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Portland Chinooks

Portland Chinooks

Here are the six best Portland-area rivers to fish right now for snow-belly chinooks. (May 2009)

Do not pity the salmon fisherman who lives in Portland. He's city-bound, but he is doubly blessed. And it's never more apparent than during the storied spring chinook season.

The reach from Oxbow Launch to Dabney Park should be a great drift this year on Sandy River. Guide Jack Glass (right) found success for this angler last year. Photo courtesy of Team Hook-Up Guide Service.

In May, Portlanders are used to the sight of boats anchored and lined up in the Willamette River, or drift boats floating the Clackamas River in Oregon City and the Sandy in Troutdale. Just across the Columbia River north of Vancouver, the Cowlitz, Kalama and Lewis rivers sport great hatchery runs of chunky, strong-fighting, great-tasting springers.

That means that within 45 minutes' drive of downtown Portland, there are six rivers that offer local anglers a chance at the most sought-after game fish in the Northwest.

These are the lower Columbia spring chinooks, often called "snow-bellies" because of their white undersides. Upper river chinooks have darker stomachs and faces. They are headed up above Bonneville Dam.

The lower river fish also average a little bigger than the upriver springers. A 3-year-old lower river springer will usually run about 12 to 15 pounds, and the 4- to 5-year-olds can run up to 30 pounds.

But know this: These fisheries have struggled in recent years. Although there are signs of a recovery in the future, it will probably be another year before anglers see a return to the days of fat runs. It is possible that half of these streams will see reductions in limits or fishing days, and one or two may be shut down completely.


However, there are bright spots as well. While this may not be a banner year, residents of the Portland-Vancouver area will still have good opportunities to land some nice spring chrome footballs without burning a lot of gas.

Now is the time anglers transition from fishing the big Columbia River to fishing the tributaries. The bulk of the spring chinook run has gone up the Columbia and are staged at the mouths of feeder rivers, where anglers try to troll them up. By the end of May, the fish are stacked up in the deep holes of the smaller rivers, and the bankies get their chance at the fish.

By June, the runs are slowing down on some streams, but others offer good fishing into July.

With that in mind, here are six good reasons Portlanders should stay close to home in May.

The Sandy River enters the Columbia River near Troutdale, and the mouth of the river gets a lot of attention from salmon fishermen in the first week of May. Fishermen troll herring, plugs and spinners for the schools of fish, or they anchor on outgoing tides with sardine-wrapped Kwikfish. The mouth of the river is notoriously shallow and sandy, but high spring flows in the Columbia often allow anglers to troll as high as the Interstate 84 bridge.

Among those fishermen will be Jack and Brandon Glass, the father and son guiding team known as Team Hook-Up, the most authoritative guides on the Sandy River. The Glasses will follow the fish up the Sandy as they migrate.

"May is the best month for springers on the lower river," said Jack Glass. "By June, the action moves farther up, but the last two seasons the run has been a little late."

According to Glass, the holes in the lower river were filled with rock and rubble from a storm in November 2006. Holes that used to be 20 feet deep or more are now rarely much deeper than 10 feet. The lack of deep holes means the springers have been shooting through the lower river and not holding much until they hit the reach near Oxbow Park, where the river drops faster and the holes are free of debris.

If that pattern holds again this year, anglers should drift the reach from the Oxbow launch to Dabney Park instead of sledding below Dabney. Powerboats are not allowed above Dabney Park. Also, the launch at Dabney is sanded in and most anglers are drifting down to Lewis and Clark Park near Troutdale to take out.

Glass targets the springers with a variety of methods, including pulling plugs or drifting bait. But the team prefers to run divers and bait in the narrow holes of the Sandy.

"A green Brad's Diver with 5 feet of leader and a Mustad hook tipped with sand shrimp is the most popular way of fishing the Sandy," said Glass.

However, this year, Glass is going to borrow a trick from Skagit River anglers and try side-drifting for springers.

"You can cover a lot of water by side-drifting, and it might work well on chinook that are on the move," he said.

Bank-anglers have plenty of options for fishing the Sandy River.

