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The Five Rules of Saltwater Fishing

James Brauch - 1/31/2005
There are five rules of fishing which most successful fishers follow, even if they are unaware they are following them. These "rules" are not to be confused with the LAW of fishing which states "If your line is not in the water, you are not fishing!", nor are they to be confused with the law of fishing rods which states, "Two or more rods placed in close proximity of each other will find a way to tangle!". Fishing for salmon in local salt water requires a an understanding of the five rules and how they relate to the various species of fish you will find in our local salt water areas.

FISH WHERE THE FISH ARE, NOT WHERE THEY AIN’T: As with any type of fishing, you must know not only where in the water your targeted fish will be but when they will show up in those waters. Many species will be in the Puget Sound all through the year but there are runs of fish which enter the local rivers to spawn. Knowing when these fish come into local waters and knowing where in the water they congregate will make the majority of your fishing trips successful. For example, fishing for Humpy salmon during the month of June in front of Mukilteo will probably be an exercise in futility. Humpie salmon arrive in great numbers in mid-August during odd numbered years (1999, 2001, 2003) so June is not the correct month and 2002 is not the correct year! There is a growing run of "even number" Humpies but they are protected and you can be arrested for killing them. You must also know where these fish prefer to gather prior to their spawning run.

Steelhead: Although not generally considered a "salt water" fish, Steelhead are targeted from the beach along the west side of Whidbey Island and at Deception Pass, mostly during the winter months. They are also caught as an incidental fish during the salmon season on conventional salmon gear, although not very often. Learn to identify Steelhead ( totally white mouth, spotted tail, detached anal fin) so if you do catch one, you can mark it properly on your punch card. They also will not count in your "salmon quota" so you can catch more fish if you wish. These fish will be found close to shore making their migration to the rivers in 3 to ten feet of water. Bush Point, Fort Casey State Park and off the beach at Deception Pass give you access to them during November, December and January. Watch the regulations closely and observe private property laws.

Chinook: Chinook salmon are in the local waters at all times but due to fishing regulations which protect certain runs of fish on their spawning schedules, they are only available during some very specific times. Check your regulations closely since you will receive a large penalty if you willfully violate the law on one of the protected runs of Chinook salmon and ignorance is no excuse. In addition to the resident fish (called Blackmouth) which are in the water year round, there are distinct runs coming into the Puget Sound area to spawn. Neither the spring Chinook, summer Chinook nor the fall Chinook are generally available in salt water due to regulations so I will not address them but if they ever are open, the method of fishing will be similar to what is included here. The season for Blackmouth is November 1-November 30 and again February 1- March 31 in area 8-1 and area 9 and November 1-November 31 and again February 15-April 10 in area 8-2 (don’t try to make sense of it, it’s government) all with a one fish limit. At all other times, Chinook must be release unharmed! Look for these fish in water 90-120 feet deep on the bottom or in deeper water at the 90-120 foot level. They will come up higher to feed if the bait is there but will spend most of their time deeper. Blackmouth are active feeders so look for schools of herring either on the surface or under the water on your depth finder and concentrate your efforts in the area of the bait ball, fishing below the bottom of the herring school. These fish also feed on candlefish or sand lances which congregate in sandy bottoms. If you catch a Chinook and it has noticeable scratches on its nose, it has been routing in the sand for candlefish, start mooching a jig. My favorite spots are the "race track" between Hat Island and Camano Island, South East side of Hat Island, Columbia Beach (where the Mukilteo Fairy docks, sand lances are on the bottom here) and Possession Point, especially near the "horseshoe" but along the bar. There are many other areas such as Double Bluff and Point No Point but just look for the 90-120 foot level and fish deep-right close to the bottom. The only area I know of where they are available to shore anglers on a regular basis is the Edmonds Public Fishing Pier which is open year round. We have a special fishery from June 30-September 30 for Tulalip "bubble" Chinook salmon. These fish are planted by the tribes and they have made them available to sport fishers from 12:01 Friday through 11:59 Monday with a two fish limit. These fish will suspend in the water column and may be found shallow or deep. Tom Nelson will talk about how to target these fish.

