Click Here to Return to "How-To-Fish" Home Page

Lower Columbia River
Spring Chinook fishing
How to catch Spring Chinook on the lower Columbia River

Commercial Vessel Traffic:  One thing to keep in mind is that this whole river is a means of commercial water travel for many different types of vessels, including ocean going ships & tugs. The normal shipping lane depths may be dredged & kept at a minimum of 40 ft. The one thing here is that the ships will be coming in many times at a high tide because of a lesser current so upriver & downriver traffic can increase during the high tide. It may be very advisable to NOT anchor in their shipping lanes. These shipping lanes are just like a hiway with upriver designated for the Oregon side, & downriver designated for the Washington side of the lane.

Normal "Springer" fishing will be in shallower water & not in the shipping lanes.  If however, you plan on fishing & anchoring near these shipping lanes, it may be a good idea to become familiar with the "Rules of the Road" as far as who has right of way & the whistles connected to them.   

In the lower river, expect to find commercial traffic on VHF channel 13.  In the Bonneville Dam area, expect to hear traffic on VHF channel 14.  The tugs communicate with the dams on 14, and you will have at least a one hour notice that a towboat is headed your way. 

The Fishery itself:  The majority of the Spring Chinook will return to the upper Columbia River system.  These will be headed for the upper Columbia tributaries  & the Snake River systems.  Below Bonneville Dam there is a small run that heads up the Sandy River.  The Willamette has a decent run in it.  Below that the Kalama, Lewis & Cowlitz also have a small run.  The Willamette fish will usually be the first to show as Oregon DFG releases their smolt a few weeks ahead of Washington DFW.

This fishery starts at Astoria when the run enters the river, and moves upriver as the majority of the fish then migrate upriver.  Cathlamet will be the next spot to fish, with the Longview area being next.  Then the mouth of the Lewis, and then on upstream to the Willamette, Cammas  & Sandy areas.

You can check the Bonneville fish count at  http://www.fpc.org/adult.html or  http://www.fpc.org/CurrentDaily/7day-ytd_adults.htm 

When: Best fishing is usually going on for about 6 weeks in late March  through April.  This time of the year is known for changing weather.  Take your rain gear along.  It can be totally different when you get to the launch than when you left home in the morning.  Wind would be the crucial thing effecting boating safety or fishing conditions.  Fishing methods & places may change from year to year depending the water flow.  This flow then depends on the winter rain & snow-pack.  

If you are trolling, & the wind picks up you simply encounter too much hassle in controlling the boat properly.  This could also be a time to find a likely looking spot & anchor up.

Tides:  Each fisherman will also have their favorite time of tide depending on the method of fishing used.  But then those that are there at daylight no matter what the tide, say that fishing seems to be best at tide changes & the outgoing tide.  The methods used will also depend on the tidal effects on the lower river.  Most experienced boat fishermen will troll the low slack, incoming and high tides, and then anchor up on the outgoing tide.  The reason appears to be that the slower slack & tide change water is more conducive to trolling, and also easier to operate the boat.  The faster outgoing water is running just too fast in places to troll, while it is needed to get action on Kwikfish anchored from a boat.  I guess the pre-requisite is that you have to have your lure in the water before you can expect to catch fish.

Some say to fish the Oregon side of the river early in the season, they say because many of these fish are Willamette River fish & they can smell the water.  This may be somewhat true for the early part of the run, which are usually Willamette fish.  I tend to think that the fish travel the shallower water, & the water near the lower reaches of the Washington shore is deeper & rocky.  These rock bluffs disappear from about Abernathy Creek upstream.  So from there upriver, fishing seems to be more spread out over the river.

Not in Deep Water: These Chinook will NOT normally be found in deep water. Do not think like a Blackmouth fisherman in this fishery.  They will travel in what appears to them the shortest route.  So you need to think like a fish & try to intercept them as they go around a point, a wing jetty or an island.  This means that they will not normally be found in a deep, slack water hole. You will have to read the water, as they will not normally be in the swifter water, or on the outside bends of the river.  They will cut corners & follow the seams.   The migration routes will usually be the same from year to year if the water flow is about the same.  They tend to travel in water from 6' to 25' deep and in small schools, so if you catch one, & are trolling, go back & cover the same basic area again. 

