Fishing the Columbia River for Spring Chinook

Fishing the Columbia River for Spring Chinook

An Article Written before the Columbia’s Reopening 2 Years ago

While this article was written two years ago in preparation for the re-opening of the Columbia River, much of the information is still extremely applicable to fishing the today.

The Columbia River officially reopens this weekend for a two-day season on Saturday the 26th, and Sunday the 27th. The same limits as the early season apply. You can retain 2 adult salmon or hatchery steelhead, but only one clipped Chinook is allowed per day (the other salmon may be a sockeye). This is great news, especially knowing if the numbers over the dam spike again when the water level goes down, we will most likely get another reopener, this time with the season lasting all the way through the June 16th Summer Chinook Season opener. With the flows in the Willamette continuing to be high, but more significantly, backed up with lessened current flow, the fishing has continued to be tough, with many anglers completely giving up. The Columbia reopening to spring Chinook fishing should shoot some life back into the fishery, and best of all, it looks like Columbia River is slated to be dropping this weekend which could really help illicit a strong bite. This is potentially the best opportunity we’ve had for “REALLY” catching some spring Chinook so far this year.

Sunrise over Scappoose Bay

Sunrise over Scappoose Bay

The water temperature is currently sitting at 57 degrees at Bonneville, but could realistically drop a degree or two given our current weather conditions. Regardless whether the temps hold or go down, the water will probably be in the mid to upper 50’s over the weekend. With early to mid morning high tides swinging into outgoing tides during the day, the stage is set for really good fishing conditions. Our only real obstacle this weekend will be the continued high water, but after the last couple of seasons, I think many of us who have been fishing the Columbia when it has been open, have forged new game plans to combat this high water anomaly.

If you haven’t spent some time fishing during the high water flows of the last two years, I would recommend leaning toward fishing shallower water than normal. I’ve caught many springers between 8 and 15 feet of water so don’t be afraid to target the shallow edges, especially where they are on inside corners, or flats that are removed from the faster main current flow of the river. These migrating fish are looking for the path of least resistance, and this often means seeking out the softer water on the fringes of the main current.

Nice Springer from a Shallow Columbia River Flat

Nice Springer from a Shallow Columbia River Flat

Given the conditions outlined above, I would arrive at the river with a game plan. With warmer water conditions, hardware could be extremely effective. With the tide change and outgoing morning tides, we could also see good downstream herring fishing. Currently, my plan is to be on the water at first light trolling herring downstream through the tide change and into the first bit of the outgoing tide, and then switch gears mid morning, and start targeting the hardware bite. In my opinion, this is where it gets interesting.

Columbia River Spring Chinook Trolling Gear

Columbia River Spring Chinook Trolling Gear

I’m a diehard spinner guy. I paint my own blades, build my own spinners, and have a collection of spinners that really gets a bit obscene at times. Oh my gosh, this seems like the perfect time to find a great anchor spot in 6 to 12 feet of water and put some spinners out, or slowly troll them upstream, or even troll them downstream like we’re fishing herring, but not dragging bottom, just staying really, really close. But here’s where the descisions get tough, because I love fishing plugs, (what I consider smaller K-11X Kwikfish, Wiggle Warts or similar plugs) and I also love fishing sardine wrapped Kwikfish for the savage strikes they elicit from kings. To many choices, not enough time to try them all, or is there? I might just get the full meal deal in some way or another, but I can tell you, I will show up with more than my share of gear so I can take advantage of whatever conditions or spots I encounter!

A note of caution here, as I’m still seeing large parts of trees and other debris coming down river. Not nearly at the pace of earlier in the year, but still, there are still some potentially devastating hazards floating downstream, so make sure and keep an eye out while running, or if you anchor up. Also, if you anchor, make sure you put out plenty of scope on your anchor line and put your anchor buoys out. The anchor buoy is anchored, and your boat is cleated off to the buoy. If you’re paying attention and something goes wrong you can un-cleat from the buoy and hopefully avoid any disasters, but this means staying aware of what’s happening around you. Pay attention and be safe!

For anchor fishing with plugs, you can use a small jet diver to get your gear down into the zone, but if you’re in some current and it’s fairly shallow, you can also flat line them. Both Wiggle Warts and K-11X’s will dive 8-9 feet given enough line and a decent current. If it’s much deeper, either lead or a diver will help keep your plugs in the zone.

If you decide to fish wrapped Kwikfish, use 18-24″ droppers with a 5-foot leader and bounce them back away from your boat a ways, then wait for that magical rod burying grab the Kwiky is so famous for! Some anglers prefer longer dropper lengths for fishing Kwikfish on anchor, and it’s perfectly acceptable to fish up to 4 foot lead droppers. What you really want to see is the plug working steadily, but it should occasionally quit working, and the rod tip should become still. This is when the plug hits bottom and hesitates and quits working until it floats up a bit and begins working again. The plug should be working more than it’s resting, but if it’s not hitting bottom a couple times or more each minute, I don’t really feel it’s in the zone.

A Nice Kwikfish Caught Spring Chinook

A Nice Kwikfish Caught Spring Chinook

The same basic set-up for Kwikfish, is perfect for fishing spinners, although I definitely like the shorter dropper lengths. I will almost always be fishing a 24″ dropper with spinners, both when anchored and when trolling them. Just make sure you’re right there close to the bottom, and when anchored you can have the lead resting lightly on the bottom.

Finally, don’t rule out the idea of back-trolling areas with good current in 18 to 35 foot depths. You can back troll wrapped Kwikfish or prawn spinners with a jet diver on a 12-18″ dropper and 5 foot leader. The nice thing about back-trolling is you aren’t stuck in one current lane, but can glide from side to side while backing down, potentially finding that magical depth/contour/seam where the fish seem to be traveling.

Whatever methods you decide to employee this weekend, don’t forget to have fun out there. Plan there will be crowds, busy boat ramps and excited people who may even forget their common sense for a moment when they get excited. It’s about having fun out there with our friends and families in the wonderful environment we all live in here in the great Northwest. Smile and give a little leeway to the other guys and we’ll all have a little more fun!

See you on the water!!