Shade blankets the east shoreline of the Hanford Reach when I hook a mint-bright 8-pound summer steelhead that sheds water when it goes airborne. Two hours later I’ve let slip the thrill of landing that first steelie and am eager to put another on my punch card. Casting into current seam formed by a washtub-size boulder, something strikes my No. 3 gold Mepps spinner. A fierce battle takes me 200 yards downstream, slipping and sliding over algae-glazed cobble, and to a large swirl hole where a hook-nosed, 20-pound fall Chinook salmon is brought to the shallows with trembling hands. A nearby fishing buddy confuses my dumb luck with skill and exclaims, “I’d put a pair of underpants on my head if you told me it would help me catch a fish!”
I was lucky enough to work, fish and play in what regional Indian tribes referred to as “Nich’i-Wana” or “the big river,” for over three decades. I rode shotgun in a Cessna 150 to locate salmon spawning beds and deployed underwater cameras to document how they responded to the forces of the river. I pulled beach seines the following spring to study where young salmon reared and analyzed their gut contents to see what they ate. Gill net and electroshocking surveys added to my understanding of salmon behavior. However, until that fateful day, it was steelhead – not salmon – that I religiously chased with rod and reel.
One thing I’ve learned is catching fall salmon requires having a ready arsenal of gear and tactics. Some salmon anglers stick with a tried and true dodger and herring set up. Others prefer to bounce a No. 5 Vibrax spinner along the bottom. A sardine-wrapped Kwikfish, sizes K-13 to K-16, deployed behind a jet diver or lead ball dropper can also trigger a strike. Late in the season, when it’s time to fire up the smoker, many anglers flat-line a Magnum Wiggle Wart along open shorelines. A majority of anglers and guides, however, have switched from these traditional techniques to troll a tuna-loaded Brad’s Super Bait behind a Pro-Troll flasher sent to deep depth via a 10-ounce lead ball or downrigger.
Fishing for fall salmon can be frustrating. When water temperatures remain high, “lockjaw” behavior predominates. During periods of low flow, they tend to sit in deep holes. When flows ramp up enough to put salmon on the move, picking milfoil from your gear is a challenge. My favorite setup is a Spin-n-Glo or spinner rig, amended with cured roe that I back troll behind a jet diver. Watching my two rod tips dip and bounce as the lures work downstream through a deep slot is hypnotic. Setting the hook on a fast-moving salmon is an adrenaline rush that can lead to addiction. “One more last salmon,” I say to my wife. “I’ll put the boat away for the season tomorrow.”
According to Washington Department of Fisheries biologist Paul Hoffarth, up to 92,000 adult upriver bright fall Chinook salmon – a run size similar to last year – are expected to return to the Hanford Reach this season. Another good piece of news is a two-adult limit will be in effect. Coincident with increased numbers of salmon and declining water temperature, catch rates typically peak during the last week in September. Action has already started near Columbia Point – a deepwater holding area for early migrating salmon.
As daily counts of salmon over McNary Dam continue to increase, fish move upriver to deep water holding areas near the 300 Area, Milepost 31, old Hanford town-site, and the White Bluffs ferry landing. Later in the season, the largest concentration of salmon (and anglers) are found at Vernita Bar, where up to 40 percent of upriver bright fall Chinook salmon return to spawn.
It’s not secret that many angling friends catch more Chinook salmon than I do. They do so by getting on the water earlier, spending less time daydreaming, and dedicating more hours to the task. However, by virtue of having an advance degree in fisheries science, I’ve generated a long list of theories why salmon might decide to strike my lures. None of them have anything to do with wearing underpants on your head.