Marine fishing in Oregon
Feisty lingcod along rugged shores, lively surfperch against ocean beaches and fat rockfish among jetty rocks: these are just some of the many fine fishes that are at home in Oregon’s nearshore ocean and estuaries. With some simple, inexpensive gear and a little knowledge, anglers of all ages can enjoy a day of marine fishing. Most marine fish are delicious to eat and easy to prepare.
It is important for anglers to read the current issue of Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations and to check for in-season regulation changes before fishing. With few exceptions, persons 12 years or older must have an Oregon fishing license to take fish for personal use. A separate shellfish license is required to take shellfish. All anglers, regardless of age, need the proper tag to fish for salmon/steelhead, sturgeon and Pacific halibut. License details are available in the current edition of the Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations or by calling the Licensing Department in Salem at (503) 947-6101.
Types of fish
You can catch many different kinds of marine fish off of Oregon's coast. Here are a few of them, and some techniques for catching them.
Anadromous fishes are those that migrate from the ocean into freshwater to spawn.
Salmon anglers should know how to distinguish between a Chinook (king) and a coho (silver). See Is it a Coho or Chinook for help.
Fish Fact: Pacific salmon such as Chinook and coho die after spawning, but steelhead and sea-run trout often do not.
Technique: Shore and boat anglers use spinners or bait in autumn; offshore anglers troll or mooch in summer. Ocean coho generally stay in the upper layers of water, while Chinook are deeper and are caught with larger plugs (>6 inches), herring, spoons, spinners, or metal jigs. Angling for salmon is restricted due to reduced populations of some runs.
Both green and the larger white sturgeon are found in Oregon waters. There recently have been limited seasons for white sturgeon but both species are mostly available as catch-and-release. Historical records list one white sturgeon tipping the scales at 1,500 pounds (680 kg) and measuring 20 feet (610 cm). Those caught in Oregon, however, usually measure less than 12 feet (366 cm).
Fish Fact: Sturgeon may live to be over 100 years old and spawn only once every 2 to 8 years.
Technique: Both boat and shore anglers use shrimp, smelt or herring with a 6/0 or 7/0 hook, a 2- to 8-ounce sliding sinker, and 30- to 40-pound line. Sturgeon dwell on the bottom of deep holes in upper bays. When handling a sturgeon, be careful of the sharp scutes (bony plates) along the sides.
Other marine fishes
Surfperch are disc-shaped and come in a variety of colors. Redtail and silver surfperch are found mostly in the surf. Striped seaperch, pile perch, white seaperch, and shiner surfperch all live near rocks, docks or pilings in bays. “Shiners” are full-size at 5 inches (13 cm), other species at 12-18 inches (30-46 cm).
Fish Fact: Surfperch live in large schools and bear live young up to 2 inches (5 cm) long.
Techniques: Some anglers use a #4 to #6 hook secured 24-30 inches below a 1- to 2-ounce sinker on 8- to 10-pound line; others use a fish-finder rig (see diagram below). Baits include sand and kelp worms, sand shrimp, clam necks, and mussels. Keep the line close to rocks or alongside pilings. Fishing for redtails in the surf requires a surf-fishing rig (see diagram below). Check out this "How to Fish for Surfperch" article
These blue-green, silvery or light brown fish are an important food source for larger fishes, sea birds and marine mammals. People, too, enjoy such treats as anchovy pizza, pickled herring and herring roe. Anchovies may grow to 9 inches (23 cm), herring to 18 inches (46 cm).
Fish Fact: Pacific herring “earbones” have been found in deposits more than 3 million years old.
Techniques: These are schooling fish, commonly caught during spawning seasons. Pacific herring, Northern anchovy, and sardine are caught in bays with multiple-hook herring jigs.
These fish have dark blue backs and very long pectoral (side) fins. The meat—whitest of all the tunas—is excellent whether barbecued, canned or smoked. Albacore caught off the Pacific Coast are generally 21-30 inches (53-76 cm).
Fish Fact: Albacore may cover 50 miles (93 km) or more per day, and they are thought to be the fastest swimming tunas in the world.
Technique: Albacore generally show up 15-200+ miles (28-370+ km) off the Pacific Coast during the summer. Anglers use live bait or metalhead, plastic or feather jigs trolled at 5 knots or faster. “Hand line” is often used instead of a rod and reel. Some charter boats make albacore trips when the fish are within range.
