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Fly Fishing for Coho Salmon in Puget Sound

By Scott Richmond


You don't need to go to the tropics to experience great saltwater fly fishing.


 

When anglers think about saltwater fly fishing, they usually conjure up sandy beaches, turquoise water lit by a tropical sun, leaping tarpon, speeding bonefish, and sleek flats boats.

Rocky shorelines, gray Northwest skies, and giant ferry boats aren't part of this image.

Yet the Northwest offers some excellent saltwater opportunities. While you won't find turquoise seas and tropical sunshine, you will find speedy, leaping fish that can make both your heart and your reel sing.

One of the best saltwater fly fishing opportunities on the West Coast begins in August and continues until November. That's when fly fishing for coho salmon hits its peak. You don't have to book an expensive flight to a remote island to participate in this fishery. Some of the best opportunities are within sight of the Seattle skyline.

When to Fish

Coho salmon (silvers) that average four to six pounds--sometimes more--start to enter Puget Sound in late June or early July. By August, there are enough fish to warrant casting for them.

The run builds through September and mid-October, and by the end of October most coho have moved into hatchery ponds or spawning rivers.

However, you can't fish for coho anywhere, anytime. Washington's saltwater regulations are complicated, with the coastal and inland areas divided into 13 Marine Zones, each with a different set of regulations. Further, the regulations can change during the season--often at a moment's notice. You can check for changes on the WDFW website at http://www.wa.gov/wdfw/fish/regs/fishregs.htm

In general, you can fish for sea-run cutthroat all year with barbless hooks in most zones. Often, the same flies and tackle are used for both sea-runs and coho, so if you accidentally hook a coho while fishing for sea-runs, then release it, you should be safe. But always check the regs before fishing an area.

Flies

While there are no hatches to match, coho have preferences for baitfish, and you need to match whatever food they are pursuing. In the north Sound, this means candlefish or herring. In the south Sound, candlefish are the primary forage.

Both herring and candlefish can be imitated with Marabous or weighted or unweighted Clouser Minnows. Captain Tom Wolf (253-863-0711; capttwolf@earthlink.net), who has guided fly fishers exclusively on Puget Sound for eight years, feels good colors for the north Sound are pink over white, green over white, and brown over white. Keep in mind that a weighted Clouser rides upside-down, and the dark color should be on top when the fly is retrieved.

Tom likes to put a few strands of Flashabou down the sides of his flies. He keeps his flies between two inches and three-and-a half inches long.

For the south Sound, Tom thinks olive over white and brown over white work best. He also prefers a slightly shorter fly for the south Sound.

Tom also says he wouldn't want to be on the water without a sculpin pattern. Muddlers and Woolhead Sculpins both work, but he prefers the latter because of its life-like action.

Troy Dettman, owner of Northwest Angler Fly Shop in Poulsbo, also guides on the Sound. His fly choices are similar to Tom Wolf's.

Tackle and Tactics

A seven or eight weight rod is sufficient. Since some days are windy, you should use a rod with enough backbone to punch through the breeze. A clear intermediate line, such as the Scientific Anglers Stillwater Line or Cortland Camo Line, works well for streamer fishing.

Most of the time, you simply cast your fly and retrieve it. Vary the retrieve, combining a short strip-and-pause with longer, faster strips. If there is a current, you can let your fly swing just like you might for steelhead in a river. Impart some action, though, as it swings.

Tom Wolf makes a tactical distinction between actively-feeding coho and what he calls "waiting period" coho--fish that are stacked up near a river mouth waiting for rain to raise the river level. "Waiting period" coho are not feeding actively, but they are territorial. A slower presentation works best with them. Short 1-6 inch strips with a pause between strips is one good presentation for these fish. They often take the fly on the pause.

Troy Dettman casts streamers, but he also likes a surface presentation with a popper-style fly. The fly is a simple foam head, such as you'd use for a bass fly. Behind the head, tie in some pink and white marabou and a pair of 3-4 inch grizzly hackle tips. Use a floating line and give the fly a pop-pause retrieve. Surface strikes can be spectacular.

Tides

Some beach anglers fish strictly on the last two hours of the flood tide. Others, however, favor the last two hours of the ebb tide. Both are successful, and the main points to glean from the two competing theories is that the middle of the tide is usually not a good time to fish from the beach, and that you can expect the fishing to change after slack tide.

The effects of tidal currents vary from one beach to the next, and some beaches fish best on incoming tides, while others are best on the ebb.

Because he fishes from a boat, Tom Wolf keeps casting through all stages of the tide. He knows from experience which areas fish best at different stages. This is one advantage of fishing from a boat: you can move to new places as situations change.

