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Columbia River Kings

Columbia River Kings

What could be finer than spending a warm summer day on the water in search of a hard-pulling upriver Columbia River king? (July 2006)

Photo by Dave Kilhefner

Did you miss out on the springers?

Do you need a salmon fix right now and can't wait for the fall Chinook to start heading for their home waters?

Don't despair, because relief -- in the form of hard-striking, hard-fighting summer-run Chinook -- is on the way.

Blessed with three biologically distinct Chinook salmon runs -- spring, summer and fall -- the Columbia River is a salmon angler's dream come true. For years the summer-run fish were not available to sportsmen because too few fish returned to meet spawning goals. The good news is that aggressive management, favorable ocean conditions and hatchery supplementation have rebuilt the fish stocks to levels that allow Chinook salmon to be caught nine months of the year.


Knowing more about the object of your desire makes catching fish more likely. Making up the earliest run, springers begin to show in the river in mid-February and are in spawning tributaries by mid-June. The first run of 5-year-old fish head for lower river tributaries, followed by smaller 4-year-olds. The majority of these early fish are caught in the Willamette River with April and May being the peak migration months. The spring fish also head for other lower Columbia tributaries, such as the Cowlitz and Kalama in Washington and the Sandy and Clackamas in Oregon.

To confuse matters, there is another spring run, known as upriver spring Chinook, which includes wild and hatchery fish heading for the Snake River, numerous tributaries above Bonneville Dam and the upper Columbia above the Snake River.

The latest run, fall Chinook, enter the river to make their way for the Hanford Reach, their primary spawning area above Tri-Cities. The bulk of the fall run starts to show up in August, and fishing runs through October. These 4- and 5-year-old fish bust upriver, traveling sometimes 60 miles in a day.


The middle run, known in fish management circles as the upriver summer Chinook, faces the arduous task of negotiating 500 miles of dams, commercial and tribal fishing, sports fishing and natural predation to spawn in the Okanogan and Methow rivers. Run sizes averaged fewer than 20,000 fish during the 1980s and 1990s, but hatchery fish and dramatically improved habitat have allowed runs to rebound. The predicted 2006 run is 49,000, down from the last couple of years, but still capable of supporting a fine sports fishery.

Average fish size varies annually. But each year, lucky anglers land some fatties that push 50 pounds, with lots of 20- to 30-pounders boated. Make sure you fill your ice chest with plenty of ice to keep your prize fresh for that summer barbecue.


Joe Hymer, a Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission biologist, has been studying these fish for years. Historically, most sport-caught fish were taken in June and July below Bonneville Dam. But as anglers learned more about the fishery, the pressure started to spread out with more anglers experiencing success.

Hymer's data shows some distinct trends as to what works in the lower river. The early-run fish prefer spinners in shallow water, say 10 to 25 feet deep. As the summer sun heats up and water temperatures rise into the 60s and 70s, tactics shift to lures in deeper water. Popular spinners are Colorado-type in a variety of blade sizes and colors, with rainbow, black and brass being the most often used.

Your choice of lure depends on current speed, with heavier lures used in the faster water and lighter ones in slower current. The "wobbler" word on most fisher's lips is Alvin, followed by 10 Spot and Clancy. For slower water, try Brad's Mini-Extreme. You might try a Glo Green or Hot Banana Coyote spoon because sometimes they want something different.

Below Bonneville Dam, the salmon are just traveling through, headed for destinations above the dam. Their behavior dictates tactics. When boat-fishing, you anchor up and wait for the fish to come to your gear.

In the lower river, the fish follow travel zones, which change with water conditions. Hymer recommends you look for bottom contours with rapid transitions from shallow to deep, then fish the edges of those ledges. He also suggests fishing the faster water flowing along islands, since the fish seem to be attracted to water moving at greater velocity. Remember that the Columbia is a working river: Don't anchor in the designated shipping channel.

Bank-bound anglers have a couple of lower river options. Plunkers below Bonneville Dam get some fish every year. There are some public fishing piers around Washougal, but the main difficulty is getting your gear out deep enough into those travel zones. Some Kalama-area anglers employ a boat to carry their gear out and drop it in deeper water.

