Summertime and the fishing is easy. Is that how the old song goes? Nothing seems to be easy anymore in these crazy coronavirus times. Thank goodness, there is some decent fishing to be had. If not easy, at least there’s a chance to have some success.
One fishery that is worth considering in the days and weeks ahead is the sockeye salmon fishing on the Columbia River. A decent run of sockeye has been forecast for the Columbia River and the run is just now starting their migration upstream toward their spawning grounds.
As of Monday, nearly 75,000 sockeye had climbed through the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam. That number is 3,000 short of the 10-year average, but is way over last year, where only 2,700 had migrated over the dam. Officials who have the magic crystal ball to estimate how many of the salmon will be returning to the big river this summer were predicting that 246,300 of the small salmon would return to the Columbia and its tributaries.
The 75,000 so far is already well above the 63,222 sockeye that returned in all of 2019.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials had indicated there would be a sport fishing season on sockeye based on the forecasts, and so far it looks like there will be enough fish for that to happen.
Sockeye fishing had been open in the mid and lower Columbia, but is closed as of today, from the Oregon-Washington border, 17 miles upstream of McNary Dam, down to the mouth at Astoria. The emergency closure came due to potential impacts on summer steelhead.
But the Columbia remains open for sockeye in the Columbia above the Tri-Cities. From the I-182 Bridge, near Richland, upstream to Priest Rapids Dam, fishing for sockeye opened on June 16 by emergency regulation. The daily limit is two adult sockeye, with a minimum length of 12-inches.
The Columbia upstream of Priest Rapids Dam will open on July 1 in most areas which will include the popular fishery below Wanapum Dam. Farther upstream anglers concentrate in the pool above Wells Dam in the Brewster Pool and the fishing there can be really good about mid-July as the sockeye arrive and hold there before moving up the Okanogan River to their spawning grounds.
In the meantime, anglers have been catching some sockeye where it is open now. According to a report from WDFW fisheries biologist Paul Hoffarth in the Tri-Cities, last week fish checkers interviewed 317 anglers from 146 boats [from I-182 to Priest Rapids Dam] with 130 sockeye harvested. Based on the data collected there were 1,036 angler trips for sockeye with 425 fish harvested for the week. Boats averaged one salmon per boat, which worked out to be 10.5 hours per fish.
And that was when there weren’t nearly as many sockeye above the McNary Dam, so the fishing should just continue to improve.
Anglers on the Columbia are still learning how to catch sockeye, which are typically difficult to get to bite a lure or bait. In the Kenai River in Alaska, and the Fraser River in British Columbia, anglers basically let their lines run through the mouth of the salmon as they swim upstream, and then snag them in, or near the mouth with yarn fly or Corky. It’s known as “flossing” and is the main way they catch the sockeye.
Because the Columbia is so big, and there aren’t a million fish swimming by, local anglers have had to figure out a way to get the salmon to actually bite.
In the Columbia near the Tri-Cities, anglers look for areas along the banks where they can anchor up in water that is 10 to 15 feet deep and let their gear out into the current, waiting for the fish that are migrating upstream.
Using an 8-inch dodger ahead of a small pink Spin-N-Glo on the leader above a piece of dyed prawn has been one of the go-to baits. A dropper weight is used ahead of the set up to get the lure and bait down near the bottom where the salmon are moving up river.
Below Wanapum, the same set-up will work, but there the anglers troll around in circle near the boat launch right below the dam.
On up river, in the Brewster Pool, there is much more area to fish, and because the sockeye congregate there, before moving up the Okanogan River, there is more opportunity to get the fish to bite.
Sockeye will bite all day long, but usually the early morning bite is the best. And, when it gets hot like that past few days, or what it often is in mid-July, being able to get off the water before it really starts to cook is a good thing.
Again, sockeye are not big fish. The average size is maybe two pounds. They fight well on light gear, but maybe the biggest attraction to fishing for, and catching sockeye, are the beautiful, bright red fillets that are incredibly good eating.
Sockeye fishing is just starting now on the Columbia. It is never easy, but the reward for catching these beautiful fish is well worth the effort.
• 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 firstname.lastname@example.org