Four lucky anglers found their way to the Ringold Springs boat launch in the pre-dawn darkness last week and used flashlights to find their fishing guide.
They’d booked a salmon fishing trip in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River with a day’s notice only because another group of anglers had canceled with Reel Time Fishing guide Toby Wyatt. Normally a last-minute group cancellation is a direct $600-$1,500 blow to a guide’s bottom line.
“Word’s out about this run,” Wyatt said. “Every guide on the Columbia is booked and there’s a lot of fishermen looking for open slots.” The biggest run of fall chinook since record-keeping started in 1938 is parading up the Columbia and Snake rivers, chalking up impressive numbers as it advances.
The 2013 run is expected to total more than one million chinook to the mouth of the Columbia River, exceeding the best year on record by around 400,000 fish.
Regional fisheries managers have upped their forecast for the component of the run known as “adult upriver brights” to 835,000 fish reaching Bonneville Dam, the first dam they encounter in their migration from the ocean to upriver spawning grounds. That would smash the record of 610,436 in 2003.
Chinook returning to tributaries in the 146 miles of the Columbia River from its mouth to Bonneville Dam are not reflected in the upstream dam counts.
The upriver brights are the fall chinooks bound primarily for the Hanford Reach, the free-flowing stretch of the Columbia downstream of Priest Rapids Dam.
The run also includes wild and hatchery fish returning to release sites and tributaries along the Columbia in central Washington as well as in the Snake River.
A record 50,000 chinook adults already have reached Lower Granite Dam, the last dam on the Snake before they reach Idaho. And they’re still coming by 500-800 a day.
“For the anglers who’ve figured out how to catch them, the fishing has been as good as it gets, 10 or more a day,” said Joe DuPont, Idaho Fish and Game Department regional fisheries manager in Lewiston. “The overall catch rate is three hours per fish at Heller Bar. Fantastic.
“But anglers should know that only about 30 percent of these chinoook are hatchery fin-clipped fish, and they must release all unclipped chinook (in the Snake system) to protect the (endangered) wild stocks.”
While the chinook are making post-dam era history for abundance, anglers are setting records for catching them.
Sport fishermen have caught 66,000 fall chinook below Bonneville as the run passed through, surpassing the record 43,400 fish caught in 2012.
On Sept. 10, a single-day record of 63,870 fall chinook was counted crossing Bonneville, the highest of three single-day records set that week.
Now the fishery is bending rods upstream.
Around 400,000 adult fall chinook have survived downstream sea lions, sportfishing hooks and commercial gillnets to move since Aug. 1 over McNary Dam, the last Columbia dam they climb before heading into the Hanford Reach.
Most will attempt to spawn near Priest Rapids Dam.
The big upstream surge peaked at McNary around Sept. 22, when a record 30,300 chinook swam over it in 24 hours.
Washington Fish and Wildlife Department creel surveyors recorded 6,833 angler trips and 5,393 harvested adult chinook on the Hanford Reach during the week ending Sept. 29 compared with 4,636 angler trips and 1,849 kept salmon during the same week in 2012.
“The run has created a lot of excitement,” said Paul Hoffarth, state fisheries biologist in the Tri Cities.
“We’ll surpass last year’s catch record of 13,000 adults and 5,000 jacks in The Reach; it’s just a matter of how much. Anglers are harvesting more than 6,000 fish a week – more than the entire season’s catch in most other years – and the season runs through Oct. 22.”
Agency staff has counted 180 campers or trailers at the Vernita Bridge access site below Priest Rapids Dam on weekends. “Up to this year, 120 camping rigs was a huge day,” Hoffarth said. “Fishing success has been off the charts at Vernita and you can almost hop across the water on the boats.”
Some anglers have waited more than an hour in the mornings to launch their boats at Vernita, he said.
Although more fish are stacked up in the Vernita area below the dam, Wyatt preferred to fish more than 30 miles downstream near Ringold.
“It was a slam dunk at Vernita,” he said, noting he fished there earlier in the season. “Anglers are sitting on three times as many fish up there, but it’s also more crowded. So with clients, I’d rather fish downstream.”
