The rod tip danced around with the unmistakable manner of a spring Chinook bite.
I had waited hours for this. As soon as the rod tip slammed downward I pulled the rod from the holder.
And it was gone just like that!
It is heartbreaking to miss any opportunity at a springer, especially the first one of the season. I received some good-natured ribbing from my boat-mates who said I reefed back too soon. I disputed their account.
But, they may have been right.
It takes patience to hook a spring Chinook. The fish are notorious for playing around with a bait before engulfing it and if you make your move too soon all you get are empty hooks. The trick is to wait until that rod tip is buried and then reel down hard.
We were fishing with one of the best guides on the Columbia River, Bill Monroe Jr., and targeting the water near Willow Grove just downstream of Longview. Monroe had coaxed seven springers into biting in this reach just the day before, and had landed three.
However, several days of rainy weather had caused the Willamette River to blow out and it was dumping a lot of muddy water into the Columbia. That dirty water had made it downstream overnight turning the river a dingy green.
The springers did not like that cloudy water. Not only was it keeping the bite poor but reports from upriver seemed to suggest that it pushed many fish to move upstream of the Willamette River. Monroe received a number of phone calls while we fished reporting on mini-bites at the Portland Airport and the I-5 Bridge.
The tough fishing did not seem to dampen the spirits of the fishermen in the boat. Perhaps it had something to do with the fine weather. Spring Chinook fishing often means huddling under wet, cloudy skies and cold winds, but the sun was shining and there was very little wind.
Rod Cook and Rod Fisher of Vancouver and the father and son team of Mike and Parker Taylor, who hailed from Nashville, Tenn., joined Monroe and myself in the boat.
It was a fun group.
Young Parker, all of 12 years old, was searching for his first salmon. I do believe that most of us in the boat wanted to hook up so we could pass the rod to him and enjoy watching him catch the fish. But the entire day only produced two missed bites.
Monroe worked hard, even putting in a couple extra hours to try to get us on fish. The tough conditions were just too much to overcome.
Fishing slow so far
The Columbia River’s spring Chinook tend to be finicky. According to Joe Hymer of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Region 5, the fish had so far lived up to their persnickety reputation.
“Effort is higher and it is getting better,” said Hymer. “It seems there is a decent bite one day, and then it is slower the next day. About the time you get it figured out something changes.”
“There have been some brief good bites,” he added.
Hymer thinks the slow start may be indicative of another season like last year, when the run was late and came in smaller than projected.
Fishing has been tough, but Monroe has been finding some success most days out.
We were trolling downstream with flashers and fresh herring, targeting stretches where Monroe had been finding fish. We were marking fish on the graph, but they would not bite.
Monroe reported that the anchor fishing had been slow so far, and in fact we did not see any anchor fishermen hook up all day. Many anglers anchor along the travel lanes used by the salmon, and fish with stationary plugs.
He said his best success has come in 20 to 40 feet of water.
“The fish are deep this year,” said Monroe. “It’s a good deep water season.”
Season closes soon
Spring Chinook fishing is scheduled to close on the Columbia below Bonneville Dam after April 7 and there is little chance of the season being extended. Hymer believes that fisheries managers will be cautious in reopening the river and will wait to see how the fish come in.
With just a few days remaining anglers will find fish through the entire system. However, only 35 springers had crossed the Bonneville Dam by April 4. That indicates that the upriver segment of the run is moving very slowly.
According to Monroe, anglers might do best to target some of the reaches below Troutdale over the next few days. There should be decent fishing from the airport down to Prescott Beach. Anglers in the lower river should still be able to get into the fish, too, provided the river clears out a little.
There is not much time left, so if you want to get a Columbia River spring Chinook this year, it’s time to go. However, be patient when they bite or you could end up with empty hooks.
Just like me.