Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of blogs on summer steelheading on the Lower Columbia River and its tributaries, fisheries that easily yield 10,000 ocean-fresh fish annually.
“Dear, the steelhead should be in, let’s target them.”
And with that, last weekend Bob Spaur and his wife eschewed the recently reopened spring Chinook fishery on the Lower Columbia in favor of spunky summer-runs.
A good decision, it turned out.
“I don’t know how many boats they checked without fish — 50?” wondered Spaur yesterday as he sent me pics of the four fresh steelies he and Deb came back to the ramp with.
True, the months a couple flips deeper in the calendar are much better known for steelheading on the big river — fueled by massive runs, Julys 2009 and 2010 yielded record single-month sport harvests of 8,221 and 8,213, respectively for Beaver and Evergreen State anglers — but close readers of catch data from the Oregon and Washington Departments of Fish and Wildlife will nod knowingly at the Spaurs’ decision: There be fish to catch in May too.
Über-fresh ones, fish so chrome and firm they put the best bumpers of Detroit’s glory days to shame.
“They’re loaded with fat — they’re very healthy right now,” Spaur says.
Even better: This kind of steelheading ain’t the kind you may be thinking of. You know, standing in a frigid mountain river at the crack of dawn with 50 of your closest buddies packed like frozen herring down at the hatchery’s Meat Hole, everybody splattering cured eggs over one another, slickery rock snot and involuntarily pierced body parts.
Nope, steelheading on the Columbia is a far mellower beast. Bring your lawn chair, for instance.
And a cow bell.
Well, maybe not a cow bell-cow bell, but little tiny ding-a-lings that you attach to your rod and it tinkles when you’ve got a bite.
Bring a beach ball. Bring the family. Bring a barbecue.
Oh, and don’t forget the suntan lotion.
Seriously, these clouds will go away at some point this year.
But even if they don’t, the fish will bite. Just ask the Spaurs.
“There are days you can have 20-fish days,” says Bob, who has fished the Columbia “since I was a kid” and who pro-staffs for Pro-Cure Bait Scents of Salem and Brad’s Killer Fishing Gear of Longview, Wash. “We had opportunities for 13, 14 hookups (last weekend). Right now it’s tap-tap and they’re dropping it.”
They were fishing from a boat, and “it” in this case would be a prawn tail or coonstripe shrimp. They affixed it to a 2/O to 4/O Mustad fine-wire hook (No. 92604) behind a couple 6mm red beads, a size 4 watermelon Spin-N-Glo and another red bead.
That terminal tackle sits on all of a 24- to 26-inch leader — Spaur doesn’t know exactly how long it is, only that it’s about as the length of his lower leg — of 15-pound line attached to a large barrel swivel, a large bead, snap swivel, another large bead, a plastic weed shedder that anglers know as a golf tee and 20-pound mainline.
From the snap swivel, run a “dropper” line of 4- to 6-pound test to a pyramid sinker or other weight heavy enough to catch and hold bottom.
But flounder and sculpins are not the target species here: Your Spin-N-Glo will lift the meaty bait up off the bottom right into the path of steelies sneaking around structure in their path on the way upstream.
For those times when the current isn’t running so fast — despite its massive volume, the Columbia is tidally influenced — Spaur pins the red bead just above the winged bobber with a toothpick so that it will stay with the bait rather than rise to a middle point between prawn and dropper weight.
He also cures his bait in Pro-Cure’s Double Neon Red and dopes it up with the Oregon company’s Super Gel in shrimp/krill.
That rig translates pretty well for shoreline plunkers, but if all that sounds horribly complex, see the below pics or just stop by any sporting goods store near the Columbia. Guys like Cody Clark, James Harper and Rob Brown at Bob’s Merchandise in Longview, Wash., Harper’s Tackle in Woodland, Wash., and Jack’s Snack & Tackle in Troutdale, Ore., as well as the good folks at Fisherman’s Marine in Delta Park, Oregon City and Tigard, Ore., and Sporty’s in Clatskanie, Ore., all will be able to set you up for this fishery.
From boat or bank, right now, you’ll want to fish super-tight to shore as high flows push the bank-following fish even closer to the edge of the river.
“I’m fishing 4 to 6 feet of water, 8 feet max,” says Spaur.
He wouldn’t reveal the hot spot he and the missus picked up their limit (two adipose-fin-clipped steelies), but to slightly tweak the old saying, the Columbia from, say, Sauvie Island down to Jones Beach on the Oregon side and Cathlamet on the Washington side is your oyster now deep into August.
“Any of that lower river is going to be good,” he says. “Stay in tight with water like this. Even when it clears up, I’ll still be in 8 feet.”
He’ll run the prawn rig into July, but as the river warms in August, switches over to a Brad’s Wiggler with a dropper weight and fishes as deep as 45 feet.
The great thing about this fishery is that it’s doable from ship or shore and is close to tens of thousands of regular, occasional and lapsed anglers on both sides of the big crick.
We mapped some of the best accesses on the river in the May issue of Northwest Sportsman, partly based off of a great new map that ODFW has put together here. That Google Maps mashup details dozens of great beaches, including whether they’re free or fee accesses, have restrooms and amenities, as well as links to current reports and fishing regs.
It’s still early for summer-runs in the Columbia, and the lure of spring Chinook now and summer Chinook next month may cause some anglers to overlook this fishery — but not the Spaurs and others in the know.
“My wife just enjoyed it, a great afternoon,” Bob says.
And there’s a whole lot more afternoons to enjoy between now and September as this year’s run of some 390,000 summers move upriver.