Thousands of chinook and coho salmon, fattened by weeks of intense feeding, sneak into the big waters, waiting for the fall rains that will send them streaking to a variety of home rivers in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, hundreds of miles upstream.
The fishery has several attributes that fill the local RV parks and hotels with thousands of anglers. First, the fish are as big as they are going to get. Filled with fat needed to prepare to spawn, they have given up eating to wait in the mouth of the big river till the urge takes over and they head upstream.
The other big draw is that you can fish for them in a picturesque waterway that is much calmer than the Pacific. From the boundary of Buoy Ten upstream some ten miles is a wide, very fishable, waterway that usually, especially in the preferred morning tides, is smooth as glass. Even when it kicks up, all you get is wind chop, not that tidal surge that brings up your breakfast!
Lots of Company
And there are boats!!! Thousands of boats fill the river, all hoping to hook some fish. Many of these are guide boats, some 20 to 24 feet of sled and huge outboard, packing anglers in like sardines and charging all over the river looking for the bite.
But the bite, at least for the last couple of years, has been a bit challenging. I can remember a few years ago when fishing was so good that you could “hi grade” your catch, keeping nothing less than 10 pounds and silver bright. The last couple of years it has taken hours, or sometimes several trips between hits. But people are committed to that vacation slot, and fishermen are optimistic by nature, so the Columbia is still packed.
The fish don’t usually bite as readily as they do in the ocean; their bodies are changing into the spawning mode, and they seem to bite mainly out of anger and habit. Spinners and spoons get equal play with the traditional trolled herring. But some years the fish seem madder than others and the action is special.
My boat has few trips on its log this summer. Sturgeon fishing ended way too soon, and my buddies finished the season with few fish on their punch cards. So my buddies and I were determined to do better during Buoy Ten.
My wife, the accountant, was telling me that the boat wasn’t cost effective, so to save my favorite toy, I had to get some time on the water!
Our first five trips proved to be mostly boat rides. Despite putting in some four hours a session, we only had one silver salmon for our efforts. Not only that, but we’d only seen about five other fish caught by all the other boats in the river—not exactly hot action.
But yesterday morning my buddy Jim Hogan and I decided to give it another try. We got on my shiny 72 Carver and headed out to the great river. Since our marina is right next to the Astoria Bridge, we decided to join the boats trolling in front of the city. It was a mint-shiny morning, so we were enjoying our boat ride as we joined about 60 other craft trolling in a slow clockwise circle while taking in the view of my historic home town.
After a couple of hours of burning gas with little result, one of the boats next to us went into scramble mode and managed to catch and net a shinny coho. It wasn’t very big, but the action was welcome. A few minutes later another net waved from a guide boat, and another fish hit the deck. Soon a couple of nets were waving. In a flash, boats were everywhere; the 60 we had counted before were now in the hundreds. The word had gotten out on the radio, and guide boats and friends were flying in from all over the river.
Suddenly it got a little tough to maneuver. My boat tends to troll a little faster than the pack so I was doing a lot of dodging, darting and dropping into neutral. Finally at the end of one trolling circle I had to cut sharply toward the shipping lane to avoid a collision. I was getting a little flustered when my buddy Jim cut in. “Bob, we got a fish on,” he hollered in disbelief.
It took me a couple of seconds for the message to register. I had converted my thinking to that of a bumper car driver and had forgotten our primary mission. I was so slow in taking the engine out of gear that I missed the fish’s first jump. “It went all the way out of the water; it looked great!” reported Jim in obvious delight.
I cranked in the empty rod, and grabbed the net. The fish was taking line and heading deep. This was no small coho; we had a nice chinook! After a few minutes of fighting, the fish was nearing the surface. He showed nice color—a bright upriver fish. If we could get it netted, we’d have a great meal!
Having no intention of being dinner, the fish made several hard runs as we tried to get it to the net. The shiny pink and green spinner was just barely hooked to the front of the fish’s mouth, so Jim tried to keep its head in the water. Finally, my buddy was able to slide it by the port side so I could get the net under it. As we took it over the side, we heard a cheer—about two-dozen boats had circled around us to watch the action. Thank God we didn’t lose it!
We jumped back into the rotation and tried for another hour, but only a couple of nets came out, and the boats were soon charging off in other directions to look for faster action, and we were left with a couple of dozen diehards. It took a lot of time and effort, but for this day at least we had thrown the “skunk” out of the boat and would come home with a great fish!
Bob Ellsberg’s column, Fishin’, appears monthly in RV Life and rvlife.com.