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Springers of the Willamette

Springers of the Willamette

When a major river passes through the three largest cities in the state and produces 60,000-plus spring-run salmon, you can expect plenty of excitement. Welcome to Oregon's Willamette River.

by G.I. Wilson

Herb Good, longtime fishing guide and outdoor cooking personality, demonstrates the superior quality of spring-run salmon in his seminar workshops: "There is no doubt about it, the quality of springer meat is superior to any other salmon, including sockeye," he tells his audiences.

Who could disagree?

The first springers begin showing up in the Willamette River in February. Numbers are usually small - and the water high and cold - but serious anglers eagerly hit the river.

This is typically a trolling fishery. Boaters cover as much water as possible to locate fish. Herring is the best bait, but anglers spice it up with their own recipes that might include adding garlic flavoring or dying the baitfish bright green.

The most popular trolls in this section are from Milwaukie to Sellwood Bridge and from St. John's Bridge to the mouth. Boat ramps are at Sauvie Island, on Multnomah Channel, Cathedral Park and Swan Island.

Carl Anderson nailed this spring-run chinook in the Salem area. Photo courtesy of Velvet Touch Guide Service

The area above and below the mouth of the Clackamas River is famous for its hoglines. Boats anchor side by side, stretching almost halfway across the Willamette. Hoglines below the Clackamas have a shot at springers headed up that tributary.


Boaters drop anchor well above the hogline and slowly back downriver, feeding out rope to join the line of boats. A large float is attached to the anchor rope and is used to tether the boat. When a fish is hooked, the anchor line is released from the boat. The float stays with the anchor and "reserves" the boat's spot in the line. The boater drifts downriver to fight the fish, and then motors back upstream to his spot in the line once the fish has been landed.

Most boats are launched at Clackamette Park in Oregon City and Meldrum Bar Park in Gladstone.

Hogliners prefer spinners, with rainbow and half-silver/half-brass the most productive.

A dropper line, 12 to 18 inches in length, is used with enough sinker to keep contact with the bottom. The spinner is attached to a 3- to 4-foot leader. The angler back-bounces his lure downriver a short distance, places the rod in a holder, sits back and waits for a strike.

Upriver from the hoglines, to Willamette Falls, most anglers choose to back-bounce with the current. Boaters run upriver to a desired location, head the bow into the current, idle the motor down and let the current slowly back the boat downriver. The angler uses just enough lead to bounce off the bottom every few feet. The baits of choice are brightly dyed prawns or spinner/prawn combinations.

Springers concentrate below the falls, waiting for rising water conditions before navigating the fish ladder. Some fish hold there for several weeks, providing anglers opportunities to hook them.

Anglers line banks and gravel bars, at Clackamette Park in Oregon City and Meldrum Bar Park in Gladstone, plunking for springers. Plunking involves casting a lure or bait below a heavy sinker. The sinker holds while the lure works in the current. The most popular lure is a No. 2 Spin-n-Glo with or without a trailing prawn.

When the water temperature reaches 55 degrees, springers begin moving up the ladder. "When it reaches 60, the stampede begins with 800 to 1,000 per day moving up," explains Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Patrick Frazer.

The peak of the run typically takes place around mid-May, but stragglers arrive throughout the summer.

Once over the dam, springers travel 12 to 15 miles a day. The challenge is to intercept them on the springer highway. "The mainstem is mostly a migratory corridor," said Gary Galovich, a fish and wildlife biologist.

Springers typically follow current lines. Boaters locate these lines and anchor to work spinners in the current. "I locate a current line six to eight feet deep and near the bank to anchor. I run a line from the stern of the boat to a stake I have driven in the bank. This keeps the boat from swinging in the current and lets the spinner work correctly," said guide Mark Henry.

Odds of hooking springers are much better below the confluence of the Santiam River. "One of the keys to catching these traveling springers is to fish near the bank. I anchor in 4- to 6-foot water, near a rocky shoreline," explains Larry Andres of Velvet Touch Guide Service.

Popular boat ramps in this section include Buena Vista (just below the mouth of the Santiam River), Independence, Wallace Marine Park in Salem, and Wheatland Ferry Landing downriver from Salem.

Springer Regs

Salmon anglers are required to possess an angler's license and a combined harvest tag. Only salmon with a clipped adipose fin may be kept. The daily bag limit is two fish.


Regulations for the Willamette River: Open for chinook salmon the entire year below Willamette Falls; above Willamette Falls, open Apr. 1 to Oct. 31; Santiam, open to chinook salmon Jan. 1 to Aug. 15; and McKenzie River, open to fin-clipped chinook salmon Jan. 1 to Aug. 15.


Anglers should always consult the Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations before fishing.


For more on Willamette springers, contact: Craig Foster, ODFW biologist, Clackamas Office, 503-657-2000, ext. 248, or Velvet Touch Guide Service, 503-871-0949. -- G.I. Wilson


Much of the Willamette is private property but some good public access areas are available. Most widely know is the Emil Mars-Lloyd Strange Fishing Hole, known as the Social Security Hole by regulars. It is just north of Independence at the end of Hall's Ferry Road.

Another popular access is the Willamette Greenway. It's 12 miles downriver from West Salem, just across from the Mennonite School. You'll find more than 300 yards of bank access there.

Plunking is the most popular method of bank fishing by veteran Willamette anglers, a courtesy that makes it possible for more anglers to fit in a limited space than other methods. Plunking is also a social event.

The cast is made close to shore and a heavy sinker holds the bait in place. Secure the rod in a sand spike, attach a bell to the line to signal a strike, and now it's time to visit. Plunkers frequently build fires in cold weather or sit back in a recliner on sunny days. On nasty days, anglers sit in their vehicles as they watch their rods.

"This type of fishing requires perseverance and patience. It usually takes several trips - and hours spent - before even getting a bite. It just requires patience," said Craig Foster, a fish biologist with ODFW.

By far the most popular terminal gear is a bright Spin-n-Glo, with a No. 2 orange and chartreuse, as the most popular colors. Many anglers add smell and color to the Spin-n-Glo by adding a hand-dyed prawn.

Once springers reach these major tributaries such as the Santiam River they tend to slow and a different fishery develops for fish concentrated in holding areas. Anglers use bobbers and bait, or drift fish these areas with salmon roe, sand shrimp, or a combination of the two.

Popular areas on the South Santiam are: the Lebanon Dam off Russell Drive in Lebanon (where the run peaks around Mother's Day), Waterloo County Park, between Lebanon and Sweet Home, and Wiley Creek Park below Foster Dam.

Hotspots on the North Santiam are below the Lower Bennett Dam and the falls at Mill City.

Drift boats become the boats of choice. Boaters will anchor in deep holes, or holding water, and back-bounce salmon roe or sand shrimp.

Another major tributary is the McKenzie River. It reopened for springers in 2001, after being closed since 1996. A popular bank access area is the Curry Hole below Leaburg Dam. This fishery peaks around Memorial Day.

Jet sleds and drift boats work the Willamette throughout Eugene and the McKenzie River confluence area. Most popular methods are diver and bait or diving plugs.

One of the most popular - and crowded - spots on the upper Willamette is George's Hole below Dexter Dam. Word spreads fast when fish stack up in this area.

The Middle and Coastal forks of the Willamette are scenic and boater-friendly. Back-bouncing bait is one of the more popular methods used by jet sleds and drift boaters.

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