John is a full time fishing guide in Oregon, guiding from the Columbia to the Oregon Coast. John also is a writer and photographer about all things to do with fishing.
May 23, 2012
Fishing the Re-opener on the Columbia River
by John Childs
Fishing the Re-opener for Columbia Springers
The Columbia officially reopens this weekend for a two-day season on Saturday the 26th, and Sunday the 27th. The same limits as the early season apply. You can retain 2 adult salmon or hatchery steelhead, but only one clipped Chinook is allowed per day (the other salmon may be a sockeye). This is great news, especially knowing if the numbers over the dam spike again when the water level goes down, we will most likely get another reopener, this time with the season lasting all the way through the June 16th Summer Chinook Season opener. With the flows in the Willamette continuing to be high, but more significantly, backed up with lessened current flow, the fishing has continued to be tough, with many anglers completely giving up. The Columbia reopening to spring Chinook fishing should shoot some life back into the fishery, and best of all, it looks like Columbia is slated to be dropping this weekend which could really help illicit a strong bite. This is potentially the best opportunity we've had for "REALLY" catching some spring Chinook so far this year.
The water temperature is currently sitting at 57 degrees at Bonneville, but could realistically drop a degree or two given our current weather conditions. Regardless whether the temps hold or go down, the water will probably be in the mid to upper 50's over the weekend. With early to mid morning high tides swinging into outgoing tides during the day, the stage is set for really good fishing conditions. Our only real obstacle this weekend will be the continued high water, but after the last couple of seasons, I think many of us who have been fishing the Columbia when it has been open, have forged new game plans to combat this high water anomaly.
If you haven't spent some time fishing during the high water flows of the last two years, I would recommend leaning toward fishing shallower water than normal. I've caught many springers between 8 and 15 feet of water so don't be afraid to target the shallow edges, especially where they are on inside corners, or flats that are removed from the faster main current flow of the river. These migrating fish are looking for the path of least resistance, and this often means seeking out the softer water on the fringes of the main current.
Given the conditions outlined above, I would arrive at the river with a game plan. With warmer water conditions, hardware could be extremely effective. With the tide change and outgoing morning tides, we could also see good downstream herring fishing. Currently, my plan is to be on the water at first light trolling herring downstream through the tide change and into the first bit of the outgoing tide, and then switch gears mid morning, and start targeting the hardware bite. In my opinion, this is where it gets interesting.
I'm a diehard spinner guy. I paint my own blades, build my own spinners, and have a collection of spinners that really gets a bit obscene at times. Oh my gosh, this seems like the perfect time to find a great anchor spot in 6 to 12 feet of water and put some spinners out, or slowly troll them upstream, or even troll them downstream like we're fishing herring, but not dragging bottom, just staying really, really close. But here's where the descisions get tough, because I love fishing plugs, (what I consider smaller K-11X Kwikfish, Wiggle Warts or similar plugs) and I also love fishing sardine wrapped Kwikfish for the savage strikes they elicit from kings. To many choices, not enough time to try them all, or is there? I might just get the full meal deal in some way or another, but I can tell you, I will show up with more than my share of gear so I can take advantage of whatever conditions or spots I encounter!
A note of caution here, as I'm still seeing large parts of trees and other debris coming down river. Not nearly at the pace of earlier in the year, but still, there are still some potentially devastating hazards floating downstream, so make sure and keep an eye out while running, or if you anchor up. Also, if you anchor, make sure you put out plenty of scope on your anchor line and put your anchor buoys out. The anchor buoy is anchored, and your boat is cleated off to the buoy. If you're paying attention and something goes wrong you can un-cleat from the buoy and hopefully avoid any disasters, but this means staying aware of what's happening around you. Pay attention and be safe!
For anchor fishing with plugs, you can use a small jet diver to get your gear down into the zone, but if you're in some current and it's fairly shallow, you can also flat line them. Both Wiggle Warts and K-11X's will dive 8-9 feet given enough line and a decent current. If it's much deeper, either lead or a diver will help keep your plugs in the zone.
