Columbia & Willamette River Springers

After decades of closures, recent years have seen the Columbia River returned to the dominant spring chinook fishery the world has to offer. It’s been an incredible transformation. Primarily, we owe the fishery to a change in ocean conditions that has been beneficial to fish survival, as well as fin clipping of hatchery stocks. Fin clipping allows anglers to identify hatchery-bred salmon, therefore marking them for harvest while troubled wild stocks are returned to the water unharmed.

The Columbia is a big river, and at first the task of locating fish may seem a sizeable challenge, and certainly, at times it can be. Like all fisheries though, you’re faced with a lot of potential water. And like virtually all fisheries, most of the water is of low potential and a small fraction makes up the good stuff.

The fall chinook fishery is much more familiar to anglers than spring chinook. The primary difference in approach to the two fisheries is due to the very different water temperatures the Columbia offers the two seasons. Fall chinook enter a hostile river where surface temperatures often reach and exceed the 70-degree mark (high temperatures are lethal to salmon). In order to negotiate the river safely, fall chinook travel deep, where cooler water collects.

Spring chinook enter a cold Columbia River. Temperatures in the high-thirties to mid-fifties place no restrictions on travel. With this in mind, spring chinook are found travelling in shallow water, say 9- to 25-feet in depth. In order to make travel as easy as possible, spring chinook dodge heavy head-on currents, travelling the river edges where the speed of the flow is reduced.

Running the edges of the river adds another great aspect to spring chinook in that bank fishing can be phenomenal. Travelling fish are within easy reach of bank gear and these fish respond very well to a plunked Spin-N-Glo, with maybe a bit of scent on it, or none at all.

With these basics, it seems easy to find spring salmon, and sometimes it can be, but throw in disruptions to flow due to tides and the full array of other forces that come into play in specific areas, and there is no set of principles that remain standing. To find productive spring salmon fishing throughout the Columbia River below Bonneville Dam and the Willamette River, you have to breakdown these fisheries into zones.

The Lower Columbia
For my purposes I’ll define the lower Columbia River as the stretch of water that begins at the upstream end of the estuary (Astoria area) and continues all the way to the mouth of the Sandy River to the east of Portland. With the exception of a few small runs heading to tributaries like the Lewis and Cowlitz Rivers, this huge expanse is travel water for the Spring Chinook heading to Willamette tributaries, as well as the Snake River and upper Columbia tributaries. In this big section, fish are on the move.

This section of river is also tidally influenced. Most prominently in the lower reaches with the river overcoming the tide with more power as you move up, tides play heavily into angling methods.

The best fishing is had on the outgoing tide. Whether the increased flow triggers movement in these fish, or simply concentrates them a tighter travel corridor, I’m unsure, but far, far more fish will be taken on an outgoing tide than an incoming.

Tackle selection for springers is thankfully pretty straight forward. For the boating angler, this is the fishery the sardine wrapped plugs dominate. K13, K14 and K15 Kwikfish, along with M-2 and T-50 FlatFish. Using a sliding dropper setup, run a 16- to 24-inch dropper to your lead, followed by a 5-foot leader to your plug. For me, 50-pound test leader is the lightest I’d bother with. These fish are not line shy, and breaking a lighter leader, whether on a snag, a wrapped fish, or act of God, can ruin your day when your very best plug is at the end of the leader.

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The bank angler can hang his hat on simplified tackle selection too. Begin with a quality three-way swivel. Add a spit ring to one of the three swivels, and to that split ring add a 6-bead chain swivel. To the chain swivel add a four foot leader of thirty- or forty-pound leader and a Spin-n-Glo. Tie your mainline to one of the other ends of the three-way swivel and on the last link add a two-foot section of 15- to 20-pound dropper line for connecting your lead. This compact bank rig is cast into target water and plunked in the path of moving salmon.

