It’s time for another installment of local fisheries 101 in the absence of any relevant fishing reports to pass on. I have a lot of seasonal fishing focus ideas floating around in my head at any given point and when it comes time to pluck one from the ether, it can feel a little random. Subconsciously I’m probably starting with some of my favorites, but to be honest, wherever and whenever I find myself casting a fly along the time space continuum is going to be my favorite. That’s just how I roll and I appreciate the many aspects diverse pursuits. Today the needle lands on beach coho fly fishing. While much of what I’ll talk about is far-reaching and applicable to fly fishing for feeding coho from the beach throughout their range, I’m going to home in on Whidbey Island as it’s close to home for a lot of us and offers some pretty consistent opportunities to connect with salmon.
Fly fishing for coho from the beach is one of the more exciting challenges around Puget Sound. It’s casting intensive, requires perseverance and patience. Long hours fixating on the horizon, scanning the beach for activity, the gently lapping waves absorbing your every thought, punctuated by brief flurries of ferocious encounters, bright coho blitzing your fly and then cartwheeling away in the distance bound for Japan. It’s relaxing and then it’s crazy and I, like many I know, savor this inherent contrast.
When I was a twenty-something young buck, a fishing buddy of mine shared that he had been catching some coho off the breakwater of a beach not terribly far from where I grew up in Renton. Having little more than a 6 weight, floating line and some hastily-tied chartreuse over white Clouser Minnow patterns, I decided to check out the action on the incoming tide. I fished fastidiously for an hour with no sign of fish, casting from the breakwater, struggling to mitigate the terrible tangling of my line in the barnacled rocks (I’d never heard of a stripping basket at this point). Right as the flood tide was nearing its peak, a bright little coho leapt clear of the water about 30 feet from where I stood. I flopped an awkward cast in that direction and began feverishly stripping my Clouser back. A half dozen strips into it the fly stopped hard, the rod bowed and my magnificient first coho did the dance, twisting, turning, pulling line from my Pfleuger Medalist and jumping wildly. I landed the fish and though you’re probably poised for the divinely profound instance where I gently slipped the coho back into the sea, I ended up clubbing the 3 pound hatchery coho with a blunt scrap of driftwood and barbecuing it back home later that night. I was hooked in a big way.
There is nothing quite like patrolling a quiet stretch of beach on a lonely morning in the briny air. Watching as the thick morning fog slowly fades away and belting out long purposeful casts along the edge of a kelp bed. Most years, as August bleeds into September, this is where you’ll find me, chasing coho and looking to recreate that first unforgettable rush from some 25 years ago. Having cut my teeth fly fishing in south Puget Sound, there are a number of differences I’ve found between here and there when it comes to pursuing coho. The first and foremost is that it’s a bit more seasonal up here. Coho, like certain other salmonids may have several different life history options. There are ocean going coho which migrate well beyond the Strait of Juan de Fuca to parts unknown and there are residents, which spend the better part of their lives feeding with the confines of Puget Sound. Residents are much more prevalent deeper in the Sound and have both wild and hatchery components. There’ll not unlike sea run cutthroat as far as the niche they occupy and are frequently caught interchangeably off our favorite cutthroat beaches. They tend to have considerably more range, however, sometimes migrating further north in search of food during the summer, whereas the cutthroat more often stick to within a few miles of their natal stream for much of the year. Given their life history, resident coho, or “rezzies” in the South Sound are available for a large part of the year and we used to encounter them with unwavering frequency from late November clear through the following summer. The ocean coho, on the other hand are a seasonal affair, becoming available mostly from August through October in northern Puget Sound as they journey back to their rivers of origin throughout the Salish Sea. Fishing seasons vary from year to year based on abundance, but our general coho beach fishing window around Whidbey Island is August/September in an average return, and if we’re lucky, sometimes into October. These are the fish we’re after.
Now that we’ve narrowed down the seasonal timing, let’s get a little further into the where and when. Most of my coho beach fishing takes place on the west side of Whidbey for two reasons. The first is that there is infinitely more available public beach access on that side of the island than on the east side. The second is that the westside of Whidbey Island is a super highway for scores of salmon migrating further south into the Sound. While you may encounter lots of fish bound for the Snohomish or Skagit, you’re just as likely to have fish bee-lining for the Puyallup or Nisqually in the mix too. It’s simple math: greater numbers of fish equals greater opportunity for success. As far as access, there are numerous state parks and recreational areas where you can walk miles of beach: Deception Pass State Park, Fort Ebey, Ebey’s Landing, Fort Casey, Lagoon Point, Bush Point, Double Bluff, Possession Point to name many of them as you work your way south down the island. All of these places can have fish on any given day and tide combination during the brunt of the coho season.
