Tag Archives: Springer

Cowlitz Will Shine This Spring

Huge Chinook forecast, plus great steelheading makes the river an April must-fish.
By Jason Brooks 

The Cowlitz is known for putting out good numbers of winter and summer steelhead, and it can be an outstanding fall coho river as well. But come April most Northwest sportsmen are fixated on the spring Chinook making their way up the Columbia to terminal fisheries. Before venturing too far up the big river in pursuit of the year’s first salmon, though, remember that the Cowlitz too has a good run of springers. And this year’s forecast of 25,100 not only follows on a stellar season in 2015, it is one of the largest predicted returns over the last 30 years.
But wait, there’s more! One thing the famed Southwest Washington river offers that most other springer fisheries don’t is the chance to double up on winter steelhead that arrive in February and are caught all the way into June, when the summer steelies show up. The Cowlitz also offers a variety of water conditions and access for all anglers.

WHILE 2016’S FIRST Cowlitz springer was caught out of the lower river in early February, the fishery really doesn’t get going strong until mid-April as the salmon make their way up to the Barrier Dam and Tacoma Power’s salmon hatchery. Thanks to 2010’s rebuild and changing release strategies at that facility, the numbers of smolts being released there has increased 70 percent, rising from around a million to 1.7 million.
Early this month boat anglers have the advantage because they can best fish the bigger water from Toledo down. The I-5 launch (which is underneath the interstate off Mandy Road, which peels off the Jackson Highway) is a starting point. Keep in mind that salmon and steelhead in this section probably won’t be too close to each other, so targeting springers will yield very few steelhead. Plus the techniques in the bigger water are more geared to salmon anyway – back-trolling plugs, such as the Brad’s Killer Fish, Yakima Bait’s Mag Lip 4.5 or even the newer 5.0, and Luhr Jensen’s Kwikfish, all wrapped with either a fillet of herring, sardine or a piece of tuna belly. As the regulations don’t allow the use of a barbed hook until June from Lexington Bridge up, switch out the trebles to a single barbless siwash on a barrel swivel or bead chain  and pinch the barb down. Another  favorite is a plug-cut herring with a Brad’s Diver 48 inches in front, with a four-bead chain swivel halfway down the 25-pound leader.
One of the more popular areas is the mouth of the Toutle River. Here, bank anglers who find their way to the large gravel bar find a place to plunk Spin-N-Glos with a chunk of sardine or a gob of eggs, and some even put both on the hook. A 5- to 8-ounce pyramid weight is needed this time of year as river flows can vary, even with the river being controlled by a series of dams. The Toutle is not controlled and has a lot of sediment, making the water below the confluence very dirty, but plunking is an intercepting technique, so don’t let the offcolored water discourage you too much. Boat anglers will often fish here as well, again pulling big plugs and fishing the off-color and clearwater separation line.

The Cowlitz’s 50 miles below Mayfield Dam are best fished from a boat, but many stretches are productive from the bank too, notably the mouth of the Toutle, Blue Creek and Barrier Dam. (JASON BROOKS)

The Cowlitz’s 50 miles below Mayfield Dam are best fished from a boat, but many stretches are productive from the bank too, notably the mouth of the Toutle, Blue Creek and Barrier Dam. (JASON BROOKS)

UPRIVER IN TOLEDO is a two-lane boat ramp that provides access to slightly  smaller water. Boaters will again back down the deep slots, which are easier to find in this section of the Cowlitz, back-trolling wrapped plugs or diverand-herring combos.
I’ve fished this stretch with guide Bruce Warren of Fishing For Fun Guide Service (253-208-7433) and he knows this part of the river is your real first chance to double up on steelhead and Chinook. He will have a few side-drifting rods rigged up to target current seams or large boulders. He likes to throw the standard boon-dogging rig for steelhead that are holding or traveling upriver but still trying to stay out of the springers’ way. The salmon tend to hold in the deep holes and runs, with the steelhead hugging the bank and seams or resting behind those boulders. By targeting the different waters, you have a good chance of hooking either species.
Next up is the Mission or Massey Bar launch, a bit upriver from Toledo on the north bank off Buckley Road. As the river starts to tighten, this is where you can start to find good numbers of steelhead and springers holding in the same types of water. Though the fish won’t be bunched together, the way you fish for them here on upriver means there is no way to predict what is on the end of your line until you get that first glimpse of the fish. The deep slots are much narrower and the soft edges are travel lanes for both species. With boulders sticking out of the water and the points off of the end of midriver gravel bars holding fish, it can be a guessing game which one you’re fighting to the net.
Side-drifting and boon-dogging (side-drifting while continually floating downriver) are the top-producing tactics for all anglers. However, a technique that is quickly catching on is a variation of boondogging called bobber-dogging. Basically it’s dragging your weight, preferably a slinky as they tend to not grab onto rocks like pencil lead does, while using an adjustable float to help it along as well as watch for the bite instead of feeling for it. Use a leader of 12-or 15-pound clear Izorline Platinum and two size 1 or 1/0 barbless hooks with a Cheater or Corky between them, and a larger cluster of eggs for bait. This time of year I switch up my cured eggs from the standard steelhead orange or natural to the deep-red-stained eggs and add Pro-Cure’s Bloody Tuna bait oil right into the jar to soak. Sand shrimp are still a favorite but to really double up on springers, adding a few other traditional salmon scents like Pro-Cure’s herring or sardine oils can lead to more salmon in the box. Then switch back over to krill or anise for steelhead.

