The Best How To Guide for Coho Salmon River Fishing

Every fall coho salmon return to our Washington rivers.  This fish are more numerous than their larger cousins, the chinook, and can be quite aggressive at time.  They are a very popular salmon to fish for and catch.

This guide covers the basics on how to catch these fish once they enter the rivers to spawn.  Those those experienced fishermen looking for advanced tips and tricks I suggest checking out the Coho page, after reading through this article.

All About The Coho

Coho salmon, also known as silver salmon or just silvers, start their life hatching from their eggs in late winter or early spring.  Even after hatching they spend six to seven more weeks in the redd, growing from the nutients in the egg sack.

Unlike some other species, the immature coho spend considerable time in freshwater before migrating to the ocean.  At least one year, maybe two, are spent in the river or off channel pools and tributaries before their outward migration.  When the time comes they move to salt water in late spring to early summer.

Due to this extended period of time in the river they are more greatly impacted by habitat issues, compared to other species like Pink Salmon and Chum Salmon, which migrate quickly out to sea.

Once in the ocean they focus on feeding and growing.  Then at two to three years of age they migrate back to the rivers to spawn.

Once in the rivers the fish begin to change in shape and color.  The males develop kypes, which are hooked snouts and large teeth.  The sides of the fish also turn a bright red, such fish are sometimes called “firetrucks.”

Like most migrating salmon caught in freshwater, the quality of the meat is best when those spawning changes are minimal.  Later in the season it is possible to catch bright silver fish, but if it is a female then it is likely the meat quality may still be lacking due to the protein being redirected into egg development.

The average spawning adult size varies by river system and hatchery versus native.  In most systems an average hatchery coho is 4 to 6 pounds, and an average native is 6 to 8 pounds.  However, there are some rivers where 10 to 15 pound fish are not uncommon – usually native.  The Washington state record for saltwater and freshwater are both over 25 pounds.

snohomish-coho

Coho are a bit of a paradox, because they can be quite aggressive, but also can be easily spooked.  If the water is low and clear, you need to “engage stealth mode” to avoid spooking them.  Loud noises, lots of movement or boats passing by can spook them and put them off the bite.  When that happens it may take up to 30 minutes for them to calm back down.

Even if the water has more limited availability avoid running your boat over areas where the fish hold, or fish where there is a lot of boat traffic – especially if targeting holding fish.

Hide Or Seek

Before we can catch coho we must first know where they are – otherwise we would be fishing blind and wasting our time.

When we think about salmon returning to the river to spawn, there are only two type of water – traveling water and holding water.  In each case identifying where to fish, and how to fish are different.  If it isn’t holding water or traveling water, then it is unlikely you’ll find many fish there.

Traveling Water

Obviously as salmon travel upstream to spawn, they must swim through water that is just between them and their objective.  That is traveling water.  It is the water the fish focus on just getting from A to B.  When fishing traveling water your goal is to keep your gear in the travel lane enough that it intersects with a upstream moving fish.

Bites typically come in spurts as pods of fish move through.

All salmon try and conserve energy in their upstream journey, and so avoid areas where the current is strong if they can.  Generally, this means as they travel upstream they will stay close to bottom, and relatively close to shore – because this is where the gravel and rocks will slow down the current.  Inside bends and behind points are other good locations.

Holding Water

When fish aren’t actively moving up stream they need some place to hang out and relax before the next stage of travel.   In addition, as they get close to their objective, they want a comfortable area to stage in until they are fully ready to spawn.  We call this type of water holding water.

Unlike traveling water where we hope to intercept fish as they pass through, the fish in holding water are pretty much the fish that will be there all day.  This means you need to be especially careful not to spook them.

Typical coho holding water is called “frog water” or “froggy.”  Essentially this is water with little to no current, often with a deeper pool in it.  Such areas include the water behind points, back eddies, inside bends with deeper water, side channels and around structure like boulders or downed trees.

Coho like to show themselves off, so expect to see fish rolling and the occasional jump.  If you aren’t seeing that then likely there aren’t many fish in that holding water.

Such water may require adaptation to your typical fishing methods to deal with the lack of current or proximity to structure.

When To Fish

When should we fish?  Whenever we can, of course!  But if we are lucky enough to pick and choose our fishing times, then we can optimize our chances for success.

Generally, I’m a fan of the early start when fishing – leave home when it is dark and have lines in the water just as it is getting light enough to see.  While I’ve caught the occasional coho first thing in the morning, generally speaking I have better success once the sun has fully come up and the day has warmed up a few degrees.  So picking days where you can fish well until the day is better than a couple short trips early in the morning.

Changes in weather can sometimes turn off the bite, especially as the weather gets colder.  Ideally we would fish after the weather has been stable for at least a couple of days, and the forecast indicates little change in the next day or two.  If you can’t be that picky, then at least avoid the day and day after a weather front moves through.

