Tillamook Bay Mixed Bag Getaway!
I love this time of year, and it’s no wonder. Tillamook and other estuaries along the Oregon Coast begin to offer up a true sportsman’s smorgasbord of fishing opportunity. Topping the bill is often the spring Chinook, but once you’re in Garibaldi you might wonder if this is really the main event! Halibut, bottom fish, crabs and clams are also high on the list, and for some people, the main reason they are here. It’s hard not to love a fishery with so many choices, and I anxiously wait for this season to arrive each year!
The weekend before last I was able to make my first yearly trek down to the bay and what a wonderful weekend it ended up being. For the most part the Ocean was very nice, and Saturday it got so flat I was able to run my 25′ sled 35 miles an hour offshore and not even take a bump or a bang! The best part of the whole weekend was getting to experience almost every type of fishery this fantastic port offers. While I was there primarily for salmon fishing, I ran offshore to Halibut Hill on Saturday with my good friend Dick Crossley on his boat Tuna Time. I put crab pots down each day for fresh Dungeness, fished for springers in both the bay and offshore, and made a run for near shore halibut/bottom fish in my 25′ Alumaweld Super V. While I have to admit the salmon fishing wasn’t off the hook, I did manage to hook 3 fish in 2 days of fishing, but I also caught a really nice halibut, several species of bottom fish and a bunch of legal crabs. What a way to shake off the winter doldrums!
The only problem with this type of mixed bag fishing is trying to remember to bring all the right gear! You need salmon gear, crab pots, halibut gear, bottom fishing gear, and a rake & shovel for clams. It’s one of those times where you really need to make a list, or something as simple as your halibut spreader bars, or worse yet your halibut weights, just might get left at home by accident. It can also be a bit of a chore getting everything stowed away and organized, but in the end it can be worth it when it all comes together for a Tillamook Mixed Bag!
For Salmon fishing, the small tides between the full and new moon are often the best fishing tides of each month. The smaller water flow during these tides allows for much better success rates. Tillamook bay can often have major weed problems, and whenever there is heavy tidal current it can become difficult to keep your gear working without weeding up. A general rule of thumb for fishing Tillamook bay, and this works for both spring and fall salmon fishing, is to focus on the mid to upper bay from the Ghost Hole to Memaloose when tidal flows are heavy, and fish the lower bay from Garibaldi to the jaws when tides are small, with special emphasis on the area from Lysters Corner to the Coast Guard tower. And if the Ocean plays nice, the south jetty outside the bay can also be a great place to fish.
While the spring run of fish doesn’t get the amount of pressure you see during the fall, there are definitely people chasing salmon, so often finding other boats pursuing salmon will help alert you to areas you should concentrate on. One thing is certain; if you see a net flying somewhere, don’t be in a rush to move on. These fish often travel in schools, or small pods, and you don’t want to drive away from a group of biting fish! A good plan is after leaving Garibaldi Harbor, head towards the jetties and start fishing around Lyster’s Corner. Generally you should troll with the tide, so if the tide is going out, I would start at Lyster’s Corner (right beyond where all the rocks are sticking out of the bay) and troll along the North Jetty heading towards the tips. If the tide is coming in, reverse this scenario. Sometimes it can pay to troll into the tide, so pay attention to what others are doing, especially if they are finding success.
Standard herring rigs are a good place to start. I generally fish a 24″ dropper with a 6 to 7 foot leader. I troll a few rigs with flashers, and a few without. This is not a fishery where you want to drag bottom, so drop your gear to the bottom, then take two to three cranks on the reel. Pay attention to make sure you aren’t dragging or hitting bottom as you troll, and occasionally check to make sure you’re staying close to the bottom. If you weed up, it will often lift your gear out of the strike zone. Because of all the weeds in Tillamook Bay, it often pays to use a ball bearing or rolling barrel bead chain swivel (I really like the Vision Rolling Barrel Bead Chains because they don’t have a tendency to bind up when placed under a load.) in the middle of your leader, and sometimes it’s wise to add a weed guard, which is simply a plastic sheath over the swivel to keep it from fouling. If the swivels get weeds wrapped around them, they often bind up, which will tangle your leader into a ball in short order!
