Here is Tony Floor’s monthly Tackle Box:
Here is your early December quiz question for the month: What northwest city and county is recognized for their dairy products such as cheese and yogurt? If you guessed Tillamook, advance to “GO” and collect $200.
I’ve been looking forward to writing this column for the last several weeks, as the result of a recent trip to Tillamook Bay chasing big chrome king salmon in shallow water. But before I make the dive into the details of the trip, follow me while I put it into perspective.
Tillamook Bay hosts a wonderful return of wild king salmon bound for five tributaries to the Bay. More recently, small hatchery productions of chinook salmon have augmented the wild stocks.
These fish arrive at the entrance to Tillamook Bay in late September and continue to migrate into the Bay throughout the fall, much later than most Pacific northwest chinook salmon stocks. They are notorious for their size and brightness, although the size seems to have declined during the last two decades.
Turning back the pages of time, I was at a national sport fish policy meeting at the invitation of the Feds, back in the spring of 1988 when a dude walked up to me and introduced himself as Bill Shake from the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland. I thought it was a potential set-up and I was under arrest. He said, “I’ve heard a thing or two about you regarding your passion to fish for king salmon and I want you to join me for a day of fishing down at Tillamook Bay next fall, on the north Oregon coast.” I said, “Sign me up and let’s do it.”
I had heard about Tillamook Bay and their unique run of wild king salmon, big kings that enter the Bay in late September and continue to enter the system into December. How can that be? King salmon here in Washington, with the exception of a few coastal stocks, are making babies in late September and early October. I was about to learn more about these Tillamook fall kings.
I met Bill and John Polansky in Portland during the last week of September, back in ‘88 and off we went, trailering Bill’s 17-foot Arima to Garabaldi, on the northwest corner of Tillamook Bay. We launched and ran out into an area where the Bay meets the ocean, called “The Jaws” and began motor-mooching for king salmon, dropping our plug-cut herring to the deck and reeling up a few cranks. Boom! Something large ate my worm and about 15 minutes later a 45 pound chrome bright king salmon consumed a significant portion of the deck in Bill’s Arima. I was in disbelief. We went on to catch four more, between 32 and 38 pounds. You have to be kidding me! Huge, chrome king salmon in late September! I was an instant Tillamook convert, in search of real estate.
During ensuing years, further into the late 80-s and early 90’s, one of my longtime fishing partners, Larry Carpenter from Master Marine Inc. in Mt. Vernon and I made our annual pilgrimage down to Tillamook, three hours south of Olympia. During those last days of September, every year, we caught, and caught, and caught some more. Big kings, mid-20’s to mid-30’s, every year, like clockwork. They became very special trips in my lifetime of saltwater salmon fishing.
But something happened during that decade of trips to Tillamook. The ocean, particularly around the entrance to the Bay continued to become increasingly unpredictable similar to trying to train a king cobra snake to become pet friendly. Good luck with that!
It must have been around ’94 or ’95 when Larry and I were trolling around the south side of the south jetty when I looked to the west, on a clear early morning during a flat ocean. Waves, big waves, huge waves, estimated by some as upwards of 20-feet came out of nowhere and were barreling directly toward us at a remarkable speed. I immediately, without a word spoken, jumped on the helm in Larry’s 23-foot Wellcraft and charged the incoming waves. Before the rogue waves met us, I witnessed three boats and a total of five people instantly inhaled by the waves only 200 feet in front of us. Two did not survive the capsizing.
As I charged the first steep wave, the biggest in a group of 15, the curl on the top of the wave was estimated at 6 feet. We punctured through the curl which went over the entire top of the Wellcraft, and we instantly began free-falling back down to sea level off the backside of the huge rogue wave.
I continued to charge each of the waves, as they became increasingly smaller. We were lucky as we knew we had burned one of our lives that day. I was also lucky to have the experience kick in gear from my Coast Guard motor life boat training days back in the early 70’s contributing in how to deal with the waves. Clearly, the strategy is to use enough power to accelerate to the top of the wave, then cut power immediately to maintain enough of a horizontal position when the freefall part of the nightmare begins. Too much power would result in a broach. This task is more difficult to accomplish, based on the steepness of the wave. I recall seeing nothing but clear sky during the freefall, gripping the helm, as we were approaching a broach.
Larry and I became a new shade of white boys for days, weeks and months. We agreed to abandon our annual Tillamook trips and transferred our fishing efforts during late September and early October to Grays Harbor, which can produce late-time king salmon too in much friendlier conditions. Unfortunately, especially in recent years, Grays Harbor has been a disappointment.
About six months ago, I received a call from Seattle boating insurance guru Neal Booth who invited me to join him on a guided fishing trip to Tillamook, with Northwest Marine Trade Association Prez George Harris. I said yes while my experiences of trips to Tillamook began playing reruns in my head.
We fished with John Childs (www.fin-addictions.com) on a Monday, October 14th. It was incredible. We boated five kings, four of them caught in 11 feet of water inside Tillamook Bay, trolling big spinners off a drop sinker with three ounces of lead. In shallow water, it’s similar to hooking an Amtrak passing you at 75 miles per hour. As you may recall, the weather pattern back in mid-October of gray skies and fog, seemingly every day, was a drag. The weather down at Tillamook was sunny and flat calm. Our fifth king, all in the mid-teens to low 20’s was out in the ocean. Yes, a very flat friendly ocean while my eyes continued to search the horizon for rogue waves. Six crab pots produced limits (12 per person) of Dungeness crab in a three hour soak. Incredible, as we cruised back home, along the beautiful Oregon coast with a cooler full of king salmon and Dungeness. My kind of a Monday!
I’m going back to Tillamook in 2014, as a Christmas present to me (what a guy!). It was a blast and John Childs not only knows Tillamook, he is a class act and a gentleman. I recommend booking a trip with him in early October next year too. In fact, I asked John about how the king salmon fishing had been prior to our arrival. He said, “Tony, the first two weeks of October was stupid!” Stupid, in case you’re wondering, is the new word for white hot. “These kings will continue to migrate into the Bay through early and-mid December. No way!”, I replied. “Yes way,” he said. Book it, Dano!
And while you’re thinking about December and Christmas shopping closer to home, I continue to recommend, as my first choice, booking a local winter blackmouth fishing trip to the San Juans with Derek Floyd who fishes out of Anacortes (Derek@reelclasscharters.com). As you may recall, I have shared fishing experiences with Derek in this space during the last two years. Now is the time to get on the train. The San Juans continues to open on December 1st and will remain open through April with a two-hatchery chinook per day limit. Derek and John Childs have impressed me with their fishing skills and first class personalities. I think you will be impressed too!
This December I’m off to corner some winter blackmouth in the San Juans when the weather allows. The fish are there and here we go with another awesome winter/spring blackmouth season. I love this game. See you on the water!
(Tony Floor is the Director of Fishing Affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association (NMTA) and a former 30-year veteran of state Fish and Wildlife. NMTA advocates for and promotes recreational boating and fishing in the region.)