Fishing Spring Chinook in the Willamette Harbor

Fishing Spring Chinook in the Willamette Harbor from Downtown Portland

We are continuing to be plagued by high murky water this year, and it doesn’t look close to being over. With a good snow pack in the mountains, and continuing rain in the forecast, we will probably see high water all the way through May. Regardless of the high conditions, spring Chinook can still be caught in all the usual places, it sometimes takes just a little more patience and belief it can be accomplished for success to be realized.

I’ve been splitting my time between Oregon City and the harbor, and for the most part I’ve been getting fish in both places. I’ve been a bit more successful in the harbor, but I’ve also caught enough fish between Oregon City and West Linn to have faith there as well. I’ve also have friends moored at Sellwood, and they’ve also been pretty consistent in pulling a few fish from the Willamette.




Spring Chinook Caught in the Willamette River Harbor

Spring Chinook Caught in the Willamette River Harbor just outside of downtown Portland

It’s been one of those years where it pays to learn a few spots well, and fish them long enough to really learn what works. But it’s also been important to fish often enough to see what slight changes need to be made in the presentation to continue appeal to the fish.

A good example of this happened last week in the harbor. I didn’t have nearly as much time to fish as I would have liked, but I did manage to fish Wednesday and Saturday out of Cathedral Park. Both days seemed tough for most boats, but we managed to get pretty lucky and hook 7 on Wednesday, and 5 on Saturday. Of course we didn’t put that many in the fish box!! We had 4 fish to the boat on Wednesday, with one being wild which was released. We should have landed a fifth fish, but a little too much thumb action was applied to the reel as the springer ran and then took a wild acrobatic jump ending in a zing-pow affect! Saturday we only ended with one fish in the boat. It’s days like Saturday that really get me analyzing the techniques which have been working, and what might have changed to reduce the number of solid hook ups. I know one thing that changed, I was stupid enough to actually tell someone that since March 14th I’d only missed 3 fish. I’ve been fishing an average of 3 days a week, some weeks a few more days, and I’ve only had two trips without a fish. Saying something like that out loud is definitely a good way to make sure you increase those loss numbers!!!

I have some theories about why the hook rates dropped so dramatically, but this isn’t science. Anyone who enjoys fishing for the simplicity it can offer might plan on skipping the next couple of paragraphs, because I’m going to overthink everything! Of course I DO think overthinking things is a positive thing to do, because it helps to hone in on the small details that either make things work, or the things that are working against you, but I also realize there are a lot of people out there who don’t enjoy being so analytical!

Last year I went through a stretch of being snake bit, and I mean bad snake bit. I fished through a couple of days where I saw more springers hooked in some local haunts then I’ve seen in the last 10 years. Crazy good bites, where I should have hooked double digit fish, but I ended the days with zero or one fish. I tried everything I could think of to remedy the situation. I cleaned my zincs, scrubbed my bilge, double, triple and quadruple checked my rigging, I even hired an electrician to come down an take readings in the water around my boat to see if the boat had become exceptionally hot (leaking electrical current, which can shut fish off). Nothing made a difference. Then one day one of my friends mentioned my boat had a lot of vibration. I had tagged a couple rocks during the winter pulling plugs in the Clackamas, and my prop had some pretty good dings in it. These dings where creating a lot of vibration through the motor, and you could feel the vibration sitting in the boat seats, and you could definitely see the vibration in the rod tips. I use pretty nice gear, and have been using G Loomis SAMR1265C 10′ 6″ rods for backtrolling with divers, and also as herring rods. These rods have an amazing amount of sensitivity, and I’ve been using Power-Pro 50 pound spectra all the way to my diver, which adds even more sensitivity. I began wondering if the vibrations from the motor/prop weren’t being telegraphed down my line, and affecting my presentations. The few fish I was getting where always hooked in the heaviest water, where theoretically, the vibrations would have been dampened both by higher motor RPM’s, and also sheer water pressure reducing the vibration transfer. I changed the prop the following day, and my catch rates went right back to normal, and I began a stretch of phenomenal fishing.

