ILWACO, Wash. – Deckhand Donald Pitts stood at the stern of the Coho King charter boat with his hands dangling at his sides looking a bit like a gunslinger.
From his vantage point, Pitts could see the fishing rods on both sides of the 42-foot boat. They were deployed for one of the best salmon seasons in memory off the Washington coast.
A rod on the starboard side lunged toward the water. Pitts grabbed the long-handled landing net and charged forward.
“Keep it coming,’’ he said, coaching the angler.
The net swooped into the gray waters of the Pacific Ocean and out came a coho salmon. The whole episode from bite to landing lasted 60 seconds, maybe.
“You got to be right on them on those front rods,’’ Pitts said, explaining a noteworthy nuance of fishing with barbless hooks.
The coho – a fin-clipped, hatchery-origin keeper – flops on the deck as Pitts clips on another pre-tied anchovy and hoochie and immediately gets the bait back into the ocean.
He puts a mark on the snout of the salmon, flips it in the fish box and waits – repeating the sequence again and again during the next three hours.
It is the essence of salmon charter angling – patience interrupted with frenetic periods of catching fish, often multiple fish.
By 8:25 a.m., the Coho King has 15 coho and one chinook and captain-owner Butch Smith heads east toward the Port of Ilwaco boat basin.
“Salmon in the ocean are a chewing fish, not a striking fish yet,’’ Smith said. “It’s just like a hamburger and they’ll take a bite out of it.’’
This is Smith’s 40th year as either a deckhand or skipper on the ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River. He was here when the port was jammed with boats in the 1970s, compared to the much smaller number of charters and private boats now.
Coho fishing has been good this season, with most days a limit caught and the boat back to the dock by 10 a.m. or so. Smith said he expects to see it get better in August.
“The difference between good and better is being done by 10 or 11 a.m. when it’s good and 8 a.m. when it’s better,’’ he said.
Government biologists are forecasting a run of more than 964,000 coho in the ocean this summer destined for the Columbia River.
Smith said his experience this season leads him to believe the coho run will be all of that – or slightly larger.
By comparison, the coho return to the Columbia River has averaged 293,000 during the past three years.
The much-awaited Buoy 10 season opens Friday. Buoy 10 is the name given to the lower 16 miles of the Columbia between Buoy No. 10 at the river mouth upstream to Tongue Point, east of Astoria, Oregon.
Sportsmen with boats as small as 16 feet can fish at Buoy 10 most days, launching from ramps at Ilwaco, Chinook, Cape Disappointment, Astoria, Hammond, Warrenton, John Day and Deep River.
Smith said his business doesn’t dwindle when Buoy 10 opens.
“When Buoy 10 is slow, there’s not really another place to go,’’ Smith said. “Some people want that ocean experience and we can go 20 miles either direction from the mouth of the river to look for fish.’’
He has trips booked into September.
“September is a mystery month. Some years it’s great and some years about Sept. 15 it dies a quick death.’’
The closure of sturgeon retention in the Columbia River estuary this year hurt the coastal economy, said Smith, also a Port of Ilwaco commissioner.
He offered catch-and-release sturgeon trips and believes the population is rebounding well. To diversify his business, Smith plans to offer $80-a-day trips for crab in the fall.
Danny and Katrina Pitts of Kelso, Washington – no relation to the deckhand – took their three granddaughters ocean fishing and went home with 10 coho.
“All in all, a pretty good day,’’ said Pitts, a former counselor at Larch Corrections Center in east Clark County.
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