Scott Haugen admires a sockeye taken at the confluence of the Okanogan and Columbia rivers, where the fish school in large numbers. Water temperature is the key to success in this fishery.
The river was covered in lights, boaters patiently awaiting legal fishing light to arrive. With dawn breaking on the horizon, it was only a matter of minutes before lines could be put in the water.
“OK, let ‘em down,” Jerrod Gibbons, owner of Okanogan Valley Guide Service finally ordered. No sooner had my youngest son, Kazden, let his line out the designated distance and he was battling a sockeye salmon.
Before we knew it Kazden’s fish was in the boat and Tiffany, my wife, latched into her first fish of the morning. I had a hit but missed it.
Less than five minutes into the action we already had two nice red salmon in the box. “That’s not a bad start,” piped Jerrod, shooting a smile to his dad, Tom, who also joined us on this trip.
As the sun broke the horizon, Tiffany landed her second sockeye, making for a great photo opportunity. The action didn’t let up, and soon our family of four was elbow deep, cleaning fish, packaging and putting them on ice.
Tiffany Haugen with a sunrise sockeye, some of the best eating fish in the world.
The following day would nearly be a repeat performance. Though the water had warmed up a couple degrees and the fish were more finicky, they were there and Jerrod worked hard to find them. We came away with all the fish we wanted, and eagerly anticipated the many fine meals to follow.
This was our family’s first time fishing sockeye’s on the Columbia River, near Brewster, Washington. We’d caught many reds in Alaska, but not in the Lower 48.
My motivation for the trip was to learn about the unique fishery. Tiffany’s drive came in attaining some of the best eating meat on the planet. We also wanted our boys to have a fun, positive experience, and that’s why we chose to fish with Jerrod Gibbons.
We’d hunted with Jerrod before, spent many days with he and his father, Tom, at various sports shows, and we always have a good time together.
The Timing & Place
Timing is everything with this fishery, and the window can be brief.
“Sometimes we’ll start hitting fish around the first of July,” notes Jerrod. “And sometimes it’ll go all the way into the third week of August. But typically, the best fishing in the second half of July.” That’s when we fished with Jerrod and we did exceptionally well.
We fished what’s known to locals as the Brewster Pool, where the mouth of the Okanogan River feeds into the Columbia. Technically, we were fishing in the
Columbia, as this is where the reds were stacked due to water temperature.
“It’s all about water temperature,” shares Jerrod. “These fish are heading to Canada, up the Okanogan River, but they won’t move until the water temperature drops. This time of year it’s hot in this part of Washington and temperatures in the Okanogan River can reach 75º, while the Columbia holds at about 65º. The fish stack up at the mouth of the Okanogan, holding in the cooler water of the Columbia. As soon as we get a rain and the Okanogan River temperatures drop, the fish shoot upstream. It can happen fast. Then again, if it stays warm, it’s mind-boggling the number of sockeyes that can stack-up here.”
Once the holding school of fish head upstream, it’s usually only a matter of a few days before water temperatures rise, causing newly arriving sockeyes to congregate at the mouth of the Okanogan. It’s a cycle, one that’s totally dependent upon weather and water temperatures.
For traveling anglers, monitor the weather, especially in the Brewster area and upstream where the Okanogan River meanders. Of course, weather is always a factor amongst salmon and steelheading crowds, but try and time your arrival when it’s hot and no rain is in sight around the Brewster area.
This is where it’s nice having flexibility in your schedule. If you do hit it wrong, make the most of it and take the time to explore other fisheries in the region, or simply go sight-seeing in this beautiful place in the Pacific Northwest.
Jerrod points out that some years, when the Okanogan River doesn’t warm up, the fish can scoot upstream pretty fast. When this happens he’ll concentrate fishing efforts below Wells Dam. The fish can gather below the dam, leading to some good fishing. One season Jerrod and his clients spent over a month fishing below the dam.
Pateros Lakeshore Inn
If pulling your own boat, there are two launching options for fishing the mouth of the Okanogan. For small boats, there’s a launch about a mile upstream from the mouth of the Okanogan River; from there, run downstream to the fishing action. Or launch under the bridge in the town of Pateros and run a few miles upstream to where the fish are. I liked the second option as we stayed at the Pateros Lakeshore Inn, 400 yards from the launch site.
“You won’t have any trouble finding where to fish, just follow the boats,” Jerrod laughs. “This is a fun fishery, one where you’ll see lots of kids and entire families on the water. Everyone is out there to have a good time, and it’s very positive as lots of people catch fish.”
