10,000 HoursApril 1, 2022
All Along We KnewApril 1, 2022
Rose City Springers
There are few places where you can fish for, and with relative frequency, catch the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic salmon — the spring chinook —all within a metropolitan backdrop, complete with skyscrapers and urban noise. Welcome to Portland’s Willamette River. For Portland-area residents, the Willamette River offers a backyard opportunity that can give you an hour or two of serious salmon fishing before or after work. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is predicting 51,000 springers returning to the Willamette in 2022 with an average year getting around 40,000. With a two (hatchery) fish limit and a two rod endorsement allowed, “the Willy” is a no brainer for many.
By early March, a few handfuls of early frontrunners will have already been caught by die-hard anglers at Oregon City, Sellwood and the head of Multnomah Channel. With its peak in April, the Willamette River spring chinook run puts out notable catches from late February to mid-July. June and July also see an influx of stray Columbia spring and summer chinook in the very lower reaches of the Willamette that are a tad bit lost, but add good numbers to the overall catch. These fish are destined for the upper Columbia but get sidetracked up the Multnomah Channel and eventually find their way back out to the Columbia to complete their journey. These fish, now known as “black chins” can have some size to them and have the richest, bright orange flesh. Columbia fish are easily distinguished from the Willamette stock by having a dusky chin and belly, whereas the Willy fish are known as “snow bellies” to biologists and fish checkers. Although the Willamette stock have a slightly paler colored flesh, both have super high fat content including the coveted Omega 3 fatty acids that scientists say increases heart health. But, the best tasting salmon on the planet and the lure of catching either one of these prizes is what I’m here for.
From Portland downriver, this fishery is entirely for the boating angler, but the upside is that given the Willy’s slow, calm demeanor, almost any floating device is accepted and it’s not unusual to see anglers trolling in cartoppers, kayaks or even wave runners. With convenient, well-maintained boat ramps strewn from Milwaukie down to Willamette Park, Swan Island and Cathedral Park and the four ramps down Multnomah Channel, you’ll have no problem finding a put-in that is close to the waters you want to fish. Private moorages also dot the map up and down the river, but you best make your reservations early as they fill up fast for the fishing/boating season.
Just as having a boat for this fishery is the rule, trolling also is the rule here. Anchor fishing for springers is still a thing up at Oregon City where you have swift current, but this article is dedicated to “Rose City” Springers so let’s focus on how it’s done from the Sellwood area down river.
Lower Willamette springer fishers haunt many longtime, legendary spots. For instance, the shelf at Sellwood is a favorite of the local boys who moor their boats at the two adjacent marinas. They like to hover with a naked herring so you won’t see these salty experts fishing a lot of plastic. These guys have their own fraternity, keeping the latest reports tightly to themselves and you would likely get a load of stink eye if you show up dangling Pro-Trolls from your shiny new 28-footer. But if you are in a smaller, less conspicuous vessel, have some respect and etiquette, you might get a nod from “The Sultan” himself.
Just downriver is Willamette Park and there are a handful of great trolls within easy reach. The green can just below the Sellwood Bridge, the Island Troll, the Spaghetti Factory, Hawthorne Bridge are all within a five-minute run of the launch. These known favorites are all shorter, tighter spots and trolling in a big circular pattern works best here. If new to the area, approach slowly, pay attention, observe and you will see the pattern the vets prefer; it’s best to go with the flow.
From Hawthorne Bridge down, the long, extended downhill troll becomes the preferred approach. The next put-in below Willamette Park is Swan Island. There is a favorite troll right in front of the Swan Island boat basin that’s popular with the North Portland crowd. Be careful to leave nothing of value in your vehicle here as break-ins are all too common at Swan Island. Down river, Cathedral Park is a favorite launching spot because of the big parking lot and quick access to the head of the Multnomah Channel. Good water is just above and right below Cathedral Park.
The Multnomah Channel has Fred’s Marina up top with easy access to the head of the channel, the powerlines and Kelly Point. Both Fred’s and Cathedral are also popular early in the season because of the short run to the Columbia’s Davis Bar.
Mid-channel, there’s Rocky Point launch and Marina which is a favorite of the Highway 30 locals and the mom and pop anglers that prefer lots of room. Gilbert River launch on Sauvie Island gets little use except for the island locals. Scappoose Bay Marina at the lower end of the channel is a busy launch and some of the best fishing of the season can be had here the whole month of April. The lower channel can get crowded and might even be considered combat fishing by some.
The first thing to look for at the beginning of each springer season is water temperature and turbidity. We can still have substantial rain events late into the spring and the Willamette can easily blow out and remain unfishable for long periods of time. Fishing in muddy, cold water is a waste of fuel and valuable time so do some research before you head out. Download the USGS/National Weather Service river level app and turbidity app onto your smart device and you have that info at your fingertips at any given moment. Ideally, when the river has a turbidity level of less than 12 FMU on the 14 day graph, and the water temp is better than 42 degrees, you are in business. Just a note for your entertainment, I had to look up FMU and it stands for Formazin Nephelometric Unit and refers to sediment load, but that level of scientific verbiage is way above my pay grade so I’ll stop right there.