What Makes The Difference
As a boater, there are three key elements that will make the difference in your day. The first is where you drop the anchor. In most of the hog lines out on the Columbia there will be lanes that are hot for fish travel, and consequently, the boat anchored in the right depth will be the benefactor of good placement while those on either side watch. When the fish gods are feeling gracious, the travel depth changes through the tide, spreading the bite around a little bit. But other times it’s a tight lane and the day comes down to the drop of the anchor. The second key element is your ability to tune a wrapped plug to swim properly. Spend time in this effort. Place your wrapped lure in the water and pull it forward, accelerating through the stroke. As you look down at it, if it pulls consistently to one side, you need to make changes. Nudge the top of the screw eye in the opposite direction that the plug favors, in very small increments. Retest after each change until the plug runs stable. Tuned lures catch fish. And finally, the quality of your sardine wrap comes in to play. Do not accept freezer burned bait. Look for packages that appear as if the fish was handled decently, not drug across the floor. Some anglers go as far as buying fresh, food quality sardines at specialty seafood stores. And perhaps plug color is a fourth aspect. In simple terms, every color is good as long as it has chartreuse involved.

From the bank, placement is equally important. Watch the casting distance of those anglers that are scoring. In this fishery, the longest cast does not always win. Doubling up the lure rigging by stacking two rigs, separated by three feet in between three-way swivels is not a bad plan, although if you tangle the rig, you’re not fishing. Good Spin-N-Glo colors include chartreuse/black, chartreuse/pink, chartreuse/orange (big surprises) and pearl pink.

Working The Incoming Tide
Predicting fish location on the incoming tide presents challenges. My best guess is that in the absence of the strong current created by the outgoing tide, the fish disperse throughout much more of the available water. Under a scenario of scattered fish, it’s time to troll.
Herring is the bait of choice on the Columbia. In the cold waters of the main river, spring salmon will take a herring with vigor. Use moderate action rods that offer a nice arc when fished with four ounces of lead. The moderate action will allow the salmon to chew on the bait while the rod continues to load, and when the fish moves off, he’ll hit the rod’s butt section and drive the hooks home, all by himself.
A standard herring setup includes a wire spreader or sliding weight rig, two feet of 15lb. dropper to the lead and a five or six foot leader of 25lb. monofilament to the bait. I run 50lb. braided mainline, though many prefer 25lb. monofilament on the troll for the stretch it provides on the strike.

Spring salmon respond well to dodgers and flashers. In recent years, in-line flashers like the Fish Flash and Kone Zone designs have caught fire from the ocean to tidewater to inland rivers. Easy to pull through the water, their fully rotating design puts off a lot of light. When fishing three rods, I like to have one of the forward rods with a flasher on it. If that rod goes off, I’ll try adding flashers to the other two rods. If the rod furthest from the flasher gets bit, I might remove the flashers altogether. On any given day, I’ll try to let the fish dictate what they like.

Target water for trolling on the Columbia is comprised of the many flats that lie at the heads of islands and to the sides of the shipping channel. Again, these fish are not confined by warm water temperatures, so don’t be afraid of the shallow flats that are only ten to fifteen feet deep. As a rule of sorts, I’ll focus on water from ten to twenty-five feet deep. Every year though, many fish will come from water shallower than even ten feet. In these shallow areas, position the bait just a crank or two of the reel handle off of the bottom.

Much of the talk about herring fishing centers on the “spin” that is most desirable to fish. After years of anguishing over the topic, I’ve found my comfort zone in a fast, tight, “bullet” style spin. Where this is commonly referred to as a coho style bait, it’s become my choice for all species of salmon. To speed up the spin of a bait, the hook that holds the forward end of the cut plug is placed in line with the backbone of the bait fish, or slightly to the longer side.

What Makes the Difference
Three key elements to trolling success are: location, troll speed and bait quality. As for locations out on the Columbia, I’d be pretty certain that at this stage in the fishery, there are more quality spots available than are being currently fished. There’s a lot of river out there, and this is a young fishery. In terms of troll speed, we’ve all been ingrained that for chinook, your troll speed should be dead slow. We’re learning however, that many of the top rods troll fast. If the goal is to cover water, troll with the flow of the current, pick up the pace a bit, and get your bait in front of as many potential biters as possible. Good bait goes without saying. In cold water there really isn’t a need for brines as baits will stay together well. Choose quality vacuum-packed herring. Beyond that, look for clear eyes in the bait, as well as those baits with a minimum of scale loss. Pay attention to the details and the success will come.

