I love this time of year on the Oregon Coast. The season runs deep in my blood with the leaves changing color, football on the tube and the first rains of the fall bringing Salmon into range of their home rivers. It’s also a time where I transition away from the areas where I’m fishing for Tillamook Bay Salmon with herring, to my beginnings as a northwest Salmon fisherman in the land of tidewater.
I’ve gone through many phases in my practice of tidewater fishing. From simply not catching fish at all, to actually catching them, to being one of the 10%. There’s lots of reasons and details to the transformation, many of which I’ll readily admit, were not of my own doing. They were gifts from fishermen along the way that contributed to the putting together of the puzzle. Is the puzzle complete? Not by a long shot. But let’s say we have the border put together and we’re filling in the center.
When I first started in tidewater I was getting bait for about a buck a pound. It was plentiful, the sushi buyers weren’t around and commercial egg sales were, for the most part, non-existent. The size of the gob of eggs you had on your hook, much like today was representative of your tidewater might and 6/0 hooks were very common for me. I’m not sure why it was/is the case, but the idea that if some is good, more has got to be better, coupled with a whole lot of tidewater ego made for some pretty massive baits.
Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to watch some of the best in the business and I’ve grown to admire certain individuals in terms of their fish catching abilities. About 5 years ago I started paying attention to a particular guide who had decades of knowledge under his belt. You wouldn’t see him in any magazines, or on any internet sites, but you would see his rods bent over in tidewater very regularly. In fact so regularly that you start thinking that he’s got something going on with his bait. I’ve certainly known of individuals that could light it up, but one of the things that I found interesting was the size of the baits that he was using and the length of time it would take him to land a fish. I assumed that he wasn’t using 5/0 hooks with quarter size chunks of bait and I don’t know if you’ve tried to egg loop a 2/0 hook with #40 leader, but a little common sense told the story of his rigs.
As I’ve continued to study tidewater dynamics a couple of things that weren’t obvious to me for the longest time are now very clear and fit with this particular guides success.
Early on in the coastal Chinook season we’re basically void of water. Rivers are summer low and very clear. Salmon move in and out of tidewater as they wait for rivers to become navigable. On the outgoing tides, when many really like to bobber fish, visibility is often 4-6 feet and maybe even more where you are fishing. When the tide starts pushing in, turbidity levels in the areas that I’m fishing will often drop by half or more and go down to 2-3 feet. The difference in these turbidity levels is enormous and if we’re fishing the conditions rather than the location, I’d contend that we should probably be adjusting our hook, bait and leader size.
The other variable to consider is of course, the fish. Bright fish are, in my opinion, going to be a little easier to catch than an old boot that’s seen a hundred baits in tidewater. I’m certainly not interested in beating up on the “old guys”, but somewhere in the middle are a few fish with a little color, that I’d gladly take home. These fish have seen some baits and we can only assume that many of the baits they’ve seen are of the mega variety. I believe today, with all things equal, that a fish that has been under pressure is more likely to bite a smaller bait, than large one. I can think of instances in my career that this has not been the case, but I’ve always had good results with downsizing baits in pressured fisheries.
Cade Miller, age 8, and his father Luke with good results in Tillamook tidewater
For the longest time a typical tidewater rig for me would consist of a 5-6/0 Mustad 92553NP’s coupled with a #40-#50 leader. I fished this way regardless of the situation as it’s how I saw 99.9% of the other fishermen set up. Over the last few years I’ve begun to try to do more to match the conditions within tidewater to my hook, leader and bait size. It’s been a process of gaining confidence and really unlearning years of habit, but the results keep pushing me to smaller and smaller offerings. On a recent trip with clients we ended up fishing Wilson River tidewater, the largest hook we used was a 2/0 Mustad 92553 and #25 leader. Couple this set up with a G1326 T from Lamiglas, which I love as a bobber rod and you have a very deadly combination of strength and finesse. We ended up going 5 for 9, which isn’t a lights out day of fishing in and of itself, but we never saw or heard of another fish caught. Some might say it’s the bait and yes, I have good bait, but I think lots of other guys do too. This isn’t the 80’s where there were only a handful of guys had figured out the sodium sulfite equation. The advantages today are mole hill like details, not the mountains that they used to be.
Fortunately there are people like Ed Rice out there to help with the bait quality, but it’s on the rest of us to find presentation advantages that will help differentiate our catch totals from the next guys. Matching tidewater conditions with the size of the tackle and bait we are using are, in my opinion the most overlooked aspects of tidewater fishing. I’ll get into some of the scent and technique trends in coming articles, in the mean time, keep those lines tight and we’ll see you on the river.
Lance Fisher is a professional fishing guide and Host of NW Outdoor Adventures on Freedom 970, FM News 101 KXL and 750 The Game in Portland, Oregon.