Jim Mulberry of Cascade Locks stumbled onto the summer salmon while fishing for steelhead. A retired postal worker, he is on the river almost every day during the season, searching for that elusive 50-pound fish. To date, his biggest boated fish is 45 pounds, but he has hooked and lost fish that he thinks topped the 50-pound mark. "You won't believe how big they get," Mulberry says. "These are beautiful, chrome, football-shaped fish."

His favorite spots are around Washougal and further downstream where the Willamette joins the Columbia. "Fishing seems to be better when the water is running faster," he says. It happens as a result of Bonneville Dam opening the spill gates. In fast water, he'll fish spinners as shallow as five feet, using two to three ounces of weight on an arm's-length weight dropper. When the water slows, or during the summer when the water temperature heats into the 70s, he'll drop down to 28 feet.

Brass Colorado blade spinners in sizes 4 and 5 catch a ton of fish, although Mulberry will often use blades as small as 1s and 2s for a change of pace. Black blades work best before sunlight hits the water, and on dark days. He doesn't buy into the treble/single hook controversy. Instead, he thinks the key to hooking and holding fish is using a quality hook, strong enough not to bend during the fight. And he always makes sure his hooks are sharp.

There are good public boat ramps at Bonneville Dam and Beacon Rock.


August in the Columbia River Gorge means bright, sunny days with temperatures in the 90s bringing corresponding increases in water temperatures. Summer Chinook seeking respite from warmer water will often lollygag around the cooler water river mouths of the White Salmon and Wind Rivers. Pro

be the 20- to 35-foot water depths with a chartreuse Blue Fox or Blue Streak lure suspended a few feet off the bottom.

For an added bonus, if the kings are lock-jawed, you can always move up to fish the mouth of the Klickitat for coho and summer steelhead.

After passing more dams on their way home, the fish pass through the Hanford Reach area. Phil Motyka of Motyka's Bait and Tackle in Richland, who guided on the Columbia for the better part of 30 years, says that of the three Chinook runs, the summer-run fish are the hardest to catch. "They've just got one thing on their mind," he explained.

Successful tactics change as the fish move upriver, though one thing remains the same. Motyka says you should anchor up and let the fish come to you. If you're on the move, such as back-bouncing lures or herring, he thinks your offering will simply move past the fish too fast. He prefers herring fished off a downrigger. If he's fishing water 35 feet deep or less, he'll set the downrigger at 17 feet. In deeper water, he'll hold it at 27 feet.

Even if the catching is tough, fishing the Hanford Reach is worth the effort. The last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia, the Reach runs 70 miles through a harshly beautiful landscape filled with wildlife, fish and desert vegetation. In 2000, President Clinton designated this fragile, arid eco-region as a national monument, the only such monument operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. When you go, take your binoculars for spotting mule deer, elk, coyotes and bald eagles.

In the Tri-Cities area there are several boat ramps where you can drop your boat for the upriver run, or you can launch at Vernita for the downriver run. There is an unimproved launch at Ringold as well.

Bank anglers can get a shot at these fish from the area around Ringold Springs (see page 53 of the DeLorme Mapping Company's Washington Gazetteer). Most shore anglers toss spinners at the fish heading upriver toward spawning streams.


The upriver summer Chinook, nearing the end of a 500-mile river odyssey when they reach Pateros and Brewster, head for spawning streams like the Methow at Pateros and the Okanogan at Brewster. Some fish peel off at the Wenatchee and other rivers along the way. Historically, the upriver fish spawned in four rivers: the Columbia, Wenatchee, Okanogan and Similkameen. After the Columbia River hydropower system was completed, they expanded into the Entiat, Chelan and Methow. But before leaving the Columbia to scoot up those rivers, the arriving kings create quite a traffic jam in the Brewster Pool.

Opening day (July 15) of the 2005 season saw 186 boats of all shapes and sizes on the water, with anglers all looking for "a fish that pulls hard and burns your thumb," says Rod Hammonds, a guide with R&R Guide Service. Hammonds says when the season opens, it's a dodger and herring show for fish stacked up behind Chief Joseph Dam. He says the early arriving fish just circle the Brewster Pool, preferring the cooler Columbia water that's running between 56 and 61 degrees to the warmer Okanogan River water.