This same rig/style of fishing herring is the mainstay of any of the spots you would fish in the lower bay, and even in the Ocean. The only time you might not want to be right on the bottom is if you’re in deeper water a bit offshore, and then you might want to stagger some baits at different depths until you get bit, then concentrate your offerings at that level. Also, pay attention to your depth finder. Sometimes these fish are suspended, so if you’re marking a lot of fish at certain depths (even in the bay in deep water) you might put one bait at that depth and fish the rest of your offerings on the bottom. This last weekend I kept noticing fish on the sounder about 25′ down, so I set one rod at 30′ on the line counter with 10 ounces of lead, and this suspended offering is the one that got bit.
Tillamook Bay is primarily a herring fishery from offshore through the Ghost Hole, but once you get to the Ghost Hole, spinner fishing becomes more of an option, and is used with increasing frequency from Bay City to Ray’s Dolphin, the Picket Fence and into Memaloose, where most people are fishing spinners. This isn’t to say herring won’t work throughout the bay, or vice versa.
To troll spinners, use a 18″ dropper with an ounce and a half of lead and a 5-6 foot leader tied to your favorite spinner. Rainbow, Chartreuse, pink and reds in size 6-½ and 7 Cascades, are popular sizes and colors in the bay. Chartreuse with a green dot, green tipped rainbow, and red/white are some of the more popular colors.
When fishing spinners, lower your gear to the bottom slowly, and then keep letting line out until you are staying just above the bottom. It pays to check your depth often to make sure you’re staying in the zone (right off the bottom). This is not a rod holder fishery!! These fish are notorious for grabbing a spinner and then quickly letting go. When holding the rod you should be able to feel the thump of the spinner blade turning, and when the fish grabs it often just stops the blade. This is the time to set the hook! Sometimes you’ll just feel a tick or a light pull like your going over weeds, and sometimes the line goes completely slack like, feeling like it got cut off. These types of bites are all very easy to miss, so make sure you set the hook whenever you feel something different. Every once in a while you’ll get the rip down grab, but most often it’s just one of the light grabs listed above.
Good areas to concentrate on are around the Oyster House, which is right in front of the Memaloose Boat Ramp, along the Picket Fence and at Rays Dolphin, where you’ll often see boats making passes back and forth. This technique can be incredibly effective at times, but make sure to keep your spinner in the zone, and hold the rod so you don’t miss the often incredibly light grabs.
Also, don’t be afraid to fish shallow water in the upper bay. Many fish are caught in water less than 6 feet deep. I’ve caught fish in 3 feet of water, so be willing to move off the deep spots, especially if you see a fish roll. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a fish roll in shallow water, trolled over the area where I saw the fish roll and immediately hook up.
A side note though about depth; be exceptionally careful in the upper bay because it can get extremely shallow especially during very low tides. This area is best suited for shallow draft boats, or boats outfitted with pumps. Just make sure you know where you’re at, and don’t get caught where you can’t run if you need to because of shallow water. It can be a really good idea to get a track line of the deep water slots on your GPS so you can follow them when the water gets low. If you haven’t fished the upper bay, go with a guide or someone you know who has fished it, or at least make sure you fish around other boats so you know you won’t get stuck in a shallow water spot you can’t get out of as the water ebbs on low tides.
You can also fish tidewater into each of the rivers flowing into Tillamook bay, but the Wilson and Trask are the two rivers that get the best returns of Spring Chinook, so you should concentrate your effort on these systems. The tidewater sections of the rivers will fish with spinners, but are more often fished with bobber and eggs, back bouncing or wrapped kwikfish.
Springers aren’t the only option though, as mentioned at the beginning of the blog. Crabs are also a mainstay of Tillamook Bay. Crabbing in the bay can be excellent at times, and is always better when there hasn’t been a lot fresh water flowing into the bay reducing salinity. Crabbing is generally best from crab harbor out towards the jaws. If you have a boat that’s sea worthy enough to go in the ocean, the crabbing can outside the bay can sometimes be outstanding.
