Jetty Fly Fishing in the Pacific Northwest

When most fly fishermen think of the Pacific Northwest, it conjures up imagery of winter steelhead in pouring rain or coastal cutthroat on a rocky beach. There is, however, another vibrant fishery hidden in plain sight on the fringes of the region. At the openings of many harbors in the Pacific Northwest are artificial jetties and each of these structures offers access to a unique and underrated opportunity in fly fishing. These jetties are home to different types of pacific bottomfish such as lingcod, greenling, and countless species of rockfish. Most fishermen associate these species with offshore fishing using heavy conventional gear, but they visit the shallow, nearshore zones more often than many anglers realize and are very willing to take a properly presented fly.

 

The toothy jaws of a fly caught lingcod.

 

Location and Target Species

The section of coastline this blog will focus on is from Bodega Bay, California up to Westport, Washington. There are a number of harbors with jetties along this 600 mile stretch of coastline and all of them host a variety of saltwater species to target with a fly rod. Humboldt Bay, Yaquina Bay and Tillamook bay are all well known for having productive jetties, but there are several other less popular harbors that offer an opportunity for high quality fishing. The primary target species from these jetties is lingcod, a ferocious predator that spends most of its time resting on the bottom waiting to ambush unsuspecting prey. Most lingcod caught by fly fishermen from shore are around 18 inches, but they can grow upwards for four feet and fifty pounds. Lingcod also display a wide variety of colors, ranging from drab browns and tans to electric blues and greens. Another popular target species is the black rockfish, a scrappy predator that is the most common saltwater fish caught in this region. Most black rockfish are 10-15 inches in length, with real trophies topping out around 24 inches. They often form large schools suspended above the bottom feeding on shoals of anchovies and smelt and can provide fly anglers with furious action on the right day. Less frequently caught species include kelp greenling, cabezon, surfperch, and even the occasional salmon. One of my favorite jetty memories is having a two foot coho salmon eat a clouser at my rod tip and launch out of the water before spitting the hook.

 

The elusive cabezon on the fly.

 

Getting Geared Up

The first step to targeting pacific bottomfish on the fly is making sure you have the proper equipment. To start, a 9 foot 8 weight rod with a competent saltwater reel and a fast-sinking sink tip fly line is an ideal setup. We like to use Scott Sector or Orvis Recon Salt. Your leader should be short and abrasion resistant, a 4-6 foot section of 20lb fluorocarbon or monofilament will work well in most scenarios. Fly selection for rockfish and lingcod is flexible because most bottomfish will eat anything that fits in their mouth, but it is important to use flies that have been tied on heavy-duty saltwater hooks so big fish can’t straighten them out. Clouser minnows in chartreuse over white or orange over yellow tied on a 1/0 to 3/0 hook are both good choices. A stripping basket is another important piece of equipment to have when fly fishing from jetties because it will prevent tangles in the rocks around your feet as well as protecting your fly line from damage. Having proper footwear is key to moving around the jetties safely, and you should approach these rocky structures with the same caution as you would a slick freestone river. Other equipment that is good to carry with you is polarized glasses for seeing structure beneath the surface, a file for sharpening hook points damaged by the bottom, and a long-handled net for landing large fish.

 

A handful of 3/0 rockfish flies.

 

Picking the Right Day

The first step to connecting with your first rockfish or lingcod on the fly is finding the proper day to get out and fish. The Northeast Pacific is subject to massive swells, heavy precipitation, and large tidal swings that all complicate targeting these saltwater fish from shore. Generally speaking, direct swells over 4 feet are unsafe to fish. If fishing in a more protected area, it’s possible to fish in heavier swells, but making that determination will require some direct knowledge of the spot you want to fish. Most harbors in the Pacific Northwest are based at the mouth of a river, so after a storm, water surrounding the jetty may be very murky and make it difficult for fish to locate your fly. Tides are another important consideration, because many of these narrow harbor entrances funnel tidal flow and can have rapid currents that make it very difficult to effectively present a fly. Fishing during peak high tide and bottom low tide will help, as well as fishing during smaller tidal exchanges. Like with heavy swell, it is possible to find zones that are protected from heavy tidal currents, but again this takes detailed knowledge of the zone you plan to fish. Summer often presents the ideal conditions to fly fish from jetties in the Pacific Northwest with smaller swells, clearer water, and smaller tides. 

