of the biggest musical hits of the late-sixties was an instrumental
entitled Time is Tight, performed by Booker T and the MGs. Booker
T and the boys were out of Memphis, so when it comes to Pacific
salmon it's unlikely they knew their adipose from their elbows,
but the title of their little instrumental diddy could be the
mantra of savvy West Coast salmon anglers, especially those in
search of big, mature Chinook.
is, indeed, tight, when you're fishing for kings, because the
bigger and closer to spawning time they get, the more finicky
they become about when they eat, so a full day on the water may
provide anglers with less than an hour of productive fishing.
If you're not in the right place and doing the right thing when
those windows of angling opportunity open, you could be out of
I say luck? Successful salmon anglers make their own luck by being
in the right places at the right times and making the most of
those short periods when the bite is on. Mature kings, unlike
other salmon species and even immature Chinook, are finicky about
where, when and how they feed. Catching kings requires using all
you know and then some.
While Chinook that are still "pasturing" out in the open ocean
may feed and chase bait throughout much of the day and throughout
much of the water column, the species' feeding habits become more
selective and the places they feed more limited as fish mature
and move toward the freshwater streams of their origin. As these
fast-maturing adult Chinook become more interested in reaching
their final destination than in eating, catching them becomes
more and more challenging. This principle applies to adult Chinook
entering the estuaries of the California and Oregon coasts, just
as it does in the so-called "inside" waters of Washington's Strait
of Juan de Fuca and northern Puget Sound.
mature Chinook that are moving toward their home streams, the
bite for an entire day may last five minutes, 15 minutes, maybe
as long as two hours if you're really lucky, so being in the right
place when it happens is critical to success.
of the "right times" to fish for kings is early morning. Northwest
salmon anglers, for the most part, know that king salmon usually
bite best at daylight, but many aren't in a position to fish at
those times. Just launching your boat at first light isn't the
same as being in your fishing spot with baited hooks in the water
at first light.
Well-known Northwest salmon-chaser Tony Floor likes to tell the
story about how being on the water early put him in position to
boat the biggest king of his life. "It was a 53-pounder, and I
hooked it as the very first hint of pink was beginning to show
on the horizon; the rest of the sky was still dark," he says.
It's a safe bet that many salmon anglers were just launching their
boats or motoring out of the harbor as Floor slid the net around
his trophy-class king.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer outdoor writer Blaine Freer liked to
quote "Haw's Law" in describing the importance of fishing for
Chinook salmon during that all-important first crack of dawn.
Frank Haw was a former Washington Department of Fisheries biologist
and Northwest salmon-fishing guru, and his law, as espoused by
Freer, was "If you can see the bait, it's too late." It doesn't
get much simpler than that; if you're just hitting the water at
daylight, you've already missed your best opportunity of sinking
the hook into a big Chinook salmon. You should be baiting your
hooks in the dark in order to take full advantage of those first
few precious seconds of daylight.
now you're probably starting to realize that if you're a late
sleeper, you're usually going to miss your best chance of the
day to put a bragging-size king in the boat. The good news is
that first light isn't your only chance. Tide changes during the
day also spur Chinook salmon feeding activity, as does the day's
second low-light "magic hour," just before dark.
you don't score during the morning bite, your best shot at getting
Chinook to bite is fishing the tide and current change," says
Floor. "The best time is when the current begins to slow and change,
on either side of the tide (ebb or flood). The length of time
for this bite will vary depending on the extent of the tide and
changes draw baitfish together in tight concentrations, and where
baitfish congregate, adult Chinook come to feast!
The best combination of tide and time depends on where you're
fishing, but a current speed of about one knot is ideal. Stronger
current makes it more difficult to fish effectively.
salmon anglers believe a flooding tide offers the best chance
for Chinook, others swear by the ebb, and both are right. It depends
on where you're fishing.
the geography is the main thing. You have to know how the bait
reacts to the moving water on which tide. With rare exceptions,
you want to fish downhill with the current, going deeper as the
water moves you along. Whichever tide carries you from shallower
water into deeper water is usually the best fishing tide in that
a general rule, the time of day they're least likely to bite is
when the tide is dead-slack. Baitfish schools disperse when the
tide is slack, and so do the salmon.
for salmon anglers, we can all get our hands on tide and current
tables that tell us in advance when these events will happen virtually
anywhere we might plan to fish. Unlike salmon fishing, tides and
currents are pretty much an exact science, so there's no excuse
for not knowing when and where they'll happen on any given fishing
day's last flurry of Chinook-fishing activity occurs during the
final hour of daylight, and it may provide fishing that's every
bit as good as the early-morning bite. A tide change during the
final 30 minutes of daylight can be especially productive. Again,
though, that means hanging in there through last light, and being
prepared for night-running back to the boat ramp or dock. Be sure
your boat and your boating skills are up to it.
success of early morning and late-evening Chinook anglers might
beg the question; do these feeding sprees last through the night?
The answer is usually "yes," but few anglers capitalize on the
pretty good evidence that those salmon you fish for at last light
and again at first light are actively feeding throughout the night,"
Tony Floor says. A man named Art Gallaghan, who retired from Washington's
Department of Fisheries years ago, liked to launch at 8 p.m. and
come in about 6 a.m., and he caught fish all night."
you haven't tried it, though, that kind of fishing is very challenging.
You can't see your line angle, so you don't always know where
you're fishing or where a hooked fish really is, you can't see
fish to net them, can't see that tell-tale twitching of the rod
tip on a light strike. That's not to mention the deadheads and
other dangers you might encounter when you're out there all alone
in the darkness.
another aspect of timing that's very important to salmon anglers.
Besides being on the water with bait on your hooks at the right
times of day, you also have to be fishing the right general areas
at the right time of year, and some anglers ignore those details.
fish and wildlife agencies along the Pacific Coast have years
of statistics that show the timing of various salmon runs through
our ocean," Floor says. "For example, populations of Columbia
River kings passing through Neah Bay, Washington, peak in July.
We also know, on a year-to-year basis, when that trip to Neah
Bay is probably going to be worthwhile and when it might not be
so good. You have to know the run forecast and how it will affect
the fishing. Similarly, 90 percent of the Chinook salmon caught
off the SW corner of Vancouver Island are bound for Oregon and
Washington, and those runs peak in June. So, be in Tofino in June
for some pretty good Chinook fishing.
run-size and timing information is available for Chinook runs
along the entire coast, and it's a good idea to study several
years' worth to see how the patterns emerge.
don't just start thinking about all this in July to plan your
summer fishing trips. Do your homework well ahead of time so that
you can time your future vacations and fishing trips for the right
places at the right times.