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Spring Into Chinook Action

Spring Into Chinook Action

If you live in Western Washington, here are some of the top rivers and rigs to catch returning runs of bright chinook. (June 2009)

Among the salmon fishing crowd, June means one thing -- springers. That's right, we're talking about those blue-green and silver, chunky-bodied bulldogs that are back in town and looking for a fight.

Terry Wiest caught and released this chinook on the Humptulips River.

Wiest swears by eggs as the best bait for returning chinook.

Photo courtesy of Terry Wiest.

Western Washington is blessed with spring chinook runs in most major river systems. You could almost toss a dart at a map and fish a river near where it lands.

This is big water. It puts off many anglers who think it can't be fished without a boat or who aren't willing to put in the time to learn the water.

The lower river from Mount Vernon to Skagit Bay is the home of plunkers. Toss your offering into the stream with heavy pyramid sinkers, stick your rods in holders jammed into the sand and wait for a fish heading upstream to smell the bait or see the spinner flash and bite.

You could use a sinker on a 10-inch dropper. Run a white spin bobber and sand shrimp on 30 inches of leader, and then add another three-way swivel above that. Tie on a shorter leader and brass spoon or spinner. Some claim they've caught two fish at a time on this outfit.

Another favorite plunking spot is the big gravel bar just below the Interstate 5 bridge. And another good gravel bar is just above where Washington Highway 9 crosses the river.


This famous river also hosts a substantial run of sockeye salmon that peel off the river at Concrete to head up the Baker River into Baker Lake. When fishing the Skagit, it's important to correctly identify the fish you catch.

Upstream, the Skagit reflects its glacial heritage with sprawling gravel bars, sloughs and side channels festooned with large, woody debris, and long, shallow flats. The glacial origin also can seriously affect visibility downstream of where the Sauk enters at Rockport. In the past several years, the Sauk has suffered a number of claybank slides that can color up the river just as much as the glacial till coming out of the Whitechuck and Suiattle rivers. What this all means is water clarity is always better above Rockport, an important point for gear- and fly-fishers who don't use scent to attract fish.

Howard Miller Steelhead Park at Rockport has plenty of parking, a good boat ramp and plenty of room to camp for those who can spend more than a day on the river. Upstream is another ramp at Sutter Creek, and yet another ramp at Marblemount.

The Marblemount-to-Rockport run is roughly eight river miles. It provides the best fishing on the upper river, in part because of hatchery chinooks heading back to their home at the Marblemount Hatchery on the Cascade River. The hatchery has achieved outstanding success getting their fish to return. At most hatcheries, a 1 percent return after their years at sea is typical. Marblemount generally returns 3 percent.

Anyone who has fished salmon in Washington knows the regulations are complex. And so it is with the Cascade River. When the springers are in, the river is only open from the mouth up to the Rockport-Cascade Road Bridge. But this short stretch attracts a lot of fish that detour out of the Skagit, and a lot of anglers follow.

Parking is available at the Marblemount Hatchery. During early mornings in June, it's not unusual to see anglers gearing up by flashlight so they can hit the water before the sun comes up. Don't expect to have the water to yourself when the fish are in. Make sure you respect the private property signs on the left bank.

There is a nice run, several hundred yards long, just downstream from the bridge. It holds fish, but fewer anglers fish it. Along this stretch, look for any depressions or washouts where the water is a bit deeper than elsewhere. That's where the fish are.

Born on the shoulder of Mount St. Helens, the Kalama runs west through forest and lightly populated country until it passes under I-5, then empties into the Columbia near the small town of Kalama.

The river holds anadromous fish every month of the year. Anglers focus on fin-clipped summer chinooks in June. The fish swim 17 miles upstream to arrive at the Kalama Falls Hatchery.

This reach of river sports a handful of boat ramps and several public access sites. Powerboats are restricted on some parts of the river, so make sure to read the regulations before taking the boat off the trailer.

Common techniques work here, though spin-fishermen are low in number. Either that or they catch fish and keep their lips zipped.

Back-trolling plugs, like the Kwikfish K-13 or K-15 in a green or blue, turn fish, as do divers and eggs or shrimp. Back-bouncing eggs or shrimp through the top of holes gets fish when the water begins to drop from run-off highs. Float-fishers catch a few by concentrating on the slower, deep holes.

As the winter snowpack diminishes and the river clears, fly-anglers can actually sight individual salmon hugging the bottom. It takes a sinking line and short leader to get a weighted fly down to the fish.

Anglers heading north from Vancouver slow down when approaching Woodland, the access to the North Fork Lewis River. Ignore the East Fork Lewis, it's closed to salmon angling. But don't worry because most of the fish head toward the Lewis River Hatchery where Cedar Creek runs into the North Fork.

As the fish go, so do the anglers, which may explain why there are three ramps near the hatchery. Anglers who like loads of company congregate at the Meat Hole, though equally good springer spots can be found near the Haapa Road ramp, as well as upstream of the hatchery.

The Lewis fish may run a bit bigger than other western Washington runs. Anglers boat several fish over 30 pounds each year.

All the usual suspects work on the Lewis springers. Those boat-anglers who back-troll Flatfish and Kwikfish like to wrap a sardine around the plug to give the salmon a scent to home in on.

It's not possible to talk about spring chinook opportunities without mentioning the Columbia River.

From Buoy 10 up to Drano Lake ne

ar White Salmon, the river is filled with salmon. Biologists with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife predict the 2009 run will be the third largest in the last 30 years.

