Low slack tide on Coos Bay, the salmon trolling lane takes you under the McCullough Bridge and regularly has ocean-going freighters pass through the channel. Working the edges in 30-40 feet of water rewarded our group with three keepers. FRANK ARMENDARIZ/PHOTO
In the first light of the morning, loaded with fishing gear, we launched our boat at California Landing in North Bend at the upper end of Coos Bay. It was the first of two days of salmon fishing and crabbing on the central Oregon Coast. It had been 82 degrees in North Bend the day before but this morning was far more seasonable. Foggy to start and the temperatures never reached above 60 degrees for the balance of the weekend. About what you would expect in the last few days of September on the Oregon coast. Special regulations had gone into place in Coos Bay on Sept. 15 that allowed for the retention of one wild coho per day, or two in total for the season and we were hopeful of tagging a daily limit.
Coos Bay has several productive salmon trolling channels located at about mid-bay. It’s no secret but depending on the tides, most salmon anglers that put in at California Landing, and will either troll up the bay into the Marshfield Channel or downstream to about Empire, where there is also a popular boat landing. From the Willamette Valley, California Landing is the most convenient to reach. Located in downtown North Bend, only a block off of Highway 101, it’s easy to find, has a great ramp with trailer parking, and is right next to the Mill Hotel/Restaurant, RV park, and Casino complex. And you can also get a generous early breakfast there.
Cautiously navigating our boat away from the harbor in the fog, on to the expanses of Coos Bay, we set up in the current of an outgoing tide. Rods out, we began our first troll “down hill” with the current toward Empire. A party of five, we set out an equal number of rods, three with “plug cut herring” behind triangle flashers. Plus two rods running pink hoochies, behind an inline 360 spinning blades and a skate board style flashers. All the rods carried 6 ounces of lead, our troll speed a consistent 2.3-2.5 mph. On a down hill troll the channel takes you under the McCullough Bridge, Pony Slough comes up on the south bank, then past the North Bend airport. Empire is about a quarter-mile down the bay from the airport. The water in this part of the bay is deep, 50 feet and more in the main channel. Coos Bay is the central coast’s only working deep water port. Reminding us of the fact, two freighters, each the length of a football field, escorted by three tug boats, went past us while we were fishing.
Some boaters like to troll right down the middle of the shipping lane. But we marked plenty of fish on the finder and choose to target the edge of the deep water – where the shipping channel tapered up to about 30 to 40 feet and consistently ran out 25 to 30 feet of line and would make that choice again. The strategy paid off.
Our first pass down to Empire produced no strikes, so we reeled up and motored back to our start point. It wasn’t until our third pass, while letting the line out in 30 feet of water when we got our first “crushing” strike. Likely a chinook but with the reel in free spool the hook didn’t set and we reeled up half of a badly mauled herring. Moments later, one of the 360s got bit on a rod that I had just set in the holder. This time the hook stuck and a couple of minutes later I landed an 18-pound ocean bright coho salmon. Also referred to as a “silver salmon,” I tagged it and the fish went into the fish bag.
A short ways down the bay we struck silver again and landed our second coho. On the next pass we hooked two in front of the airport but after a short fight both fish came unbuttoned. A few minutes later a fifth coho bit, solidly hooked, well played, we got it to the net and it was landed. All three fish we kept were chrome bright, still carrying sea lice, the last two came in at a very respectable 12 and 13 pounds each. Before the tide hit low slack at 12:30 p.m., we had gone 3-for-5 and with more than 40 pounds of silver salmon in the bag, still to clean and process. We headed in for the day to a vaccination rental on nearby Tenmile Lake in Lakeside.
The following day we moved up the coast a few miles to Winchester Bay on the lower Umpqua River and launched from Salmon Harbor at sunrise. In addition to fishing gear we had also loaded a couple of crab pots on the boat. And before heading up the bay to fish we dropped the pots directly across the bay from the harbor entrance. Baited with the carcasses from the prior day’s catch we were hoping to add a few crabs to the salmon we already had on ice. Now Dungeness crabs are among the tastiest crustaceans you can collect along the Oregon coast and only live in the Pacific Northwest. Highly prized, they inhabit all the coastal estuaries and are at their peek in size and flavor in the fall. You need a state-issued harvest tag to collect shellfish including crabs but all the bays in Oregon are open for crabbing year round.
After dropping our crab pot we motored up the bay to the mouth of Scholfield Creek and begin our first down hill troll on what was an outgoing tide. After several unsuccessful passes we changed up and headed up the Gardener Channel on the Smith River side of Cannery Island. On our second pass one of the herring rods went down and a few minutes later a nice chinook was landed, the only chinook landed on our two days of fishing.
Then something really wonderful happened. Low slack tide came at about 11:30 and at the turn of the tide, like a light switch going on, suddenly there were silver salmon jumping in the water all around us and dozens were visible on our fish finder as they passed beneath the boat. A school had come up on the slack tide, we found them and for the next hour the action was monumental! Doubles, triples and everyone in the boat caught and released several hard fighting wild coho. An incredible day of catch-and-release fishing, plus we had tagged a nice chinook adding another 15 pounds of salmon.
Our fishing complete, we headed back toward Salmon Harbor to retrieve our crab pots. We were delighted to find that we had trapped about two and a half dozen crabs. Sorted for size and sex we kept 18 of the largest males to share among our party.
My good friend Roy Nelson who is the Executive Director of Next Step electronics recycling in Eugene put it this way: “This is what the Oregon life is all about! The journey, family, friends and the promise of a kings feast ...”
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