Coho: One of my favorite fish to catch both in fresh and salt water. We have a resident population of small Coho but the ones we wait for are the spawning runs from early July through late September and beyond. These fish enter the local waters and form large feeding schools starting near Admiralty Inlet and continuing through Double Bluff, Point No Point, Possession Point (try the outside bar) and on into either area 10 or area 8-2. Coho stay in the very deep water, 400-600 feet (or more) but occupy the top 75 feet of this water. In the early morning hours, start trolling as shallow as 25 feet dropping in 5 foot increments as the sun comes up until you reach the 75 foot level or below. The majority of my fish come at 35 feet with 55 to 65 feet being the second best. Do not hesitate to go deeper if necessary but most of the biters will be in this depth range and if you have sufficient fish and proper methods, you will catch well over your limit (but only keep your limit). I go half way to Columbia Beach from Mukilteo and start trolling right down the middle of the channel-you will not be crowded and you will be pleasantly surprised. I fish south as far as the outside tip of Possession Bar if necessary staying in the middle where the deep water is and circling when I get a fish since I want to stay with that school if possible (this is where a good G. P. S. comes in handy). Particular places of interest where fish gather are the "slide", the first and second silver box, "the houses", "shipwreck", the square house, the "bait box", etc. Learn these areas and spend time there. These fish will be available to shore anglers from the Edmonds Pier, the Mukilteo Beach area, along the west side of Whidbey Island and at the "Bait Box" on Whidbey Island (Puget Sound Anglers plants Coho there for this purpose along with Puget Sound Bait Co.). Another location is in Port Susan, accessible from Kayak Point County Park for the fish gathering to go up the Stillaguamish River. Coho will stage off the southeast end of Hat Island and in the deep water off the mouth of the Snohomish River but in these areas they are acclimating to fresh water in preparation for their run up the river. During this time they do not feed as actively and are not as easy to catch, though you can catch them with the right gear.

Humpies: The Humpies or Pinks come into the local waters in August and September for their spawning runs with enormous runs in odd years. They have the same schooling patterns as the Coho but the schools are much larger and they tend to gather in what’s called "Humpie Hollow" and the deep water areas from Mukilteo State Park south to, or near, the ship wreck. These fish also like the deeper water, 400 to 600 feet deep, and will be found in the top 75 feet of that water. Humpies will show you where they are by splashing on the surface. As with the Coho, start shallow at 25 feet or less and work your way down as the sun comes up. I catch the majority of my fish at the 35 foot level with the second best being 65 feet. As with Coho, if you get a bite, stay in that area and that depth as long as you can since they run in large schools. Mark the area on your G. P. S. so you can come back to it since these fish seem to school in the same areas with new schools coming in. These fish also gather in great numbers at the mouth of the Snohomish River to prepare for their spawning runs and will drive you a bit mad as the play around and not bite. You can catch them but with much difficulty. A successful fishery has also developed off Kayak Point County Park for these fish using pink Buzz Bombs and jigs.

Chum: I do not know anyone who has learned to catch our local Chum salmon on a consistent basis in the local salt water. They are caught incidentally along with other fish but are not generally targeted in the local salt water. They can be caught off Kayak Point as they stage for the Stillaguamish River and there is a great beach fishery in Hoods Canal, if you don’t mind large crowds, off the Hoodsport Hatchery and other locations in that area.

Sockeye: There is no active fishery for Sockeye salmon in the salt water that I know of though they are caught at times with conventional salmon tackle. Sometimes, though entirely too seldom, a fishery is allowed in Lake Washington for these highly desirable salmon. The area restrictions will be published if opened but these fish will gather in the lake in deep water and be available in the top portion of that water all the way to the bottom. The south side of the Highway 520 Bridge is usually the starting point with the radio towers, Seward Park, south end of Mercer Island and other locations between serving as gathering points prior to their migration up the Cedar River for spawning. The Cedar River is never open and I know of no successful beach fisheries though I do see people trying off points and docks!

Sea run Cutthroat trout: This is a minor fishery targeted by just a small number people, due to the depressed runs of these wonderful fish, and is totally artificial lures, barbless hooks and catch and release in the salt water. Use light gear, troll a small spoon or a fly along the drop off of shallow water or along the sand bars where the fish feed upon sand shrimp and other small living beings. I like the low tides since you find the drop off areas easier and can fish them more effectively. In July and August, when the trout are preparing for their spawning runs they will feed in the salt water at low tide then move into the estuaries (where fresh and salt water mix) during the high tide. Look for them along the shore line in the estuaries feeding on insects caught by the incoming tide. You can use bait and keep two fish over 14 inches if you wish to in the rivers. Access in the river is easy but concentrate your effort along the shore line, not in the middle of the river! Coho are often in the same areas and you may hook into more than you are prepared for-have fun!