I favor the mid island points, Bush, Lagoon and Admiralty Head as well as Ebey’s Landing. The trick is finding a place to fly fish comfortably without bumping elbows with hundreds of other people fishing. If you’ve ever been to any of these places when the bite is hot and word is out, they are not the portrait of successful social distancing. The thing is, everyone tends to clamor to the same little patch of rock or sand as though it’s the only place to be. Certainly, there are key points along any beach where fish migrate close or pause and congregate at times, but these salmon are typically on the move. You don’t have to wait in line with everyone fishing shoulder to shoulder at Point B when you could walk a 100 yards or more up the beach to intercept the fish at Point A before they get there. Migration direction is somewhat predictable on a lot of beaches, unless the fish are swimming circles chasing the available bait, which they’ll occasionally do. Generally speaking, if you are on a beach south of Partridge Point on Whidbey, I find fish are typically moving south around the island. North of that point, they’ll be moving in a northerly direction. Don’t crowd yourself in with everyone else fishing various methods of gear. We fly fishers need space to do what we do and it’s more enjoyable to have some breathing room. I learned years ago that apparently the best place from which to watch somebody fly cast is to stand directly in their backcast as you fruitlessly continue to try and keep doing what you’re doing, or so it would seem. Best to avoid this situation all together.
Breaking the timing and location piece of the puzzle down even further we’re going to dive right into tides. While it’s easy to liken Puget Sound to a great big salty lake, when the tide is moving it transforms into something much more akin to a river. In a river environment, the current is responsible for transporting food and in large part, dictates where a fish will and will not be. Fish, like humans, almost invariably seek out the path of least resistance. They want to be in current where they’re not having to work too hard and can use that same current to their advantage to deliver food or at least make it easier to capture. More math for you: If you expend more energy than you can ingest in the form of calories, the net result is that you don’t survive for the long haul. I only have to walk from the couch to the kitchen to eat an entire large pizza so I’ve long since figured that one out. Not really, but you get the point. Pick a tide where you are likely to have some decent water movement, meaning a difference of at least 5-6 feet between the extremes of high and low. Every beach is different, some fish better on really big tides, some with less tidal exchange, but on a relatively flat tide, bait won’t get concentrated, strong currents won’t force fish into more tight-knit areas, meaning the coho will tend to be scattered and more difficult to find, especially within casting range of the beach.
Generally I like to fish 2-3 hours on either side of the high tide but as long as you have decent water movement and a rocky cobbled bottom under it as opposed to large expanses of sand, fish to your heart’s content knowing there may be coho migrating by at any point. Beach structure is the other variable to think about. If you have a cluster of big boulders or rocky point somewhere along the beach, those spots can become likely ambush points that coho will use as a current break to attack herring or sand lance getting swept along in the water. Likewise, troughs and depressions in the beach topography serve some of the same functions. A trough will often act as a vacuum, funneling baitfish and other prey along the length of the beach and making it more accessible to predators like coho. When the water level is up, we can’t always easily see the beach structure below it, making it harder to read. It’s really valuable to visit a beach at low tide to survey the lay of the land. In the absence of that luxury, look for current seams and divisions between faster and slower moving water. Nine times out of ten, you will find salmon moving along these lines. Look especially for the seams that move in close to the beach so you don’t have to blow out your casting arm. If you can comfortably bomb a weighted herring pattern 120 feet consistently for hours on end, by all means, fish wherever you’d like. If, like me, this does not appeal to you, seek out the close seams within 40-50′ of the beach and make it easier on yourself.
If your jaw dropped at 40-50′ and you’re wondering whether or not you can cast that far, we’re talking about the length of the tapered portion of your average fly line plus a little running line. If you can’t cast that far, there’s no shame in that, neither could I when I started out. We can help you learn to make long casts efficiently and pick up some skills like the double haul that make you way more efficient. Yes, we will absolutely discuss rods and lines and flies, but at the end of the day, your ability to cast far, with consistency and efficiency is what will connect you with more coho from the beach than anything else. We give private casting lessons at the shop. Though we’re not sure what any of that looks like with the current CV19 pandemic, we’re confident that this level of instruction will one day be back on the table.
