Tips and Tactics for Spring Chinook

Spring-run Chinook salmon, commonly known as “springers,” are arguably the most prized of all Pacific salmon, no matter whether your druthers relate to the challenge of hooking one, their fighting prowess or your culinary tastes. The Columbia River and its tributaries provide the greatest potential for landing one of these chrome-plated beauties. Other coastal rivers supporting sport fisheries on a regular basis include California’s Trinity and Klamath, Oregon’s Tillamook, Nestucca, and North Umpqua, and Washington’s Quilayute and Sol Duc.

Knowing where to focus your effort is one thing but there is much more to becoming a successful salmon angler. Understanding how springers respond to a range of possible environmental conditions and adapting your approach accordingly is perhaps the most important step towards putting marks on your catch card.

Salmon Migration Behavior

Several factors influence the run timing and habitat preference of springers, including water temperature, seasonal flow pattern and day length. Want to catch more salmon? Review run timing and harvest statistics for a desired river or stream. Is upstream movement and/or catch rate triggered by changing water temperature, precipitation events or seasonal pulses in flow? Does the angle of inclination of the sun or phase of the moon play a role in their activity?

All Columbia and Snake River dams have fish passage facilities where numbers of adult upstream migrant salmon are counted daily (see www.fpc.org). Many tributary streams also have adult monitoring stations. Peak run timing can vary from year to year, however. Get on-line frequently to monitor daily passage counts, but don’t wait for the peak of the run to arrive before you start fishing.

Creel census reports from state fisheries management agencies are another valuable source of information although in-season reporting may lag action a week or two. Local fish checkers often have more knowledge about where, when and how springers are caught than anyone else. Make friends with them and glean facts other anglers might not divulge.

Migrating springers seek cover in the form of depth, turbulence and bottom structure. Breaks in the current caused by changes in bottom profile, shoreline points are favored routes as are troughs, “pinch points” and rock walls that provide areas of reduced velocity. Springer movement stalls where abrupt changes in local hydraulics occur: tailrace of a dam, base of a waterfall, off the mouth of tributaries. Return outfalls of hatcheries are also known to attract. Maximize your efforts near these known migration routes and areas of delay.

Focus on Periods of Low Light

There is general agreement among seasoned salmon anglers that springers move at first light, that there is a huge advantage to being on the water at dawn. Too much bright light can make springers skittish and cause them to move to deeper water when the sun is high overhead as Rick Estes of Adriatic Outfitters (www.adriaticoutfitters.com) can attest. Interestingly, Estes has found that fish tend to go shallower when seasonable water temperatures are cooler.

Morning and evening are not the only times where salmon fishing is effective, however. You can generally catch fish all day when it is overcast out. Rapid changes in atmospheric pressure often bring on a bite for reasons anglers can only speculate on. I know my best day occurred following an early afternoon thunderstorm that chased a lineup of competing anglers to the comfort of their truck. I toughed it out until a fresh pod of salmon moved into a pool I had tossed roe without success since before the sun came up. With the place to myself, and fish on the move, I hooked three springers and landed two in less than an hour.

Match Technique to the Conditions

Successful salmon anglers have intimate knowledge of different techniques. They also know when and where to apply those techniques. High water and low visibility provide some of the toughest conditions. Knowing that salmon migrate closer to shore where reduced velocity allows them to save energy, boat anglers anchor in relatively shallow water. Flat-lining Kwikfish and Maglips wrapped with sardine is most effective in this setting.

Boaters have other choices though. In addition to anchoring, they can back-troll lures or back-bounce bait along the bottom. Trolling in a downstream or upstream direction allows you to cover more water but current speed and bottom type must be taken into account. “My absolute go-to method for Columbia River spring Chinnok is down-trolling plug-cut herring,” says Mark Coleman of All Rivers & Saltwater Charters (www.allwashingtonfishing.com). If river clarity is less than 2 feet and flows are up, I anchor and deploy sardine-wrapped Kwikfish.”

Bruce Hewitt of Going Fishing Guide Service (www.catchingmorefish.com) recommends using a fluorescent or “glo” color lure for contrast when light fades to improve visibility in dirty water. Going with this approach I whacked a nice springer last year while anchored in only 9 feet of water having a foot of visibility. My secret was the largest, brightest plug in my tackle box; a 4.5 “Fickle Pickle” MagLip.

Guide John Klar of John Klar’s Salmon and Steelhead Sportfishing (john@johnklar.com) chases springers in northern California rivers. He launches his drift boat prepared to back-bounce roe and Kwikfish or bobber fish with roe. When on anchor, he favors a CV-7 spinner on a spreader using three to six ounces of lead on a dropper. These techniques cover the full range of conditions present.

