A cloudy, misty morning greets my alarm clock. I already lie awake in the predawn darkness, listening to the gentle patter of raindrops falling from the tress above, landing on the tin roof of my trailer, as memories of big silver kings float through my subconscious. I’m always hoping for those crisp fall mornings, that sometimes turn into the glorious blazing days of Indian Summer, but while fall fishing Tillamook Bay, light rain and clouds are my more common companions. I smile regardless, because the chrome bright kings of this estuary create a light of their own, warming away the morning chill, regardless of what Mother Nature has decided to dish out.
I make the morning coffee, and pre-warm my thermos. This is another staple of my fall arsenal, and often wards away as much chill as the big fish I anticipate meeting during our morning’s outing. As I shake the morning cobwebs away, I begin carrying my gear down to the boat, making the short walk down to the dock, carrying rods, extra clothing, rain gear, and the most important ingredient of today’s arsenal, big colorful spinners!
There’s something about these morning routines that have always fired my imagination. It’s the feelings they generate, memories ignited of a small boy anxiously awaiting a day of fishing, as my father and grandfather quietly, patiently went about the same morning routine of preparing our gear, getting us ready for another day of endless adventure, awaiting us in the unknown mists of the day to come. In my youth, I lived for these moments, and those same excited and hopeful emotions are evoked each time I go through these very same routines.
I learned a long time ago, the fish of my imagination, the ones born of memory and a healthy dose of fisherman’s exaggeration, are among the most important memories of my youth. And yes, this phenomenon still carries on today, driving me towards each new adventure, always searching for those experiences that burn themselves into the slide show of my subconscious. The big fall kings of Tillamook bay are fish worthy of such fond memories, and they draw me along with many other anglers to the banks of the bay in search of their own ocean reared chrome treasure.
Tillamook has long been known as one of the best destinations to catch larger than average kings in the Northwest. At one time it could possibly have been one of the best bets for outsized Chinook in the lower 48, but as with many other fisheries, the extra-large kings seem to be in much less abundance than they once were. This isn’t to say the opportunity doesn’t still exist to catch Chinook that are oversized examples of their species, it just doesn’t happen with the regularity it once did.
Still, Tillamook Bay Kings average over 20 pounds, and it’s not uncommon to catch fish in the mid 30’s, and even a few stretching to 40 and even 50 pounds. If you put in your time (isn’t this what’s required to eventually find gold in any fishery?) you’re likely to find some of your own chrome beauties!
One of my favorite ways to catch Chinook in salt water is using spinners. It’s tremendously fun, and the sheer variability in the types of bites you get keeps me coming back to experience it again and again. This is not a fishery for those anglers who don’t want to be active with their presentations! Fishing the spinner takes constant vigilance by the angler, who must maintain a close proximity to the bottom, but also feeling for the, oh so subtle, take of our quarry. Often, the grab of a Chinook is nothing more than weightlessness on the end of your line. One moment you can feel the weight of the lead and the resistance of the spinner being towed behind the boat, with the rhythmic throb of the rotating blade being signaled up through the blank, and the next moment it’s as if nothing is there. No weight, no resistance, no thump from your spinner. You just got bit! And if you don’t reel and swing immediately, your silver prize is going to spit your spinner back into the liquid expanse of the bay. If you weren’t paying attention, you might not know anything ever happened!
While you will occasionally get the “hey, I got one” grab, more often than not these fish just open their mouths, take the spinner in, and then eject it just as quickly as they grabbed hold. If you’re not holding your rod, waiting patiently, yet staying aware of your gear, you’ll miss the subtle stop and start of your spinning blade, missing what might have been one of your few allotted “grabs” of the day. Vigilance is a rule of this fishery, but the pay off can be amazing!
In Tillamook, spinner size is most often a size 6 through 8 Cascade blade, in colors of chartreuse, green, red, pink and white topping the list of choices. Some of the most popular choices are chartreuse with a green dot, ½ red- ½ pearl, pearl with a red dot, green tipped rainbow, and any other combinations of these colors.
Spinners are fished on leaders approximately 5’ long, with 18-24” lead droppers, using 1-1/2 to 2 ounce lead sinkers to lower your offerings to the bottom. It’s also a good idea to add a #3 ball bearing swivel to the middle of the leader to keep line twist from developing. The swivel also has the added benefit of keeping all the weeds, which are omnipresent in the bay, from finding a purchase on your offering.
