Buoy 10 itself is an unassuming shipping marker at the mouth of the Columbia River, but the term conjures up so much more: Namely, one of the most popular and productive salmon fisheries in Oregon and across the Lower 48.
Buoy 10 draws anglers from Oregon and Washington and across the West Coast and beyond to chase still-abundant coho and chinook salmon.
Among anglers, the term “Buoy 10” refers not just to the buoy marking the western end of a fisheries management zone, but really the entire lower estuary fishing area from the buoy clear up to Tongue Point just east of Astoria.
Like most salmon fisheries, Buoy 10 is subject to boom and bust cycles. The 2009 season was a boom for coho, a.k.a. “silvers,” followed by several seasons that were fair at best for coho while good to great for chinook.
Just two hours northwest of Portland, the sprawling estuary of the West’s largest river attracts anglers by the thousands each late summer but still has plenty of space and fish to go around most years, once you get past the hordes at the ramps.
From the metro area, anglers may drive on highways 26 and 101, through Seaside, or take Highway 30 along the lower river, either picking it up in Portland or by taking Interstate 5 to Longview, Wash., before crossing south into Oregon for the rest of the trip. A slower but scenic option is Washington’s State Route 4.
Boat ramps, bait shops, overnight accommodations and various supplies and services are located in Astoria, Warrenton and Hammond on the Oregon side and Chinook, Ilwaco and the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington.
By the Book – Buoy 10 Angling Regulations
This section of the Columbia is defined by an imaginary north-south line at Buoy 10 east to another imaginary line that runs from Rocky Point on the Washington bank to Tongue Point in Oregon, passing through red buoy 44.
This area opens for chinook and adipose fin-clipped (hatchery reared) coho on Aug. 1 each year, along with many Oregon coastal fisheries. In the Buoy 10 management area (below Tongue Point), chinook fishing typically will be open until late August or early September, with seasons set annually. After that, chinook fishing activity heads up the Columbia and down the coastline, but coho fishing is often productive in the area well into September.
Be aware that fish abundance can result in changes to salmon seasons and bag limits here and in other Oregon fisheries mid-season, after the annual regulations booklet is printed. Always consult the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's website for in-season changes.
Regulations protect some threatened upriver runs of wild fish, even though the largest contingent of Buoy 10 chinook salmon (upriver brights) come from healthy stocks that spawn in a free-flowing section in Washington state. A tule strain of Columbia River chinook is the other large group in the run, spawning in lower Columbia and tributaries (or bound for hatcheries there). While tules aren’t as mint bright for long, they do hang around the estuary and therefore offer anglers more chances at them than the fast-moving upriver brights.
Only adult salmon may be kept in this zone during the peak months. Adult chinook must be a minimum of 24 inches, while an adult coho is any over 16 inches. The usual limit is two adult salmon, only one of which may be a chinook. Chinook don’t have to be fin-clipped, although some of the hatchery chinook are clipped. Coho must have a clipped and healed adipose fin to retain. During abundant coho years such as 2009, fisheries managers in both states may boost the daily limit for hatchery coho at mid-season.
Check with ODFW for mid-season closures, bag-limit changes or other adjustments to regulations. Local bait and tackle shops and guides also keep up on changes as they occur.
Boat anglers can have a valid fishing license and harvest tags from either state, regardless of where they launch or take out. Note that starting in 2014 anglers also need a Columbia River endorsement to fish for salmon, steelhead and sturgeon anywhere in the watershed.
Also new starting with 2014, there's a new (and controversial) closure for sport anglers ODFW approved at the mouth of Youngs Bay. The closed area is south of a line that runs from the Warrenton Fiber seawall upstream through the line of green navigation buoys and on up to the Astoria-Megler Bridge. No recreational angling will be allowed inside that line and south to the Highway 101 bridge from Aug. 1 to Sept. 15. Other areas are still regulated by permanent regulations. Check ODFW's map.
Know Before You Go
The Columbia River estuary can get rough in a hurry. Wind often kicks up in the late morning or afternoon hours but can do so at any time. Outgoing tides also can make boating dangerous. Smaller boats are safer in upstream areas, where water conditions tend to be calmer than closer to Buoy 10. You must carry life jackets, and while many anglers fish without wearing them, keeping them on is a good idea. Inflatable life jackets are growing in popularity and often worn by anglers who want to stay safe while fishing in unpredictable waters like Buoy 10, Ramsey said.
It also pays to consult a map and learn the locations of channels and sand bars, including the huge Desdemona sands off Astoria and Warrenton, which produce potentially dangerous shallow waters during the lower end of each tide cycle, especially for boat drivers that speed across them unaware. A fish finder is very valuable, not just in finding fish but in staying safe.
Timing Your Trip – Consult Your Tide Table
When the season opens Aug. 1, many anglers focus their attention closest to Buoy 10, the first legal place to ambush salmon making their way into the estuary. Some salmon shoot straight upriver while others pass in and out of the estuary, fattening up on anchovies and other baitfish.