When crabbing in the bay, it is often best around the slack tides when the water isn’t pushing as hard. Look for areas out of the main current to help make your pots easy for the crabs to access. There are lots of females and sublegal males right now, so make sure and check your pots carefully. Last week when pulling my pots I was amazed at how many crabs where 1/8 of an inch short of being legal! One thing is for certain though, there’s nothing quite as enjoyable as a crab feast at the end of a long day of fishing at the coast.
You can have your crabs cooked for you right there when you’re done fishing. I usually drop mine off at the Tillamook Bay Boat House before I pull my boat out of the water, and by the time I get my boat out of the water and cleaned up for the drive home, my crabs are done and ready to be put on ice.
They’ll even clean your fish for you. A couple days ago after a successful jaunt offshore for bottom fish, we stopped to have our crabs cooked and fish processed. I hate dealing with bottom fish, so it’s a wonderful thing to be able to walk my crabs and fish up to the Boat House and drop everything off, and come back a while latter to find cooked crabs and beautiful fillets waiting for you. For $40 total, they had our crabs cooked, our bottom fish filleted and bagged, all ready to be iced in our cooler. They even offered more ice if we needed it. Wonderful options, and a great business to have right there to help square you away after a great day on the water.
Bottom fishing off Garibaldi can be incredible, but it can also be a bit frustrating. The frustration can come from finding concentrations of fish. You have to find structure to consistently find fish, and this can be the hard part of the equation. There is some decent structure and bottom fish around the south jetty, but you really have to watch your ocean conditions. This spot can also really be a bugger to fish if the tide is ripping in either direction.
There is some sporadic structure around Twin Rocks just north of Garibaldi, and then more structure off of Cape Falcon, just beyond the Nehalem River. South of Garibaldi there is good structure around Cape Meares and Three Arch Rocks. You’ll have to use your depth finder to locate the structure, and when there are fish on it, they will often show as red masses above the bottom. Keep a log of both GPS numbers and techniques, and this will help lessen the search for bottom fish on each successive outing.
Fishing for bottom fish can be what you want it to be, either a complicated affair, or as simple as can be. You can use bait on dropper loop rigs, jigs, swim baits, or my favorite, vertical jigs. Again, the real key to success is finding bottom structure, and then fish on the structure. Once you find fish, it’s as easy as dropping your gear on top of them and waiting for the bite.
On days with heavy swell and current, you might need to slowly back into the direction of the current to slow the drift down enough to keep your gear working vertically. I find it’s generally easiest to catch these fish if you’re fishing close to straight up and down for them. (Swim baits are an exception to this rule.) If the drift is fast, back into the direction of the current until you’re gears stays straight up and down. You can use your GPS to determine the direction of your drift and pay attention to your depth finder as you make each pass looking for concentrations of fish, and use your track line feature to show the direction of each drift so you can repeat it when you find groups of willing fish. I also put down waypoints whenever I find little hot spots, so I know to try and drift over these areas again.
To fish with jigs, just drop them to the bottom, take a small crank on the reel so it’s just off the bottom, and begin jigging your bait up down. Lift sharply, and then drop your rod just as quick to throw slack into the line so the jig will begin fluttering back towards the bottom. The fish almost always grab it on the drop, so as you begin to lift the rod for the next jigging stroke, the fish is already there and your rod will load up. Start reeling immediately, or you will miss a fair number of fish.
One of my favorite techniques is using Butterfly jigs. The flat sided jigs from Shimano are my favorites, but most of the jigs with this same flat oblong shape will work. Drop them down to the bottom where you’re marking fish and jig them with a sharp upward stroke, and then just as in the standard jigging technique, drop the tip quickly to allow the jig to flutter downward. The Shimano jigs have a great sideways flutter that really activates the predatory nature of the bottom fish, and the strikes often come fast and furious.
When there are a lot of lings around, or suspended fish on the finder, work the butterfly all the way back to the surface, by sharply raising the rod tip, and then quickly dropping the tip to start the flutter, but keep reeling the whole time, and repeat over and over again, until you have retrieved the jig to the surface. The idea is to make this look like a fleeing wounded baitfish. Once you have retrieved the jig all the way to the surface, drop it back down, and repeat again. This is often the best technique to use when fish are suspended, with strikes coming throughout the water column. When you aren’t marking any fish suspended though, you want to keep your gear working close to the bottom.
