Columbia River Salmon

Columbia River SalmonThe Pacif­ic Northwest’s Colum­bia Riv­er is one of the world’s great­est rivers known for gen­er­at­ing pow­er and pro­duc­ing sto­ried salmon. Once team­ing with salmon so thick “you could walk across the water on their backs,” the Colum­bia Riv­er doesn’t quite give up its prized fish so eas­i­ly these days.

Part­ly because of com­pe­ti­tion from sea lions, com­mer­cial fish­eries, and dam imped­i­ments, catch­ing one takes a bit more skill and time, or patience and insid­er tricks and tips.

Use a 360 flasher
Intro­duced a cou­ple years ago, the 360 flash­er is much dif­fer­ent than clas­sic flash­ers in that, as its name sug­gests, the lure rotates in a cir­cle. The pur­pose is to increase the area the bait or lure is pre­sent­ed while also being a stan­dard flash­er with dif­fer­ent col­or options that catch the avail­able light to attract fish. Use the 360 flash­ers while trolling only.

Columbia River SalmonStack those wobblers
A clas­sic lure for fall salmon, try using two or three on the line, instead of just one. A com­mon tech­nique for bank anglers, in-the-know boat fish­ers also use two or three dif­fer­ent col­ors or styles of “wob­blers” to increase your odds. Keep the dis­tance between the lures at least 2 feet and low­er the line slow­ly. Some boat anglers use floats dur­ing slow­er currents.

Below the Bon­neville Dam, focus your efforts on the tide turns in the river
The Colum­bia Riv­er is affect­ed by the great Pacif­ic Ocean. When the tides rise and fall, so does the riv­er all the way up to the Bon­neville Dam. The change in cur­rent agi­tates or informs the salmon, caus­ing them to become more aggres­sive. When the tide ris­es, the salmon ride the incom­ing water or slow­ing cur­rent to make their way upriv­er. When the tide falls, the fish either hun­ker down near the bot­tom or head back to sea. So get a tide chart and pay atten­tion to tide changes. When it does, the fish need to make deci­sions and the “slack” or “change” tide are often more pro­duc­tive fish­ing hours.

Columbia River SalmonAbove Bon­neville Dam, try dead drift­ing near the riv­er mouths
Above Bon­neville Dam, the tides don’t affect the riv­er but this is also where you’ll find the vast major­i­ty of fish­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. From Cas­cade Locks and above, the riv­er has been “tamed” to become a series of lakes, and the key is to fish the riv­er or creek mouths. Dur­ing the spring run, the fish pause near riv­er mouths to con­firm which is their home stream. Dur­ing the sum­mer and fall run, these areas are havens from the warm water cre­at­ed by the dam. Here, anglers use cured salmon eggs dead drift­ed near the bot­tom. But don’t take your eyes to far off the riv­er; the bites are sub­tle. But once hooked, the bent rod and scream­ing reel is a sure indi­ca­tion you are onto a salmon.

Use tuna fish in Brad’s Baits
Brad’s Super­baits are a region­al favorite from a Pacif­ic North­west com­pa­ny. Fill the mold­ed plas­tic “lures” with scent or bait; a local favorite is canned tuna. Strange­ly, salmon key in on this scent and strike hard. The baits are trolled behind reg­u­lar or 360 flash­ers. The most pro­duc­tive time to fish these is in the fall but they are also effec­tive for the sum­mer and spring runs.

Columbia Gorge

Recent wild­fires, like the Eagle Creek Fire, have brought increas­ing atten­tion on the Colum­bia Riv­er Gorge and its huge swaths of wilder­ness. Long before this sea­son’s fires, how­ev­er, the Gorge has been a unique flash­point in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Here are some key moments in the his­to­ry of one of the Northwest’s most icon­ic places.

Carleton Watkins Columbia Gorge1867–1883: The Gorge Goes National
In 1867, Car­leton Watkins, the Amer­i­can West’s first icon­ic pho­tog­ra­ph­er, was on a roll. He was fresh off show­ing the first images of Yosemite to Abra­ham Lin­coln and had won a medal in Paris. The Ore­gon Steam Com­pa­ny then hired him to make images of the Colum­bia Gorge, where the rail­ways along the riv­er were inac­ces­si­ble any oth­er way. His 18 x 22-inch “mam­moth plate” images became the first known pho­tographs of the Gorge. But Watkins was a bet­ter pho­tog­ra­ph­er than a busi­ness­man. In debt ten years lat­er, he was forced to give cred­i­tors his orig­i­nal neg­a­tives. The loss haunt­ed him, and in the 1880s he returned to re-pho­to­graph the Gorge dur­ing an epic snow­storm. The Gorge was now on the nation­al radar.

