By Francis Estalilla
The Columbia River estuary is home to a diverse array of nearly year-round recreational fisheries. There’s something here for everyone. Just take your pick of fall-winter crabbing, spring salmon and sturgeon, summer chinook and steelhead, or jetty fishing for lingcod and rockfish. And last but certainly not least, let’s not forget the crown jewel of Pacific Northwest fall salmon trolling: the world-class Buoy 10 fishery.
While the specific red channel marker Buoy 10 designates the western boundary of the regulatory statistical area, the fall salmon fishery here encompasses the entire estuary upstream to Tongue Point. The terminus of the Columbia River is the undisputed Super Bowl of Pacific Northwest salmon fishing as upwards of 1,000 boats may converge on the riverside communities of Astoria, Warrenton, Hammond, Ilwaco, Chinook, and Deep River to gain access to an ocean-fresh parade of returning chinook and coho spawners numbering a million or more strong in good years.
The Buoy 10 season kicks off almost every year on the first of August with Mother Columbia’s first pulse of inbound fall chinook, and the adrenaline pumping action lasts well into October on a good coho year. With the cooler, wetter La Nina conditions of the past two years, PNW salmon stocks have responded accordingly. This year’s banner Columbia spring chinook run has already exceeded the salmon managers’ preseason forecast by nearly 50% at the time of this writing. If that’s any indicator at all how well the fall runs will perform, Buoy 10 is poised for “lights out” action.
Consistent success in this fishery is predicated upon a good understanding of the tide and current. They affect when and where fish travel, as well as their vertical position within the water column, as they migrate through the estuary on their way to upstream spawning grounds. Tides move the native forage fish, often sucking vast shoals of them from the ocean into the estuary during the flood. In turn, the schools of baitfish move the still-feeding salmon. One doesn’t necessarily need the latest in fancy electronics to find the hot spot. The BBB principle is often all you need to know … the combination of bait, birds, and boats speaks volumes. That’s probably a good place to start!
Spring Tides: During the bigger spring tide series (the ones with large exchanges between high and low) the incoming tide draws much of the fleet out toward the western boundary in anticipation of the newest approaching wave of hungry homing salmon. You are likely to see packs of boats gathering right at the Buoy 10 line, off the tip of the A Jetty, or perhaps at the end of the #1 wingdam just upstream of Ilwaco. Point your bow west and slowly troll against the incoming current. Spread your gear at various depths and allow the suspended fish to tell you what the preferred depth is for that tide, that day. A quiver of synchronized line-counter reels can be a valuable asset in this situation especially for inexperienced crew, as are matching lead cannonballs across comparable rod positions in the boat. Some choose divers for this application, but I prefer lead weights to allow the crew to more easily clear their gear from the water. As the current gains speed, hold your boat position in hover mode simply allow the inbound fish to come to you. Wherever you decide to start fishing for this portion of the tide, stay long enough to fish through maximum flood. Most good marine GPS units will display tides and currents. Use the “currents” feature to find out when peak incoming tidal flow will occur. Even without this feature, you’ll know it’s happening when the building current starts pushing your boat eastward. One of the biggest mistakes I see others make when action’s a bit spotty is leaving too early, before max flood has occurred. Patience can be a virtue, and waiting another 15 minutes will often pay big dividends, resulting in a flurry of bent rods.
Be mindful of your line angles. A rod with a flatter “scope” may be loaded up with unwanted vegetation or jellyfish swept in by the incoming tide. Pay attention to what’s happening amongst the pack as the action within the fleet is an excellent barometer of fish movement. Watch the other boats hooking fish around you, and adjust your lateral position accordingly. If someone is hooking up right next to you, don’t be shy about asking, “How deep?” You’ll be surprised how often a neighbor is willing to help.
As the wave of newly arriving fish moves past the fleet, the crescendo of action may abruptly end just as magically as it began. If you haven’t limited the boat, it’s time for a move upriver to get in front of the advancing flood … and that wad of fish! As you approach the bottom of Desdemona Sands, you’ll have to make a choice to follow the fish either north or south. If one chooses the Washington side, try the area in front of Chinook between the #5 and #7 wingdams; or leap frog a little farther upriver and drop your gear just below the Megler Bridge. If one chooses the Oregon side, stop for the ever-reliable ‘Hammond Hover’ or perhaps a bit farther upriver by the massive sawdust pile. Some boats leap frog the pack to hover just below the Astoria Bridge. Get ready for action as surges of incoming rip currents approach your position. Again, you’ll be likely rewarded for staying long enough to fish through max flood in these locations.