If you decide to fish wrapped Kwikfish, use 18-24" droppers with a 5-foot leader and bounce them back away from your boat a ways, then wait for that magical rod burying grab the Kwiky is so famous for! Some anglers prefer longer dropper lengths for fishing Kwikfish on anchor, and it's perfectly acceptable to fish up to 4 foot lead droppers. What you really want to see is the plug working steadily, but it should occasionally quit working, and the rod tip should become still. This is when the plug hits bottom and hesitates and quits working until it floats up a bit and begins working again. The plug should be working more than it's resting, but if it's not hitting bottom a couple times or more each minute, I don't really feel it's in the zone.
The same basic set-up for Kwikfish, is perfect for fishing spinners, although I definitely like the shorter dropper lengths. I will almost always be fishing a 24" dropper with spinners, both when anchored and when trolling them. Just make sure you're right there close to the bottom, and when anchored you can have the lead resting lightly on the bottom.
Finally, don't rule out the idea of back-trolling areas with good current in 18 to 35 foot depths. You can back troll wrapped Kwikfish or prawn spinners with a jet diver on a 12-18" dropper and 5 foot leader. The nice thing about back-trolling is you aren't stuck in one current lane, but can glide from side to side while backing down, potentially finding that magical depth/contour/seam where the fish seem to be traveling.
Whatever methods you decide to employee this weekend, don't forget to have fun out there. Plan there will be crowds, busy boat ramps and excited people who may even forget their common sense for a moment when they get excited. It's about having fun out there with our friends and families in the wonderful environment we all live in here in the great Northwest. Smile and give a little leeway to the other guys and we'll all have a little more fun!
See you on the water!!
April 10, 2012
Hi Water Springers
by John Childs
Fishing Springers on the Lower Columbia
Finally found some time amidst last month's crazy job duties to get some time on the water. I spent a day trolling for spring chinook from the bottom of Government Island down to the railroad bridge below I-5. The weather was supposed to deliver our omnipresent rain, but it turned into a mostly cloudy day with the sun peaking through a couple times. The wind never did much other than deliver a little ruffle on the water. Based on the forecast, it ended up being a stellar day!!
Since the last time I had been on the Columbia, the water had gotten noticeably dirtier. I had been shocked at how clear the water had been on my first springer foray, and was equally shocked at how much color had increased in the last couple of weeks. I noticed it as I put the boat in the water from the lights on the dock.
After parking the boat, I went through my normal routine of making sure all the rods had fresh leaders, and all rigged the same. However, this morning I added a step. When I'm trolling herring, especially in pretty clear water, I like running longer leaders behind my flashers. I will sometimes run upwards of 6 feet of leader behind the flasher. With the water looking like it might only have 18-24 inches of visibility; I decided all the leaders should get shortened. I love running flashers, and in certain fisheries, I do think it helps draw bites. With the limited visibility I was experiencing on this trip I wanted to make sure that if the fish were drawn closer to see what the flash was all about, that the bait wasn't 6 feet behind the flasher. I made the decision to shorten all the leaders to 3 feet or so. I had also brined blue label herring the night before, figuring I would use all the flash possible to draw a springer close.
The reports from the last few days on the water had been anything but stellar, so I knew I needed to do everything possible to swing the odds in my favor: shorter leaders, bigger herring, and maybe a double flasher rig or two!! I planned on taking my "A" game to the river that day.
I put in at 42nd street, and was supposed to swing across the river at 6 am to pick up my fishing partner Jeff. My lovely bride Carol had also decided to brave the cold day, so the three of us were hoping to get it done. I called Jeff before 6 to make sure he was at Portco, and we made the short haul across the river to get him. Once the crew was intact we headed up stream to start a long pass down river. We didn't have the first tide change for a couple of hours, so I wanted to make a long troll down the Washington bank first and see what we could do.
