Tide rips are one of the most common areas to fly fish for salmon at Neah Bay. I'm addicted to fly fishing tide rips for coho salmon in the saltwater. The stronger the current and the rougher the water, the more I love it.
Tide rips are a general term used by many people but not always meaning the same thing. Many people define tide rips as where two opposing currents meet. Others define rips as any ripple caused by current on a glassy sea. Both are correct, but I think of tide rips as where huge amounts of water are moving causing the ocean to resemble a river. This can be caused by current crossing a shallow bar or reef (the northern tip of Waadah Island is an example of this) or where a large volume of water is constricted and/or crosses a shallow (or not so shallow) reef. A prime example of the latter is where the Strait of Juan de Fuca meets the Pacific Ocean north of Cape Flattery. The water in these areas can go from glass calm to rough in a very short time.
The rough water is where I spend most of my time fly fishing the rips. The movement of water is also moving large amounts of feed (mostly baitfish like herring and anchovies) into the tide rips. The fast, turbulent water disorients the bait, making them easy prey for aggressively feeding coho salmon. The salmon use the current as a massive marine conveyer belt that brings them an easy supply of food. The chop on the water also seems to make the salmon less spooky and they will hold in the upper part of the water column, which puts them well within the fly fisherman's reach. All of these factors combined make fly fishing tide rips one of the best experiences in northwest saltwater fly fishing.
We've found the conditions that concentrate salmon within reach of our flies. Now we have to enter the prime water. This is where things become interesting. I mentioned the rough water previously, and I must add even more caution to those attempting this type of fishing for the first or even the one hundredth time. Many times, the top end of the tide rip will contain breaking waves, much like rapids in a river. In the beginning start fishing rips that are not as strong. Look for days with less tidal movement to get used to the way your boat drifts and how to cast flies while being tossed around before casting flies in stronger tide rips. A sound boat is necessary. You need a boat that's a minimum of 18' long to deal with the strongest rips. Make sure you have all the safety equipment required and more. Life jackets, VHF radio, and a GPS are absolutely required. Make sure your engine is tuned up and operating properly. This is no place to have a breakdown.
Okay, you are now in the rip holding the cork of a fly rod with a baitfish fly pattern in your other hand. What now? It depends a bit on how your boat drifts through the current. My boat drifts straight with the current, but others drift sideways. For me, I cast straight across to up-current a bit. Usually the boat is drifting slower than the current underneath, so casting a fly up current will give the fly more time to sink and still allow you to strip the fly back to the boat across the current. I usually strip the fly back at varying speeds. Often, I'll start the retrieve very fast and then slow it down as the fly gets closer to the boat. I think the initial fast burst gets the coho salmon's attention and the slower strips with pauses is what triggers the coho salmon to strike the fly.
The tide rips can also be a great place to try casting poppers for saltwater salmon. Bringing salmon to the surface is a thrill.
Of course, an article can only get you so far. Time on the water is the key to being confident fly fishing the saltwater for salmon in Washington State. I hope you will give the Olympic Peninsula a shot for your saltwater fly fishing adventures.
Chris Bellows, owner of Topwater Charters, Inc, which runs fly fishing charters off the Washington Coast. His websites offer more information about Saltwater Fly Fishing and Neah Bay Halibut