This week, I head for the big, broad Columbia River in this week’s Grant’s Getaways to follow a silver rush – a silvery rush of salmon swimming up the river past a sports fishing mecca called “Buoy 10.”
It’s a trip full of tips, tactics and techniques to catch salmon safely on a stretch of river infamously called “the deadliest river bar in the world” for its number of shipwrecks, capsizes and deadly accidents.
On the Astoria dock at a coal black 4-am, it was hard to say “Good Morning” to my fellow anglers who had gathered – with their lunches, thermoses, rods and reels in hand – to enjoy a daylong fishing adventure. After all, shimmering stars and a sliver of a gleaming moon held tightly onto night. But barking sea lions and an inch of daylight squeezing just above the eastern horizon said otherwise.
So did our guide, John Krauthoefer, who told our small group, “Daylight boys – won’t be long – so let’s button things down, snap up the PFDs and get moving.” We boarded his 25-foot fishing boat and began to slowly motor across the broad-shouldered Columbia, with high hopes for a successful salmon fishing trip.
Daylight revealed that a dense fog bank had taken over the lower river. If we wished to pass through it, we had better be prepared.
“My GPS (Global Positioning System) tells me that there’s a green buoy right there – and if you peer into the fog, you can see we’re just coming up on it.”
I wondered aloud about the fishermen who didn’t have GPS on their boats. He quickly and firmly noted, “Stay on the dock until the fog clears. You’re much safer – it’s not worth a fish to risk your life – it really isn’t.” We slowly trolled and kept eye on the boat’s GPS screen, which showed our position in relation to the shipping channel and the surrounding shorelines.
This part of the Columbia River is a busy stretch for inbound and outbound ships. We certainly did not want to get caught in the middle of it on a busy morning of ship traffic. All too quickly, John’s second sense told him something was just not right.
“Ok – reel in – we’re going to move,” he ordered. He wasted little time and moved us a few hundred yards further away from the shipping lane. We heard the ship before we saw it. And what we saw was gigantic – a massive, two hundred foot long shadow of a ship that moved across the area we had just been trolling our baits.
I looked at my fishing partner, Trey Carskadon, who shared the same obvious expression of relief – then he smiled. Carskadon added, “You can just get absolutely turned around in this kind of a fog, so GPS certainly is a must, but even a compass would help. Plus, you better know how to use it. It is essential equipment and I wouldn’t come out here without it.” Carskadon is the chairman of the Oregon State Marine Board and he is a boating safety expert when it comes to the fickle Columbia River.
He told me that even in summer, the river conditions often change in a heartbeat: “Right now the danger is obviously with the fog, but when the wind comes up and you have a lot river traffic out here, it can get downright dangerous. People assume it’s like a lake out here, most days it’s anything but that.” That much was certain and we’d just experienced a good lesson of that fact – but there was another certainty on the river this fine August morning: the river is full of fish.
“Oh, it’s a big Coho,” yells John as Trey’s rod doubled down and the line screamed off the reel.
“A nice one,” noted Carskadon. “Feels all of ten or twelve pounds. A nice hatchery fish too.”
He could tell it was a hatchery Coho salmon because it was missing its adipose fin, a small half moon shaped fin that’s located behind the dorsal fin. The adipose fin is clipped off all hatchery salmon babies at the hatchery where each fish is raised.
More than a million Coho salmon are forecast to pass through the estuary over the next six to eight weeks. In fact, right now the angling daily limit is two salmon, but beginning September 1 the limit rises to three Coho salmon a day. Not all of the Coho that anglers catch from the Columbia are hatchery fish. Many are wild fish that must be released back into the river.
John said there’s a “right way” to do that. “First, don’t ever bring them in the boat and don’t ever lift them out of the water. Don’t just dump them out of your net either. If you can, try to get hold of them by the tail and let them swim out of your hand. If you just dump them out, they often die because they’re so tired from the fight, so let the fish rest in your hand and then open your hand so they swim right off.”
As the fog evaporated with the warmer morning, the flooding tide built and hundreds of anglers converged at the famous river marker called “Buoy 10.”
But boat wakes, a strong push of current and a rising wind meant that it was a bit like fishing in washing machine – and you want to definitely avoid the spin cycle.
It was a day to remember – one that began on a dance with danger, and provided lasting memories and valuable lessons of exciting times in the Oregon outdoors.
About the Author: Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.
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