MATCH THE HATCH: As with all other types of fishing, once you have located the schools of fish you wish to catch, you must offer what they are interested in eating. Most of the fish you will target are actively feeding but have specific food sources they are feeding on and your job is to closely approximate what they want. You will know when you have succeeded by the activity taking place on your fishing rod. Fish will often target more than one food source or will take what is offered even if it is not what we think they should want. I often hook Chinook while fishing for Humpies and Coho, I hook Humpies on Coho gear and Coho on Humpy gear (hang on for this one), but your greatest success will come when you make your offering somewhat specific to the species you are targeting. The speed of your presentation is critical when fishing salt water so matching the hatch will cover offerings as well as speed you should be trolling.

Steelhead: Steelhead will eat herring, deep water shrimp and other small fish in their migrating path but seem to target shallow water crustaceans such as sand shrimp as they come around Whidbey Island. The main method of catching them from the beach is to cast large hootchy skirts headed by a large spin and glow and quickly dragging these items across the bottom to your feet. I caution you not to stand in the water since the strike often comes just as you prepare to lift your offering out of the water-they follow it right up to the shore. If you stand in the water, you will not only spook the fish but will draw the ire of those who are fishing close to you and they will not hesitate to let you know you should get out of the water. I have heard of those who use bait or plugs for this fishery but just watch what the successful anglers are doing and copy it-you may get lucky. Cast out, reel in, not very exciting so vary your speed of retrieval and stop and go with it. Sometimes a fish will be following without biting and the change will draw a bite but keep it close to the gravel bottom.

Chinook: Chinook are the largest salmon in the world but not necessarily the most active. I think nature has let them know that weight gain is a function of calories in versus calories out, something we all should realize, and often they will not put out a lot of effort to eat. Their major food source in the salt water is herring which they will feed on actively if they do not have to work too hard to catch them. Subsequently, give Chinook a slow offering that looks like an easy meal and your success rate will increase. Cut a herring with a slow roll (Jim Rice will show you how) and troll slowly in the proper water-you will find the fish. Chinook will also take artificial plugs (Doug Olson will show this) and will actively attack the right spoon or squid behind a rotating flasher, as long as it does not go too fast. I like Lure Jensen Coyote spoons about 36-42 inches behind a Hot Shot flasher using a strong leader, up to 40 pounds, to take up the shock of the fish strike. I like a Gold Star, green, splatter back squid the same length back with a strip of herring on the top hook to give it smell and added flash. When using cut plug herring, drop down to a 15 pound leader and troll that alone with no flasher-a stronger leader inhibits the action of the herring which must have a slow, "lazy" roll. Chinook are most active feeders early in the morning or at tide changes. Look for schools of herring either on the surface or with your electronics-feeding salmon will be below the schools. DO NOT troll or mooch directly on the school of herring since that will cause it to break up and the bite will be over. Mooching, the dangling of a herring under a weight, is a very effective method of catching Chinook if fished properly and is exclusively used by some charter operations. The first hit by a Chinook will often not be a take, it is meant to stun or injure the herring so the salmon can come back and feed at its leisure. Do not set the hook on the first hit, wait for the fish to come back and allow the salmon to take the bait-then set the hook hard! Buzz Bombs or other jigs, properly fished, are an effective method of catching Chinook salmon-they will hit on the down fall and only make one hit at the lure-set the hook then. Set the hook hard on a Chinook since they have tough mouths and a light set will not hook them.