Steelhead add to the allure of the Cowlitz in spring – Bruce Warren holds a nice winter-run. While the lower river is more of a spring Chinook fishery, doubling up on steelhead is most likely from I-5 to Blue Creek (JASON BROOKS)

Steelhead add to the allure of the Cowlitz in spring – Bruce Warren holds a nice winter-run. While the lower river is more of a spring Chinook fishery, doubling up on steelhead is most likely from I-5 to Blue Creek (JASON BROOKS)

BLUE CREEK, THE famed state access and steelhead hatchery, is both a bank angler and boat fisherman’s choke point for doubling up on steelhead and spring Chinook. With plenty of bank access from just below the hatchery outlet at the boat ramp all the way down to the Clay Banks area, shore fishermen can wade out as far as they can, depending on river flows, and drift fish the edge of the main current seam. You will also find anglers fishing eggs under a float here. Above the boat ramp there are a few spots to wade out, but be very aware of the ledges and runs that are right at the bank edge. However, there is ample bank access, and this water is primarily a bobber-and-egg fishery. If you do find a stretch where you won’t interfere with other fishermen, try throwing Blue Fox Vibrax spinners in size 3 and 4 and let them swing across the wide flats.
Boat anglers in this stretch work the opposite side of the river, right along the rock retaining wall across from the launch. There is about a mile of water where you can motor up to the first set of rapids and then slowly  back your way to the tailout just above the natural chute that leads down to the corner below. If you decide to run downriver, be aware that this chute can become a hazard. Boaters coming up can’t see around the corner, and once committed to coming upriver, they need to stay on plane or else risk hitting a boulder that is right in the middle of the rapids.
Four big bends upstream of Blue Creek is Barrier Dam and its boat launch. Those who fish it do well out in the middle of the river, but be aware of the fishing deadline – don’t cross it or you will get a ticket. Bank anglers here do even better and this is your best spot to catch a springer from shore. Steelhead do venture up this way, but this is really a salmon show, and the favorite technique is float fishing eggs. Even with good access, it’s very competitive to get a spot. Standing on rocks and casting out in sequence with other anglers that are within a rod length of you is the name of the game, so don’t expect solitude or try other techniques that will interrupt the flow of bobbers drifting by.
The Cowlitz is one fishy river, producing summer steelhead, fall kings and coho and winter steelies, but don’t overlook the opportunity to double up in spring on Chinook and metalheads. Loads of returning fish and a river basically designed for sport anglers make it a top choice this April. NS

Thanks to a big jump in smolt releases, spring Chinook fishing on the Cowlitz looks bright. Last year saw a return of 23,000, and this year’s is forecast to top that. George Schroeder caught this nice one on the lower river in mid April a few seasons ago, fishing herring behind a diver in soft water near shore due to higher flows. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

Thanks to a big jump in smolt releases, spring Chinook fishing on the Cowlitz looks bright. Last year saw a return of 23,000, and this year’s is forecast to top that. George Schroeder caught this nice one on the lower river in mid April a few seasons ago, fishing herring behind a diver in soft water near shore due to higher flows. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

5 Best April Springer Fisheries

Fishing hits high gear this month – here are the top spots and tactics.

