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The Firing Line by Josiah Darr

 When fishermen talk about the infamous “Buoy 10 Fishery” it’s often followed up with grumblings about how bad the crowds are and how big the water is. It’s inevitable someone will pipe up with the classic comment, “it’s nowhere near as good as it used to be.”

You might even hear someone say something about how they’re not wasting their time down there this year.

Blah, blah, blah. Broken record.

It always makes me chuckle a little.

Yeah, the boat ramps get hectic and when the wind kicks up in the afternoon, the water can be a nightmare. Sure, it’s tougher some days, but the water can also be super mild down there and fishing is outstanding more often than it’s not.

Hey look, if you don’t want to fish it, great.

I’m not going to convince you, but if you think Astoria fishing is the most chaotic and intense fishing in the Columbia in the fall, think again.salmon fishing columbia river ridgefield

A few years ago, Oregon and Washington’s fish and wildlife agencies decided they were going to close the Columbia in the fall for Chinook in the lower river to protect the tule Chinook that enter the lower river tributaries. I’ve never understood that, but I digress.

Since the Lewis River is the furthest upriver tributary that gets a protectable run of tules, the states made the Columbia River Chinook fishing deadline just upstream of the Lewis River mouth.

columbia river fishing map

An area commonly referred to as Ridgefield or Warrior Rock depending on what side of the river you live on. Well, here’s a little secret I’ll let you in on if you don’t already know.

The chaos and boat traffic at the deadline and just upstream of it is tighter quarters (with more craziness and even boat crashes) than anywhere I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s flat out nuts most days. There is a reason though.

Chinook fishing can be stupid good.

ODFW defines the deadline as a line projected from the Warrior Rock Lighthouse on the Oregon shore to red navigation Buoy #4, then to the piling dolphin on the lower end of Bachelor Island upstream to Bonneville Dam.

It sounds pretty simple, but what it doesn’t show is the countless number of boats trying to jam themselves into the same little chunk of water barely above the deadline in hopes of being the first boats fishing on these Chinook since they left Astoria. If you think Buoy 10 is hectic, try jamming that many boats into an area a 20th of the size of Astoria. Imagine if everyone could only fish above the Astoria-Megler Bridge.

To add another degree of difficulty, there’s often a sheriff boat posted up right at the deadline watching like a hawk to make sure you’re not fudging the line. If he happens to not be there, don’t worry, the deadline is visible from the courthouse and docks in St. Helens, and the police have the best binoculars and cameras ever made, so don’t think that just because the cat is away the mice can play.

Now why on earth would someone want to subject themselves to this kind of trolling nightmare?

Well, because other than a few boats catch and releasing fish from Astoria to the deadline, no one is targeting Chinook all the way to the ocean. That means when these fish hit the line, many of them haven’t seen a lure in approximately 70 miles. Let’s just say, they’re good biters.

josiah darr salmon columbia river chinook

Pro Trolling

We’ve all seen how trolling 360 flashers has taken the fishing world by storm the last five years. I’m sure the upper Columbia guys, who were doing it well before that, weren’t excited to see it move downriver. But love it or hate it, it’s deadly and it’s here to stay.

For those of you who’ve been living under a rock and don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s an outline for the most common 360 flasher trolling set up and 100% the most effective way to target Chinook around the Ridgefield deadline.

I like to start with 15-30 Lamiglas Kenai Kwiks from 9’3” in length all the way to 12’6” with the most common in my boat being the 10’6” version.

These rods are absolutely perfect for trolling the heavy weights and have enough of a slow-action flex to allow the flasher to make its full rotation. Plus, they can handle any sized fish the Columbia will throw at you.

From there, you’ll want to run 12 to 20 ounces of lead to keep your flasher not only near the bottom, but also close to your boat.

Nothing drives me crazier than getting tangled up with another boat who’s 50 yards in front of me because he’s using a 6-ounce lead and has 250 feet of line out. If you want to fish in traffic, you need to fish heavy leads close to your boat or you’re going to be huge pain for everyone else.

You’ll also likely get to meet a few other fishermen on terms not so agreeable.

Personally, I like to use a sliding weight system with my leads and not bother with a dropper. VIP Outdoors and Yakima Bait both make excellent no-twist style sliders. I just clip my lead straight to my slider and make sure I keep it at least a few cranks off the bottom. I feel like eliminating the dropper makes for one less thing to worry about when trying to net hot fish at the side of the boat, and it takes a little of the play out of your set up making the 360 flasher kick over a little faster.

