Washington town highlights its salmon fishing history

The small Pacific Coast town of Westport, Washington, is celebrating its centennial this summer, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect with salmon fishing resembling the “good old days.”

Located at the mouth of Grays Harbor on the southernmost peninsula known as Point Chehalis, Westport was officially incorporated on June 26, 1914.

Commercial fishing was established in the 1920s, and shortly after World War II a marina and breakwater were constructed, which brought sport salmon fishing to life.

In the 1950s, Westport was dubbed the “Salmon Fishing Capital of the World.”

When the World’s Fair came to Seattle in 1962, salmon fishing at Westport was heavily promoted and put it on the grid of places to catch trophy-sized kings.

From the 1960s to the late 1970s, the height of salmon fishing occurred at Westport and was then home to about 200 charter boats luring more than 250,000 anglers during good seasons.

The low point came in the early 1980s to the 1990s when shortened seasons and poor fish returns virtually shut down businesses related to the fishing industry.

In the past decade, a fishing resurgence has brought Westport off life support.

Now about 35 to 40 charter boats operate, and while not near the number of boats from the heyday, those who held on during the lean times are reaping the rewards of a fishing revival.

“The charter business has been pleasant the last few years, and it is quite exciting when you see the record fish returns this summer,” said Mark Cedergreen, president of the Westport Charter Boat Association.

The Columbia River fall chinook forecast of more than 1.6 million is the largest since at least 1938. The coho forecast is 1.2 million and could rival 2009, when about 1.05 million coho returned.

Despite this upswing, Cedergreen still hears the gossip on the marina docks.

“People say it’s such a shame that Westport fishing isn’t what it used to be,” Cedergreen said. “My response is that it’s still the same as it used to be last year or 20 or 50 or 100 years ago.”

Many places now stake their claim as the Salmon Fishing Capital of the World, but according to Cedergreen, Westport still remains one of the best destinations.

This reporter’s adventure started off with a slight breeze as we turned the corner along the breakwater, and slowly motored out of the harbor with the rest of the Westport charter boat fleet.

After a 35-minute boat ride we hit the fishing grounds, and got two rods on the port and starboard side, downriggers to a depth of 150 feet. Attached to each was a green-glow flasher and chartreuse Coyote spoon.

We also had two rods off the stern with divers and whole herring with about 20 pulls of line out.

About five minutes into our slow troll one of the rods on the downrigger jerked free but we couldn’t hook the fish. Later we released a small coho salmon, but then we didn’t get a nibble for about 45 minutes and decided to move six miles south.

The ocean was like a pond with a gentle swell as we put our gear back down into the briny depths.

A few minutes later two rods popped off the downrigger clips.

The bite was on as we reeled in and released two wild coho. A quick look around revealed that many charters nearby were all hooked up with salmon and nets flying everywhere.

Our turn came quickly again, and this time three rods jerked downward, and we managed to hook and land two hatchery coho (only hatchery-marked coho with a missing adipose fin may be kept) that weighed about 4 to 5 pounds, and released another wild coho.

This type of action went on nonstop for what seemed like an hour straight as we boated four kings of 10- and 20-pounds, and landed one larger hatchery coho.

“The tide change was still a few hours away and that is usually when the best bite occurs,” our guide, Bret Ferris, said with a chuckle.

With only one more hatchery coho to catch we motored back north of the fleet. In a matter of minutes, we had our last 7-pound coho.

To our surprise four of us had our eight salmon daily limit by 9:30 a.m. Other charters full of customers were also headed back to the marina with limits of salmon.

“The fishing is just getting started, and if this is any sign of what’s to come we should be in for a great season,” said Ferris.

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