By Jason Brooks
There is nothing better on the barbecue than a fresh fillet of sockeye salmon during sundown on a summer’s day. Luckily for Washington anglers, July means sockeye season. Run predictions are nearing 198,700 Columbia River fish and over 27,000 Baker River bound fish. The WDFW already had an opening on June 16th for the Skagit River (which leads to Baker Lake) with the projected run being forecasted with enough fish for a season. Keep in mind that each of these returns are a “main run” and there are tributary runs that will dictate seasons. For the Baker River returning sockeye, it looks like there will be season at Baker Lake once the fish make it to the fish trap and are moved into the lake. The Columbia is a bit different.
Columbia River sockeye are a make-up of several different runs, with some being endangered while others being destined for foreign waters. This fishery can be a bit complex, as anglers have figured out how to catch sockeye in the lower river, which can impact the few hundred fish heading for Idaho. Be sure to check regulations before heading to a sand bar and plunking a small spin-n-glow tipped with a prawn. This is a standard rig for summer steelhead, but anglers started catching sockeye on the same rigging. This led to them targeting the fish when the season was open and it became a “new” fishery.
Most anglers head to the dams along the Columbia and fish below the tailraces and fish ladders. As the fish stack up, they concentrate in these parts of the river and make it possible to be caught. Not too long ago you could go below a dam and be one of but a few boats. Now when the sockeye run is on just about everybody shows up. Don’t be surprised to find yourself in a jet sled and fishing next to a Bayliner.
The most popular fisheries for Columbia River sockeye are just above the confluence of the Wenatchee River all the way up to the Brewster Pool. This is because there can be closures below this point until there are enough fish heading up the Wenatchee to the lake on the other end. Lake Wenatchee bound fish have been struggling but some years there are enough fish to open the lake. If 2022 is one of those years, then be ready to get there early. With one public boat launch at the state park, this fishery is extremely popular and busy. Anglers will arrive here several hours before the sun comes up, and as the daylight starts to illuminate the tall mountains towering above the lake, the winds often kick up. This is a high mountain lake and can turn quickly. Be ready to anchor up and ride out the storms, as the line to take out of the lake can take hours.
Rocky Reach dam has become very popular in recent years. This is because it is close to the main central Washington city of Wenatchee and a day’s drive from northern Puget Sound. With spring runoff already past, the dam rarely needs to spill extra water. But if a rainstorm occurs then be ready for some of the gates to open, creating strong currents. Here anglers mostly fish the west side of the river, hugging the shoreline to the deadline and then moving out to the middle and heading to the bottom of the line to troll back up into the fish again. Some anglers will head across the river and fish the eastern side, but that shoreline is gradual and full of brush and trees. It is not as defined, and the fish aren’t as concentrated.
Above Rocky Reach, anglers are found fishing right outside of the deadline in the calm waters. Here the sockeye will mill around and rest after just migrating up the fish ladder. For those without a boat you can park along the roadway and hike down to a bulkhead or along the rocky shoreline and cast a line. The bank bound angler often drifts a coonstripe shrimp under a slip float. If you need specific gear or to restock on bait, be sure to stop by Hooked On Toys in Wenatchee and talk to the staff behind the fishing counter.
Further upriver is Wells Dam. This is a well-known destination and is a great place to fish for both sockeye and chinook. A new boat launch and parking area was installed a few years ago and is a bit downstream but it is out of the main current and easier to launch from than the old launch right at the dam. Head across the river to fish the Douglas County side where more fish tend to stack up, as well as the deadline right at the dam. On the Chelan County side, the deadline is a bit downstream, so you won’t be at the base of the fish ladder, and fish are still spread out. This is where I learned to salmon fish- not for sockeye, but for kings. As a young kid I would spend the cool evenings skipping rocks and playing in the water as my dad stood on the riverbank casting gold spoons. This still works for chinook. For sockeye, the water is a bit fast to bank fish, so anglers that have boats do much better here. Be ready for the current to fluctuate, and if you venture towards the middle of the river, keep an eye on the depth as the tailrace can move the large rocks, and if the water drops you can find yourself in very shallow water in the middle of the river.
The main draw for summer sockeye is the famed Brewster Pool. With 175,700 fish destined for the Okanogan River and into Canada there should be more than enough fish for a season this July. These are a truly unique strain of fish as they venture up the Columbia River over 500 miles from the Pacific Ocean and will be heading a few hundred more miles north. Some of the fish will stop and spawn in Lake Osoyoos, the water that shares the U.S. and Canada border, while others will continue on up to Kamloops and even beyond. Studies have shown that these fish will spawn in a multitude of lakes and rivers along the way. There are essentially two different strains, or runs, of fish, as some sockeye will spawn along a gravel shoreline of a cold-water lake, while other sockeye will spawn in rivers or streams. They are a unique salmon, for sure, and this is common with many runs of sockeye including those in Bristol Bay as well as the Lake Wenatchee run, with some fish spawning in Lake Wenatchee, and others heading up the White River and Little Wenatchee River. But the Okanogan bound fish are heading to multiple lakes and rivers.
First the fish need to head up the warm Okanogan River, which is a lazy flow of water down out of the foothills and through the town of Omak that then winds its way to the Columbia, just below Chief Joseph dam. The confluence is a big, deep lake of sorts with hardly any current. The fish tend to head to the old river channel that was there before Wells Dam was built. This channel runs along the Okanogan County side, just below a steep sandy bank with an orchard on top. Here the river stays in the shadows until the sun is high, which helps in catching mid-morning sockeye. Expect the fish to stay in the cooler Columbia for several weeks, but if a summer rain storm hits then the fish will be gone. All they are waiting for is a dip in water temperature in the very hot Okanogan River so they can migrate up into Lake Osoyoos and cool off once again.
Regardless if you are fishing the Brewster Pool, Baker Lake, or Lake Wenatchee, most of the techniques are the same. The main difference is bait: it is prohibited in Lake Wenatchee (be sure to check the regulations for where you plan to fish). To catch sockeye there are a few hard rules to follow. The first is speed, and that means lack of speed. When fishing for sockeye those that can troll between .7 and 1 mile per hour will do well. On windy days this can be hard to do, so be sure to bring along a drift sock to help slow the boat down. Another hard and fast rule is to use short leaders. I have a hard time with this one as I often start with a leader that is 15-inches thinking this is short enough, when it is almost twice as long as it should be. A good rule of thumb is to use 9-inches of stout leader, like 20-pound monofilament. This will cause the lure to whip around, and that action is needed to entice the sockeye to bite. The last rule is color, with most anglers using red or pink, and others using orange, but always have at least one red lure with red hooks out.
When Lake Washington had a fishery, anglers did well using bare red hooks behind a dodger. Though gear has changed a bit over the years, red hooks are still standard. A simple lure is two tandem red size 2 Big River sickle style hooks from Gamakatsu with a couple of small red beads and a red or pink sparkle Smile Blade from Mack’s Lure. Tip the hooks with a cured and dyed red coonstripe shrimp with a 9-inch leader behind a Mack’s Lure Double D 8-inch or 5.8 inch dodger, and troll very slow. You don’t need downriggers, but they do help with depth control. If you prefer to leave them at home, a 2 to 3-ounce mooching weight that’s 48 to 56-inches in front of the dodger to allow it to swing works well. A long-handled net is a plus as these are feisty fish once they near the boat and are known to throw the hook. Fish shallow and keep an eye on the depth finder for schools of fish.
Be sure to check the regulations for seasons and emergency closures. Summer sockeye season is here, and it is time to fire up the barbecue!