We were still a bit early when we got to our starting point, so I cut our herring, baited all the rods up, got lead on everything, and waited for enough light to start or troll. When it was starting to get fairly gray, we lowered the herring to the bottom and started our first pass downstream. We dropped our baits to the bottom with 8-ounce sinkers and kept letting out line until the lead was making constant contact. For this fishery, the downstream troll with the troll gear literally dragging bottom is one of the more effective techniques for tempting early Chinook.
We made our first pass without any luck, so we cranked up the big motor and ran down to start another pass above I-5. Most people either love this stretch, or hate it. I guess I have to be counted in the love it category. It definitely gets a bit of the old washing machine action from all the boat wakes, but I've caught a ton of springers in this stretch, especially during the years when we get to fish well into April. Because I've had so much luck in this stretch, I'm always confident. I call it my fish mojo, and this morning it's absolutely thrumming! Earlier in the morning, while we where tied up at the dock, I had told my wife, "I feel pretty lucky about today. I think we're going to get ‘em!" I think this is always a factor on those successful outings, because the days I know I'm going to catch fish I often do, and the days I don't feel so confident, I often don't catch fish.
Another thing I think helps in successfully fishing a spot like the I-5 stretch, is having caught a lot of fish, but also having seen a lot caught, you get a sense of where the productive spots are. It helps me decide how to make each pass, so I spend the most time trolling in lanes where I've traditionally seen quite a few fish caught. Another thing I see is sometimes you'll notice nobody is making passes through a certain stretch, but it's a place fish have been caught before. I always try and make a pass through this water at some point, and I've often been rewarded.
Springers seem to travel in lanes. They also definitely travel in pods. Trolling lanes that have produced one year, often produce most years, so running those stretches can be a good strategy. But more so, it's imperative to watch where fish are being caught each time on the water. If a fish is caught in a certain place, it often pays to try trolling in that same lane, because other spring chinook are traveling the same path. Since they are in pods, oftentimes getting above where a fish has just been caught and starting a troll pass down the same line of current (lane) will pay off with a hooked fish. I've even been know to pick up and run a quarter mile upstream and start a new troll pass down a current lane if I've just seen a few fish hooked in one area. This has often been a successful technique/trick!
We made several passes without any success, but we also hadn't seen a fish hooked by anyone else. About 45 minutes before the tide change, we saw our first fish landed, close to the railroad bridge. As we started our run back up above I-5 for another pass, we saw another fish hooked close to the same spot. I decided to start much closer to I-5, and ran just far enough above the bridge to make sure we had our gear running as we came below the bridge. We got our gear down and started our pass. As we came below the bridge and we began the turn from the Washington side of the river headed across towards the Oregon side, I saw my rod dip a couple times a bit differently. I said, "I think I'm getting bit." We all watched my rod tip expectantly, but it doesn't really do anything. We glance over at Jeff's rod just in time to see it take a long dip down towards the water. It dips once, twice, pops up pretty flat and then goes down again. Jeff looks at me and says, "he's got it", picks up his rod and sets the hook. Fish on!!! Right on, first springer of 2012 is finally hooked up, and only 2 dedicated trips to show for it!! Surprisingly, the fish comes to the net pretty quick, and we're doubly lucky because it's a nice hatchery fish. I net the fish and swing him onboard, and that's when this fish decides to fight. This chinook thrashed in the net and on the floor of the boat more than any king I think I've ever had landed on my boat! We finally subdued him with a welcoming thunk from the fish billy, and our springer trip is successful.
Nice 16-pound hatchery fish with mostly missing scales from fighting so hard in the net!!
We fish through the rest of the tide change and see one other fish caught and that was it. We trolled for a few more hours, but never did see anything happen, and finally decided to call it a successful outing and head for the barn.
As the water continues to rise this week, I'm a bit worried as to what this means for the last week of fishing we have on the Columbia. I'll be out there trying my hardest to add a couple more fish to the boat tally before our early season Columbia fishery closes, and hopefully, I'll see you out on the water!
February 21, 2012
Pulling Plugs for Early Springers & Steelhead
by John Childs
Fishing Plugs for Salmon & Steelhead
Early season on the Willamette, especially around the Oregon City area, is a prime time for pulling plugs. With plenty of winter steelhead still moving through the system, along with an early shot of spring Chinook, the plug pulling angler can often find success with both species.