 

A nice jetty black rockfish.

 

Presenting your Fly

Once you’ve selected a day with ideal conditions, the next step is finding a good zone to throw your flies. Rather than selecting a rock you think will hold fish, you should search for spots you can most effectively cast and retrieve your fly. Using polarized glasses, you’ll be able to see submerged rocks adjacent to the jetty, and these shallow boulders can get in the way of your retrieve and provide fish with cover as you fight them. Good spots to fish drop off quickly in front of the rock you're casting from and give you immediate access to deep water. Additionally, you want to make sure you have open space behind you to false cast in order to make long casts perpendicular to the jetty. Once you’ve found a rock that fits the criteria above, you’re ready to get your fly in the water. Cast as far as you can perpendicular to the jetty, and give your line at least 20 or 30 seconds to sink in order to get as deep as possible. As you retrieve your fly, you should feel it making contact with the rocks on the bottom to ensure you’re right in the strike zone. Snags are inevitable, and you should count on leaving every jetty session with fewer flies than you arrived with. If you're not touching bottom, you’re not in the zone. 

 

A  healthy Northern California lingcod on the fly.

 

Connecting with your Catch

When you feel an eat, the first few seconds of your encounter are key to landing the fish. A hard hookset is important because the bony jaws of lingcod and cabezon are difficult to drive a hook into. After that hookset, gaining line quickly is key for extracting that fish from the bottom and not allowing it to bury you in the structure. Big lingcod in particular will make multiple dives for the bottom and giving these fish an inch is all they need to scrape your leader on some mussels and break you off. Once you get your fish to the surface, it’s important to keep an eye on the swell and use the surge of the waves to direct the fish into a zone where you can either net it or get a hand on it. Most encounters with big fish from a jetty end prematurely as an angler navigates the steep rocks and figures out how to land their catch. Having another angler with you who can help out by getting down onto the rocks to net the fish as you fight from above makes sealing the deal much easier. Rockfish have sharp spines on their fins and lingcod have a mouthful of razor sharp teeth, so you should handle these fish with caution. Rockfish can be held like any species of bass, with one hand gripping the bottom lip and the other supporting the belly. Lingcod, on the other hand, should be held like a large trout with a hand tightly around the base of the tail and a hand supporting under the pectoral fins. Many folks hold lingcod by their gills, but you should avoid this at all costs, both the fish and your fingers will thank you.

 

Getting ready to release a black rockfish.

 

Final Thoughts

A great aspect of this fishery is that it’s an effective way to get a few fish to take home, and rockfish make fantastic fish tacos. That being said, these are slow-growing fish that are subject to overharvest in much of their range, and most anglers you’ll see at the jetty are there to fill a freezer. If you plan to keep fish, make sure to observe local regulations of size limits and open seasons. It’s imperative to release any large fish you catch as these fish produce exponentially more offspring than smaller, younger fish and are key to maintaining a healthy population. A 24 inch lingcod or a few 16 inch rockfish have plenty of meat to make a big fish fry, and often the larger, older fish have tough flesh and numerous parasites anyways. I also want to include a final reminder to navigate these jetties with extreme caution. The North Pacific is cold, rough, and dangerous. Every year anglers are swept from jetties in this region and drown, and each time it could have been preventable. Check the swell forecast before you leave to make sure you’ll be able to fish without putting your safety at risk. If you see waves sweeping over a rock you want to fish, find a new spot or perhaps come back on a different day. These are special fish, but they are not worth risking your life over. Tight lines!

 

Gary Stemper with a hefty lingcod on the fly.