YAKIMA, Wash. — Last summer, much to the delight of anglers all over Eastern Washington, more than 500,000 sockeye salmon returned to the upper Columbia River. The fishing was fantastic and many barbecue dinners featured the excellent eating fish on the menu.
This year things are not quite as rosy. The sockeye run is predicted to be only about a third of last year’s giant run, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be some decent fishing.
Biologists are predicting a return of around 180,000 sockeye to the upper Columbia on their way to their primary spawning grounds at Lake Osoyoos on the Canadian border.
Through Sunday, more than 114,000 sockeye had climbed over Bonneville Dam. Based on the strength of those numbers, officials with the Department of Fish and Wildlife have set sport fishing seasons for sockeye on the mid and upper Columbia River.
While the waters below Priest Rapids Dam have been open for over a week, the Columbia between Priest Rapids and Wells Dam opened Monday (July 1) for fishing for sockeye and summer chinook salmon. Some 28,000 sockeye have already climbed the ladders at Priest Rapids, so the fishing should be good and will just get better.
One of the most popular fishing spots in Central Washington for these migrating fish is located near Wanapum Dam at Vantage.
There is some bank fishing below Wanapum, but for the most part it is a boat show, with dozens of boats turning a big circle in the whirlpool created by the massive flows of water over and through the dam.
The fishing there is not for the faint of heart, as the water flows in the whirlpool play havoc on the boats as they all try to stay in some sort of organized fashion, while still trolling slow enough to get their gear down to where the fish are holding.
The other challenge is the boat launch below the dam. It is narrow and long, and the wait for the launch can be maddening at times.
With all that said, when the salmon are there it is still worth all of the hassles.
The sockeye will hit a variety of offerings, but in the past couple years anglers have had good success trolling a small size-12 pink Spin-N-Glo rig with a piece of dyed prawn on a pink hook. The rig is tied on a 14- to 18-inch leader, which is attached to a size-0 silver dodger.
Other anglers will use a small spinner, or a rolling lure such as a Super Bait. Reds and pinks are the most productive colors.
The sockeye don’t run very deep, but you still need to keep your rig down in the zone, especially in the often turbulent waters right below the dam. Most anglers will run their rigs off of a downrigger, and set the ball at anywhere from 7 to 15 feet.
As of Sunday nearly 23,000 summer chinook also had climbed the ladders at Priest Rapids, and with those fish swimming the same waters as the sockeyes, many anglers will fish for them, too. Larger lures such as a Mag Lip or Super Bait are the preferred bait for the summer chinook. Like the sockeye rigs, the bigger lures are run off a downrigger to help get them down to the fish.
These fisheries again fall under the two-rod regulations, so many anglers who have purchased the two-rod endorsement on their fishing licenses will run one rig for sockeye and another for the chinook.
We had good success last year running our chinook lures off of the downriggers, and then we ran a second rod off the back of the boat for the sockeye. An ounce of weight in the form of a banana sinker is normally all that is needed to get the sockeye gear down if you are not using downriggers.
The regulations this year allow six salmon per angler per day, but only two may be sockeye and only two may be chinook.
Fishing below Priest Rapids Dam, and in the big pool right above Wanapum, are other options. They don’t attract the same large crowd as below Wanapum and can provide some good fishing at times.
Farther upstream, above Wells Dam in the waters known as the Brewster Pool, the season for sockeye and summer chinook will open on July 15.
The same lures and trolling techniques will work and are especially effective at the mouth of the Okanogan River, where the fish will often hold as they wait for the waters in the tributary to cool down.
The nice thing about fishing near Brewster is the pool is large and there is plenty of room, even though it still seems crowded with 100 boats or more working the waters.
It is going to be hot here in the next few days and weeks, but as many local anglers know, when the temperatures heat up, so does the fishing for sockeye and summer chinook salmon on the Columbia. Let the fun begin.
• Rob Phillips is a freelance outdoor writer and partner in the advertising firm of Smith, Phillips & DiPietro. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.