In the early season the name of the game is “slow” presentation so keep your speed well under 3 miles per hour. Under these chilly conditions, you should feel confident slow-trolling a red or green label herring, either naked or behind an in-line flasher. With or without a flasher is a matter of preference, but before the plastic flasher era we caught lots of fish without the added bling, even in murky water. That being said, I prefer the bling and almost always have some sort of attractor in front of my offering.
Some of the Northwest’s best herring gurus convene here every season to test their perfected art form. Achieving that perfect roll is a milestone in any salmon fisher’s career. You know when you know, if that drill-bit spin will hunt. But there are a couple important things to consider along with that perfect roll. Buy the best, freshest herring you can get your hands on. Inspect your frozen baits when you buy them and make sure they have all their scales. The super shiny, light-reflecting scales on a bait are imperative. A bait missing patches of scales will reflect less light and catch fewer fish. Look for clear eyes. If the bait has milky or foggy eyes, it’s likely last year’s bait and wont fish as well as this year’s. Old bait will also have a faint, rancid smell to it. After a few years of bait inspection, you start to pick up on these subtleties.
Packaged frozen herring comes in at least seven different sizes and a color code system is used to indicate size. Black label being the largest and yellow being the smallest. For all purposes in the Willamette springer fishery, the 5- and 6-inch greens are the favorite with the slightly smaller reds being a close second. Unlike 2021, the word on the street is that the green label size herring will be readily available for the 2022 season. Many experienced herring gurus prefer reds early in the season and switch to greens as the season progresses.
To cut or not to cut? I fish mostly plug cut because I believe the blood and guts scent trail helps entice a willing chinook into biting and hopefully swallowing my bait. To me, a perfectly cut green label herring, spinning tightly in the water next to the boat closely resembles a fresh, warm maple bar with a slab of bacon on top. Some seasoned pros cut their baits by hand while others prefer a plug cutter. The Master Plug Cutter is a great tool that will deliver consistent angles with every cut. It offers two different cuts, one that provides a tighter roll that chinook prefer and another sharper angle that coho like. The Master Plug Cutter is available at Fisherman’s Marine and Outdoor. I can’t depart the bait subject without giving a shout out to whole baits. A tightly spinning whole herring or anchovy can be deadly. There are umpteen methods of spinning a whole bait and a few are coveted as secrets of legendary status. Toothpicks, copper wire or plastic helmets are all used with frequency in the “whole bait” camp. Fishing whole baits and all its riggings could fill up the pages of an entire book.
Brining your baits is also preferred by most herring fishers. There are many powder and liquid commercial brines available, but the old standard —rock salt, river water, bluing and a touch of anise extract — will always be consistent. A little bit more expensive, but convenient and easy to use are the pre-mixed commercially made liquid brines. To these you can add your favorite secret flavorings or dyes. If the water is murky, I use chartreuse. If the water is on the clearer side, blue or no dye at all seems to work better for me. Then there are folks that prefer freshly thawed baits rather than brined. I fall into this category much of the time but always brine my leftover baits for the next day’s use. Either way, check and change your bait frequently. I bring one pack per person fishing and will go through most of those every day, especially when fish are biting.
At times, even the best of springer fishers struggle with missed bites. Few things are as frustrating as putting in eight hours on the water for maybe one or two bites, and when it finally happens, the rod pops back limp. Can you say buzz kill? On the Willamette you are allowed to use up to three single-barbed hooks and a treble hook is considered one hook. When it comes to mooching rigs, everyone has their opinion and you will see way more anglers using two hook rigs than three hook rigs. Although tying a three hook rig takes more time and hooking a herring onto a three hook rig takes more time and practice, in this instance “more is better.” In my 30 years of trying both two or three hooks, the triple hook rigs have missed fewer bites and put more fish in the net. Three 3/0 Owner Herring Hooks, tied 2 ½ inches apart works nicely with a green label plug cut herring. Also, check your hooks regularly for sticky sharpness. A super sharp hook is hard for a springer to shake and we need everything going in our favor when we are sometimes fishing for one or two bites a day.
Another important factor that will increase your hook-ups and result in more fish in the cooler is using the proper rod. A softer, parabolic action rod, designed for trolling/mooching will serve you better results. The G. Loomis SAR 1265 or SAR 1174 are painstakingly designed for the serious herring angler. And both models double as very good 360 flasher rods. I really like the carbon fiber handles on the E6X models; they clean up easily and resist getting tore up in the rod holders, unlike cork handles.
