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Willapa Bay Salmon Fishing
how to fish Willapa Bay for Salmon


Recently this fishery season is opening the first of July, but the fish do not really enter the bay until the middle of August or so. There are some large Chinook taken each year from these waters.  This salmon fishery can be frustrating at times, as it can be  hot & cold  from one day to the other.  You will encounter Coho & some Chum later on in the season.

There is also a commercial gill net fishery in this area, so it may be best to check with WDFW at Monesanto as to when the netters are on the river.  I have tried to run from the South Bend launch downriver & have had to weave thru 35 net sets.  If you are really determined to fish this river when the gillnets are in, it may be best to slide up the North River channel & out of their way.  Some sport fishermen claim that for a few days after the nets come out, the sport catch drops off considerably.

Legally a net can not be laid across the complete river, but you may see one netter lay his from the north side to mid river & another netter lay his from the south side to mid river & they tie up to each other for a BS session in the middle.  A recreational boater then will have to negotiate around the end of the net, usually in 2-3 feet of water if it is a low tide.
I have also seen floating dead  sturgeon after these netters have pulled out.

Launches  There are actually at least 8 launches  that can be used
            (1) Tokeland, Port of Willapa Harbor
            (2) Smith Creek WDFW
            (3) South Bend
            (4) Raymond City Park
        (5) Old Willapa / Wilson Crk WDFW
            (6) Bay Center
         (7) Palix, WDFW
            (8) Long Island,  Willapa National Wildlife Refuge

Depending on what part of the bay you plan on fishing, you can consider any of these launches.  For the normal fishery the preferable ones would probably be #1 & 3, they are closer to the action & do not require running thru a narrow channel, or longer distance.

The Tokeland launch is run by the Port of Willapa Harbor and a $5.00 fee is charged.  In early 2000 they redid it to include a 2 lane blacktop ramp with docks on both sides.  They however at least as of 7-4-00 did not dredge under the existing dock or out beyond the ramp.  It was rather impressive at a minus 2 ft tide to see that you may have had trouble floating a 8' pram at the end of the south lane, & nothing but mud on the north side.  Of course the boats moored to the dock were high & dry.  So, unless they have dredged it recently, do not plan on launching & running out at less than a 0.0 tide with any size of a boat.

The South Bend launch is a good concrete slab ramp with a moderate amount of parking.  It is located on the main Hiway just south of the town of South Bend.  It is a fairly good ramp for boats up to maybe 20'. The ramp is concrete slabs & is angled out & downstream.  Launching from this ramp will put you into the upper fishing area rather soon, as you will be running downriver & can be fishing at the big bend within a 1/2 mile.

Where to Fish  We will start with the main fishery in the Willapa itself.  For many years the place to fish was "Washaway Beach", just inside the main channel mouth on the north shore of the river.  Over the years the ocean/river washed away about a mile of beach, including houses & the Coast Guard lighthouse. 

About 1998  the Army Corp of Engineers placed a short rock jetty at the upstream section that used to be the fishing area.  

In the Sept  7-21-2000 article in Hunting & Fishing News about this area, a WDFW biologist says "the erosion at Washaway has changed  the lay of the land.  We're seeing a shift in the fishing effort into the bay, eastward into the vicinity of where the Willapa River  channel meets the North river channel."  

I have to disagree as to why the fish are not at Washaway in the numbers as before.  If you drive the Hiway 105 & stop at this rock jetty during a mid outgoing tide, look off the end of the jetty,  you will notice a rather swift section of water .  My belief is that this jetty has raised the water speed to the point that the bait does not stay there in the concentrations that it used to.

Also do not use the H&FN illustrated map.  The shaded area they list as motor mooching is really tide flats (MUD) at low tide.  The channel runs from south of Toke Point to the north of Range Point.  You will see the range marker on this upriver bend, don't try to drift to much north of these.

I agree that most of the  fishing that currently takes place is between North River mouth, marker piling # 7 to the big bend below the South Bend launch at #26 & usually takes place like most estuary fishing on the incoming tide.  However the low tide can also be productive, in that the bay's water has shrunk considerably at this location and therefore concentrates the fish that have moved in, but not migrated upriver yet.

Don't just follow the concentration of boats thinking that is the "place to fish", as that may not be the only fishy area in the bay.  And most all the non-locals think the other guy is the expert.  I was fishing there alone last year in a particular section of the river,  with one other boat, while the whole flotilla was downstream from us a mile.  The other lone fisherman was using a electric trolling motor when the tide was not swift.  His larger motor would not start.  I offered to tow him back the ramp.  He refused saying that he had a spare battery & that when the tide changed his electric would get him back.  But his main reason was that for the last 2 days he had pulled his limit of Chinook out of that area while everyone else was downriver  And we were alone there. 

