cat and water

Ah, March. In like a lamb, and out like a lion, at least this year, anyway!

March is one of my favorite months, for a lot of different reasons. For one, my birthday is in March, and has almost always been accompanied by blooming daffodils, and, by the end of the month, trilliums are also blooming in the woods.


And for another, it is when I usually start fishing for springers. I have made a tradition out of starting on my birthday, but I usually don’t see much action until the end of the month, or later. I got my first strike while trolling yesterday, but it didn’t stick, and that was all the springer excitement I’ve had so far this year.

Dynamic Water training

It’s also when I start getting the first kayaking work of the year. I usually have a custom tour of some kind in early March, and this year was no exception. Andrew had someone sign up for one of his Gray’s Bay tours, but his broken foot was still healing, so I took the tour. That turned out to be the same weekend that Jukka Linnonmaa from Kayak Finland came to visit, so he came along with us. It was a beautiful day, as was much of early March, and we made it all the way to Knappton and back.

Jukka and Me at Altoona

Jukka stayed with Don and Kitty at the Inn at Crippen Creek Farm, and showed us slides of some of his paddling travels after dinner. He’s been paddling in a lot of the places that I want to go paddling, like Japan!

The next day he asked to borrow a kayak, and since my other plans for the day had fallen through, I decided to go paddling with him, too; he and Andrew and I paddled to Altoona and back, about 20 miles. On a beach downriver from Skamokawa, Andrew made an incredible find: fossilized teeth and a piece of jawbone from a Pleistocene era horse of some kind. Besides bringing us this amazing good luck, Jukka was great company, gifted me a beautiful Finnish knife, and sold Andrew one of his digital cameras and a waterproof case for a song.

fossil teeth and jawbone

Columbia River Kayaking also held a leadership scenarios training day for Josh and Katie this month, has been busy getting ready for the first of this year’s Exploritas programs, which starts this coming Sunday, and we cleaned up the paddle center in preparation for the upcoming kayaking season, even as we await some kind of news from the bank regarding the future of Skamokawa Center.

high tide at number 35

In between all of this, and occasionally getting up before dawn to go fishing, I overhauled the home website for Red Alder Ranch, cleaning up the appearance a bit, and getting rid of some old, irrelevant pages. I still need to finish updating the links page, but it looks better than it did!

Springer fishing sunrise

I’ve also been engaged in some spring cleaning on a larger, and less “virtual” scale, clearing away some old trucks and boats that are no longer useful, and endeavoring to clean up my shop so that I can work on a couple of boatbuilding projects that have been brewing for a while. Stay tuned for that.

My old, mostly faithful Toyota 4×4 left today, on its way to a new life with a group of young Mexican guys down in Portland. It was actually a little bit sad. That truck was my daily driver for years when I lived down in California. But it’s been sitting in my pasture since 2004, with a jammed up timing chain, and I finally admitted to myself that I really wasn’t going to get around to rebuilding the engine anytime soon, and it was time to move it on.

Toyota truck in the weeds

As if by magic, almost as soon as I started clearing out old projects and cleaning the place up a bit, my good friend Scott emailed to say that he wanted to give me his ’68 GMC pickup, as it was time for him to move it on. What can I say? Nature abhors a vacuum, I guess. I’ll be going up to Seattle sometime soon to pick it up.

Spring Chinook nigiri

Levi did catch a springer the other day, and gave me a piece of it. I cooked some up for dinner one night, but saved the rest of it for some springer nigiri. It was as delicious as it looks!

People are often surprised when I tell them I can my own fish. The first time I canned fish, it was albacore, in California, and the instructions we had to follow made it needlessly messy and complicated. So here is a little photo essay of how I can salmon at home.

WARNING! Please be aware that there are hazards to this activity, and some of the risks are worth noting and making a strong warning about. Canners, operating under pressure, can explode if misused or if the valves and other safety features are not working properly! Also, on some types of canners, there is a pressure release valve that should be tested every year. Failure to do that could create unsafe pressure levels in the canner, or, fail to reach the adequate temperature to produce safe food. Don’t rely on just my instructions here! Read a book, or better yet, the instruction manual with your canner! If you insist on doing something boneheaded and blowing yourself up, or canning up a nice crop of botulinum, well, don’t come crying to me. I told you so!