According to Rick Allen of the Reel Tackle Shop in Sandy, bank-anglers do well from Oxbow Park up to the deadline at the mouth of the Salmon River.

"Most guys use bobbers and eggs," said Allen. "But spinners and drifted Corkies take a lot of fish, too."

For guided trips on the Sandy, call Team Hook-Up Guide Service at (503) 666-5370. For lower river reports, call Jack's Snack and Tackle at (503) 665-2275. For upper river reports, call the Reel Tackle Shop in Sandy at (503) 668-5791.

The Willamette River is one of the most popular spring chinook fisheries in Oregon, and it is smack dab right in the heart of downtown Portland, where people in high-rise office buildings can watch salmon fishermen troll in the popular Sellwood Bridge Hole just below them. Unfortunately, this is the run that is the most depressed, even though predictions had 37,000 spring chinooks entering the river. The season will definitely be cut back, and there could be a possible full closure if runs track below expectations.

If there is fishing to be had in the Willamette during May, then guide Wayne Priddy of Priddy Good Fishing will be working the river. Priddy has spent 40 years fishing Portland area rivers, concentrating on the Willamette and Clackamas.

He likes to fish from Oregon City down to Milwaukee, the mouth of the Clackamas and the Garbage Hole.

Priddy said that the Clackamas springer run should not be as depressed as the Willamette run, so the

mouth of the Clack could be a good place to fish this year.

While most local anglers like to hog-line in Oregon City, Priddy prefers to troll and back-troll with herring, prawns and spinners or K-11 Kwikfish.

Other good spots include the Willamette Falls, but Priddy warns that the area can be snaggy, treacherous and turbulent. It's not a good spot for novices. The Sellwood Bridge is a good place to troll, as is the area near St. Johns, the mouth of the Willamette, and in the Multnomah Channel. Good spots in the channel include Coon Island and near the channel's mouth.

For bank-fishermen, the place to be is at the Meldrum Bar in Gladstone. This is hands-down the best bank spot on the river, and plunking is the rule.

For guided trips, call Priddy Good Fishing at (503) 341-2895. For more information, call Fishermen's Marine in Oregon City at (503) 557-3313.

The Clackamas River is a good fishery to target in late May, because the runs have been arriving later each year, according to Priddy.

The runs in the Clackamas should be strong enough to support theusual two-chinook limit for seven days a week. Even though the run will be stronger, the Clackamas River springer is a tough customer, and going with a good guide like Priddy may be the best bet for newcomers.

Some changes to the acclimation of the hatchery smolts have the fish returning not only to the hatchery near Estacada, but to Eagle Creek as well. The new regimen is an attempt to get the fish to hold better in the lower river. It has also resulted in the resumption of the once-popular bank fishery in Eagle Creek.

Guide Priddy likes to target the lowest three miles of the river, instead of the most popular drift from Barton to Carver. He will target moving fish by back-bouncing eggs or working jet divers with sand shrimp or eggs in 8 to 15 feet of water. Sometimes he throws bobbers and eggs in the back eddies. Plugs will also work, and either Wiggle Warts or Kwikfish will do. According to Priddy, getting springers in the Clackamas takes patience.

"You just have to put your time in," he said.

Bank-anglers can find good fishing at the High Rocks near the mouth, at Milo McIver Park and at the River Mill Dam. Spinners can take fish in the faster water, but bobbers and bait is the most effective method.

For reports and info, call Estacada Tackle at (503) 630-7424.

Washington's Cowlitz River is the largest of the three Washington rivers near Portland that get spring chinook runs, and it gets the biggest return. It also is expected to get a strong enough return this year that it should avoid the closures.

Guide Lee Barkie knows the Cowlitz like few other guides, and has learned how to score in good years and bad. He knows that by May the springers will be spread through the Cowlitz from the mouth up to the Barrier Dam at the salmon hatchery. His approach is simple and consistent.

"I just start at the dam, and I work down from there," said Barkie. "By May, you have the whole river to fish because there will be springers in all the holes."

Barkie targets flats and shallow areas early in the morning, and shifts to the deeper holes once the fish stop moving later in the day.