Lower Willapa Bay  I have seen bait so thick in the main channel  off  Deadmans Island, (also known as Sand Island) that if you had a long handled net you could have gotten all the bait you would need for the next year.  Usually where there is bait there are also salmon.  I have also caught fish in the "South Channel", which is a 50-60' deep large area just south of  Deadmans Island & north of Leadbetter Point.  This is more protected than the main Willapa channel which can have a severe current at the outgoing tide.  There are no buoys or markers on this "south side".  Outside the main channel & crossing the bar can be dangerous for a small boat, as just outside, the channel angles off to the Southwest & somewhat parallels the breakers.  If you have a wind & tide running, it is best that the small boater remain inside.

As of the summer of 2000, Deadmans Island has pretty much been washed away.  This may improve fishing somewhat from the standpoint that there was a colony of seals living on this island.

Middle Section of The Bay  I have fished this area following the pattern of the other fishermen who I thought "knew" what to do & have at times have come home skunked.  Since then I have tried to do some research.  If you go & read some back issues of Salmon-Trout-Steelheader, and take a bit of information out of each article, some light begins to glimmer.

One article by Nick Amato in Oct-Nov 1998 entitled Trolling Tiderwater With Spinners, he talks about trolling the lower tidal rivers for Chinook.  The one thing that I got from this is that he recommended using a electric trolling motor.  At first I thought it was just for a more controlled slow speed.  But also if you watch some of the guides on the Cowlitz, they will many times also use this method.  What I got from this information is that in the shallower confined water the use of a regular outboard trolling motor are very possibly spooking the fish. Then take into consideration the many other boats in the area, I think the fish do get spooked. 

Now in addition to this if you look in the same issue an article by Gary Siegel has an article entitled Fall Runs In Low Water.  This article is geared mainly for the upper reaches of tidewater, but there is a couple of paragraphs at the end that brought this spooked fish back to mind.  Here they were catching nothing on the lower Chehalis, like all the other fishermen that day, even though the fish were jumping, they finally moved into a area close to some pilings that they had seen fish jumping.  While his partners used spinners, he put on a steelhead jig & cast into the logs, they came up with 3 fish before loosing the jig.  This reinforces somewhat the idea that salmon "hide" along shore, near piling, logs, etc. when they get into shallow water and /or when the traffic on the water increases.

I was on the Willapa bay last year with somewhat the same experience, with Coho jumping within 5 feet of shore at low tide in maybe 2 feet of water, while everyone was trolling the main channel.   There was no piling or protective brush here, but I tried drifting near shore & casting a FST spoon.  I think I quit this experiment to soon.

North River empties into the bay between Tokeland and south of Southbend. The lower section of this river itself from the big bend to the Hiway 105 bridge can be productive.  The the channel is narrow & SHALLOW at low water for the first 1/4 mile from the Willapa marker piling upriver. However here is where the Smith Creek launch can be used, but a larger boat can not get under the low Smith Creek bridge at a high tide to get into North River.  There is a private hatchery program on this river that releases  a considerable number of salmon, Chinook, Coho & Chum into this river every year.  The WFDW does not make this info readily available, because they told him his theory of placing gravel back into the streambeds would not create a spawning bed.  Wrong,-  he finally got approval to do it from them & it works to their dismay.

North River from the Hiway 105 bridge to Salmon Creek is open to salmon fishing from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30 with a liberal limit of 6 salmon.  There is a good section of boat fishable water above the bridge for about 3 miles upstream to the end of tidewater where the river then begins riffles etc. not navigable by other than jet sleds.

Upriver Willapa    Later in the season after the fish move upstream, you may consider moving upstream with them.  Here is where  the Raymond City Park launch or the Old Willapa / Wilson Creek launch come into play.  Fishing from the Old Willapa area will be in the final tidewater area of the lower river.  Usually large spinners are used here.  Here is where trolling the brush line will pay off during high tide.  Then at low tide casting into the holes can also prove productive.

Naselle River  The Nasselle can produce salmon also, the closest launch in tidewater is the Long Island Game Refuge ramp.  Launch here & head north, staying close to the piling markers on the east side of the channel most of the way out, as this is also narrow, shallow  & is covered with oyster beds.  I have however navigated it with a 20' fiberglas deep Vee at a 0 tide.   You can make it if you go slow & are willing to back up & try another spot until you learn the channel.  You may only have 3' of water under you at times. When the piling markers on the right side of the channel cease & you get to where the channel opens up, you will see a clay bank bluff on the western shore ahead of you, head angling across the channel toward this bluff , then follow this shore until you come out into the mouth of Long Island & Stanley Peninsula where you take a right at the piling marker & head up the main Naselle River. 

There is also a small gravel launch west of the town of Naselle that is good for only small boats. This is also a river that can be fished like the upriver Willapa.

Palix River   Here is where the Palix WDFW or Bay Center launches  can be utilized.  This is a smaller shorter river, but does have fish in it.  This river will be only fishable from the bank.

The above information was used with the permission LeeRoy Wisner of
LeeRoy Wisner had posted several EXTREMELY informative articles on the Puget Sound Anglers website and we strongly recommend visiting that website or
click here to email him directly. As an editor's note I must say that in my lifetime of searching every available resource I have never come across so many helpful and informative articles as those written by LeeRoy Wisner. Thanks again and hats to LeeRoy for giving us permission to post these articles so that you can learn more about fishing and hopefully you catch more fish!