Marty Danzer landed this incredible summer Chinook with a Brad’s KillerFish while fishing with the author.
If I had to pick one fishery that I’d call my “favorite” that I guide, there’s a few that come to mind. Obviously winter steelhead is the first one that pops in my head. It’s how I started my guiding career and really, it’s what made me fall in love with fishing in the first place. It sent my life spiraling down this path of sitting in the rain trying to outsmart a fish with a brain the size of a pea. And then failing at it sometimes anyway! Sounds pretty stupid when you put it like that.
Next I’d consider the whole Astoria/Buoy 10 fall fishery. I absolutely love the chaos. The camaraderie at the dock with all the guide buddies and old friends. The rods slamming to the water, the big waves and hundreds of boats racing around. Nets flying everywhere you look. The who’s who of the guiding world in the North-west all out there with full boats trying to make excited customers’ dreams come true. It’s a fun couple of weeks, but it’s like trying to herd cats, in a blender, while you’re on fire, and they’re on fire, and everything is on fire. It’s exhausting to say the least.
No, I think if I had to pick my favorite fishery with the highest rewards and least amount of craziness, along with the best weather, I’d have to pick summer Chinook on the Columbia. It’s super easy and relaxing. The weather is usually blue bird days, it’s close to just about everyone’s house from Astoria to Bonneville Dam. No matter where you fish along the Columbia below Bonneville, sum-mer Chinook are coming by in droves.
This year the Columbia is set to close to spring Chinook on April 7th. I’m writing this prior to that so who knows if that will have held true by the time this article runs. Regardless, the Columbia usually reopens sometime in May and that’s when the games begin for me. In 2022 the Columbia opened May 12th which was much earlier than it typically does because the salmon numbers over Bonneville were high enough for the states to allow it. With this years’ run prediction of upper Columbia bound spring Chinook higher than last years, I’m hoping for a similar opener. With that earlier opening, there’s a lot more springers in the river before they get deemed as “summer Chinook” but it makes no difference to me. They’re absolutely the most gorgeous fish we see all year, they have to be fin clipped to retain, they’re the biggest fish of the year and due to the high water in the spring, they’re extremely susceptible to being caught on anchor. Hell yes!
Anchor fishing the Columbia River when the water rises in the spring in my opinion is the easiest way to have great number days of big fish around here. The high water pushes the fish together on the edges of the river or on seams and ridges. Instead of having to canvas a 1000 yard sand bar trolling down-stream like we do before the Columbia closes in April, you can figure out the lane the fish are traveling and sit right on it. Why troll for 1000 yards to fish the best 10 yards of the river when you can sit right on the best spot and put your gear right in the way of the bulk of the fish? It’s almost too easy if you’re in the right spot, but here in lies the problem. Finding the right spot is a tough one.
Last year we had astronomically high water which completely threw me for a loop. A few of the spots I like to fish are usually between about 14 and 30 feet of water. Last year those same way points were at least 8 to 10 feet higher than normal and the current was going Mach 10. These spots were clearly not going to fish worth a damn because lazy fish trying to get upriver as easily as possible aren’t going to fight that much current. The trick is to get in the lanes of soft water that has a contour on the bottom the fish run along or close to the bank where the fish are us-ing the shoreline to break the current and navigate. I found myself in water anywhere from 4 feet to about 16 feet last year when the water was big and ripping. It’s no accident that plunkers have their best fishing of the year when the water gets high. Those fish push right up to the banks to get out of the main flow and are easily within the reach of a soft cast.
There’s a little bit of trial and error when it comes to finding the right spots to sit for summer Chinook. If you’re fishing a sloped ledge, maybe you start in the shallow water one day and see a few fish caught by other boats a little further out or vice versa. There’s no magic depth that the fish run at. It’s all dependent on the stretch of river you’re fishing and the way the bottom structure lays out. Unfortunately, you can easily miss the lane all together and watch a boat right next to you put on a clinic. The best thing you can do in a situ-ation like that is put what you’ve learned in the vault for the next time or figure out what depth that boat is in and go find another spot like that. Pay attention to the river gage and depth where you’re getting fish. They both move in relation to each other. That why it makes it tough to just go out there without a little bit of recent in-formation and land right on them fish. But when you do, hang on tight and get ready for some rod pounding slam downs because they’re coming quick. It’s not uncommon for me to have days where we’ve put four or five fish in the net before I even get all the rods out. Those are the ones we hope for!
Once you’re on your spot and know the fish are coming by close to you, getting them to bite is the last part of the equation. I like to run Brads KillerFish in the KF14 and KF15 sizes wrapped in tuna or sardine on a typical plug fishing set up. Maybe 15 inches of dropper and 4 feet leader will do the trick in most situations. I also like to run Jet Divers to pull my plugs to the bottom when I’m fishing a bunch of rods or the boat is being pushed around in the wind and the plugs are getting tangled together. Divers will move together as the boat moves allowing them to swim around and hopefully stay separated from each other.
Another good offering for summer Chinook is Yakima Bait’s SpinFish. I’ve had very good luck on the 3.0 size SpinFish on anchor with the little bit of time I’ve fished them. I like to stuff them with the same tuna and sardines I wrap plugs with and use scents like Pro Cure Bloody Tuna or Northwest Bait Scents Salmon and Tuna flavors. Mixing scents and flavors if you have multiple rods is a great way to see what the fish are liking that day if you have the luxury of fishing multiple rods from the boat. Plenty of days, you’ll figure out one flavor they like and they come to the net quickly after you swap all your rods to that one.
As far as colors are concerned, I’d stick with the old adage, “It ain’t no use if it ain’t chartreuse.” Obviously, there’s more than one way to skin a cat and catch a salmon, but most of my ways involve a lure with at least a little bit of chartreuse on it somewhere. I have no idea what it is about that color other than it’s bright and they can see it that the salmon love, but time and time again it produces. That being said, some plugs simply work no matter what the color is. Myself and almost every guide I know have “swimmers” that get deployed every time the plugs come out for good reason. Something about that particular plug catches fish no matter what. You’ll be able to identify the “swimmers” in some-one’s arsenal by all the scratches and slash marks in the plugs paint from salmon’s teeth digging in while fighting the fish on previous deployments. That is, if they have any paint left at all.
As far as salmon fisheries in the Northwest are concerned, there’s a lot of good ones. Some are chaotic, some are cold and wet. Others are for sturgeon or walleye or whatever tickles your fancy. There’s plenty of cool endeavors out there for whatever style of fishing you like. For me, sunshine and big salmon are my thing. If I can sit with a boat full of friends, barbecue burgers, work on my tan, hangout with my dog AND have rods slamming to the water with pissed off summer Chinook attached, I’ll take that one every time.
Editor’s note: I’ve fished for Columbia River summer kings with Josiah and agree that it’s one of the most fun fisheries of the year. Big, hard-fighting and tasty kings mixed with nice weather is a hard combination to beat. I can see why it’s one of his favorite fisheries.
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