James Hajek offloads a live wild chinook into a Department of Fish and Wildlife transfer boat during the CCA King of the Reach Live Capture Derby last weekend on the Columbia River. Some 1,200 live chinook were caught during the three-day event to help boost the brood stock at the Priest Rapids fish hatchery. (Photos courtesy of Rob Phillips).

YAKIMA, Wash. -- The Columbia River, in the area known as the Hanford Reach, closed to fall chinook salmon fishing on Oct. 16. Last weekend however, that stretch of the river re-opened to a select few anglers, and those who participated in the fishery found the catching to be pretty darned good.

Every fall, after the regular fishing season for the upriver bright fall chinook closes, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, in association with the Grant County PUD, and the Coastal Conservation Association, put on a fishing derby. The goal is to catch as many wild adult chinook salmon as possible in a three day period, keeping them alive, to be transported to the Priest Rapids Hatchery to continue propagation of hatchery salmon that augment the wild fall chinook run in the Columbia.

Started six years ago, the program has developed into what is now known as the CCA King of the Reach Live Capture Derby. And what a success it has become. This year 279 anglers, fishing out of 86 boats, caught 1,209 adult wild chinook during the three-day event.

This year’s numbers, for both fish and anglers, were record highs. Last year only 541 salmon were caught during the three day event.

I was fortunate to be able to fish the derby with Tri-Cities guide John Plughoff on Friday and Saturday and we had some fantastic fishing. On the first day of the event we landed 33 salmon, of which 31 were wild fish, qualifying to be taken by WDFW officials for the program.

Over 30 salmon in one day is pretty good fishing no matter where you are. Since the river had been closed for almost two weeks, the fish had definitely built up in some of the holes, and were in a biting mood. We had several doubles during the day, and even had one time when three of the five anglers in John’s boat had fish on at the same time.

Part of the competition includes the most fish caught for each day, with top boats being recognized at two launch locations. Our 31 fish on Friday won us first place at the Vernita launch.

On Saturday, everyone found fishing to be a little bit slower, but still it was pretty good. We ended up catching 17 fish for the hatchery trucks on Saturday and again won the honor of bringing in the most fish at the Vernita launch.

On Sunday it was even tougher. But everyone still caught fish.

A guide boat operated by Tyler Stahl, who launched at the White Bluffs launch, ended up being the overall winner with 76 wild salmon landed during the three days. Several other boats caught over 50 fish for the derby.

Some Yakima area anglers participated, including local guides Dan Houfek and Chris Turvey, who both, with the people in their boats, landed a bunch of fish during the derby.

Over the years of this program of landing wild fish and keeping them alive in aerated holding tanks for delivery to the hatchery, there has been some mortality, but it has been very low. In the six years mortality has been about 2%.

Anglers have oxygenated holding tanks, or live wells, in their boats, and frequently they will run the live fish to the giant transport trucks at the boat launches operated by the WDFW, where the fish are deposited. In some cases pick-up boats with larger holding tanks would also stop and pick up the fish the anglers had caught recently.

Anyone could participate in the derby, all they had to do was register on line, or at the event, with the CCA of Tri-Cities and pay a $25 entry fee. There is a limit to the number of anglers they will allow though, and this year, for the first time ever, they reached that 300 registered-angler limit.

At an end-of-the-derby dinner on Sunday night, awards were handed out to the top boat captains, and prizes were given away to a number of the anglers. But the biggest winners were the fish, as this event is helping to boost the genetics of the hatchery salmon that are being reared and raised at some of the hatcheries on the Columbia.

This year’s run of fall chinook is still trickling in, but as of earlier this week just over 185,000 had come through the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam. Compared to the ten year average of slightly over 533,000, you can see that the run is definitely off. But you can also see that even with 1,200 adults taken out of the wild returning fish for use in the hatchery, there will be a good number of naturally spawning fish.

Hopefully, with good water conditions in the river in the spring when the smolts are flushed out to the Pacific, and with improving ocean conditions, the run will again build to where it has traditionally been.

Only time will tell, but the anglers, volunteers from the CCA, and everyone from the Department of Fish and Wildlife and Grant County PUD  who participated this past weekend can feel pretty good about the event. The brood stock numbers were bolstered nicely and everyone had a great time.

Other than a couple of trips to the Nushagak River in Alaska, the salmon fishing I experienced during the two days I fished in the live catch event were the best I’ve ever had. I’m already looking forward to fishing in the derby next year.

Rob Phillips is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer who has written the Northwest Sportsman column for over 25 years. He can be reached at rob1@spdandg.com