February 21, 2012
"Boys, I'm getting bit! I'm getting bit!" I said.
The boat erupted with activity. Guys reeled in their lines, jumped for their cameras, someone grabbed the net, and behind the wheel Buzz Ramsey eyed the bouncing rod, ready to put a little bit of extra umph into the trolling motor to help set the hook. Meanwhile, as spring chinook will so often do, the fish took its time, munching on the herring and giving it a leisurely chew before finally sucking the bait in deep. When the rod finally did plunge downward, Buzz put some gas to the motor and it was fish on!
Outdoor writer and guide Andy Martin broke out his cam and recorded the struggle as I tried to keep calm and work the big fish. It's always a task to keep a clear head with a springer on because the adrenaline pumps every time the fish plunges for the depths, and you want this fish so bad! Columbia River spring chinook are a rare and wonderful salmon and each hook-up comes from hours of patience.
These are precious fish.
After a spirited and dogged battle, Buzz slipped the net under the hatchery chinook, and hefted the fish into the boat. It was our second fish of the day, but we still stared in awe of its beauty. The chinook was unbelievably fat, but he was all muscle, all power. He was silver with a blue back, and his jaw had just the slightest hint of a kype, the massive hooked nose males develop later when they begin the spawn.
THE COLUMBIA RIVER SPRINGER: A SPECIAL FISH
That would have been months yet for this salmon. One of the reasons the spring chinook is so highly prized is that this fat salmon, caught in March, will not spawn until October. They arrive from the salt, their bodies absolutely packed with fats and oils rich with nutrients that the fish use as they spend months in the freshwater. The energy-packed flesh is a beautiful deep red color, and it tastes as rich as it looks. It is one of the most highly-sought-after fish in North America, valued both as a fighting game fish, and as unequaled table fare.
This particular salmon was about 14 to 16 pounds, an average springer. Some can run well over 30 pounds but, as Ramsey is famous for saying, "When it comes to springers, they're all good!"
MOVIN' ON UP TO BONNEVILLE
March is when the spring chinook first start to enter the Columbia River in strong numbers and the lower sections of the river from Tongue Point to the Bonneville Dam turn into small boat cities as anglers try to land these fish. Bank fishermen line the beaches plunking with stationary baits. Boat ramps, convenience stores, restaurants and tackle shops buzz with customers. The populations of small towns along the river swell as hotels fill every room. All of this is for the ritual, the possibility, of catching a spring salmon.
The news trumpets the first confirmed springer caught each year, and fishermen hit the banks and put out boats weeks before the fish actually arrive. By March the catch starts improving, and late in the month the fishery kicks into high gear.
It hasn't always been this way. From 1977 to 2000 the sport season for spring chinook on the Columbia was closed. Declining returns and Endangered Species protections forced a change in chinook management. In 2001, a record return spurred the first modern season, and there has been a season on the big river every spring since. The resurgent runs are a result of increased spill at the hydro dams, changes in hatchery practices and a fin-clip hatchery strategy that protects wild-spawning chinook while allowing the harvest of the hatchery fish.
ADJUSTABLE SEASON'S KEEP ANGLERS GUESSING
However, even with the renewal of this fishery, all is not perfect. The Columbia River spring chinook run is difficult to predict, which complicates the already thorny issue of how to spread such a desired resource among sport anglers, tribal fishers and commercial fishermen. The end result is a sometimes-convoluted process to set seasons and quotas that drags into early spring.
Generally, the season remains open with a single adipose fin-clipped adult chinook daily limit until early April, and then runs in variable forms through the end of the month. Stronger runs mean 7-days-a-week fisheries, with more of the river open to fishing. In years with light returns, fishing may be limited to 3 or 4 days a week, and some reaches may have closures. For instance, the 2011 return was about mid-range, and the popular section right below the Bonneville Dam was only open to bank angling.
Wild chinook are not fin-clipped and must be released unharmed. Take care to leave them in the water as you remove the hook.
2012: A STRONG RUN ON DECK?
The final projections for the Columbia spring run should be out by March, but Joe Hymer, of the WDFW, reports that early indicators were strong. "Last year we had 67,000 jacks go over Bonneville Dam," says Hymer. Jacks are precocious males that return a year early, and are a good indicator of year-class ocean survival. "That's a big jack return," he says, "That could mean a good run next year." The final run projection will be out by March, and the fishing will peak in April.
EARLY SALMON, BIG SALMON
The first spring salmon to enter the Columbia are bound for the tributaries below Bonneville Dam, with the largest return headed to Oregon's Willamette River. Other good lower tribs with substantial returns include the Cowlitz, the Kalama, and the Lewis rivers in Washington, and the Sandy River in Oregon. These runs and are composed of larger chinook, on the average. "Snow-bellies," as they are often called, average 20 pounds, with larger fish to 35 pounds or more. These are the fish that drive the March fishery.
Springers bound for destinations above Bonneville tend to average a bit smaller and come in later. By mid-April they dominate the Columbia fishery. Known as "blackface" chinook, they can be identified by their darker face and belly.
HOW TO CATCH YOUR COLUMBIA SPRINGER
There are two ways to catch your Columbia springer, either by trolling or by fishing with stationary baits. Stationary fishing includes anchoring with a boat or "plunking" from the shore, both of which involve fishing with a bait fixed near the bottom. Trolling refers to pulling a bait or lure through the water from a boat and actively searching for fish. Both methods take fish and are particularly effective during the right tide.
