An ominous black cloud parks directly overhead, dropping marble-sized chunks of hail that line the bottom of my boat. Boat control is nearly impossible due to a cruel northeast wind.
I cast jigs while on anchor and wonder how many bites I have missed due to frozen fingers.
It’s the stuff that state-record catches are made of, and my buddy, Bob, and I have been at it for six hours and light is fading fast.
Springtime walleye anglers play out similar foul-weather scenes every year on the Columbia River system — from Portland, Oregon, to Fort Spokane, Washington and upstream to Lewiston, Idaho, as far as the lower reach of the Snake River — because an increasing population of trophy-size walleyes has made the Columbia River Basin a virtual mecca for walleye anglers. In 2014, the river gave up the Washington state-record walleye of 20 pounds, 5 ounces.
Fish like that and many more large walleyes thrive on the river system’s abundant prey base. In fact, liberal catch limits, established by Washington and Oregon fisheries managers but are controversial for many walleye aficionados, are in place in an effort to reduce walleye predation on salmon and steelhead populations listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Still, filling your boat with small walleyes is not generally condoned by local anglers, and many of these conservation-minded walleye anglers release large females and limit themselves to no more than 10 “eater-size” walleyes on any single trip.
LOWER COLUMBIA RIVER HOTSPOTS
In the lower reach of the Columbia River, walleyes can be found in the Multnomah Channel downstream of Bonneville Dam and in the lower Willamette River, but The Dalles and John Day pools afford the best opportunity for hooking up with a stringer-full of these tasty fish.
According to long-time guide Ed Inman, some of the best fishing sites here are found in the vicinity of Rufus, Oregon. Try the underwater shelves around Miller Island, the shallow flat off the mouth of the Deschutes River, and Preacher’s Eddy. Begin your search trolling a Smile Blade Super Slow Death rig by Mack’s Lures in chartreuse sparkle behind a bottom walker; or troll a Butterfly Blade from Dutch Fork Custom Lures that turns at speeds as low as 0.25 mph. Pick ’em up at Gorge Outfitters Supply, your one-stop location for supplies and information, in Rufus.
Lake Umatilla, the 76-mile stretch of reservoir between the mouth of John Day River and McNary Dam, is also home to a large population of double-digit walleyes. Pick up a copy of River Cruising Atlas: Columbia, Snake, Willamette from Evergreen Pacific to help you understand the river’s channel configuration and depth contours. Troll bottom walkers 20 to 40 feet deep along the flat shelves in the main river channel. When aggregations of walleyes are found, vertical jigging and blade baits are brought into play.
Large walleyes also gather farther upstream at “Boulder Alley” opposite the boat launch at Irrigon, Oregon. The irregular bottom structure here provides respite from the current. Look closer to the shorelines when McNary Dam is spilling high water. Under these conditions, fishing guide Jeff Knotts of JB Guide Service in Tri Cities switches to a shorter, stiffer rod and heavier jigs to get his offering down to the strike zone.
MIDdle TO UPPER COLUMBIA RIVER
If your goal is to catch a trophy walleye, you might try the Wallula Pool where the Washington state record of 20 pounds, 5 ounces was caught in 2014 by John Grubenhoff of Pasco. The deep, wide, soft-bottom flats between the mouth of the Snake and Walla Walla rivers harbor large walleyes in the spring, many in the 12- to 16-pound range. This is a “bundle up and wear your life jacket” stretch of river where harsh spring winds drive anglers off the water.
Want to challenge your skills? If so, the 50-mile-long Hanford Reach of the Columbia River could be for you. Males stage near spawning areas in early March when water temperatures warm from seasonal lows. Fish can also be found in slow-velocity pockets off the main flow; downstream of gravel bar islands; and in deep, swirl holes that have sand-gravel bottom. Backwaters near White Bluffs Ferry Landing and near the wooden power lines upstream of Ringold Springs are favored in early spring. Local anglers troll both sides of the river near the confluence of the Yakima River, changing the amount of weight and line length to keep their offerings near the bottom.
Because Hanford Reach flows are highly regulated at Priest Rapids Dam, water surface elevation can change up to 6 vertical feet a day; hence, walleyes tend to move around. Many anglers deploy an underwater camera to validate that bottom targets are not large-scale suckers. Check river discharge from Priest Rapids Dam at USGS 12472800 or online at https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis.
Jump 150 miles upstream to Rufus Woods Lake, a 51-mile-long pool on the Columbia that stretches from behind Chief Joseph Dam in Okanogan County along the southern border of Colville Indian Reservation. Buckley and Nespelum bars provide abundant shallow-water habitat for prey fishes, along with soft bottom and deep-water refuge for walleyes. Side pools between the Seton Grove boat ramp and Chief Joseph Dam also hold pre-spawn walleyes. The Lake Rufus Woods Net Pen facility, located about 5 miles west of Nespelem on Columbia River Road, features public access for fishing and camping along the reservation shoreline.
