Boats all along the shoreline, but not a single net out. Magpies squawk in the alders. A tennis shoe floats by. Plastic bottles, bundles of dried sedge, and tumbleweeds join the parade. About the only thing missing from floating debris at these high flows is a dead farm animal.
A decade or so back I slept on my boat to avoid the 3 a.m. lineup of up to 150 boats at the Brewster launch. Sockeye salmon stacked up off the mouth of the Okanogan River until it cooled down enough for them to resume migration. Six-fish limits were in vogue, but there was high probability of getting t-boned by an inexperienced boater or crowded into the shallows by a yacht-size guide boat with six rods out.
Sockeye salmon fishing in the Hanford Reach is more polite. Boaters anchor up from Richland to Ringold and wait for a school of sockeye to swim by. The only thing disrupting the peaceful coo of mourning doves is the blare of jet boat engines and rap music from passing wake boarders.
The setup is fairly easy. You might slide beads above a Colorado-type spinner blade, Flashabou fly, or a Mack’s Smile Blade and dodger, each positioned behind a lead ball dropper. The top hook of a two-hook rig is tied with an egg loop to attach shrimp or prawn meat. Add a trailing hook (single or treble) to increase the odds a strike will lead to a hookset.
Some diehard anglers say you must align the prawn’s long antennas to the shaft of the hook. Broken antenna or loose carapace? Toss it. Sockeye won’t eat it. Others say it’s okay to remove the legs and antennas, but don’t forget scent. Popcorn shrimp from a local supermarket can also entice a bite after a liberal dusting with Borax O’ Fire.
Thank goodness for two-poling! Having the ability to experiment with a range of lures, depths, and dropper weights is crucial to success. Let’s say two anglers join up but only have room on the boat to put three rods out. Who gets the extra rod? Answer: the guy who owns the boat. You might get a shot at the extra rod if you bring libation and snacks, but that’s a big “if.”
The pre-season forecast for Columbia River sockeye was 198,000 or nearly one-third more fish than last year. The early prognosis turned out conservative with over 350,000 fish passing Bonneville Dam during the last week in June. Consequently, daily limits of salmon (includes a combination sockeye and summer Chinook) were increased in the Hanford Reach and upriver of Priest Rapids Dam. See WDFW’s emergency rules page for specifics.
On average, about 80 percent of upriver sockeye pass through the Hanford Reach. An exception was in 2015 when the majority of the upriver run perished because of extreme low flow and high water temperature. Sadly, only 200 of the Endangered run of Snake River sockeye are expected to journey to Stanley Basin this year.
According to scale analysis, Columbia River sockeye return after one year in the Pacific Ocean in the 17-inch range, 2-ocean fish about 20 inches long, and 3-ocean fish might reach 25 inches, with the majority of larger fish destined for Lake Wenatchee. To conserve energy, they hug the shoreline and stay close to the bottom. Radiotagging studies indicate upstream travel time ranges from 10 to 20 miles per day.
The last hour has been spent cleaning weeds from gear and pretending I don’t care. I move the anchor line to the starboard side of my boat and slide out to 9-foot depth. Then, a strike so savage the rod butt rattles against the side of the boat. When I pull the bent rod from the holder a mint-bright sockeye goes airborne and takes off on an electrifying run.
When the fish tires, I reel it towards the boat, keeping my rod tip in the water. Wild jumps next to the boat invariably result in a sockeye swimming free. There is also a risk of losing one if you don’t net it with your best hand. This one is hooked in the upper lip though, and finds a place in the ice chest alongside an assortment of bait shrimp and cold drinks.
I’m still learning the craft despite tagging out nine times last summer. Turbid water, excessive debris, and flows that flooded shoreline vegetation and channel bar islands made the early part of this year hit-and-miss. Still, there’s no finer way to spend a hot summer day than chasing sockeye on the Hanford Reach.
One friend talked his wife into going sockeye fishing following her appendectomy so he could put an extra limit in the freezer. Another puts his three kids on the boat to fill out an eight-fish day. As for personal addiction, I spent seven straight days on the Reach last season when air temperatures averaged 110 F.
When sockeye action in the Reach slows, fuel your addiction by following the run upriver to Wanapum Dam, Wells Dam, and Brewster Pool. In the meantime, find an open slot to along the shoreline to drop anchor, test your patience, and hone your angling skills.