Groundfish and bottomfish
“Groundfish” and “bottomfish” are terms used for fishes found mostly around rocky headlands, jetties, nearshore reefs, and offshore pinnacles. The group includes rockfish, lingcod, greenling, cabezon and flatfish. All of the groundfish described below are excellent to eat. The meat of lingcod, greenling and cabezon may be blue or green, but it turns white when cooked and is harmless.
General Technique: Groundfish are enticed by fresh bait such as sand or ghost shrimp, marine worms, squid or herring. Rockfish and lingcod are also attracted to leadhead jigs with rubber worms and other lures. From rocks and jetties, groundfish are often caught during incoming tides. Most groundfish do not venture far from cover, so resist the urge to make long casts away from rocks and jetties unless you are angling for flatfish. Check your line often for frays caused by contact with rocks. Retention of some of these species may be prohibited. Check current regulations (including any made in-season) for size, depth and daily bag limits.
Also known as sea bass and rock cod, rockfish range in color from black to orange or red. More than two dozen species of rockfish are found along the Oregon coast. Their spines are slightly venomous, so avoid poking yourself. Many rockfish species are full-size at about 16 inches (41 cm).
Fish Facts: Rockfish bear live young (rather than lay eggs like most fishes). Some species, such as black rockfish, hang out in schools while others are solitary. Individuals of some species can live more than 100 years.
Technique: Use the fish-finder rig (see diagram inside).
Lingcod have large mouths and large, sharp teeth. They are generally mottled gray or brown, sometimes green or blue. A green-colored “ling” should not be confused with a greenling (see below). Lingcod may reach lengths of 5 feet (152 cm), although those caught in Oregon average between 2 and 3 feet (61-91 cm).
Fish Fact: Lingcod are about 1 foot long by their first birthday and about 3 feet long when 7-10 years old.
Technique: Bounce some bait along the bottom with 5/0 or 6/0 hooks, a 4- to 6-ounce sinker, and 20-pound line on a stout rod. Alternatively, try using live bait.
This is a red, brown or green mottled member of the sculpin family with smooth, scaleless skin. Deemed ugly by some, cabezon are nonetheless very tasty. Avoid eating the eggs and liver because they are poisonous. Cabezon can grow to over 2 feet (61 cm).
Fish fact: Like lingcod and greenling, the male cabezon guards the eggs after the female deposits them.
Technique: Use the fish-finder rig (see diagram below). Cabezon live around kelp beds and rocky headlands over hard bottoms.
Female kelp greenling are light gray or brown with orange speckling and yellow fins, while males are brown with blue spots and black fins. Rock greenling are dark brown (often with red spots) with a blue mouth. Both species grow to about 2 feet (61 cm).
Fish Fact: Most fishes have just one lateral line along each side to detect movement, but kelp and rock greenlings, also known as sea trout, have five.
Technique: These fish have small mouths, so try a #4 to #6 hook to catch these daytime feeders.
Flatfishes such as soles, flounders and sanddabs are dark on the upper side, lighter underneath, and (as one might guess) they are flat. Rock sole, petrale sole and Pacific sanddab are a few of the flatfish species caught in Oregon by offshore anglers. Shore and nearshore boat anglers catch sand sole over sandy bottoms near the mouth of bays and starry flounder in estuaries. Except for Pacific halibut (see below) most flatfishes reach lengths of 1-2 feet (30-61 cm).
Fish Fact: Flatfishes begin life looking “normal” (with one eye on each side of the head) and swimming upright in the water. Later, they settle to the bottom and flop over to one side. The eye on the bottom side then migrates to the upper side.
Technique: Drift a small jig or bait (such as shrimp, marine worm or mussel) with #2 hooks, a 2-ounce sinker, and 10- to 15-pound line over sandy or muddy bottom.
Sometimes weighing up to 100 pounds (45 kg) in Oregon, Pacific halibut are the heftiest of the flatfishes. They are tan to dark brown (often with marbling or spots) on the upper side and white underneath.
Fish Fact: The genus name (Hippoglossus) is from the Greek for “horse tongue.”
Technique: Boat anglers use heavy rods to fish on or near gravel bottoms in water 150-500+ feet deep. Halibut are enticed by large herring, jigs, spoons or shrimp flies deployed on wire or very heavy monofilament leaders.
Please note that Pacific halibut are NOT managed as a groundfish species.
Which fish live where?
