Imagine long summer days and warm nights with enough 20-pound chinook salmon thrashing and splashing at the water's surface to drive you nuts. Sound like a fisherman's fantasy? Could be. But given the record numbers of salmon returning over the past few years, such a scenario is highly likely for anglers chasing summer- and fall-run chinook salmon in the upper Columbia River.
Historically, chinook salmon migrated upstream in the Columbia River as a single run from March through October, with a peak in the summer. What are now termed summer-run chinook salmon were referred to as "June Hogs" in the late 1800s because of their large size and the timing of their migration. However, due to over-harvest, farming, logging, hydro-development and other factors, the early (spring) and middle (summer) runs of chinook salmon almost disappeared from the Columbia River.
Spring and summer chinook salmon were reduced to the point that commercial fishing was restricted and several populations from the Snake River were listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. However, in the mid-1990s, the spring run rebounded to levels that allowed limited sportfishing opportunities. With increased numbers of summer-run fish in 2002 and 2003, some Columbia River anglers fished for chinook salmon for six straight months!
So, what has happened? One important change has been operational and structural modifications at hydro projects to benefit fish passage. Improved water-use practices and stream habitats have also helped. More recently, enhanced ocean conditions have contributed to high adult return rates. Finally, millions of juvenile chinook salmon (smolts) are released from fish hatcheries annually in the Columbia River system. The increased number of juveniles and improved conditions mean more adult salmon for the angler.
LIFE HISTORY & MIGRATION OF CHINOOK SALMON
Knowledge of the three "runs" of chinook salmon is helpful in determining when and where to fish for them. Spring-run chinook salmon, or "springers," have a stream-type life history in the Columbia River. That is, they spend 1 to 2 years in fresh water before migrating to the Pacific Ocean.
As returning adults, they are first to enter the estuary, and most pass upriver to tributary streams by mid-June. In contrast, both summer- and fall-run chinook salmon rear for 2 to 4 months in their natal streams before migrating downstream. Most summer chinook salmon return to spawning grounds in large tributaries of the upper Columbia River. The principal run of fall chinook salmon, the "upriver bright" population, spawns in the Hanford Reach of the mid-Columbia region.
Adult chinook salmon enter the Columbia River from March to October and occur over a range of 500 river miles, not counting tributary streams. Thus, knowledge of their migration timing will help you catch more fish. However, available numbers vary dramatically by location and time of year. In 2003, for example, the spring and fall runs predominated downstream of the Dalles Dam, while summers were the largest component upstream of Priest Rapids Dam.
Let's apply this information on salmon behavior and run timing to figure out where and when to fish the Columbia River upstream of Bonneville Dam.
LOWER COLUMBIA RIVER SALMON FISHING AREAS
There are several choices in the lower Columbia River within 30 minutes of Hood River, an area that benefits from returns of salmon to a trio of hatcheries run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Madness begins when adult spring chinook salmon return to the vicinity in May and June, while fall-run fish peak in late August. Summer-run fish are heading upriver and the run size is proportionally smaller, but numbers still averaged 2,000 fish per day over the Dalles Dam in late June and early July 2003.
The Wind River enters the north shore of the Columbia River just upstream of Stevenson, Wash. Chinook salmon (and steelhead) often pause near here in a small 10-acre cove, attracted by cool water temperatures.
Summertime action picks up in August when anglers troll lighted plugs at night to extend time on the water. The cove can be crowded when fishing is good, in which case some boats troll outside. Boaters put in from a public launch just off Old Hatchery Road. There is limited access (i.e., a short hike across railroad tracks) for bank anglers from a narrow peninsula at the downstream end of the cove. Tossing No. 5 or No. 6 Vibrax spinners and Magnum Wiggle Warts is favored.
Drano Lake is a small backwater area fed by the Little White Salmon River, just off the main Columbia River. It offers a variety of fishing experiences, ranging from bumper-to-bumper trolling to plunking from a lawn chair. Drano Lake is protected from the seemingly constant upriver winds. The trade-off for the respite is a lot of boats. You have to experience it to believe it.
Boat fishermen troll herring and drag magnum Wiggle Warts in the color of the day. Bank anglers cast spinners and 'Warts from the bank on both sides of the Highway 14 bridge and in the narrow arm near the Little White Salmon Hatchery.
Steelhead are an excellent option in the summer if salmon aren't biting.
Boaters can put in on-site from a ramp that can be slow during peak use, or they can run downriver from the Hood River boat basin. Camping is limited due to overnight parking restrictions.
Just upriver, fishing off "the Big White," or the White Salmon River, is an experience not to be missed. Much like at Drano, quarters can get tight. But, as with all forms of combat fishing, a little patience goes a long way.
Action begins in August when the fall run pushes upriver. Most anglers anchor off the mouth of the river in a broad flat that ranges from 15 to 20 feet deep and jig until their arms drop off or they catch their limits. The principal challenge is to hook a 30-pounder in the mouth and keep it from crossing an anchor rope. All snagged fish must be kept in the water and released.
Popular lures for jigging include Crippled Herring and Stingers ranging from 3 to 5 ounces. Some boaters flatline Wiggle Warts farther offshore. This method requires one to keep one eye out for anchored boats and another on kamikaze-minded wind surfers. There is limited access under the Highway 14 bridge for bank anglers wanting to toss large spinners, spoons and Wiggle Warts into the Columbia River.
Boaters should launch at Hood River and motor across. The launch on the lower White Salmon River is for tribal use only. It is best to check locally for places you might camp.