Coho: Coho feed on herring but they will also take krill (a small surface seeking crustacean which feeds on the plankton and zooplankton). Herring also feed on the krill so you get the best of both worlds when you find the krill, Coho and herring. Coho tend to strike more readily at a fast moving bait so give them what they want. I like a cut plug herring cut on a 45/45 angle which will give it a fast spin. Travel fast on your troll (2.5 mph or more) and zigzag regularly to speed up or slow down your presentation. Coho will readily take a cut plug herring on the surface and I often put one out with a 6 oz lead. Another effective Coho method when all others fail is to troll fast and leave your herring in the small wake behind the boat, vicious strikes sometimes take place so retie often or the knots will break. Basically, you cannot go too fast for a Coho and many people have reports of running full throttle to the dock and having their lure, which has been bouncing in the wake behind the boat, disappear along with their rod and reel-that was a Coho strike! Another very effective method is a green or blue splatter back squid 20 inches behind a flasher or 18 inches behind a dodger with a strip of herring on the top hook. Spoons such as Coyote by Lure Jensen or Coho Killers by Silver Hoard work extremely well either behind a flasher or on their own (best behind a flasher) and some use Coho flies (the Grand Slam Bucktail Fly is the best recent manufacture). When you get into a school, stay with the school and circle it, run back to it or do what it takes to keep working over it until the bite goes off or you lose the school. Remember, the fish are working their way towards the river, look for the fish to go that way! Mooching or Buzz Bomb fishing is very effective for Coho once you find the school but find the school first. Look for the tide rips. These will be lines of material washed out by the tide which draw in the bait fish (to feed on the material trapped in the rip) and draw the Coho to feed on the bait fish. Fish either side of these rips shallow and you will find one side produces better than the other-stay with the productive side. You will note other boats, if the skippers know what they are doing, joining you at these rips so watch out for collisions. When the large schools of Coho are in, you should have no problem catching as many as you wish. Coho have a tender mouth so do not force them in.

Humpies: These fish will be found in the same general area as the Coho (see rule #1) and in fact, often the Coho will be under the Humpy school, but they feed differently. They feed almost exclusively on krill or other small crustaceans and you must match your presentation to their feeding patterns, Krill will move in small jerky motions as they drift very slowly in the water column. The best Humpy rig is a pink F15 squid 16 inches behind a white plastic flasher. Put a little Power Bait under the squid head and go very slow. How slow you might ask? As slow as you can, then slow down! Fish this rig in the proper location at the proper times and limits will be almost automatic. Follow a different method and you are on your own. Be ready for the occasional Chinook or Coho who has not read this paper and will strike at your set up even though it is not their preferred bait. I know fish go to schools but I don’t think they quite know what we expect them to do. Humpies will also go for a jig, a pink Buzz Bomb, a spoon, even a squid/herring combination at times but the absolutely most successful rig in salt water is that described above. Use the zigzag method and if you get the strikes on the inside rod, the one going slower and deeper, adjust your speed and depth; if you get the strikes on the outside rod, the faster and shallower rod, adjust again. Like the Coho, these fish gather in huge schools so stay with the school when you find it and come back to that location on your next trip because the fish will be there. During low water years, they will stay out in this area until the first heavy rains come then make a bee line to the river. Then the Coho start to strike. These fish have an extremely tender mouth and will come off often, do not force them to the net, guide them gently.

Chum: These fish feed on the same things as the Humpies but I know of no one who actually targets them in the salt water successfully except in Hoods Canal. Fishing off the Hoodsport Hatchery or in that area, rig up a river fishing rig with lead, leader, corky (green, orange, pink, etc.), yarn and a very sharp hook-cast it into the schools of fish trying not to catch the other 100 people doing the same thing and either let it lie there or slowly retrieve it to you. You will know when the fish is there, they are not subtle, and you can have the time of your life-especially if you have hooked a 20 pound Chum in the tail or dorsal fin. These are also great on a small green or pink fly but use a #8 or larger fly rod, they will destroy anything lighter. Trying to force a Chum, many people have discovered, can break strong rods so be careful.

Sockeye: These fish are not targeted in salt water but if a fishery is open in Lake Washington, head down into the maddening crowds and have a good time. This is a boat fishery and there will be plenty of them to keep you company. Use an "0" dodger with one or two red hooks about 9-16 inches behind (yes!, just hooks!) and go very slowly; very, very slowly. In the old days we used F20, flame orange Flatfish but in about 1988, this method came into vogue. Sockeye are krill eaters and the hook apparently looks like a krill to them-I have no other idea why it works but it does. There is also a fishery for Sockeye in Lake Wenatchee some years, use the same method there. At Lake Wenatchee, the launch is at the opposite end of where the fish gather and it is a long run up the lake. The wind comes up to 25 mph and this can be a nervous run so be careful. The state also has a small, unimproved launch at the upper end but it will be crowded (the fish are small also). These fish have a tender mouth so be gentle.

