Spring Chinook Time By Jason Brooks

Spring Chinook Time By Jason Brooks

One of the most sought after and tasty salmon in all of the Pacific Northwest is the spring chinook. This run of salmon draws thousands of anglers who will first head to the Columbia, as well as a few coastal rivers for a chance to catch a “springer”. The fish start to arrive in January and will run until May, with the height of the runs occurring in April. Once the fish make their way up the Columbia to the many tributaries, the anglers will spread out to focus on terminal fisheries. Run estimates and seasons yet to be set will determine where you can go to catch a spring chinook. 

Looking at the projected runs, the Columbia total run is expected to be 307,800 wild and hatchery combined. This is good news as it is well over last year's projected run of 197,000 fish and even over the actual return from last year of 274,495. This means anglers should have fisheries in the lower Columbia area as well as the Vancouver-Portland fishery between I-5 and I-205 in early spring. 

The Kalama fishery is near the Port of Kalama on the Columbia River, where there is good boat access with a protected harbor and multi-lane boat launch. Run straight across the channel, and you are at the fishery. Some anglers will use a small boat to cross and then beach fish off Sand Island by plunking a Spin-n-Glo with a gob of cured salmon eggs. Other bank plunking options are wobblers on a dropper, or a banana plug such as a MagLip or K15 Kwikfish, both with a herring or sardine wrap. 

The boat angler has two options here depending on the tide. Most will troll using a triangle flasher, such as the Mack’s Lure UV Triangle Scent Flash or a Yakima Bait Company Big Al’s Fish Flash, then a long leader from 36 to 48 inches, with a 6-bead chain swivel in the middle, to a plug cut herring. When it comes to bait, the most productive herring are dyed with Bad Azz bait dye in either chartreuse or blue, or brined with Brine-n-Brite, which also comes in chartreuse and blue. Single point barbless hooks must be used, but to increase the chance at a hook-up, set back the farthest hook and downsize it to a size 4 Gamakatsu Big River. These hooks are strong even in the small size 4- which tends to grab onto the chinook's face or jaw when they swipe at the bait- and will increase your hook to landing ratio. 

The second option is to anchor up during the outgoing tide and let out the plugs and wobblers. This is known as “sitting on the hook”, and boats will form lines, often using wing dams to tie up to and to help break up the strong outflowing current. My first time fishing this part of the river was fishing on anchor with a friend in his boat. We sat in the protected covered cabin and played card games until a rod started to bounce, running out into the rain and reeling in the fish. Then we let out the line, making sure it landed in a travel lane (which are often shallow depressions in the sandy bottom), and then resumed the card game again. It might not sound like much of a fishing experience, but this is springer fishing, and it is all about putting the best-eating salmon in the freezer. 

The Cowlitz is the second largest lower Columbia tributary, only to be surpassed by the Willamette. With a predicted return of 9,000 springers to the Cowlitz, we can hope there will be a fishery that often coincides with the late returning winter steelhead. The “Cow” is one of the few rivers where anglers can catch a double bag of good eating fish in the same day. Depending on where you go on the Cowlitz will dictate how you fish. In the lower river, anglers often pull plugs or use bait divers and baits such as cured salmon eggs or prawns. The prawns will have sat a few days in Pro-Cure’s Shrimp and Prawn Cure in magenta or red, and some anglers will use both baits at the same time, making a “cocktail” of sorts. Further upriver, anglers will float fish gobs of eggs or even plunk them. The Cowlitz offers both bank and boat access and is within a few hours’ drive of several cities, which means it gets crowded, but it can be a great place to catch fish. 

If you are looking for a lower Columbia powerhouse, then look at the Willamette. Anglers will start in early spring, hoping to be one of the first to catch one of the 71,000 projected spring chinook expected back this year. That is nearly 20,000 more than projected last year (51,200) and almost 16,000 more than the 55,391 that returned. The early springtime anglers will target the Multnomah channel which starts at St. Helen’s, Oregon, right across from Ridgefield, Washington. This can be protected waters, often calm and out of the wind, unlike the mainstem Columbia in spring. 

I was fishing here several years ago with Buzz Ramsey, and as we crossed the Columbia, I noted that the wind was starting to kick up. After fishing the day in the Multnomah channel, we started back towards Ridgefield, where we had launched from. Making the corner around the island, we were met with gale force winds and whitecaps, and later learned that a boat capsized on the Columbia that day, costing two people their lives. Be sure to check the wind forecast if you plan to cross the Columbia to fish the Multnomah channel, otherwise, drive around to the Oregon side and launch from there. An Oregon fishing license is needed to fish in the Multnomah channel, as this is considered Oregon waters and is part of the Willamette River and not the Columbia. 

Further upriver and above the Bonneville Dam, anglers start to target terminal fisheries. The first being the Wind River, which will have both a run of Wind River bound fish as well as fish stopping to rest near the deadline of the Wind River outlet, as marked by large white buoys in the Columbia. The Wind River is expected to get back 4,400 fish, which is only 200 fish more than last year's projection of 4,200, but last year the run exceeded the estimate by over 2,000 fish, with an actual return of 6,530. Here, trolling plugs such as MagLips, Kwikfish, and even going “old school” with an orange Mag Wart by Storm is commonplace. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, about everyone flat lined the hot orange Mag Wart and then started fishing them on droppers to keep from tangling with other boats. This still works, but also anglers will be trolling triangle flashers and Brad’s Super Baits and Super Cut Plugs often in the Hot Lava color and stuffed with tuna. 

Drano Lake is the most popular spring chinook terminal fishery in the entire Columbia system. Here hundreds of boats will try to choke into the “toilet bowl”, which is the entrance to the impoundment at the highway 14 bridge. Be aware of the deadline and do not cross it as you will get cited and be sure to be courteous. Here, boats will slow down and make a turn, trolling in a counterclockwise direction. Do not try to go against the current of boats, as it will only lead to a mess. Here, anglers primarily slowly troll prawn spinners with a triangle flasher. Again, the Pro-Cure cured prawns are effective, with magenta being the most popular color. For prawn spinners, you can use the tried-and-true Eric’s Prawn Rig by Lugh Jensen with the “backdraft” color, a combination of orange, chartreuse, and green with green beads. Macks Lure also has a prawn rig which uses their Smile Blade, a Mylar blade that works at extremely low speeds which are needed at Drano. Again, the most popular color is green and chartreuse, with a magenta cured prawn. 

For anglers hoping to get some spring chinook further upriver, then 2023 might be your year. The Snake River and Idaho bound fish are estimated to be 85,900, which means there could be a season, but do not expect any announcements until in-run estimates are updated with fish counted at the dams. Icicle River anglers up near Wenatchee, some 500 river miles from the ocean, also have some great news, along with Yakima River anglers, as 41,400 spring chinook are expected in the “Upriver Columbia” run. Seasons on both rivers are not usually announced until dam counts show there are enough fish above the mid-Columbia pools. If this estimate is like the others and last years, all of which came in above projections, then spring chinook anglers in the upper Columbia and even into Idaho will hopefully have a season. 

With springers already showing up and passing over Bonneville dam, with one climbing the fish ladder on January 2nd, it looks to be a momentous year. The best eating fish are on their way here, and anglers will have plenty of places to go. Let us hope the winds do not kick up too much and we can all get along in Drano’s toilet bowl. Start curing up the prawns and soaking the herring, it is springer time!
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