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

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Pros and Cons of Anchoring for Spring Chinook

This is the second half of a two part article.  Go here for the first half.

Limit of Spring Chinook

Anchoring Advantages:

  • Easy for beginners, less stressful
  • Able to precisely target a fish holding spot where the salmon come to you; you don’t have to find them
  • Cheaper, saves on gas and bait
  • Can get out of the weather

Let’s look at the positives I have listed for anchoring.

Easy for beginners and less stressful

Anchor fishing for spring Chinook is pretty mellow once you get the anchoring out of the way.  It’s quite relaxing to sit out on the river enjoying the view, maybe cooking some food, or playing cribbage, and enjoying good conversation with friends and family while waiting for that takedown on your rod.

Anchoring is easy and the relaxation it provides is probably the greatest reason we see so many boats anchored on the Columbia during our spring Chinook season.

Able to precisely target a fish holding spot

If you have a location that you know holds fish such as a traveling lane, drop off, or edge of some structure then anchoring can be very productive.  Anchoring on locations such as these allows you to pretty much own that spot and put your lure (generally a sardine wrapped Kwikfish) directly in front of the salmon.

As long as there are fish moving, then in areas such as these, the fish are going come to you, and you’re going to have a great chance of hooking up.

Cheaper, anchoring saves on gas and bait

Anchoring doesn’t have nearly the trip expense when compared with trolling.  An angler can generally get through a trip on two to five gallons of gas and a few packages of sardines.  Another bonus is that the wear and tear on motors is also limited.

Anglers can get out of the weather

You will find that quite a few anglers who specialize in anchor fishing like to have a covered area on their boat.  Having a top on your boat when trolling can often restrict visibility but when on anchor it is much less of an issue, it is actually a bonus because you can get out of the rain.  Many boaters have a small heater onboard, jackets don’t have to be worn, and it can get quite comfortable under the top!

There is definitely also a downside associated with anchor fishing, lets go through the main disadvantages.

Anchoring Negatives:

  • Get up really early and fight other boaters for the good spot
  • Can’t use herring as well on anchor
  • Anchoring too close to shipping channel
  • Can’t move to where the fish are being caught and you can’t search out fish
  • Difficult to fish when it’s windy
  • Can be boring
  • Very tide driven
    Sea lions
  • Anchoring, pulling anchor, dropping off of anchor

Get up early, or arrive to the anchor location early, and fight other boaters for the good spot

There are many really good anchor fishing spots on the Columbia River and these spots don’t stay secrets for long, fishermen notice where fish are being caught.  If your spot is producing fish then trust me somebody has noticed and you’re going to have to get up extra early to beat the other boaters to that same spot the next day or the next weekend.

I say you have to get up early because we’re assuming in this scenario that the tide is already running out at dawn, but let’s say the tide doesn’t change until 11 o’clock and you plan on trolling the incoming tide first thing in the morning.  Life is good, you trolled during the morning and now you arrive at your chosen anchor location just to find that three other boaters have beaten you to it and are now holding against the current with their trolling motors in reverse waiting for the tide to change.  “Ah ha” you say, “This won’t happen to me tomorrow!  I will get here extra early and beat them at their own game!”  Well that is fine, but just remember that they have the same plan, and so does the other guy that showed up late.  Also, that block of time you spent holding in reverse wasn’t spent fishing, because you’re not fishing until that tide starts running out.  The time you spent holding the boat in place with the trolling motor could have been spent trolling, and putting fish in the boat.

Can’t use herring as well on anchor

Herring is exceptional bait for spring Chinook and it probably catches the bulk of the fish during March and April.  Trolling herring works really well but what many anglers don’t realize is that it can also be fished while on anchor … but conditions have to be just right for this method to work perfectly.

In order to fish herring on anchor and get it to spin properly you need to have a pretty strong outgoing current, otherwise it will sink to the bottom or just wobble in the current and not spin at all.  Not all areas of the river get strong enough current to fish herring on anchor and the areas that do get strong current don’t always have it for an extended period of time.  So if you can’t fish herring and you’re forced to use something else, you just took one of the best producing baits and took it out of the game.

