The Columbia Has Your Walleyes
September 29, 2010
The word is out and experts agree, the next world-record walleye is likely to be lurking somewhere in the mighty Columbia River.
By A. Steven Payne
Walleye fishing guide Ed Iman eyed the water suspiciously as he sized up current and flow patterns, while we drifted slowly along a Columbia River shoreline studded with rock. Finally, his trained eye settled on a particularly interesting current swirl, and with a hard burst of throttle, the boat lurched upstream to a point just above where a racy side stream tumbled into the main river.
"Okay, you guys, we're gonna anchor just above where that stream's coming in," Iman said. "Then, we cast upstream, and the current's gonna carry our lures up onto the gravel bar at the mouth. Oughta be fish up on the bar or at the lower end." In a moment, the anchor caught, and we were in position.
My first cast easily cleared the stream's mouth, and the lure surged into the flow. I closed the spinning reel's bail, retrieved through the current and into the slick eddy-swirl where the stream joined the river. The intense throbbing of my deep diving steelhead lure vibrated up through the rod only briefly, and then it became alive with action. A dedicated hookset, and we stared as 6-pound line peeled from the reel. I tightened the drag, leaned into the fish and soon worked a chunky 8-pound walleye close enough so Iman could deftly scoop the fish into his net.
Before I could release the fish, both my partners were busy at the same game. Longtime friend and former Seattle Seahawks quarterback Dave Kreig and fishing buddy and professional guide Ed Iman both brought identical fish to the boat, so we readily shared netting duties. Over the next two days, we rarely boated a fish under six pounds!
Noted Western angling instructor Dick Lee hoists a chunky marble-eye from its Columbia River hideout. Photo by A. Steven Payne
Traditionally, most anglers consider walleyes the prime species to be sought across the Eastern and Midwest regions of the country, however, very quietly, that concept is changing, as the incredible walleye assumes a uniquely active role in Western waters as well. Indeed, many of the West's gigantic reservoirs and rivers have come to be recognized as providing some of the finest walleye fishing opportunities anywhere in the country. And it's important to note, this phenomenal walleye action is not limited to a single part of the West. They're everywhere, with the exception of California, where they are unwanted. The breakthrough news, however, includes tales of trophy-class fish in virtually untouched fisheries. Also, as a result of so many other angling opportunities available in the West, walleye fishermen are generally a lonely if not small bunch.
Professional and amateur anglers have traveled across the country just to experience the West's treasures of the dynamic walleye fisheries, and scores have been rewarded with superb fishing pleasure. Because of the huge amount of water in lakes, reservoirs and rivers they now inhabit, a distinct learning process is involved, and nowhere is that more important than on the giant Columbia River, as it tumbles and flows between Oregon and Washington on its way to the Pacific Ocean.
To take advantage of this unequalled, virtually untapped resource, gather an assortment of the most effective tackle, a few quality rods, and a big net! And never underestimate the weather out here, so toss in long johns, a warm jacket, raingear and a cowboy hat. Midday sunburn can be intense; thus, the key is to be prepared for some of everything, and then head out to some of the most exciting walleye fishing in the country.
STEPPING UP FOR THE RIDE Enjoy the scenery along the way. Relish in the captivating grandeur of mountain splendor. Note where never-ending grain fields consume the landform, where wild horses, sage brush, antelope, and jack rabbits thrive on open range, and where sandy prairies give way to massive volcanic outcroppings, and finally, to where raging upstream winds can pummel the shorelines of perhaps the nation's premier walleye factory, the mighty Columbia River.
In some areas on the river, walleyes inhabit the water from shore to shore, but skilled guides and anglers have learned that the giants we seek are found primarily in select locations where they grow to phenomenal proportions. For example, here a walleye isn't considered in the trophy class until it reaches 15 pounds! Ten-pound fish are easy, 12s are common, and 14-pound walleyes happen frequently.
