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Ilwaco & the ocean
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Ilwaco & the ocean

Charts courtesy of Captn. Jack's www.capjack.com

Click to enlarge

Fishing the Pacific Ocean off of the Columbia River mouth (near Ilwaco)

First things first:
Tales of the Columbia River bar can be intimidating. If it makes you stop & think, then think again, with respect for this kind of water, then maybe you have gained some insight as to what can & does happen. This area around the mouth of the Columbia has been named "The Graveyard of the Pacific". For a small boat, a 17' or 19' with a deep hull would probably be considered minimal. The well functioning "kicker", or auxiliary motor of some kind would be mandatory in my book. If you watch the weather, time & tides & use sound judgment there, you should be able to cross the bar.

Getting there:
We will use Ilwaco as our departure point. Ilwaco has two launches, one double ramp & a sling run by the port, & the other ramp at the Fort Canby State Park. There is another launch & sling at Chinook on the Washington side & then Warrenton & Hammond on the Oregon shore are also used. It just depends on where you are coming from.



Boat launches in the area:
There are many launches on both the Washington & Oregon side of the river in this vicinity.

Ilwaco: Port of Ilwaco 165 Howerton Ave., Ilwaco, WA 98624, 360-642-3143, $5.00

Fort Canby (State Park) $5.00

Chinook: Port of Chinook, 1 Portland St., Chinook, WA 98614, 360-777-8797, $5.00

Hammond: Hammond Marina, 1099 Iredale St., Hammond, OR 97121, 503-861-319, $5.00, with a parking fee of $5.00

Warrenton: Warrenton Marina, 550 NE Harbor Pl., Warrenton, OR 97146, 503-861-3822, harbormaster's cell 503-791-1925, launch fee $5.00

Skipanon Marina: Skipanon Marina, 200 NE Skipanon Drive, Warrenton, OR 97146, 503-861-0362

Youngs Bay Yacht Club: Youngs Bay Park, Astoria, OR, 503-325-7275, free


The launch at Ilwaco is off the main road into town just after you drop down off the hill, take a left at the sign that says launching ramp. If you miss that, then just go a few blocks to the stop light, turn left and the frontage road at the dock area, follow it back to the eastern end & then south around the boat basin to the launch on the south east side. There is a nice new two lane ramp, also a sling, & with lots of paved parking.

For Fort Canby, you have to go east thru the town of Illwaco, at the stop light, west & south & then back east, winding thru the park then down to the ramp. The State Parks is planning to improve this launch in the early summer of 2003. The plans are to install a 3rd lane & to increase parking.

The Chinook launch is off Portland Street. It has a new concrete ramp and a sling, but parking is limited & the overflow is along the streets. Also the channel out of the Chinook harbor is narrow & somewhat winding on a LOW tide. There are however small hemlock poles pushed into the edge of the channel.


Bait:
Bait is available at both Ilwaco or Chinook thru Ed's Bait. The Ilwaco location is on a dock that is close to the launch area. If you are planning on picking fresh bait up at the dock, they open at 5:00am. The Chinook location is out of a small grocery store on the west side of the main road north of the launch road. Fresh bait can be reserved at the Chinook Country Store, phone 360-777-2248, before closing time (around 7:30pm) the day before you need it. During the rush season, phone in as early as possible.

One recommendation is if you call the order in, is to have the person taking the order to read it back to you, specifically your name, the quantity and the DATE WANTED, if you need it for any date other than the next day.

Weather:
At the start of the normal salmon seasons, (usually the end of June) the weather may still be somewhat unpredictable. If you are a week-end sport fisherperson like most of us, you can expect to stay on the beach a few days because of bad weather. As the season progresses, the weather tends to stabilize up to September or so, but the ocean salmon seasons are ended by then & the Buoy 10 season will be in full swing. Here it can be foggy all day offshore, but it will usually be clear during the regular salmon season on shore. The wind if there is any, will be coming from offshore & usually from the northwest, but can vary to from the southwest. If you are trolling, after the wind picks up in the afternoon, it can get hard to control the boat unless you put the wind on your stern. The wind will, on many days pick up & be up to 15mph about 1:00pm to 2:00pm, then later in the evening around 7:00pm it will slow down again.

If the ocean is rough enough for the Coast Guard to close the bar during the regular salmon season, you might as well not even think about going fishing, as there are not many boat bottom fishing spots inside the jetties & the sturgeon season will be closed in the estuary by then. The season east of #10 does not open for salmon until August 1. About the only thing then is crabbing.

