Sometimes overshadowed by the much larger Tillamook Bay immediately to the south, Nehalem Bay is a beautiful spot a little more off the beaten path but at times offering exceptionally good fishing, crabbing and clamming.
The big draws here include an excellent run of summer and fall Chinook salmon and some very good perch fishing, as well as prime shellfish opportunities.
Nehalem Bay can be reached from Highway 101, either driving south from Seaside or north from Tillamook. Or from Portland use Highway 26 and then cut south of Highway 53 to get there in under two hours.
There are several communities on the bay itself offering fishing and shellfishing supplies and rental boats and equipment, as well as some lodging options on the bay.
Campers, especially those with RVs and trailers, often will make Nehalem Bay State Park their local base. There is a launch at the park. Make reservations in advance during prime seasons.
Attractive beach towns including Manzanita (north) and Rockaway (south) are a very short drive.
Fishing in Nehalem Bay
Among anglers, Nehalem Bay is best for its chinook and coho salmon fishing, but it’s still feels less crazy during the busy fall season than the larger Columbia River estuary an hour to the north or the nearby Tillamook Bay a few miles south.
Nehalem is a go-to spot for salmon anglers eager to catch fish because it has one of the best early Chinook salmon runs on the Oregon coast.
The Nehalem run is so early in the season that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife now lists part of the bay’s catch as spring Chinook, but on the calendar the timing is solidly summer.
The first numbers of Chinook are caught in July with much excitement, but generally August brings on the start of consistent salmon fishing here and will be a better bet for catching most days.
Even with those early fish, the more typical Oregon coastal fall salmon fishing months of September and October are generally a little more productive here.
Those two months also are when the great majority of coho salmon are caught in the bay, so reaching a salmon limit is a bit more likely with so many fish in the bay.
Some years fair fishing can extend into early November, especially if the fall rains are delayed and the salmon hang out waiting to migrate until the rivers rise.
The bulk of the bay’s wild chinook salmon spawn in the mainstem Nehalem River, also known as the South Fork, which his the longest river with headwaters in northern Coast Range mountains.
The far smaller North Fork Nehalem River also has wild Chinook, but thanks to its hatchery operation, the North Fork is better known for producing the bay’s hatchery coho salmon.
These silvers can be caught in fair numbers in the river some years, but the better coho fishing is in the bay because these salmon almost always bite better in salt water as they get in their final feeding.
For both salmon species, fishing is often excellent in the lower bay up to the state park early in the run, when the fish come in and out of the bay on feeding runs and when trolling a herring can be deadly.
Spinners and other lures also can be very effective throughout the bay.
The areas above Fishery Point including the area around the city of Nehalem also offer excellent fishing for salmon, but remember most of the hatchery coho turn up the North Fork while Chinook fishing can be very good in the long tidewater up to the Roy Creek Boat Ramp on the mainstem, especially before the heavy fall rains draw fish upriver.
Nehalem Bay’s jetties frankly aren’t as consistent for fishing as Barview Jetty on Tillamook Bay, a short drive to the south.
However, in the late winter you might be able to land a large lingcod or a cabezon from the South Jetty area as these fish come into near-shore areas to spawn during that time of year. (The deeper channel is closer to the South Jetty, which also is more accessible.)
Starting in spring and continuing through summer and early fall, there can at times be fair to good fishing for black and blue rockfish, several species of greenling or other fish along the jetty rocks.
Nehalem Bay at times has excellent perch fishing from the jetties up to about the Nehalem Bay State Park and Fishery Point.
Perch come into the bay to feed on shrimp, clams and other forage foods, so try the channels and areas around the clam beds listed below or other near-shore spots on both sides of the lower bay.
Perch also use the bay to spawn during the spring months, and around mid- to late spring can sometimes be caught in excellent numbers.
Fishing continues fair to good through summer and into the early fall months before the influx of freshwater from fall rains tends to put a damper on catches.
In the old days, Nehalem Bay could be something of a secret spot for Oregon sturgeon fishing. There’s less interest now that this fishery is catch and release (at this writing), but catching the largest fish in the bay still can be a thrill.
The best sturgeon fishing in Nehalem Bay is generally from Fishery Point in the Wheeler and Nehalem areas and up throug the tidewater zones, including a hole at the confluence of the North Fork and mainstem.
While steelhead are only occasionally (usually incidentally) caught in the bay, fishing for searun cutthroat trout can be very good at times.
Searuns are most often caught in the bay from the Wheeler area upriver and into the tidewater sections of both the mainstem and North Fork.
Trolling plain lures or lures or bait behind a set of attractors is effective. Or you can cast lures such as spinners or baits such as nightcrawlers, shrimp or crayfish tails to catch them.
Searun fishing starts in earnest during the second half of July and can often be quite good in August and September, until the fall rains send them scurrying back into the rivers.
Crabbing in Nehalem Bay
You have an excellent opportunity to haul in a great catch of Dungeness crab here, maybe even a limit of these highly prized shellfish.
Crabbing is open all year and fairly popular in the late spring through summer, but the absolute best time to catch crabs here is from the late summer into the middle of fall, when the heavier rains lower the salinity and tend to drive more crabs into the ocean.
September and October crabbing on Nehalem Bay is tough to beat.
Summer crabbing here is very pleasant as well, but more of the crabs will be in softshell condition from their annual molt, and if you keep them you will find they won’t have as much firm meat.
Many crabbers release soft-shelled Dungeness while looking for meatier crabs.
Typically the best crabbing occurs from north of the Jetty Fishery almost to Nehalem Bay State Park.
On a map, this is where the bay runs north-south and parallel to the ocean. This area, including Brighton, is a little more protected and certainly safer than trying to crab near the jetties, and farther up the bay isn’t salty enough for crabs’ liking.
The best crabbing is from a boat. Drop your nets or pots anywhere in this general area, to either side of the deeper navigation channel.
There is some pretty good dock crabbing available in this area, primarily from private marinas for a fee.
Learn more about this topic: Oregon Best Crabbing Bays.
Clamming in Nehalem Bay
The better clamming in Nehalem Bay tends to be inland from Brighton Marina up to the area around Fishery Point, where the bay and Highway 101 make a 90-degree turn inland.
To the north of that marina, where 101 is closest to the bay, find softshell clams and perhaps some butter clams in firm sand and gravel on the narrower clam beds.
While this area is just west of the highway, foot access is blocked by railroad tracks. Instead, use a boat to reach it and bring shovels or heavy-tined garden forks to dig down to the clams.
North of that, roughly from Brighton Boulevard north to Fishery Point, is a much larger clamming area good primarily for softshells. This is fairly firm sand for walking, and a shovel or clam gun will work fine here and in the rest of the locations that follow.
Immediately inland from the bend at Fishery Point, look for clamming beds on both sides of the channel. These are muddier flats, so walking is harder, and access is primarily by boat.
On the west side, along in the bay side of the Nehalem Bay State Park, clamming can be productive for both softshell and purple varnish clams.
This area offers the best access on the bay because you can walk or boat into it. A trail above the high tide mark makes for easy walking.
The best clamming starts about a quarter mile south of the state park’s boat ramp and then continues down the bay for a little more than a mile.
The best clam beds on this west side are narrower. When the flats start widening out and Brighton Marina is across the bay, that’s probably as far south as you’ll want to focus your efforts.
More on the subject: Oregon’s Best Bay Clamming.