Tidewater (or estuary) fisheries offer small boat owners access to ocean bright fish, often in high densities. These
fisheries can be very popular as demonstrated by the extremely popular “Buoy 10” fishery at the mouth of the
Columbia River. This is not a place to go for solitude, peace and quiet. But it is a place where fishing can be fast and
furious. Other well known tidewater locations include Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor. However, any river entering the
Pacific Ocean or Puget Sound has the potential to offer some exceptional salmon fishing in tidal influenced areas.
There are three major types of tidewater fishing, and a handful of other methods. The majority of anglers will be
trolling, plunking, or fishing under a bobber or float.
Trolling is probably the most popular method of fishing tidewater. Trolling consists of fishing out of a constantly
moving boat. Trollers use weights, divers, or downriggers to achieve a desired depth to present their bait or lures. The
standard drift fishing rod equipped with 20-25 pound line can be used for river or bay salmon trolling. An 8 ½ or 9
foot rod rated for 15-30 pound line, and either a bait casting reel or a spinning reel works well for trolling (Photos 1
and 2). Use at least 20-25 pound line for tidewater trolling, as these fish usually fight extremely hard. Trolling setups
are usually comprised of a three-way swivel at the end of the mainline, a 12-36” dropper line and weight off the
center of the three way swivel, and a 4-8’ foot leader with twin hooks and a cut plug herring or lure. You can also
rig a sliding weight set up instead of a three-way swivel.
Instead of a cutplug herring, you can also troll spinners (Photo 3), plugs (Photo 4), kwikfish, or bait harnesses (Photo
Weights are usually 2-8 ounces depending on the speed of the current and boat. The dropper line used for the weight is
usually lighter than the mainline so that the dropper breaks before the mainline if the weight becomes snagged. Many
anglers now use an in-line rotating flasher along with their herring (Photo 6).
Photo 6. In-line rotating flasher.
Rig the in-line flasher between the three-way swivel and the herring, ensuring that the distance from the swivel to the
flasher is longer than the distance of the weight dropper line.
When fishing deeper waters at Buoy 10, use a diver (Photo 7) or downrigger (Photo 8) to get your gear down. When its
crowded, be sure to keep your lines as close to your boat as possible so you don’t get tangled with the lines from
nearby boats. If someone on your boat hooks a fish, be sure to move your boat away from the others to fight it, and if you’re
next to a boat that hooks a fish, move away so they can land it.
Fish at the depth your fish finder shows fish for fall chinook and coho. Bottom is always a good bet for chinook. For
coho, you may not even need weight for your lures and can sometimes find fish quite close to the surface.
Photo 7. Trolling divers.
Photo 8. Electric downrigger.
Plunking employs a similar setup to drift fishing, except that the gear is cast into a likely holding area or migratory
path, and allowed to anchor in one spot (Photo 9). The gear is then left alone until a fish strikes, or you decide to
change gear. Active lures such as winged bobbers, spoon, spinners, or kwikfish are often used when plunking in current.
Plunking can be done from shore or an anchored boat.
Photo 9. Plunking from anchored boats.
A very popular lure on the Columbia River is a kwikfish wrapped with a small filet of sardine or other fish (Photo 10).
Use an 8½ to 9 foot, extra heavy rod. Your mainline should be 40-60 pound monofilament or spectra. At the end of
your mainline, slip your line through the end of a swivel or slider, add 4 beads, and then tie to a swivel. Tie 4-6 feet
of 40-60 pound monofilament leader to the other end of the swivel and then directly to the duo-lock snap on the kwikfish.
Tie an 18-30” piece of 15 pound leader to the slider (or swivel that you ran the mainline through) and attach 1-8
ounces of lead. Most salmon anglers use sizes K13 to K16. Use the larger sizes in slow water and the smaller sizes in
Photo 10. Kwikfish.
Be sure to tune your kwikfish so that it dives straight down when you pull it upstream through the water. If it dives to
the left, turn the screw eye clockwise. If it dives to the right, turn the screw eye counter-clockwise. Back the kwikfish
downstream until the weight is firmly settled in place on the bottom and the kwikfish is still wobbling from side to side.
Put your rod in a rod holder and don’t try to set the hook when a fish first hits. Let the fish pull the rod down to
water level at least 3 times before trying to reel it in.
