One of the surest signs of Oregon’s transition from summer to fall is the uptick in salmon fishing opportunities along the Coast. Lots of folks are excited this summer to get outdoors as more than a million and a half Chinook salmon are forecast to swim up the Columbia River.
It was the last thing we expected at first light on the Columbia River as a steady stream of brilliant lightning flashes lit up the morning sky. Our boatload of anglers had motored ten miles upriver from Astoria to fish for salmon on an eerily dark August morning. Each lightning strike moved closer each minute!
“If that gets any closer, guys, we’re heading back to Astoria,” said longtime fishing guide, John Krauthoefer.
Safety and common sense are critical to anglers on the broad-shouldered Columbia River. Suddenly, a series of lightning bolts rained down across the river. “Ok everybody, reel in,” yelled Krauthoefer. “This is nothing to mess with…we’re out of here.”
And so we left – quickly!
“My first thought is we’re in an aluminum boat,” said our guide. “I have five graphite fishing rods out – all of which conduct electricity. Man oh man, that lightning was impressive and it was getting closer – so bright and hot – I’ve never seen it during the day like that.”
We traveled downriver to the famous Buoy 10 salmon fishing grounds on the Columbia River bar and discovered another surprise! We had traded in bolts of fire for thick, ice-cold fog. 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 the risk.” 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. We could barely see a hundred yards!
Krauthoefer motored the boat away from the shipping channel as a 700-foot long freighter quietly glided by. “These ships, barges and the tugs – even a commercial fishing boat – can’t maneuver real fast. One freighter takes them a mile to so you have to give way to these ships – that’s the rule of law.”
Here’s another rule: you don’t catch fish unless your bait’s in the water! As the fog lifted, fishing partner Paul Spitzer hooked a dandy. Krauthoefer slid the net under the 13-pound chinook salmon and smiled and said: “We earned this one!”
That much was certain as the tide turned to flood and we watched many other anglers earn their catches too. A record run of salmon is forecast this year: more than a million and a half chinook are expected across the Columbia River bar; plus, a million Coho salmon run will peak in September.
Krauthoefer said there are a variety of baits and lures that anglers use to catch Coho – he prefers a plug cut herring on a diver-flasher rig that’s put out 30 feet behind the boat.
Not all of the salmon that anglers catch from the Columbia River are hatchery fish. Many are wild fish that must be released back into the river. Krauthoefer 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.
“People get what I call ‘Salmonitis,’ explained Krauthoefer. “That is, they’ll get a fish on and they lose total track of what’s going on around them. You really need to be aware of where your boat is at in relation to other people. Don’t assume that the other guy is going to steer out of your way.”
“There’s another fish,” he yelled as my nephew, Mike Spitzer, watched his fishing rod throb down and then back up and then down once more. Then it stayed down. He quickly wrestled it from the rod hold and then held on for dear life as the line screamed out of the bait casting reel.
“What have you got there, Mike?” asked the grinning Krauthoefer, knowing full well that the fish was a huge Chinook salmon. After a moment, we saw the chrome-sided fish gleam under the surface, just ten yards from the boat.
The fish ran and Mike reeled in moments full of heart pounding action. After fifteen minutes, Krauthoefer dipped the large net under the salmon. “That is a beautiful fish,” said our guide. “Isn’t that that something special; just look at the way the hits the sides of that salmon.”
It was a gorgeous 25-lb. bright Chinook, bound for the Columbia River’s upper stretches hundreds of miles from the estuary.
“This is something I look forward to each year,” noted Spitzer. I love the chance to spend a day on the water. Not much better than a day on the boat and a lot of fish.”
As the flood tide rose, the fish bite became more frequent and we soon had plenty of fish all around. It was a day to remember – one that began with a dance with danger and provided lasting memories and valuable lessons of exciting times in the Oregon outdoors.
Not just in the Columbia River either. Fall salmon fishing is forecast better than ever along the Oregon coast in estuaries like Nehalem Bay, Tillamook Bay and as far south as Coos Bay, where seasons are just getting started.