Some people like using a large curly tail grub jig on the bottom with a set of shrimp flies above it. The big jig on the bottom will most often draw lingcod, while the shrimp flies will get loaded up with rockfish.
You can also use swim baits, but you have to have a pretty slow drift to make this technique successful. The drift has to be slow enough, and you have to use a heavy enough lead head so you can easily make contact with the bottom. When you can do this, cast the swim bait down current, and let it sink to the bottom. Once it’s on the bottom either slowly retrieve it, making sure you are occasionally bumping bottom, or you can let the current slowly drag it across the bottom. This presentation accounts for mostly lingcod, and an occasional thumper cabezon. The key is staying very close to the bottom. When you are marking fish higher in the water column, or when they are suspending at mid to upper depths, retrieving a swim bait from the bottom all the way back to the top can produce some savage strikes.
Fishing with bait on dropper loops can also be a great way to get fish in the boat. Most any northwest bait can work, but herring and squid are probably the most commonly used. I really like squid because it’s tough enough the fish can’t immediately peck it off the hook if you don’t get hooked up. Circle hooks can be a big bonus when fishing this way, especially if you don’t have experienced fisherman with you. Instruct them to just begin reeling when they feel a bite, and often they will reel the circle hooks right into the corner of the fish’s mouth.
If you fish beyond 130 feet or so, you can begin to catch fish that can’t get back down if you release them. While Canary Rockfish and Yelloweye (protected species) generally live at depths of more than 40 fathoms (240 feet), they still might be encountered when fishing inshore. If they are caught in deep enough water and can’t get back down they will obviously die, so you have to find a way to help decompress them. Below is a link that will show you how to safely release fish that have swelled swim bladders.
Right now you can fish for halibut in less than 40 fathoms of water every day, but during selected weeks, there is an all depth season, which generally runs Thursday through Saturdays. We should know soon if our halibut quota for the spring was met, or if our additional days for all depth weekends will be allowed. Check the regulations to see upcoming all depth weekends, and remember when fishing halibut, you must land your fish at the dock before you can do any other bottom fishing, and all other bottom fish are currently closed to fishing beyond 40 fathoms.
For halibut fishing, people are generally fishing large herring on the bottom. There are many ways to rig for halibut, but the easiest is attaching a large spreader bar, with the lead attached on a 2″ dropper (to make it easy to break off if you snag the bottom), and a short one and a half foot leader on the other long arm of the spreader bar. The point of the short leader is to keep the mono from wrapping around the main line as you drop the gear to the bottom. As you drop a large weight down, long leaders will be fluttering above, and if they make contact or touch the main line, they will wrap around it, creating a nasty tangle. Worse, if you hook a large halibut with a leader tangled around the main line, the fish will often break you off as the leader saws back and forth across the main line.
A good rig to use is a one and a half foot 130 pound leader tied to a 16/0 circle hook, with black label herring used for bait. When using circle hooks, you have to let the fish eat your bait. As they begin to bite, slowly give them some line by lowering your rod tip. Keep moving the rod tip towards the fish until you feel a solid steady pull, then slowly start reeling in line, and the rod should load up with solid weight, and you should begin to feel headshakes. Don’t do any of this fast, or you’ll pop the circle hook out of the fishes mouth. The circle hook works by not hooking anything inside of the fish’s mouth, but when tension is SLOWLY added to the line, it pulls the hook to the corner of the fish’s jaw, where it will rotate and solidly hook the fish in the corner of the jaw. The whole trick is to build the tension slowly through the bite, or you’ll continually pop the hook right out of their mouths. Never try setting the hook, because this will only be successful on the occasional fish.
The best part of being in Garibaldi this time of year is if the ocean is cooperating, you can experience all of these fisheries, and better yet, you have great odds of being successful. There are also guide services that you can hire who can help cut down the learning curve, so get out there and try a Tillamook Bay mixed bag weekend!!