By Mike Carey
For salmon anglers in the Pacific Northwest, November heralds the final transition from targeting open saltwater to focusing on tidewaters and rivers. Yes, there are some saltwater opportunities (for example, blackmouth, when open), but the vast majority of anglers have put away their boats and are pursuing salmon in the rivers. That said, there are some prime opportunities to target and catch salmon out of your fishing boats, so don’t button them up just yet!
One of my favorite fisheries out of my boat in November has to be the Hoodsport chum fishery. The fight of a 10-15 pound chum ranks up there as one of the hardest fighting salmon you can catch. Taking on a chum with steelhead gear will give you all the battle you could ask for as these brutes slash and pull with every ounce of energy they have. One look at their fighting canine teeth and you’ll know this is a fish that is serious, very serious, about its reproducing goal.
All up and down Hood Canal you’ll find chum as they work their way toward their spawning grounds. The state hatchery at Hoodsport and three miles south of there at Potlatch (a smaller, Native American hatchery) are the destination for many of these chum as they work their way down Hood Canal.
I have caught fish in both locations, and each spot has reason to recommend it. Potlatch, being smaller, has limited shore angling and parking, which is roadside only. That said, there are also fewer anglers there. Hoodsport, meanwhile, is the Fishing Mecca that chum anglers are drawn to. Fishing right out in front of the hatchery and watching hundreds of fish jockey for position as the tide sweeps them into the small feeder creek leading to the hatchery is truly a sight to behold. Of course, along with the fish comes combat fishing in all its glory. As the tide comes in and fishing space decreases getting to know your neighbor takes on a whole new meaning.
If you’re a fortunate one you’ll be fishing out of a boat – or some type of floating device. The waters around Hoodsport are open and the wind can come up and blow hard, plus fast running tides can make it a challenge to get an anchor to set. Be sure to bring an anchor with some bite, and terminal chain so you’ll stick in the rocky bottom. I’ve seen anglers fishing out of all manner of floating devices on calm days, including single person pontoons and float tubes. Be sure to have your life jackets on and just don’t venture too far off shore. If you are feeling anxious that’s your inner voice telling you a fish isn’t worth your life – pay attention to it!
For boaters, the launch is two miles south of Hoodsport at the Skokomish Park at Potlatch. The launch has two concrete lanes which are in varying state of repair (read that as back down with caution!). There is ample parking, and a restroom. Once launched it’s a quick run to either terminal hatchery, faster to the small Potlatch facility.
When you arrive, survey the already anchor boats, taking into account the amount of anchor line you’ll need to get a solid grip on the bottom, as well as the shore anglers. Anchoring too close to the shore bound anglers will earn you a steady rain of lures and weights at your boat. Stay outside their casting zone - you’ll have plenty of water to work over and opportunities to catch fish the shore anglers don’t have.
As to the type of gear you should bring… you’re going to enjoy a variety of methods to catch these Hoodsport chum. Like chum everywhere, chartreuse and green are always great colors to choose. Pink or cerise is also good color choices. For rod/reel setups I use my steelhead gear, both spinning reels and casting will get the job done. I like an 8 ½ foot medium action rod. Line should be strong enough to turn these big brutes so as to avoid massive tangle ups with your fellow anglers. I like 18-20 pound test. Chums are not leader shy in my experience so keep things hefty.
What technique you use is up to you but here are a few tried and true methods:
Floats and jigs , or floats and corkies with yarn can be deadly. A ¼ or 3/8-ounce pink, black or purple marabou jig fished under a float is deadly. Tipped with a piece of shrimp meat or coon shrimp tail is even better. The yarn is a nice trick as it helps by getting caught up in the chums teeth, allow you to drive the hook home. Other bait you can put under a float includes the ever popular anchovy or herring, whole or plug cut.
Think of the tide as the river current. Set your depth for the lure so it’s running a foot or so off the bottom. Vary the depth if you aren’t getting bites. These fish will hit suspended jigs. Cast “upstream”, i.e. up into the tide, and let your gear drift down with the tide to the end of the “drift”. If the coast is clear, free spool your line, keeping the float straight up and down to extend the drift. When the float goes under set the hook and be ready to do battle!
Twitching jigs – ditch the float and cast the jig on its own. Another effective technique, but be prepared for a lot of foul-hooked chum. Dragging a chum in by the tail is not fun, nor is it sporting to be snagging fish. If you find yourself foul hooking too many fish move on to a different method…
Casting spinners. Again, it’s a solid technique to try if the action is slow. I personally would remove the treble hook and use a single si-wash hook. A number 3 or 4 blade fished with a slow retrieve is just the ticket.
Corkie, yarn, and slinky. I personally have caught a lot of fish using this method and seldom snag fish. Again, think of the tide as a river. Cast out and let your gear drift. You’ll know you have a bite because your rod will be about ripped out of your hands. I use a 3-4 foot leader length.
Regarding the above technique, I’m sure I’m going to get comments about flossing – I personally think it’s a bunch of malarkey. Why do I say that? Because I remember a day years ago fishing Hoodsport when the chum were in thick, jumping all around us, swimming by in schools of 10-20 fish. I had my corkie/yarn/slinky set up going, casting, retrieving, and not getting a bump for a good hour. Suddenly, the bite magically turned on and my gear started getting bit. In came fish after fish, hooked in the jaw. Explain to me how one can have a steady procession of fish go by with mouths open for a good hour and not “floss” one fish, then suddenly start catching one jaw hooked fish after another? And trust me when I say this, those hook-ups were solid strikes, not to be mistaken with a snagging sensation. Anyway, the flossing debate is one we anglers love to engage in every year and likely will do so as long as we fish corkies.
The fly fishermen do quite well at Hoodsport as well, fishing sinking tips and flies of various styles and colors. I’m not a fly guy but it sure does look like fun. Maybe my next trip I’ll give it a try.
Before you set out, be sure to check the Hoodsport netting line at 360-877-5222. Typically the nets go in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but this is not set in stone. There’s nothing worse than driving a hundred miles only to find nets spread in every direction. So save yourself that aggravation before you set out.
Fishing for hard fighting chum is a blast. Get in on the action this November!
Editor’s Note – this article was first published in November 2019.