June Hogs by Sara Ichtertz
Once having one of the most plentiful salmon runs on the planet, the Columbia River system is the core of the salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest.
Salmon use this massive watershed to lead them out to sea, and then return making their way home to the headwaters from which they came. It is estimated that before the time of settlements in the Pacific Northwest this massive river allowed 7.5 to 16 million adult salmon to return home annually, giving the native people of this land a plentiful harvest.
Salmon was not only their life source, they were their way of life. In 1866, brothers William, George, and John Hume, along with Andrew Hapgood opened the first cannery on the Columbia River, revolutionizing the commercial salmon fishing industry.
With the massive commercial fishing boom, along with the construction of many dams without fish passage, by the 1890s runs of fish were in trouble. This was followed by the construction of massive mainstream dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Unfortunately, the salmon was not much of a concern nor were they the priority at hand.
Only because these fish are incredibly resilient are we able to embrace fishing for them today. Sadly, the production of Grand Coulee Dam may have been thought to give life to the struggling American economy in the 1930s, but in the end, it cost us something money just can not buy.
A species of fish that once was beyond plentiful and thriving found themselves unable to reach many of their spawning grounds as far as British Columbia, forever changing the once prominent “June Hog.”
The fact that we have the opportunity to fish for these creatures today after reading their pages in our history is amazing really.
It leaves me with a better awareness of what once was and with a bit more respect for the fish, I plan to harvest. Last summer in one incredible June weekend I went from chasing the prehistoric gentle giants of the Columbia, to salmon hunting in search of fish I had only read about.
We were spending our final day on the Columbia, in search of a “June Hog.” The anticipation always gets to me, but I tell you that I must have known something amazing was coming because I could not calm my nerves as we hit the water that morning before the sun began to rise.
Amazed by the massive body of water I was on, I knew I was far from home.
This fishing was something a southern Oregon bank fisher like myself had never experienced, nor could have I experienced them the way my girlfriends and I did without David Johnson (Of David Johnson’s Guide Service).
This man was the first guide I have fished the northern, west coast chunk of Oregon with. Actually, if I think about it, he’s the only guide in that region I fish with! Though he has become more than just a guide. This fishy fishy man is now my knowledgeable friend, whose company I prefer over most.
That very well could be because over the course of one year he has introduced me to fisheries I never knew if I would ever truly fish. He not only introduced them to us, but we have straight-up slayed and released some seriously incredible fish together!
In these moments I’ve learned an entirely new approach to angling.
Being in the presence of such creatures, whether they were on my line or not, has made me grow as an angler. I found a new style of joy on the water that was nothing like the joy I find on my rivers back home. These new friends who mean more to me than the 6-foot sturgeon I caught with them the day prior to the “June Hog” hunting.
The fishy brain that David possesses allows for this never-ending buffet of river knowledge. I love being able to retain some of the thoughts and purpose behind David and why he fishes certain species the way he does.
For the “June Hog” his way of thinking is spot on. So spot on that it’s best you hear it from the man himself.
"Since summer Chinook run between spring Chinook and fall Chinook many of the same techniques for both runs of fish can be used. These fish provide Columbia River anglers opportunity from the Astoria Bridge all the way up into Eastern Washington during the months of June and July," says, David Johnson.
“They can be caught trolling, anchor fishing in deep water with wobblers, anchor fishing in shallow water with spinners, with bait-wrapped plugs, plunking or back trolling. I use the conditions (water temp, speed and clarity) to dictate what techniques I use,” explains Johnson.
Knowing that the river was high and cold the day of our “June Hog” pursuit, David found what he was looking for and we dropped anchor. We were running 4.5 and 5.0 Mag Lips wrapped with sardine. Now the honest truth, even though trolling is a thrill to me. (Watching Chinook and silvers eat it till they are fully committed, seeing those rods just pin down with such life on the line!? Well, that is exciting, and I have come to love it!).
There is something about being on anchor that is somewhat mediocre to the bank fisherman inside me. However, the comedic act that was taking place upon the sled that morning was too much, leaving me literally rolling on the diamond plated floor with laughter not noticing that the bite could have been better.
One thing I realize about being on the anchor is when the fish aren’t eager it’s best to have the company of someone you know you will enjoy. Otherwise, you might end up wanting to feed yourself to the sea lions.
Thankfully that was not the case and I was enjoying this time on anchor far more than the last. When there it was, the first fish of the day!
Hooray! A dime bright little beauty of a summer Chinook. Excited by the tug of it all we quickly saw her adipose and knew this first summer Chinook I had ever laid eyes on was going back.
Vigorously she would swim trying to make her way home up the gauntlet of dams and all that is the Columbia River we see today. Other fish were lost and landed throughout the afternoon though my friend Gretchen and I had yet to have our rods do so much as flicker.
Sweet thing was, we didn’t honestly care.
We were getting to know each other better and better with each adventure and I have to say I am thankful I made it this day, to be part of such a moment! The tides were changing and the amount of time we had left to run those plugs just right with the current was just about up and David knew it, when there she was! All eyes on the ever so fully pinned rod just a banging. David exclaims! “Gretchy get your fish!”
No sooner than her firm grasp was on the rod did that salmon scream off into the Columbia, trying to smoke her right then and there on the first run. But the anchor was pulled and Gretch got that big ol’ Chinook turned around!
Watching that as a fisher made me proud. As her friend, it warmed my heart to see such growth as she showed that fish she meant business! I have seen many a fall Chinook smoke men off the jetties of my southern Oregon rivers.
Unable to turn those big fish around they have literally been spooled. But not Gretchen, not today! The first time the fish surfaced, tail slapping about in all of her glory, David declared! “It’s a June Hog! Now be easy on it Gretch. That’s a big fish!”
The fish did not want to surrender and the adrenalin of it all was crazy!
Barbless hooks, are you kidding me? The moment that incredible salmon did surrender to Gretchen, after one hell of a fight the eruption that came from that boat was everything that the joy of fishing really is! The sweetest thing about that is regardless of whether I harvested any meat for my family that day or not what I fed was my soul and the value of that is damn near priceless. David's cheers of the “June Hog” on board!
Gretchen's trembling body staring down at her first big fish. The fish she had been working towards and desiring to catch was at her feet. She was in this happiest state of almost shock as I screamed obscenities of joy regarding the beauty and size of such a fish! I grabbed hold of my friend hugging her tightly like the maniac that I am! She was so happy. Tears of joy began to run down her face as she jumped for joy all at the same time.
The moment was beautiful, and the fish was grand! Oh, how I loved it!
Happiness does not always come from the tug itself, sometimes it is just being able to share in the moment with those who matter most!
This is what’s good about pursuing a life where happiness matters. The joy of fishing runs so much deeper when you truly love it. David wanted to share these incredible creatures from the pages of history with us and I am so thankful he did.
Laying eyes on a fish like that is something I know I will never forget!
It gives me hope that no matter how lame we as humans have been that these fish will never be completely lost to the pages of history. I honestly can’t tell you which one I was more excited about. The fact I had never seen such a chrome bright fatty as that Chinook, that my buddy knows how to hunt for them, or the fact that my friend landed such a fish?!
I can tell you even though my rod was the only one that did not go off that day, every second of it was worth it.
They are resilient, they are beautiful, they have a way of bringing friends closer together—putting it simply, they are worth it. I will travel many a mile just to chase the fish, just to see what the day might await. There is no denying it. My heart is on the river and I couldn't change it, even if I tried.
- written by Sara Ichtertz