Solving the Salmon Fishing Puzzle
April 11, 2017
For salmon fishing success, find the right water temperatures, the right depth, and the right tackle.
I see (or, rather, I hear) the old Dodge diesel crank up each morning before sunrise, the crunch of gravel under rubber a confirmation they're off again. He's a quiet man until he gets to know you — a retired submariner and longtime custom home-builder who just so happens to be one of the slickest rods when it comes to spring Chinook that ever dropped a boat into the Columbia River. She's with him, every morning, sitting behind her own pole, which somehow, for reasons known only to the kings below and perhaps not even to them, always seems to draw first blood.
Sometime later, the rumble of that old diesel signals their return. Each day I trudge the 75 yards that separates our homes. Each day, I ask the same question. "One?" "Two?" "Nothing today," he says, seldom looking up from his work. I don't linger; he's busy with an array of cutting boards, fillet knives, and vacuum packers. On occasion, he'll expound upon the day's events, telling me of the preferred wobbler color scheme for the morning or cursing, tongue-in-cheek, his wife's rod as being the only one to catch a fish. She just smiles and wanders toward the house; it's lunchtime, and she, like he, has things to do.
The vast majority of my education regarding springers has come courtesy of this former torpedoman, and I can't say that I've come across a more fickle nor more prized creature than the spring edition of the mighty king salmon. My aforementioned neighbor and his crew, otherwise known as his wife, will boat 10 to 12 fish during the first few days of of the season each spring,
"Twelve to 15 if it's a good season," he said.
Strikes are often measured in hours or half-days — fish to the boat in full days, perhaps even a week. If it's action reminiscent of farm pond bluegills an angler seeks, it's best he look elsewhere, for springers, with very rare exceptions, aren't a fish of numbers. "Start early and stay late" is the best advice I've been given when it comes to catching spring kings. And while elemental, it's perhaps the most accurate suggestion a man can give.
SETTING THE SCENE
In a typical year, the springer fishery on the Columbia River begins on March 1 and continues through early April. When the season closes is subject to fisheries management decisions, and is influenced by the size of the anticipated run, as well as by harvest (catch) quotas monitored carefully by the same aquatic administrators. Sometimes the bell sounds on April 7; other years, it's April 9. Occasionally, lucky anglers find themselves with an extra day or two tacked onto the end of the event, spur-of-the-moment opportunities granted due to an under-quota situation or a larger-than-expected return. Either way, even one more day is, to the dedicated springer angler, like dual Christmases.
Springers, like elk, are where you find them. And when. My next-door mentor tells me his boat hits the water when the Columbia reads, perhaps, 45 or 46 degrees.
Current and water depth are two of the most significant variables in the equation that is springer success.
"The old-timers, though," he said, "will tell you they don't start until the water hits an even 50 degrees."
That's sage advice; however, with today's all-too-brief seasons, it's perhaps best to fish when you can, regardless of what your thermometer tells you.
Current and water depth are two of the most significant variables in the equation that is springer success. Fall Chinook run deeper — 40 to 60 feet deep being common — to take advantage of the cooler, late summer water temperatures at depth, but springers, returning as they do in March and April when the big river is still quite chilly, aren't met with that concern.
Thus, anglers often target springers in waters ranging from 15 to 30 feet, with 20 being an oft-heard response to the query, "How deep today?" However, it's important to remember that these are simply suggestions. On any given day, any given hour, fish might be found in 6 feet of water, while others are marked at 40 or more.
Current breaks, current seams, sand flats, bottom contour ridges, and traditional migration lanes, also known as slots, are all prime locations. Multitudes of anchored skiffs with salmon anglers aboard often mark the best-known slots.
Current determines, for most anglers, the strategic method used at any time during the day. In many rivers, water velocity is relatively constant, save for periods of extreme high or extreme low water. The Columbia River, however, is tidally influenced from the mouth upstream to Bonneville Dam. During the ebb, or outgoing, tide, current increases, while simultaneously the amount of water in which the fish can disperse decreases.
More flow with less water means there are fewer places for the fish to be. Conversely, the flood or incoming tide sees just the opposite: an upstream flush of water pushing against a perpetually outward flowing current. The result is decreased water movement as measured at any given stationary point, as well as an increase in overall water coverage. Less flow, more water, and the salmon spread out over a wider area. Because of this tidal influence, the ebb tide and anchors are closely associated in fishing; during the incoming tide, it's time to crank up the smaller kicker outboards and start trolling.
RODS, REELS, PLUGS AND BAIT
A salmon fisherman without a boatload of assorted gear is just another guy out on the water. Salmon angling, be the target kings, silvers, or any of the others, is a reasonably gear-intensive occupation, and this springer fishery is certainly no exception.
First, the rods, which can be summarized quite easily with three words: strong yet sensitive. I'm partial to two: a 9-foot Shakespeare Ugly Stik Elite medium-heavy, and an 8-foot, 6-inch Okuma Celilo in a heavy format. Both offer the backbone I'm looking for while not sacrificing the touch and feel I sometimes need during either of the Spring or Fall seasons.
Likewise, my tutor stocks his Hewescraft with 9-foot Celilo rods in heavy and medium-heavy configurations, along with his personal favorite, a 9-foot heavy-action Rogue River rod.