Most anglers work the Columbia by boat and follow the fish as they move upstream. There are good launches at Marine Park in Vancouver, Port of Camas, Beacon Rock, Hamilton Island and Stevenson all before the fish reach Drano Lake.

Those without a boat try their hand from shore. There is a big public fishing pier at Camas and hundreds of yards of shoreline along Hamilton Island where bank-anglers can set up.

Drano Lake, actually a backwater where the Little White Salmon River empties into the Columbia, is the final destination for loads of hatchery springers returning to the Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery. The boat launch was rebuilt a couple of years ago into a topnotch facility.

When the Bonneville Dam fish counts reach 1,000 per day for five consecutive days, drop everything and head to Drano.

In years past, most Drano fish were caught on Wiggle Warts, though bait has become more popular recently. Prawns were the big thing for a few years, but now green label plug-cut herring has taken center stage.

Most boaters troll. The fast boats pull plugs. The slow boats use herring.

Those drifting use the open-ocean technique of vertical jigging. The northwest shoreline is open to bank-anglers.

Drano is remarkably uniform in depth, and it's only about 25 feet. Trolling is easy.

If pulling plugs, strip off 50 feet of line and start moving until you find the fish.

Herring is a bit more hands-on. Drop the bait to the bottom, crank a few turns of line in, and then start moving. If you don't get bit, then take a few more turns. Repeat until the fish find your bait.

Don't set the hook on the first nibble. Let the fish eat the herring, and then lay the wood to him.

Fishing regulations have gotten increasingly complex as the fish biologists learn about salmon life cycles, effects of habitat degradation and changing ocean conditions. That additional knowledge gets transformed into fishing regulations that change every year, and sometimes several times during the year.

WDFW fish managers make guesses about run sizes and returns months in advance of the actual season. As it is with guesses, some are correct and some are wrong. The wrong guesses often result in emergency regulations that amend the rules published annually in the WDFW's Fishing in Washington.

Before heading to your favorite water, take a few minutes to read the regulations pertaining to that river. Check the WDFW Web site for any emergency regulations that alter the season or catch limit. Running afoul of the enforcement officers can ruin a good day and cost you a bundle.

Look for river chinooks on the bottom in the deeper pools where they can rest and hide. As they head upriver, the fish also follow distinct travel routes that change with water conditions. A sudden June heat wave will put the fish deeper, so will bright days.

The fish are structure oriented. Use your depthfinder. Look for bottom contours with rapid transitions from shallow to deep. Fish the edges of those ledges.

Also, take a shot at current seams flowing around structure, such as rocks, logjams, islands and other objects that concentrate the current.

These spring fish are popular because of their willingness to bite. It doesn't much matter what technique you favor, gear, bait or fly. Here are some of the more popular rigs.

Terry Wiest, instructor at Salmon University, said chinook are "chemical junkies." The three best baits are eggs, eggs and eggs, with eggs being a close fourth, he said.

In deep water, he favors a slip float. In shallow water, he'll use either a slip or fixed float.

The key when drifting eggs (or any other bait or jig) under a float is to obtain a natural presentation. That means the bait must drift naturally through the water column, at the same speed as the current, directly under the float.

Wiest, who has been fishing Western Washington rivers since he was a kid, recommended using the best quality gear you can afford. He favors Owner circle hooks or Gamakatsu hooks for their strength and sharpness. He also notes his hookup success dramatically improved by switching to 20-pound-test Seaguar fluorocarbon leader.

Other good baits are plug-cut herring and prawns with a double hook rig. The first hook should be either a 3/0 or 2/0 with a size 1 trailer hook. As with any bait, it needs to bang along the bottom because that is where the chinooks are, no matter if the water is 5 feet or 30 feet deep.

Spinners take more than their fair share of fish each year. Brass Colorado blade spinners in sizes 4 and 5 are very popular. Most spinner-tossers carry a number of different blade sizes ranging from 1 to 5 in brass, chrome and black.

If limited to a single spinner, opt for a hammered chrome No. 3. Again, hook quality and sharpness is paramount. Don't hesitate to switch out a second-quality factory hook with a best-quality replacement. A couple of strokes with a hook hone takes only a second or two before making that first cast and may make the difference of hooking and landing a real prize.

When fishing for cohos, a fast spinning blade catches more fish. Not so with these big chinook bruisers. They like when the blade barely rotates. In fact, there are some spinner-fisherman who swear by free-spooling a spinner under a float. Their blade flutters with the current.

Despite the disdain expressed by Arnold Gingrich, revered fly-fishing author, fly-fishing for chinook is the epitome of sport. Not many fly-fishers try for springers, but those who do rave about the hard-fighting fish and can't wait for the next day on the river.

Chinook call for 9-weight rods and reels that hold 200 yards of backing. Fly lines can range from floating to full sinking Type VI or even Rio's Deep Water Express.

The number and variety of fly patterns that catch salmon boggles the mind as they include everything from "big uglies" and egg patterns rolling along the bottom to baitfish in the mid-water depths, ending with top-water hair bugs in pink and chartreuse.

Many fly-fishers are discovering the effectiveness of drifting a big nymph under a strike indicator. Perhaps the nymph somehow triggers some old brain cells that recall feeding on insects during the year the smolts spent in fresh water before head

ing downriver. As with bait and lures, the key is getting the fly in front of the fish.

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