The season & catchable fish will vary from year to year depending on the projected run, & the percentage of allowable endangered fish that can be harvested & yet remain within the Federal guidelines. This salmon run is early enough in the year that it may not show in the fish regulation pamphlet.

If they do open a season, don’t wait around, get out on the water & fish it because it will close when the WDFW & ODFG see it nearing the quota.  Some years see no open season, while other years may see a short season depending on the forecast.

The year 2001 saw a large number of returning fish with 2002 predicted to be right behind with a slightly less number.  The first part of the 2001 season you could keep any Chinook.  Later it was changed to only adipose fin clipped Chinook.  The fish caught were mostly in the 12-15# size with a few approaching 30#.

You Will be Counted Even if No One Contacts You:  The fish & game departments may not check your fish, yet you will be counted.  They will fly over the river & count boats & bank fishermen.  Other fish checkers may check the boaters at some launches & the banks.  The percentage of success per rod is then averaged out. Depending on the water color, you might also take into consideration whether the sun is out or not as to where you fish.  It is very likely that they will tend to be a little deeper water on a bright day. 

Methods: There are many ways to fish for these salmon, but normally they are (1) trolling, (2) anchoring, (3) back-trolling, (4) plunking, (5) Casting from shore,  or a combination of these.  Every fisherperson seems to have their own personal favorite gear.  All of these methods seem to catch fish. 

The WDFW regulations for this fishery as of 2002 do not stipulate "barbless hooks only", therefore, the use of BARBED HOOKS appear to be legal.

(1) Trolling:

In trolling here you will be using basic estuary gear using 8'6" or 9' rods.  It usually will mean using herring in the green label (5"-6")size. If green label are not available then go down to the red label (4"-5") before going up to the blue labels (6"-7").  It seems more fish are caught in 12-25’ of water.  If you are on the water & keep your eyes & binoculars working, you will observe just about any type of gear.  Do not use rod holders, but hold onto your rod.  The method is drag  the lure just off the bottom,  with have your reel drag set lighter than normal, with the clicker on.  Let the fish take the lure & pull line out before you set the hook.  Constantly watch the rod tip for the tell-tale tap-tap of the sinker on the bottom.  Adjust you line either in or out to keep the lure on the bottom.  When using bait, you should consider injecting it with either anchovy or herring scent.

Listed below are some methods that you may see.

(a)    Trolling a mooching leader & either a cut-plug or whole herring, using a 3 way swivel or a slider with 12” of a lighter 
    leader as a dropper attached to a sinker of from 2 to 6 oz depending on the depth & tide.  If using a mooching
    leader tied with 3 hooks, let the bottom hook trail at the bait’s tail.  Length of leader seems to vary from 24” to 60”
   depending on water color.

(b)    Trolling the same as (a) except using a diver instead of the sinker.

(c)  Trolling  the same as (a), but using a small or medium Fish Flash behind the sinker.  The one drawback here is that is
          it more difficult to tell if the lure is on the bottom, as the slow rotation of this flasher somewhat duplicates the sinker
          tap-tap.  Color of the Fish Flash used by most fishermen seems to be, lime green, blue, or the plain plaid, in that
          order.

(d)  Trolling similar to (a) except using a Coyote 3.5” spoon in army truck or glo green / white colors.

(e)   Trolling spinners with prawn is another method.  This consists of using a pre-tied Eric's prawn rig made especially for this type fishery.  It consists of beads & a spinner blade on the leader above the hook. Color usually will be gold, half & half or chartreuse & yellow blades.  Blade size will be around a #4 or #5 with up to #7 if the water is dark. Prawn is the most popular bait, but sand shrimp will work also.  Soak your prawn for a couple of hours in last years egg cure juice. Run a 36" to 48"  leader on a 3 way swivel or slider and a 24" to  36" lead line dropper to a 6 ounce sinker.  Blue Fox spinners in size #5 are also used.