We get a lot of questions about using spey rods or switch rods off the beach. There is no doubt most people can cast farther with less effort using a longer rod. They’re handy pretty handy in tight quarters where backcasting room can be at a premium. They are not, however, a substitute for learning to cast well with a single hander and do even have some disadvantages in my opinion. The primary disadvantage to using a really long rod is that you’re going to be stripping your fly in repeatedly as you present to fish. Holding a 13′ rod in the stripping position for hours at a time is exhausting on your wrist and forearm. Add to this the reality that a lot, and I mean a lot of coho will follow your fly all the way to within a few feet of the beach before inhaling it. With a long rod, you’re going to run out of room stripping your fly in faster than you will using a more modest length and often those few feet of difference make all the difference.
What do I fish off the beach for coho? I love 9-9 ½’ 6 to 8 weight rods. The 6’s will comfortably handle most Puget Sound coho which don’t get a whole lot bigger than 6-8 lbs. I use the 7 or 8 in situations where I expect to be throwing bigger flies or fishing windy conditions or, if given the bonus of a coho season extending into October, know there’s a greater likelihood of hooking something in the 10-15 lb. range which will almost certainly destroy me on the 6 weight. I prefer a faster action rod for beach fishing. It’s going to combat the wind, address the need for distance and a deliver a weighted or bulky fly better than the alternatives. The Echo Ion XL’s, Boost Salts and Redington Vices are sweet rods on a budget, the Echo 3 Saltwater and Redington Predators are good mid-priced options in the $300 range. The Echo EPR and Sage Mavericks are $450-$550 and are next level beach rods that cast flat amazing, as are the Sage X’s and Salt HD’s for a few more bills. Most of the mid-range rods and above, as well as the Echo Boost Salt have enlarged stripping guides which is a nice feature for rods designed to cast and shoot a lot of line and minimize tangles. All feature an anodized reel seat which is useful in the salt.
As far as reels to compliment the rod, something as simple as the $100 Lamson Liquid or simarly priced Redington Behemoth is going to work fine. Upgrading to a machined reel like the Redington Rise ($200+) or any of the Ross Reels gains you more precision performance. The Ross Evolution R Salt is more expensive, but you find yourself with an exquisitely machined reel with a sealed drag for $595. The Solitude reels are fantastic on the beach too and are in the $200-$400 range depending on the size. We are actually offering a free extra spool with the purchase of any Solitude reel currently. They feature a fully sealed drag system that is buttery smooth. Sealed drags have the advantage of ensuring grit like sand doesn’t make it’s way into the drag and affect performance or introduce any corrosion. Non-sealed drags work perfectly fine too. Regardless of your equipment, you are going to want to give everything a thorough rinse or bath in freshwater after every use anyway.
While there are a lot of rod/reel options that will serve you well on the beach, the right line will make or break the whole system. I tend to like shorter shooting head type weight forward tapers for my beach fishing. The tapers are 30-37.5′ long on average and have enough mass to them to turn over the flies I’m typically fishing and allow you to shoot line in your cast. Most beaches have obstructions like driftwood piles or a steep bluff or beach angle that is going to limit the amount of backcasting room available to you, especially around high tide. Shooting line is another skill to acquire and practice. I can’t carry 60′ of line in my backcast when I only have 30′ of open space behind me. If I can load the rod with 30′ and shoot another 30′ behind it I can make it work. Some of the lines I use that excel under most beach fishing conditions are the Rio Coastal Quickshooter, Intouch Outbound, and Outbound Shorts. As for other line properties, a slow sinking intermediate like the Coastal Quickshooter is ideal the majority of the time. I also like to carry a full floating line much of the time if I want to fish Poppers or Gurglers on the surface, but I still find myself using the intermediate the lion’s share of the time. If you desire to extend the life of your fly line and vastly simplify the process of managing and successfully shooting line, buy a stripping basket. You can make your own out of an old Rubbermaid dish tub and bungee cord on the cheap, or spend $70 on one of the Linekurv baskets we carry and never have to think about building another one. The Linekurv is super ruggedly designed, has a convenient carry handle, a contoured shape to accommodate your beer belly or more modest figure and conical line separators molded into the basket to help prevent your line from snarling into an obnoxious rat’s nest just when you’re ready to make that hero cast.
You’ll want to wear your standard waders and boots. We do have people ask if saltwater will damage their regular breathable waders. It won’t but you should rinse them and your boots thoroughly in freshwater following a salty adventure. Evaporated salt residues as with any dirt or grime can clog the pores on the wader material that allow them to breath. They won’t leak per se, but the extra moisture that accumulates inside and doesn’t pass through the membrane will make you feel damp by the end of the day, and nobody likes that. I suppose you could wade in sweats as I have occasionally seen people do when the salmon are running. But Puget Sound is not terribly warm even in late summer and you really owe it to your happiness, your comfort and perhaps your unborn children to wear waders and an appropriate insulating garment beneath them.
