Best place to catch a 40-plus-pound salmon on the West Coast this month: the extreme southern fringe of the Oregon coast, where the lower Chetco River estuary and Rogue Bay will kick out the biggest Chinook in the lower 48 until the first major rains of the fall arrive.
Southern Oregon anglers have seen the resurgence of a king-salmon fishery in Rogue Bay this season after two years of sub-par fishing on this legendary estuary of the Rogue River. In years past, Rogue Bay was THE place to go in September and October for a 40-plus-pound fish, as evidenced by the 71-pound world record fly-caught Chinook pulled out of Rogue Bay in late October of 2002.
The lower Rogue troll has been dismal the past two years, though, so the lights-out fishery this fall has been a welcome return to glory for longtime Rogue anglers like Sam Waller of Jot's Resort (www.jotsresort.com)
"There's no comparison (to 2007 and 2008)," Waller says. "It's just that much better. We've apparently had good ocean conditions and good feed when the smolts are going out over the last couple of years, so we've had an excellent fishery this year."
Rogue Bay's October staying power is completely dependant upon Mother Nature. Chinook and coho bound for upriver spawning grounds will mill around in the estuary until the first major downpours of fall hit the Oregon "Banana Belt," causing salmon to rocket up out of the saltwater into the various spawning tributaries of the Rogue River. That could happen tomorrow, next week or two weeks from now, but the Indian Creek run will linger the longest, providing the bulk of the early-October trophy opportunity.
"The fish that stage at Indian Creek will hold there near the creek until we get enough rain to really bring Indian Creek up," says Paul LeFebvre of the Rogue Outdoor Store in Gold Beach. "They can be pretty tough to catch once they tuck in near the creek, except really early in the morning and late at night."
The bay bite is driven by the tide, with the best bite occurring from the Coast Guard station to Indian Creek (roughly ½ mile above the Highway 101 bridge) on an incoming tide, and from the Coast Guard station to the jetty jaws on an outgoing tide. Standard bait here is a green-on-green Luhr-Jensen Rogue Bait Rig and plug-cut herring, or a whole anchovy.
Chetco hawgs arrive
The Chetco River estuary falls well under the shadow of Rogue Bay, but this small estuary located just 6 miles north of the California border might be the better bet for ratio of giant Chinook.
That's the word from Andy Martin at Wild Rivers Fishing (www.wildriversfishing.com), who slammed a 70-pound hawg Chinook in the Chetco estuary on Sept. 30 trolling a cutplug herring on a Rogue Bait Rig.
"The Chetco has a well-earned reputation for producing the best overall per-fish size in Oregon," Martin said. "The Rogue has some huge fish the 60- and 70-pounders but the Chetco has more 50-pounders every year than any other river."
The Chetco River's Nov. 7 opener is typically one of the most hotly anticipated days of the year in Oregon's Curry Count and NorCal's Del Norte County because of the big-fish potential provided by the river's 4- and 5-year-old returns.
The Chetco River Ocean Terminal fishery, which is usually open off the mouth of the river in early October, is closed this year because of protection measures to protect a small run of Chetco adult fish, but the run hasn't had any commercial interception for two years.
The potential windfall: October opportunity for big Chinook in the shallow waters in the Chetco estuary, between Highway 101 and the open ocean.
"Those fish will stay in the bay for a while and then scoot back out into the ocean on the tide," Martin said. "They want to go upriver, but they can't because the water is too low. They go up as far as they can, but they don't like sitting in that big, warm tidewater pool. The fishing will build and build until there's a major rain, and all those fish will shoot upriver."
Basic setup here is a green/green Rogue Bait Rig and herring or anchovy scented with Pautzke Nectar, rigged on an 18-inch dropper and trolled close to the bottom.
Editor's note: Based in North Puget Sound and operating from Alaska to Baja, Joel Shangle has been a news junkie on the West Coast saltwater scene since the 1990s, first as editor of California Fishing & Hunting News' and now as editor of California Sportsman, which hits newsstands in October. He's the host of Northwest Wild Country, a popular fishing and hunting radio show airing throughout western Washington, and has the deepest source list this side of the Library of Congress. In other words: if you're catching fish on the West Coast, just try to get away from him.