As Salmon Catches Fade On Lower Columbia, Expect Steelheading To Pick Up

Fed by huge runs headed for Idaho, Northeast Oregon and Eastern Washington, the past two Julys have been super smokin’ hot for steelheading on the Lower Columbia.

Two years ago, anglers kept 8,221 hatchery fish, high mark since at least the 1970s, while last July came within eight of equaling that figure.


This year’s return of summer-runs bound for the upper Columbia and Snake system is coming along a little slower, perhaps because of higher, colder river flows, but it is now beginning to build. And with a forecast of just under 400,000 to return — as well as the lower Columbia’s summer Chinook, sockeye and shad fisheries beginning to fade — now’s the perfect time for a brush-up on how to get after ’em from boat and bank.

For that, we turn to Buzz Ramsey, one of the deans of steelhead and salmon fishing in the Northwest. Here was his advice from the June 2011 issue of Northwest Sportsman magazine:

June and July are the months that massive numbers of summer steelhead flood into the Columbia River. And though some are bound for lower river tributaries like the Clackamas, Sandy, Santiam, Cowlitz, Kalama and Lewis, what makes fishing sensational in the mainstem is the upriver-bound run, which this year could exceed 400,000 fat steelhead.

While these fish will eventually pass the counting windows at Bonneville Dam, the majority are now staging in the lower Columbia – just waiting to be caught by you and me. Here, in many areas – at least where there is sufficient current – you can find them in water just 10 feet deep or less. And while they can be found in deeper water – say up to 20 feet – many anglers concentrate their efforts in shallow water.

For example, according to James Harper of Harper’s Tackle (360-841-8292) in Woodland, Wash., the majority of fish taken from shore are caught in water depths ranging from 5 to 10 feet.

You may notice that fish will be most numerous in shallow water during lowlight conditions and move progressively deeper as the sun rises. This is due to the fact that steelhead, like all fish, have no eyelids and can only control the amount of light entering their eyes by where they position themselves. When/where boats congregate into hoglines, all anchoring in a row, it’s typical for the inside boats to do best early in the day and for boaters anchored in deeper water to enjoy success later in the morning.

THE FACT THAT steelhead spend much of their time prowling shallow water makes them an ideal target for anglers fishing from shore. For bank-bound anglers, catching summer steelhead can be as simple as chucking a Spin-N-Glo out into the current, holding your fishing rod upright with a sand spike rod holder, placing a bell on your rod and waiting for a big, hefty steelhead to ring it.

Rigging for bank plunking is easy – usually starting with a swivel attached to the end of your main line, where you will need to attach a weight (usually a 4- to 6-ouncer, often pyramid-style sinker) on a dropperline, a 24- to 30-inch leader to a size 4 Spin-N-Glo and a hook, with a plastic bead between your buoyant spinner and hook.

According to Harper, the most popular and productive color of winged bobber in his area of the Columbia is the flame/black “tiger & wing” (catalog color code FTBW).

His second most productive color is silver/glo “double trouble” in UV (DTUL).


HAVING A BOAT will allow you to reach areas inaccessible by those fishing from shore. And while fishing can be productive in many locations, Bachelor Island on the lower Columbia, for example, is a prime steelhead destination not accessible by bank anglers. From a boat, you can anchor and plunk just like from the beach.

Medium-sized plugs, like FlatFish and/or Kwikfish, are favored by boat anglers due to the fact that they produce high action in slow current. Guide Dave Johnson (503-201-4292) rigs his plugs on a 60-inch leader and 30-inch weight dropper line. Once anchored, he back-bounces his outfit out below the boat until his lines are at a 45-degree angle in the water.

When it comes to plugs, Johnson’s favorites include the U-20, X4 and X5 FlatFish.

According to him, any color will work as long as it’s red.

Truthfully, he does use other similar colors like pink fluorescent, orange/black “spot,” glitter pink and egg fluorescent.

From shore or boat, ocean tides play a prominent role in when, where, what you might use and how you fish. After all, you will need current to work your lures and, providing you’re fishing from a boat, consider switching to a regular spinner, like a size 41⁄2 Toman Cascade, when currents are running strong. When currents fail, you can find success in many lower river areas forwardtrolling plugs or spinners near bottom.

THE MOUTH OF THE COWLITZ is a favorite destination for boaters seeking summer steelhead. From I-5 in Washington, take exit 36, the Longview/Industrial exit, cross the Cowlitz, take Dike Road (first left), go 1⁄8 mile to Gerhardt Park, which is just above the Longview bridge. Here, you would launch in the Cowlitz and motor into the Columbia. From the Oregon side of the river, you can reach this area from the Rainier boat launch, accessible from Highway 30.

Boaters also find success anchoring on the big flat above the mouth of the Sandy and Washougal Rivers and off the ends of several piling rows located near the Chinook Landing boat launch (Oregon side).

According to guide Eric Linde (360-607-6421), there are two basic lures used in this area. When anchoring off the piling rows, spinners are the most effective. Boaters rig a 30-inch weight dropper line and 24-inch leader to a spinner.

When anchoring above the Sandy and Washougal, use a standard 60-inch leader with plugs, shorter with spinners. If the current is strong, spinners work best. But when it slows because of flooding tide, FlatFish are the top-producing lure.

The Columbia just west of Bonneville Dam produces summer steelhead for bank and boat anglers alike. Just like areas located further west, shallow water is where most steelhead can be found. If you have a boat, try anchoring off Pierce or Ives Islands.

Bank anglers can access the river from Tanner Creek on the Oregon side and from Dam Access Road, located 1 mile west of Bonneville Dam from Highway 14.

The daily limit is two adipose-fin-clipped steelhead, or one hatchery steelhead and one hatchery Chinook. NS

Editor’s note: Buzz works at Yakima Bait, which produces several of the lures named in this.


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