Anchoring in the shipping channel

One of the major drawbacks of anchor fishing is that commercial river traffic has the right of way in the shipping channel.  In some areas of the river the shipping channel takes up almost the whole river, while in others it is a very narrow travel lane, either way boaters must move for vessels restricted in their ability to maneuver and operating in the shipping channel.  If you were wondering, a vessel that must stay in the shipping channel is definitely restricted in its ability to maneuver and you have to give it the right of way.

What does this mean to you as a fisherman anchored in the river?  It means that you often times can’t fish where the fish are actually running which is often in the shipping channel.  You can’t catch them where they aint.  Some folks actually do anchor in the shipping channel and play chicken with the ships which is a good way to get a large ticket from the coast guard or worse yet ran over.  Others anchor in the channel and quickly pull anchor when the ship is bearing down on them, hoping they see the ship in time to move, either way it is a bad idea, unsafe, and generally not a good practice to follow.

Can’t move to where the fish are being caught and you can’t search out fish

You’re on the river, you got up early and your in the spot where you have been catching fish the last two days.  The tide is right and the fish are finally biting but unfortunately not in your boat.  Today the fish are running in a line four boats farther out in the river and the guys in that spot are killing them and are just one fish away from being limited.  What do you do?  Nothing really, for the most part you have missed your chance at the bulk of the fish that have gone by today.  Oh yeah you can anchor in a different spot or go farther upriver but that isn’t going to salvage your day by much if any.

This is obvious, but when you’re on anchor you can’t go looking for the fish.  I don’t care how good a spot an anchor fisherman has, the fish don’t always run in that location, and when they aren’t there, it just isn’t going to happen for you.

Difficult to fish when it’s windy

Anchor fishing is really easy when the weather conditions cooperate, which is most of the time, especially during the first half of the day.  However when the wind comes up in the afternoon or a storm is blowing in, effective anchor fishing can be almost impossible.  The boat tops that were so great when it was cold, rainy, and calm have now just turned into big sails that catch the wind and blow your boat back and forth, in turn dragging your lure all over the bottom of the river.  With your boat swinging back and forth your odds of catching a Springer just went down dramatically.

Anchor fishing can be boring

This is pretty self explanatory, sitting on the hook (anchored up) can get really old when fish aren’t being caught, and it can get downright frustrating when you see someone troll by and catch one!

Very tide driven

Some new anglers don’t know this, but anchoring up with Kwikfish is done on the outgoing tide only, for some reason anchor fishing on the incoming tide just doesn’t produce.  Some sections of the lower Columbia especially from the Portland area upstream have a minimal tidal influence on the incoming tide.  This section of river often has downstream flow all day long.  The current may slow down during the incoming tide but it doesn’t actually reverse directions and flow upstream like it does near Longview or Clatskanie.  You may be thinking to yourself that this sounds like a perfect place to anchor, but keep in mind that just because this area has outgoing current doesn’t mean that it has the optimal current speed to work the Kwikfish.  The water in this area can often be very slow and not conducive to creating the good Kwikfish wobble that most anchor fishermen really want.

Since anchor fishing is an outgoing tide only deal, then in many areas you are either forced to troll, or just not fish on the incoming tide.  If you go to Longview or any of the areas downstream this is often what you will see, hardly anyone fishing the incoming tide but when the outgoing happens then here come all of the boats.  These guys are really missing out on some of the best fishing of the day by not taking advantage of the incoming tide.

Sea lions

Sea lions love to take salmon from spring Chinook fishermen and they especially like to take them from the fishermen in the hog lines (lines of anchored boats).  Why?  Because it is easier for them to figure out who has a fish on in these areas and to pick that boat off.  They see all of the guys in the boat jump up and run around fighting the fish, lifting the net in the air, and dropping out of the hog line, and this quickly lets them know what is going on.  Sea lions love to hang out below the hog lines and just wait for the action to begin!

When you’re trolling it isn’t nearly as evident to a Sea lion that you have a fish on, the boat is already moving and the anglers are constantly getting up and down in the boat, as well as reeling in their rods, so from a Sea lion’s point of view not much stands out when a boat that is trolling hooks into a salmon.  Since it is harder for Sea lions to determine which boats have fish on, it is also harder for them to consistently make a meal of troll caught fish, therefore they really don’t tend to hang out in the trolling lanes much. I know guys that anchor fish that have hooked up seven or eight fish just to have every one of them stolen by Sea lions; this just doesn’t happen when you’re trolling.

