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Willapa Bay

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Willapa Bay Salmon Fishing –

This fishery season usually opens about the first of July, or when the adjacent ocean waters are open, but the main fish run does not really enter the bay until the middle of August or so. There can be a few "dip ins" into the mouth in the early season with a high incoming tide however. This river above Tokeland can be fished with a smaller boat, even a car-topper, if you watch the weather & stay, within reason, close enough to one of the many launches.

There are some large Chinook taken each year from these waters. This salmon fishery can be frustrating at times, as it can be hot & cold from one day to the other. You have to be there when the fish are. The people who seem to do fairly well here are the ones who put their time in. The catch ratio for hours fished, for some reason here is not as high, as say the Johns River fishery. You will encounter Coho & some Chum later on in the season.

There is also a commercial gill net fishery here:
So in this area, it may be best to check with WDFW at the Monesanto office as to when the netters are on the river. Be prepared for them to give you some days & dates for commercial areas that mean nothing to the sport fisherperson. Just trying to run from the South Bend launch downriver & have had to weave thru 35 net sets at low tide is not fun. If you are really determined to fish this river when the gillnets are in, it may be best to slide up the North River channel & out of their way. Some sport fishermen claim that for a few days after the nets come out, the sport catch drops off considerably.

Legally a net can not be laid across the complete river, but you may see one netter lay his from the north side to mid river & another netter lay his from the south side to mid river & they tie up to each other for a coffee/BS session in the middle. A recreational boater then will have to negotiate around the end of the net, usually in 2-3 feet of water if it is a low tide.

I have also seen floating dead sturgeon after these netters have pulled out.

There are actually at least 8 launches that can be used in the Willapa Bay. These listed below are in sequence from starting at the lowest one on the river & then into the southern part of the bay.
  1. Tokeland, Port of Willapa Harbor
  2. Smith Creek WDFW
  3. South Bend
  4. Raymond City Park (not recommended for low tides, as it is shallow & MUDDY)
  5. Old Willapa / Wilson Creek WDFW
  6. Bay Center (this appears to be a private launch)
  7. Palix, WDFW
  8. Long Island, Willapa National Wildlife Refuge
Depending on what part of the bay you plan on fishing, you can consider any of these launches. For the normal fishery the preferable ones would probably be #1 & 3, they are closer to the action & do not require running thru a narrow channel, or longer distance.

The Tokeland launch:
is owned by the Port of Willapa Harbor and a $5.00 fee is charged. The sport dock has moorage and the commercial docks are also available. There is plenty of parking here. A RV park is next to the parking area. In early 2000 the Port redid the ramp to include a 2-lane blacktop ramp with docks on both sides. They later dredged the whole boat basin. Now the concrete ramp extends down to -2' with a bumper at the end of the concrete. The picture below was taken 7-02-04 at a -2' LOW tide.
There is a boat ramp on the John's River that is fine for smaller 18 ft boats and jet sleds. It’s located just past the Ocean Spray Company on the highway to Westport. For larger boats, use the ramp in Westport near the Coast Guard Station, it’s a short run back east to the John’s River.

The South Bend launch:
is a good single lane concrete slab ramp with a moderate amount of parking. It is located on the main Hiway just South & West of the town of South Bend. There is no fee for launching here. It is a fairly good ramp for boats up into the 20' class. The ramp is concrete slabs & is angled out & downstream. Launching from this ramp will put you into the upper fishing area rather soon, as you will be running downriver & can be fishing at the big bend within 1 mile. The distance from this launch to Tokeland is about 8 miles.

Wilson Creek launch:
This launch is reached by turning off Hiway 6 at the old weigh station about a mile before you get to the hill coming into raymond. Take a right just before this station, cross the next intersection, then take a right on the next road. This will take you up the river, across the bridge, thru the old town of Willapa & across the bridge at Wilson Creek. Turn left just across the bridge to the launch parking lot.

This area is fished by small boats after the fish have left the bay. The river here is still effected by tide. This area is not effected that much by floating debris. Many troll here with spinners, or plunk fish with a bobber & eggs.

Where to Fish
We will start with the main fishery in the Willapa itself. For many years the place to fish was to troll the beach in 10' of water along "Washaway Beach", just inside the main channel mouth on the North shore of the river. Over the years the ocean/river washed away about a mile of beach, including houses & the old Coast Guard lighthouse.

About 1998 the Army Corp of Engineers placed a short rock jetty at the upstream section that used to be the fishing area. This jetty has done what it was supposed to do, in that the beach is not washing away as it was before. It is a sight to walk the beach here at low tide & count the 1 1/2" to 2" pipes standing a few feet out of the water in line with the washed out roads. These pipes are what was left of the homes in the areas wells.

