Best Salmon Fishing in Washington: Find the Top Rivers and Ports

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Washington is a great place to go salmon fishing, and it’s the only state in the contiguous United States where an angler has a legitimate shot at catching all five species of Pacific salmon in a season.

This article serves as an overview to where to go salmon fishing in Washington, providing a taste of the types of salmon angling you’ll find in every corner of the state.

Additionally, this article serves as a jumping-off point where we guide you to more detailed information about where and how to catch these magnificent fighting and feast-worthy fish.

Following the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s lead, we’ve divided the state’s rivers and saltwater salmon fisheries into regions.

As we go from region to region, we’ll steer you to the best fishing for any of the five Pacific Ocean salmon species you are most likely to catch there.

Pacific Salmon in Washington

The five ocean-going species that are available in at least parts of Washington are Chinook, coho, chum, sockeye and pink salmon.

Along with Alaska, Washington is the only state in the country that has fishable runs of all species of Pacific salmon.

Here’s a quick look at each of the five West Coast native salmon species:

Chinook Salmon

These are the state’s largest salmon, its most wide-spread, and definitely one of its most popular.

Also commonly known as “kings,” these large salmon come in several runs and are caught somewhere in the state every month of the year.

The biggest Chinook “fall” runs return to the Washington saltwater in the summertime and are caught in quite a few rivers by late summer and early fall.

If you’re looking to catch a really large salmon, these fall kings are the Washington salmon that most frequently top 20 and 30 pounds, and some lucky anglers land kings that are 40 pounds or more.

Spring Chinook return to select rivers and, although on average not as large as their fall cousins, are among the tastiest fish you’ll ever eat.

There is a remnant of an even larger Chinook known as the “summer” run in the Columbia River, but these giants are rare today.

Blackmouth are Chinook that stick to Puget Sound and nearby inland waters to feed on baitfish and other forage, extending salmon fishing into the winter and early spring months.

Coho Salmon

These acrobatic fighters, frequently known as silvers, are caught mostly in the summer and fall and can bite with almost suicidal abandon, particularly while still in saltwater although river fishing can be good in spots.

Most keeper coho are hatchery-bred fish marked with a clipped fin, although wild coho are making a comeback in some rivers at least partly as a result of protections.

Chum Salmon

These toothy critters, also known as dog salmon (or in grocery stores as keta), chums return to short coastal and Puget Sound streams and are such powerful fighters they have ruined many a rod and reel.

To be honest, these are by many accounts (ours included) the least delicious of the five salmon species but are fun to catch.

While these fish are native across coastal areas of western Washington, several of the state’s best chum fisheries are hatchery-based.

Pink Salmon

Pinks are a smaller salmon that return largely during odd-numbered years in Washington, primarily in the Puget Sound region.

Those summertime runs can vary widely, from amazing booms to total busts, but when the pinks are coming in thick, anglers catch thousands in in several Puget Sound-area rivers.

Sockeye Salmon

Sockeye salmon are another smaller salmon, prized for their fun fight and excellent eating qualities.

There aren’t a lot of ocean-going sockeye hot spots in the state, but the Columbia River in central Washington and Baker Lake in northwestern Washington can be excellent some years.

By the way, Washington also is blessed with many land-locked sockeye salmon, more commonly known as kokanee.

Several lakes also have land-locked coho or Chinook salmon. Our top choice for land-locked coho (and now and then a Chinook) is Riffe Lake on the upper Cowlitz River.

Following the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s lead, we’ve divided the state’s best river and saltwater salmon fisheries into three major regions.

Puget Sound Area Salmon Fishing

Puget Sound Fall Chinook

The rivers near the greater Seattle area with the best fall Chinook runs these days are typically the Nisqually River, Puyallup River, Green River (Duwamish) and Samish River.

These better fall Chinook fisheries tend to be heavily supplemented with hatchery stocks.

In the saltwater, returning fall Chinook can provide good fishing on the way to these rivers.

The best way to reach them is launching from the major fishing ports along the top of the Olympic Peninsula, from Neah Bay and Sekiu to Port Angeles and Admiralty Inlet (between Port Townsend and Whidbey Island), and also around the San Juan Islands.