Thin bladed spoons can be plunked on lighter, or medium action, rods in smaller rivers or slower water (Photos 11 and
12). The size of the spoon is matched to the depth and current speed where it will be fishing. They can be fished with
weight and a dropper if necessary, or you can just “flatline” them in shallow water, that is, fish them
without any added weight. Thin bladed spoons should be let out behind your boat until you reach the desired location,
generally in 4-5 feet of water on the upstream side of a riffle. These spoons work best on lighter lines, around 15 pound
test, and if you are fishing without weight, they work best when the line has a belly in it between the water and the tip
of rod. Spoons are very effective on pink and coho salmon. Use smaller spoons (½ – 1½”) in pink,
white, red, cerise, or combinations for pink salmon. For coho use medium size spoons (2 - 3”) with silver or brass
blades that can also be painted. Popular colors are chartreuse, fluorescent pink, and fluorescent orange.
Photo 11. Thin bladed spoons
for pink and coho salmon.
Photo 12. Larger thin bladed
spoon for chinook salmon.
Where in a river to set your gear is a critical element of plunking. On larger rivers, try to set up on an inside curve
where any fish migrating up that side have are forced around the point. In smaller rivers, look for tail-outs just
upstream of riffles. These are areas that fish will rest in after swimming through the riffles. At low flows in small
rivers, stay towards the main current, and look for areas where the current starts to slack up a bit. In larger rivers, or
small rivers at high flows, work the edges where the current isn’t too fast. Remember that upstream migrating salmon
are looking for the easiest route up the river that offers enough cover that they feel safe from predators. That cover may
be deep water, logs, boulders, a bubble curtain, or even the white water in a riffle.
Bobber or Float Fishing
Bobber or float fishing is a very popular method in British Columbia and Oregon, but isn’t seen often in
Washington, except during steelhead season. Bobbers are usually used in situations where water is very slow moving or even
stagnant, such as in a big eddy or tidewater at slack tide. However, you can fish under a bobber in moving water. Rods of
10-12’ are not uncommon for float fishing. Spectra lines are desirable because they don’t stretch and they
float. To rig for float fishing, use a sliding float (Photo 13), a swivel, some weight to pull the line through the float,
and a 12-24” leader to a bait or lure. A “bobber stop” and small bead are used to set the float at the
depth you wish to fish. The bobber stop can be reeled through the rod guides if necessary for easier casting. Bobber stops
can be purchased pre-tied, or you can tie your own with 15-30# Dacron using a uni-knot. Very early in the morning, you
might find fish suspended off the bottom and will want to set your bobber stop so that your gear is at the depth you think
fish are suspended at. Once the sun hits the water, salmon tend to move to the bottom and you should adjust your bobber
stop so that your bait or lure is within a foot of the bottom. Serious bobber anglers use a longer rod than drifters or
trollers, and switch their mainline to a no-stretch Spectra based line.
Photo 13. Slip Bobber.
When fishing in current, you will need to “mend” the line occasionally. Mending generally means lifting
and/or flipping the line so that any belly is removed and the line is then in a straight line between the rod and bobber.
The reason for mending the is to ensure a good hookset if the bobber goes down. If you have a big belly in the line, all
you accomplish with the hookset is taking the belly out. Spectra based lines float and are therefore easier to mend, and
their lack of stretch ensures that all of the hookset is transmitted to the bait or lure. Salmon eggs are the top choice
for bait, although sand shrimp are very popular for chinook salmon. Some anglers like to fish both at the same time.
Marabou jigs (Photo 14) can be used instead of bait and can be especially effective on pink salmon, or other salmon when
the water is very low and clear.
Photo 14. Maribou and yarn jigs.
Most of the time, a salmon will simply pull the entire bobber under water in one smooth motion. You need to set the hook
hard with a big sweep of the rod when that happens to ensure a good hookset. Because your line runs to the bobber and then
down, you don’t have a straight shot to the hooks. Therefore you need to pull enough to straighten the line out and
move the hooks. Occasionally salmon will just mouth your bait without pulling the bobber under and it may simply quiver or
dance, or even just stop. Experienced bobber anglers set the hook whenever something unusual happens. When fishing a
bobber in tidewater, small fish such as pile perch, sculpins, or even smolts, can be frustrating because they may try to
eat your bait. When these small fish are abundant, they will constantly cause your bobber to dance and quiver. But you must
set the hook when it does this, because it may be a salmon. You might set the hook 20 times on these small fish, but on
that 21st time, you’ll only get halfway back and be firmly into a nice chinook.
Be sure to keep an eye on your bobber when fishing this way. When the fishing is slow, its very easy to get distracted or
lose interest and look away from your bobber. Invariably, when you turn back to find your bobber, you won’t see it
anywhere. Just about the time you start to mutter to yourself “where did my bobber go?”, it will come floating
back up after a fish has let it go.