by Jason Brooks, July 04, 2017
Hoodsport, WA-Downriggers set with arching rods and the Olympic Mountains in the background. Sounds great and it really is a beautiful place to fish but for anglers without a boat then they are just out of fish, Skokomish River stock fish anyway. Next month thousands of bank bound anglers would normally head to the “Skok”. Though it has seen its share of controversy over the recent years with news reporters lining up alongside anglers to highlight this river and the Chinook that draws everyone here it provides a lot of fish and a lot of local money for businesses in the area. This year, once again, the river banks will be void of sports anglers and so will the gas stations, sporting goods stores, the famed “Hunters Farm” market, which sells the best ice cream ever by the way, and all of the other locals that benefit from this fishery. Instead anyone who wants to target the thousands of Kings heading to the Skokomish will have to do so in the salt water of Hood Canal and that means by boat.
Trolling for salmon in Hood Canal or Southern Puget Sound is an alternative to the famed Skokomish River closure
The river itself is part of a boundary dispute between WDFW and the Skokomish Tribe. A treaty from 1877 shows the lower river as the line that divides Washington State and Skokomish Reservation. But it’s the interpretation of the rivers boundary where the dispute comes in, as the tribe says it’s the south side of the river while WDFW believes it’s the north side. Either way, until the boundary can be decided and agreed upon WDFW has closed the lower Skokomish River to all sports fishing. It should be noted that the portion above the Bonneville power lines is open to a “catch and release”, selective gear rules, fishery as all of the hatchery origin fish have turned up Purdy Creek (which is closed) and made their way to the state runs hatchery.
The mouth of the Skokomish River leading out to the tide flats and Hood Canal
The famed combat fishery on the Skokomish River is no longer with a boundary dispute shutting it down
Back to the salt to target the Kings means fishing south of Ayock Point in Hood Canal. The fish show up around the Hoodsport Hatchery in early July and will be in the Canal through late fall. One of your best options it to troll near the hatchery at Hoodsport and then as July turns into August head further south towards the Skokomish. The tributary river’s height of the run is usually the second and third week of August and all of these fish must first swim through the length of Hood Canal. The fishing counter at Verle’s in Shelton has all of the gear and information you will need on where to go and how to catch the Hood Canal Chinook. And they have a great selection of boats too if you’re in need of one of those as well, with the banks of the river off limits this year.
Once out on Hood Canal look for bait and you will find the fish. Just like any other salt water fishery baitfish are the key to finding Chinook. Good electronic will help but also keep an eye for birds on the surface and even herring coming to the surface. Once you find the bait drop your gear to run on the bottom edge of the bait ball. For example; if you find a bait ball that is from 35 to 45 feet down then drop your gear from 40 to 45 feet, as the Chinook often start below the herring and then come up through them. By being on the bottom edge of the bait ball your gear will be right where it needs to be to intercept the feeding Kings.
A dodger with a cut plug herring 36 to 48 inches behind is a “go to” set up. Most of the dodgers I run in the salt are either 11 inch green “Hot Spot” or the Mack’s Lure Double D with the green mylar tape. Sticking with green, a green label sized herring brined in Pro-Cure’s “Brine-n-Bite” cut with a tight spin and double size 4 Gamakatsu barbless hooks tied on 25 pound Izorline clear Platinum with a mainline of 50 to 65 pound braid is a perfect combination for catching saltwater Chinook. One other option I’ve started using several years ago is to replace the cut plug herring with a Brad’s Super Cut Plug and stuff it with either herring or a piece of tuna belly (canned tuna fish also works well) then smear the body cavity with Pro-Cure’s “Blood Tuna” Super Gel. The one thing I really like about this set up is the fact that if it gets bit but doesn’t pull off of the downrigger clip is that you can just leave it alone. With cut plug herring the bait is destroyed and you need to reel up, re-bait and then set the gear back down, taking away from fishing time. With the Brad’s Super Cut Plug it’s a hard plastic bait so it’s still working on missed strikes.
Finding the fish in Hood Canal will be your biggest challenge as the fish are known to spread out until they get close to their tributary destinations. For those returning to the Hoodsport Hatchery this is a pretty simple fishery as long as you stay outside of the marked off restricted zone clearly identified by the buoys. But for Skokomish bound fish this is a bit more difficult. The Skokomish empties into a very large mud flat and with huge tidal swings you can become stranded really quick if you don’t pay attention to the water depth. The river splits into several channels at the mouth which again means the fish spread out to enter the river. Ideally the best fishing would be at low tide as once the tide rises just enough for the fish to enter they shoot up into the river and are out of the salt. But the low tide means you run the risk of running aground on the tide flats. It’s best to treat this like a large lake and stay away from the flats and search for schools of Kings or herring balls and work the bait. It should also be noted that if you are tempted to run up one of the river channels on the tide flats then you are fishing in closed waters, as all channels to the mouth of the Skokomish are closed, even in the salt (see page 120 of the new 2017-2018 WDFW rule book).
The Green Can buoy marking a hotspot at the Nisqually Delta
There are other options for salt water anglers in July as well. Another fishery for boat anglers is the area known as the “Green can” out in front of the Nisqually delta. Much like the Skokomish tide flats the Nisqually empties out into the salt on a big mud flat. But the river entrance is marked with a green buoy marker. This area is primarily a mooching area and a simple 5 to 8 ounce mooching weight tied to a mooching rig and a green label sized herring is all you need. And yes, I have mooched the Brad’s Super Cut Plug with great success in the salt water, instead of using a cut plug herring. If you do like to troll with downriggers then start just outside of the green can, on the edge of the tide flat and work north towards Dupont. The beaches just outside of Dupont are the cruising grounds for the Chinook heading to the Nisqually River.
A hard fighting Chinook is the prize for fishing the Hood Canal and intercepting Skokomish River bound fish
Another place to target for south sound salt water Kings is the fishery off of Chambers Bay. Again you will be in a boat and starring at the distant Olympic mountains but there is no need for downriggers here. Instead troll with a simple 5 to 8 ounce banana weight to an in-line flasher, such as a Yakima Bait “Big Al’s Fish Flash” with a long leader from 36 to 48 inches and a cut plug herring or Brad’s Super Cut Plug. This system is very popular in Willapa Bay and the Columbia River but with a dropper weight. Much like fishing Willapa Bay where eel grass becomes very frustrating, at Chambers you will encounter eel grass and kelp. Make sure to check your gear often. When I have fished here I made sure to check my gear after each pass. This is a simple fishery where you are targeting the Chinook that are stacking up to head under the railroad trusses and into the warmer waters of Chambers Creek to the hatchery. The fish tend to hang out in the salt until they are ready to spawn as the hatchery is very close to the tidal water. This means when you time it right you can catch a few fish but it also means that once the fish move into the small bay itself that there gone. I usually don’t spend all day here but fish it on the low tide and the tidal exchange. Once the tide comes in the fish move and so should you, either head north to the area around Fox Island and the Narrows Bridges and Point Evans or head south to the Green Can by the Nisqually.
The Author with a hatchery Chinook he caught in the salt before it found the natal river the fish was heading too
This summer means the Skokomish’s highly productive and economic boom of a river won’t see any news crews or anglers but that doesn’t mean you can’t target the fish. Jump in the boat, or find a buddy with one and head out to the salt. Enjoy the mountain views and let the WDFW and Tribes figure out where to go next. Just maybe you will find yourself a new fishery and you won’t have to worry about finding a parking spot. Just make sure to still stop by Hunters Farms for their ice cream.