Shakers, Jacks & Kings – Pier Salmon Quest

Fishing salmon from the pier in Puget Sound (Washington State) wasn’t something that I did growing up.  I think my dad didn’t want to deal with my casting skills (or lack thereof) amid the heightened frenzy of the summer salmon run.  By the time I was in high school and fishing independently, I fished a lot on my buddy’s skiff and eschewed the pier life of my youth.  Salmon fishing from a boat is pretty technical in terms of the setup.  My little gang of fledgling anglers didn’t know much about it.  The wealth of information available today, wasn’t available in the dark ages pre-internet.  I managed to catch what was probably a little pink salmon during that time, but that was it.

Little did I know about the opportunity that was available from the pier.

Fast forward to last year.  I knew that people did catch from the pier.  I didn’t know any specifics about it though.  I went up in August to visit my mom for her birthday.  While I was home, I checked out the pier and found this…

Dash Point Pier near Tacoma, WA

Whoa!  It was both exciting and disorienting jumping into that scene cold.  Look at the big chinook (king) salmon on the cleaning table.  Anglers elbow to elbow on the outer rail.  There were also anglers lined along the inside rails of the pier.  I would learn that these anglers were targeting pink salmon that only run in odd-numbered years.

It was absolute mayhem.

I quickly tried to get up to speed in the short time I was visiting.  Remarkably, I managed to get 6 bites and landed two fish…one each chinook and pink salmon.  Two for six Joe?  Yes, I know those aren’t great numbers but consider that you must use barbless hooks, and then there’s the not insignificant matter of getting the fish from the water, to the pier.  I bounced my pink.  The king was another matter entirely.  Luckily someone came to my aid with a crab net and the fish was secured.

This year, I vowed to do a better job.

As soon as I returned from my trip home to Southern California, I went to go check out the pier.  August is prime time for the salmon run, but I wanted to get in on it early this year…meet some of the regulars, learn some inside dope, get myself dialed-in and ready for primetime.  One thing I learned is that treble hooks, barbless or not, are a no-no.  I went from there to a hook each on the bottom and top ring, to both hooks on the bottom ring, before settling in to both on the bottom, but staggered.

This year there aren’t any pinks, so the primary action is on the outer edge of the pier jigging a 2-ounce jig, targeting the kings (chinook).  The method is simple.  Cast out, let it sink to the bottom, lift the rod to raise the jig from the bottom, then reel down on the slack.  Rinse and repeat back to the pier.  Once in awhile I sink it all the way to the bottom to make sure I’m tracking lower in the water column.  The pier tends to attract baitfish (herring and candlefish), so pier anglers actually have an advantage vs. boat-based anglers in this particular location.

My first two times out this season I skunked.  Next time out, I caught some juvenile fish, aka “shakers” (left).  I had been told there were 1 or 2 fish getting caught per day at that point, but I hadn’t observed any myself.  That changed when I saw an angler catch a “jack” on my 4th time out.  Think about a deck of cards.  Jacks are still part of the royal family…but they’re not the king.  Similarly, jack chinooks are fish that fall just shy of the legal size of 22 inches.

The next day, I leveled up to jack status when I landed this 20-incher (right).  I was pretty excited about that happening, so I was there the next day when the park and pier opened at 6 am.  On my third cast, I hooked into a fish.  It felt heavy but didn’t initially take a run.  That changed though when the line came tight and the fish felt the pressure.  It took off to my left.  I was impressed with the teamwork and consideration the other anglers showed me.  Immediately, people reeled up and got out of my way as the fish dragged me down the pier.  I caught up with it just short of the far left corner.  It was just below the surface of the water and I caught a broadside view of it.  I gasped.  It was big!  I thought the fight was nearly over and called for a net.  I think the fish was only taking a breather.  It got its second wind and made a play to run under the pier.  It was “do or die” time.  I needed to turn its head or lose it.  I tried to muscle it when POW!  My rod snapped in half just above where the two pieces join.  The fish was still on the line.  I tried to grab the line and hand line it, but it snapped my leader and was gone.

I was crushed.

Shortly after, two anglers near the left corner hooked up at the same time.  Both fish ended up getting landed.  The first fish was around 17-pounds.  The second fish weighed out at 25.6-pounds, caught by angler Tuan Nguyen of Federal Way.  That was obviously a bigger school of fish that swam through…a huge missed opportunity for me.

I left and made the way to my tackle shop of choice up here, Sportco in Fife.  I was a little mystified as to what happened.  The rod I was using was line rated 10-30#, with a lure rating of 1-5 ounces.  I was fishing 20# and a 2-ounce lure.  One of the staff members explained that I was using a downrigger rod.  A downrigger setup is a boat trolling application.  The rod sits in a holder and just bends downward.  It wasn’t made to withstand the flex of casting a 2-ounce jig over and over.  Lesson learned.  Part of getting dialed-in I guess.  He recommended an appropriate rod for my application and I was back at it.  Unfortunately, the next two days, the water was dirty and devoid of the baitfish that attract salmon to this pier.

Hopefully, this week brings back the same conditions that attracted those bigger fish.  The run will continue to build all this month, so I’m confident I’ll get my shot at redemption.  I’ll keep you guys posted.  Good luck if you get out there.

Joe Sarmiento is the founder and primary writer of the So Cal Salty blog. The blog covers saltwater fishing, primarily aboard the many sportfishing boats of Southern California. In addition to writing his blog, Joe's writing has appeared in Western Outdoor News, The Log and Griffin Media. Joe is ...