When fishing in depths of 12 feet or less, standard plug techniques can be used. By far the most popular plug for early season trolling is Luhr-Jensen's K-11-X Extreme Kwikfish. This series of Kwikfish dives to impressive depths, and best of all, rarely needs to be tuned. When targeting early season fish, you should choose plugs that are chrome, pink, flame, and orange, or combinations of these colors. As the calendar creeps towards the middle to end of March, picking larger plugs with green and chartreuse colors, and adding bait wrappers can be a good bet. K-13's & 14 Kwikfish along with their Xtreme designated brethren become the go to plug.
For flat line plug fishing, it's generally a good idea to fish monofilament outside of the rod tip. Many fisherman have switched their reels over to hi-tech spectra lines, but when pulling plugs, the no stretch attributes of braided line can cause missed fish. What happens is, a fish aggressively grabs a plug, pulling the rod tip down sharply. This action loads the rod, and without any stretch from the fishing line, the fish can throw the lure when he begins opening and closing his mouth and shaking his head trying to expel the plug, simply from the loaded rod acting as a spring. This can effectively pop the plug right out of the fish's mouth.
When a section of monofilament is used as the trolling line, a fair amount of stretch is added to the equation. This minimizes the effect of the fishing rod acting as a spring. Anyone who's pulled plugs very often has still seen the rod ripped down viciously, only to have it pop right back up fishless. It's all part of the game of pulling plugs for salmon and steelhead, but by adding a section of monofilament between the rod tip and the plug this phenomenon will be greatly reduced.
I like to make sure there is at least 75 to 80 feet of at least 15 pound test monofilament, when trolling plugs. You can use lighter line, but you will loose some fish. In fact, many guides use a minimum of 20 pound test when pulling plugs on the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. Add a duo-clip to the terminal end of the monofilament, attach your plug, and you're ready to fish.
When flat lining plugs, they should generally be let out about 50-75 feet behind the boat. If the water is less than 8 feet deep use a shorter line, but when trolling anything more than 8 feet deep letting the plugs back 75 feet or so is a good idea. It's also very important to have all the plugs out at the same distance. It really makes a difference in the catch ratios when the plugs are all running together, stimulating a flight or fight response from the fish. I accomplish this task by measuring out my lines at home and then putting a heavy black mark on the main line using a Sharpie. You can also tie a bobber stop on the main line at the desired distance, so when you are fishing, have everyone let their lines out to the pre-marked spot, and all the plugs will be running together.
When pulling plugs, I like to leave the rods in the rod holders. While it's definitely not a bait bite where you need to wait for the fish to take the bait, it's still a good idea to let the fish turn before the hook is set. A lot of times a fish will come up and eat the plug and get stung by the hooks. They will then proceed to open their mouths and shake their heads from side to side trying to disgorge the offending piece of plastic. The boat is generally backing down, which gives the fish a bit of slack, and if an angler swings on a biting fish as this occurs, they can sometimes help the fish expel the plug. When the rod is in the holder, there is generally a moment or two of hesitation before the angler reacts and grabs the rod. This pause often gives the fish enough time to turn and move away with the plug, increasing the percentage of hooked fish.
When fishing in water more than 15 feet deep, and especially when targeting depths of more than 20 feet, a jumbo jet diver is the preferred method for getting your plugs into the zone. The rigging for this is quite simple.
Pass your main line through one to three 6-8mm beads, then through the eye of a barrel swivel. Then add at least one to three more 6 or 8mm beads. The colors of the beads are purely optional, with guide green beads being the most commonly used. Tie your main line to another barrel swivel. You can substitute this last barrel swivel with a bead chain swivel to help eliminate any line twist that could potentially occur. Now tie a 4-5 foot section of monofilament or fluorocarbon leader to the bottom swivel, using anywhere from 20 to 40 pound line. Attach a duo-clip to the end of the leader. Finally add an 8-12" dropper of 15-20 pound mono to the sliding swivel with a duo-clip attached to the bottom. The Jumbo jet divers from Luhr-Jensen come with a dropper line already attached to the diver, and you can just pass your mainline through the eye of this swivel when rigging. Now clip the plug of your choice on to the leader, attach a jumbo jet diver to the dropper, and you're ready to fish.