Below Bonneville: Fishing The Tides
The Columbia River is tidally influenced from the mouth all the way to Bonneville Dam, and fishing those tides is the best way to put more salmon in the boat. The ebb tide means stronger currents, which force the fish to shallow water near the bank, which is good for stationary fishing. The flood tide causes the fish to spread out and anglers search for them by trolling the flats. The change from one tide to another is called the "slack tide," and is often one of the best bites for trollers.
Trolling Your Way To A Limit
Trolling may be the most popular way to catch Columbia springers. Legendary Pacific Northwest fisherman Buzz Ramsey, of Yakima Baits, will anchor when the tide is right, but when you find him on the Columbia he's usually trolling. "Trolling downstream with herring and a Fish Flash was the hot ticket last year, and I think it will be again this year," he says. "That Fish Flash and herring combo is hard to beat." The rig is simple: a diver or lead line keeps the bait near the bottom. A 2 1/2-foot leader runs from the mainline to the Fish Flash or a barrel swivel. Another 5 feet of leader ends in a two-hook rig with a plug-cut or whole herring.
Most anglers brine their herring, with Berkley Bait Brine being one of the favorites. They dye their herring, too. In murky spring water, chartreuse can be deadly, and in clear water blue is a favorite.
The Big Al's Fish Flash, a dragless flasher made by Yakima Bait, has really come to dominate the troll fishery on the Columbia in recent years. This attractor gained a following among lower river fishermen in the first few years of the modern fishery, and has become the go-to addition to the trolled herring. The eight-inch size is the favorite although the other sizes are often used, and two can be rigged in tandem. Green and chartreuse have been the most consistent producers, but blue and red have loyal followings, too.
Troll your baits slowly over river flats from 10 to 25 feet. In deep water, fish off the bottom for suspended fish. Try fishing the baits within 10 to 20 feet below the surface.
Don't set that hook!
When a chinook grab a herring it rarely hits hard. Usually they mouth the bait for some time before sucking it in. That is why it is so important to NOT SET THE HOOK when the bite starts. Wait until the rod is buried and dancing in that rod holder before you pick it up. You will land far more salmon if you are patient.
The More The Merrier
Fill as many seats in your boat as you can. Ramsey is convinced that the more rods, flashers and baits there are, the more fish you'll attract. "The more lines you have out, the better."
Stationary Salmon: "Plunking" And Anchoring For Migrating Fish
While trolling is the favored method for guides, a good percentage of the sport fishermen on the Columbia prefer to anchor or plunk for their fish, and it's hard to argue with their success. A social sport, anglers anchor their boats alongside each other in lines across the river called "hog lines." The goal is to set a line of working lures along the bottom of the river across the path of the migrating salmon. As they move up, the more aggressive salmon will slash out and grab the baits.
A 2- to 4-foot lead line keeps the lure near the bottom and a 4- to 5-foot leader runs back to a sardine-wrapped plug or spinner. Flatfish and Kwikfish are two popular plugs, but the new Mag Lip from Yakima Bait has been the hot one on the Columbia the last two years. Red or chartreuse and silver are good go-to colors.
In the fast water below Bonneville Dam try spinners, and use a barrel swivel in the middle of the leader to avoid twist in the line. The Bob Toman spinners are a good bet for this water.
Bank Fishing: Plunking For Spring Salmon
Bank anglers crowd the lower river beaches using a stationary method called "plunking." A social event much like the hog lines, plunking from the beaches may be the most economical way to catch a spring chinook. All that's needed is a stout rod and reel, some lead weights, and a few spin-n-glos. Anglers cast their lures along the bottom where the salmon run close to shore.
WHERE TO FIND YOUR SPRING CHINOOK
While a few salmon are caught in the estuary, the fishing improves once the river narrows near Cathlamet, Wash. Here anglers anchor along the piers on the north side of Tenasillahe Island, and troll in the Clifton Channel on the south side. Above Puget Island, anglers will anchor along the Oregon shore up to Port Westward. The Willow Bar right below Longview is very popular, and good for anchoring or trolling.
Bank spots down low include County Line Park and the beach at Willow Bar on the Washington side, or Jones and Dibble Beaches on the Oregon shore.
Anglers anchor near the towns of Kalama and St. Helens, and troll the mouth of the Lewis River. Warrior Rock, straight across the river, is good for trolling.
The Portland area has been one of the hottest spots the last few years. Try the Davis Bar near the mouth of the Willamette River, or the interstate reach between the I-5 and the 205 Bridges in Portland. Hog lines form every year along the north side of Government Island, as well as near the mouth of the Sandy River.
The fast currents below the Bonneville Dam make salmon bite and, when this stretch of the river is open for boat anglers, the guides will fill limits here day after day. Anchoring with plugs or spinners, back-trolling with bait or plugs, and even back-bouncing with eggs will take springers here. However, anchoring in this water is tricky, and if you are not practiced you can get in serious trouble very quickly.
Bank On It!
Bonneville Dam's tailwaters may be the best place to take a springer from the bank. Try the Oak Tree hole on the Washington side, and Bradford Island or Tanner Creek on the Oregon side.