“Boys, I’m getting bit! I’m getting bit!” I said.
The boat erupted with activity. Guys reeled in their lines, jumped for their cameras, someone grabbed the net, and behind the wheel Buzz Ramsey eyed the bouncing rod, ready to put a little bit of extra umph into the trolling motor to help set the hook. Meanwhile, as spring chinook will so often do, the fish took its time, munching on the herring and giving it a leisurely chew before finally sucking the bait in deep. When the rod finally did plunge downward, Buzz put some gas to the motor and it was fish on!
Outdoor writer and guide Andy Martin broke out his cam and recorded the struggle as I tried to keep calm and work the big fish. It’s always a task to keep a clear head with a springer on because the adrenaline pumps every time the fish plunges for the depths, and you want this fish so bad! Columbia River spring chinook are a rare and wonderful salmon and each hook-up comes from hours of patience.
These are precious fish.
After a spirited and dogged battle, Buzz slipped the net under the hatchery chinook, and hefted the fish into the boat. It was our second fish of the day, but we still stared in awe of its beauty. The chinook was unbelievably fat, but he was all muscle, all power. He was silver with a blue back, and his jaw had just the slightest hint of a kype, the massive hooked nose males develop later when they begin the spawn.
THE COLUMBIA RIVER SPRINGER: A SPECIAL FISH
That would have been months yet for this salmon. One of the reasons the spring chinook is so highly prized is that this fat salmon, caught in March, will not spawn until October. They arrive from the salt, their bodies absolutely packed with fats and oils rich with nutrients that the fish use as they spend months in the freshwater. The energy-packed flesh is a beautiful deep red color, and it tastes as rich as it looks. It is one of the most highly-sought-after fish in North America, valued both as a fighting game fish, and as unequaled table fare.
This particular salmon was about 14 to 16 pounds, an average springer. Some can run well over 30 pounds but, as Ramsey is famous for saying, “When it comes to springers, they’re all good!”
MOVIN’ ON UP TO BONNEVILLE
March is when the spring chinook first start to enter the Columbia River in strong numbers and the lower sections of the river from Tongue Point to the Bonneville Dam turn into small boat cities as anglers try to land these fish. Bank fishermen line the beaches plunking with stationary baits. Boat ramps, convenience stores, restaurants and tackle shops buzz with customers. The populations of small towns along the river swell as hotels fill every room. All of this is for the ritual, the possibility, of catching a spring salmon.
The news trumpets the first confirmed springer caught each year, and fishermen hit the banks and put out boats weeks before the fish actually arrive. By March the catch starts improving, and late in the month the fishery kicks into high gear.
It hasn’t always been this way. From 1977 to 2000 the sport season for spring chinook on the Columbia was closed. Declining returns and Endangered Species protections forced a change in chinook management. In 2001, a record return spurred the first modern season, and there has been a season on the big river every spring since. The resurgent runs are a result of increased spill at the hydro dams, changes in hatchery practices and a fin-clip hatchery strategy that protects wild-spawning chinook while allowing the harvest of the hatchery fish.
ADJUSTABLE SEASON’S KEEP ANGLERS GUESSING
However, even with the renewal of this fishery, all is not perfect. The Columbia River spring chinook run is difficult to predict, which complicates the already thorny issue of how to spread such a desired resource among sport anglers, tribal fishers and commercial fishermen. The end result is a sometimes-convoluted process to set seasons and quotas that drags into early spring.
Generally, the season remains open with a single adipose fin-clipped adult chinook daily limit until early April, and then runs in variable forms through the end of the month. Stronger runs mean 7-days-a-week fisheries, with more of the river open to fishing. In years with light returns, fishing may be limited to 3 or 4 days a week, and some reaches may have closures. For instance, the 2011 return was about mid-range, and the popular section right below the Bonneville Dam was only open to bank angling.
Wild chinook are not fin-clipped and must be released unharmed. Take care to leave them in the water as you remove the hook.
2012: A STRONG RUN ON DECK?
The final projections for the Columbia spring run should be out by March, but Joe Hymer, of the WDFW, reports that early indicators were strong. “Last year we had 67,000 jacks go over Bonneville Dam,” says Hymer. Jacks are precocious males that return a year early, and are a good indicator of year-class ocean survival. “That’s a big jack return,” he says, “That could mean a good run next year.” The final run projection will be out by March, and the fishing will peak in April.
EARLY SALMON, BIG SALMON
The first spring salmon to enter the Columbia are bound for the tributaries below Bonneville Dam, with the largest return headed to Oregon’s Willamette River. Other good lower tribs with substantial returns include the Cowlitz, the Kalama, and the Lewis rivers in Washington, and the Sandy River in Oregon. These runs and are composed of larger chinook, on the average. “Snow-bellies,” as they are often called, average 20 pounds, with larger fish to 35 pounds or more. These are the fish that drive the March fishery.
Springers bound for destinations above Bonneville tend to average a bit smaller and come in later. By mid-April they dominate the Columbia fishery. Known as “blackface” chinook, they can be identified by their darker face and belly.