I caught my first Columbia River salmon from the bank. Casting a no. 4 gold Mepps, as I recall.
That single event, and knowing there is no better place to be on an Indian summer day than the Hanford Reach, led to me buying a boat.
Any newbie must first ask around. I heard that Wiggle Warts were effective so I stocked my tackle box with various sizes and colors of this popular crankbait. Flat-lining them behind my boat – the main technique at the time – brought a few salmon to the net.
Another standby in my early years involved trolling cut plug herring behind a dodger, a method my friend Andy called “meat in the morning.”
It wasn’t long before a new batch of salmon-catching plugs showed up on the market. This finding led to me purchasing a few dozen Kwikfish, sizes K-13 to K-16, and a handful of Maglips. You can never have too many choices; especially if you are a lure swapper like me.
I was fine with this repertoire until the “Bait Buster” – basically a 2-inch strip of plastic with a beady eye – arrived on the scene. I didn’t much care for this lure but became intrigued with the next generation: a hollow cavity invention called Super Bait that looks like a herring, is stuffed with tuna, and fished behind a Pro-Troll ProChip 11 flasher.
Super Baits are popular with anglers because they catch fish. Also, a can of tuna costs much less than a dozen herring. Meanwhile, the price of me putting a lure in the water increased three-fold with this new-fangled gear.
Which leads to the topic of olfaction.
It’s well established that salmon return to their home waters, relying on an acute sense of smell. Does scent also attract salmon once they enter fresh water and quit feeding? Most salmon anglers think so.
Last time I checked there were over 50 bait scent products for anglers. And everyone has a secret recipe. Exotic scents such as anise and garlic are popular, as are concoctions that include “salmon slammer” and “bloody tuna.” Adding odor to a lure is hardly a new practice, however. For example, the explorer James Swan wrote over 150 years ago, “When the fish were shy or the Indians were unsuccessful, they would rub their hooks with the root of wild celery …”
My favorite approach is back-trolling cured salmon roe behind a Spin-N-Glo. Consider this idyllic scene: warm September sun on your face, geese honking overhead, smell of fish slime in the air, rod tip bowing and flexing while your trusty jumbo jet diver keeps your offering near the river bottom.
What makes the Hanford Reach special is the wide variety of water available to ply your skill. There are 50-foot deep holes, fast runs, trenches, broken water and channeled banks.
Some habitat features create staging zones or holding areas for salmon, while others funnel upstream migrating salmon to nearby spawning grounds. Identify these areas and you will catch more salmon.
Along with experience, a certain amount of luck is involved. Like the day I cinched a ball of “rocket red” roe behind a Spin-N-Glo, spooled out 70 yards of line, and placed the rod in my older brother’s rod holder.
“Keep your eye on the rod tip and wait for it to go down,” I said. “Once a salmon hook ups, get on the reel, and keep pressure on the fish at all times.”
I must mention that Dusty shows up without any gear of his own. Wouldn’t you know? The first strike of the day occurred on the outfit I loaned him! After putting his salmon in the box, I vowed the next fish would be mine. Wrong! An hour later, a 24-pounder grabbed his lure.
I dealt with the discrepancy in catch until Dusty started bragging.
“Bring it up one more time and I’ll put you out on the bank,” I said.
He remained quiet until we reached the dock and the fish checker asked for a report.
“I caught two and he got skunked,” Dusty said, pointing at me for the entire world to see. In hindsight, I should have made him walk home.
That I have an advanced degree in fisheries science did not help me come up with a theory why salmon shunned my side of the boat. I do know one thing, though: Dusty better bring his own gear next time. And while he’s at it, he can chip in for beer and boat gas. Benevolence only goes so far in my family.
According to Paul Hoffarth, an estimated 92,800 fall Chinook salmon are expected to return to the Hanford Reach this fall, or slightly more fish than last year.
Greatest harvest rates occur from late September to early October.
With the right lure, some skill, and a little luck, you should have a good chance of landing a salmon.
Dennis Dauble is author of the award-winning natural history guidebook, Fishes of the Columbia Basin, in addition to three short story collections, The Barbless Hook, One More Last Cast, and Bury Me With My Fly Rod. Read more stories about fish and fishing at DennisDaubleBooks.com.