The very last articles of equipment we’ll discuss are flies and leaders. Leaders are pretty simple. Off my clear intermediate lines I use a 5-6′ chunk of #12 Seaguar STS Fluorocarbon. I’ll often incorporate a short (12-24″) section of #20 mono of fluorocarbon between that and the fly line, primarily to preserve the factory loop at the end of the line. A thicker material will have less tendency to cut into the fly line loop, thereby making it last longer. On a floater, I opt for a 9′ #8 or #10 Rio Salmon/Steelhead Leader. Flies can really be as simple as you want them to be. That same chartreuse over white Clouser that I caught my first beach coho on many moons ago continues to produce fish today. We’re thinking in broad strokes. Coho along Whidbey will be predominantly feeding on sand lance or herring much of the time. Sandlance are long and skinny, almost like an eel and herring are broad and stout. I want to fish something that roughly matches the profile and the length of the baitfish I’m noticing in the water as a start, but my pattern selection is usually pretty spartan. Clousers in pink/white, chartreuse/white and pink/chartreuse are staples. Coho swim by and then are gone much of the time. These bright attractor combos get noticed easily and often attacked. I actually find that when there’s a lot of bait in the water, I do better throwing a fly that stands out and looks different than the naturals. I also prefer stinger style Clousers, not so much because I think the fish short strike them (they generally don’t) but because they tend to foul a lot less when casting. There’s nothing worse than nailing a beautiful long cast and bringing your fly in to discover it’s wrapped around its own axle. Check your fly for fouling from time to time and also to remove any seaweed or eel grass that may end up on the hook. Beyond the Clousers, Imitators, Pinheads, Shock & Awes (a tube fly) and the Psychedlic Herring work really well. If you tie your own, the Tung In Cheek Herring, Coho Sand Lance, and Silver Bullet are a few I’ve fishing for years that work extremely well. I do throw Beach Poppers and Gurglers from time to time. It’s great fun and pretty memorable to witness a savage topwater eat, but I’ll admit that I tend to switch to topwater presentations on those days when there seem to be a lot of fish around and I’m already doing better than I think I deserve in the subsurface game. But that’s just me.
Presentation is to be our final topic on beach coho and we’ve already covered some of it. Step one, cast far. The farther you cast, the more time your fly is going to spend in the water. The more time your fly is in the water the more fish will see it and if all goes well, eat it. For an English major who professes to not like math, I’m sure force feeding the equations this time around. Being successful on the beach for coho is about keeping your fly fishing in likely water as much as you can. It is about stamina and sticking it out with a succession of “one more casts”. As you’re chasing a moving target, the windows come and go quickly and you want to be able to capitalize on as many opportunities as possible. Coho tend to like a fast moving fly. I retrieve my flies with quick erratic strips with an occasional pause. Rarely do I pick up much with a slow and methodical retrieve. Make your fly look scared, injured, dazed and confused. These behaviors trigger the predatory instinct in coho looking for an easy meal. One very effective way to get your fly moving fast is to tuck the rod under your armpit and strip the fly quickly with both hands going hand over hand on the line. This is my favorite technique and has an added benefit. When you feel a coho take the fly, and it’s seldom going to be subtle or mistaken for anything else, you ideally want to strip set the fly before raising the rod. Often a coho may take a whack at the fly to stun it or even slap it with its tail. The initial resistance you feel is often just that. If you continue stripping the fish will usually turn and annihilate the fly at some point, if you set the hook like a big cutthroat just ate your Chubby Chernobyl, it’s a potential blown opportunity.
Whidbey coho on the fly from the beach is one of the more unique and fulfilling fisheries during the summer around here and well worth exploring. It’s a mix of wild and hatchery fish and the season length and regulations can fluctuate from year to year. Most years one or two hatchery fish can be retained. Some years, so can wild coho in certain marine areas. As a personal practice I release all wild fish. In a mixed stock fishery like Puget Sound, it’s troublesome to me to imagine that that fish with an intact adipose fin might be one of 6 fish returning to some degraded urban stream. Those hatchery fish on the other hand, still taste as good as they did 25 years ago and I may be inclined keep a few here and there to grace the BBQ. Don’t hestitate to let us help you put together a beach outfit or supplement what you already have. And should you already everything under the sun in the way of equipment, let us know if we can help you become a better beach caster. Thanks, and I always appreciate any feedback you have on these articles and sometimes drawn out ramblings of a guy that’s pretty darn consumed by fly fishing. Also, holler if you have topic ideas, fisheries, techniques and such that you’d like me to talk about in the future. If you have a particular question, it’s likely that others do too.