A huge rush of silvery salmon – more than a million fish strong and fresh from the ocean are swimming into the Columbia River this summer. Who wouldn’t like to catch one?
For thousands of lucky anglers – with rods and reels in hand – a huge return of salmon has meant some of finest fishing in years. This week, we head to the broad-shouldered Columbia River with a couple of pros who show us how and where it’s done.
On the Astoria dock at a dark 4:00 am, it was difficult to say “Good Morning” to my fellow anglers who had gathered with their lunches, thermoses, rods and reels in hand to enjoy a day-long 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.
If there’s a better way to start a summer’s day, I surely don’t know how it could be much better than an August morning on the Columbia River when Coho and Chinook salmon are on the bite. Fishing guide John Krauthoefer of Firefighter’s Guide Service agreed as he told our small group, “Daylight boys – won’t be long – so let’s button things down, snap up the life jackets and get moving.”
We boarded his 26-foot fishing boat and began to slowly motor across the Columbia, with high hopes for a successful salmon fishing trip. Despite the early call out, we were bolstered by Krauthoefer’s enthusiastic promise of good fishing ahead. “We’re going to start down by the bridge in front of Young’s Bay and try to catch a Chinook or a Coho, so let’s go!”
This river is full of fish. “Oh, it’s a big Coho,” yelled John as Trey Carskadon’s rod doubled down and the line screamed off the reel. “A nice one,” noted Carskadon. “It 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 salmon are forecast to pass through the estuary over the next few weeks. In fact, the current daily limit is two salmon (one hatchery coho and as of Friday, August 23, one fin-clipped/hatchery Chinook salmon).
It has been “white hot” salmon fishing for the past two weeks, according to the fishing pro who advised that newcomers to the fishery enter the water wearing one critical item: “First thing, you’ve got to wear this life jacket – that’s most important,” he said.
In fact, 14 years and younger are required to wear a US Coast Guard approved life jacket, and there’s more: “If you boat here, you need a fire extinguisher, a sounding device, a marine radio, a G-P-S depth finder and a compass.”
John uses tackle and gear specific to this salmon fishery, starting with the rods he provides for his client’s use: “This is a new St Croix salmon rod that I designed for this fishery – it allows you to use heavier lead (12-16 ounce lead balls) and still retain good action. I also use Shimano reels with line counters and I load each with the newest fiber lines. They are unlike the old monofilament as they don’t have much stretch. The line is a smaller diameter so it fishes better. I use up to 300 yards of it with a backing line under it.”
“There’s another fish,” he yelled as my fishing rod throbbed down and then back up and then down once more. This time it stayed down. I 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, Mr. McOmie?” asked the grinning Krauthoefer, knowing full well that my fish was a huge Chinook salmon.
The fish ran and I reeled at each break in the heart pounding action. I tried to keep the fish close by the boat, never allowing slack line to develop from the fish’s erratic yet hard charging bursts, first toward and then away from the boat. After fifteen minutes, John 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 upriver bright Chinook, bound for the Columbia River’s upper stretches hundreds of miles from the estuary.
Carskadon is former 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 river is pleasant – a little breeze and no fog. But that can change quickly. In fact, when the wind comes up and you have a lot of river traffic out here, it can get downright dangerous. People assume it’s like a lake out here but on many days it’s not at all.”
Carskadon said that finding the best places to fish and learning the proper techniques is easier than ever – online. “It’s SteelheadSummer.com, and it is a great tool provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. It’s primarily used for summer steelhead, but the same areas apply to Chinook fishing as well. There are maps available that show you bank access as well as boat access throughout the Columbia River – plus, all of the amenities that you can find up and down the river.”
He added that when it comes to Coho salmon fishing, the best is yet to come. “Don’t miss that September fishery; it’s really something special because the fish are plentiful and you can make it a fun family vacation too.”
He’s right — there’s so much to see and do in the area. Visit the Astoria Column, explore wonderful restaurants, Fort Clatsop National Memorial, Fort Stevens State Park and the Columbia River Maritime Museum. Come out and fish the tide for 4 or 5 hours and you still have plenty of time to enjoy the rest of the day.
Krauthoefer agreed and added, “This is a wonderful fishery close to a great Oregon town that offers plenty to do. Come out, have a good time, wear your life jacket and catch some salmon.”