I relate the story above because I purchased a new kicker motor this year, and right away I noticed the vibrations the motor exhibited at low RPM’s. I was seeing this transferred to my rod tips, and I didn’t want to experience the struggles from last year again, so I decided to mitigate this issue by adding monofilament top shots. I added 150 feet of 25-pound Maxima Ultragreen line to each of my trolling rods, theorizing the stretch inherent in monofilament would reduce the rods ability to transfer the vibrations to my bait presentations. It seemed to work because my catch rates stayed consistent, and maybe even improved a bit.

Chrome Spring Chinook for this luck angler!

Chrome Spring Chinook for this luck angler!

My fish finder has a wonderful feature of reading speed over water. I’ve always used speed over ground from the GPS, but to really know the speed at which you are trolling, you need to know what the speed of the current/drift is and then subtract that from the over ground speed to get the speed you’re actually trolling. The speed over water feature takes all guesswork out, because it tells you exactly how fast the boat is moving in relation to the water. With this information I’ve noticed all my bites have been coming when I’m traveling between .6 to .7 mph over water, and it’s been consistent over the last month.

Well this last week, especially after the wonderful weather we had the weekend before (April 21st and 22nd), the water temperatures took a jump. The temps had been in the high 40’s, and had even flirted with 50 a few times, but hadn’t been consistently gone over the 50 degree mark until Wednesday. All of the sudden I’m reading 55 degrees. We started fishing with the same program that’s been working over the last few weeks of 10-12 pulls of line, with 8 ounces of lead, trolled at .6 to .7 mph over water. We didn’t get bit for the first hour. We accidentally trolled over a shallow spot, so to make sure we didn’t snag on the bottom, we increased the speed for a minute to keep our gear from touching bottom, and what do you think happened? One of the rods buried, and we had our first fish. I had noticed we were going about .9 mph when the fish bit, so I figured we should try that again. We started trolling consistently at .9 to 1 mph and we managed the 7 hook ups for the day.

Generally I fish fairly light drags when fishing herring. I have sensitive rods that have limber tips, which really help with the hook up ratios on light biting fish. I add the light drag so the fish can’t easily drop the bait once he has it in his mouth. This has worked wonders this year, and as mentioned above out of close to 40 bites, I had only missed 3 fish. A pretty good average, but once Wednesday and Saturday rolled around, my hook to landing percentage took a nosedive.

Willamette Spring Chinook, a prized trophy!

Willamette Spring Chinook, a prized trophy!

I’ve been building up to one of the reasons I think this happened, and it’s a combination of all of the issues above. I believe when salmon bite our herring offerings, they are already hooked when we see the rod tip start to dance. They are trying to shake the hooks. The reason we don’t set the hook or lift the rod out of the holder until the rod tip is buried and line is coming of the reel, is because when the fish is facing the boat and shaking his head and trying to get rid of the offending hooks, we often help him accomplish the goal when we pull. But when the fish finally freaks out by not being able to get rid of the bait/hooks, he turns and begins to run. This is when the rod tip burries down and line starts to come off the reel. This is when it’s time to pick up the rod (And for the record, I don’t believe in hook sets. I’ve seen more fish lost/missed from hook sets than any other thing.) and start reeling.

With the warmer water we are starting to get, the fish are beginning to bite a bit more tentatively. They aren’t engulfing the baits the way they were. Many of my early fish had been hooked deep in the mouth, and often hooked with both hooks. But the fish on Wednesday were mostly hooked on the back hook. I believe with the sensitive rods where the tips flex tremendously during the bite, the monofilament with up to 30% stretch, and drags that slip pretty easily, the fish are able to get rid of the hooks before they find a good purchase inside their mouths. All of the grabs on Saturday took a couple dips, then the rod went completely flat, and line started coming off the reels. Generally this has been good for a fish in the boat unless we did something stupid like set the hook, or break them off, but on Saturday 4 out of 5 grabs like this ended up as lost fish. I truly believe the main factor was tentative biting fish with TO much give. I think the way to eliminate this problem is by increasing the drag setting so the fish gets hooked solidly while he’s shaking his head trying to get rid of the hooks/bait.

A large Willamette River Spring Chinook

A large Willamette River Spring Chinook, in the Portland Harbor

Of course with all things fishing I could be completely wrong with my suppositions, but my experience over time and years is this is the right answer, and hopefully I can relate this as the truth in blog in the near future!

Good luck and tight lines!