Yep, right now there are winter steelheads to be caught throughout the region, but all the chatter is about spring chinook, since managers pegged the Columbia run at 300,000. The big run has everyone from Astoria to Lewiston, Idaho, excited about catching and eating these scrumptious fish, which average 10-14 pounds and can tip the scale at 25 pounds or more.
And while a few anglers are fishing the lower Columbia and Willamette as you read this, the majority are readying their springer gear (between steelhead trips) while contemplating what they might do to up their chance of spring salmon success based on last season’s experiences.
In addition to understanding the basics of trolling for salmon and how ocean tides influence the lower river (all of which will be covered later in this article) I’d like to share what made the biggest difference in our spring chinook success rate last season.
The barbless hook rule imposed last year caused us to switch from using two single hooks to three when trolling herring. Doing this increased our hook-to-land ratio by a large margin. And while you can rig plug-cut or whole herring with three hooks we found ourselves switching to whole herring due to it being a more durable bait. By employing whole herring with the upper two hooks firmly embedded in the bait, often held in place with dental rubber bands and the leader half hitched around a toothpick pierced through the herring’s head, the salmon would get hooked long before they could steal our bait.
When trolling the lower Columbia and Willamette, here’s another strategy that increased our success. We employed methods commonly used by local anglers when fishing Drano Lake; that is: trolling a herring rigged in combination with a Fish Flash near the boat and trail diving plugs 50-80 feet behind. An extra-deep diving Mag Lip in the 4.5 size is what we used.
By employing this double pattern the fish were introduced to two different presentations. What we found was that the trailing plug would often pick up stragglers or fish holding higher in the water column that we otherwise might have missed. In addition, on days when there were five or six of us trolling, staggering the distance out with three or four flasher and herring rigs fished near the boat and one or more plugs out back helped alleviate line tangles.
As a reminder or in case you’re new to the fishery, here’s a refresher on how ocean tides affect the river and what methods are the most popular for catching spring chinook. Without question the most popular boating technique for spring salmon is to troll downstream when the tide is ebbing. You see ocean tides affect the Columbia all the way to Bonneville Dam and the Willamette up to Oregon City. In fact, given a big tide swing; the flooding water can slow, stop or (in a few places in the Willamette slough) can reverse the flow.
When the tide first starts to ebb, meaning the water will begin to flow westward, is considered prime time for downstream trolling. It’s during this time that loitering salmon face into the current and you can encounter the most by trolling the opposite way they are facing.
Herring trolled in combination with a flasher, like a Fish Flash, is what many veteran anglers rely on when downstream trolling. Rigging is easy; attach your main line to a spreader or a free-sliding weight-dropper line, 12-18 inch weight-dropper, a 20-inch leader from spreader to flasher, and finally a 48-60 inch leader to your herring. You can eliminate line twist produced by your spinning bait by placing a swivel half way down your leader.
And while salmon will suspend above bottom (especially when currents are slow moving), when flows are fast moving fish will often congregate along current edges or near bottom in areas where the bottom contour slows the current.
When ocean tides are flat or flooding is when forward-trolling works best. You can enhance your forward-trolling success by maneuvering your boat in a zigzag pattern. By trolling in an irregular pattern your lure or bait will change direction and action, which can trigger strikes from following salmon.