The next part of the 360 set up, and what I get asked about more than any other part, is the distance from your weight to your flasher and from your flasher to your lure. There’s no perfect answer to this one, but there are a few very important details.

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The whole point of the 360 flasher is for the flasher to make a full rotation making the lure behind the flasher dance around.

If your leader length to the flasher is short, you won’t need as much trolling speed to get it to spin. If it’s longer, you’ll need to go faster to get the kick you’re looking for. As far as what the kick should look like, it’s actually pretty simple. Watch your rod in the holder and try to get the rod to go about one thump per second.

Speed and leader length go together like peanut butter and jelly so whatever you decide on, as long as you’re getting about one beat on the rod per second, you’re fishing.

With that being said, when you’re in a sea of boats trolling both directions and some guys are trolling like drunken sailors, it makes going a consistent speed very difficult. If you like trolling on your TR1 or trolling from the front of the boat behind your windshield, this might not be the best fishery for you. 

Because you’re usually not able to hold the same speed very long while you weave in and out of boats coming at you like you’re playing Centipede on Atari, I like to slightly vary my lengths from my lead to my flashers. Your back rods and front rods don’t act the same while you’re ducking and dodging other boats so changing them up slightly assures me that at least a few of my rods will be moving the right speed when I run into the next wad of fish.

When it comes to how far behind the flasher to put your lure, again I like to vary my leader lengths to get different kicks at different speeds. If there was a rule of thumb to go by, I’d start with them no more than 32” behind the flasher and if I’m not getting bit, make it shorter.

There are about a million things you can troll behind a 360 flasher and get bit on.

A lot of it is matter of preference, but the top choices are 3.5 spinners, Brad’s Super Baits, Brad’s Plug Cuts and Mini Plug Cuts. There’s also a new lure out by Yakima Bait Company called a Spinfish. So far the Spinfish has excellent reviews and should prove to be a killer this fall.

Any of them will work well, but there is something to be said for being able to add bait to your lure. Pro Cure and Northwest Bait and Scent have a few excellent scent options to add to whatever fish you decide to stuff inside your baits. Don’t be afraid to be a little different when it comes to scent. It’s worth keeping in mind if you ever find yourself in a sea of boats and you’re not getting bit. The ability to add scent or change scent can be game changer. 

columbia chinook fishing kings

Flasher selection is about the easiest part of this set up.

There are really two good brand options. You’ll want the 11” Pro Troll Flashers or Short Bus Flashers. Pro Troll has a built in E-Chip that some people swear makes a big difference and they also have a lighted flasher series which has its days in the sun.

Short Bus has a much wider array of color options in their arsenal. While on paper the two are almost an identical design, in the water there’s a slight difference. It seems as though the Pro Troll Flasher spins a little quicker at slower speeds. Whatever one you choose, keep your rod tips moving at one beat per minute and you’ll be in the money.

There are a ton of areas where fishing in tight quarters is the norm and many of those are at the mouth of a river between jetties.

The biggest difference in most of those fisheries versus the Warrior Rock deadline is in the Columbia the boats are moving much faster than boats holding against the tide like in the jaws. You really have to keep your head on a swivel while you’re out there. You wanna keep your lines fishing correctly and be able to avoid someone else who might be a little less seasoned.

Oh, and how could I forget, you also have to watch out for the guys on anchor.

I know it wasn’t many years ago when we’d all anchor in the fall and wobbler fish, and I see a few fish getting caught that way while I’m out there. Despite that, being out on the water day in and day out in a fishery that’s mere minutes from my home, I can guarantee you the anchor boats get their doors blown off by the trollers.

It’s not even comparable how many more fish the trollers catch. Do yourself a favor and give up on the anchoring and figure out the 360-trolling game. It’s a lot more action and gets a lot more anchor ropes out of the way.

If you do decide to take on the firing line at Warrior Rock, you’ll put yourself in a very productive piece of water for a few weeks a year, but you’ll also have your mettle tested when it comes to fishing in a crowd.

Bring as much patience as you can muster and for God sakes, please don’t go out there and get frustrated with other boats every time you have to bring in your bow rods to keep from tangling with another boat. It’s part of the gig.

If you’re looking for a nice relaxing day on the water, Ridgefield is not for you.

If you’re looking for a fun-filled day of acting like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs with aggressive Chinook and coho that have never seen a lure swimming by, welcome to the show.

I’ll see you out there.

- Josiah Darr


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