BREWSTER BLUEBACKS • by George Krumm
Last year’s Columbia River run of sockeye was a good one, with more than 341,000 crossing over Bonneville Dam— nearly 100,000 more than the comanagers had forecast. That allowed more than enough fish for escapement—at least for the Okanagan River portion of the run.
Happy anglers back in time for breakfast. From left to right: Steve Palmer, Austin Moser, Travis Millspaugh, Pierce Dollar and Zach Dollar.
Bluebacks. Reds. Sockeye. All are names for the same fish. Alaskans tend to call them reds. Columbia River anglers tend to call them bluebacks. Everyone knows what you’re talking about if you say sockeye. Last year’s Columbia River run of sockeye was a good one, with more than 341,000 crossing over Bonneville Dam—nearly 100,000 more than the co-managers had forecast. That allowed more than enough fish for escapement—at least for the Okanagan River portion of the run.
No matter what you call them, sockeye are delicious fish, with deep-colored red/orange flesh. They have the second highest fat content of all the species of Pacific salmon, right behind Chinook. What’s more, most Columbia sockeye have a long ways to go, with most of them heading up the Okanogan River and into Canada where they spawn and the resulting progeny rear in lakes. It’s about 533 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River to the mouth of the Okanogan River, and another 82 miles up the Okanogan to the Canadian border. So, the fish we target at Brewster have a journey of over 600 miles from the ocean to their spawning beds. Since they travel so far, Columbia sockeye, though not large compared to most of the sockeye I’ve caught in Alaska, have especially high fat content to help propel them into Canada. That makes them especially tasty, no matter how you prepare them.
Last summer, guide Austin Moser of Austin’s Northwest Adventures called me up one mid-July day, asking if I’d heard about the sockeye bite up at Brewster. I had. Fish had been caught for weeks prior in the lower Columbia and I’d been hear-ing reports from Tri-Cities and on up the Columbia at Brewster more recently. Austin told me more.
The crux of his words were: “It’s on fire.” He said he’d been limiting the boat, sometimes in less than an hour, and some-times even running two trips a day and being finished in time for a late breakfast. He also said he had an open seat on Saturday, the 25th, and that if I could make it to Brewster, I could hop on his boat for a day to partake in the Brewster sockeye experience. The gears in my brain began to turn. I’d never tried the Brewster sockeye fishery and I wanted to check it out. Looking at my editorial and writing workload, it looked doable, so I decided to go.
Austin predicts which rod will fold next. Note the long-handled nets—these will help you land more sockeye.
I departed the Portland, Oregon area the morning of the 24th. It’s a long drive from my house to Pateros where I was to meet Austin—roughly six hours. I arrived in the afternoon, enjoyed a little BBQ with Austin and his friends. They’d limited early that day and Austin expected more of the same in the morning.
We came to very early. It was still pitch black as Austin prepared to launch the boat. Ever the professional, all the gear was inventoried, leaders tied, and the boat cleaned the day before. There would be five of us on the boat with Austin for his first of two trips that day: Travis Millspaugh, Steve Palmer, Zach Dollar, his 7-year-old son, Pierce, and me.
We motored up the river, crossing under the Highway 173 bridge at Brewster in the twilight of the coming dawn. It was clear and cool, but we knew it would be hot later in the day. Optimism was high; Austin was confident. Everyone was excited.
The gear consisted of 9’ Lamiglas XCC Kwik 903 GH rods, Daiwa Lexa 300 LC line-counter reels spooled with 50-pound Power Pro. A Gum Pucky was threaded onto the mainline, followed by a BnR Tackle EZ slider. 6-ounce cannonball leads were affixed to the slider via a duo-lock snap for the bow rods; 5 ounces for the mid-position rods, and 4 ounces for the stern rods. After the slider was an 8 mm bead, and the mainline terminated with a Sampo ball-bearing swivel with Coastlock snap. A bumper of 20 inches was connected to the Coastlock snap. A size 0 dodger (chrome with scale tape on both sides) was attached to the other end of the bumper. The leader that followed was about 15 inches long, tied on 40-pound-test Izorline Fluoro Carbon Leader. 40-pound-test leader is heavy for fish that range from 3 to 6 pounds, but kings are present and they do sometimes bite the sockeye gear. What’s more, a very short, light leader behind a big dodger (the size 0 is 9 inches long) is a great recipe for break-offs when a 10- to 25-pound Chinook takes the bait. And, the short, stiff leader seems to put a little more action on the lure than lighter, suppler leaders do. The attractors on the leader varied a little from rod to rod, but the hook configuration on each leader was the same: a red, 3/0 Octopus hook followed very closely by a red, size 4 treble. A typical terminal rig was as follows: A Mack’s Lure 0.8” Smile Blade in Hot Pink/Tiger-Silver, a 4 mm pink bead, and size 14 Lil’ Corky in pink or red shades. Regardless of the exact terminal rig, a Ray’s Bait Works coon shrimp was pinned onto the hooks. Austin said the Ray’s Bait coon shrimp were working better than any of the others he tried last year.
Despite having travelled more than 500 miles up the Columbia, the meat of Brewster Pool sockeyes is remarkably delicious.
Austin was particular about the shrimp—both their condition and size, and how they were put on the hooks. He favored small shrimp that were firm, had both eyeballs, and were in the typical narrow “U” shape that most cured shrimp have. He tossed out any that were not that shape, or didn’t have both eyeballs, or were soft. There weren’t many unsatisfactory shrimp in the jar we were working from. The 3/0 Octopus hook was impaled through the bend of the shrimp, and the treble hook hooked into the top of the carapace. I like to use garlic scents like Pro-Cure’s Garlic Plus or Salmon Slammer for warm-water salmon fisheries, but Austin fished the Ray’s Bait shrimp without any additional scent.