Where To Go
Places to fish are surely abundant, but I’ll throw a few areas out where you are sure to see other anglers, and fish being caught, so you can get a feel what makes a great spot. Starting low is Tenasillahe Island. Anchor fish the north side, troll on the shallower south side. Reach this area, along with Puget Island from the Westport launch in Oregon, Cathlamet in Washinton. The next major fishery is the Longview/Rainier area (Cowlitz mouth). Launch in Rainier and run down to the islands or up around the first corner and you’ll be in the thick of it. From there you’ll find fisheries at the mouth of the Kalama River, Lewis River, around St. Helens, Frenchmans Bar and the mouth of the Sandy River. How do you choose an area? I pick where I’m going by which area affords the tide I’m looking for. The effects of the tide move upriver slowly, with different locations separated by hours. Either adjust your trip by when the tide is, or adjust your location by what the tides offer.

tenasillahe_island
Bonneville
Above the mouth of the Sandy River a bit, there is a lot of fishing area that remains virtually unexplored for spring chinook. The reason for this is that management wise, the regulations are the same for the area just below Beonneville Dam, and if you’ve come this close, you may as well fish Bonneville. The area immediately below Bonneville Dam is an explosive fishery. Though right out on the mainstem of the river, the dam’s presence concentrates fish waiting to ascend the ladder. Because of this situation, the tactics of travelling fish only somewhat apply.
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In this fishery, there are excellent opportunities to backbounce bait, backtroll divers and bait or Kwikfish/ FlatFish, anchor fish spinners and plugs, along with a venerable bank fishery for plunking. Of primary importance to any of these techniques is that this is big water, with big flow and it will require gear that’s up to the task.

Backbouncing and Backtrolling
Backbouncing and backtrolling accomplish the same thing: working a bait or lure slowly down river and into the face of awaiting fish. If you use lead to get to the bottom, you’re backbouncing. If you use a diver, you’re backtrolling.
In the uppermost portion of the legal fishing water below Bonneville Dam, backbouncing bait can be incredibly productive. Incorporate a stout rod like a Lamiglas G1000 Heavy Bouncer, rigged with 50 lb. Spectra braid to cut the current. Using a sliding dropper line, run a 24-inch dropper to your lead and a 36-inch leader to your bait. Eggs, along with a sandshrimp are the preferred bait here. You’ll need heavy leads, 10-, 12-, 14- and 16-ounces to cut the current and be able to stay on the bottom. At the end of the day, you’ll know just how heavy those weights can feel.
Start at the deadline above Tanner Creek and work the 200 yard stretch down river to where the bottom drops off from 40-feet to 80. The bottom in this area is unforgiving to say the least. Be prepared to lose a lot of weights. You can minimize hang-ups by backing ever so slowly. It seems to me like the current near bottom is slow while the surface rips by. Backing quickly, I believe, causes you to overrun your bait and lead, causing an instant snag if you don’t keep up with the slack. Run the trolling motor hard and back down slowly. That’s the best tip I can offer.

The lack of current near the bottom in this specific area may be why buoyant divers are not as effective as lead. Worse yet, this area gets so crowded that the amount of line necessary to fish a diver effectively virtually guarantees a tangle with another boat. This seems to change only a short distance downriver.

The backtrolling water begins immediately below the Hamilton Island boat launch on the Washington side of the river (you can bounce here too). The water is deep, falling to the forty-foot range seemingly right off the bank. Early in the season, this area will be dominated by the bait-wrapped plugs. When the egg bite begins above, it will transition down to this area also. Luhr Jensen Jumbo Jet Divers are the size you’ll need. Run them with braided lines, again to cut the current, and run them long. Counting “bars,” or the passes the levelwind makes across the reel as line is payed out, I run 10-13 passes (1 across, 2 back…). At roughly 10 feet of line per pass, you’re looking at 100 feet and more. Unlike above, the current in this area seems to go to the river’s bottom, making the buoyant divers very effective.
The whole bank below the Hamilton Island launch is productive water. If there are hot spots, one would be about 100 yards below the launch, just on the seam of the eddy and another is at the down river end of the eddy, right in front of the willows. At the downstream end of this long bank is where you run into the hot bank fishery. Stay well off this bank with boats as there will be hundreds of bank lines extending out.

Anchor Fishing
At the end of Hamilton Island, there’s a back channel that separates it from Ive’s Island in the center of the river. The area to the Oregon side of Ive’s Island is called the shad rack (a great shad spot in May/June). From here to Beacon Rock comprises the best anchor fishing in the area.
Unlike the area immediately below the deadline, this is traditional travel water. The Island gives way to deep water slowly, offering a great range of anchor spots in the 8- to 18-feet deep range. There are fish deeper than 18-feet, but anchoring in the deeper water takes one hell of an anchor. If you are successful at getting the boat to stick, listening to the water rush by is unnerving. Personally, I like 14- to 16-feet.