We also need to consider water conditions.  Fishing when the water is rising or has just crested is usually when fishing is tough.  Water that has been stable for a couple days, or is dropping, creates the conditions for better fishing.  Fortunately the USGS has gauge stations on the major rivers and reports that data in near real time online.  I usually look at current conditions close to where I want to fish.  I’ll also look at stations upstream to get a preview for the next day or two.

Lets Fish!

Now that we know something about our prey, know where the fish will be in the river, and the best time to fish we can move on to the next step – how to catch them.

I’ll cover several different techniques, the most of which work from both boat and bank.

fresh-from-the-salt-coho

We, of course, need a rod and reel.  Like any type of tool you can get by with a cheap one, but a higher quality tool will help you do a good job, and is enjoyable to use.  There are technique specific rods, but if you are on a budget then having a single quality rod and reel is better than several low quality ones.

For a single all purpose rod you want one that is between 8’6” and 9’6”.  It should rated for 10-15 pound line, and have a light sensitive tip.

If you prefer a spinning rod and reel, then I suggest a Lamiglas LX 96 MS X-11 or G Loomis STR1025S if you have the budget.

I’d match either rod with a Pflueger President spinning reel in the 6935 size.  In my opinion it is hard to beat the price/performance ratio of this reel.

If you want something a little bit heavier that can handle larger fish, then I suggest a casting rod and reel.  One the low end of the budget consider a Lamiglas LX 96 HC X-11.  If you can afford it then the G Loomis SAR1084C is excellent.

I’d pair either one with a Shimano Curado or Calcutta reel, depending on if you like the low-profile style or not.  You should not skip on a quality reel.  I’ve seen several lower quality reels break or explode when a large fish is on the line.  Compare that to my Curado and Calcutta reels – each of which have seen over a decade of action and are still going strong.

For line it is hard to go wrong with high visibility Maxima.  Use 10 or maybe 15 pound on the lighter spinning reel setup.  15-20 pound on the heavier casting setup.  If you don’t like high visibility line, then Maxima Ultragreen is some of the best line on the market.

Now that we have our rod and reel all setup and spooled up we can tie on some tackle and go fishing.

Plug It!

I’ve caught more coho on plugs than any other lure, and it is by far my favorite lure.  Plugs is a generic term for a lure, usually made from plastic, which has a wiggle action and dives when pulled through the water.  There are several brands and styles.  The most popular ones these days are Brad’s Wigglers and Maglips – however all catch fish and everyone has their favorites.

Regardless of brand and style, they come in a few different sizes and many different colors.  For size it is hard to go wrong with the medium size, like the regular Wigglers or 3.5 Mag Lips.

Many of the colors have funny names like Blue Pirate, Mad Clown, Red Devil, Dr Death and Fish Monger.  Generally speaking colors with florescent red, florescent orange or chartreuse are good for all purposes.  Blacks and purples also have their time and place.  My favorite patterns are:

If the regulations don’t allow treble hooks, you can switch to single hooks.  This can be done both for the Brad’s Wiggler style, and the Mag Lip style.

plug-caught-coho

If you are targeting holding water then the best way to fish a plug is to cast it.  You can do this from either boat or bank.  Simply cast a bit upstream and past the fish.  Reel in fast enough so the lure dives and has a good wiggle.  The fish will hit the plug hard, and you will have no doubt it is time to set the hook.  For additional information see the casting plugs article.

If you are targeting traveling water then you want to get the plug in the traveling lane and keep it there as much as possible.

From a boat this is really easy.  Position the boat above the stretch you want to fish.  Let out the lure about 40 feet of line.  The current will cause the lure to start working and dive.  Put the rod in the holder and wait.  Hits can be savage, but sometimes the fish will play with the lure first.  Wait until the rod is bent over before taking the rod out of the holder.

You can even slowly let the boat drift downstream, which is called backtrolling.  Just go slow enough so enough water is flowing over the lure so it continues to work.

In either case you should see the rod tip wiggle due to the plug movement.  If it stops then the lure may have picked up a piece of debris or gotten wedged somewhere.  Reel in, address the issue and put it back out.  For more information check out the pulling plugs article.

If you are on the bank you can still use plugs in this way.  You will need a device called a side planner.  Luhr Jensen makes one designed to be used off the bank, called the Hot Shot Planer.

You set it up and run your line through it before tying on the lure.  Then you let out about 40 feet of line, keeping the side planer near the rod.  Then you loop the line around part of the planer to hold it in place.   Put the planer in the water and slowly let out more line.  The current will catch the side planer and pull it out away from shore.

Once the planer is at the desired point you can either keep it there, or “back troll” it by slowly walking downstream.

When a fish hits it will trip the side planer, which will slide down the line to the lure.  This will let you reel the fish all the way in, and limit how much you have to fight the planer.

Spoon Man

Another great way to target coho is with spoons, especially Dick Nite Spoons.  These small and light spoons flutter with the slightest current and drive the fish nuts.   In the hands of a master these little things can put fish after fish in the cooler.