Into the Sound itself, fishing off major tributaries in the southern area from Seattle down to Tacoma and Olympia can be fair to good. Hood Canal produces moderate fall Chinook catches as well.

Puget Sound Blackmouth Salmon

A good number of Chinook salmon spend at least part of their lives chasing baitfish around the Puget Sound and Salish Sea, where they are called blackmouth or feeder Chinook.

Blackmouths are still immature and therefore tend to run quite a bit smaller than migrating Chinook, but at times fishing for them can be productive in the winter and very early spring, especially since they offer some of the only salmon fishing at that time.

Around the San Juan Islands and Admiralty Inlet are some of the better blackmouth fishing areas, but catches can be widespread.

Puget Sound Spring Chinook

The Skykomish River is really your main choice for catching spring Chinook salmon close to home if you live in the Puget Sound area, although its runs have often been less than impressive in recent years.

Many Puget Sound-area salmon anglers ready to chase springers will instead opt to head south on Interstate 5 and into the Columbia River area, so see that region below for the best options.

Puget Sound Coho Salmon

There are several pretty good hatchery-powered coho salmon rivers around the broader Puget Sound area, at least when the returns are coming back in fairly decent shape.

On the south side, the Puyallup River and the Green River (Duwamish) can have some good hatchery returns many years, and these fisheries can run a bit earlier than other runs, often with a peak in September.

Other coho fishing spots to try in better run years include the Carbon River and Nisqually River. If you like fishing in flat water, Lake Washington can be an option when there are enough fish around.

On the north side, the Skagit River in Skagit County and the Nooksack River in Whatcom County both have excellent coho salmon fishing potential.

The Snohomish River and to a lesser extent the Skykomish River and Wallace River in the system also can be worthwhile coho fisheries.

On the near side of the Olympic Peninsula, the Big Quilcene River can have a quick but quite a good coho run in a short stretch below a federal hatchery.

The Dungeness River near Sequim can produce more modest coho results on the Peninsula.

In the saltwater, coho fishing kicks off a bit earlier than in rivers, with catches starting up in earnest in late August and usually peaking in September.

A good number of coho are caught in the salt very close to Seattle, and fair to good catches are made in the region around the Everett and Tacoma areas, Admiralty Inlet and Hood Canal. Many of the best areas are off river mouths with big hatchery runs.

Farther west, the areas around Port Angeles, Sekiu and the San Juan Islands can be good for intercepting inbound coho during the peak of the run.

Puget Sound Chum Salmon

Chum salmon fishing typically gets going later than other runs, usually peaking in November and providing somewhat of a fishing bridge between other fall salmon runs and the winter steelhead season.

The best chum salmon fishing in Washington is typically in Hood Canal, and in particular around the hatchery at Hoodsport.

Another hot spot closer to home for many is near the fish hatchery at Minter Creek, located near the end of Carr Inlet less than 20 minutes from Gig Harbor.

And right in the metropolitan area, the lower Green (Duwamish) River can have excellent chum salmon fishing.

Kennedy Creek near Olympia can also have some pretty decent chum runs, though in recent years not quite as good as those we’ve already mentioned.

Chums return in smaller numbers to several other rivers, including the Puyallup River and Nooksack River.

Puget Sound Pink Salmon

This feast or famine fishery has a chance of providing explosive fishing during the summers of odd-numbered years.

In the most recently released catch records, the area rivers with the best pink salmon runs include the Nisqually, Puyallup and Green (Duwamish) from Seattle south toward Olympia, and the Snohomish, Skykomish and Nooksack rivers heading north from Everett to Bellingham.

Puget Sound Sockeye Salmon

Not counting the many kokanee lakes, fishing for the anadromous version of sockeye salmon is for practical purposes limited to a single hot spot on the north side of the region.

In fairly recent years, since about 2010, Baker Lake in Whatcom County east of Bellingham has been a good to great sockeye salmon fishery many years.

When it’s opened, that fishery kicks off strong in July and can continue during at least the early part of August.

A few are hooked in the Skagit River on their way upstream toward Baker Lake.

A relatively small number of sockeye also are caught in saltwater around the San Juan Islands and occasionally elsewhere as they make their way toward Baker Lake, but this is primarily an incidental catch while anglers target other fish.

