The weekend boats were chewing the waters of the North Fork of the Lewis River into a foamy froth.
As boat after boat ran over the section of river that I was trying to fish, I realized that the salmon would not hold out there with that constant churning overhead.
I switched tactics. I removed the drift gear and clipped a No. 4 Blue Fox spinner onto the end of my line. Casting it well upstream, I worked the lure so that it would bend into the edges of the current right along the rocky bank.
When the salmon hit the spinner it instantly peeled off line. Zipping upstream, the hot fish suddenly turned on a dime and shot downstream. I struggled to keep the line tight so the barbless hook would not get thrown. Eventually I was rewarded when the chunky fish came to the bank.
It was a fine coho salmon, a chrome-bright female with only a slight blush of color. It even sported a couple sea lice near its tail showing just how short a time it had been in the fresh water. This was a hatchery coho for the table.
It’s the last call for fall salmon, with late coho runs peaking in many of the local rivers and out on the Washington coast. These fish will provide anglers with tight lines from now through December. After the late runs wrap up it’s nothing but winter steelhead until the first spring Chinook show.
So get out now, or wait until March for the spring salmon.
Late run coho are really a quality fish. They stay in the salt for an extra month and that gives them time to grow large and fat. They also return to colder water, which means they bite better and stay bright longer than their early-returning brethren that show in September.
The average late coho will run about 8 to 10 pounds, and some much larger fish will be mixed in the schools. A few coho to 18 or 19 pounds are out there right now, just waiting for a jig or egg glob to drift by them.
North Fork Lewis River
Anglers fishing the North Fork of the Lewis River have been doing well by twitching jigs from the boats and tossing drift gear from the bank. Much of the activity has centered around the state-run hatchery near Woodland but the coho are spread throughout the river by now. Just about any good deep hole will hold a school of them.
Fishing reports during the course of the season have consistently shown that anglers fishing from a boat are out-performing the bank fishermen on the Lewis.
The same can be said for fishermen targeting the Cowlitz River, although anglers fishing from the bank are doing a little better there. Guide Cary Hoffman of CNH Guide Service has been getting lots of coho for his clients, but he reports a catch that is skewed toward wild fish.
“There’s lots of native fish. The ratio is about 5 wild fish to every one hatchery fish,” he said.
He says anglers are having fun but the hatchery run is a little thin. Hatchery fish are marked with an adipose fin-clip, and un-clipped wild coho must be returned unharmed.
“We thought the (hatchery) run was going to be better,” said Hoffman. “Some days you get the hatchery fish right off, but other days you have to work for them.”
Most of his clients are hooking six to seven salmon a day.
Hoffman has been getting most of his fish by side-drifting eggs, a technique seemingly made for a big river like the Cowlitz. Side-drifting allows the angler to cover long stretches of water very effectively.
Hoffman tends to fish the water from the Barrier Dam to Blue Creek. He will stay with the Cowlitz until Thanksgiving.
Once November comes to a close, Hoffman will head over to the Washington coast and fish for late coho in rivers such as the Chehalis and the Humptulips River. Bright coho will be available until Christmas in those rivers.
“On good days you can hook 40 fish a day,” said Hoffman. “About 60 percent of those will be chum, and the rest will be coho.”
Hoffman says these rivers are well-known for kicking out really big coho, with the native fish sometimes approaching 20 pounds.
Willapa Bay coho
The small rivers that empty into Willapa Bay will also get strong runs of late returning coho. These are bank-friendly rivers except in the tidal areas, where drift boats are needed to work plugs for the fresh coho as they move up out of the bay. Once the salmon get above tide water twitching jigs or tossing spinners is very effective.
Look to the Nemah, the Naselle, and the Willapa Rivers for late silver until Christmas. You can also find chum and sea-run cutthroats in these streams.