Angler success rates drop dramatically after the first 24 hours of the season. Hammonds believes that the fish get spooked and scattered by all the fishing pressure, and most of the early fish end up leaving the Columbia, seeking sanctuary in the tributaries. Success rates pick up again in a few days as fresh fish arrive from Wells Dam about 15 miles downriver and the first-day frenzy abates.

It's incongruous to see a Western Washington angler leave Puget Sound, home of year-round salmon fishing, to haul a boat across the mountains and up the Columbia to Brewster in search of summer kings. And yet Bob Fateley, who operates the Triangle Shell Food Mart overlooking the Columbia in Brewster, says it happens all summer long.

Fateley simply walks anglers out the front doors of his market, points them in the right direction and hands them a homemade map. After you catch a king, you can bring it back to his store, have it weighed and entered in his season-long free fishing derby. You'd better plan on catching a nice-sized fish if you want to win. For the last two years, the biggest fish have been 38.25 and 38 pounds, respectively.

"Eighty percent of the fish are caught on size 0 silver dodgers with prism tape in front of plug-cut herring," Fateley says. Hammond agrees and believes success lies in finding and fishing with good-quality herring. He cautions anglers to pick only herring that are clear-eyed and have all their scales. In other words, you want ones that look like living bait. To make the herring last on the hook, he soaks them overnight in a brine of rock salt and chlorine-free water.

Fateley and Hammonds agree that the old Okanogan River channel is the place to find fish. That is where a depth sounder and Fateley's map come in handy. The channel, between 20 and 65 feet deep, pretty much follows the Highway 97 shoreline. The preferred early-season method is to troll upstream, either following or crisscrossing the channel toward the mouth of the Okanogan. No one anchors on this part of the river.

The universal fishing truth is fish are where you find them. Fateley runs one downrigger at 20 feet and a second one between 30 and 35 feet. Hammonds thinks most fish are between 30 and 50 feet down. They agree that a two-mile section of the south shore of Brewster Pool along Crane Orchard Road from the Highway 173 bridge upstream is a tackle-robbing tangle of underwater obstructions.

If you like seeing the sunrise from the river, go fishing early. Many anglers swear by the morning bite. Don't fret, however, if you are the morning latte type. Upriver summer kings bite throughout the day and night. In fact, Hammonds says that the largest fish he's caught the last two seasons were both taken at 1 p.m. on sunny days. Although some people fish throughout the night, particularly when the season opens, Hammonds would like to see night-fishing banned. He thinks that giving the fish a bit of a breather from pressure would allow them to regroup and stay in the Columbia longer.

As the season progresses into August and September, the bite moves upstream toward Chief Joseph Dam 10 miles upriver. Tactics change with the bite. Hammonds and Fateley add Magnum Wiggle Warts and Kwikfish in sizes K-13 to K-16 to the mix. If Hammonds is running four rods, he'll leave two on herring and dodgers and switch two to plugs. Standard river-salmon colors in red, green and black with glitter work.

There is a boat launch at Brewster, another upstream at Bridgeport and one downstream at Pateros. The latter is your best bet to avoid opening-day congestion at Brewster.

The Wells Dam tailwater offers up fish for the experienced boater. Smaller craft that easily negotiate the calm Brewster Pool water won't work here. To get to the fish, which hold in a narrow slot, you need adept hazard-avoidance skills, and your boat needs to be able to handle heavy current.


Managing Columbia River salmon runs is a complex task made even more complex by the competing interests of comm

ercial and sports fishers, multiple layers of statutes, international and tribal treaties and interstate compacts. Where the river runs between Oregon and Washington, you can fish with a valid license from either state, but you must comply with the regulations of the state in which you are fishing. Washington regulations, found in the Eastside Rivers/Special Rules section, break the Columbia into 12 zones. The best advice is once you've decided where you want to go, read the regulations that apply to that specific area, then go have a good time.


For more information, contact Phil Motyka, of Motyka's Bait & Tackle, at (509) 375-6028; Bob Fateley Triangle Shell at (509) 689-3473; and Rod Hammonds R&R Guide Service at (509) 689-2849.

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