As the tide slows down you’ll gradually begin to make forward headway again. If action is lackluster, that’s a signal to consider making another move. Spin the boat around, and troll uphill with the current above the bridge. If fishing four or more rods, think about dropping a line or two in your spread down to the bottom as the tide continues to soften toward slack water. I prefer to continue trolling uphill until the tide goes completely slack, at which point I’m typically well above the bridge. If there’s a sudden flurry of action along the way, don’t hesitate to double back for a “short stroke” second or third pass to troll over those biters again.
Once the tide starts rolling back out in earnest, the building ebb typically forces a lot of fish toward the bottom to avoid the strongest outflow in order to conserve energy. This is when a skilled crew of bottom dredgers can really light them up. Drop your gear to the deck and troll downhill along one of the deeper channels on the Washington side toward the bridge. The convergence zone of these channels between the Shipwreck and the Dismal Nitch rest area is often so reliable on an outgoing tide that I lovingly refer to it as the Meat Locker. On the Oregon side, the north shelf of the main shipping channel can be equally productive downtrolling among the anchored freighters. I stay above the bridge if I continue to find willing biters, short-stroking multiple passes through any pods of fish that my boat (or others nearby) are fortunate enough to encounter.
If action is lackluster above the bridge, I often find myself dropping down along the Green Line on the Oregon side or downtrolling the Washington side of Desdemona between the Red Roof and Fort Columbia during the second half of the outgo. Dredging the bottom in 30- to 40-feet of water is the time-honored standard operating procedure, but in recent years more boats have discovered the rewards of suspending gear in the broad No Man’s Land of up to 60 feet below the Megler Bridge. Trolling 360 flashers in this zone will increase your boat’s lateral and vertical attraction radius for potential biters.
Neap Tides: Locals often refer to the neap tide series (the ones with smaller exchanges between high and low) as “holdover” tides. Fish entering the river mouth from the ocean tend to do so in more metered fashion throughout the entire tide cycle rather than making the massive rush typical of a big flood. These softer exchanges are far less conducive to hovering into the current in stationary position, but rather they tend to be more productively fished by covering ground in forward motion. Most prefer to troll with the current covering maximum territory to show their spread of gear to as many willing biters as possible. While the tide is incoming, many fish will be suspended, so it pays to elevate at least some of the gear in the spread. Once that tide starts ebbing out, most of the fish will be hugging the bottom, so adjust accordingly.
In the first third of flood, I recommend starting near the western tip of Desdemona Sands below the Checkerboard. If you’re there at first light, troll shallower on the sands in 15 to 25 feet. In full sun, try a little deeper in about 30 to 40 feet. Work your way up the Washington side toward the Church and beyond. Pay attention to other boats hooking up and adjust your lateral position accordingly. Start and end each successive pass a bit farther east until you find the fish. By the middle third of the flood you should probably be near the bridge. Run short laps through any area that gives up multiple bites for you or others, otherwise troll on upriver into one of the Washington trenches.
If you are on the Oregon side, troll uphill from the bridge along the north shelf of the main channel among the anchored ships toward East Astoria. Keep working this zone as long as you keep getting bit, or if you see others hooking up. Otherwise, it’s time to make a move upriver to Tongue Point. Troll uphill until high slack, paying particular attention to the area between the red navigation buoys #44 and #50. This zone deserves an extra pass or two before the turn of the tide. When you see the anchored ships starting to swing sideways, you can effectively troll either direction. Once they swing a full 180 degrees facing upriver, it’s time to start making dedicated downhill passes.
Soft holdover tides are known to cough up strong catches of chinook especially above the bridge. Downtrolling along the bottom during the beginning of the ebb from the top of the Blind Channel or the Middle Ditch toward their confluence by the Shipwreck is like money in the bank. Ditto for the area between Rice Island and Tongue Point. The softer the exchange, the better. If you haven’t limited out by the middle of the outgo, or if bites are becoming scarce, it’s time to move back downriver.
On the Oregon side, the area between the Coast Guard Station and the East Astoria waterfront often gives up a willing chinook or two during the heart of the outgo especially alongside the anchored freighters. The biggest challenge is arguably just getting gear to the bottom. Allow me to share a rarely-used technique I discovered in 2017.
Boondoggin’ Buoy 10: It was late August when I launched my boat from the Astoria East Mooring Basin on the back side of a fishy productive series of soft Tongue Point tides. Even though tides were already building, I decided to give it another go to see if those kings were still there. The fish were clearly still present as evidenced on my marine electronics, but not nearly as snappy as the previous two mornings during the high exchange. A buddy and I plucked off two nice URBs just as the tide started to run out. Even though fish were clearly marking on the sonar, the bite flat died and the next two passes produced bupkus for Team eyeFISH. We followed the fleet downriver to find some biters in the main Oregon shipping channel just above Astoria, but when my crew tried to deploy gear, it felt like we had to let out a mile of line before even a 20-ounce lead could touch the bottom. Although the kicker was only in gear at bare idle, we were power-trolling nearly 5 knots downriver! The line angle was horribly flat, and the task at hand was literally mission impossible at that speed.