You’ll need 4-, 6-, and 8-ounce leads to keep spinners and wrapped plugs down. Solid salmon rods in the 12-25 lb. line category, like a Kenai Special or bouncer, fit the bill here. Keep dropper lines to your weights fairly short at about 18-inches for spinners, with leader lengths only at about 36-inches as the fish are tight to the bottom in the shallow water and fast current.

On most days, the bite will start in the deeper water progress shallower. This is because as demand for electricity increases as the morning goes on, the dam starts pushing water. The increased current seems to move the fish out of the main channel and towards to the edges as the day progresses.

Top spinners in the heavy current tend towards smaller sizes. I had a six fish morning as fast as we could catch them on nothing more than a #4 cascade spinner, chartreuse blade with green center dot. They don’t come much smaller than those. Most prominent are probably Luhr Jensen’s Clearwater Flash. I like the tear drop shaped blade in a #6 size. Brass with blue tip rainbow, white with green tip rainbow and straight copper, along with the chartreuse mixes are all great choices of colors.

For the salmon plugs, like everywhere else, any color is good as long as it’s green.

Off the Bank
Bonneville is a super power of a salmon bank fishery. Its Mecca. There’s excellent angling from Oregon’s Bradford Island in the center of the river immediately below the dam. Another top Oregon spot is the bank immediately below Tanner Creek. For Washington anglers, immediately below the Washington fish ladder, at the north end of the dam is a winner, along with the low end of Hamilton Island.

Again the key here is powerful gear to deal with the currents. You should be able to cast eight ounces of lead with confidence. Think rods in the ten-foot range to help with drag. Many anglers pound nails into their leads to gain additional hold on the bottom.

Thirty-pound main lines are the norm, with forty-pound leaders a solid choice. Lighten up the lead line to fifteen or twenty-pound to allow it to break off when a fish takes.
Remember when bank fishing on the Columbia that although you can launch a boat from either state and fish with a license from either Oregon and Washington, when you bank fish you have to be licensed in the state that owns the dirt your standing on.

The Willamette River
The Willamette River is for the most part a troll fishery. In addition to trolled herring, cured and dyed prawns are also a staple to the angler’s arsenal. Unlike the Columbia River where fish seem constantly on the move (with the exception of Bonnevile) fish in the Willamette tend to hang around through the early season, making themselves very available to anglers. In fact, the fish count at Willamette Fall in Oregon City will not begin to show heavy movement until the water temperature in the river hits 54 degrees. At that point, which usually happens in the first week of May, these fish will move hard for upriver tributaries. Throughout March and April, for the most part, they just accumulate.
Although the Willamette is tidally influenced, it never generates the velocity that is found on the Columbia. You can troll through all stages of the tide, with the outgoing being the most productive. The anchor fisheries only exist in the Oregon City area, in the first couple of miles immediately below the falls.

multnomah2
The approach to the Willamette, for me, is very straightforward. If the water is 25-feet in depth or less, troll just off of the bottom. If the water is deeper than 25-feet, which most of it is, troll from the top down using pulls of line. From your reel to the first rod guide is one pull. On the Willamette 9- to 18-pulls is a great range, with 10, 11 and 12 being perhaps the most productive. I spent years fishing ever deeper in the deep-water thinking that the fish were always below me. My results got consistently worse. For me it’s uncomfortable to fish shallow, but it works.

There are fish everywhere, but even so there are areas that stand out (at least with anglers). Much of the attention early is on the Multnomah Channel. It’s a side channel of the Willamette the hits the Columbia at the furthest point down stream. Willamette fish smell the water and pull on in. In most cases the channel is a few degrees warmer than the Columbia, which helps the bite. It’s also narrow, which helps anglers present baits to a more captive audience. Coon Island is very low in the channel and always a productive area to explore. Work the row of pilings to the west of the island. Slow trolled Kwikfish are also a favorite here.

coonisland

The head of the channel is the next hot spot. There is a massive flat where the Willamette dumps into the Multnomah Channel. Roughly fifteen feet deep, it’s great ground to work along with the deeper line of pilings on the south side.

willametter_springers

From the Channel to Portland’s downtown, there are a lot of industrial areas on land and deep water in the river. A favorite tactic is for boats to start at the north end of downtown and troll downstream, through St. Johns, to the Channel. Then get on the main motor and shoot back to Portland to do it again. By trolling downstream, more fish see the baits in a shorter period of time, increasing the odds of a hookup.