The Buoy 10 fishery can start slow, when salmon numbers haven’t always built up yet. Look to your tide table for the first big tide exchanges to push decent numbers of fish past Buoy 10. “Most people don’t rush out there at the opener," Ramsey said.
However, coho fishing can be good early near the buoy some days, when groups of fish sweep in with the tides, and some big chinook always find their way into the estuary and often are caught around
the Astoria-Megler Bridge beginning on day one or shortly thereafter.
The fishery often gets hot (or at least reliable) around mid-August, depending on tides, and often stays very productive until well after Labor Day. In fact, the coho bite can stay good until late September, usually after most anglers have moved on to other salmon fisheries.
Fishing usually is best in low-light conditions, with the first hour or so of legal fishing often the golden time, but salmon can be caught (legally and literally) during all daylight hours and, with calm seas, in the waning hours of daylight when few anglers are out.
More important than the hands on the clock are the peaks and valleys on the tide table. “The tides have everything to do with it,” Ramsey says.
Many anglers will start a low slack at Buoy 10 and gradually work their way inland as the flood tide carries fish in. Boaters will often point west, toward the Pacific Ocean, but actually get pushed inland while essentially back-trolling against the incoming tide. Usually the first half of flood tide is better than the second.
At high slack, fishing often improves again. When the water starts ebbing, troll downstream with the outgoing tide and river current. The first half of ebb tide also is usually better than the later stage.
Generally speaking, fishing is a bit better closer to Buoy 10 during large tides, while softer tide series can turn on the better fishing upriver, such as near the bridge, Ramsey noted.
If Ramsey always could pick the ideal tide and time, he would pick a high tide that occurs close to first light. He would start his day near or above the Astoria-Megler Bridge and then work downriver with the outgoing tide, probably focusing on deep-running chinook salmon in those upper areas.
Fish Finder – Chinook Run Deep, Coho Shallow
The most popular areas for coho salmon are close to Buoy 10 and inland from there, where the water is the most ocean-like. Coho also are caught in good numbers on the Washington shore off upper Sand Island up to Chinook, Wash., and also around the north (Washington) end of the Astoria-Megler Bridge.
Chinook salmon often inhabit deeper waters. Fishing for them is popular in channels closer to the Washington shore, including off the Church Hole (below the white church up on the Washington shore) and upstream well above the bridge. They also are quite commonly caught in the deep shipping channel that runs along the Oregon shore from Buoy 10, off Hammond, Warrenton and Astoria and on up to Tongue Point.
While coho will often strike baits just deep enough to drop from sight (and even will nab bait or lures within view) and frequently are caught in the top 20 or so feet of water, chinook are more commonly caught deeper. Ramsey often seeks chinook at depths of 25 to 30 feet, but they also can be caught in shipping channels down to 70 feet or so.
On the flood tide, the colder ocean water comes inland beneath the layer of river water. Turn the sensitivity up on your fish finder and you often can spot the line between the two types of water, often at about 20 or so feet deep. Ramsey said fishing within about 5 feet of that break is often the best.
Secrets to Success – Trolling with Herring and Spinners
“Herring is the go-to bait at Buoy 10,” Ramsey said. Few would argue, although there is a healthy debate about whether plug-cutting herring is more effective than leaving them whole.
Most Buoy 10 anglers like to fish behind a diver, such as a Delta or Deep 6. Most, but not all, anglers add a flasher as an attractor.
Ramsey ties a snap on the leader about two feet behind the flasher. To this he adds a bead chain swivel and then ties on four more feet of mooching leader.
Ramsey likes to fish different sizes of herring, both whole or plug-cut, because salmon preferences seem to change often. “I’ve had times when if it wasn’t a plug-cut purple label (large herring), you couldn’t catch them,” he said. “I always take a variety and let the fish tell me.”
Blue and green label herring are sold in biggest numbers, especially for coho, but the big purple label baits are often ideal for chinook, Ramsey said.
After herring, spinners are most popular and gaining in usage, Ramsey said. Some days spinners equal or out-fish natural baitfish. Red and white spinners are a good all-around choice, and chartreuse/green dot are very good as well, especially in early morning and overcast low-light situations.
If All Else Fails
Learn to switch things up. Successful Buoy 10 anglers try different things on your boat and notice what other anglers a boat or a cell phone call way are doing differently to catch fish. Once one approach starts hauling in fish, run with it until the success shuts off. Oftentimes, a specific lure or color seems to outshine all others, whether it’s for an hour, a day or a given season.
Several lures that have been introduced in recent seasons and found plenty of fans at Buoy 10 include Brad’s Super Cut Plug lure and spinners with hootchies on the hooks.
Buzz Ramsey is among the Pacific Northwest’s most widely recognized experts in salmon and steelhead fishing. He has helped design and market many fishing lures and related products and has become a brand name himself. Besides being a fixture on the water and at fishing seminars, he also appears on televised angling shows and writes for newspapers and magazines. He currently is brand manager for Yakima Bait Company and works in a pro-staff capacity for Pure Fishing (Berkeley and Abu Garcia), Humminbird, Minn Kota, Willie Boats, Mercury Motors and Frabill Nets.