Anchoring, pulling anchor, and dropping off of anchor

Fishing on anchor involves deploying the anchor, pulling the anchor at the end of the day and dropping off of the anchor rope when a fish is hooked up.  One person can generally deploy the anchor and pull it but when a fish is hooked; having multiple people in the boat is really an advantage.

When a fish gets hooked someone needs to grab the rod and it’s important to release the boat from the anchor rope and start drifting back as soon as possible.  It’s mighty hard for the guy fighting the fish to walk forward and release the anchor rope, especially when he is in a windshield boat.  Anchor fishing is mostly a team sport; don’t get me wrong it can be done by one person, but not as easily as trolling is for one person.

To wrap it up

Ultimately an angler has to decide what he is after in a day of fishing.  Some folks are after fun and relaxation, others are hell bent to put fish in the boat at all costs, and there is everything in between.  Personally my approach to fishing is that I expect it to be work because it is my work, and the harder I work the luckier I get.  However many anglers are out on the water for some relaxation, and unfortunately relaxation and catching a bunch of fish don’t necessarily go hand in hand.  Sometimes catching salmon is easy but more often than not, an angler with a full fish box had to work his hind quarters off to make it happen.  You just have to decide what you AND your group are after in a days fishing, and choose the appropriate technique that suits you.

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

Click here to go fishing with the Total Fisherman Team

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

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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!

Click here to go fishing with the Total Fisherman Team

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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How to catch Columbia River Spring Chinook Tech Tip #1 – Where do I fish?

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Where do I fish on the Columbia River for Spring Chinook?

This is one of the main hurdles that anglers of all experience levels must overcome, knowing where to fish and why.  This article addresses the basics of this.

Anglers obviously want to go where the fishing is going to be best and since our Spring Chinook tend to move fairly fast on their journey upriver, the best location for one 2 or 3 day period may be a total waste of time a week later. So answering this question isn’t always easy especially considering the huge number of variables that exist in this fishery. Fortunately for anglers on the Columbia River there is data available from ODFW/WDFW that provides the information taken from the Creel Surveys that are performed weekly.
Creel Surveys are compiled from the information received by Department employee’s who go out to boat launches and tally the number of fish caught by anglers. The states also fly a plane over the river and count the number of boats fishing in each area for each type of fish. The ins and outs of the creel survey system are a little complex but in a nutshell they run some math and come up with the numbers of fish that have been caught in each area, AND they post this information on the internet here! SW Washington Creel Surveys
After years of fishing on the Columbia River for Chinook Salmon and Sturgeon and religiously reading the creel survey data I have been able to determine the two go-to spots on the lower Columbia River from Bonneville Dam to the river’s mouth near Astoria. Specifically these are the section of river from the I-205 Bridge downstream to the mouth of the Willamette River and the second section is generally known as the Clifton Channel which is near Cathlamet, WA.
The map below shows these areas.

Both of these areas can produce extremely well but I have found Area #1 in Portland/Vancouver to be the best all around springer location year in and year out, with Area #2 being second best depending on run timing, fish holding patterns, and water conditions.

If you take the time to search through the creel surveys you can come to this same conclusion but it may just be easier to take my word for it.

What makes these two areas produce so well?

The reason these two locations are so great is because they are “holding areas”.  Holding areas are sections of a river where fish will tend to slow their upstream migration or stop moving altogether.  Depending on a variety of factors Spring Chinook may stay in these areas from a few extra hours to a few extra weeks.

