As Washington's wild spring-run Chinook numbers rebuild, hatchery fish dominate on lower Columbia River tributaries. Here are a half dozen rivers you'll want to fish now. (May 2006)
Spring Chinook are almost universally acclaimed as the Pacific Northwest's grandest salmon. It's often a formidable challenge to get them to bite, usually requiring precise bait preparation and lure presentation. When hooked, they are immensely strong and nearly indefatigable. And they are among the sweetest, most succulent of Northwest salmon. When you put all of those characteristics into one fish, it is pretty easy to understand why the word "springer" is so evocative for most Washington anglers.
Historically, Chinook returned to many Washington rivers each spring. The Skagit's run was legendary, as were runs on the Olympic Peninsula's Elwha and Queets. Nearly all wild springer stocks have declined in recent years, however, and in the 1990s, most Washington springer populations were listed under the Endangered Species Act. But tens of thousands of bright Chinook salmon still nose into the lower Columbia tidewater each spring, and they provide the last dependable springer fishing in Washington.
Bound for rivers that drain the lower Columbia, the Columbia Gorge, and the upper tributaries of the Columbia and Snake, these fish are overwhelmingly hatchery springers. Indeed, all wild spring Chinook Columbia/Snake stocks are listed under the ESA. But decades ago, hatcheries were built on most Columbia River tributaries to mitigate for lost wild production as a result of the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia. Today, six of these rivers -- the Cowlitz, Lewis, Kalama, Little White Salmon, and Wenatchee -- provide the most productive spring Chinook fishing in Washington.
The Gorge's Best?
It doesn't receive the publicity of the Cowlitz, Lewis or the Little White Salmon, but the Columbia Gorge's Wind River often turns out more springers than any other Evergreen State river. During the 2001 season, it gave up nearly 5,000. That was at the height of the huge upsurge of Columbia River salmon returns, when improving ocean conditions produced record-breaking returns. The sport harvest has tapered since then, but the Wind is still an excellent springer river. The run begins slowly in March, builds to a peak in April and May, and then tapers in June. Most salmon are taken by anglers in boats slowly trolling plugs at the flats at the mouth of the river. But determined bank anglers catch fish from the spit on the west side of the cove at the mouth.
"The boat guys troll a lot of Wiggle Warts in orange or firetiger," said Sean Klaus of GI Joes in Vancouver. "But a lot of people have upped their line to 20 or 25 pounds recently since it's gotten so crowded. They want to be able to pull the fish in quick with all those boats (being so close)." Klaus adds that many fishermen replace the original hooks with quality Owners or Gamakatsu hooks.
State Route 14 crosses the mouth of the river at Carson, providing access to the boat ramp on the east side of the river and the spit on the west. The Wind River Road roughly follows the river upstream, past Wind River Canyon, to the Carson National Fish Hatchery. Not many anglers target salmon above the mouth, but those who bother to learn the water do take fish. The water downstream of Shipherd Falls is open for Chinook March 16 to June 30; the upper river is open to salmon and steelhead in May and June. There is a 12-inch minimum and two-fish daily bag limit.
LITTLE WHITE SALMON & DRANO LAKE
Mention the words "Little White Salmon" to most Washington salmon anglers, and they automatically think of two more words: "Drano Lake." Located at the mouth of the Little White Salmon River, Drano Lake is the slackwater impoundment just upstream of State Route 14. When you mention Drano Lake, most anglers automatically think of huge runs of hatchery spring Chinook and summer steelhead. Probably 90 percent of the 2,000-odd spring Chinook taken in the Little White Salmon each year are caught in Drano Lake. As on the Wind River, Drano Lake is primarily a boat show, and the run timing is similar, with a peak in April and May. Anglers troll herring or plugs, while bank anglers cast large plugs or spinners.
"Most people use the same tackle at Drano Lake as (at) the Wind," Klaus said. "Bank anglers mostly cast and retrieve Wiggle Warts."
The Columbia Gorge Highway also loops around the mouth of the Little White Salmon, creating the slackwater of Drano Lake. Boat ramps are on the west side of the river, just off the highway and at the southwest corner of the mouth. Salmon fishing begins on March 16 and runs through June, and Drano Lake has a two-fish (either salmon or steelhead) limit, with a minimum of 12 inches on salmon and 20 on steelhead. There is no salmon fishing in the Little White Salmon above Drano Lake.
THE LEWIS & THE NORTH FORK
Southwest Washington's Lewis River and its North Fork is one of the strongest spring Chinook salmon systems draining into the lower Columbia. During typical years, the mainstem Lewis and North Fork give up around 1,500 springers. Fishing begins slowly in March, peaks in May and then gradually winds down in early summer. Lewis anglers take bright fish on everything from plunked eggs and Spin-N-Glos to herring to hefty spinners. But for most boat anglers, suspending bait just above the bottom is the favorite method.
"It's primarily a 3/0 to 5/0 single-hook rig with eggs or sand shrimp," said Eric Brigham, owner of Eric's World Class Fishing Adventures (at 360-513-2331), who guides on the Lewis and Cowlitz. "You have a 4- to 5-foot leader, a 6- to 12-inch dropper and 1 to 6 inches of lead. You drop it to the bottom, reel it up two to five cranks, and hold it while you slowly work down the hole."