Fisheries officials have liberalized regulations allowing anglers to harvest more of the salmon bounty. For example, limits were increased from two to three adult chinooks a day and anglers who buy the option with their license can use two poles for salmon in an extended area of the Columbia. The season will be extended through Oct. 31 between the U.S. 395 Bridge at the Tri Cities and the Old Hanford town site wooden powerline towers.
The major advantage of salmon fishing in the Hanford Reach is the ability to catch and keep both wild and hatchery-marked chinooks. The wild upriver brights that spawn near Priest Rapids or head to the hatchery are abundant and not protected by the Endangered Species Act.
However, the rule adopted this year requiring barbless hooks on the Columbia system is still in play even though it challenges anglers with more difficulty getting sport-caught fish into the boat.
One fishing guide mentioned to Wyatt that his clients had hooked seven chinook by mid-morning but had landed only two. “They can shake out the hook easier without the barb, there’s no doubt about that,” Wyatt said.
“The barbless-hook rule has nothing to do with the chinooks but everything to do with the steelhead,” Hoffarth explained, noting that mid- and upper-Columbia wild steelhead, such as those bound for the Methow River, are endangered stocks.
“We have to show (the federal overseers) that we are protecting those endangered stocks, especially this year with a third more anglers on the river, increasing the chance of incidental catch.”
Wyatt’s four clients on Sept. 26 caught no steelhead, but they hooked 15 salmon, eight of which were netted.
“The water temperature is 65 today, which is warm for salmon,” Wyatt said. “The fishing should get even better as it drops into the 50s.”
Wyatt and his deckhand, Jim Havener, rigged their anglers with a variety of lures, mostly Brad’s Superbaits on a 4-foot leader to a flasher below a 10- or 12-ounce lead ball. The first fish of the morning was caught in the first 10 minutes.
The Superbaits have an opening they stuffed with tuna. Each time the anglers would reel in so the boat could make another pass through a fish-holding stretch, they’d flip open their lure and remove the river-washed tuna as Havener came around with a bowl of tuna and refreshed each plug.
“We go through a lot of tuna, and so does he,” Havener said, pointing to Charlie, Wyatt’s chocolate Lab, who licked up any tuna spills. “This boat would be a mess without the dog.”
The river runs surprisingly swift in this area as is sweeps past the Hanford Nuclear Reservation on the west side and the dramatic White Bluffs on the east.
Wyatt’s sonar unit helps him find the humps and holes chinook seek for breaks from the formidable current as they move upstream.
Trolling downriver goes against the grain of traditional anglers, but it works for Wyatt.
“I stumbled on it a few years ago,” he said. “They were doing it in Portland but I hadn’t seen anyone doing it here at that time. We were trolling upstream like most people, and the fishermen were getting a bite to eat, so I had them leave their gear in the water while I turned and headed downstream. Boom, we caught a fish.
“So I tried it again and we caught another fish.
“I’ve been trolling downstream here most of the time ever since. Now I’d say about half the anglers I see are trolling down while the rest are using the traditional method of backtrolling, back bouncing or trolling upstream.
“The average angler doesn’t want to mess with downstream trolling,” he added, noting that he still gets scowls from a few anglers. “It’s high-maintenance fishing. You have to keep adjusting the depth of your lines and the speed of the boat as the river bottom changes, and you still get hang-ups and lose gear.”
As much as they seemed to have the formula down pat, Wyatt and Havener kept experimenting and noting the techniques employed on other boats.
“That’s two on chrome flashers,” Wyatt said to his deckhand observing what another boat was using to catch salmon.
Havener said he’d been experimenting with flasher colors and seemed to be seeing a pattern. “I think having all four anglers using the same color is more productive that having them use different colors,” he said.
Back at the boat ramp, Wyatt expertly filleted the salmon and bagged them for his anglers, who said it was one of their best fishing trips on the Columbia.
“It’s never been better than this in my lifetime,” said Wyatt, who lives in Clarkston. “But I’ll leave in October and base out of home to fish the Clearwater as the fishing pressure continues to increase in The Reach.
“There’ll be plenty of chinook in Idaho, and while it’s busy, it won’t be a zoo.”