(f)  Trolling Storm's Magnum Wriggle Wart in fluorescent red, gold or hot pink.  Here you want to troll them about 60' behind the boat & keep the line angle at about 45 degrees.  Run a 48" leader & a 3 way swivel with 18" lead line to a 1 to 2 ounce sinker.

(g)  Slow trolling with Luhr Jensen's Kwikfish in sizes  from K-14 or K-15, with the same color, sardine wrap & weight as mentioned below.

  (2) Anchor & use Plugs or Wobblers:

Tidal exchange is the greatest on the Lower Columbia, & you will see some tidal movement all the way up to Portland. Anchoring & fishing from a boat with bait-wrapped salmon plugs behind a boat is effective if the current is enough to work these plugs.  This is especially popular at the mouths of the Cowlitz, Lewis, Kalama, & Sandy Rivers. It can also be done below Bonneville Dam, but depending on the water flow can get dangerous for the inexperienced.

Lures used in this type of fishing will mostly be Luhr Jensen's Kwikfish in sizes  from K-13 to K-16, with the K-14 & K-15 being the most popular sizes.  Flatfish in size T-50 to T-55 are also used.  The larger sizes are used when the current slows down, as the K-13 will work better in faster water, where the K-15 or 16 perform better in slower water.  The most popular colors used are silver with chartreuse tails or gold & red.  This color preference can change from year to year, or even week to week.  So have in your tackle box at least a variety of colors.  On the belly of your plug place a sardine fillet and attach it using stretchy thread.  48" leaders & 20" to 24" lead lines are standard.  A 4 or 6 ounce pyramid sinker is the usual weight required.  The use of sardines is recommended because they seem to have more oil & therefore leave more of a scent trail longer.  If sardines are not available, then herring can be used, however you may have to change the strip more often. You can also get a self adhesive backed foam patch from Pro Cure.  This is designed to be soaked in scent.

Fish the seams where you try to put the lure in front of them as they migrate upstream.  These fish seem to be on the move when the tide is going out & the river is running faster.  However don't try to fish the real fast water, which the fish ignore.

As the tide starts to run slower, or the wind picks up, put out a drift sock on each rear corner of the boat to keep it from swinging back & forth.  As the tide starts to ebb, run your kicker motor in reverse, just enough to keep tension on your anchor line.  At the ebb tide, then pull anchor & slow troll with the same gear.

Plunking from a boat with wobblers you will also see the use of Alvin, Clancy or Manistees, which are large spoon type wobblers.  Colors can be chrome or half & half, with or without blue or green prism tape dots.  Some fishermen will also use large spinners.  This gear you will fish 5' to 6' leaders & a 40" lead line dropper.

    (a) Anchor & use plunking gear & bait as the current is now running enough for the bait to move or “work” in the current.  Here the use of a Spin-N-Glos & eggs or shrimp or prawns.  Color can be egg orange, pink or red.  Use a 60" leader with 3/0 hooks and a slider with 18" to a 12 ounce sinker.

    (b) Hog-lining is another method & is another name for anchoring, but every boat is anchored in a line across a section of the river.  You will usually not use an anchor buoy system, because you are not in that deep of water.  Most fishermen do have a fender tied to the end of their anchor line & the anchor line not permanently tied to the boat. This is so that if you get a large fish on, you can disconnect the anchor line from your boat and drift downstream to fight it away from the other boats.  Then you can return to you spot & re-tie to your anchor line & resume fishing.

     (c) Anchoring, but in a cluster strung out along a potential "HOT" location.  This is basically the same as Hog-Lining, except all the boats  may be in a group 60 yards wide by 500 yards long strung out, maybe 3 wide by however many boats there is in the cluster.  The one thing here is to remember to give yourself enough room when you drop anchor so that if you do hook a nice fish, that you do have enough space (50 yards), so that if it does run downstream that it does not get tangled in the boats anchor rope that is below & or to the side of you.  Remember that the other boat below you has his anchor considerably farther upstream that you can see.  In this circumstance you will probably not be able to do as (b)  & detach your anchor & float away, since you will float into the other boats if you are not the last one in line.