Columbia River Basin Salmon Fishing

Columbia River Fall Chinook

Washington and Oregon share the lower end of great river of the West, which offers a tremendous run of fall Chinook salmon starting in August in the estuary and lower river, as well as offshore in the late summer.

The famous “Buoy 10” fishery out of the lower river ports of Ilwaco and Chinook is short but extremely productive.

Over the late summer and early fall, the fishery moves upstream past Vancouver, over multiple fish ladders at massive hydroelectric dams, and on up into arid Central Washington.

In the mid- and upper Columbia, anglers often intercept Chinook near river mouths and below dams, where these fish tend to tap the brakes just a bit to concentrate their numbers.

Tributary rivers with fair to sometimes excellent fall Chinook fishing in their own right include the Cowlitz River, Kalama River and Lewis River on the Lower Columbia River and the Klickitat River and Little White Salmon River/Drano Lake in the Columbia River Gorge.

In the upper Columbia River, some of the best areas are in the stretch from the Interstate 182 Bridge in Tri-Cities up to Priest Rapids Dam, which includes several productive spots and the Hanford Reach, the only long undammed stretch of the big river in this inland area.

At times the Yakima River can offer decent fall Chinook fishing as well, if runs are sufficient to allow an in-season opener.

Columbia River Spring Chinook

The Columbia River and its tributaries offer the state’s best spring Chinook salmon fishing.

The mainstem itself can be a good producer of spring Chinook from around the Longview area up into the gorge, although the Fish & Wildlife agencies in Washington and Oregon tend to shut it down just as things get rolling to protect certain upriver stocks.

Because the mainstem fishery is often short-lived, we’d give the overall nod for Washington’s best spring Chinook fishing to the Cowlitz River, which can produce thousands of these incredible salmon.

The Kalama River and sometimes the Lewis River can be nice options for smaller river spring Chinook fishing.

Upriver into the gorge, the Little White Salmon River and Wind River, and their mouths at the Columbia, can be quite good for spring Chinook as well.

Columbia River Summer Chinook

The legendary “June hogs,” or summer Chinook salmon, are somewhat a relic of the past. These giants regularly topped 50 pounds and arrived on the heels of the spring run.

Since the summer Chinooks were bound for far upriver spawning areas, they were devastated by the construction of dams high up in the system, especially those that don’t have fish ladders.

There are some remnant salmon that do enter the Columbia between the spring and fall runs, and on occasion the states will open fisheries during those months, but it tends to be a minor fishery compared to the spring and especially big fall fisheries.

Columbia River Coho Salmon

Bar none, the most coho salmon caught in the Columbia River region are caught in saltwater.

The fishing gets going in the heart of the summer out on the open ocean, where charters and private boats work the newly arrived coho salmon, which are busily slashing through baitfish like anchovies and sardines while packing on the weight for their spawning runs.

Later one, typically in the second half of August, much of the action moves inside to the area known as Buoy 10, which stretches across the river estuary from a buoy with that number marking out in the jaws of the estuary up to Washington’s Rocky Point and Oregon’s Tongue Point.

Coho will wash in and out of this estuary for some weeks before heading farther upstream. They’re still feeding at this point and are aggressive biters on trolled herring, spinners, wobbling lures and other top salmon baits.

The coho fishing will hang on through much of September, even while many anglers will have moved upstream on the big river to chase the earlier-moving Chinook.

To be honest, coho fishing in the mainstem above the Buoy 10 area isn’t a huge draw.

Coho are tougher to catch than Chinook up there, although they are caught in modest numbers, especially near the mouths of major tributary streams.

If you’re heading up there for coho, we suggest you focus on one of the tributary rivers, which are smaller and better for targeting these fish.

The Cowlitz is a decent coho bet in October and November, filling the lull between fall Chinook and winter steelhead, and the Tilton River and Cispus River tributaries can be nice small stream spots to catch silvers.

The Lewis River (North Fork) especially, and sometimes the Washougal River or Kalama River, all a short drive from Vancouver, can be quite good for coho salmon.

Wild coho are increasingly making a comeback in some of these streams, and these later-arriving fish can offer pretty good catch-and-release fishing in November and December.