The Oregon record stands at an incredible 19 pounds, 15 1/4 ounces, and Washington's largest is excess of 18 pounds. Even here, where the river produces huge chinook salmon, giant steelhead, rainbows, bruiser-class largemouth and smallmouth bass, even 100-pound plus sturgeon, walleye fishing has made a limited impression on native sportsmen. Ironically though, many fish approaching such proportions never touch a scale because Western walleye anglers - the limited number who regularly fish for them - have learned that the species is superb table fare.
Although the Columbia is the premier walleye factory in the West, a number of huge impoundments created by massive dams and other current restrictors also grow big walleyes in ideal conditions. In Washington, unquestionably the prime region of Western walleye country, a series of Corps of Engineers dam projects include Banks, Billy Clapp, Potholes, Soda, Roosevelt and a number of other enormous walleye waters are scattered across the state's river corridor. All of them are continually kicking out the "easy" sizes for locals who fish for them.
The Columbia, however, contains a distinct variety of ideal fish-holding features. Coarse, rocky shoreline slopes extending to feeder streams all hold fish, as do the maze of backwater eddy pools, the secluded back bays and channels, untold numbers of underwater humps and protruding island sanctuaries. And then the pros will tell you the absolute choice fish magnets always involve the deep, backwater "slicks" below the many dams.
FISHING HOTSPOTS Most side streams and in-flows entering the river are heavily laden with food nutrients and oxygen, tumbling from high mountain elevations or long distances through rugged terrain. Thus, in bright sunlight, fish often "stack up" in the shade provided by towering rock walls or in the off-color water that is created by raging upstream winds near these areas. In fact, master walleye expert Ed Iman and others prefer the churning effect of wind to create slightly stained water, where the large fish may be found. Some skilled anglers create this effect by racing their boats along suitable shorelines to create a muddy-like area where fish congregate to beat the overhead light, then returning later to reap the reward.
Prime forage for Western walleyes includes "slow" (to react) trout fing
erlings among dozens of other fish species. Indeed, walleyes are simply not in the same speed league as salmon, rainbows, cutthroat or some other species, but due to the devastating effects of the many dams on the river, a never-ending supply of "easy prey" food is ensured by the dam's inner-working turbines. Hence, a prime fishing area is immediately downstream, or it is within a half-mile or so from the outfall where walleyes and other species congregate to forage with wild abandon. Also, juvenile salmon, crayfish, (a burgeoning population) whitefish and several "trash" species serve to grow big walleyes.
As early as late February or early March, the larger fish begin deep-water staging in anticipation of spawn activity. At this time, they may be found on the steep breaking edges of shoreline flats, along the edges of protruding rocks or submerged reefs, and as much as 30 to 50 feet deep, but never in the main current flow. Spawning areas include sandy/gravelly mouths of streams, broad gravel flats on outer bends in the river, or the long, tapering slopes of literally hundreds of islands or connecting underwater ridges.
POST-SPAWN FISHING There is a brief recuperative time following spawn, and then fishing becomes really exciting! Due to the vastly changing terrain, fluctuating water levels and extreme depths coupled with gin-clear to chocolate-brown water, plus currents that change almost hourly, a select range of catching techniques learned over years on the river have proven more effective than others.
Iman, an unequalled local outdoor enthusiast, learned the ways of the walleye over decades of plying the river's deep-submerged secrets and also as a crew member working on the enormous tug boats that push huge strings of barges laden with all manner of freight up and down the river from port to port. During "slow time" while barges are being loaded or unloaded, Iman spent countless hours on the water, learning current patterns, the habits and preferred range of walleyes and virtually all the tidbits of information that have made him one of the most sought after fishing guides in the West. Here are his picks for the most productive regions of the mighty Columbia River and its many backwater walleye-holding areas.
"Given my options, I go up-stream," he said. "I like to call the small town of Boardman, Oregon my home during the busy guide season, since it's very near the best areas I know. There's a good launch there, and there's motels for my clients. Upstream from Boardman, the town of Umatilla has a good launch also, and the area between the dam and U.S. Highway 395 above Umatilla is a key walleye holding site, with lots of "slick" water below the dam and the rocky edges of both shores holding fish. Also, between Boardman and Umatilla, mostly on the Washington side of the river, there's a lot of good backwater and dozens of islands, bays and channels."
