Different Strokes

Columbia River salmon fishing
Columbia River salmon fishing

by Scott Sadil

In news last week that captured a lot of attention throughout the Pacific Northwest, anglers learned that fishery managers from Oregon and Washington had suddenly closed both retention and catch-and-release fishing for all salmonids, salmon and steelhead alike, from the mouth of the Columbia River, the famous Buoy 10 fishery, all the way to Bonneville Dam, nearly 150 miles upstream.

The problem? Too many fish getting caught.

Wait a minute: That’s good news … Isn’t it?

The morning commute

Fisheries management is a tricky game, especially when you’re dealing with threatened and endangered species. Lower Columbia fall chinook, referred to locally as tules, have been listed, as they say, for over twenty years.  These lower river fish are bound for spawning tributaries that originate in watersheds severely altered by logging, dams, and a host of other modern plagues. Runs of wild or native fish have also suffered, many fisheries specialists argue, from the practice of relying heavily throughout the region on hatchery-raised fish, while continuing to ignore the ongoing degradation of habitat.

What this boils down to is that these chinook and other listed fish receive protection.  Impact limits are set, not only how many fish can be retained (killed), but how many are allowed to be handled – that is, caught and released.  

With salmon numbers this summer exceeding forecasts made earlier in the year, anglers in the lower river caught and killed fish at a rate that forced managers to stop retention August 30.  Still, they hoped to allow recreational fishing in the lower river to continue, giving anglers a chance to target coho salmon, which were just beginning to show up in fishable numbers.

The lineup

But it turns out the chinook were getting handled at upwards of one fish per angler each day – until, the day before the closure, anglers caught and released 750 chinook, an “impact” exceeding the allowable limit.

As luck would have it, the closure took effect the same day I’d been offered a spot in a boat to fish for salmon near home, twenty miles above Bonneville Dam.

The help

If you’ve never done this kind of fishing, you may not know what you’re missing.  With the lower river closed, the scene was enriched by a sudden, heavy influx of bus-sized guide boats, complete with two rows of passengers, and all manner of only slightly less impressive power boats from Portland and, presumably, considering the numbers, points beyond.  Daybreak at the local marina reminded me of a freeway commute.  Finally free of congestion, I took the helm, easing the boat across the Columbia to the nearby hot spot while my host rigged up – an assemblage of plastic and metal gewgaws that suggested something to drag behind a Volvo following a recent marriage.

The gear

When my host had me stuff a wad of tuna into a flashy terminal lure – sporting a single barbless hook, of course – I had that same feeling I get when I give up swinging flies for steelhead and tie on a pair of fluffy egg patterns and start nymphing.

The previous day, 26,000 chinook had been counted passing Bonneville Dam.  

The wait

You can only keep one.

They didn’t stand a chance.

Gray’s Angling Editor Scott Sadil readily admits that he goes years, sometimes, without harvesting a salmon.