Into the Columbia River Gorge, the Klickitat River and Little White Salmon River will tend to have decent coho returns some years, following in on the heels of the more popular Chinook runs.

The mouths of these tributary streams as well as some of the Oregon-side tributaries also can be moderately productive at times for boaters.

Columbia River Sockeye Salmon

These smaller salmon rarely show up on the hook (and usually as an unintentional catch) in the lower and middle reaches of the Columbia River.

It’s when the Columbia makes a northward bend solely into Washington when the sockeye fishing starts to pick up above the Tri-Cities area, through the Hanford Reach and the next several pools. These are fair to decent fisheries at times.

Where sockeye fishing really shines up in this region is between Wells and Chief Joseph dams, a reservoir known as Lake Pateros. The Brewster area or Brewster Pool is ground zero for this fishery, which can be red hot when the run is great or at times canceled in poor years.

Some of the sockeye turn off before reaching Brewster and climb the Wenatchee River to Lake Wenatchee, where there also can be a pretty good lake fishery when the numbers are good enough.

Columbia River Chum Salmon

Chum salmon do migrate into the lower Columbia River and spawn in a few lower river tributaries as well as the mainstem below Bonneville Dam.

Efforts are underway to restore chum salmon runs here, and these fish are not legal to keep in the Columbia River system.

Washington Coast Salmon Fishing

Washington Coast Fall Chinook

The quickest area to reach for many Washingtonians, the Grays Harbor area offers excellent fall Chinook fishing offshore from Westport, inside the bay, and in the Humptulips River.

These areas can produce hundreds and often thousands of fall Chinook catches, thanks in large part to the excellent hatchery run on the Humptulips.

Farther south, given a good run year, Willapa Bay can put out thousands of big fall Chinook salmon in the late summer, especially in August, so this is a really good opportunity to hook big salmon from small boats in great weather.

Once the rains hit and those fish start heading into streams, especially in September, find them in the Nemah, Willapa and Naselle Rivers.

To the north, the Quillayute River is often the best bet on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula, especially with a Native American guide.

The Bogachiel and Sol Duc rivers have modest fall Chinook catches many years.

Washington Coast Spring Chinook

Like the Puget Sound area, coastal streams have limited options for spring Chinook fishing.

Our choice would be the Sol Duc River on the far northwest end of the Olympic Peninsula, where a fair to good run comes back many years, peaking in May or June.

Washington Coast Coho Salmon

The Grays Harbor area includes several of the best coho salmon fishing spots on the Washington Coast.

The largest number of silvers from this area is generally caught offshore by charter and private boats working out of Westport during the mid- to late summer months.

These ocean fish are feisty, bright coho fattening up on baitfish before returning to river systems that feed into Grays Harbor, the Columbia River, or other destinations.

Inside Grays Harbor, coho are generally heading up the Chehalis River or making a quick turn into the Humptulips River. They can be caught in both rivers but also will stage near the tidewater entrances to both areas, so there are good spots to intercept them.

While the Chehalis River itself often offers some pretty darned good coho catches, if you like fishing smaller water there are often a good number caught in the Satsop River as well.

A smaller number will head for the Wynoochee River, Wishkah River, Copalis River and Joe Creek in Grays Harbor County and the Skookumchuck River near I-5, but in good years those secondary spots can offer pretty good action.

Willapa Bay is better known for Chinook fishing, but there are a moderate number of coho caught in the bay, especially during September when they grab the same lures and bait used for Chinook, and then peaking in some of the tributaries in October.

The Naselle and Willapa rivers are decent options for small-stream silver fishing.

To the north, on the coast side of the Olympic Peninsula, the Quillayute River produces good catches of coho salmon in October, and the Hoh River and Sol Duc River can be worth fishing around that same time.

Washington Coast Chum Salmon

Chum salmon are native to many of the low-gradient sections of coastal streams, but they aren’t present in the same kind of numbers as in the hatchery-supplemented rivers found in the southern end of the Puget Sound and Hood Canal.

Catch reports that anglers are most likely to catch chum salmon in the Grays Harbor area, especially in the Satsop and Humptulips rivers.

Washington Resources

WDFW fishing and stocking reports
WDFW fishing regulations
National Weather Service forecasts