He noted the best areas to fish in this region include the downstream end of islands or the lower end of churning eddy pools.
"But don't limit yourself to just these hotspots," he noted. "On down-river, be sure to work the many islands and underwater humps. Best to use a depth locator to find the areas where the break-line drops into deeper water. Bigger fish tend to hang out on those edges. And if you remember, the Corps opened all the dams a few years back, and actually washed big walleyes all the way to Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. So, it's kind of tough to say where the best fishing is gonna be. But give me half a chance, I'll be somewhere between the line from Hood River, Oregon/White Salmon, Washington and the John Day Dam way upstream.
"Best advice I could give anyone hoping to fish the river would be to pick up a contour map that shows the reefs and all the water depths. Then, depending on the season, work the deepest water earliest in the year, moving to the shorelines and drifting with leadhead jigs until water settles down some. Later, you can get into trolling with minnow plugs and my favorite, a spinner and worm set-up. And don't forget: When the weather breaks and it starts warming up, it is one of the best times to be out there. For me, the night bite is the right bite!"
My walleye fanatic friends and I prefer to troll. Trolling covers maximum amounts of productive water, and it allows the lure to be maintained directly in the fish-catching zone. In springtime, as air temps reach the low 60s and the river prepares for very warm weather ahead, weed growth emerges along back bay shorelines, and it's here that big fish lurk. Water may range from 12 to 20 feet, but experience has shown that the fish will generally be shallower, especially at low light times. A favorite time to be trolling these "hotspots" is the last couple hours of daylight and again prior to dawn. Big, noisy lures or larger plastic minnow-type baits are good producers in low light, and when trolled in an erratic, stop and go, zigzag pattern, strikes are not just subtle "takes" but rock-solid strikes!
A well-organized boat, free of obstacles to trip over or to produce unwanted noise is important at night or at low light times - or anytime for that matter. Trolling speed is very slow, and noisy activity will surely hamper your catch rate. At night, some anglers lay out a string of glow-in-the-dark floats to serve as control points, or they wait for sufficient moonlight. The best nighttime efforts are the result of a daytime trip or two on new water just to become totally familiar with after-dark conditions, although it all becomes a totally different world after dark. No question though, the effort is well worth the hassle.
SPINNERS & WORMS Iman is a hardcore spinner-and-worm fisherman. The tactic is really quite simple, involving a spinning blade that rotates around his line with a night crawler or other enticement placed on the hook.
The set-up is fitted to a conventional "bottom walker" weight device, which keeps the lure directly on the bottom. A never-wavering eye on his locator keeps the boat directly along the deep-water edge where fish hold. Often, walleyes suspend several feet off the bottom along these break lines, and the locator will pinpoint this aspect. Then, merely adjusting the weight to raise or lower the lure keeps it directly in the "line of sight and sound," as Iman refers.
Overall, most Columbia River walleye anglers prefer just three proven methods. Either lead head jigs treated with a night crawler, piece of fish meat, or other such enticement account for fish at depths of more than 30 or so feet. Lighter weighted leadheads work well in the shallow back bays where current is lacking, however, in the main river flow, jigs weighing as much as 1/2- to 3/4-ounce and even more, are necessary to maintain bottom contact, and then, always worked in an up and down motion ultra-slowly along shorelines. Also, it's important to mention, jiggers and trollers alike have spent countless hours traversing deep-water haunts for walleyes with standard methods, only to retrace their paths with heavy, flashy jigging spoons, again sweetened with some form of dead bait for fantastic success.
Second, trolling minnow-imitating lures with sufficient weight fastened several feet above the lure, which allows it to reach the desired depth, can be very effective, especially in areas of off-colored water.
And third, the deadly spinner and worm combo, also trolled as noted, will round out a Columbia River angler's arsenal in any situation.
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