the film

The Columbia Spring Chinook Run

by Wayne Kruse
The Daily Herald, March 25, 2007

Looking for a challenge and willing to drive for it?
Then the Columbia spring chinook run has just the thing

Sure, the annual spring chinook run on the lower Columbia River is tempting - big, prime kings, the likes of which are difficult to find around Puget Sound these days.

Perhaps the best table-quality salmon available to Washington anglers, right up there with the much-hyped and very expensive Copper River chinook.

Water amenable to most any Sound-capable fishing boat, no jet unit necessary, or for the foot soldier, several excellent public plunking bars where there's usually a reasonable chance of finding a piece of the action.

On the other hand, it's a fair drive from here and most often entails a two-day excursion with a motel stay. It's big water and, while it lacks the dangerous and intimidating currents of the river up toward Bonneville, we might as well be honest and say it takes a couple of trips to learn your way around.

But on the assumption that one goes where the fish are, in these times of scarce opportunity, here's Lower Columbia Springers 101:

What: This run of spring chinook is composed of various upriver elements, but one of the benefits of fishing it below I-5 is that you get a shot at a major component - the 52,000 adult kings predicted back this year to the Willamette which, of course, turn south at Portland. Of those 52,000, some 42,500 fish are anticipated to be 5-year kings in the 20- to 35-pound range - equipped by nature with muscle, fat reserves, and the attitude of a pit bull. The total lower Columbia spring chinook forecast is down from last year, but last year's run ended up larger than predicted, and very late.

When: Now through April 15, but may close sooner, depending on run size updates and the number of fish taken. April 1 is the rule-of-thumb peak of the sportfishing season on that section of the river, and action starts to shift by mid-April to the pool above Bonneville (when daily counts at the dam reach four digits it's time to move), at the mouth of the Wind River and at Drano Lake.

Where: The river is closed this year between the I-5 bridge at Portland and Bonneville Dam. Guide and Lake Stevens resident TJ Nelson ( said there are lots of good places to fish below the freeway - at the mouths of the Cowlitz and Kalama, for instance - but that he prefers the area down around Cathlamet, some 22 or 23 miles below Longview.

"There are a couple of reasons for that," he said. "First, it tends to get a little crowded closer to the Longview/Kelso-Vancouver-Portland area and, second, the river constriction offered by two major islands - Puget and Tenasillahe - act much like a natural funnel, concentrating the fish in smaller, easier to handle slots. They have to go upriver either by the Clifton Channel on the Oregon side of the islands, or the Cathlamet Channel on the Washington side."

Nelson prefers the Oregon side, and likes Tenasillahe (just below Cathlamet) better than Puget (just above), fishing close to the island in 10 or 12 feet of water.

"You want to hug the island," he said, "but keep your eye out for fish being hooked other places, because the travel lanes change from time to time."

Don't know where to go? Just follow the crowd out from the launch and don't be afraid to join one of the "hog lines" which form in the better spots. They're there for a reason, and it's a good way to observe other anglers, their gear and their techniques.

Tides: Plunking from an anchored boat is only productive, of course, on an outgoing tide, and some tides are better than others. Nelson looks for a long runout, a tide with seven or eight feet of exchange between high and low, and he says you need to be out there and on your anchor at high slack. At low slack and on the flood, the hog lines break up and everyone goes to trolling.

Plunking: Nelson said currents on the lower river are mellow enough to allow the use of even Danforth-type anchors, but that you need to set yourself up with an anchor-to-float rig and a quick release from the float to your boat.

For both plunking and trolling the lower Columbia, Nelson likes a rod something along the lines of the Berkley A-92 series, in a 9-foot, heavy, version.

He rigs with:

To change to a Kwikfish in place of herring, go to 6 feet of 40-pound mono to the plug from the swivel, but no flasher. Sizes K-15 and K-16 are popular, in chrome, chartreuse, or various greens. Wrap a sardine fillet to the plug's underside with Magic Thread or rubber bands.

There are a lot of other plunking rig combinations, involving spinners or Spin N Glos, plus shrimp, prawns, eggs and other baits.

Let the rig to bottom, and bounce it back, away from the boat, maybe 25 or 30 feet, and you're in business.

Trolling: The same rigs can be used to troll on an incoming tide by simply shortening the dropper from the slider (or a three-way swivel) to the lead ball to about 12 inches, and lightening the ball to 2 to 4 ounces. Behind the Fish Flash use a standard two-hook mooching rig, 5/0 Gamakatsu hook on top, 4/0 on the bottom.

The system is to adjust your weight and trolling speed so that the lead ball acts like a miniature downrigger. You want it to bounce bottom once in a while, but not drag. Some fishermen prefer to use a diving plane in place of the lead ball, but the ball is probably more popular.

Launch at the Elochoman Slough Marina in Cathlamet, or at Skamokawa.

Accommodations are very limited in the area; probably better to book a stay in Longview or Kelso.

Bank fishing: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Joe Hymer, in Vancouver, said water levels dictate success for spring chinook anglers working from the bank, and that they do better on high water than low. Public beaches in the area include Frenchman's Bar in Vancouver; Woodland Bar at Woodland; Kalama Bar at Kalama; County Line Park and Willow Grove at Longview; and Sunny Sands, on the west side of Puget Island, at Cathlamet.

All the bars have their devotees, Hymer said, but pushed to the wall he said Frenchman's Bar would perhaps be a half-step above the others.

Anyone who has plunked local rivers for salmon or steelhead will know how to rig for the Columbia, remembering that big water and big fish require heavy gear and, sometimes, long casts. All plunking is done on an outgoing tide, and number 2 Spin N Glos in a wide range of colors are the most popular lure. Most anglers use scent, and some use bait - mostly later in the season.

Wayne Kruse
The Columbia Spring Chinook Run
The Daily Herald, March 25, 2007

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