Well, it’s that time of year again, when the first big salmon fishing event of the calendar year happens, and right at my proverbial doorstep. Columbia River spring Chinook is what I’m talking about. Starting in early March, the first few spring Chinook start making their way into the river. In a “good year”, by mid-April there will be more than a thousand a day crossing the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam.
The first year I started fishing for springers was a “good year”, and I learned enough to be able to hook a dozen of these amazing fish that season, but I only landed one, a native, on the last day. The natives cannot be kept in the springer fishery, so that one went back in the river. That was in 2004. The next year, I managed to catch and keep this one. I think it was the most beautiful fish I’ve ever seen.
This was the only springer I’ve ever managed to keep. I lost two last year, one to a crafty harbor seal.
Springer fishing is famous for consuming one’s life, gobbling up hours of river time, gasoline and tackle and rarely producing a fish. My friend Brian at Cape Falcon Kayak told me he doesn’t believe springers actually exist.
Still, this has got to be my favorite fishery, for a lot of good reasons. The easiest to understand is that it is literally in my backyard. I live 3 miles from the river, at one of the most popular springer fishing areas, between Cathlamet and Skamokawa. So it is really easy and cheap for me to fish here. I can tie up my boat at the kayak center dock and leave it there all season, avoiding the hassle of launching and retrieving the boat every day. I can get out and fish for a couple hours whenever I can spare the time. It is a wonderful time to be on the river, as the weather is unpredictable and can provide anything from snow to rain, frost to sunshine, with a liberal helping of rain. I love it. And of course, if you ever do catch a springer, it will make all those hours worthwhile. They really are the best eating salmon.
There are two primary techniques for springer fishing: trolling and anchoring. When I was first starting out, I preferred to anchor up, since there was less hassle with changing depths and dodging other river traffic. Nowadays, I like trolling better, as it at least feels like I am doing something by moving around over different territory, and you can see more of the rest of the fleet and see how others are doing. It’s a little more social.
Both techniques involve a spreader and a cannonball weight of 3-6 ounces on a 2-3 foot dropper. For trolling, you add a rotating flasher of some kind, and a mooching rigged herring on a 40# leader. Use a shorter leader, maybe just a couple of feet, for cloudy water, and a longer leader for clearer water. Tweak the herring so that it spins in circles as you tow it through the water. The tricky part is keeping this rig moving along just off the bottom. The depth is constantly changing and if you aren’t near the bottom, you aren’t really fishing. If you are too close to the bottom, the weight starts bouncing and tangles your gear, and again, you aren’t really fishing. This takes constant checking and adjustment and it helps to have a good depth sounder so that you know where the bottom is. Generally, you want to be in 15-30 feet of water.
For anchoring up, you also want to be in that 15-30 feet deep water, preferably right next to an underwater drop off, so that your gear is fishing right near an underwater “wall” on one side. The fish will tend to travel next to these walls. This technique is utilized mostly on the ebb tide, so that the outgoing water holds your gear right in the path of the fish as they are travelling upriver. You can use the herring rig for this, but most folks use a wobbling lure or spinner of some kind. Luhr Jensen’s Kwikfish is a popular choice, or a Brad’s Wobbler, or you can make your own spinners.
Either method you use, you will do a lot of waiting for something to happen.
This year, the season in this part of the river was very short, only ten days. I was working for part of it, so I only went out six times, for a few hours each. I didn’t get so much as a bite, and even when surrounded by as many as 40-50 other boats, I only saw a few fish get caught all season. No matter what the DFW says, the fishing down here was absolutely terrible, even by spring chinook standards. But even if there are only a few fish being caught, that still means somebody is going to get lucky. Today, on the last day of the season, these guys managed to catch a keeper right as I trolled past them, and I managed to get quick picture as they hauled it aboard.
And that was as close as I got to a spring Chinook in 2008.