By Jason Brooks
With the announcement of spring chinook seasons in late February it is hard not to get excited about heading to a river and trying your hand at catching a few of these fish. Spring chinook are probably one of the most fished for, in hours per fish, then any other salmon. What would cause anglers to endure springtime conditions of wind, rain, cold and plain miserable weather for just a chance to catch a fish, simply put they taste incredible. High in omega 3 oils and of course the first chance to put some fresh salmon on the dinner table since last fall. Spring chinook fishing is hard to beat and they are hard to catch. Let’s discuss a few things that will increase your catch rate or at least give you a better chance at catching one of these precious gems.
Putting yourself where the fish are, is one of the most important things about spring chinook fishing. Not just a river with returning fish but specifically where to concentrate your efforts in that river. Most anglers will head to the Columbia now that we finally have a lower river season from March 1st to April 4th. The lower river is primarily a “sit on anchor” show when the tide is outgoing known as the “ebb”.
When anchor fishing a few feet can make a big difference. The fish will use the bottom contour of the river to cruise along while fighting the current. This is called a laminar flow where the water near the riverbed is flowing slower due to it making contact with the bottom and the friction that is created. Spring chinook use this slower water as a way to migrate upriver during strong currents, such as the outgoing tide, and hug very close to the bottom of the river. Anyone who has fished the lower Columbia knows that the riverbed is sand and mud. As currents flush downriver they create small divots in the sand and these divots are where the spring chinook are found as they swim upstream. The cuts in the sand can be as shallow as one foot or a couple of feet depending on the bottom surface material and the current flow. Once you find a large sandy flat be sure to turn up the bottom sensitivity and zoom on your sonar or fish finder to find these divots. The trick is to drop anchor in line with them so when you put the rods out your lure is right in the way of a migrating spring chinook.
Several years ago I was out fishing with a friend who had found one of these travel lanes on a large sandy flat. We motored over and dropped anchor and then deployed the gear. Sitting inside the covered cabin of his boat and playing cribbage while it rained was a relaxing way to spend a morning. We had our limit of spring chinook in an hour and were soon on our way home. A return trip a week later we dropped anchor in almost the exact same conditions with the tide and weather but no fish for an hour or two, then we realized we were about twenty feet off of the previous line. A quick adjust over and the first fish was in the box soon afterwards. One way to make sure you are on the line you see on your sonar is to use multiple rods in various lengths. A very long, such as 12-foot rod, sticking straight out both sides of the boat, and then another rod angled slightly in, and of course a rod or two straight out the back. Use as many rods as legally possible to increase the spread of your lures.
If the current is really strong then you might have to unhook from your anchor and float down until you land the fish. The Columbia river anchor system is a must, both in retrieving your anchor as well as having the ability to unhook the boat and come back to the anchor afterwards. Be sure to practice this anchoring system and use an extra amount of “scope” which is the angle of the rope in the water. Anchoring can be dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. Keep in mind that others on anchor also have a lot of rope out between the anchor and the buoy so never cut across the river close to anchor buoys.
Wing dams are other places where anglers will “sit on the hook”, either tying up to the pylons or using an anchor. The dams are manmade current breaks from when shallow draft ships where the form of transportation up and down the river. Often found on points the wing dams are great places to intercept migrating fish. Don’t tie up too close to other boats as it is a courtesy to give each person some space. Behind the dams the currents are often slower and you can stay in place when a fish bites.
When fishing on anchor most will use a “banana” style plug such as Kwikfish K15, 5-inch Mag-Lip, Flatfish T50, or a Killer Fish K15. Bright colors such as Double Trouble which has chartreuse on both ends of a silver body, or other funny named colors such as Candy Corn, Watermelon, Clown, and Misty River are all good colors to use. No matter the color you need to add scent to help draw fish to the lure. The design of these lures makes for wrapping them easy with a stretchy thread, magic thread or 2-pound monofilament. When it comes to baits and scents to wrap on the plugs the most popular is a herring fillet. Brine it overnight in scents such as Pro-Cure’s Bloody Tuna, Anise, Garlic, Sand Shrimp, and Anchovy. Use each scent separately and make up a few wrapped plugs with fillets brined in different scents to see which one works best for that day of fishing. As you wrap the fillet on the plug try sprinkling some Slam-Ola Powder on it which is a bite stimulant. Other baits to use to wrap are tuna bellies, sand shrimp and canned tuna fish. For canned tuna you can use the mesh that anglers make spawn sacs out of to help keep it all together. Another way to get more scent out into the water and draw fish to your boat is to use downriggers and clip a Mack’s Lure Scent Flash triangle flasher on the ball. These in-line flashers have a scent chamber where you can use a scent pad or canned tuna mixed with different scents. As the flasher rotates it dispenses and disperses scent as well as adds flash which draws in fish. Fishing on the anchor is done by using heavy dropper weights on a slider, starting with 12 ounces and working up to 20 ounces if needed. This means a very heavy action rod that can handle the heavy weights. A dropper of 18 to 24 inches is common but don’t be afraid to experiment, keeping in mind the plug has a natural diving action that keeps it right on the bottom. Mainlines need to be stout as well as leaders. Braid is most common for the mainline in 50 to 80-pound test. Leaders are usually 30-pound monofilament or even up to 40-pound. Water is often dirty and visibility low so the fish are not leader shy.