Once the water warms to 50-plus degrees, usually about the same time when the dogwoods bloom in Oregon, you can speed up your presentation and get the 360 flashers out. Behind a Pro-Troll flasher, Shortbus S series or Leo Flasher you can tow a Yakima Bait Company SpinFish, a Brad’s Super Plug Cut, Brad’s SuperBait, a 3.5 spinner or even a small whole herring, anchovy, coon shrimp or prawn. All will work at times and the combinations are mind boggling, but my favorite is a tiny 3.5 spinner, 26 inches behind an 11-inch Pro-Troll flasher. The favorite spinner blade colors vary across the board and everyone says their preferred color combo is the shizzle. Pick two or three proven colors, or better yet colors that have produced for you in the past and stick with them. One day it’ll be one color, the next day it’ll be another color. That will always be the case, but always make sure you are fishing chrome or chrome combination flashers.
A solid strategy whether you’re fishing in-line flashers with bait, or skateboards (as I call 360 flashers), is to run upriver from your launch site, pick a side of the river that has the most inside turns and zig-zag troll downhill with the Willy’s gentle current, ending the day close to the boat launch. Zig-zagging is important because if you pay attention, you will start to notice that you get most of your bites when you initiate a turn or suddenly speed up. When fish are scattered throughout the harbor as they often are, try to make one or two long passes as opposed to many short passes.
This is the best use of your time and will keep your bait in front of more fish. Later in the season, when fish are more concentrated in specific places like the Power Lines or along the barges at the head of the Multnomah Channel, shorter passes can pay off when you know where fish are stacking up. Trolling in a big circle under the Powerlines is a favorite troll for seasoned springer anglers. An important lower Willamette fact to remember: Willamette springers are rarely on the bottom in this part of the river. The water you will be fishing between Sellwood and Kelly Point Park is a dredged navigational channel 35 to 55 feet deep. The Willamette always has plenty of light filtering murk to it, so chinook are getting an adequate sense of cover, even 10 feet under the surface. My strategy is to fish the top 15 feet in the early morning’s low light and when the sun comes up high, I drop down a bit and stagger my gear in the top 25 feet. Also, when I’m fishing in water that is 25 feet or less, I drop my gear to the bottom and reel it up one crank. In water deeper than 25 feet, I stagger my gear at specific depths from the surface down. Line counter reels like the Shimano Tekota 400LC help with accuracy and consistency and are perfect tools for this fishery.
This brings me to the importance of the lead/sinker subject. First, this is totally a cannonball show and I won’t touch on divers since virtually nobody uses them in the Willamette anymore. Often the big question mark for beginners is “how much” lead to use. Considering all the variables of troll speed, depth, direction in relation to current, wind, which type of flasher you are using, line diameter etc., the answer can easily deprive a salmon fisherman of a good night’s sleep. Cutting out the debate and cutting to the chase, I’m going to make it easy for everyone and just say it out loud: “More is better.” You will certainly have a more accurate picture of the depth you are fishing at when you have a line angle that is somewhere between 45 and 90 degrees from your rod tip to the water. If you are consistently marking fish at 22 feet on your finder, you have to have your gear at a depth of 21 to 22 feet or you’re out of the game. So consider line angle and distance from your rod tip to the water and set your gear at 23 to 25 feet on the line counter. This puts you in that game. I use 8-, 10-, 12- and 14-ounce sinkers on the Willamette. When I’m fishing a naked herring, or with an in-line flasher, I use 8-, 10- and 12-ounce sinkers. I troll with 12 and 14 ounces when I’m fishing 360 Pro-Troll-type flashers as they have considerable more resistance in the water, not to mention the needed increase in speed to properly fish them. If you are fishing multiple rods, place the heavier sinkers towards the bow and the lighter ones towards the stern, unless you are the type that enjoys the challenge of a good tangle.
A word about sea lions and now harbor seals. They will be in the harbor, mostly in the busier places like the head of Multnomah Channel and Willamette Park. There are always two or three hunting in the lower channel as well. These cunning opportunists will cruise around poking their heads out of the water looking for low hanging fruit attached to your line. If seals and sea lions are present, waste little time playing your fish out until it lays on its side. Get that fish in the net ASAP.
Always keep your eyes peeled, not just for hungry pinnipeds but also for approaching ships and barges. The lower Willamette is a very busy port and the big boats and ships have the right away. If you don’t give way to ship traffic, captains will waste little time making a spectacle, blaring on the ship’s horn and calling the Multnomah County Sheriff. They are always close by and will ticket you. No room for tough guys here.
The Willamette springer run has long been a Northwest Oregon favorite and little gets the regions salmon fishers more excited than reports of the season’s first-caught springer. Whether it’s the pursuit of the tastiest salmon on the planet, the anticipation of the elusive bite or the thrill of the hard-burning runs, the Willamette springer is a prize that few anglers take for granted. ssj