We all watched as the salmon pulled Myron’s rod tip toward the water several times. Friend and guide Jack Glass suggested Myron set the hook; and in typical fashion, as soon as he did the massive fish took off downriver. Myron eventually turned and got the fish to the boat. It was our third chinook in what turned out to be a pretty good morning of back-trolling plugs in the Columbia River, just west of Bonneville Dam.
With a fall chinook run that could reach half a million, it’s fair to say the Bonneville fishery will again capture the attention of more than a few anglers. The majority of the fall salmon traveling through this area en route to their eventual spawning grounds are known as upriver brights (URB). “Brights” represent the last abundant native chinook run in the Columbia River. Most of these fish will spawn in the Hanford Reach, which (not surprisingly) is the last free-flowing section of the Columbia extending downstream of Priest Rapids Dam to the slack, backwater created by McNary Dam.
But these aren’t the only fish available to anglers fishing downstream from Bonneville. According to biologists, there should be another 10,000 hatchery URB chinook returning to Tanner Creek; located on the Oregon side and emptying into the Columbia just downstream from the boating deadline.
In addition to this, it’s estimated another 1,000 or so fall chinook will eventually spawn in the main river downstream of Bonneville, taking advantage of the shallow water gravel bars around Ives and Pierce Islands.
What’s unique about the Bonneville fishery is how sporadic the early season action can be, even though large numbers of fish are passing through the area. The less-than-consistent action is likely due to the warm water temperature which is mixed — top to bottom — like the milkshake as it passes through the dam. While there are days when limit catches happen early in September, the catching generally improves as the month progresses, even though many of the URBs have passed over the dam. The cooling water is likely the reason catches improve as the month progresses.
There are two fishing methods you can employ near Bonneville: anchor fishing and back-trolling.
You can fish plugs, spinners or spoons when on anchor. Spinners are the favorite where currents are fast moving, spoons in medium flow and plugs where currents are moving at a slow to medium speed. Most boaters will anchor in 20 to 30 feet of water. Some of the more popular anchor spots are near the oak tree, located on the Washington shore 500 yards upstream from the east tip of Ives Island, and along the south side of Ives and Pierce Island.
The most popular back-trolling area is near the boating deadline. However, you may find back-trolling success anywhere from there downstream to Pierce Island.
A quality fish finder can be a big help in locating fish and the structure they prefer.
If you intend to back-troll you will need a few Jet Divers and selection of FlatFish, Mag Lip or Kwikfish salmon plugs in different colors. Most anglers rig their diver such that it will slide freely up their main line with a 5-foot leader back to their salmon-size plug. You can improve the effectiveness of your monster plug by wrapping a sardine fillet to its belly.
The below Bonneville boating deadline is a “V” shape that extends from just above the Hamilton Island boat ramp (Washington shore) to the tip of Robins Island and back downstream to a marker located at the downstream tip of the navigation lock canal on the Oregon shore.
Keep in mind there is a small closure off the mouth of Tanner Creek until Oct. 15 to protect the cloud of fish returning to the hatchery. The Tanner Creek closure extends from 150 feet upstream and 450 feet downstream from the creek mouth and to the middle of the river.
For best success, work your lures 60-90 feet behind your boat; further in deeper water, shorter in shallow. When back-trolling, remember to allow your boat to slowly drop downstream and let the salmon pull your rod down three or four times before setting the hook, which is what we did the morning we landed three fat chinook below the dam.