Tackling Buoy 10
How to Fish the Lower Columbia using tried and true, and new, techniques
By Andy Schneider
“There’s a fish!” sputtered the captain through a mouthful of coffee. With one hand on the tiller handle he was overstating the obvious as a heavy salmon was putting tackle, rod and holder to the test. “And another!” This statement came out more as a wet cough from the as some of his coffee had obviously made its way down the wrong pipe. The captain clarified this between his fits of coughing, repeatedly pointing to a rod tip that was completely submerged underwater. It was tough to peel my eyes away from a very real struggle of getting a maxed-out rod from the rod holder to the other rod that was bent heavily through the cork as if some giant sea creature was trying to find its way into the boat by climbing up the fishing line.
Not every trip to the Columbia River estuary is filled with chaos but it does happen thanks to the annual migration where hundreds of thousands of salmon pour into the lower Columbia River making it the largest choke point salmon fishery in the West. Starting in mid-July and lasting through September, every salmon returning to Columbia will swim past the iconic Buoy 10 marker en route to the countless rivers that drain into the Columbia. It only makes sense to position yourself (and your boat) on the lower river. It is the ultimate ambush spot.
With as many salmon that return each year it can be as chaotic as the proverbial Chinese fire drill. At least that’s our perception anyway. Much of that has to do with our own perspective on this fishery. And I would say most people’s perspective is distorted thanks to a three-year period (2013, 2014 and 2015) where the salmon fishing was nothing short of spectacular. While those years were great I expect this year’s Buoy 10 season to be very reminiscent of the decade-long period from 2002 to 2012 where we witnessed salmon runs similar to 2017. Call it the new normal.
This year we should see almost 500,000 (496,200 to be exact) coho arrive off the Oregon-Washington coast, with 386,300 silvers actually pushing into the Columbia. This year’s Chinook run, projected at 582,600, is very similar to last year’s return. While these numbers don’t get the blood pumping and bring butterflies to your stomach, they are not terrible returns. If conditions cooperate for us, harvest could easily exceed last year. Last year saw less than half of the predicted amount of coho return (171,400), but harvest was the third highest in the past decade with over 36,000 coho taken home by anglers, four times the harvest of the previous year.
While stories of hooking doubles and triples are fun to retell, they’re only told by those anglers who approach this fishery from a technical standpoint. Because it is very much a technical fishery and much of the success depends on fishing the right tides, knowing where to be and when to be there, and using the right lures and bait.
Tackle has slowly evolved for the Buoy 10 fishery, and while some anglers change to, “newer and better” techniques, there are still plenty who have confidence in “tried and true” tackle and techniques and have no trouble filling fish boxes. If you were to pick a method that has worked well consistently over the past 20 years, you will have a hard time finding a more consistent setup than a diver, a rotating flasher, and plug cut herring. It is as tried and true as you’ll find for the lower Columbia.
Delta Divers are the most popular diver used. With so many flashers available, it’s hard to say which one is most effective. I know what I like, and I use a Delta Diver.
What follows is a description on how a diver and bait setup is rigged. Start with 30-pound monofilament or 65-pound braided mainline tied to your diver. Run a short section of monofilament between the diver and flasher (18 inches). Attach a flasher using a snap. Behind your flasher run 60-inches of 30-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon line to a two-hook mooching rig using 5/0 hooks. Some people like to attach a spinner blade in front of their herring. Separate that with tubing or a series of beads. Leave enough room so the blade can spin uninterrupted.
If running lead on a dropper start with 30-pound monofilament or 65-pound braided mainline, to a plastic weight slider, two 8mm beads and a 6-bead chain swivel. From the chain swivel run 16-inches of 40-pound monofilament to your flasher. Behind your flasher run 60-inches of 30-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon line to a two-hook mooching leader (5/0 and 4/0 hooks for green label herring). A 24-inch lead dropper of 20-pound monofilament and a 12-ounce cannon ball sinker should keep you in touch with the bottom throughout the tide. Adding another chain swivel halfway down your leader is not overkill and a good way to prevent tangles. And while herring is a go-to bait, don’t be afraid to use anchovies with a helmet.
One of the newest techniques to fish here is a Super Bait and a flasher. Often referred to as the Pro Troll/Super Series program, you can use a variety of flashers. Brad’s Super Bait, Cut Plug and Mini Cut Plug have all proven their worth behind an 11-inch Pro-Troll or Shortbus Super Series flasher. But small spinners, spoons and Spin-N-Glos are also worth trying. Rigging a Super Bait starts with 50- to 65-pound braided mainline tied to a plastic spreader. Utilizing a spreader will ensure that your flashers won’t create mainline twist. Attach 12- to 20-ounces of lead to the bottom of the weight slider depending on how far behind the boat you want your gear fishing. Position 24 inches of 40- to 50-pound monofilament between your spreader and your flasher to allow the proper rotation of the flasher. Behind the flasher, the Super Bait, Cut Plug or Mini Cut Plug slide down a fixed mooching rig, giving a total length of 36 inches. Fluorocarbon leaders don’t seem to be overly important when fishing a Super Bait, but can’t hurt. The most popular test lines are 30 and 40 pound; this is mostly to ensure that the rig can be fished again after catching a fish. There are countless different ways to rig hooks with Super Baits, but starting off with simple mooching rigs made of single barbless 4/0 hooks is probably the simplest.
One of the biggest improvements anglers have seen in the Buoy 10 fishery this last decade, is that there are salmon present in the estuary from mid-July till well past the Chinook closure, usually around Labor Day. Deciding when to venture to the mouth of the Columbia is as easy as picking a tide that will work around your schedule. Large tide swings with a flooding/ incoming tide for the first half of the day, are usually excellent coho tides. If you have one weekend in August to fish, plan on Aug. 19-20. This weekend is sure to produce some excellent coho fishing.
Tides more favorable to Chinook fishing are usually your ‘hold over’ tides, where there aren’t large exchanges of water. The smaller tidal exchanges that we see that last week of August through Labor Day weekend, are ideal Chinook tides and anglers should have no problem fulfilling the Chinook quota that week.
Of course salmon will be caught every day throughout the season. Some days will be better than others. But make no mistake, if you approach this fishery with a plan, and with the right equipment, you could easily be the one sharing stories of doubles and triples. Because it does happen. Hopefully it will happen in your boat.