Looking on a NOAA chart of the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca — the 100-mile-long strait that separates mainland Washington and Vancouver Island, British Columbia — you won't find the words "Coyote Bank" anywhere.
What you will find, however, right on the dogleg of the U.S./Canadian border where Haro Strait dumps into the Strait of Juan de Fuca 13 miles due north of Ediz Hook, Wash., is a small seamount rising up out of 50 to 60 fathoms to 110 feet.
That's The Coyote, one of a handful of shallow banks located in Washington's Marine Area 6. And until this area closes down on April 10, it'll serve up a howling good salmon bite as both incoming and outbound Chinook mix together in this part of the east Strait.
"Prevailing science suggests that a lot of migrating fish, whether they're inbound or outbound, will be hovering around the Banks in late March and early April," says Tony Floor, director of fishing affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association. "They don't seem to be there in January and February, but around this time of year, this area becomes congested with Chinook. It happens every year out on these banks."
And The Coyote is the most productive of the lot.
While Hein and Middle Bank are also productive, they're also heavily influenced by currents and tides. The bank tends to be at its best along a mile-long 110- to 135-foot plateau that runs along the Coyote's west end, but because of its east/west layout, The Coyote is fishable and productive on either the ebb or the flood.
"That's the beauty of The Coyote, as long as wind isn't a factor," Floor says. "If you're fishing an ebb, start out on the east end and fish it down to about 180 feet on the west end, then pick up, run back and do it again. On the flood, start out at 135 on the west end and come up to around 110 feet on a gradual contour. It doesn't matter if you're a downrigger or a moocher, you just run it in the direction of the current."
Best bait here is a cutplug green-label herring on tandem 2/0 and 3/0 hooks, fished 20 to 25 feet behind the downrigger ball, without a flasher.
Sekiu's "best blackmouth in 25 years"
The small town of Sekiu is like a three-ring vacation circus in the summer, but it's a ghost town in the winter. Too bad: Marine Area 5 between Sekiu and Port Angeles is easily the most productive winter blackmouth fishery in Washington right now.
"It's the best blackmouth fishing I've seen in 25 years, and on a really busy day, I see six boats," says Bill Herzog of PNorthwest Wild Country. "It's a matter of finding the 100-foot line, dropping the downrigger down to the bottom, pulling it up a couple of cranks and then putting the boat in gear. It usually takes me 45 minutes to limit, and most of that is running time."
These immature Chinook are feeding heavily on sand lance and herring in spots like Slip Point, The Caves and Sekiu Point, and they're especially willing to bite a red-label herring or Coho Killer trolled just off the bottom.
Herzog's herring setup includes a pair of black 3/0 Gamakatsu hooks tied 5 inches apart on 5 feet of 15-pound leader that's tied to a ball-bearing swivel behind an additional 12 inches of 50-pound line and another ball-bearing swivel (to prevent line twist from a fast-spinning herring).
He'll run the herring 22 feet behind the downrigger ball, with the clip 6 feet up on the cable.
"Off the ball, run a dummy flasher setup made up of a large snap swivel, 20 feet of 40-pound mono to a favorite 11-inch flasher," Herzog says. "Your bait is back a bit from the flasher, as salmon approach prey from below. The dummy flasher not only attracts fish, it's not in the way like it would be with an inline flasher."
Chartreuse/UV and purple/UV White Lightning Coho Killers also match the bait here. Standard setup is a 44-inch, 25-pound leader behind an 8-inch green/glow flasher set 20 inches behind the ball. When larger 6- to 9-inch sand lance show, Herzog runs two spoons together with a No. 5 split ring.
The Marine Area 5 season closes April 10, so your time is running out.
Early arrivers translate into big island blackmouth
If the results of the late March Anacortes Salmon Derby are any indication, the remainder of the 2010 winter blackmouth season in the San Juan Islands could produce some of the biggest blackmouth ever seen in this area.
Nine fish over 20 pounds were weighed in at the derby, including a behemoth 27.48-pounder by Ralph Thomas, a 25.72, a 24.38 and six more fish over 21 pounds. To put that in perspective, only three fish over 20 pounds were weighed during the first three years of this derby COMBINED.
"We usually start to see bigger fish in March, but I've never seen anything quite like this for this time of year," says Jay Field of the Dash One Invitational. "I don't know whether those are spring fish headed for their natal rivers, or they're just grazing around here for the (summer) opener July 1."
Prevailing wisdom is that they're both. Spring Chinook returning to various rivers south of the San Juans have been known to filter through Rosario Strait, but this collection of islands on the U.S./Canadian border is also one of the best big-fish summer fisheries on the West Coast.
The derby's big-fish haul likely included 4-year-old kings that have arrived on their local spring feeding grounds early. They've hit the buffet line just in time, too, as large balls of bait have recently shown up in Obstruction Pass, Humphrey Head, Lopez Pass and the west side of Cypress Island.
"The last couple of weeks, we're finding spots where it's raining bait out there," Field says. "There are several spots that are traditional nurseries for baitfish, and these (salmon) are just following the feed. If these are fish that are just grazing around, they'll be 30-plus by the July 1 opener."
Editor's note: Based in North Puget Sound and operating from Alaska to Baja, Joel Shangle has been a news junkie on the West Coast saltwater scene since the 1990s, first as editor of California Fishing & Hunting News' and now as editor of California Sportsman, which hits newsstands in October. He's the host of Northwest Wild Country, a popular fishing and hunting radio show airing throughout western Washington, and has the deepest source list this side of the Library of Congress. In other words: if you're catching fish on the West Coast, just try to get away from him.