One behavior that adult salmon exhibit during their summer migration interval in the Columbia River is to seek cooler water from tributary streams. This "milling" or "resting" pattern has been well documented in tracking studies of radio-tagged fish. Your chances of hooking a chinook salmon are enhanced if you fish where they congregate versus where they are actively migrating. Consequently, most anglers increase the probability of encountering a salmon by targeting river mouths. With this in mind, two other locations worthy of mention include off the mouths of the Klickitat and Deschutes rivers, particularly in August and September. Boaters can put in at Lyle to fish off "the Klick." They can reach the mouth of the Deschutes River (upstream of the Dalles) via a launch at the Celilo State Park, where overnight camping facilities are also available.
NIGHT ON A BOAT
Why would anyone spend a night on a boat when they could sleep in a camper, a fine motel room or at home? It depends on your sense of adventure. My first time was to gain advantage over chinook salmon.
Dick Ecker and I drove three hours west on I-84 to a marina in the shadow of the Hood River toll bridge. We launched and navigated across the Columbia River. A full moon illuminated the water's surface like a lighthouse beacon as we bounced toward the White Salmon River and the Highway 24 bridge.
We quickly saw that our idea was not original. One boat anchored under the narrow-span bridge, another tied off to a rope that hung from an adjoining railroad trestle, and upstream was a crowd of steelhead anglers in float tubes.
Things calmed down around midnight, so we opted for a night under the stars rather than motoring back. Dick wedged his 6-foot frame behind the steering wheel, feet draped over an ice chest. I sprawled across the bow, supported by a life jacket and the spare battery. The full moon moved slowly across the sky, beamed through the struts of the railroad bridge, and then mercifully disappeared around 3 a.m.
A seemingly constant clanging of freight trains passing by interrupted our sleep. When we woke up for good, Dick started his boat and we crept out to the main river channel in pre-dawn black. He hooked a bright 22-pound chinook on a purple and white Crippled Herring before the sun rose over the gorge, and I brought a hefty 26-pounder to net between mid-morning naps.
Once salmon pass John Day Dam, there are 75 miles of reservoir for them to migrate in and not many locations to congregate until they reach McNary Dam. Snake River populations turn off just upstream of McNary Dam, which means fewer salmon available for upriver Columbia River anglers.
Regulations can be confusing for this part of the river. For example, sections upstream of the Highway 395 bridge in Pasco could be closed until Aug. 1 if the upriver run of summer chinook salmon doesn't live up to the WDFW forecast of 69,000 fish. Check the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife link "Fishing Rule Change" for updates (access at http://www.wdfw.wa.gov) before you buy fresh herring.
Depending on flows and water temperature, salmon often hold off the mouth of the Umatilla River and in the tailrace of McNary Dam. Flatlining Wiggle Warts works well at depths of 15 to 25 feet near shoreline outcrops. Summertime anglers have limited success using downriggers to troll the slow and deep (up to 80 feet) water in the McNary Dam forebay with herring and Wiggle Warts.
The best access for boaters is downstream of the dam and the I-84 bridge via two concrete ramps with nearby camping/RV facilities: Plymouth on the Washington side and Umatilla on the Oregon side. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains boat ramps on both sides of the river near McNary Dam.
The Hanford Reach of the Columbia River is worth visiting for its scenic beauty even when salmon aren't biting. There are 50 miles of honest-to-goodness river in this recently declared national monument.
The Reach opened for summer chinook salmon on June 16, 2003, but action was slow until the main fall run began to show in August. Salmon hold near the mouth of the Yakima River in deep holes such as at White Bluffs and in migration slots near Coyote Rapids and Vernita Bar. Large Vibrax spinners trolled downstream (a technique referred to as boon-dogging), yellow-tipped silver Kwikfish in size K-13 to K-16, and orange Wiggle Warts are lures of choice for boaters in August and September. Bank access is limited to the Ringold Springs shoreline (off Taylor Flat Road via Road 68 - check your Gazetteer) where fishermen toss big spinners and drift roe.
There are boat ramps at all Tri-City area parks. There is an unimproved launch at Ringold with rustic camping nearby, a concrete ramp at White Bluffs off Highway 24 for daytime use only, and unimproved launches just upstream of Vernita Bridge off Highway 243, where an RV village forms from August through October each year.
UPPER COLUMBIA RIVER FISHING AREAS
Chinook salmon can be caught in the long stretch between Priest Rapids and Wells dams, a distance of nearly 120 miles, but access is limited to but a few areas. Don't let that deter you from making the drive when action is slow elsewhere.
In 2003, two sections of the Columbia River upstream of Priest Rapids Dam opened for summer chinook salmon on July 16. Favorite areas include off the mouth of the Wenatchee River, the tailrace of Wells Dam, and in Lake Pateros just downstream of the Okanogan River. Anglers also work the tailrace downstream of Priest Rapids and Rocky Reach dams with some success.
The key is to find locations where salmon pause on their way to spawning areas. A popular slack-water method is trolling deep off a downrigger using a flasher and herring. Many locals and guides also use "Bait Busters." Wiggle Warts trolled at depths ranging from 5 to 40 feet can be very effective when sal
mon are active. These upriver fish are big, strong and not bashful about rolling on the surface. You don't need sonar with a built-in GPS to find them.
Grant County Public Utility District allows anglers to launch near their visitor facility at Wanapum Dam (no overnight camping). Launch downstream of East Wenatchee off Highway 68 to fish near Wenatchee. The Chelan Public Utility District maintains a boat launch/camping area downstream of the Wells hydro project. Camping is also available near Rocky Reach at Lincoln Rock State Park. There is a public boat ramp and nearby private campground at Brewster for anglers wanting to get in on the action off the mouth of the Okanogan River.