Fall salmon: Record run is coming this way

Fall run typically reaches the Gorge in September


News staff writer

When it comes to fishing the Pacific Northwest, Buzz Ramsey is something of a virtuoso, and even though his most recent edition of Outdoor News offers tips to maximizing fall-run salmon fishing success quite a ways downstream of Hood River, at the mouth of the Columbia, his column is relevant and extremely encouraging for the many Gorge-area fishermen and women who excitedly await the arrival of these great fish.

As Ramsey notes, the upcoming run is forecasted to break records – more than 1,500,000 fall Chinook are expected return to the Columbia River this season. Along with that, fish and wildlife officials are also excitedly announcing a potential record return of Coho.

“This year’s forecasts include a return of more than 1.6 million Columbia River fall chinook salmon – which would be the largest since record-keeping began in 1938,” said Ron Warren, Fisheries policy lead for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “A return of nearly 1 million Columbia River Coho salmon is expected back this summer as well.”

“They’re coming this way,” Ramsey said this week, with marked enthusiasm. Ramsey, who lives outside of Klickitat, Wash., said he’ll spend the next few weeks fishing the mouth of the Columbia before heading upstream, to more local waters. “The run generally doesn’t hit up here until September. Historically they peaked at Celilo Falls around Sept. 15 and then continue through the fall. We’re usually lucky to have a strong return of one or the other (Chinook or Coho), but this year it looks like we’ll have both.”

Most of this year’s run of fall Chinook headed upstream are “upriver brights” making their way to spawning grounds along the stretch of river called the Hanford Reach.

“Of the 1.6 million fall Chinook expected to return to the Columbia River his season, nearly 86 percent of those fish are ‘bright’ stocks,” WDFW explained in a release. “Those fish, most of which are destined for areas above Bonneville Dam, are the foundation of the in-river recreational salmon fishery.”

Hatchery fish account for the other 14 or so percent of the run. Locally, the Spring Creek Hatchery in Underwood is estimating a return of more than 100,000, which would be significantly above average. The hatchery raises more than 15 million Tule fall Chinook annually.

Spring Creek’s website offered the following information about Tule salmon:

“Tule fall Chinook salmon are native to this part of the Columbia River and have historically provided food for people living along the river. Columbia River Indians called them mitúla, or “white salmon,” because the flesh of the salmon is light colored when they return to spawn.

“Unlike other Chinook, which spend weeks or months in fresh water before spawning, Túle fall Chinook spawn quickly after reaching their home rivers. Their strategy is to convert as much of their fat and muscle as possible into eggs or milt. Thus, they typically appear darker and in worse condition when they arrive at the spawning ground than other types of Chinook.”

These Túle salmon are the same species that are beginning to reestablish the White Salmon River as a viable salmon stream after the decommissioning of Condit Dam.

For Ramsey, once fish move up as far as the Bonneville pool, he says his location of choice will be the mouth of the Klickitat River, although the confluence of most rivers or significant streams will attract fish looking to cool off in cooler water before continuing upstream.

Between now and then, he said fishing for summer steelhead in a few locations can be phenomenal if the temperature of the Columbia gets warm enough.

“There are times when the water can get too warm for the fish to continue upstream,” he said. “When that happens, huge numbers of fish, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands, will congregate at the mouths of rivers, or in places like Drano Lake, and wait. If you keep an eye on fish counts at the dams you can usually tell pretty quickly when that is happening.”

This year’s forecast follows a record 2013 season that saw more than 1.2 million fall Chinook pass through Bonneville. Although precise explanations for such high success may differ depending on who you ask, in general a few factors are of general consensus: Political pressure to manage dams and river level/flow to decrease mortality rates of outgoing salmonoids, favorable ocean conditions and successful fisheries restoration and management practices.

Buoy 10 action picking up, signals start of epic season


Outdoor News Columnist

Unless you’ve been off-planet, it’s likely you’re aware of the record-breaking salmon run returning to the Columbia River from now through the end of September.

It’s unbelievable, really, to have a salmon run forecast totaling 2.6 million. And while we’d all be counting our blessings to have either a huge Coho or Chinook forecast, this year we have both — one million Coho and another 1.6 million Fall Chinook returning to the Columbia River. Wow!

And while finding a hotel room in Astoria or Ilwaco might be a task at this late date, catching a salmon limit at Buoy 10 should be easy – given you’re fishing in the right location during a decent part of the tide.

Without a doubt, the chief factor in finding salmon at Buoy 10 is an understanding of how tidal movements affect where salmon can be found. If you’re thinking there is no way 2.6 million salmon crowding into the Columbia mouth can escape detection, think again. After all, the Buoy 10 management area is a 4-mile wide, 14-mile long section of river with salmon moving several miles with each tidal exchange.

The basic concept of where salmon can be found with each tidal movement is pretty simple, really: fish wanting to enter the big river collect at the river mouth when the tide is outgoing (ebbing) and move into the estuary as the tide floods eastward. So the best fishing at low tide and the beginning of the flood is at or near the western boundary. As the flooding tide builds, the fish (perhaps a massive wave of fish) move eastward with it. At or near the top to the tide, the majority of the salmon can be found near or above the Astoria-Megler Bridge.

A tide book or smart phone app (I use Fish Head) can provide you with the timing of the tide swings and tell you the amount of change from low to high in feet. This is important because a big tide will push more fish further into the estuary in which case many will move upriver, while a low exchange will cause fish to accumulate in the estuary and linger in that area longer. A small tide exchange is when the difference between high and low tide is seven feet or less.

During any given day the best bite will likely occur during the last half of the flood and first half of the outgoing tide. This is when you will find most fish in the area extending from the west tip of Desdemona Sands eastward past the Astoria-Megler Bridge.

During the latter half of the flood, you should be trolling upriver, the same direction as the flooding water. One strategy is to troll the north channel near Desdemona Sands in 20-to-30 feet of water and make mile-long tacks upriver trolling well past the bridge as the flood tide is nearing its peak. Many anglers use cannonball style sinkers off a 20-inch weight dropper line during this part of­­­ the tide, since it’s easier to keep your gear positioned just above bottom during the flood with sinkers as opposed to a diver.

Once the tide changes direction and begins to ebb, you’ll need to turn your boat around and troll westward, making mile-long tacks before picking up your gear and running upstream to start another downstream troll. It’s during the outgoing tide that divers, like a Double Deep Six or Delta, become more widely used than cannon-ball style sinkers. Just run your diver out until it is within 2-3 feet from the bottom.

Both bait and lures produce at Buoy 10. The traditional bait here is herring rigged to spin, with green or blue label being the most popular sizes. My advice is to have both sizes as fish will sometimes prefer one over the other. In addition, they may like ‘em whole or plug cut, depending on their mood. When it comes to salmon spinners, the most popular styles are those incorporating a squid into their design. Squid spinners are now offered by most manufacturers with Mulkey and Toman brands found in most shops. Try rigging your herring or spinner on a 4-to-6 foot leader behind your flasher. Rigging a swivel halfway down your leader will help eliminate twisted leaders and keep everything working properly.

And while you might wait until many of these same salmon reach the middle Columbia in September, there is just nothing like the fast action and drag screeching runs provided by a big salmon fresh in from the ocean. The last three weeks of August is best at the Columbia mouth.

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