When running plugs with the jumbo jet divers, let the line out approximately three times the depth of the water fished. Over the last couple of seasons, I finally bit the bullet and added some Shimano Tekota line counter reels to my aresnal. This is an absolutely wonderful way of making sure everyone is fishing at the same depth, and that the plugs have formed a wall. But it's also a perfect way to make sure you are fishing these rigs at 3 times the depth of the water. If fishing in 25 feet of water, I would let my lines back 75 feet on the line counters.
The same hook setting rule applies when pulling plugs with divers. It's a good idea to not immediately set the hook on a fish, but to wait until the rod tip is "buried" (the rod tip is staying down) and the fish is taking line before picking up the rod. Generally, you don't need to set the hook. When the rod comes out of the rod holder, just a firm lift as the angler begins reeling is all that's needed to make sure the hooks are buried in the fish's jaw. Once the season progresses and the larger plugs are employed, you will often watch the beginning of the "take down" with the rod bouncing up and down. This is the situation described above where the fish is shaking its head from side to side trying to throw the plug. This is an especially important time to NOT set the hook. If the angler can wait until the rod tip stays down the overall hooking percentage goes way up.
I hope this helps get any of you would be plug pullers way ahead of the game for your next outing! Good luck out there!!
February 21, 2012
Fishing Early Springers & Steelhead
by John Childs
Fishing Early Springers & Steelhead
Well, it's almost springer time, Almost! I've been chomping at the bit as much as everyone else, but I also keep looking at the calendar and trying to remind myself it's still February, anybody else out there running into the same issue? I'm amazed at the weather we are experiencing lately, as it seems spring is trying to show up a month early, not that I mind in any way. It just seems like it should be the middle of March and I can't keep from feeling the lure of those mystical spring Salmon.
Like most everyone, I have a real job. Have you noticed how "real jobs" get in the way of some really good fishing? I've been traveling a lot lately for work and my main fishing fix has come from tying leaders while stuck in hotel rooms far from home, interspersed with liberal amounts of ifish.net surfing. Am I the only one who finds himself looking at the 2012 Official Spring Chinook thread daily to see if there are any updates?
Last week I got stuck in Phoenix (if you can call working in a city with daily temperatures in the mid 70's, with good restaurants and a nice hotel stuck!) working my final major spring buying show of 2012. There certainly could be worse places to get stuck! Anyway, last week I started hearing rumors of a few springers being caught, and then calls from a few friends who spend a bit more time on the water, and I started feeling a bit twitchy.
Saturday night I finally arrived back home after 6 weeks of almost non-stop travel. I definitely had plans to get on the water, but I also needed to do a little catch up in the rest department. Sunday morning was a pretty lazy morning. I found myself wandering aimlessly around the house, feeling like I had cotton stuffed between my ears. I think it's the combination of too many days in a row with a very rigid and demanding schedule, with a liberal interspersing of late nights and early mornings thrown in for good measure, and then all of the sudden I'm back at home without a schedule, and more importantly a chance to catch up on some sleep! Yeah, I was exceptionally lazy… It was one of those days where you KNOW you should be doing something, but I just couldn't get my butt started in any type of a productive direction. And whenever I contemplated starting some project, the sheer inertia of the idea became paralytic. Just the type of day where I feel lost in my own home.
Enter my good friend Carmen McDonald. I had finally come to the ardous conclusion I was going to fish on Monday. I called Carmen to see if he could fish, and also to see if he had any hot river reports. I was planning a trip somewhere on the North Coast, maybe the Wilson, the Nestucca? Who knows, wherever it sounded like there was a good shot at finding a few fish would work. When Carmen answered he said, "What's up? Ready to fish? I was just getting ready to hit the Willamette for the evening outgoing tide. Want to join me?" In the blink of an eye, I went from tired and paralyzed to absolutely ready to roll.
