Downtown Salmon on the Willamette River

May 1, 2015 (Updated May 21, 2015)

As sure as the springtime tulip and dogwood blooms come into view, spring salmon fishing season hits its stride too. This week, we go “Downtown Salmon” fishing on the Willamette River where salmon anglers have enjoyed a strong run of salmon the past few weeks.

The fishing is only getting better on the river that runs through the heart of Oregon. We joined longtime fisherman Craig Mostul, his brother Terry and their father Tom for a “dawn patrol” angling adventure just a handful of miles from downtown Portland in the Multnomah Channel. Craig said you must show up early to catch a downtown salmon because the daylight “bite” is precious and not to be wasted.

Craig threaded a “plug cut” herring onto three 4-Ott hooks and a five foot leader. The bait is dropped to the bottom with a four ounce lead sinker. In less than a minute, Tom’s  fishing rod doubled over and the line peeled off of the reel. “We got one,” yelled Tom. “That didn’t take long – oh, this is great!”

Tom had hooked a beauty! As he played the fish to the net, Craig noted, “Ah, it’s a wild salmon – it must stay in the water.”

How could he tell it was a wild and not a hatchery salmon? “See here,” said Craig. “It has its adipose fin – that means it’s a wild fish.” The adipose is a small half-moon shaped fin that is located behind the dorsal fin and in front of the tail. Hatchery salmon have the adipose fin clipped off when they are babies at the hatchery.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has forecast nearly 60,000 spring salmon to swim up the Willamette River between April and June. More than 80 percent of the run will be hatchery salmon that anglers can keep. It’s a healthy number of fish by any calculation, so the Willamette is open to salmon angling seven days a week and anglers enjoy a daily limit of two hatchery salmon.

While the Multnomah Channel is a popular place to fish, so is the heart of the city – right downtown – and further upriver at Oregon City, too. “The salmon fishing begins in March,” said Craig. “And it runs all the way through June – depending upon water conditions: the flow and water temperature. When the water warms up, the fish don’t bite as well, so it’s tougher to catch them when the water gets over 60-degrees. So, now is a great time to go.”

Craig called spring salmon a “muscle with a head and a tail.” He made a believer out of me as my rod doubled over and I scrambled to reach for it in the rod holder. I held firmly to the rod and kept a tight line on the fish as it jolted across the river. Soon, I had the salmon close at hand and Craig slipped the net under the gleaming fish.

“It just doesn’t get any better than a Willamette spring king,” noted Terry. “A very high fat content gives it a buttery taste…that’s what makes this fish so special. This is one of the few places with a run of fish right off the front porch of a major metropolitan area and also one of the finest eating fish on the planet.”

He added that salmon fishing trips are always more fun when they are a family affair. “Dad took us trout fishing when we were kids and it just stayed in our blood,” noted Craig.

His brother quickly added, “We have a long family tradition of fishing in the high cascade lakes as well – trout, kokanee, lake trout or mackinaw. But spring chinook is the best – there’s no finer fish anywhere on the planet.”

Suddenly, Tom’s fishing rod came to life again – bouncing up and down as he scrambled to get it out of the holder. The ten pound springer was a keeper and its silver sides glistened as it shot out of the river. It was fresh from the ocean and it looked more like a jet fighter – flying out of the water, cart wheeling end over end.

Tom said that while he enjoyed catching salmon, his real thrill is spending time with his sons on the water. “It’s great to be with the boys and here – in Oregon – we really do have the good life.”

Craig suggested that anglers wanting to learn more about the varied techniques for catching “Downtown Salmon,” should check out the varied seminars that are held at Fisherman’s Marine and Outdoor.

In addition, the Oregon State Marine Board has a wealth of information for boaters who wish to explore the Willamette River.

About The

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.