September 29, 2010
Some of the best walleye fishing in North America can be found in the mighty Columbia River, and especially at a place called the Preacher's Eddy. (June 2006)
The wind was down for a moment, but it threatened to pick up at any time. Don Schneider of Reel Adventures, our host and guide for the day, was keeping an eye on the weather, and on the tack the boat was taking as we drifted through the famous "Preacher's Eddy" below the John Day Dam tailrace on the Columbia River.
Schneider has been fishing the big river for more than 30 years, and he knows to watch out for the unpredictable and dangerous winds that commonly whip up along the Columbia. Having fished with Schneider many times, I was content to let him tend to the conditions. I paid close attention to my bottom walker as it bounced along a rocky reef. The tick-tick-tick of the walker on the bottom stopped suddenly, and I swept the rod back in a wide arc, hooking the walleye that had just engulfed the night crawler.
The fish fought well, using the current to aid its cause. But after a few tense moments, a 23-inch male with marble eyes laid in the bottom of the net, the first of two fish that size I would catch that morning. As the day progressed, we moved down to the Willows and caught walleyes in ones and twos before wind forced us off the water. As we headed to the ramp, 6-foot swells driven by the wind broke over the bow of Schneider's 24-foot Duckworth. I was thankful for the protection the big covered boat afforded us.
Early season fishing below John Day Dam is like that, with unpredictable winds and cold weather making it an iffy proposition. But once the spring advances and the weather tames, it's a lot easier to handle the river, and to catch big, tasty walleyes. "During March and April, the fish are packed close below the dam as they prepare for the spawn," says Schneider. "This is the best time to take the huge lunkers up to 12 or 14 pounds that the Columbia is famous for. This is also the time of year when the river is running higher, and the fish seek out eddies for protection from strong currents. As the walleye finish spawning, they bite more consistently. But they also spread out into areas farther from the dam. Then it changes from a trophy fishery to a numbers fishery, with good numbers of eating-sized fish being the rule."
Schneider, like most of the guides on the Columbia, is a proponent of releasing the big females after a quick photo shot. In addition to keeping these big breeders in the gene pool, he also believes bigger walleyes lose their eating quality. Likewise, he returns many of the under-18-inch fish, to boost recruitment into the older age-classes.
"You have to keep a good population of young fish if you want to have some big fish in the future," he explains. "The Columbia River has some of the best walleye fishing in North America, and it's still one of the best places to catch the fish of a lifetime."
The walleye limit on the Columbia is a generous 10 per day. Only one can be longer than 24 inches, and five of them may be between 15 and 18 inches.
WHERE TO FISH
The Preacher's Eddy is just one of the many popular walleye spots in Lake Celilo, the impoundment created by The Dalles Dam in the Columbia River Gorge. Anther early-season spot is the deadline below the John Day Dam. "That's a good place for big fish, but the bottom is very snaggy," says Schneider. "Also, there are some tricky currents and rocky shoals just below the surface. It's not a place for beginners."
Below that hole is the Preacher's Eddy itself, and just below that on the Washington side is an area called The Willows. There's more good water on the Oregon side, running from the Giles French Park boat ramp down past the grain elevators. All of these are good early-season bets, and also during periods of high water.
Once May and June arrive, walleyes spread down through the system. "Look for any place where the bottom is rocky and the depth is between 12 and 30 feet," advises Schneider. Lower in the system, some of the good spots can be found along both shores above Maryhill State Park, below the bridge on Highway 97, and around the tip of Miller Island. Farther downstream are good reefs near Browns Island and the Avery ramp.
BIG RIVER WALLEYE TACTICS
On the day we fished, Schneider used bottom-walking rigs tipped with night crawlers, and we trolled them downstream. This is the preferred method when the flows are high and vertical fishing is not possible. It's also a good way to fish when you have inexperienced anglers in the boat, since it takes less expertise than jigging.
Schneider starts with spinning rods set up with 10-pound-test line leading to a bottom walker. Attached to the walker is a leader about four to five feet long, ending in a series of beads and a Spin-N-Glo ahead of a double-hooked night crawler. Pass the first hook through the head of the worm, and push the trailing hook through the worm about two inches lower, so the shaft is within the worm's body with the hook exposed and pointed up toward the worm's head. Make sure to leave some slack in the line between the two hooks so that when the worm stretches out in the water, it will still move naturally.
The worm is the most important part of the presentation, with the Spin-N-Glo merely serving as an attractor. There are plenty of variations: Some fishermen use marabou jigs and spinners instead of a Spin-N-Glo. The best colors are chartreuse, orange and red.
Troll the rig downstream along the bottom. You want to feel a steady ticking of the wire as it bumps along. It's necessary to adjust to the changing depths of an undulating bottom, such as that in the Preacher's Eddy, so that your bait stays in the strike zone. Walleyes are bottom-huggers, and if you get too far off the bottom, you won't find fish.
As effective as the bottom walker is, Schneider prefers to fish vertically by jigging with blade baits. This method is more effective during low flows, and is a more active way to fish. Popular blade baits include the Rattlin' Ripple Tail and the Heddon Sonar, both of which will take plenty of walleyes in the Columbia. Lindy Little Joe makes two other baits that are worth a try: the Deadly Dart and the Flyer. Some anglers like to fish worm-tipped jigs in the same manner. Chartreuse and silver are popular.
The idea behind this technique is to drift downstream with the current while jigging your offering just off the bottom. It takes experienced hands, for both the boat handler and the fishermen. The handler must make sure the boat is drifting at exactly the same speed as the current, so the fishermen can keep their baits on the bottom without any slack or bend in the line. The fishermen must then adjust to changes in the bottom depth by taking in or letting out line.
g usually remains good after Columbia River conditions stabilize in May or June, and stay good until mid August, when juvenile shad flood the river on their way to the ocean. "The river is so full of food that all they have to do is turn their heads for a meal," notes Schneider. "In those kinds of conditions, it's tough to get a walleye to take a look at your offering."
The tricky currents below John Day Dam, coupled with the often blustery winds of the Columbia River Gorge, make for a fishery that can get dangerous. Even on a good day, you should stay alert for quickly changing conditions. Most fishermen new to the area might want to spend an afternoon on the water with an experienced guide before tackling the river by themselves.
Walleye fishing on the Columbia River is open all year. An angler may fish the main stem Columbia with a license from either Oregon or Washington. It's not necessary to carry both, and it doesn't matter which side you launched from. However, bank anglers must possess the license of the state from whose bank they're fishing.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Boat ramps near the action can be found at Giles French State Park and Heritage Landing State Park on the Oregon side, and at Maryhill State Park in Washington. The two Oregon parks have tent camping, bathrooms and picnic areas. Maryhill SP has those amenities, and RV camping as well. The nearby town of Rufus has restaurants, convenience stores and a bait shop. The city of The Dalles is a short drive down I-84 from the action where anglers can find a wide range of services and motels.
For guided trips, contact Don Schneider at Reel Adventures. Call (503) 622-5372, or toll-free at 1-877-544-REEL.