In summertime, the living is easy and it might have you grabbing a fishing rod. At the Columbia River, the cry is heard, “the kings are in!”
These kings do not wear crowns but they do attract a crowd! Anglers are heading to the Gorge, where the summertime king salmon are on the bite.
As we leave the popular boat ramp and dock, “The Fishery” near Bonneville Dam, fishermen Jim Milanowski and Chong Chang agree that summer fishing in the Columbia River Gorge offers the best of both worlds: long, warm days and plenty of big fish.
“It is also really under-fished compared to the fall salmon or spring chinook salmon fishing seasons,” says Milanowski.”The summer fishery is overlooked, and that’s always puzzled me, because it’s consistent and the salmon are trophy-quality fish.”
His bait of choice is the one he created, called Looney Cooney Shrimp.
“They like — no, they love — my Looney Cooney Shrimp,” says the proud angling expert. “It drives fish wild!”
Looney Cooney? You heard right. Over the past 20 years Milanowski has created, refined and perfected his bait recipe.
While he won’t reveal specifics, we do know the Looney Coonies are soaked in a sauce of colorful dyes and scents. Each batch takes up to three weeks to cure before they are ready for delivery to a loyal and growing list of retail outfits and professional fishing guides.
“It’s called my secret recipe,” Milanowski says. “I’ll take that one to the grave. Fish just go crazy over these things and that’s how we came up with the name. Come to think of it, my wife thinks I’m a little looney after all these years.”
Chinook salmon have flocked to the Columbia River long before the dams were built. Back in the day, the summer run of king salmon had a unique nickname,“June hogs!”
A century ago, June hogs could tip the scales at more than 100 pounds. The giant chinook were prized for their size and taste.
But the native run of June hogs all but disappeared after Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1942.
Today, the summer salmon fishing begins in mid-June and runs through July. You can fish for hatchery summer salmon throughout the Columbia River system in a boat or on the bank at scores of places below Bonneville Dam.
If you’re interested in taking time out from the hustle and bustle of daily life, find a stretch of sand at places like Dibblee Beach on the Columbia River near Rainier.
Milanowski says, “If you bank fish, check your tide tables because most of the angling is on the out-going tide and you really need to know that time of day. There are all kinds of beach places on the north end of Sauvie Island that are popular fishing sites, where you can bring the family and stretch your legs out on the beach.”
He adds that boating safety is critical on the Columbia River — especially in the Gorge where newcomers are advised to go with a pro guide a time or two and learn about the power of the river — plus the winds —“where anchoring a boat takes great skill and experience.”
“That can really cause dangerous situations,” notes Milanowski. “The bottom line is that you should have your life jackets on.”
Also, he believes boating newcomers should consider learning about the Columbia River in pieces: “I would take small sections of the river, maybe 5- or 7-mile increments, just to get the lay of the riverscape. There are so many islands and access points for more than 100 miles between Astoria and Portland, so I’d also do a bit of homework.”
The Oregon State Marine Board offers a free Columbia and Willamette River boating facilities guide available for download online. It’s a valuable resource that will be a good starting point for the newcomer.
Milanowski adds, “This Columbia River summer fishing is an expanding fishery and there will be more opportunities to come that people don’t even know about yet.”
One way to learn is to check out the ODFW’s summer steelhead website — it offers a ton of useful information.
If you’re lucky, the Looney Cooney Shrimp may come through for you the way they worked for me as my 10-foot rod doubled down from the strike of a hard-charging chinook.
“You’re doing great, Grant!” cries Milanowski. “We’re going to release our anchor line and just float out with this chinook.”
The husky salmon makes several strong charges away from the boat, but within 10 minutes, I slid the chrome-bright king into Jim’s large mouthed net.
It was a terrific 15-pound salmon and Jim notes there’s still plenty of time for you to get out and give the summer chinook experience a cast.
Oh yes — this fishery just gets better as the July calendar moves along, so folks should really give it a try. The weather is warm and the days are so long; it’s an all-around great time to be outdoors.