Temperature And Hardware
When discussing the Willamete’s downtown trolling areas, it’s important to throw water temperature into the discussion. Earlier I threw out that herring and prawns are the primary baits. That’s certainly true, at least when water temperatures are running in the mid-fifties and lower. As temperatures rise, say around 56-degrees and above, you can still catch fish on trolled herring and such, but oftentimes the fish will show a preference for hardware. As temps continue to 57-, 58-, 59-, and 60+-degrees (mid to late May) this preference only goes stronger. Under these conditions, trolled spinners, along with trolled wobblers like the Alvin, will be the best producers. In terms of troll speed: troll the fastest with herring, slow down a little with spinners (depending on size) and slow down once more when trolling wobblers (if the rod is pulsing hard, you’re trolling too fast).

Sellwood, Milwaukie, Lake Oswego
As you move up the Willamete River from downtown Portland, its character and makeup changes. While there is still lots of very deep water, fish-holding shelves become much more numerous. The most famous of these shelves is located at the Sellwood Bridge. Sellwood is nothing more than a spot where deep water rises fairly quickly to a point (of sorts) at 10- to 12-feet deep before plunging sharply to depth again. Fish ascend the shelf and really like to hang on the point with their noses in the wind (this is at times when there is good current). It’s one of the most consistent, and therefor crowded, spots on the river.

In the stretch between Portland and Lake Oswego (or even West Linn), these holding shelves are numerous and productive for those willing to learn the nuances of when fish take to them. The train bridge between Lake Oswego and Milwaukie is ever popular, as are the shelves immediately above George Rogers park in Lake Oswego. When working the shelves, always keep in mind that current will help orient the fish to structure.

Oregon City
The Oregon City fishery is much the same as that at Bonneville. Equally as crowded, and perhaps even more at times, this is a fickle fishery that doesn’t live up to Bonneville’s productivity. In the Oregon City area you’re often fishing staging fish that are waiting to move over Willamette Falls.

Most important about Oregon City is that there are two distinct anglers in the area: backtrollers and anchor fishermen. Often times it’s difficult to mix the two in such close quarters. Anchors lines, or “hog lines”, are located in long standing traditional areas. These are close quarters affairs where gunwale to gunwale is the norm rather than the exception. Backtrollers also have traditional lanes and areas they fish. As long as the understanding remains, things go fine. It’s when this balance is disturbed that the area gets tainted with a reputation for being a little rough.
In terms of techniques, the fishery is very diverse. Because of the long duration of the fishery (March through June) anchor fishermen make some big transitions based on water temperature. In cold water they begin with bait, and just like the trollers switch to hardware as the season progresses. For backtrolling, it’s prawns, eggs and/or sandshrimp on long leaders (7 ft.) behind a jumbo jet diver, or backbounced with lead.

What Makes the Difference
In Oregon City there is definitely a key to success. That is: be prepared to grind out a day and force fish from the water. There are fish available every day in Oregon City, the secret is making them bite. Seems straightforward, but until you’ve camped on the trolling motor for nine hours only to catch three fish in the tenth hour, you won’t know what I mean. Fishing can be easy here. More often than not, those with the determination to make another pass, again and again, will reap the rewards.

Putting Together A Successful Season
Fishing different areas and different techniques are fun, but as I see it, you can have a great Spring Chinook season if you can be comfortable in two areas. The first is to find a good anchor fishing spot on the Columbia, below the mouth of the Willamette. In this portion of the river, you capture the full benefit of being able to fish for both Willamette and upriver stocks of chinook. If you can put some effort into developing a host of plugs that you know catch fish (and the locations to use them), the battle is virtually won. Second, you should be proficient at trolling herring. This way you can fish the incoming tides on the Columbia and in case of a closure, you’re ready to be successful on the Willamette in late April, May, and even June. The more focused, and intense, fisheries like Bonneville and Oregon City perhaps provide more opportunity to be explosive, but they come with a high level of stress, either by dangerous water, high congestion or a little of both.

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