Longer leaders and smaller lures and baits come into play under conditions of low, clear water when, “Fish move to the main channel,” according to Hewitt.

Tidal conditions are a factor in the lower Columbia River. An ebbing or outgoing tide may favor anchoring because water speeds up, while an incoming or slack tide may allow you to down-troll more effectively.

Does blustery weather lead to whitecaps on the river? That’s when I head for the safety and security of a tributary stream to fish from the bank. Depending on the size of a stream and its bottom features, I might toss spinners, bottom-bounce roe or drift a tuna ball under a bobber. Practice technique, watch others and you will catch more springers.

Use the Best Gear You Can Afford

I polled several guides I’ve had the pleasure of fishing with to find out what kind of rods and reels they used. Their favorite brand of rod varied, possibly because of endorsement agreements, but all were high quality. Your significant other may argue otherwise, but spending money on a good rod and reel is a good investment towards catching more springers.

Rods longer than 8 ft in length allow you to more easily lift trolling gear out of the water when your salmon tires and it’s time to bring it to the net. Long rods also provide greater casting distance for bank anglers. Coleman favors a 10½-ft, 20-50 lb Okuma “Salmon Herring” rod for his clients. His theory is a rod having “lots of flex” absorbs the initial strike, giving the fish a moment to turn away from the bait and achieve a proper hook-up in the corner of the mouth. Estes uses a 9-ft, 10-30 lb Edge rod having “a soft tip action and strong butt to help battle the fish.”

Line counter reels are standard for most guides because they help “dial in” the preferred depth of a lure or bait. Knowing how much line is out also reduces the potential for tangles when multiple lines are in play. What’s equally important is having a reel with a quick retrieve ratio for those long searing runs where a springer turns around and heads straight for your boat. Loading your reel with braided line allows you to fish deeper than when using monofilament line of the same strength.

All guides profess, “sharp hooks are a must!” In a recent comparison test, the “Grabber Hook” by Maruto came out best for penetration and sharpness. Its unique ridged design increases the “hook-up/fish in the net” ratio along with ease of release in areas where barbless hook rules are in effect. Another trick used to achieve more consistent hooksets includes adding a trailer treble hook to a Spin-N-Glo or SuperBait rig.

Change Tactics When Nothing Is Working

Lure choices for springers seem endless: Super Bait, Maglips, Wiggle Warts, Spin-N-Glos, Kwikfish, spinners. As Estes says, “If you’re not getting bites, don’t be afraid to change things up.”

If I had to pick one color combination, it would be some version of silver and chartreuse. Bait includes cured roe, prawns, sardines, plug cut herring and tuna balls. I once overheard an angler brag about catching a springer on smoked oysters. Learn how to use a variety of lures and baits, and combinations thereof and you will catch more springers.

Suppose you are on anchor and other boats are hooking up. If you see targets, note their position relative to the bottom and adjust your setup to match the depth. Suppose nobody is hooking up. Pull up and move! I have found the two-pole endorsement, where legal, pays dividends. Having more than one rod out allows you to experiment with different tactics and find new ways to catch springers.

Some days your lucky plug does not entice. Fire it! One of my fishing buddies labels his salmon-catching plugs with a sharpie. If “FC #1″ doesn’t produce, he goes to “FC #2” and so on down the line. He always has a backup. Of course you could argue there is no such thing as a lucky lure, rather one that when placed in a fish’s field of view provides both attractive motion and contrast

I learned a lesson about bank fishing tactics when an angler stepped in beside me and hooked two mint-bright springers in consecutive casts. That wasn’t the worst of it. He got on his cell phone and called a buddy who showed up and caught another springer using the first guy’s drift bobber rig. All three fish were caught in the same hole I had so carefully bottom-bounced roe for over two hours. As a consequence, I now hike in to springer holes prepared to fish with two rods: one with a drift bobber and a second for bottom-bouncing. I evaluate flow conditions and available water upon arrival and select the method most effective at keeping my offering in the strike zone.

Final Steps

Make sure your plugs are properly tuned, replace old line and replenish your supply of swivels, lead balls and flashers. If it’s the first time on the water after a long winter, charge your boat battery and check your trailer lights. If you’re a bank angler, patch up those leaky waders, tie up new drift rigs and have enough spare lead to get through a day. Preparing plenty of fresh bait is another step towards making this year your best springer season ever.

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