Jan­u­ary 12, 1927: Bretz Fig­ures It Out
The Gorge’s beau­ty was well known, but how it was geo­log­i­cal­ly formed was not. J. Har­lan Bretz, a geol­o­gist who had spent years tramp­ing around the sca­b­lands of East­ern Wash­ing­ton, intro­duced a new the­o­ry. He claimed that long-ago floods had carved the Gorge and much of east­ern Wash­ing­ton. The geo­log­i­cal estab­lish­ment laughed. But Bretz was right, and over the ensu­ing decades, the full sto­ry was pieced togeth­er. A mas­sive lake formed behind an ice dam on the Ida­ho-Mon­tana bor­der, and when the dam broke, tor­rents of water—now called the Bretz Floods—raced down the Colum­bia carv­ing the Gorge.

Celilo FallsMarch 10, 1957: Drown­ing Celilo Falls
When the gates of the Dalles Dam were closed, an icon­ic water­fall and one of the Northwest’s great cul­tur­al cen­ters was lost. Celilo Falls has been under­wa­ter since 1957. The falls were one of the great salmon fish­eries in the world, and Cellilo was one of the old­est con­tin­u­ous­ly inhab­it­ed sites in North Amer­i­ca, going back at least 11,000 years. William Clark called it “the Great Mart,” a meet­ing place where peo­ple from tribes around the North­west came to trade and socialize.

David Sohappy1969: Sohap­py v. Smith
David Sohap­py, a Yaka­ma trib­al mem­ber, had fished at the mouth of the White Salmon Riv­er since age five. When state reg­u­la­tors began pros­e­cut­ing native fish­er­men, Sohap­py and 14 oth­er Yaka­ma filed suit in fed­er­al court. The court acknowl­edged their right to “take fish at all usu­al and accus­tomed places” on the Colum­bia Riv­er. It was a land­mark deci­sion for treaty rights. But offi­cials still tar­get­ed Sohap­py and oth­er natives, lead­ing to a “Salmon Scam” sting oper­a­tion where he was arrest­ed for ille­gal fish­ing. The Yaka­ma sued again in 1986 and won, but Sohap­py did not live to see it, dying a few months before the case closed.

1980: Rid­ing the Wind
In 1980, 13 wind­surfers launched from Cas­cade Locks, attempt­ing to ride the wind to Hood Riv­er. None of them made it. But they were the advance guard of a new­fan­gled sport that trans­formed the Gorge and the town of Hood Riv­er. By 1984, there were four wind­surf­ing shops in Hood Riv­er, and the Gorge Pro-Am drew 200 com­peti­tors that year. The Gorge, wind­surf­ing and kite board­ing have been cul­tur­al­ly linked ever since.

Novem­ber 17, 1986: The Gorge Act Passes
The Colum­bia Gorge Nation­al Scenic Act was one of the few great envi­ron­men­tal laws from the 1980s. The Gorge Act was a unique law—a com­plex legal way to safe­guard the nat­ur­al beau­ty of the Gorge across two states, six coun­ties and numer­ous cities. The obscure Colum­bia Gorge Com­mis­sion remains a crit­i­cal play­er in the health of the Gorge. The bill just made it before the clock ran out: Pres­i­dent Rea­gan signed it hours before it would have died from a pock­et veto.

Columbia GorgeNovem­ber 1991: Snake Riv­er Sockeye
The jour­ney of Snake Riv­er sock­eye salmon is incred­i­ble: from Red­fish Lake in cen­tral Ida­ho, down the Snake and Colum­bia rivers, out to sea, and back again to spawn. Hin­dered by dams, loss of riv­er habi­tat and dis­eases intro­duced by hatch­ery fish, Snake Riv­er Sock­eye were list­ed under the Endan­gered Species Act, fol­lowed by oth­er runs of salmon on the Colum­bia and Snake. Salmon recov­ery unleashed changes in the riv­er, includ­ing ongo­ing debates about how dams are man­aged, whether four dams in Hells Canyon should be breached, how to restore healthy spawn­ing grounds, and even truck­ing smolts down the riv­er in barges. The debate about how to restore salmon runs still roils in the Gorge.

June 4, 2016: The Explosion
Gorge advo­cates had warned about oil trains run­ning through the Gorge, putting the entire low­er Colum­bia at risk of a Exxon-Valdez sized spill if some­thing went wrong. Some­thing went wrong at noon on June 4th, 2016 near Mosier, when 11 cars from a 96-car Union Pacif­ic train car­ry­ing crude oil jumped the tracks and caught fire. The plume of smoke caused evac­u­a­tions and infil­trat­ed ground­wa­ter in Mosier, but didn’t ignite the rest of the train. It’s a warn­ing of what could come.