Enough said…

fish flesh

I like to use wide mouth, half pint jars. Pints are too big, I think, and half pints make a bite-sized, less imposing gift for the faint of heart. Cut the fish so as to fit in whatever size jar you use, and carefully pack it into each jar, as fully as you can without going over the top of the jar. Throw a pinch of salt on the top of each jar’s contents.

packed into jars

Then carefully wipe each jar’s sealing edge clean, and put a NEW lid on, with a ring and screw it down snug.

jars ready to go

My canner is pretty much the cream of the crop: an All American, aluminum model 921. It has a weighted pressure control, rather than a petcock. I like the weighted kind better, but don’t lose your weight! It’s a drag to have a canner full of fish starting to warm up and then realize that you can’t find the weight. This canner also has no rubber gasket, which can fail. It has a carefully machined fit lid, and you need to dog the lid down evenly and snugly. Pack the jars in the canner. Use one of these metal layer separators on the bottom too. Put a couple of inches of water in the bottom before you close it up!

Once you get the canner packed and sealed up, put it on the heat, and watch for when it starts to vent steam. Once you get a good head of steam coming out of the vent for 10 minutes, then either close the petcock, or put the weight on, using the 10 PSI setting whichever you use. When the pressure comes up to 10, then start the clock. I use an hour and fifty minutes at 10 PSI.

When the time is up, turn off the heat and let it cool off. I usually deal with it in the morning, so it is good and cold when I have to handle it. I check and clean each jar as it comes out and then label it with a pen on the lid. Done!

If I figure an eight ounce tin of hand canned fish might go for 6 or 7$ at the co-op, then my 12# fish is “worth” about $100-120 if I had to buy it at the store.

in the canner

And I’m not done. I decided on this fish to take a couple of small fillets to make gravlax out of. I usually use coho for that, and have never made gravlax from a springer before. Should be good!

fillets for gravlax

Last but not least, I take the head and fins and all the other scraps and put it in the dutch oven with a little butter and cook it up on the stove. Salmon cheeks….. mmmmm…

fish head

On my eighth fishing day on the river this year, I finally managed to put a fish in the boat. It was a cold and rainy morning, but since the season is only open three days a week right now, I have been making myself get out there on every open day, for at least a couple of hours. Today, it paid off, after only an hour and a half at anchor.


Not only did I manage to hook a springer, but no seals or sea lions got to it first, AND it was a hatchery fish, meaning that I could actually keep it. This is the first time since 2006 that I’ve managed to keep a springer. Last year I got skunked completely, and the year before the seals got the one fish I had near the boat.

For you fish geeks out there, here’s the specifics:

I was anchored up, in 17 feet of water alongside Welch Island near Skamokawa. I was fishing a sliver and green striped K14 Kwikfish, at the very end of a strong ebb tide. Fish weighed 12#, troll dressed.

net and water

It’s been a long and grumpy winter for me, with lots of time spent on the phone and email trying to sort out a new way forward for our kayak center here in Skamokawa. It’s easy to lose perspective when you sit inside all day, and a couple of weeks ago, I finally started breaking away from the office to get out on the water. I put the skiff in the water on my birthday, March 10 and started fishing for spring chinook. So far, I haven’t caught anything, but it is early yet, and tomorrow is the first day of another three day opening, so maybe my salmon luck will change soon.

unaaq and norsaq

And yesterday, I finally got out in a kayak again, for the first time in weeks. I took out the Valley Q-Boat, which was loaned to me by Rob Avery of Valley Kayaks. It is a fiberglass, hard chined, Greenland style kayak. It seemed to roll pretty well, and for an 18 foot long kayak, was very maneuverable and nimble. Andrew took out one of the new plastic Valley Avocets and we paddled down to Three Tree Point and back. I took the harpoon along just for fun, and found that I’m sadly out of practice, compared to what I was able to do with that last fall. Sigh…

Enjoy some pictures!

springer fishing

skiff and triangles

north shore

Valley Q-Boat

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.

spring chinook

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.

rod and reel

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.

at anchor

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.

somebody caught one!