Reset your digital clock to the fall of 2013 when a record 1.1 million “upriver bright” kings entered the Columbia River. Of that total, nearly 260,000 took a left turn at the Snake River and poured into the 50-mile long Hanford Reach, the last remaining free-flowing (albeit regulated) section of the Columbia River upstream of Bonneville Dam. This huge run was quickly followed up with equally huge numbers in 2014 and 2015. The fall of 2016 promises to provide more of the same. Would you believe back-to-back-to-back-to-back?
Some us who have studied and fished the Reach for the past 30 years might wonder it’s all too good to be true. Others of you might say, “How do I get me some of that?” What follows is a primer on a topic that could easily fill a book.
Bide Your Time
Examine daily fish passage counts at McNary Dam (www.fpc.org/) to confirm that fall Chinook salmon move into the lower Hanford Reach by mid-August. The challenge, however, is that most of these fish remain in a lockjaw mode until seasonal water temperatures cool down. Somewhere near 64 F appears to be the downward inflection point for the start of serious action. Although period of stormy weather may spur a bite don’t count on it. After all, this is the dry side of Washington State. Some years, warm weather and low catch rates extend into late September.
One early staging area for fall Chinook salmon is off the mouth of the Yakima River where 50 boats or more might work the main channel up to the I-84 Bridge. This fishery is primarily a Pro-Troll EChip flasher with 10-ounce lead ball and Brad’s Super Bait game where weeds are a particular challenge early in the season. Fish deep, fish slow and manage your troll path to avoid confrontation with other anglers.
By mid-September, salmon have pushed further up the Reach to hold near major spawning areas that include Ringold, White Bluffs and Vernita Bar. Most guides work the Ringold and Vernita Bar because these areas afford easy access for clients and a high proportion of the total run congregates to either spawn or return to nearby hatcheries. While the majority of the upriver bright run is termed “natural origin”, hatchery fish have contributed an estimated 26 to 46% of the total adult return over the past 5 years, according to WDFW.
Fish Near Structure
The Columbia River is not your average stream. Salmon don’t seek cover where shoreline vegetation provides shade. This is sagebrush country. There is little if any shade. Like any big fish, Chinook salmon seek cover in the form of depth, variable current, and structure as afforded by changes in bottom relief. Deep water holes are favored particularly under conditions of low flow. Prime fishing locations for anglers who like to troll deep and slow include milepost 31 near Ringold, the White Bluffs ferry landing, 100-D area, and the King Hole at Vernita.
Look for mid-channel “humps” and “reefs” as identified by areas of turbulent current. Identify the deepest parts of the channel or the thalweg. Locate these hot spots on your sonar and mark them on your GPS because the Hanford Reach is not a static system. Zeroing in on the occasional mulberry tree as a means to map a preferred location is not sufficient. Daily flow fluctuations that approach 6 vertical feet will obscure shoreline features, expose gravel bars, and mess up your approach. Take time to study daily and weekly flow patterns at http://waterdata.usgs.gov for USGS 12472800 (Columbia River below Priest Rapids Dam) before you fire up your outboard. Having knowledge of flow conditions in your back pocket will lead to more fish and may also save you a prop.
Tactics and Strategies
Salmon respond to changes in flow, particularly a spike or sharp increase in discharge, by becoming more active. Some anglers say this scenario “jacks them up.” As a general rule, a slug of water takes approximately 8 hours to move from Priest Rapids Dam to Ringold. This means a peak flow of say 150,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) released from Priest Rapids Dam at 6 a.m. won’t be realized until 2 p.m. at Ringold. Also be aware that extreme flow changes will require significant weed management. Expect a lull in action during an extended low flow period. Plan your time and place on the water accordingly.
Many anglers profess that you must fish early to be successful, that the best bite occurs at first light. No argument there, although I would point out the daily flow pattern should also be considered in your game plan. Late afternoon and early evening periods, assuming flows are favorable, are often very productive. You are also more likely to find an open parking spot at the launch. If you prefer to sleep in, wait for the sun to drop behind Rattlesnake Mountain, and work the shaded side of the river.
Since a high percentage of salmon will be on the move during periods of increasing flow, focus on migration corridors instead of deep-water holding areas. Migration corridors occur where the river channel crosses over downstream of islands or is where the channel is constricted, such as at the powerlines downstream of the Energy Northwest intake and at the Hanford townsite.
At some point in the season you should have fresh roe or at least know someone who does. Cure up different colors: rocket red, natural orange, hot pink. Add a #4 treble hook as a stinger below your barbless main hook to increase the odds of a successful hookset. Back troll a Spin-n-Glo above a chunk of roe across the tailout of a deep hole, through fast water having moderate depth, and along narrow troughs adjacent to a gravel bar island. Take advantage of a two-pole endorsement to flat-line a Magnum Wiggle Wart or Mag Lip 100 feet behind your boat.
Every year can be different. I caught salmon at several new locations last year but didn’t bang a fish in a section of river that yielded several boat limits the year before. I fished similar flows, same time of day and the same gear. The only thing that changed was the behavior of fish. The lesson learned is don’t rely on the same old technique in the same old places. There are more miles of shoreline than you can possibly explore. Get away from the crowd, try new water, and test different methods. Old dogs can learn new tricks.
One thing I have learned over the past several years is that every technique has a time and place. For example, a flasher and Super Bait rig is typically trolled upstream or downstream, depending on current speed and depth. Troll too slow, too fast, or too shallow and you won’t be successful. Wrapped Kwikfish work best when back-trolled off a lead ball dropper or a jet diver. This setup is meant to work near the bottom. The only argument is whether to wrap your plug with sardine or tuna belly and what size or color elicits a strike. Flat-lining Warts or Lips is a relative safe and effective technique, especially in shallow water where salmon are rolling. My favorite “lazy boy” technique is to back-troll a juicy cluster of roe or a scented tuna ball behind a Spin-n-Glo or a Macks Lure “Flash Lite Troll” embellished with a series of UV beads. You might also locate a patch of biters by dragging a #5 Vibrax along the bottom.
Finding Late-Season Action
Let’s say it’s the end of September and you’re struggling to put fish in the box. Do not fear because catch rates typically double or triple by the first week in October. The flip side is that not all upriver brights are in great shape this time of year. A large proportion of fish have mottled flanks with canine teeth in evidence, particularly if they have been on the spawning grounds for a month or so. If your desire is to fill a smoker with thick-skinned, complacent fighters, then launch your boat at Vernita Bar during the latter part of the run. If it’s orange-flesh salmon you seek then focus efforts on the lower 15 miles or so of the Reach. Over a thousand fish a day, many in prime condition, continue to migrate to upstream spawning areas through early October. Crowds have thinned, fish are more aggressive, and you should have worked the kinks out. Set your home chores aside and go fishing. The garage trim can be painted next spring.
My Last Cast
What makes the last 4 years of record runs remarkable was that only 12,000 upriver bright adults returned to the Hanford Reach to spawn in 2007. This total was a concern because it was several thousand fish below what biologists estimated was necessary to sustain the population. Yet look at where we are today: an order of magnitude more fish, a six salmon limit (i.e., 3 adults and 3 jacks) and a season that lasts through October. In other words, the life history of salmon plays out in ways that are both uncertain and complicated. One thing I know, however, is there’s no better feeling than having a 25-pound king on the end of your line while you bask in the awesome scenery of the Hanford Reach National Monument on an Indian Summer afternoon.
Like B.B. King (rest his soul) once said, “Let the good times roll!”