To slow us down on the next pass, I decided to turn the boat sideways to the flow of the building ebb and simply allow the outgoing current to work the gear. I put just enough thrust on my bowmount electric trolling motor to counteract the slightest SSE breeze. Apart from that, my barge was basically free-drifting downhill at 3.5 knots … yeah, good ol’ fashioned boondoggin’. Now the crew could easily reach the bottom of the shipping channel with a pound of lead and a much more manageable 45-degree line angle.
Deploying gear in this setting is an agonizingly slow process since the boat and current are basically moving at the same speed on the surface. In the beginning, the line angle is straight down — 90 degrees — completely vertical. In a mild west wind, the boat may be slowed down enough that the gear may actually swing downstream under the boat. The crew will be begging for more speed, but just ignore the whining and tell them to let out slower than they ever thought possible. The mainline must gradually be let out in slow 6-inch pulls to keep the terminal gear from wadding up into a literal ball of $h!t. Once the gear is about 20 feet down, it reaches the slower moving water and a line angle magically starts to form, progressively so as more line is released. Now the gear can be let out in more traditional fashion at a faster, free-wheeling pace right down to the bottom.
The spread of rods must obviously be moved entirely to the upstream side of the boat. The fore and aft positions are oriented straight forward and straight back, tips low to the water. The rest of the rods can be evenly spaced along that upstream gunwale, adjusting tip height for optimum load. That first day, I limited a boatful of buddies by employing this technique … a trip none of us will ever forget.
I have successfully used the technique in this situation every year since, so I’m clearly convinced the first attempt wasn’t just a fluke. In fact, last August, an experienced crew of Doubting Thomases limited my boat boondoggin’ the main channel in this fashion. They were absolutely dumbfounded when we scored seven bites on the first pass alone! Other boats around us hooked nothing on the same pass. If you take the time to understand how tides affect water movement in a big deep dynamic body of water, it all starts to make a lot of sense why this tide-specific technique is so effective.
Before venturing into the Columbia estuary for the fall salmon season, take a few minutes to review the tides during your chosen dates. Fish can and will be caught at all stages of the tide. Apply the principles and recommendations outlined above, and you’re bound to run into a willing biter or two to fill the box.
A Word on Tules
A Team eyeFISH article about Buoy 10 would not be complete without a statement about ESA-listed LRH tule chinook and their impact on the fishery. These tules are bound for spawning tributaries downstream of Bonneville Dam. They make up a significant portion of the chinook you are likely to encounter in the Buoy 10 fishery. The length of the chinook-directed portion of the season is directly tied to the number of wild tules killed in the fishery … so-called Lower River Hatchery (LRH) impact.
There is a federal cap on how many are allowed to perish while prosecuting the recreational fishery. If we reach or exceed that cap, it’s game over for the chinook season. The concern for conserving wild tules is so great that regulations require the release of all wild chinook (whether tule or the more desirable “bright” stocks) for the first 24 days of the season. This ensures that only hatchery-origin tules may be retained, while the wild ones get a free pass. Keeping hatchery tules in those first 24 days is totally acceptable. In fact, the overwhelming majority of legally retainable Buoy 10 chinook through August 24 will be tules.
BUT … All of that changes on August 25 when any chinook is legally retainable by regulation. However once this happens, the managers presume that wild tules are being harvested at the same exact rate as clipped LRH tules, causing the “burn” on wild tule impact to go into hyper-drive. The accounting algorithm makes every LRH tule retained for the box 500% as expensive (in terms of ESA tule impact) as when that same fish was retained the day before. Let me say that again: each LRH tule retained after August 24 burns five times the ESA impact as the one kept in the first 24 days of the season.
Keeping these tules is a direct assault on our ability to fish a full chinook season through Labor Day. Once the managers determine the ESA impact cap will be reached, the chinook season will abruptly end, regardless of how many days were originally left on the books. Do your part to prevent this from happening by judiciously releasing ALL identifiable tules that you encounter after August 24. Have the discipline to hold out for a much higher quality upriver bright (URB), and you’ll be rewarded with far superior table fare, as well as maximum opportunity to continue fishing for chinook for a full season.
Game Day awaits, and it will soon be time to get after them. Good luck and tight lines.