These are matched to a wide variety of level-wind reels, including my Ambassadeur 5500S models and his big Shimano TR100G and TR200 outfits.
Kings, be they of the spring or fall variety, are strong brutes, capable of not only breaking line, but busting tackle like nobody's business. Drags should be set on the light side, and can be tightened accordingly after the hook-up; otherwise, you're going to end up with what I call broken string, if not a three-piece rod that started the day as a two-piece.
Today, most springer fishermen on the Columbia spool their reels with a quality braided line. Most, however, are split as far as leader material is concerned. Some continue the braid, while others stick with old school monofilament or fluorocarbon. My mentor runs a 65-pound braid. My Ambassadeurs are filled with 50-pound RipCord Pro from Cabela's. Leader material for the both of us ranges from 20- to 25-pound monofilament, with my thoughts leaning toward Berkley Trilene Big Game in a 25-pound class.
The list of terminal tackle is rounded out with quality barrel swivels, 5mm red glass or plastic beads, snap swivels, plenty of 3/0 and 4/0 hooks, and a selection of round cannonball weights ranging from 6 ounces to upwards of 16 ounces or more, the choice being dependent upon the current and method of fishing.
On the Columbia, springer hunters employ two traditional — or least what have become known as traditional in recent years — strategies for icing their kings.
The first is trolling plug-cut herring; the second is anchoring and letting the current provide the action to a lipped plug. Both presentations are fished behind some nature of visual attractant or flasher.
However, some anlers have started trolling plugs or, given the right amount of current, anchoring over bait, — i.e., herring. Do what needs to be done on any given day, I've been told, and if that doesn't work, do something different. Sounds simple, and sometimes it is. Other times, it's not.
When it comes to plugs, Yakima Bait's Mag Lip Flatfish and Luhr Jensen's K14 and K15 Kwikfish have been perennial springer favorites from the Pacific Northwest to Northern California since the lures' inceptions, which for the well-known Flatfish dates back to the early 1930s. In recent years, Brad's KillerFish has gained in popularity, and it's not uncommon to see tackle boxes containing all three offerings. Popular, too, are Brad's SuperBaits and SuperBait Cut Plugs, unique hard baits that allow anglers to open the back of the lure and pack it full of such king-attracting items as tuna, chopped anchovies or herring, sardines, or even something as simple as a sponge soaked in oil-based scent. Color, most will agree, is critical, with chartreuse, yellow, various shades of blue, and a patriotic red-white-blue pattern hanging at the business end of most outfits.
As for natural baits, cut-plug herring is the go-to choice for the vast majority. My man-next-door prefers Green Label, those baitfish in the 6- to 7-inch range.
"Some folks like to dye their baits," he said, "and I've seen a red, green, or blue bait catch springers when an otherwise natural presentation doesn't seem to attract much attention. But it's got to be good bait. Good quality herring. Clean eyes. Perfect scales. No yellowing. Good bait can make all the difference."
Natural bait or hard lure notwithstanding, a flasher — a revolving visual attractor strung onto the leader between the weighted dropper and the hooks themselves — is typically part of the equation. The Fish Flash from Yakima Bait, a unit by Kone Zone, and Pescaro's Triple Threat Diver are all onboard.
Rigging both natural baits and hard lures is essentially the same as far as the Columbia River springer fishery goes. The mainline is passed through one end of a barrel swivel. To the other end, a 17-pound monofilament dropper holds a cannonball weight of the appropriate weight. Usually the droppers are 12 to 18 inches for trolling cut-plug herring but a bit longer at 18 to 24 inches for running a Flatfish or Kwickfish from anchor.
The mainline then gets three to four 5mm beads and a second barrel swivel. If you are not running a flasher with a hard bait, a monofilament leader, 5 to 6 feet in length, terminates at the lure.
Anglers operating flashers will often run a split leader — three feet from the second swivel to the flasher, and another three feet from the flasher to the cut-plug herring.
As for hooks, I lash three 4/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hooks, per my tutor, onto monofilament leader. These are spaced so the front hook pierces the top or cut portion of the bait, the second at the midsection, and the third, which hangs loose, falls at the fork of the tail.
DOWN TO BUSINESS
As mentioned early, the amount of current or water flow at any given time typically dictates the style of fishing. High flow, and the anchor is dropped — or in the vernacular, the boat is "put on the hook." Now it's time for the Flatfish or Kwikfish to earn their keep, with the recipe for success here being putting the hard bait near the bottom, setting the drag, and getting comfortable. A lesser flow, as with an incoming tide, and trolling those cut-plug herring behind a flasher becomes the name of the game.
"The trick to trolling — and I know it sounds simple — is to cover water, cover water, and cover water," said my teacher. "Watch what people are doing. Adjust your speed. Stay close to the bottom. Start early and stay late."
And that's the key to successful spring Chinook fishing. Start early, stay late, carry a full tackle box, and don't forget to pack a goodly dose of patience. For if the muskellunge is the Fish of 10,000 Casts — well, springers, where casts and hours spent are synonymous terms, can certainly give the Water Wolf a run for his money.