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

Check out our Astoria Fishing Charters and Washington Halibut Charters

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!

Alaska Bear Viewing – XTreme Bear viewing bear photography tours in Katmai National Park privately guided multi day close distance bear viewing tours in the highest concentration areas of brown bears.

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

Check out our Astoria Fishing Charters and Washington Halibut Charters

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