Fishing Tributary Mouths on the Columbia by Scott Haugen
Opening a container, Bruce Warren reached in and pulled out some of the best cured salmon eggs I’d ever seen. Handing me a bait, he smiled, asking how I liked it. Holding it up to the sunlight, I was not only struck by the rich color, but the texture, as well.
Once the bait was on the hook and scent added, I had the confidence that I was fishing with one of the best baits possible.
“In this fishery you want a perfectly cured egg, something the fish can smell, will bite and hold on to once it’s in their mouth,” shared fishing guide Bruce Warren.
“When hover fishing, the bite is so subtle, you need something the fish will keep ahold of, and that’s why I like this cure,” Warren smiles, holding up another baited hook.
Some of the best looking eggs the author has seen, these were put-up by Columbia River guide, Bruce Warren, whose a stickler for producing the perfect egg for hover fishing the mouth of the Deschutes and Klickitat rivers.
We were fishing in the Columbia River, where the mouth of the Deschutes emptied in. A quick glance at all the boats surrounding us had me scratching my head, thinking. Never before had I seen so many methods being applied in one setting.
Though we hover fished along with dozens of other boats who were doing the same, a lot of people were flatline trolling plugs, trolling with dodgers, trolling with flashers, jigging lures, even float fishing bait. The interesting thing about the trolling, it was being done both up and downstream, even cross-current at times, all morning long.
“It’s a pretty diverse fishery,” smiled Warren, who has been salmon fishing for over 40 years. If you’ve never hover fished, it’s addicting. Enticing a finicky salmon to bite, the take of which feels more like a trout nibble, then setting the hook and locking up in battle with a strong, feisty chinook, is simply a blast.
The Columbia River is world-renowned for its rich salmon fishing. During the months of August through November, boats flock to the mouth of the Deschutes (pictured here) and Klickitat rivers, eager to try multiple methods in an attempt to put chinook, coho and steelhead in the box.
Hover Fishing Setups
Not only were Warren’s eggs beautifully cured, but they milked out perfectly. Still, everyone in the boat changed out baits every 15 minutes or so, to keep them fresh and milking out; and it worked, we caught fish.
The hover fishing terminal gear setup Warren uses is simple. Threaded on to his mainline is a T-shaped sinker slider, to which a duo lock snap swivel is attached. A cannonball sinker is attached to the other end of the swivel, and the mainline tied to a bead chain swivel. A leader of about three-feet in length is tied to the other eye of the barrel swivel. The sliding sinker setup is popular in fisheries where notoriously light strikes occur, the thinking being that when a fish picks up the bait and slowly moves off, it won’t feel any resistance from a sinker as the line can slip through the slider. Some anglers believe it allows them to better feel the subtle bites.
While some anglers prefer a fixed sinker setup for hover fishing, others like a slider setup, like this, rigged by guide, Bruce Warren.
Longtime guide of this fishery—and many others in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska—Jeremy Toman, prefers using a fixed sinker setup where the cannonball sinker is snapped to a three-way swivel via a duo lock snap swivel.
“I think the direct sinker-to-line contact allows you to feel the bite better, because the line is tight and there’s no slack movement,” Toman rations. His reasoning, too, makes sense. To the other eyes of the three-way swivel, Toman attaches the mainline and a 3- to 3 1/2-foot leader.
While some anglers like using a 1-ounce sinker, 2-ounces at most, Toman routinely runs 2- to 3-ounces, sometimes 4-ounces in high winds. “I want that line straight up and down, not getting ahead or lagging behind the boat,” he reasons.
“In hover fishing, the boat acts as the bobber and you want to maintain that straight up and down pull angle so when the bite comes, your hook-set is quick and solid.”
Toman uses his regular springer recipe when curing eggs for this fishery, but emphasizes the importance of using different scents. Often he’ll add a sand shrimp tail or piece of herring or tuna to his eggs, then top it with garlic oil. He advocates using different scents, sugar and colored egg cures to find what the fish want. “The fish are usually there, you just have to find what makes them want to bite,” Toman maintains.
There are multiple ways to target salmon and steelhead at the mouths of the Deschutes and Klickitat rivers. These happy anglers bring a chinook to the net, caught while hover fishing.
When hover fishing with multiple people in the boat, try rigging everyone with different baits. Maybe one with straight eggs, one with an egg/shrimp combo, one with a different egg cure or maybe a different colored egg than what’s being used, then let the fish tell you what they want. Again, using the same baits with different scents, can turn on a bite, so don’t be afraid of trying a variety of scents.
Once you find what the fish want, switch all baits to it until the fish quit hitting, then start experimenting, again.
As with other specialized fishing methods, there are rods specifically made for hover fishing. “My favorite hover fishing rod is the Lamiglas Redline Series, a 7’10” one-piece setup with a stiff butt section and ultra-sensitive tip,” points out Toman. “A rod like this makes a huge difference when it comes to feeling a bite and catching more fish.”
With hover fishing, the approach is simple. Drop the gear to the bottom, reel up a crank or two and drift with the current. If marking suspended fish, put some baits at that level and hope for the best.