You can use whatever you want to on the Cowlitz and catch some fish, but it is mainly a bait show. Barkie prefers to back-troll with divers and bait,either eggs, sand shrimp or sardines. He also likes to run plug-cut green-label herring.

"There are times when that's a deadly method," said Barkie. He runs his bait behind a jet diver with a 16- to 18-inch lead line and a 5-foot leader. He fishes different baits until he finds what the salmon want to hit that day.

"I like to run two lines with herring, and a couple lines with something else. Once I know what they want, I'll concentrate on that," he said.

Whatever bait he uses, he will dress it up with Pautzke's Krill scents. "The hatchery fish really like that stuff."

When the river turns cloudy, which the Cowlitz will do sometimes, Barkie will switch to flat-lining plugs, such as the M-2 Flatfish, which come in better colors for turbid water than the more popular Kwikfish, according to the guide.

Cowlitz bank-anglers have a few good choices on the river, including plenty of room at the Barrier Dam Campground. There are good spots for plunking as well as throwing bobber and bait, but Barkie warns folks from spending much time throwing spinners.

"You will catch far more fish on the Cowlitz if you fish with bait," he said.

For more information, call Barrier Dam Campground at (360) 985-2495. Lee Barkie is at (360) 304-0771.

Barkie also likes to fish the North Fork of the Lewis River, another fine springer river near Woodland, Wash. This river is smaller than the Cowlitz, and its run is not supposed to be as robust this year. Anglers will probably see some reduction in season or limits. The river closed to spring chinook fishing on May 17 last year.

There is an excellent troll fishery at the mouth of the river, where local fish mingle with other springers heading up the Columbia. The first week of May is usually the peak for this fishery, and by the second week, most of the fish are moving up the river.

Good spots to intercept them include the confluence of the East and North forks of the river.

Barkie stays away from the most popular hole on the Lewis -- the Meat Hole -- located just below the state run hatchery.

"That spot is better for the smaller boats," he said. "It's too tight for the guide boats."

The locals do take a lot of fish from the Meat Hole, from boat and bank, but Barkie can be found working a little lower, near Johnson Flats at the Doctor Hole, or at the Swirl Hole near the Hoppa Ramp, which is the most popular ramp on the river. This is good water for diver and bait. It's about 12 to 14 feet deep.

Barkie will also work the reach near the RV park, where a lot of people hover-fish with bait. Barkie starts with a 6- or 8-inch dropper line and a 5-foot leader. He drops the bait to the bottom, lifts it a foot or two off the bottom, and backs slowly through the hole.

For reports and information, call The Fishermen's Depot at (360) 225-9900.

The Kalama is a fun river to fish and is popular with bank- and boat-anglers. It's also a very scenic river, flowing through a forested canyon with picturesque waterfalls. The Kalama is one of

those rivers that fishes fairly easily, but the run was poor last year, and the river also was closed to salmon fishing on May 17. It is projected to have another poor run this year, but if it does get enough fish to keep the season open, anglers would do well to try this river. Call the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at (360) 902-2700 for information about regulation changes before fishing. You could also e-mail regulation questions to

Salmon and steelhead guide Monty Thierry of Reel Adventures has decades of experience on the Kalama, and like so many other fishermen, he loves to fish it.

"The fish in the Kalama are real aggressive," said Thierry. "They just bite real well."

The first and second weeks of May are the best weeks to fish the Kalama for springers, although the fishing will hold up well into June. When targeting spring chinook, Thierry likes to fish the lower river, from the Pritchard's Launch down to the Modrow Bridge. He prefers to fish with divers and bait; salmon eggs, sand shrimp and prawns are all good choices as bait.

Like the Cowlitz, the Kalama is basically a bait show. Very few fish are caught on anything else.

Thierry really likes to fish the hole at Modrow Bridge, and it is one of the most popular holes on the river, for good reason. "Guys get a lot of fish there from both boats and the bank. The springers really stack up in that hole."

Bank-fishermen throwing bobbers and bait do well in the canyon, just above the lower hatchery, and at the Beginners Hole.

For guided trips, call Monty Thierry of Reel Adventures Guide Service at (360) 606-2388. For reports and information, call Mahaffey's on the River at (360) 673-2008.

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