If you drive the Hiway 105 & stop at this rock jetty during a mid outgoing tide, look off the end of the jetty, you will notice a rather swift section of water. Since this jetty has been installed most of the fishing has shifted upriver. As the shallower water near the beach has become deeper. My belief is that this jetty has raised the water speed & or turbulence to the point that the bait does not stay there in the concentrations that it used to. Some diehards still fish this area, but now generally nearer the NW point, near the ocean's beach southern end & occasionally with good results.

Also do not use the previous Hunting & Fishing News illustrated map. The shaded area they list as motor mooching is really tide flats at low tide (MUD). The Western end of the river channel runs from south of Toke Point to the upriver Range Point on the East. You will see the range marker on this upriver bend, don't try to drift to much north of these markers.

Most of the fishing that currently takes place is near the North River mouth, East of Tokeland about 3 miles, from marker piling # 7 to below the South Bend launch at #26 & usually takes place like most estuary fishing on the incoming tide. Marker #10 would be the entrance to North River. Marker #19 to #22 is in the upper of this location & seems to be a preferred location for some.

Low tide can be productive, in that the bay's water has shrunk considerably at this location and therefore concentrates the fish that have moved in, but not migrated upriver yet.

Don't just follow the concentration of boats thinking that is the "place to fish", as that may not be the only fishy area in the bay. Most all the non-locals think the other guy is the expert. I was fishing there alone in 2001 near #26, with one other boat, while the whole flotilla was downstream from us a few miles. The other lone fisherman was using a electric trolling motor and the tide was almost all the way out. His larger outboard motor would not start. I offered to tow him back the ramp. He refused saying that he had a spare battery & that when the tide changed & started coming back in his electric would get him back to the ramp. But he confided in me that his main reason was that for the last 2 days he had pulled his limit of Chinook out of that area while everyone else was downriver, and we were alone there.

Like anywhere else a good pair of binoculars & you being observant, may help put fish in the box.

The one bad thing this time of the year, is at a high tide you will usually be confronted with floating grass on the water.

What to use & methods:
Most bay fishermen here use large herring that are cut-plugged & are trolled at a fast spin. It seems that the fresh bright fish will take about any salmon lure, but the fish that have moved in, but not went upstream because of lack of rain, need to have a very active lure pulled right in their faces.

Most trolled herring here will be behind a Fish Flash, & it is my belief that a short (36") leader is in order because of the murky colored water. You can also try trolling a sardine wrapped Kwik Fish. Some of the locals just troll a large brass spinner. So try what you are comfortable with.

Crabbing can also be productive in the lower sections here.

Lower Willapa Bay:
I have seen bait so thick in the main channel off what used to be Deadmans Island, that if you had a long handled net you could have gotten all the bait you would need for the next year. Usually where there is bait, there are also salmon. This time there was so much bait that our lures simply got lost in the crowd. I have also caught fish in the outside the main channel, but crossing the bar can be dangerous for a small boat. As just outside the point of land, the channel angles off to the Southwest & somewhat parallels the breakers. Recent reports are the bar's channel has changed to where at a low tide the depth is less than 20'. If you have a wind & tide running, it is best that the small boater remain inside.

"South Channel", which is a 50-60' deep large area just south of Deadmans Island & north of Leadbetter Point. This is more protected than the main Willapa channel which can have a severe current at the outgoing tide. There are no buoys or markers on this "south side". This channel shallows up considerably as it nears the ocean & breakers can be on the outside. It is not recommended crossing here to the open ocean, unless you do it at a high tide & then take a GPS reading from the inside so you know where to come back across at, as the breakers all look alike from the outside & you will not know where this channel should be. Not really recommended however.

As of the summer of 2000, Deadmans Island has pretty much been washed away after the installation of the rock jetty downstream a couple of miles. This may improve fishing somewhat from the standpoint that there was a colony of seals living on this island. 2002 & 2003 saw some of the island visible at low tide, however, but apparently not enough for the seals to return to.

Middle Section of The Bay:
If you fish this area following the pattern of the other fishermen who appear to "know" what to do & where to go, you may well come home skunked at times. If you read some back issues of Salmon-Trout-Steelheader, and take a bit of information out of each article, some light begins to glimmer.

One article by Nick Amato in Oct-Nov 1998 entitled Trolling Tiderwater With Spinners, he talks about trolling the lower tidal rivers for Chinook. The one thing that can be gotten from this is that he recommended using a electric trolling motor. At first thought, it was just for a more controlled slow speed. But also if you watch some of the guides on the larger rivers, they will many times also use this method. What this information may point to, is that in the shallower confined water the use of a regular outboard trolling motor is very possibly spooking the fish. Taken this into consideration the many other boats in the area, I think the fish DO get spooked.