(3) Back-trolling Plugs behind  Divers:

Depending on water levels, you can also back-troll bait.  Here you rig up with a Jumbo Jet Diver and bait wrapped plugs.  If water conditions are low, you can simply flat line them, but normally you will need the diver.  Use a 5' leader and a 18" lead line dropper.  Use the same Kwikfish plugs & bait wrap described in "Anchoring with Plugs" above.

(4) Plunking:

This type of fishing can either be done from the bank or from an anchored boat.  The bank fishermen may tend to concentrate in an area that has been known to produce fish, & at the same time be accessible.  The boat fishermen have a lot more options, they can move into the area they have picked out & either anchor or tie up to piling & begin to plunk.

The use of multiple baits are common.  Gear used here will normally be a sinker slider on the mainline, with the lower Spin-N-Glo attached to a leader of about 30”.  On the mainline, up about 36” put a 3 way swivel.  On the dropper side of the swivel push a short (3”) piece of plastic tubing, (this helps eliminate tangles when casting).  Now attach another leader to another Spin-N-Glo, but use a slightly shorter leader of about 24”.  These Spin-N-Glos should be a different color to give the fish a choice, usually the egg orange for one & chartreuse for the other.  The law says you can use 3 hooks per line, so some fishermen then tie a swivel up the mainline another couple of feet, and after the gear is in the water snap a Flatfish or Kwikfish on the line.  It then will bite into the current & work it’s way down to the upper swivel.

(5) Casting, & retrieving from Shore:

At the Wind River many bank anglers will cast & retrieve plugs from the Hiway 14 bridge downstream.  Normally used will be Magnum Wriggle Warts in fluorescent red or gold.

Releasing Wild Fish:

In releasing a “wild” or unclipped fish and the fish is hooked in the mouth, you should extract the hook as carefully as possible.  The preferable situation is to leave the fish in the water, as it will usually tend to be calmer and will struggle less. Others say if you roll the fish upside down while he is in the water, that this calms them down.  The next ideal situation would be to remove the hook while the fish is still in the net, but also still in the water. Try to push the hook back the way it came and try not to tear the mouth. Hook removers or long-nosed pliers can help greatly to get a secure grip on the hook.  If the fish has swallowed the hooks, then it is preferable to cut the leader as close to the hooks as possible. 

Observations:

You will notice that many of the guides will be using 12' G Loomis rods, these are not noodle rods, but have a decent action & a fast tip.  The suspicion is that most of them also will be using spectra type mainlines, & that these longer rods are more forgiving to inexperienced fishermen.  They tell their clients to not to set the hooks, but allow the fish to hook himself.  Possibly this is to keep from breaking the rods from an over-zealous hook-set.

It may not be one or two things that the guides do differently, but when you add up all the little things, then the odds start stacking up for them.  Plus, they are on the water all the time & will have observed the spots that the fish are being pulled.

 I believe that these guides will not deliberately lie to you if you ask them a question or two.  But, they may not open up & tell you all there is as if you were a long lost friend.  So, it is recommended that you book with one of them, keep your eyes open & remember what you see that is different.  It is my firm belief that you can learn from these experts.  I myself can not live long enough to learn by my own mistakes to become even somewhat proficient in a different game.  You have to pay your dues one way or the other.  Sure I know how to salmon fish in the ocean, but this is a different situation.  Once you have gained some insight, then you can take your boat out & try what you have learned.

The above information was used with the permission LeeRoy Wisner of  www.pugetsoundanglers.org
LeeRoy Wisner had posted several EXTREMELY informative articles on the Puget Sound Anglers website and we strongly recommend visiting that website or
click here to email him directly. As an editor's note I must say that in my lifetime of searching every available resource I have never come across so many helpful and informative articles as those written by LeeRoy Wisner. Thanks again and hats to LeeRoy for giving us permission to post these articles so that you can learn more about fishing and hopefully you catch more fish!