Rocks and Jetties - For the shore angler, rocks and jetties are the best places to fish year-round for groundfish such as rockfish, lingcod, greenling and cabezon. Surfperch also inhabit these areas year-round. While chasing schools of baitfish or migrating into rivers to spawn, salmon are occasionally found near jetties.
Ocean Beaches - Most anglers on the beach target redtail surfperch, primarily during the summer months. However, the fish are present year-round and available to hardy winter anglers. On some beaches, anglers use dip or cast nets to catch surf smelt when they congregate to spawn in the spring or summer
Bays and Estuaries - Both shore and boat anglers have access to a variety of fishes living in bays, estuaries and tidal waters. Many species of surfperch live around rocks, docks and pilings year-round. Herring are jigged from docks and piers in the winter. Sturgeon can be found in channels and deep holes of upper bays and estuaries in the winter and spring. Salmon pass through bays and estuaries on their way to spawn in freshwater in the summer or fall.
Nearshore - Boat anglers target lingcod, cabezon, greenling and many species of rockfish living among reefs at depths of 50-200 feet. Flatfish, including Pacific halibut, live nearby on flat areas of the ocean floor. Fish are found at these locations year-round; however, angler access depends on the weather and safe boating conditions.
Offshore - Experienced boaters and charter boat anglers can reach deeper Pacific halibut grounds and the offshore reefs that are home to rockfish at depths of 300-700 feet. Reefs and pinnacles can be seen on navigational charts, or anglers can ask local retailers and charter operators for popular areas. Warm sea temperatures in the summer may bring albacore near our coast.
If you'd like to find information on marine and nearshore fishing areas along the coast, please use the links below to view maps and learn about specific locations.
What rigs work?
Different rigs and baits may work better at particular places and times of year, so ask at a local bait or tackle shop for up-to-date fishing information.
Bottomfish fish-finder rig:
Main line: Use 15- to 20-pound from jetties and rocks, 20-pound for lingcod and 15- to 30-pound from ocean boats.
Leader and dropper lines: 2 to 4 pounds lighter than main line. Hooks: #1 to #6 snelled bait holder hooks.
Sinker: 1/2 to 6 ounces. Attach leaders and dropper lines with 3-way swivels.
- Let the rig sink to the bottom.
- Raise your rod about 12 inches, reel in the slack line, then allow the rig to sink again.
- Repeat until you have a bite.
- Baits include sand and ghost shrimp, pile worms, herring and squid.
Or try a 1/4- to 1-ounce leadhead jig with rubber worm attached to the mainline. Drop it to the bottom, then slowly retrieve.
Redtail surfperch surf-fishing rig:
- Look for places where the beach drops off steeply or where freshwater enters the ocean.
- Best fishing is in spring and summer.
- At high tide, redtails are closer to shore so you will not need to cast far.
- Baits include sand and kelp worms, sand shrimp, clam necks and mussels.
Some anglers attach a piece of colorful yarn to each hook. Main line: Use 10- to 20-pound line. Leaders: 24 inches. Dropper lines: 8 to 12 inches. Hooks: #2 to #4 snelled bait holder hooks. Sinker: 1- to 6-ounce pyramid. Attach leaders and dropper lines with 3-way swivels.
Whether you’re afloat or ashore, be aware of changing tides, bar conditions and weather.
- Use a life jacket when boating.
- Call the U.S. Coast Guard when unsure about weather or crossing an unfamiliar bar. Bars can be deceptive and very dangerous!
- Be sure of your footing and the stability of rocks when fishing from jetties.
- Watch for larger-than-usual (sneaker) waves when fishing from beaches or rocks.
- Stay clear of large logs in the surf.
- Don’t let your chest waders fill with water when surf fishing.
More information can be obtained from fishing supply retailers, charter fishing operators, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Opportunities for youngsters to learn to fish are available through the Oregon Angler Education Program, offered through local offices of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon State University Extension/4-H Program. The “Oregon Boating Facilities Guide” is available free from the State Marine Board in Salem.
References: Eschmeyer, W. N., E. S. Herald, H. Hamman. Pacific Coast Fishes. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1983. Field Guide to Common Marine and Bay Fishes of Oregon. Oregon State University Extension Service, 1984. Love, R. M. Probably More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast. Really Big Press, Santa Barbara, 1991. Olander, D. Northwest Coastal Fishing Guide. Frank Amato Publications, Portland, 1991.
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