Now in addition to this if you look in the same issue an article by Gary Siegel has an article entitled Fall Runs In Low Water. This article is geared mainly for the upper reaches of tidewater, but there are a couple of paragraphs at the end that brought this spooked fish back to mind. Here they were catching nothing on the lower Chehalis, like all the other fishermen that day, even though the fish were jumping, they finally moved into a area close to some pilings that they had seen fish jumping. While his partners used spinners, he put on a steelhead jig & cast into the logs, they came up with 3 fish before loosing the jig. This reinforces somewhat the idea that salmon tend to "hide" along shore, near piling, logs, etc. & at a deeper depth than the thought, when the boating traffic increases.

If you fish the bays enough, you will experience somewhat the same experience, with Coho jumping within 5 feet of shore at low tide in less than 2 feet of water, while everyone is trolling the main channel. There are no piling or protective brush here, but they must may feel more secure than in deeper water that everyone is crowded into. Here the fish seem to be moving upstream in small schools. If you see a school of finning or jumping Coho, they will be moving upstream. Follow them, or run on the other side of the river to avoid them & then go above them hoping to intercept then again.

North River:
empties into the bay at marker #10, closer to Tokeland and between Southbend. The lower section of this river itself from the big bend to the Hiway 105 bridge can be productive. The channel is narrow & SHALLOW for the first 1/4 mile from the Willapa marker piling #10, then upriver it opens up slightly at low water. This is a situation where the Smith Creek launch can be utilized. However a larger boat can not get under the low Smith Creek Hiway 105 bridge at a high tide to get the 100 yards needed to enter into North River. There is a private hatchery program on this river that releases a considerable number of Chinook, Coho & Chum salmon into this river every year. The WFDW does not make this information readily available.

Season limits for North River from the Hiway 105 bridge to Salmon Creek is open to salmon fishing from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30 with a liberal total limit of 6 salmon. There are numerous houseboats tied to pilings in this lower stretch of river. There is a good section of boat fishable water above the bridge for about 3 or 4 miles upstream to the end of tidewater at about Float House #29. At a low, 0.0 tide you may encounter only 2' of water at this upstream location.

One method of fishing this upper extreme spot is to get there just before low tide change. Stop in the middle of the river, but do not anchor, & simply cast spinners using a spinning outfit & 15# monofilament mainline. If the fish are there, they will be jumping or rolling occasionally. Use a Metric #5 spinner & ahead of it about 20", place a 3/8 oz. beadchain keel sinker. There are plenty of underwater limbs & snags in this area. This sinker helps you cast farther & keeps the lure near the bottom, plus it runs interference for the spinner's single point hook & lessens possible hang ups. Keep casting, as the tide turns & comes back in, the fish seem to drift upstream past you. Just because you see the fish jumping or rolling, do not be duped into thinking they are on the top of the water. This water is shallow & you need to fish the lure NEAR the bottom.

Upriver Willapa:
Later in the season after the fish move upstream, you may consider moving upstream with them. Here is where the Raymond City Park launch or the Old Willapa Camp One / Wilson Creek launch come into play. Fishing from the Old Willapa area you will be in the final tidewater area of the river. Usually large spinners are used here either trolled or cast. Here is where trolling the brush line will pay off during high tide. Then at low tide, casting into the holes can also prove productive.

Naselle River:
The Naselle can produce salmon also, the closest launch in tidewater is the Long Island Game Refuge ramp. This is a no charge gravel launch wide enough for 2 boats, no dock & parking is across the road by the office. Launch here & head north, staying close to the piling markers on the east side of the channel most of the way out, as this channel is also narrow, shallow & is covered with oyster beds. I have however navigated it with a 20' fiberglas deep Vee at a 0' tide. You can make it if you go slow & are willing to back up & try another spot until you learn the channel. You may only have 3' of water under you at times. When the piling markers on the right side of the channel cease & you get to where the channel opens up, you will see a clay bank bluff on the western shore of Long Island ahead of you, head angling across the channel toward this bluff, then follow this shore until you come out into the mouth of Long Island & Stanley Peninsula where you take a right at the piling marker & to the east & head up the main Naselle River.

There is also a small gravel launch on the East side of the Hiway Southwest of the town of Naselle that is good for only smaller sleds or drift boats. This is also a river that can be fished like the upriver Willapa.

Palix River:
Here is where the Palix WDFW or Bay Center launches can be utilized. This is a smaller shorter river, but does have fish in it. The upper section of this river will be only fishable from the bank.

Nemaha River:
This river has no launch & is best fished from the bank.

LeeRoy Wisner