Carmen told me to meet him at the boat ramp in Oregon City and we'd see what we could do during the last few hours of the day. It's amazing to me how tired and out of gas I could feel one minute, and the next fully charged and moving with speed and purpose.
I got my gear loaded up, hooked up the boat to my truck (I have a slightly larger, but definitely wider boat than Carmen, so I had suggested we use it simply from a comfort standpoint.), grabbed a couple bottles of water, my camera, and my fishing clothes and was out of the house in 20 minutes flat. Not bad for a guy who 1 hour earlier was the definition of a deadbeat couch potato!
I wanted to beat Carmen to the ramp since my sled hadn't been in the water for a couple of months. Whenever it has been sitting for a bit of time, the motors get a little sluggish in the starting department. I didn't want to feel rushed to get the boat off the trailer and running, so getting there a bit early was my plan to have a little extra time to launch without feeling rushed.
I pulled up to the ramp and was a bit shocked to find a line. At least it was the type of line to be in, one where everyone else is taking out, while I'm putting in. I waited my turn and got the boat started and off the trailer without any trouble. The motors where a bit cold and took a second or two to catch, and a bit longer than normal to warm up, but overall this part went super smooth.
I got the truck parked just as Carmen and his son pulled up to the ramp. Well I guess I wasn't so early after all, or maybe Carmen was just as anxious as me to get a couple of hours of fishing in.
When I got down to the boat, Carmen and his son where already getting situated, and where getting their plugs tied on. I hopped into the boat and we were off.
It's a short run to the spot we wanted to fish so we putted across the river and got the boat situated on the seam and began to let our plugs out. Carmen advised "let the plugs out 10 passes," and we set the rods in the holders.
While back trolling may not be the most active way to pursue salmon and steelhead, I find it to be very relaxing. It gives me the opportunity to visit with good friends, all the while employing a wonderfully effective way to fish.
The area we were fishing is known for seeing a fair number of steelhead as well as spring Chinook, so making sure our offerings would be found acceptable by either species is an absolute must during these early season endeavors. Truth be told, we both figured springers were an outside bet. But one things for sure, You can't get them if you don't have a bait in the water!
About 20 minutes into the evening, I notice my plug stops working for a split second, the rod dips, the tip comes back up flat, then slowly begins to load up, and as quick as it began, the fish is gone. Carmen says, "missed one." Yep, we surely did. We both commented on how it had been a really slow and fairly gentle grab. For the water we are fishing, it's not really what I would expect. Normally in this type of water, the rod plunges down aggressively, and either line begins steaming off the reel, or a chrome bullet goes airborne behind the boat.
We keep fishing the seam, making repeated passes through the productive water. This is really a high water spot, where the fish pass through on their way upstream. It can be extremely productive when the fish are on the move, or absolutely devoid of anything if they aren't climbing the system.
About an hour later the inside rod, tickling the far outside edge of our current seam, slowly bounces a couple of times, then jams down and a pretty chrome steelhead boils to the surface 60 feet downstream. Both Carmen and I urge his son Jackson to quickly get the rod as we clear the other two lines so there will be a clear path to land the fish. After a four to five minute battle, Jackson leads the beautiful fish to the side of the boat.
It's a pretty native fish, so we put the net away and Carmen grabs the pliers to release the fish. I ask him if he wants to try and get a picture or two. He grabs the plug with the pliers and quickly lifts the fish up. He and Jackson smile and as quick as can be the fish is back in the water, the hook is turned out and we have a released fish.
We make another pass, but with the light beginning to fade we agree to call it an evening. Not bad at all. We fished for a bit less than two hours and manage to turn two fish, and land a nice 6-7 pound native. The best part of the whole evening was getting a chance to finally shake my lethargy off and get my rear end moving again!
While we may not have hooked the springer we both were hoping to find, getting a couple of opportunities at steelhead sure was a quick cure to end the "deadbeat couch potato" syndrome!