The most popular spring Chinook area on the Lewis is at the pool downstream of the Lewis River Hatchery. It is off State Route 503 about 10 miles upriver from Woodland. Ramps are at the hatchery and the mouth of Cedar Creek, which is on the south side of the river off Haapa Road. The drift from the hatchery down to the Island Ramp near the golf course is also productive. Anglers in sleds frequently intercept chrome-bright fish from the tidewater below Woodland, and plunkers take fish from the dikes north of the mouth of the river. The spring salmon season runs from Jan. 1 to July 31, with a six-fish (only two adults) daily bag limit. All wild Chinook must be released.
You have a chance at a spring Chinook on the Cowlitz all the way from its mouth at Kelso up to the Barrier Dam above Salkum. Usually around 1,500 salmon are taken in spring. The first significant numbers appear in March, build through April and peak in May. Anglers employ the entire range of gear and baits on the Cowlitz. Back-bouncing is a tried-and-true technique, especially from the Barrier Dam down through the Blue Creek area to the I-5 ramp near Toledo. But anglers take fish on spinners, bait-w
rapped plugs, drift gear and plunking.
"When we've got a foot or a foot-and-a-half of visibility, it's mostly back-bouncing," said Don Glaser, the Barrier Dam Campground's proprietor. "They use the Cowlitz River Cocktail, which is both shrimp and eggs." But Glaser said that during last year's low and clear water, many anglers fished Wiggle Warts primarily in metallic blue. "They used magnums in the deep holes and regular ones when the fish were moving." He said that bank anglers favor Corkies, yarn and sand shrimp, with the more color, the better. "But it was so low and clear last year, we even had flyfishermen take springers. And a lot of people fished Blue Fox-type spinners."
The ramp at Gearhart Garden Park provides access to the lower river and mouth of the Cowlitz. Plunkers work the park and the gravel bars between Lexington and Castle Rock, which are accessible from State Route 411 north of Kelso. Anglers in sleds launch at the I-5 Ramp and Olequa to fish the stretch between Toledo and the mouth of the Toutle River. On the upper river, ramps and bank access are available at the Cowlitz Trout Hatchery at Blue Creek, and at the Barrier Dam near the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery. Salmon season opens on May 1 and runs through July. There's a daily bag of six fish, but only two may be adults, and non-fin-clipped Chinook must be released.
Flowing into the lower Columbia between the Cowlitz and the Lewis, the Kalama River gives up between 300 and 700 spring Chinook in most years. The Kalama is modest-sized, which gives bank and boat anglers alike a good shot at fish. Every year, plunkers even take a few quicksilver-bright springers from the Columbia River bars near its mouth.
The fishery gets going in March and peaks in May. Unlike most of the major lower Columbia River tributaries, the Kalama doesn't have a dam. This is good for its wild fish, because it gives them a much larger area to spawn in the upper river. There is no gauge on the river, so anglers need to either contact local sources or wait a few days after a major storm before making a long haul to the river. Flows aren't usually a problem during the spring, however.
"Divers and sand shrimp are popular," said Steve Anderson, of Mahaffey's on the River. "I use 2 ounces of lead on 12 to 18 inches of dropper and a leader half again that long." He says that bank anglers cast eggs and sand shrimp, spinners and plugs. "People also fish herring-wrapped Kwikfish, just like out on the Columbia."
All vehicle access to the Kalama is provided by the Kalama River Road, which exits I-5 a few miles north of the community of Kalama. Ramps are near Pritchard's Western Angler, the Slab Hole, Mahaffey's Campground, Modrow Bridge and Camp Kalama. Bank access is at the two hatcheries, the Beginner's Hole, Modrow, and at informal turnouts. Salmon are open year-round from the mouth to 1,000 feet above the Kalama Falls (upper) Hatchery, but you must release wild (non-fin-clipped) Chinook from Jan. 1 to July 31.
WENATCHEE'S ICICLE CREEK
Before the dams on the Columbia, many rivers that drain the eastern slopes of the Cascades supported strong runs of early Chinook. But in recent years, east-side residents' only chance at these great fish has occurred on Icicle Creek, a major Wenatchee River tributary. All of the action takes place in a 3-mile reach downstream of the Icicle Creek Hatchery, but this confined area is very productive when the runs are strong, often turning out as many as 1,000 fish. Icicle Creek springers have more than 500 miles to negotiate between the mouth of the Columbia and the mouth of Icicle Creek, so they don't usually appear in numbers strong enough to justify a fishery until June.
"Most Icicle Creek salmon are caught on bait," said Dwayne McMahon, of Der Sportsman in Leaven-worth. "They use fresh eggs or herring, either cut plug or a whole herring on a double-hook rig. Depending on the flow, you need from three or four to 10 ounces of lead." According to McMahon, upwards of 85 percent of the fish are taken from boats. "A lot of the river is accessible only by boat. But there is some plunking water downstream from the hatchery and good drift gear water at the hatchery."
If you look up the Wenatchee in the WDFW fishing regulations, you won't see any salmon seasons listed. This is because the decision on opening a season doesn't occur until after fish counts on the Columbia indicate the springer run can support a fishery. Visit the WDFW's Web site at http://wdfw.was.gov, or telephone the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery at 509-548-7641. Icicle Creek Road, which forks off U.S. 2 in Leaven- worth, provides access to the stretch of water open to salmon fishing and the rough boat ramp below the hatchery.