Heading out:
Leaving the Illwaco boat basin from the launch, you will have head westerly toward the cannery buildings. Stay in the channel with Sand Island on your left. You will pass the boat launch at Fort Canby State Park on your right. There is a row of piling as a protective breakwater between the channel & the launch. Slightly farther south you will pass the Coast Guard Station, which is on your right. There is a sign here indicating NO WAKE as you pass their moored boats. Follow the channel south & you will come to breakwater pilings as you enter the Columbia River itself. If the tide & current are moving, you will have a turbulence here for a short distance. You are now in the main river. Make a right hand turn & head west out into the main river.
The closest buoy will be #11, (N46°15'75", W124°02'15") on your right, head toward it. From there, head southwesterly to buoy #10, (N46°15'32", W123°03'75"). Follow the red buoy line out, with #8 being your next pickup point. If you are going to encounter any roughness it will be at about this #8 buoy to beyond #6, (N46°14'35", W124°05'86") which is about a half a mile. From #6 you want to head toward #4, but depending on the currents & roughness off the old submerged jetty, which has a buoy #2SJ, you may have to hold slightly outside of. When you get beyond the old jetty turbulence, you then can head to the east side of #4. You should be beyond any turbulence about half way to #4. The distance from #6 to #4 is slightly less than another half a mile.
Do not try to cross the bar by following the "black", or north buoy line as it is shallower & can be quite a bit rougher.


Click to enlarge
Crossing the bar:
You have about a mile & half of bar condition waves to encounter. So it may be best for the newcomer to follow another partner boat out & back in a few times to learn the tricks. If you are new to this & even many "old-timers" would rather go out on the early part of the high or flood tide & then slide back in 3-4 hours later. The one thing that will get you in more trouble than any other thing is SPEED. This is not a boat race, hold your speed down if it is rough, and then cut the throttle as you ride over the a crest so that you do not slam the boat into a trough on the backside of a crest.
This river, like most rivers on the coast, you will need to be observant of the tides if operating a small boat. Tidal exchange is the key to crossing any bar. The experienced fishermen from here say the ideal time to cross is on high slack, or an hour or two each side of it. However the time of this tide many times does not allow you as a fisherman, to cross on one high tide & come back on the next high tide 12 hrs later during daylight hours. The word from many who fish it regularly is to NOT to try to cross on a low, or ebb tide as there is quite a bit of turbulence.
There is a formula that is used to calculate the amount of flow of a river flow at a bar. It is called the "rule of 12". This flow will be best described as: For each our after the tide change the flow will be
1st hour will be 1/12th, 2nd hour will be 2/12ths,
3rd hour will be 3/12ths,
4th hour will be 3/12ths, 5th hour will be 2/12ths,
6th hour will be 1/12th
From this table you can see that the maximum flow will be the middle 2 hours of an exchange. This equates to the bar being roughest at that time. Wind conditions, on any tide, will extend these times. All else taken into consideration, the bar usually tends to not be as rough on the incoming tide. The tide exchange will govern how rough the bar is going to be. The low tides will have one real low tide each day & the other low tide will be somewhat higher. Look at the tide book & compare the difference between two tides closest to the time you intend to cross.
If any roughness is to be encountered, you will be able to see it better from inside looking out, as you can see the white water off the tops of the waves. Coming back in, you are looking at the backs of these waves & cannot see if there is any white water coming off the tops. Therefore the water looks calmer when you are outside looking in.

Heading back from outside:
You can visually run back the red buoy line, if you are close to it. Watching your water depth can also be a help because this region has no drop-offs, just a slight slope to the bottom until you get way out. Water depths at #4 & #6 are about 50' with 90' or so at #2., & 200' at "CR". Finding your way back may be somewhat helpful if you refer to your chart. "Don't leave home without one".
Crossing the bar coming back in:
This will be pretty much like going out, with the exception you will usually be riding in on a wave instead of heading into it. The situation can also be different if there is a tide & or wind involved where you will have to quarter the wave. You can be riding the back of a wave like a surfboarder but on the back side. It will run out from under you & the next one will have you surfboarding, many times at a angle. You will then have to straighten up the boat so that when you are being pushed into the trough of the next wave you are going straight with the wave. You do not want to be in the bottom of the trough at an angle. The most common thought seems to be "The boat will straighten up soon". WRONG, you will need to power down somewhat. With the normal wave conditions here, you will normally be tipped to the starboard, your response should be to sharply steer to the starboard under mostly full power, so your stern is at a 90 degree angle with the oncoming wave. As soon as it passes under you, straighten out & get back on your heading again. Some boaters will get on the backside & have enough power to stay there & ride it all the way across. This can work, is a very smooth ride, but be aware that IF something goes wrong, it will happen VERY FAST, as these waves are usually doing in excess of 30 MPH.

GPS/Plotter:
You should not even think about going out here without a GPS if you are the average week-end sport fisherperson. Acquire a GPS, learn how to use it and put in some locations to come home to. Here it can be foggy all day offshore, but will usually be clear during the regular salmon season on shore.
Backtrack your red buoy line going out

Salmon closure:
There is a salmon closure at the mouth of the river called the Control Zone 1. This basically is all waters west of Buoy 10, between the north & south jetties, & inside of buoys #4 & #7. Refer to page 93 of the WDFW regulations.

