It’s Blackmouth Time! 2024

By on February 29, 2024

*** This article was first posted here on SU on February 8, 2015… it has now been edited to reflect the 2024 WDFW regulations (ie., the drastic reduction in blackmouth fishing opportunities). To read the article in its original form, follow this link: Original article

— Salmon University Staff


Well the weather outside is frightening,
But the Blackmouth they are biting.
Even though there may be snow,
You’d better go, better go, better go.

Okay, that was a little over the top, but at least you didn’t have to hear me try to sing it. I guess it’s just that festive, end-of-the-year spirit; after all, ‘tis the season, winter Blackmouth season, that is. It’s the salmon angler’s version of winter steelheading, and it’s not for wimps, but it sure beats sitting around the house stuffing wood into the fireplace.

And most importantly, it’s happening now in three* of the 10 marine areas of Washington’s “inside” waterways from the eastern end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the south end of Puget Sound,.

For the uninitiated, “Blackmouth” is the term used to describe immature Chinook salmon that hang around our “inside” waters rather than hot-footing it out into the open Pacific to feed for most of their lives. The name comes from the dark gum line that helps distinguish the chinook from other Pacific salmon species. And it should be pointed out that “immature” doesn’t necessarily mean small. Yes, many of the Blackmouth you’ll catch during a typical Washington winter will weigh in at three to seven or eight pounds, but 10-, 12-, 15-pound fish are common enough to keep it interesting. Later in the winter and into early spring, fish in the high-teens and even 20-pound range start showing in the catch, especially in areas with healthy baitfish populations, where the livin’ is easy and the growth rate is fast for these fish that are always on the prowl for food.

Locating baitfish concentrations is, in fact, a big key to catching winter Blackmouth. These are the hungry teenagers of the salmon world, and they spend a lot of their time looking for an open refrigerator door to stick their hungry snouts into. Herring and other baitfish tend to concentrate and disperse as the tides and currents change, especially along the edges of drop-offs and current breaks, and the salmon key in on these fluctuating bait schools as though responding to a dinner bell. That’s why it’s not unusual for a day of Blackmouth fishing to start out with some solid action around the first hour or two of daylight, followed by slow fishing for perhaps several hours, then a hellacious bite before, during or shortly after a tide change.

Finding and fishing the right depth is also an important factor in successful Blackmouth fishing. Herring, squid and some of the other tasty morsels that Blackmouth enjoy for breakfast are often found in the mid- to upper reaches of the water column early in the day, then settle or disperse into deeper water as the sun gets higher on the water. The Blackmouth usually go with them. A good strategy is to watch your depth sounder closely and keep at least one line at or just under whatever level seems to be showing the most bait and/or the most salmon marks. If you aren’t marking much in the way of suspended bait or salmon, it’s better to fish deeper rather than shallower. In fact, many Blackmouth trollers always have at least one downrigger ball bouncing the bottom or tracking along within a few feet of it. It’s probably safe to say that over the long haul more of these winter chinook are caught from within 10 or 15 feet of the bottom than from the rest of the water column.

Mooching and vertical jigging both can be effective techniques for Blackmouth, and account for some very good catches in a number of popular Blackmouth spots in the Strait, San Juans and Puget Sound, but downrigger trolling is the most popular and productive fishing technique throughout much of Blackmouth country. There’s a lot more to it than simply dragging around a lead ball with a bait or lure fluttering along behind it, but rather than going into trolling techniques and tricks at great depth here, I’ll refer readers to a couple more useful articles elsewhere on this website. Check out Tom Nelson’s Handy Blackmouth Tips and Blackmouth Tips and Techniques by yours truly for some helpful information on trolling for winter Blackmouth.

So let’s take a closer look not at how to catch Blackmouth, but at where you might want to spend some time looking for them over the next few weeks.

Marine Area 5, Sekiu/Pillar Point: The waters out toward the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca have been known for their hot late-winter Blackmouth fishing for decades, and still are worth the trip once they open to fishing on April 1st. My favorite stretch of Area 5 Blackmouth water is just off the rocky and ragged shoreline from Slip Point, at the east end of Clallam Bay, to Pillar Point, several miles to the east, but trollers also do well near “The Caves” just west of Sekiu and right out in front of Clallam Bay itself. Current regulations (2023-24) allow for a two-fish daily limit during the April season, only one of which may be a clipped Chinook… release all unclipped Chinook, all coho, all chum. The blackmouth season in Area 5 runs from April 1st to April 30th.

Marine Area 10, Seattle/Bremerton: The Blackmouth fishing can be as good here at Seattle’s doorstep as anywhere in Puget Sound salmon country, but don’t wait too long to give it a try. The winter season in Area 10 comes to a close on April 15th, so start making those plans now. Unclipped Chinook must be released, and the daily limit is two fish, no more than one Chinook. Places that were Blackmouth favorites back in the seventies and eighties—Jefferson Head, Point Monroe, West Point, even Elliott Bay—are still very much worth fishing these days.

Marine Area 11, Tacoma/Vashon Island: The winter season here has been reduced to March 1st through April 15th. During March and April the daily limit is two fish, no more than one can be a Chinook, release chum and wild Chinook. The traditional go-to Blackmouth spot around Tacoma is Point Defiance, where the Tacoma Narrows, Colvos Passage and Commencement Bay converge. The “Slag Pile” area to the east, Point Dalco and Point Richmond to the north are other decent possibilities.

Marine Area 13, South Puget Sound: There are lots of opportunities for Blackmouth anglers here in this only Washington marine area with an open Chinook season eight months out of the year, and most of the year you’re allowed a couple of them a day. Productive south-sound winter Blackmouth spots include (north to south) Point Fosdick, Fox Point, Lyle Point, Devil’s Head and Johnson Point.

Salmon University Staff
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