There’s nothing like the unpredictable thrill of fishing for Chinook salmon.
One minute, you’re casting or trolling away, wondering if a bite will ever break the prolonged silence.
The next minute, chaos hits as an anadromous monster goes berserk on the end of your line, with only a barbless hook point keeping it attached.
The boom-or-bust nature of Chinook fishing can be a challenge. But the chance to battle an ocean-run giant — and the reward of putting fresh-caught salmon on the table — make it worth the effort.
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I missed fishing my favorite spot on the South Fork Salmon River in July (it never opened to Chinook fishing), but I didn’t want to go all year without a salmon trip. So when a family gathering took us to eastern Washington earlier this month, I jumped at the chance to chase Chinook on the Columbia River.
A word of advice — salmon boats fill up fast, so plan ahead. Many of the guides I talked to were already starting to book for next year. My original captain fell through, but he texted me about an opening on another boat just as we were leaving Boise. One phone call later, I was booked with TJ of Hester’s Sportfishing.
The next morning, I woke early to meet TJ at the docks. As he fired up the boat in the predawn darkness, 90s alternative rock blared from the speakers. I liked this guy already.
We motored upriver to one of TJ’s favorite spots. Trolling with plugs was our plan of attack, and our guide said conditions looked promising. He proved right 20 minutes later, when the rearmost angler’s line started screaming. After a wild, acrobatic fight, TJ netted a 15-pound beauty. We were on the board!
We boated three more fish over the next 90 minutes. While four fish in two hours might not sound like much, it’s an outstanding catch rate for Chinook. But with six anglers on board, I was still waiting for my crack at a fish.
Just like it usually does, my opportunity arrived suddenly and brought plenty of drama. My rod doubled over and the other anglers reeled furiously to get their gear out of the way, but the fish veered straight into my neighbor’s line. TJ dangled precariously over the side of the boat, deftly cutting the tangled line away from mine.
Finally, the line was free and the fight was on. Landing a salmon is a complex task, as the angler must be mindful of the current, the sharp edges of the boat, and the unpredictable movements of fish notorious for escaping at the last second. I was nervous my hook might not hold after all the extra hubbub, but it did — just long enough for TJ to slide a net under it.
Overall, our boat finished with six fish — one for each angler — on a remarkable 100 percent hookup-to-landing ratio. My salmon wasn’t a monster, weighing about 10 pounds. But its chrome-silver coloring promised to make great table fare, and our dinner did not disappoint.
If you’re looking for a new fishing thrill, I definitely recommend a Columbia River Chinook adventure. And if you’re guide starts blasting Red Hot Chili Peppers, be sure to give him my regards.