Beach Fishing: Fisheries off Washington's Shoreline

May 20, 2015

Story and Photos by Greg Johnston

Photo at right: On rare sunny days along the Washington Coast, you won’t need hip boots to fish for surf perch, as on this warm June afternoon at Beach Three north of Kalaloch.


The saltwater shore is always a magical edge where sea meets earth, a primal setting for hiking, beach-combing, clam-digging, picnicking or pulling up a drift log and just sitting. But a lot of us cannot look at a marine shoreline without wondering: What sort of fish might be cruising those shallows—and can I catch them?

Depending on the season, tides and geography, there are fish cruising those shores in a surprising variety—red-tailed surf perch, salmon and cutthroat trout—and yes you can catch them.

Here is a brief primer on each of these interesting fisheries of the Washington Coast and Puget Sound.

A morning’s catch of pretty red-tailed surf perch makes a fine meal. We recommended fileting them and then poaching in olive oil and dry white wine, seasoned with fresh garlic and ginger root.

Red-tailed surf perch is a pretty silver-scaled fish with pinkish-red fins that spend much of their lives in the crashing waves of the ocean. Short of climbing on a surfboard, fishing for them is perhaps the most tangible way of experiencing the surf on the Washington Coast.


The Washington state record for this species is 4.05 pounds, taken at Kalaloch in Olympic National Park, but the average weight of a red-tailed surf perch is about a pound.

Perch are fished primarily on the open sandy beaches from the Kalaloch area south to the Columbia River. When seas and surf are big, the perch don’t bite, likely moving offshore, but when calm prevails, surf perch fishing can be a contemplative joy.

The best baits to use when catching surf perch are razor clam necks and pieces of shrimp or prawns. You’ll need hip boots and chest waders, or at least knee-high boots. The best rods are over nine feet long but not too heavy for casting.

Bait the hook and stride out into the smaller waves while casting out as far as you can. Take in any slack line after the cast, so you can feel the bite, then reel ‘em in!

Coho and pink salmon are perhaps the most popular marine fish in Washington.

An intriguing and unsolved mystery, pink salmon spawn only on odd-numbered years in the Pacific Northwest. Since 2015 is an odd-numbered year, veritable hordes are expected this summer. In 2013, approximately six million Coho and pinks returned to Puget Sound rivers.

The fishing technique for salmon is simple. Stand where the waves lap at the shore preferably during an incoming tide and cast your fly, lure, or bait as far as you can.

Check your state fishing regulations pamphlet to make sure the spot you want to fish is open. Be sure you buy a state license and report card. Seasons vary year-to-year. Also, you must use barbless hooks.

Sea-run cutthroat is an uncommonly pretty trout. Heavily speckled over a silver body, its fins tinged with gold, they really aren’t that great for eating. In fact, regulations require that any cutthroat caught in saltwater must be released alive when caught in any marine water.

A gentle surf is preferable, but you can catch surf perch in waves of 2-3 feet -- be careful and never turn your back on the surf. This scene is at Starifsh Point in Olympic National Park.

You can catch these fish on just about any beach on Washington’s inland marine waters. Cutthroat fishing is best when the incoming tide is at its highest but the waves are not crashing. The most productive spots are rocky or gravelly beaches, those with eelgrass beds and creek mouths.


Most fly anglers use a 6- or 7-weight rod, and while it is not necessary to cast huge distances because the fish are often in shallow waters, the ability to cast far is advantageous. Remember to catch and release in saltwater and use barbless hooks.


Red-tailed surf perch:
Salmon and Steelhead:

Greg Johnston is a native of western Washington and for 25 years reported on the outdoors for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper. His book “Washington’s Pacific Coast; A Guide to Hiking, Camping, Fishing & Other Adventures” will be available from Mountaineers Books.