Salmon locations:
The bulk of the salmon near the mouth will probably be Columbia River fish, with a few heading farther south. But many of the Oregon salmon south of the Columbia are Left Turning fish & they head south when they leave the rivers 2 or 3 years prior to returning. Any salmon will concentrate where the bait is, the best fishing will be where you find shrimp, which the herring will be feeding on. The salmon will be feeding on both.
A smart fisherperson may, when you catch the first salmon, cut its stomach open to see what it has been feeding on and try to match your bait to these stomach contents.
Many times, Chinook salmon can be found south of buoy #4 & farther south along the red buoy line. Don't just run offshore because your buddy said that is where he caught his last weekend. Stop in and at least take a look or make a pass along the south buoy line before you make a long run to open water. If you see groups of whale birds sitting & diving, it may prove beneficial to stop & make a pass or two near them. With the fish in the top part of the water column, you will probably not be able to see them on your fishfinder.
Fish may be found where ever the bait is & straight west to 200' can be productive. Most of the salmon fishing here however will be southwest of the mouth. Follow the south "red" buoy line out. There is no #2 buoy, & farther southwest is the "CR" or Columbia River buoy, N46°10'84" W124°01'50", in about 200' of water. The bulk of the salmon fishing will be from #4 to this old lightship buoy, or in that general area.
You will find the Coho from right on top to down 15-30', however we have pulled some at 130' later in the day. The Chinook will also be in the top water column if early in the morning or it is foggy. It would not be uncommon to catch them on a diver with from 20 to 30 pulls out. A pull is the distance from the reel face to the rod's first guide, or about two feet. Later if or when the sun comes out the Chinook may decide to move down to from 50' to the 100' level.

Gear/Tackle:
About any salmon tackle can be used here, depending on your method. 8'6" to 9' medium fiberglass rods are the common size. Mooching was the method used by the charter boats to bring Westport to be the "Salmon Capitol of the World" in the 1950 & 60's. The Columbia River charter boats followed. This method consists of using a 2 to 6 ounce (4 being the common size, kidney sinker tied to the terminal end of 25# monofilament mainline, & 6' monofilament leader with a double hook, 3/0 4/0 mooching tie. These mooching leaders are usually 25# test & can be tied as a sold or a slip tie. The slip tied ones are usually used if you are using whole herring for bait. You can then thread the hooks into the bait & pull the rear one forward to put a bend in the bait to give it the proper roll. The solid tie leader is usually used if using a "cut plug" herring, as the angle on the bait gives the rolling action.
In the past 10 to 15 years, trolling with downriggers is probably the most popular with the average trailered sport boat. A 8'6" downrigger rod is used here. They are a heavier but section up to about 1/2 way, with the tip a little stiffer than the mooching rods. These rods take a lot of strain when being pulled down against the clip on the wire. Ball weight will be from 12# to 15#. The ball depth will change depending on the specie of salmon targeted, & can range from 20' to 150'. For Chinook, you may start out in the early morning or overcast days by only dropping it to 30'. However the usual target depth will be from 50' to 70'. Later in the day you will probably have to go to 100' to 120'. Bait can be cut plug herring, or herring in a bonnet, behind a Hot Spot flasher or a Fish Flash. These attractor colors will usually be green/glo for the Hot Spot, or quilted chrome, green, blue if for Chinook. You may change to red, if for Coho. Those who prefer to drag hardware will usually add behind the attractor, Coyote spoons in green/white glo, Cop Car, or Army Truck colors in 3.5" & 4" sizes. Apex plugs in chrome, mother of pearl, chrome/blue or Army Truck colors do very well in sizes 4.5" or 5.5".

Scent:
Of course you should add some Smelly Jelly in either herring or anchovy. Recently there has been a new twist for scent. That is "Salmon Scenter" by Salmon University. This is a receptacle that you place special nuggets inside & then snap it to your downrigger ball. This lays a scent trail better than Smelly Jelly can do.

Bottomfish locations:
There are not any islands, very few uncharted rock reefs, and no kelp beds to attract bottom fish in this area. Some fishermen will bottomfish inside the South Jetty, or some of them will go out and then pull in behind and south (outside) the South Jetty, & fish for sea bass & lingcod. The main bottomfish location is usually south quite a ways and off Cannon Beach, Oregon, near the rock piles around Tillamook Head & south to Haystack Rock.

Crabbing locations:
There is one thing to consider here if crabbing in the river, is that you need plenty of pot weights & lots of line out, as the currents will pull a single pot float under if you drop it off on a low tide & come back to pick it up on a high tide that has lots of exchange. You will come back and swear that someone has stolen your pot. But the float is just under water. You might have to come back next weekend at a low tide to try to retrieve it. However with the tidal currents, it may have been pushed even a couple hundred yards.
One old standby crabbing spot used is the inside of Baker Bay, behind Sand Island & north of the Chinook breakwater piling. The entrance here is between breakwater pilings #1 & #3. If can be shallow here at a low tide.
I would rather drop my pots in a more secluded place where everyone else doesn't travel. But remember this river runs FAST & with a lot of FLOW, so pick your location carefully.
It has been mentioned to me by a RV business owner, that the pots with staffs & flags seem to stand out better & will be the ones pulled first by pot thieves. What they do when they pull your pot, they pull the line over one side of their boat & drop the float on the other side. They then handline the pot line up & over their boat, when the pot comes up they grab what they want & drop it back in the water. If you knew exactly where you dropped the pot & you find it moved about 100 yards, it is a pretty sure bet that it was pulled by one of these thieves, as that distance is about what
it takes if the current or tide is moving them.

LeeRoy Wisner