When the tide changes to the incoming and through the flood it is time to troll. Chinook will disperse a bit more but still be near the bottom. Look for current breaks such as the edges of the sandy flats where they drop off. Trolling for spring chinook is much like the Buoy 10 troll when it comes to technique.
A stout and long rod is used, often 10-feet or longer with an extra-heavy action. Mainline is 50 to 80-pound braid with a slider for a drop weight. Yakima Bait Company makes a slider that is perfect for this fishery and is a triangle shape that helps stabilize the line. Weights vary depending on the tides and currents but 12 to 16 ounces is common. Behind the sliding weight system is a triangle flasher. Again, Mack’s Lure makes the scent flash which can be filled with scent and acts as a scent chamber and dispersal unit all in one. Chartreuse is a top producing color and yes, they make one in that bright lime green color with added prism tape for added flash. A stout 25-pound monofilament leader is used. Usually from 48 to 56 inches with a bead chain swivel in the middle is used to a set of mooching hooks. The most common bait is a plug cut herring that has been dyed in Pro-Cures Bad Azz Bait dye, again in chartreuse.
Where legal you can use a third “stinger” hook. The first two hooks are often 2/0 to 4/0 and the trailing stinger hook is often small, either size 1/0 or 1. Spring Chinook are known for a “drive by” bite and will quickly grab the bait, but since there is a heavy weight attached along with the flasher, resistance is felt immediately and the fish often let go. The added hook will catch in the corner of the mouth and your hook-up rate increases dramatically. One trick is to have the leaders pre-tied and since there is a bead chain swivel in the middle you only need the bottom section tied up and ready to go. If the hooks dull or the leader gets a nick you can quickly tie on the new leader about 24-inches in length.
Where to troll is going to be pretty obvious. Just watch for the line of boats and follow them. But keep your eyes open for areas where fish might be migrating through such as those ledges and don’t be afraid to vary the trolling line until you find the fish. Most anglers will troll in one direction, “downhill” or downstream even though the flow might be going upriver. Other anglers will troll in both directions, especially during flood tide when the water will almost be stagnant. If you are fishing near a beach where there are shore anglers then realize that they often use boats to run their gear to deeper waters. They are plunking, which is using a stationary set-up and if you troll too close to their lines you will snag them. This makes for a big mess and some really angry anglers. Watch for small boats run out to drop the lines and be sure to stay far enough away to keep from tangling. Also, when trolling be sure to watch for large cargo ships. The best trolling lanes are often right on the edge of their dredged shipping lanes. Fog can make for low visibility and the cargo ships can’t slow or stop easily and have the right of way. If you hear a fog horn that means someone is in their way, you better hope it’s not you.
When you finally hook into a spring chinook remember they are very fresh and hard fighters. Stout rods and lines are needed to play the fish to the boat as quickly as possible. Seals and Sea Lions have learned to key in on excited anglers and waiving nets. It is best to play the fish to the boat and then grab the net. Let the celebrations begin once the fish is in the boat or you might find a seal grabbing your fish. Don’t hang the fish overboard to bleed it, and don’t put it on a stringer to drag it alongside as the blood drains. Instead, cut the gills with the fish in a cooler and later on wash the cooler out. Seals and Sea Lions could come up and grab your fish if you leave it overboard.
March is spring chinook time on the lower Columbia. Weather can get windy with rain so be prepared to fish in these conditions as well as know when it is time to get off of the water. With some luck and a lot of time you can put some of the best tasting salmon on the barbecue.
Jason Brooks is an outdoor writer based in Washington and the Editor of The Tailout, an online magazine dedicated to all things Salmon & Steelhead related.