Chasing the salmon downstream to get an early fishing season

Early season spring salmon fishing on Columbia tributaries

Paul Jewell of Beaverton, Ore. lands a wild spring Chinook on the Sandy River near Portland as the annual salmon fishing season begins on the fish that leave the Pacific and swim 900 miles to central Idaho.
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Paul Jewell of Beaverton, Ore. lands a wild spring Chinook on the Sandy River near Portland as the annual salmon fishing season begins on the fish that leave the Pacific and swim 900 miles to central Idaho.

Paul Jewell’s rod jumped four times as we trolled the Sandy River just above where it emptied into the Columbia River only a few miles upstream of Portland.

Jewell, a college classmate of mine from Beaverton, Ore., followed the instructions of guide Brandon Glass, who said to give the salmon time to eat the herring with three hooks in it, pulled behind a large, bright, spinning flasher.

He set the hook. “Look at it go, look at it go,” one of our fellow anglers blurted out as the drag on the reel screamed when the salmon made his first run.

“Nice fish, Nice fish,” the angler continued as Paul kept his line tight during the fish’s quick changes of direction. The spring Chinook came close to the boat and we could see it had a dorsal fin, which meant it was wild and we would have to release it. “OK,” Glass said with a big smile on his face.

“Like in the first 20 minutes of fishing!” Paul carefully handled the 30-inch fish, holding him briefly for the camera then with one motion returned it to its home waters.

We were fishing the Sandy in 2017 because the Columbia was closed to fishing for spring Chinook, the most prized salmon in the watershed and among the most prized for table fare worldwide. Izzak Walton called salmon the "King of Fish" in his classic "The Compleat Angler" in 1653.

An angler fights a spring chinook near the mouth of the Sandy River with the Col;umibia in sight. Rocky Barker

These incredible fish have provided both spiritual sustenance and the central food source for Northwest Indian tribes for millennia. They are the manifestation of the wild character that remains in this region of more than 10 million people and counting.

These king salmon have only left the Pacific within the last month. They face a long journey up the Columbia and primarily up the Snake to rivers like the Salmon and Clearwater in Idaho and the Grande Ronde in Oregon, where they will spawn in high mountain tributaries. A few continue up the Columbia to its tributaries below Grand Coulee Dam.

Anglers in Idaho, who had long shared in the bounty that carried the energy of the Pacific deep into the wilderness high country of Idaho, lost it after more than a century of overfishing, pollution and finally the construction of eight dams between the Pacific and Idaho spawning grounds.

Spring Chinook numbers dropped to the point Idaho ended its season in 1977 and had only a limited season until the late 1990s when the number of hatchery-raised fish rose, peaking in 2014 after five lawsuits and after regional electric users paid $16 million for fish restoration measures. But the wild number remains low and they are listed as threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

We continue to fish because of hatcheries like the Rapid River Hatchery. The hatchery, paid for by Idaho Power to provide fishing after the Hells Canyon dams killed off the runs above them on the Snake, provides fish to anglers in the Pacific, the Columbia, the Snake, the Salmon and finally the run for tribal anglers on Rapid River and the mostly friendly combat fishery on the Little Salmon that opened April 28.

salmon rig.jpg
Anglers in a fully equipped salmon rig fish for spring Chinook salmon on the Willamette River in April. Rocky Barker

These Chinook won’t arrive until later in May in Idaho so I start my season downriver. Unfortunately there are more fishermen than fish so this year the Columbia opened only for one day before Oregon and Washington anglers caught their allocation of the salmon we all share.

So downstream anglers and guides like Glass have to fish the lower Columbia tributaries like the Sandy and the Willamette, the river that runs right through Portland. This year we fished the Willamette but didn’t have the luck we had in past trips on the Sandy.

Anglers told us all week the fish were biting and many Chinook were landed. But the day we arrived a front came through and we only had a couple of bites.

Fisheries managers forecast 248,500 spring Chinook would return to the mouth of the Columbia River, including 166,000 heading upstream of Bonneville Dam. Last year 208,800 spring Chinook returned. Only 5,252 had arrived at Bonneville by April 30 this year. The forecast put 66,000 above Lower Granite Dam, the last of eight between the Pacific and Idaho in Washington. But as of April 30, only 36 had passed through the dam.

Lower Granite Dam is one of four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River that salmon advocates and Indian tribes say must be breached for the sake of native salmon. Darin Oswald Idaho Statesman file

If the run materializes as they predict, 53,000 hatchery Chinook and 13,000 wild Chinook will return. In 2017 the return was 30,000 and 4,000.

Even though the Willamette trip didn’t produce, we have had big days in the past, including a trip on the Sandy with several large salmon up to 25 pounds and a limit of steelhead to boot.

Guides are available most of the year up and down themigration routewith bank fishing starting in the next few weeks in Idaho on the Little Salmon, Clearwater, Salmon and Snake rivers. Last year’s spring Chinook season was largely a bust.

As the spring season slows down in June, the summer season opens on the South Fork of the Salmon and other seasons run up the Salmon into Stanley into July. The Idaho Fish and Game Commission watches this closely, opening and shutting based on the harvest and the size of the salmon run. Salmon fishing, successful or not, is pleasure, healthy and spiritual. It also is an act of advocacy.

"The salmon runs are a visible symbol of life, death and regeneration, plain for all to see and share . . . ,” wrote Canadian outdoor writer Roderick Haig-Brown. “If there ever was a time when the salmon no longer return, man will know he has failed again and move one step nearer to his own final disappearance."

When I began covering the salmon issue in 1990 I only dreamed that some day my children would get a chance to catch a salmon. In 1997 the season opened and I watched my daughter catch one on the Clearwater.

Only 30 years ago, salmon were all but gone in the minds of Idahoans. But it was anglers and Indians who cared the most for these fish that forced the region to pay attention, much like movies like "Casablanca" helped wake up Americans to the threat of fascism in World War II. Just as Rick, the nightclub owner in the movie, and his long-lost lover Ilsa got back the love they had in Paris by the end of that 1940 classic, we in Idaho got salmon back in our rivers and our minds.

Now we’ve got a job to do and where we're going the faint of heart can’t follow. We need to keep fishing and fighting for salmon. It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of four Northwest states don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

So here's looking at you kid: Get in that drift boat or your waders and keep salmon fishing alive. Don't forget to send letters to the people who call the shots, and vote.