Fishing from the Beach

Coho tend to travel near the shoreline and often move in the intertidal zone (the water between the high and low tide marks). Thus virtually any beach with public access can offer good fishing for migratory coho. Points of land are often good spots because fish are forced closer to shore. Areas with tide rips near shore are excellent because the tide rips concentrate baitfish, and the coho follow the baitfish.

While most Puget Sound beaches are steep and pebbled, some are flat and sandy. Most fly fishing is done off the former, but a few of the latter offer good fishing, too. Coho will sometimes drive baitfish into these shallow areas.

Since coho tend to feed near the surface, you can often spot them slashing through schools of baitfish. A good pair of binoculars can be one of the best tools you own: before wading into the water, look for splashes that reveal feeding fish. A few seal heads bobbing in the tide rips or near shore can indicate the presence of schooling coho. While one or two seals can be a good sign, a large pod of them is not good because the coho can become too wary to feed actively.

No matter which beach you choose, it's a good idea to scout it during low tide. That way you can locate depressions, rocks, ledges, and drop-offs where coho may gather.

Special Problems with Beach Fishing

Steep, pebbled beaches offer special problems. One is that your backcast can easily drop onto the rocks behind you and break off the hook point without you knowing it. It's a real bummer to get a solid strike from a hefty coho, only to have the fish slip off because your hook has no point to it. (Note: Mustad's 800S saltwater hook seems to be especially brittle and is not recommended).

Some anglers have a novel solution to this problem. They carry a plastic crate with them--the kind you can pick up at a "storage" store. They carry the crate into the water and stand on it to cast. This raises their backcast an extra 12-15 inches, and that can translate into a longer cast.

One solution begets another, however. Since these anglers have to step off the crate to play a fish or to change position, they need a way to retrieve the crate. So they tie an empty, capped milk jug to the crate. The jug floats on the surface and provides a line with which to retrieve their plastic podium.

Another issue faced by beach anglers is crowds and passers-by. You can often have people walking behind you, and many of these walkers are either gear anglers or non-angling strollers. In either case, they probably aren't thinking about a fly fisher whipping 70 feet of line in their direction. So always look behind you while your backcast is in the air and avoid giving some poor soul a Clouser earring.

Some beach anglers use a stripping basket to corral their fly line. It's not a bad idea because your line will drift with the current and can pick up seaweed as you're retrieving.

A Few Good Beaches

Troy Dettman at Northwest Angler Fly Shop in Poulsbo specializing in saltwater fly fishing on the Sound. Some of his favorite coho beaches are:

  1. Fort Flagler near Port Townsend
  2. Point No Point near Hansville. This can be crowded, especially on weekends.
  3. Salsbury County Park near Port Gamble
  4. Kitsap Memorial State Park near Lofall
  5. Miller Bay near Indianola
  6. Fay Bainbridge State Park on Bainbridge Island
  7. Quilcene Bay

On the east side of the Sound, some good beaches are:

  1. Lincoln Park
  2. Golden Gardens near Seattle's Shilshole Bay
  3. Kayak Point north of Everett

Fishing from a Boat

Troy Dettman prefers to fish from a beach because he can easily move to a different beach if he's not finding fish. Tom Wolf (253-863-0711; capttwolf@earthlink.net), on the other hand, fishes exclusively from a boat.

Tom has spent eight years guiding as a full-time fly fishing guide on the Sound, mostly pursuing coho and sea-run cutthroat. He uses a 17-foot Alumaweld Stryker with a big outboard plus an 8-horse kicker engine--and oars. Tom refers to his style of angling as "Northwest Flats Fishing." He uses the oars to carefully--and silently--position his boat. "Boat placement is crucial," he says. He prefers to stay near the fish, but not so close as to bother them. Then he casts to the edges of a school and picks off fish from the outside. If you cast to the middle, you can put down the entire school.

Tom prefers fishing from a boat because he can quickly and easily move to a new spot. "If I don't hit coho in 15 minutes," he says, "I move to a new area."

He is reluctant to publicize his favorite haunts, but he feels coho fly fishers can find their own hot spots if they take the time to cruise around looking for feeding fish. Because coho are topwater feeders and usually travel only 3-6 feet below the surface, it's not difficult to find a school. A good pair of binoculars can be a big help.

Tom likes places where the tide moves coho close to shore. Tide rips are excellent spots to find salmon, and the best fishing is not in the rip itself, but on the outside of the rip where the current is bringing baitfish into the fast-moving rip.

 
Special thanks to Troy Dettman and Tom Wolf for supplying information for this article, and to Les Johnson for introducing me to this fishery.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).

Uploaded 10/02/2001.


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  streamer caught

Puget Sound coho are readily caught on flies if you know where to go and what to do.

ferry

The Vashon ferry slides past an angler fishing at Lincoln Park within the Seattle city limits.

fly

Simple streamers work well, but the length and colors need to be match the baitfish the coho are chasing.

popper caught

This coho took a pink and white popper off the surface.


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