In Lake Roosevelt, behind Grand Coulee Dam, walleyes move from deeper water to shallow rocky shorelines and larger tributaries as water temperature warms in the spring. Troll bottom walkers and Lindy rigs, while reserving vertical jigging with chartreuse or white soft plastics where walleyes congregate. A bonus for Roosevelt anglers is a large population of kokanee and rainbow trout. It’s a huge lake. Download a map at nps.gov.
INTERIOR COLUMBIA BASIN
Walleyes have advanced to several inland waters in the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, using as a means of travel the complex network of irrigation canals that Grand Coulee Dam makes possible. Three water bodies stand out in terms of fishing consistency.
Moses Lake is, perhaps, the best walleye fishery in the state of Washington, according to surveys conducted by the Washington Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. It’s also a relatively shallow lake. Most fish are “eaters,” averaging 16 to 18 inches long and weighting about 2 pounds. According to Dave Graybill of Fishin’ Magician! website, it’s also one of the few lakes where you can get walleyes through ice in the winter. Drag a spinner rig with night crawler in deeper areas near shore, such as the east arm where Crab Creek empties and the Conley Park area in the Rocky Ford arm.
Local walleye anglers in early March target the Lind Coulee arm and the Crab Creek channel of Potholes Reservoir, located about 7 miles south of the city of Moses Lake.
Mike Meseberg, of MarDon Resort on the lake’s southwest corner, stresses anglers’ presentations should be slow early in the season. “Once you find a walleye, drop a buoy or mark the waypoint,” he adds, “and switch to a vertical presentation with a jig and ’crawler or blade baits.” Jigging swimbaits or ’crawlers off the MarDon fish dock can also be productive.
Scooteney Reservoir, the smallest of a collection of walleye lakes in southeast Washington, is also a consistent producer of catchable-sized walleyes. The survival of younger fish is excellent due to an abundant prey base. Early in the season, look for walleyes near the north end of the reservoir where the Potholes Canal feeds it. Stick to the flats when pulling a bottom bouncer to avoid snagging basalt outcroppings.
LOWER SNAKE RIVER
Good numbers of walleyes are found in Lower Monumental Reservoir, 5 miles south of Kahlotus, from the mouth of the Palouse River upstream to Texas Rapids and Little Goose Dam. However, spring runoff from the Palouse and Tucannon rivers can affect fishing success. Have a ready supply of Gulp! Alive! minnows, in both chartreuse and gray-white, on hand when bite-sized, juvenile fall Chinook salmon, a favorite food source for walleyes, migrate downstream in late spring. Access this remote stretch of river at Lyons Ferry Marina on State Highway 261.
The 9-mile stretch of tailwater from Ice Harbor Dam, about 10 miles east of Pasco, downstream to the confluence of the Columbia River is also productive. Fishing guide Bruce Hewitt of Going Fishing Guide Service in Burbank swaps out worm-harness rigs to run shallow-running plugs off a bottom walker when walleyes congregate near the tailrace. Two favorite fishing sites include the protected shallows downstream of Goose Island and off the main river channel near Hood Park at depths from 10 to 30 feet.
BEFORE YOU GO FISHING
The liberal catch limit established by Washington and Oregon fisheries managers, while controversial to walleye aficionados, is an effort to reduce predation on salmon and steelhead populations listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
As a result, walleye fishing regulations vary across the Columbia River Basin. For example, the daily bag limit in Lake Roosevelt is currently 16 fish, with no size restriction. No minimum-size limit and no daily creel limit applies to some stretches of the Columbia River and Snake River; yet, statewide regulations (where no other regulations are in place) provide for a daily bag limit of five walleyes, with a minimum-length restriction of 16 inches, and only one fish may be kept daily that measures more than 22 inches. Always consult the state fishing regulations to be sure of local fishing restrictions.
Despite the liberal limits, many Washington anglers still believe anglers should limit their walleye catches. Many simply don’t condone filling a boat with small walleyes. Most conservation-minded walleye anglers release larger females and limit themselves to keeping no more than 10 “eater-size” walleyes.
CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?
Is there a future for both salmon and walleyes in the Columbia River Basin? According to a spokesperson for Walleyes Unlimited USA, “The two can co-exist.” One thing is for sure. Walleye are here to stay … if for no other reason than they are a fish that makes you stay out in the wind and cold hoping for that subtle tick of a bite.