In 2014, the chinook fishing was much slower than the season prior at the river mouths. Many anglers believe water temperatures were the culprit, as salmon were stacked in front of the mouth of the Deschutes River, they just weren’t biting due to the warm water conditions.
“We were having a tough time at the Deschutes in September, so we moved to the mouth of the Klickitat,” notes guide Austin Moser, . “My thinking was to get to the deeper, cooler water, and hopefully find some chinook.” The Klickitat River typically runs cooler than the Deschutes, meaning the freshet from the Klickitat often stops fish, congregating them at the confluence.
“We started marking fish right away down at the Klickitat mouth, but they were stacked in behind a lot of the high points along the uneven bottom, so I hooked up the downriggers,” Moser continues. “Using a Canon Digi-Troll 10, I set them to track four- to ten-feet off the bottom, depending on where I was marking fish. Having a downrigger that automatically adjusts for depth allows you to hit those fish holding behind ledges and in depressions. It works very well.”
Austin Moser, has found huge success using Canon’s Digi-Troll 10 downriggers. With the depth control set on auto’ mode, Austin is able to keep the baits exactly where they need to be, which results in high catch rates. (photo, Austin Moser)
Moser’s testimony of the auto-tracking down-riggers is an understatement. I fished the same area one day and we came away with one chinook in our boat; Moser boated 11, all caught on down-riggers.
Moser’s trolling setup consists of a Pro-Troll Flasher with a 60-inch leader pulling a Brad’s Super Bait filled with oily tuna. “I like this setup because you can troll slow, about 2 mph,” informed Moser. “I also like experimenting with scents, changing things up from tuna oil to garlic to anise. I really like Pro-Cure’s Garlic Plus and Anise Plus oils. As for Super Baits, red was the go-to color last season, as they outfished all other colors 3:1.”
Moser also puts sea salt on his tuna and changes them out every 15-20 minutes. He uses oil-packed tuna, not water-packed, and goes through four to six cans a day.
Jeremy Toman also likes trolling lightweight gear in these waters. “I really like trolling once the coho show up, too,” smiles Toman. Toman fishes a two-ounce sinker and a four-inch Fish Flash. “Chartreuse and a chartreuse/red flashers work very well,” Toman points out. “Behind the flasher I’ll put a coon shrimp on a light wire 2/0 Mustad Ultra Point hook and top that with a few beads and either a Bear Valley blade or a Bob Toman size 5 Cascade blade. Coon shrimp dyed in pinks and reds work best. If I want the bait to ride a bit higher, I’ll sometimes add a couple small Lil’ Corkies between the shrimp and the blade, for buoyancy.”
Toman advises watching closely what other boats are doing when it comes to determining a trolling direction. I’ve seen it where there aren’t many boats around, so everyone has the freedom to troll any direction they want; upstream, downstream or cross-current. But if there are lots of boats, you’ll want to see which direction the majority are moving and stick with them. “Watch the trolling speed of other boats,” suggests Toman. “You don’t want to ride people’s tail, or lag behind and slow up traffic, so do the best you can to keep up with the flow,” Toman reasons. This advice applies to flatline trolling, too.
Trolling for coho in the mouth of the Klickitat and Deschutes rivers can be exceptional during much of the fall. This silver fell for a 4.5 Mag Lip, a great plug to troll through these waters on the Columbia.
“When flatline trolling plugs, we’ll drop them 50- to 70-feet back,” offers Toman. “Keep the distance shorter in shallower water, longer in deeper sections, and make sure to match your trolling speed with the design of the plug in order to optimize its action. You want a nice action on the plug; you don’t want it digging into the bottom, or floating too high. Last year we had great result flatlining both the 3.0 and 3.5 Mag Lips, in both the Fire Tiger and Glitter Watermelon Deschutes’ Dazzler colors.”
“From August all through November, there are a pile of fish that move into this system,” wraps up Toman. “The chinook action is usually best from August through September, and the steelhead fishing can be great in September, too. Coho will start staging at the mouths of both rivers in September, and keep stacking up through November; that’s a fishery I can’t get enough of!”
Flatline tolling of plugs can be very effective when fishing the mouth of the Deschutes and Klickitat rivers. It works great for chinook, coho, even steelhead, shown here.
Jeremy Toman, runs a camp on the lower Deschutes, making for a fun fishing opportunity. Often he’ll take clients trolling at the mouth of the Deschutes until late morning, then head up river, focusing on casting for steelhead.
During late July into September, the fishing conditions can be very hot, so bring plenty of sunscreen and water. This is a fun fishery, one that’s easy to do on your own, but if new to it, hiring a guide might be a good starting point to learning the ropes.
One thing’s for sure, once you see the number of anglers flocking to the mouths of the Klickitat and Deschutes rivers, you’ll understand why this section of the Columbia River is a premier salmon and steelhead destination this time of year. And when you tie-in to some of these hard fighting, great eating fish, you’ll be left wanting more.
- written by Scott Haugen