goes back into the water.

(3)  The netter being inexperienced in that they dip the net in the water and expect the fish to simply swim into it.   Or they make numerous passes before the fish is tired and ready to be netted, spooking the fish or knocking it off the hooks.  And then many will NOT hold the net bag in their off hand so it does not dip and drag into the water, again spooking the fish.   Sometimes the netter, under special circumstances, may HAVE to net early if in observing the fish hook placement, IF the hooks appear to not be a good hookup, but this takes experience and some luck.  Fishing alone also creates a different netting problem.

(4)   This may be hard to prove, but it is my suspicion that faulty hooks may come into play many times here.  Either the design of the hook, but most probably just DULL hooks.  If the fish just spits the hook, most will simply blame it on having to use the barbless hooks.   While in reality the hook was simply not sharp.   Most experienced fishermen test the sharpness of the hook by sliding it on their thumbnail.  If it slips across the nail and does not READILY dig in, use a hook file or stone.   In this category, could also be placed that the hooks may not have been rigged properly if using herring for bait.  Where do you place the rear hook?   The bait needs to "swim", not with a fast spin, but rather for Chinook, a lazy roll is the preferred style.   But here again will be your personal preference.  Keep your eyes open to see who is catching and how their gear is set up.

Just because you use one method that works in your normal salmon ocean/sound fishing, if you are not catching as many fish as others, ask them, you may just get told how they do it.   Why go to all the effort to get your time on the water, your boat ready and all the other things lined up, only to almost totally ignore the one thing that WILL effect your catch percentage, that being your condition AND presentation of the bait.

(5)  The jury is still out as to which lure or bait will catch fish consistently in an estuary.  And you may be putting yourself at a DISADVANTAGE IF YOU DO NOT USE BAIT here at times, at least on one rod.  OK, yes I have pulled fish on lures here, but if the numbers of fish that are there on any given day are not that great, you may need to be sure you have different lures in the water and at different depths so that your fishbox will have a smell in it simply because you have not tried everything or are not using a proven local bait.

(6)  Remember "Cleanliness is next to Godlness" when it comes to fishing.  One salmon charter boat skipper when the encounter jellyfish, is to change out your gear, and cut off 20' of your mainline.  Remove ALL they jellyfish residue even to the point of using a toothbrush to get it all from the swivels and knots.  Wash the entire gear off in soapy water and let it dry for 1/2 hour.  Then spray it all down with WD-40 and apply your scent before fishing it again.  You will not encounter jellyfish in a estuary, but the principle should be the same, even if you encounter a lot of weeds.

(7) I also use a bucket of fresh water and soap to soak the flashers/leader-lures in overnight which keeps them clean and the hooks rust free.  Most hooks that have been exposed to saltwater and then dried out, or put in your tackle box, the plating on the point will be thinner than the shank and will start to rust if not sprayed with a rust preventative.



One thing that I always heard was the word  has always fish the bottom for Chinook.  Well that may not be totally valid depending on the tide as mentioned above. 


But when encountering lots of floating weeds, one of the better guides has suggested that instead of trying to jockey your line around these gobs, was to poke your rod tip section down DEEP into the water, (as straight down as possible) as you trolled through them and let these weeds accumulate on the rod.  When you are through them, raise your rod and shake the weeds off.  This works surprisingly well in that the rod runs interference and keeps the weeds off the line.  This saves a lot of time and lost time of your lure in the water fishing. 


Now twice I have had a salmon hit while I had the rod poked into the water.  First time, I just passed it off as unimportant.  But the second time it happened, BINGO, a light came on in my pea brain.  Was I possibly not fishing deep enough at that time, (a depression in the bottom?) or what other reason.  I then realized that by dropping my rod tip deep into the water, with a 8'6" or 9' rod, I have effectively done the same as letting out possibly 25' of line, lowering my lure maybe 6' to 10' depending on my rod-holder preset angle.  This has proved effective if trolling with your rod in a rod-holder and a uneven bottom.


So if you are not getting a bite, you might just try this trick, instead of letting more line out.  Kind of like making a turn  and your rod would be on the inside, going deeper.  Sometimes if you be observant, you can learn somethign new.


Copyright 2002 - 2018 LeeRoy Wisner  All Rights Reserved

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Originated 9-29-2002, Last Updated  10-07-2018 *                                                  
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