Editor’s note: Oregon’s COVID-19 restrictions have eased, but businesses may ask you to wear a face cover – bring one along and be patient and kind if asked to wear it. It’s also wildfire season – plan ahead and do your part to prevent wildfires.
There is a stretch of the Southern Oregon Coast that I’d never seen in person before, but I knew it well from countless photographs. It’s an overlook at Shore Acres State Park in Coos Bay, about four hours south of Portland. At the park, jagged cliffs jut toward the sky almost 100 feet above the ocean, and crashing waves explode in great, drenching sprays of Pacific Ocean foam. Photos of these waves capture just how wild and powerful the Oregon Coast can be.
Now I’m standing at that lookout with my family, taking in the view for the first time and wondering what tasty meals teem beneath the ocean’s surface. Oregon’s Adventure Coast — the nickname for this pristine stretch of coastline that includes the cities of Coos Bay, North Bend and Charleston — is renowned for its bountiful and easily accessible fishing. The area is home to more than 30 lakes and rivers, plus Coos Bay itself and, of course, the Pacific, meaning there’s plenty of uncrowded space for families, adventurers and anglers of all stripes.
The variety of waterways means that fishing can be part of your adventure any time of year, either on your own or with the guidance of a local tour operator or charter boat company. Springtime brings anglers to the many trout-stocked lakes as well as to the beach to cast their lines for surfperch, small but tasty fish that gather in schools not far offshore. Summer sees a run of cutthroat trout in the rivers, as well as lots of warm-water species like largemouth bass, yellow perch, crappie and bluegill in area lakes. Then come the storied salmon runs — Chinook and coho, as regulations allow — in late summer and fall, followed by winter steelhead.
Between jetty and kayak fishing, clamming and crabbing, here’s how I spent a spring weekend with my family exploring this natural bounty.
Crabbing Off the Docks
On our first day in town, my wife, Amy, and kids, Madeline and Spencer, meet up with Rob Gensorek, owner of Basin Tackle Charleston, a popular tackle shop near the docks of the Charleston Marina. A knowledgeable, gregarious Texas transplant full of jovial anecdotes and enthusiasm for the local fishing scene, Gensorek sets the kids up with a baited crab ring. Veteran crabbers themselves, they toss it off the docks, let it sit, haul it in and repeat, hoping for a sizable Dungeness or red rock crab. The native red rocks are smaller than Dungeness, but they’re just as plentiful in bays with large rocky areas like Coos, Yaquina and Tillamook.
The kids pull in the ring and throw back a few crabs that were too small to save, but end up landing a plump red rock that’s a keeper. We’ve never had red rock crab, so we look forward to a taste, which Gensorek says is sweeter than Dungeness. He christens the unlucky crustacean Steve, which causes a bit of consternation in Spencer.
Ocean Fishing for Surfperch
The next morning, we meet Gensorek at Horsfall Beach, a locale popular with the dune-buggy crowd and anglers alike. Just north of Coos Bay in North Bend, Horsfall gives access to a long stretch of Pacific Ocean beach great for strolling, catching sight of what little is left of the infamous New Carissa shipwreck and surfperch fishing. These saucer-shaped fish, which can reach up to 2 pounds, come in nine different species along the Oregon Coast and make for excellent eating — grilled whole, fried, baked, or steamed en papillote, often stuffed with aromatics. Schools of surfperch often congregate not far from the shoreline, making them easy targets. We cast our lines from the sand, only to come up empty-handed. (If you do this too, prepare to get your feet wet in the surf.) But we’re on a sunny beach on a Saturday morning trying out something new. There are no complaints here.
Bass Fishing by Kayak
Not 20 minutes after we reel in our last surfperch cast, Gensorek and I are motoring across the city of Coos Bay to our next destination, Lower Empire Lake, hidden in an area that feels more alpine hideaway than urban park. It’s one of more than two dozen freshwater fishing options in the region. We shove off in flatwater kayaks, which can be rented in town, and glide around the lake and its wooded shores, casting for plump bass in the shadows. Gensorek nabs two in quick succession. It’s silent otherwise, and the watery escape with birds all around — osprey, blue heron, a great white egret — provides an unexpected wilderness experience.
Clamming on Tidal Flats
We soon load up and head back to Basin Tackle. Amy and the kids are there, as is Gensorek’s sweet significant other, Kayla, who helps us prep for our finale: clamming on the tidal flats of the South Slough in Charleston. Decked in tall rain boots and equipped with PVC clam guns, which can be rented from most bait and tackle shops, we head across the muddy tidal flats just over the road from Basin Tackle. After a crash course in what to look for — quarter-size holes in the sand just under the water — we set out.
Kayla finds the first and shows us how the clam guns work: A simple siphon pumps water into the hole, excavating it so you can reach deep down in and work the clam free. Pretty soon, we’re all scrounging away in the mud, struggling to pull up the stubborn ones, rejoicing when they finally give up the fight. It’s fun and scenic and also a lesson in self-sufficiency. A giant bald eagle being nagged by seagulls just over our heads adds the perfect Northwest accent. Ever the accommodating guides, Gensorek and Kayla battle chilly fingers and wind to not only shuck our clams for us but teach us how to do it ourselves. There’s an art to it, for sure.
And then, just like that, what seems like a weeklong fishing adventure in the Coos Bay area is over after just two days. We’ve seen amazing stretches of the Oregon Coast we’d never seen before, fished in ways we’ve never tried and gained a newfound appreciation for a part of Oregon that we’ve only ever really passed through before. And thanks to Steve — cooked up for us with a little Cajun seasoning — we can now say we’ve tasted a red rock crab caught right off the docks on the Oregon Coast.
If You Go:
Oregon’s Adventure Coast is a must-visit destination filled with great fishing opportunities all year long, but it’s also home to so much more. You can expect an amazing seafood dinner at the High Tide Cafe in Charleston. Don’t miss their clam chowder and cinnamon-roll bread pudding. Vinny’s Smokin’ Good Burgers & Sandwiches fueled our Lower Empire Lake outing, the Pancake Mill is the place to go for breakfast and 7 Devils Brewing Co. made for a nice nightcap. Other attractions include the gorgeous Sunset Bay State Park, Cape Arago State Park — where we saw spouting gray whales — and Shore Acres State Park, which is known for its astounding Pacific Ocean waves and an incredible botanical garden on the former estate of pioneer timber baron Louis Simpson. Want to try clamming? Gensorek offers classes at Basin Tackle Charleston.