They come in a few different sizes and colors.  For coho I usually use the smallest size, the size 0, but occasionally use the size 1.  For colors think along the same lines as the plug colors.  My favorites are:

Regardless if you are fishing from a boat or the bank, drifting fishing the spoon is the way to go.  Check out the complete rigging instructions.

This can be fished in either holding water or traveling water.  In either case cast straight out.  Allow the lure time to sink to bottom.  Then slowly retrieve while the current swings it downstream.  The speed of the retrieve depends on the current.  If the current is fast then reel slow, if the current is slow then reel faster.

You should feel the weight tap bottom every 2 to 3 seconds.  If it is more often then you have too much weight.  If it is less frequent, then add weight.

The bite is usually a quick tug, so be ready to set the hook.

3-coho

Roe Roe Roe Your Boat

Roe, which is just a fancy name for salmon eggs, is also an effective bait.  There are lots of theories as to why, but the reality is no one really knows why salmon would bite on salmon eggs.

The first step to fishing with roe is to cure up some skeins, or buy some that have been pre-cured.  I’m not going to cover how to do that here, but do have instructions in a different article.

You can either drift fish, or float fish roe.  Either way works for both bank and boat.  While either method works for both traveling water and holding water, I prefer to use roe in holding water.

If you are going to drift fish roe, then you set it up similar to the dick nite.  Only at the end of the leader you tie on a hook or 2 (I use size 4 octopus hooks), and a small corkie to keep the roe off the bottom.  I usually use 8 pound leader of Maxima Ultragreen.  More complete instructions are in the drift fishing roe article.

After you have it rigged up, cut a piece of roe roughly as big as a quarter, and fasten it to the hook and snugged down in the egg loop.

Cast it straight out into the current, and let it swing downstream.  Like the dick nite drift fishing you want to feel it tap bottom every couple of feet.  The bite is usually soft, as the fish will munch on the roe a bit before fully committing.  If you feel it, then give the fish a couple of seconds to swallow it a little deeper before setting the hook.

If you are like me you also like the thrill of seeing a bobber shoot underwater, as a fish takes your bait.  That is one of the things that makes float fishing so much fun.  This is really great in slow or even still holding water, as the float will keep the roe in position for a long time.

You will need a drift float, some 8 pound Maxima Ultragreen leader, some weight and size 4 octopus hooks.

Set your float up as detailed in this article, placing the weight on the mainline between the float and the swivel.  Tie the hooks on the leader with an egg loop knot.  I usually use about 3 feet of leader.

Like drift using, use a chunk of roe about the size of a quarter.  Attach it to the hook the same way.

Set your bobber stop so that the roe will be suspended about 6 inches above the bottom of the river.  If you don’t know the depth then make a guess.  On each cast increase the depth set by about 1 foot, until the top of the bobber points downstream while drifting – indicating the roe is dragging on bottom.  Then shorten it up until you get a good float again.

In slow or still water you can cast out and just wait for the bobber to go under.

In faster water you want to keep the line off the water as much as possible and gradually let out line so the float has a “drag free drift”.   Then reel in and do it again.

This is great for beginners because strikes are so visible and definitive.

Master The Twitch

The last technique I’ll cover is twitching jigs.  This is a great technique for holding water.

There are a lot of jigs on the market, but you’ll want one which is designed for twitching.  A twitching jig has a long tail, which provides a lot of movement in the water.  A few companies, like Aerojig make some.

Stick with the typical coho colors – red, orange, pink and purple.  1/4 ounce to 1/2 once work for most conditions.

Personally I prefer to tie my own jigs.  If you have a vice this is really easy.  Here are complete instructions.

twitching-jigs

To fish it, cast your jig out from you.  Count down until it is close to bottom.  Then quickly jerk the rod up – moving the tip about one foot.  Lower the rod back down at a moderate speed, taking in just enough line to avoid creating slack in the line.

The fish often hit on the drop, so if the lure stops dropping then set the hook.  Often you’ll notice the fish on the next jig up.  Always be prepared to follow through with a hookset.

Respect Your Catch

After you catch your fish, make sure to handle it well to ensure it will make the best table fare.

Stun the fish with a fish bonker, or even a nearby rock.  With the fish subdued you will want to bleed it out.  This is easily done by cutting, or pulling out, the gills.  The blood will then pump out.  While this is going on, most people prefer to have the fish in a stringer or in a fish box.

After a few minutes it should be bled out.  If fishing on a boat make sure you have a cooler with ice and transfer the fish into the cooler to keep it cool for the rest of the day.

If you are on the bank and couldn’t pack a cooler, then you may have to leave it in the water.  Consider packing it back to the car soon, as sitting in 60 degree water for hours is far from ideal.

Additional Resources

If you want to take your coho fishing to the next level, then first check out the rest of the coho articles.

early-morning-coho

If you are still looking for more then I recommend reading the following books:

Share Your Thoughts

I hope this information helps you catch more fish.

What do you think about this article?  Did I miss any essential coho tips?  What are your go to techniques and lures?

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