©istockphoto/John_BrueskeSit­ting on the bank of the Colum­bia Riv­er eat­ing lunch, I noticed a canoe round­ing the cor­ner. A few min­utes lat­er, a pad­dler on a SUP passed by. This was unusu­al. In my twen­ty years of kayak­ing the Colum­bia Gorge, I’ve encoun­tered less than ten oth­er pad­dlers. Total. In two decades.

The Colum­bia Riv­er Gorge is an out­doors mec­ca; Port­land, Hood Riv­er, and White Salmon are all out­door towns. Hik­ers cause traf­fic jams on pop­u­lar trails up the side creeks of the Colum­bia Gorge, like Eagle Creek or Horse­tail Falls. Kayak­ers trav­el from afar to run the white­wa­ter trib­u­taries of the White Salmon, Wind Riv­er, or Washou­gal. But with the excep­tion of wind­surfers and kite­board­ers near Hood Riv­er, one of our great­est recre­ation­al assets—the Colum­bia Riv­er itself—is often for­got­ten, hid­den in plain sight. Long before I‑84, it was our first super­high­way, and now we tend to cruise by it en route to oth­er des­ti­na­tions. Here are some ways to redis­cov­er the sec­ond-longest riv­er in North America.

Explore the Island Maze
Throw a kayak and canoe on your car and head to the maze-like, wildlife-filled islands of the Lewis and Clark Wildlife Refuge, east of Asto­ria. This refuge, acces­si­ble only by boat, is a vast series of unin­hab­it­ed islands with lots of bird life and a large bald eagle pop­u­la­tion, espe­cial­ly in win­ter. But it is a maze; watch the tides and cur­rents, and keep track of where you are.

Climb the Walls
Bea­con Rock is a mas­sive, vis­i­ble land­mark through the Gorge. If you watch the walls of this extinct vol­canic core close­ly enough, you may spot a cou­ple of col­or­ful dots ascend­ing. If you’re a climber, you could be one of them. Keep in mind that climb­ing is closed dur­ing the nest­ing sea­son for Pere­grine Fal­cons, which live on the rock. There’s a trail to the top as well—that’s open year round.

©istockphoto/thinair28It’s Miller Time!
Miller Island is a rarely vis­it­ed island in the desert part of the Gorge, mid-riv­er near the mouth of the Deschutes Riv­er. Get­ting there will take some sort of boat—touring kayaks are the best-suit­ed craft since the area can be windy. Once there, the island (part of the Mt. Hood Nation­al For­est) begs for explo­ration. Scram­ble up to the top of mas­sive buttes through breaks in the cliffs for stun­ning views, and explore sand dunes. Pic­tographs dot the walls, vis­i­ble from both land and the riv­er in dif­fer­ent places. The island is a for­mer Native Amer­i­can vil­lage site, so no camp­ing is allowed. And a word of cau­tion: when the west wind real­ly blows, watch out on the crossing.

Surf The Bar
No, we’re not talk­ing about hav­ing anoth­er cou­ple of shots. The Colum­bia Riv­er Bar is one of the more fear­some riv­er entrances in the world, and big ships still require bar pilots who know the area to get them across. This dynam­ic area, where the sea and riv­er meet, is com­plex, but for skilled kayak­ers who like the surf zone, it offers a lot of fun. Waiki­ki Beach at Cape Dis­ap­point­ment on the Wash­ing­ton side of the riv­er, and just inside the South Jet­ty near War­ren­ton often offers good kayak surf­ing. Just make sure you’re on the flood rather than the ebb tide. It’s a com­plex envi­ron­ment, so go with some­one who knows the local conditions.

Ride The West Wind
One of the most under­rat­ed ways to sea kayak in the North­west is to ride the west wind. For skilled kayak­ers, there’s noth­ing bet­ter in sum­mer: warm air, warm water, and an end­less pro­ces­sion of waves to surf. Com­pared to coastal kayak­ing, it’s warmer, there’s no need to pound your way out through the surf zone to get anoth­er ride, and there are brew­pubs near every take out. Wind­surf apps will help you find the right strength wind for your skill—but be sure you know how to han­dle a kayak in wind first.

Fol­low William & Meriweather
The ulti­mate Colum­bia Jour­ney, of course, was done over 200 years ago by a bunch fur-clad east­ern­ers that were guid­ed by natives. A great mod­ern jour­ney is to repeat the last part of the west­ward voy­age of Lewis and Clark: start­ing at Bon­neville Dam, pad­dle the 140 miles to Fort Clat­sop near War­ren­ton, camp­ing along the way on the Colum­bia Riv­er Water Trail. Go in spring, when the riv­er flow helps whisk you along, and the sum­mer west winds haven’t ful­ly devel­oped yet.