Sea Run Cutthroat Trout: Rule #1 tells you most of what you need to know. In the salt water, use flies (shrimp patterns are very successful) or small spoons such as Dick Nite (red/white is good) or McNight or one of the Wicked Willie type spoons. In the estuaries, use these same things cast towards the shore or in the back water eddies where the fish will come to feed. You can also use bait such as worms or night crawlers but you will hook whitefish and "shiners" (immature sea perch) as well as bullheads. Use a strip of flesh off the side of the shiner or keep a small whitefish that bites your worm in the water and you may be visited by a Cutthroat Trout. Size limit is 14 inches but feel free to release everything. You may note that when the trout come into the area, most other fish leave, to the trout, everything else is food. You may also be surprised by an errant Coho or Steelhead who decides to give you a fast, but sometimes short, ride.


This is an easy rule to follow yet is one broken most often. We tend to stick with the lure or method that worked the last time we were successful. There is a good reason for this since if it worked in the past, why would it not work now? We tend to depend upon that "old reliable" that has worked so often before and will not change when it does not work this time. We become so absolutely sure it will work, we ignore facts such as fish being caught all around us by people using a different method or the other obvious, nobody is catching fish and they are using the same thing as you. The fish are not aware that your "favorite" lure worked in the past, they only know what they want to bite, without regard to you. In real estate they say, "location, location, location!", in fishing, I say, "change, change, change!". Keep at least two rods with you in the boat and have both rigged with different things. When you decide to change, bring one up and put the other down without taking time to re-tie a new lure. Even if what you put down is not what you want to fish with, for example, you break off and want to put the same thing down, you are at least fishing with something in the water (remember the LAW of fishing). Change your speed, change your depth, zigzag and pay attention to which rod gets the strikes, watch other fishermen and see what they are using and if they are successful, change to what they are using. Do not get into the habit of using the same thing. We may not know why fish change their feeding patterns but we do know they do-try something different and be the successful person that day.


This is a primary rule of fishing much like the one above. Some people are stuck with the idea that you must be patient to be a fisherman-nonsense! Patience is doing the same wrong thing in the same wrong place all day and going home with few, or usually no, fish. Persistence is changing methods, locations, presentations, depths and any other thing you can think of until you find out what works. At that time, you will become successful and the game of fishing will become much more fun. Charlie White, a researcher of fishing and inventor of many successful fishing items, states in his presentations that active fish in salt water will be in as small an area as five feet, if you fish outside that five foot area, you will not catch fish. He also points out that only one in ten of the fish which appear to show an interest in your presentation, actually strike at it-90% of the fish you place you lure in front of will not strike! (Of course, my grandfather told me many years ago that only one out of ten fish will strike at any one time and he wasn’t a researcher, only a very successful fisherman.) Patience is vastly overrated as a fishing technique and should never be considered virtue when fishing. Be persistent, always have something different to try and you will be successful. As in rule # 3, change, change, change! Never stay too long with a presentation which is not working, especially if you know the fish are present.


This is my favorite rule when it comes to fishing. Any day you can get out on the water, in my opinion, is better than any day you must spend working or completing some loathsome task. There are things which must be done to maintain a pleasant household, you must spend time with family and friend (and even in-laws) and you should do some volunteer things to help your community but all of those things can be put behind you when you are fishing. Life is good! Enjoy the day, enjoy the company, take a kid fishing and enjoy his/her excitement when they make new discoveries of things you, with your infinite wisdom, have taken for granted all these years. Have an unhealthy snack and don’t worry about your cholesterol count or the calories for I truly believe a day spent fishing is not deducted from your life span but adds to it. Finally, when the fish refuse to bite, when the rains come and you become uncomfortable, when you discover you forgot an important piece of equipment and can not go back for it ("Where’s the net?"), or when the other people are casting over your line, bumping into your boat, crowding your water or otherwise being a nuisance, just remember; you are dealing with an animal which has a brain the size of a small pea, functions totally on instinct and has never had a conscious thought in its life-and the fish are not very smart either.

Have a great time!