Jerrod also points out that it can take years to learn how to consistently catch high numbers of fish here; in other words, it’s not as easy as it may seem. I witnessed this the first day we cleaned fish on the docks of the Petaros Lakeshore Inn. While our family was cleaning four limits, the three anglers that docked next to us had a total of three sockeyes. They asked a lot of questions.
“Honestly, a lot of our trips are one-time deals, where people hire me to show them where and how to fish the sockeye in this area,” Jerrod acknowledges. I admire Jerrod’s willingness to help people out. He recognizes the fact there are plenty of sockeyes to go around and that as anglers—be they weekend warriors or full-time guides—we’re all on the same team. Most of the people Jerrod guides are boat owners, and he wants to see them using their boat and getting their families on the water.
That’s a mentality I greatly respect, which is why our family chose to fish with him.
Though sockeye salmon can be finicky, they are not leader-shy. Our setups consisted of 25-pound mainline and 20-pound leader for the simple reason you could latch into a nice king at any time.
Pink, orange and flashy bling dominate the sockeye salmon’s terminal gear setup.
A boat next to use landed two chinook over 25 pounds while trolling for sockeye. Jerrod regularly encounters kings and wants to be ready.
We fished both dodgers and sinkers off a dropper. Both setups were basic and served specific purposes. Early in the morning, when fish were suspended high in the water column, we used dodgers fished from downriggers. Behind our size 0 dodger ran a 14-inch leader and a tantalizing bait.
Atop a size 1 Octopus style hook sat a Mack’s Hoochie tipped with a silver Smile Blade, or a small, pink Spin-N-Glo. Both flashing, spinning attractors had a major impact on our fish-catching ability. So did the bait.
“I think a lot of people dismiss the fact that these sockeyes, like all salmon, have an incredible sense of smell,” Jerrod offers. “Just because there are a lot of fish in the hole, don’t take it to mean you can get careless.”
Below the size 1 hook is a trailing, size 4 treble hook. Jerrod has documented a catch increase since moving to a two-hook, treble trailing setup. These fish can be soft-mouthed, and often strike subtly. The more hooks, the better.
One of the go-to rigs the author and his family relied on during their red salmon adventure.
Jerrod’s secret bait is really no secret, but it’s effective.
On the single hook, Tom, Jerrod’s dad and number one “bait boy,” threads a cured prawn, leaving the treble hook to freely dangle. Jerrod and Tom dye and cure the prawns, themselves. They take the raw prawns, add their specially flavored, signature series anise Dipping Sauce, some pink dye and let sit overnight, or 24 hours if there’s time. Tom is the only one allowed to touch the baits, which eliminates possible contamination from other anglers, plus it allows Jerrod to concentrate on finding the fish.
Once cured, gently remove the prawns and place them in a container of rock salt.
Fresh out of the brine the prawns can be soft, and the rock salt helps firm them up. Whether the bait was the reason we outfished most everyone around us, or it was a combination of Jerrod’s meticulous approach, is hard to say. But being a salmon nut, I think the bait and scent had a lot to do with our consistent success.
The other setup we used, this one without the aid of a downrigger and flasher, was a basic dropper. Simply tie the mainline to a 3-way swivel or small spreader; tie a three-foot leader and a five-inch dropper to the other eyes and you’re set.
When the bite slowed, Jerrod went to this setup, fishing the same bait as described above, and we caught fish when no one else was. No one was trolling this way, either.
We ran a three-ounce cannonball sinker on the rods out the back of the boat and four-ounce lead balls out the sides of the boat, to stagger the lines. This not only prevented tangles, it allowed us to cover a range of water.
Using a depth finder is critical with either of the aforementioned techniques. Jerrod suggests concentrating efforts in the channels running between 35 and 45 feet of deep, where you’ll usually find sockeyes suspended in 10 to 25 feet of water. With a depth finder, you’ll know precise depths and where fish are holding.
Kazden Haugen (left) and Braxton Haugen, are all smiles over their Washington sockeyes. Jerrod Gibbons is dialed-in to this fishery and makes it fun for the whole family to be a part of.
Typically, as would be expected, sockeyes hold higher in the water column early in the morning, dropping deeper as the morning progresses. To find these fish, no matter what the time of day, Jerrod likes trolling downstream, traveling 0.8 to 1.0 mile per hour. He feels this allows him to cover a lot of water and find more fish.
In addition to being fun fish to catch, sockeye meat is some of the most delectable in the entire fishing world.
This summer, watch the weather, grab the boat and head to Brewster, Washington, where you’ll get taste of what red salmon fishing outside of Alaska, is really like.
- written by Scott Haugen
Learn more about Outdoor Writer & TV Personality, Scott Haugen