Trolling speed should be around 1mph, over water, not over ground. You’ll often be going with the tide, which might be as fast as 2-1/2 mph over ground, but 1 mph over water is close to the right speed. If your depth finder doesn’t have a water speed indicator (it takes a wheel on the back of the transducer to get this measurement), it can take a little time to learn what the correct speed is, where you maintain bottom, while giving your spinner that enticing thump needed to attract our shiny quarry. One way to learn this is to use slightly heavier lead at first until you get the hang of getting the speeds right, and try matching the trolling speed of those boats around you.
Bob Tolman, who is probably the father of the Tillamook Spinner fishery, says the blade should be spinning around 140 beats a minute. You can calculate this by counting the pulse of your rod tip for 15 seconds, and then multiplying by 4. Each time your rod tip goes up, then back down to the bottom of its pulse, is one revolution of your blade. The vibration of your rod tip definitely resembles the action of a plug. After successfully fishing spinners for a while, you’ll begin to recognize by feel and action exactly what the correct speed is.
Spinner fishing in the upper bay is almost always best on the larger tide series. The coastal tides always vary in 1-week series, with one week having smaller tides, followed by the next week where the tides grow in size and velocity. The larger tides are created when the moon is in a full or new moon position, while the small tides occur during the quarter moon phases. The small tides are considered the best times to fish herring in the lower bay, while the large tides are prime time for the upper bay with blades. While this is the normally accepted timing, you can easily use spinners in the upper bay at any time.
My good friend and fellow guide Wayne Priddy, of Priddy Good Fishing Guide Service, fishes spinners in the upper bay almost exclusively. He transitions right from the closure at Buoy 10 on the Columbia to Tillamook and is generally fishing spinners full time in Tillamook Bay by September 20th, through the end of the season.
When fishing the upper bay during the heavy tide swings, it’s incredibly important to make sure and know where you are, and where the deep water is in relation to your position. In the large tide series, the upper bay can get incredibly skinny, and you don’t want to find yourself stuck on a sand bar waiting for the next high tide! If you haven’t spent a lot of time fishing the upper bay, hire a guide to show you around the first time, or at least make sure you are staying in areas where there are other boats until you learn where the sand bars and deep water are. And simply, don’t run on plane until you know where the channels are. Many a boat has grounded themselves, or hit pilings and stumps while trying to transit from one spot to the next.
Each year the bay has a tendency to change with the high water of winter and spring. I have already made several trips to Tillamook this year springer fishing and noticed some of the channels have already rearranged themselves substantially from last year, so make sure to poke around when you arrive to find where the channels are. Using your GPS to mark these areas are key, and it’s always best to do this on one of the negative tide series. Use your kicker to slowly move around the bay, using your track line feature and way points to locate and mark the safe running water, so you won’t find yourself stuck and out of luck one morning while the fishing gets positively hot around you. Also, don’t trust the map feature in your GPS. I haven’t seen one that’s correct yet, and it will definitely lead you high and dry if your not careful!!
When you begin fishing the upper bay, you’ll notice several areas where there is deeper water and other boats will be making passes back and forth. These are areas where the fish will often stack up and hold depending on the tide phase. I will often troll with the tide, moving from each deep water spot to the next, and then begin making a few passes in each new spot, before continuing on with the tide. Hot spots are around the Oyster House, which is right in front of the Memaloose Boat Ramp, and runs south towards the junction of the Trask and Tillamook rivers. The Picket Fence, where there is a line of pilings pushing the majority of the current out towards the middle of the bay, and then into Ray’s Dolphin, which is North East of the Picket Fence. Each of these areas has slightly deeper water, and will often hold fish as the water begins to drop. You’ll recognize these holding areas, by the host of other boats trolling passes in through these deeper water channels.
While trolling, pay special attention to the water around you. You will often see fish rolling, and these fish are often biters. If you see a fish roll, even if it’s in shallow water off the edge of the deep-water slots, troll through the area where you saw the fish roll. You will often hook these fish, and they are some of the most spectacular fish you’ll catch, because when you hook a chrome bright Chinook in 5 feet of water, their very first response is to get the heck out of Dodge! They’ll often burn a bunch of line off your reel in no time flat! I’ve caught fish as shallow as 3 feet, so if you have deep enough water to troll through, make sure and make a pass over any rolling fish you observe.
I also always carry a few herring with me. Sometimes you’ll see a bit of a bite develop on herring, and the fish don’t seem to be as interested in your blades. These are the days you’ll be sorry you didn’t stash at least one herring rod and a tray of blue labels in the boat!
So this fall and early winter take some time and get out and try spinner fishing in Tillamook Bay! You might just find it as addicting as I do!