I’d like to say we checked bait every 15 minutes, but we didn’t get the chance…
Austin motored to the SE corner of the pack of 100 boats or so that were already on the water. He put the bow-mounted Minn Kota down, engaged the autopilot and put the kicker in gear. I positioned myself in the seat nearest Austin, as that seat put me in a spot where I could watch the fish finder to see where the fish were in the water column. We dropped the six rods down and began to troll. Though we only had five anglers aboard, two rods are legal with a two-rod endorsement. We could have fished more, but as we would soon find out, six were plenty. Typical depths for Brewster Pool sockeye are from 20 to 40 feet. We’d trolled for less than a minute when I saw the tell-tale marks of a group of sockeye on the screen and said, “Hey Austin, Look—”
He cut me off, saying “Get that rod!”
I’m not sure who grabbed the rod out of the holder, but it wound up in 7-year-old Pierce’s hands. Austin instructed him to keep winding smoothly without stopping. The look on Pierce’s face was intense for a youngster. No panic, no fear, just quiet but fierce determination and joy. A moment later, the fish was flopping around on the floorboards. I couldn’t help but think that young man is going to be a hell of a fisher-man. He followed up with his second fish a short time later.
The next 40 minutes were mayhem—a fuzzy blur of fish hooked, some lost, fish flopping on the deck while other fish bit unattended rods, several doubles, and after less time than it normally takes me to drink two cups of coffee, we were stowing rods for the ride back to the dock. Hell, I didn’t even get to drink my coffee until it was cold; we were too busy. It was a real “What just happened?” moment. Everyone had their two fish. I almost wished it was slower fishing—then sun was just starting to rise high enough to warm the chill from the air.
The terminal rigs we used all had the same hook configuration, but the attractors above the hooks varied a little.
Back at the dock, Austin mowed through the salmon, expertly filleting the bright red/orange fillets and putting them into bags for happy anglers to take home. As he was finishing up, the clients for the second trip of the day arrived. Seeing all the fillets from the first group’s trip, they were excited to get going to have their shot.
I tagged along for the ride, explaining to Austin that maybe I could help deck-hand (not that he needs help; he doesn’t) and to see how things changed as the sun rose higher. The second group of anglers were Ed Bernier, Brain Crocket and Susie Griesse.
Back up the river we ran, starting in the same general area as before. Same gear, same depths, but the sun was up, and it was beginning to get warm. There were still at least 75 boats on the water.
By this time, the fish seemed to have spread out or had moved. We worked farther west and closer to the north bank, near where the majority of boats were concentrated. With only six fish need to limit the second group, I guessed we could be done in less than 30 minutes if the bite was still on. However, boat traffic and bright sunlight seemed to have changed the game. It was definitely slower.
Without the chaos of the earlier trip, I was able to look around a little more and notice things I’d missed earlier. For instance, I noticed our speed hovered between 1.4 and 1.6 mph. Watching the fleet, I saw fish hooked every few minutes. I saw variations of gear that were similar to what we were using. Some boats used downriggers, but most were pulling lead. I noticed Austin was using a net with a very long handle, making it easy to scoop up the fish as they neared the boat. It was clear that if a bite didn’t stick, you might as well wind in as your shrimp would either be gone, or mangled such that it wouldn’t fish right. I also noticed that anglers who picked up the rod quickly upon noticing a bite, who refrained from setting the hook, and who wound the fish smoothly to the boat—not too fast, not too slow—tended to land their fish. Those who were slow on the draw, who set the hook or who wound too fast, too slow, or too erratically, usually lost the fish. We didn’t clear rods when a fish was hooked. Instead, we kept trolling and it was common to end up with a double. These fish aren’t big, they don’t go on long, line-burning runs, so it’s pretty easy to work one to the boat without tangling in the other lines.
Zach Dollar and his son, Pierce, with one of Pierce’s sockeyes.
After trolling with the pack for what seemed like a long time, picking up a few fish, we moved away from them, back out where we’d started early that morning. There were few boats out there. It had grown warm, and we had all stripped down to shorts and T-shirts. We started seeing more fish on the fish finder, and it didn’t take long to catch the few more fish we needed. At 10:40 a.m. we were headed back to the barn.
The mid-morning trip was definitely slower than the early trip. It took about two and a half hours to put eight fish in the box (two were Austin’s). For the day, we fished about three and a half hours and harvested 18 sockeyes. We all caught fish. We all had a blast. Where else in the Lower 48 can you put eight delicious sockeye on ice in such a short time? The answer is: Nowhere, unless there is a Lake Washington opening. It’s hard to say how good the sockeye fishing in the Brewster Pool will be in 2021. For 2021, the paper-fish whisperers are predicting 155,000 sockeye to return to the Columbia, of which about 127,000 are expected to return to the Okanogan River (these are the fish we catch at Brewster). If they are accurate, fishing might be slower this year than it was in 2020, but the fish whisperers are often wrong; last year they were wrong to the tune of 100,000 sockeye (in a good way). We won’t know for sure how things are shaping up until we start seeing the number of sockeye crossing Bonneville dam. Regardless, the two-sock-eye limit is what is in the regs at the time I’m writing this, so the fishery will happen, barring some unforeseen collapse of the prediction. I’ll see you out there in July! George Krumm is the Editor of both Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines. He can be reached at george@fishalskamagazine. com.
EDITORS NOTE: The Sockeye Salmon total at Bonnevllle Dam as of July 8th, 2022 is currently totaling 553,172 and may very well set a new record.