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Friday November 28th 2014

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How to catch salmon on the Columbia River Tech Tip #2a – What technique is best?


This post should actually be called “How to Catch Spring Chinook on the Columbia River!” and  “Why is trolling so much better than anchoring?”

What fishing technique or method is the best one for catching spring Chinook on the Columbia River?

Before I answer this question, let’s take a look at the methods that are available for us to use in our pursuit of these awesome fish!

In general we have two choices when it comes to spring Chinook fishing.  Do we anchor or do we troll?  On any given day in March and April you will find boaters up and down the lower Columbia employing both methods, and both of these methods produce fish, so how do we decide which is better?  Let’s do a side by side comparison of the pros and con’s of each fishing method.

Springer Up Close

Springer Up Close

Trolling Positives:

  • Able to go back through the same area over and over again
  • Able to stay on the fish as they move upstream
  • Able to vary the presentation speed on the fly
  • Able to fish in every direction
  • More active approach to fishing
  • Boat isn’t restricted in its ability to maneuver

Let’s go into some detail on some of the positives that I have listed for trolling.

Go back through the same area over and over again

This is huge!  The fact that a fisherman can go back through the same fish holding water over and over again allows them to pull multiple fish out of one location and when that location stops producing he can then attempt to follow the salmon upstream or find another holding area.

One of the biggest mistakes that I see anglers (both pros and novices) make is that they don’t go back through an area where they hooked up!  I see it all the time, a boat will hook up, throw the fish in the box and keep trolling until they are out of sight.  Don’t be this guy!  Mark that spot on the GPS, go another 200 – 300 yards and if you haven’t hooked up again then you need to run back up and troll back through the same path you just took.  Do this once or maybe even twice and then if you haven’t hooked up, you will have some decisions to make, you can keep going or you may want to run farther upriver to see if you can get back in front of the fish.

Stay on the fish as they move upstream

The salmon will eventually start moving rather than holding in a specific spot and the ability to realize that this movement is happening and in turn follow the fish upstream is one the best aspects of trolling.  It’s simple, staying on the fish is going to put more fish in the boat.

Vary the presentation speed on the fly

Changing direction can also be a method that triggers fish to strike.  I used to troll like a drunken man staggers, because at one time I really put a lot of stock in varying my trolling pattern, believing that more changes in direction equaled more strikes.  Well after a while I figured out that this was important, but it wasn’t as critical as I thought.  One of the reasons I stopped religiously trolling an “S” pattern was because it made it harder for me to line up on the spots that I knew the fish were holding in.  I haven’t thrown this method away but I’m more likely to use a change in direction as just one of the many additional tools that I use at the right time to get the Chinook to strike, it’s like a change in speed, if I should be getting bit and I’m not, I will often change direction.

I like to think of these changes in direction and speed as “finessing the fish” or “working them”.  These are just little things that might get me that bite that maybe wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and they are things that you just can’t do on anchor.

More active approach to salmon fishing

How many of you are like me?  You get in the boat and expect to catch salmon right away and when it happens, well that is great because you were expecting to catch them right away.  But sometimes it doesn’t happen this way, and no matter what you do you can tell it’s going to be a slow day of fishing, slow days happen, I had one back in ’89 so I know they exist!  It’s times like these where trolling really shines, because it’s active; you’re at least moving around and seeing new things, working your rod, trying to find the fish etc.  On anchor … well you’re going to be sleeping, and dreaming about fish is as close as you are going to get to one.  A slow day of trolling isn’t nearly as slow as a slow day of anchor fishing.

What it all boils down to is this, “I get bored!” and I feel like I’m not being effective and my customers also get bored.  I also feel like I’m not working hard enough to get into the fish if I’m anchored up.  On a slow day of fishing I will take a tiller handle anytime! Trolling is extra effort but it seems like the harder I work the luckier I get and this really rings true on a slow day of fishing where the difference between a good day and really bad day might be just one fish.

The boat isn’t restricted in its ability to maneuver

What this really means is that you can quickly adapt to changes that present opportunity or to get out of the way of something negative.

When you’re trolling you often see another boat hooking up, fish jumping, or a real fishy looking tide rip or current seam.  All of these things say “Hey get over here!” to a good salmon fisherman.  Keep your eyes open and react quickly to these opportunities and you will find yourself in the fish.

On the other hand, salmon fishing on big water like the Columbia River also occasionally presents risks to your safety.  Logs, ships, tugs with barges, pilings, shallow water, rough water, bridges, other boaters, etc are all inherent risks that go along with the territory when you’re on the Columbia and your ability to quickly react to them is critical in keeping your day safe and fun.  When you aren’t tethered to an anchor you are able to more rapidly respond to situations that require you to get out of harms way.

Now for the negatives, there is always a downside to every technique and salmon trolling is no different.

Trolling Negatives:

  • Burn more gas
  • Go through more bait and lures
  • Trolling is more work and it’s difficult for beginners

You’re going to burn more gas

Trolling requires you to run your trolling motor all day and periodically firing up your main motor to move to another location or to repeat your pattern.  This is going to consume fuel and add to your fishing expense in a major way.  Depending on your boat you could find yourself burning anywhere from 6 gallons to 40 gallons (give or take) during a day of trolling.

Go through more bait and lures

Trolling for spring Chinook means mostly using bait and when you’re using bait you need to be changing it often.  I generally allow for a dozen herring per angler per day on my boat, I don’t like to be short on bait when the fish are really biting and I like to keep it fresh.  No matter whether you are using bait or spinners, inevitably you are going to be snagging up and losing tackle which adds to the overall expense of your fishing trip.

Trolling is more work and it’s difficult for beginners

Trolling for Chinook salmon is definitely not as easy as anchoring for them.  To really be good at trolling requires a lot of focus, attention to detail, and constant manipulation of the gear and the boat.  This technique can be flat out tiring, frustrating and not at all what many people envisioned a nice easy day of fishing to entail.  The learning curve is steep especially when weather and large numbers of other boaters are thrown into the mix.

The author, Kevin Newell, is a professional fishing guide in Oregon and Washington!

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Copyright 2013 Total Fisherman

The second half of this article. Tech Tip #2b “How to catch salmon on the Columbia River – What technique is best?” Can be found here!

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