Since the Chinook are in a holding pattern in these locations, their strong urge to quickly migrate upstream is subdued, this allows them to return back to their basic nature which  is to bite anything that gets in front of them!  When fish are blasting up-stream, it is very difficult to stay on them, and it can be extremely difficult to get them to bite well if at all.
These specific areas that I am talking about are easy to fish.  What good does it do a fisherman to have a great holding area if it can’t be fished?  Areas that are too small, too snaggy, or that have huge variations in bottom depth, can also hold Columbia River Spring Chinook but unfortunately they are extremely difficult to fish effectively.  The Clifton Channel and the I-5 to I-205 sections of the Columbia are productive and easy sections of river to fish.
Easy to fish can mean a variety of things to a variety of fisherman, but in general it describes:
A section of river that is large enough to hold a lot of boats but not get too crowded.
•Has a relatively consistent bottom.  This is not to say that the bottom doesn’t vary, it just means that the variations are few enough or gradual enough to make it still fishable.
•Doesn’t have a lot of tackle eating snags.
•Has moderate water flow.

“So it’s easy to fish … big deal, what does that mean for me?”

It means that you can consistently duplicate the method that you are using to successfully catch the fish!

Let’s say for example that you have found that you have to be trolling at 1.2mph downstream, keeping your bait close to the bottom, then dropping your bait into deeper water, while at the same time angling your boat from mid river toward the north shore halfway through the pass (a pass is one complete troll through the area you are fishing).
This example is the method that you have found works really well in the area you are fishing in on this particular day, and every time you are able to successfully repeat this you are catching a fish!  However you are about to scream because you are only able to duplicate this perfectly one out of every 4 or 5 passes down the river. This is a small area with snags and quite a few other boaters going the wrong direction making things really difficult.  So all said and done you only caught 3 fish today, but if you had been in an area that had more of the “Easy to Fish” criteria listed above, you just know that you would have limited out!
My point is this, you should be making it your number one goal to spend your fishing time in areas where you are able to be productive and that also hold salmon.  Areas #1 and #2 are perfect examples of this.
Being productive means creating a fishing system that you can consistently duplicate.  Consistency, duplication and attention to detail are the absolute keys to success when you are fishing on the Columbia River.  The faster you can repeat your successful technique, then the more Spring Chinook you are going to catch!
I have always told the folks in my boat that I consider myself to be the Ray Kroc (founder of McDonald’s) of fishing guides.  Ray Kroc was famous for being able to consistently produce his product over and over again, and teach just about anyone the assembly line method for making the McBurger!
Ray Kroc removed the variables and the hindrances to the successful creation of burgers.  This is what I do every day on the river.  The secret to my success is being able to duplicate what catches fish over and over and teach anyone how to work my system.
Part of my system is that I don’t waste time in areas that don’t hold salmon. I also don’t waste time in areas that aren’t easy for me to fish.  I have to produce fish for my clients and I have to be able to do it day in and day out. One of the ways that I do this is by being able to successfully repeat what works with the least amount of frustration.  Less frustration means that the angler can focus on the details of what is required.
It all boils down to this, easy fishing equals consistently higher success.  Keep in mind easy fishing does not mean that it is actually easy; it just means that there aren’t as many outside hindrances to your success.  Being able to successfully repeat your fishing technique over and over can be very difficult but it is even more difficult or impossible when you have too many other things that aren’t under your control working against you.

“But I don’t want to drive that far to go fishing.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this.  Let me rephrase what I hear when people tell me this.  “I don’t really care if I catch something so I am just going to fish close to home.”, or “I never catch anything anyways so why should I drive an extra 45 minutes?”

Really it boils down to how much you value your time and what you are looking for in your day of fishing.  Fishing is what I do for a living and I expect it to be work, so driving to where the best fishing is happening is what I do.  I can also see the flip side of this.  Many people pursue fishing as a relaxation sport and expending extra effort to go fishing doesn’t necessarily go along with the relaxation concept.  Personally, when I’m catching a ton of fish, I’m having fun and this is relaxing because I know I’m being effective and accomplishing my goal.
If you want to be a consistently successful Spring Chinook angler then you sometimes need to get out of your comfort zone and spend a little extra time driving and a few extra dollars in gas to get to that new area where you just might find that you have actually been doing it right all of these years but you have just been fishing where the fish aren’t!  When you are in the middle of a lot of fish it is amazing how much of a better salmon fisherman you can be!
Read the next article: How to catch salmon on the Columbia River Tech Tip #2a – What technique is best?

Copyright 2013 Total Fisherman™

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

Click here to go fishing with the Total Fisherman Team