Story by Andy Schneider

As spring Chinook fever grips Northwest anglerdom, it becomes extremely difficult to have productive workweeks in April, what with buddies sending picture after picture of purple-backed, chrome-bright kings. But when the weekend finally does arrive, you are faced with an even bigger dilemma than you anticipated – where to go? You got so caught up in the idea of just going fishing that you didn’t stop to think about the where. Argh!

You scroll back through some of your buddies’ pictures: That’s the Abernathy Bridge, so he’s fishing the Willamette at Oregon City. Those power lines look familiar, so they’re definitely at the head of the Multnomah Channel. Gilbert boat ramp in the distance there, so that’s Santosh on the channel. Is that I-84 and a train in the background? Must be the Wind River. Parade of boats in a tight circle – too easy, that can only be Drano Lake. On the blogs, there are good reports from the Cowlitz, water conditions are supposed to be ideal on the Kalama … And, oh wait, what’s this?!

There’s enough fish for the Columbia to reopen this weekend too? Great, just what you need, another viable and possibly productive option! What to do, what to do … Sometimes there are just too many options when trying to make a decision on where to fish for spring Chinook in April. By midmonth the salmon are pretty evenly spaced throughout most of the Northwest’s popular fisheries. In reality any choice you make should produce results, but pulling the trigger and sending the crew to rendezvous at a distant boat ramp still takes a leap of faith that you are making a good decision to yield the best results.

The last thing you want to hear when you arrive at a fishery is “You shoulda been here yesterday!” Some days you can gather all available information and there is a blaring choice where to go. Bonneville fish counts climbing dramatically? Head to the Wind or Drano. Turbidity levels dropping on the Willamette? Hit Oregon City. Columbia flows high? Troll the lower channel. But there just as many times that all of these options can look appealing, making it difficult to narrow down your choices. Sometimes it’s best just to trust your instincts and make a choice on where to fish and stick with it and have confidence that you made the right decision.

Here are five top April springer fisheries:

THE OREGON CITY stretch of the Willamette can be very productive for spring Chinook anglers, but being successful here doesn’t come easy and the learning curve frustrates more anglers than any other fishery. It’s not uncommon to see certain guides and anglers consistently out fishing others two to one or even three to one. What are they doing that makes them so much more successful? It comes down to the little things: Egg cures, rigging, boat speed, boat handling and the correct tactics used in the right locations all make these anglers more successful than others. So how does a weekend warrior stand a chance against these seasoned professionals? Simple: Dial in one tactic and stick with it.

The most popular way to target spring salmon here is with bait, either diver and eggs or back-bounced eggs. To properly fish bait in Oregon City, you need good current. Last year’s water levels in the Lower Columbia created good flows and good fishing for OC anglers. With good snowpack this winter, we can almost guarantee higher Columbia flows this spring, which could hamper fishing this season, but only time will tell. One of the most effective ways to get your bait in the bite zone and keep it there is with a Jumbo Jet diver. Clip one onto a plastic weight slider with an 8- to 12-inch dropper. Run a 6-foot leader with either a Spin-N-Glo or double Corkies (pinned halfway down the leader) to a 3/0 hook. Adding a sand shrimp above your eggs doesn’t hurt and will keep your eggs “milking” longer than just running bare eggs. Bring multiple egg cures and vary your offerings throughout the day to see if there is one the fish prefer. OC is known for having flurries of activity after long stretches of slow fishing. Pay attention and keep in contact with other anglers on the water to make sure you’re amongst the action once it starts.



IF SPRINGERS ARE being caught anywhere in the Willamette, then there are fish moving through the Multnomah Channel. No one really knows why spring Chinook take the short cut through the channel or why they seem to hold in different areas as it snakes along the west side of Sauvie Island, but no one is complaining either. From Fred’s Marina at the top end to Scappoose Bay at the bottom, the channel provides excellent sheltered, productive and easy waters to troll herring. The Head of the Channel, Rocky Point, Coon Island, Santosh and Sand Island are some of the most popular trolls. While trolling herring downstream is the most popular technique in the channel, if tides are soft, slowly trolling the bait upstream can offer a different view and entice a bite from a spring Chinook. Oftentimes you will see a bite move its way up the channel – good one day at Santosh, the following at Coon Island, the next at Rocky Point.

If the bite starts to slow in one location after it was consistent the day before, move upriver, as the fish have more than
likely done the same. When trolling the channel, keep your baits in contact with the bottom when fishing in less than 30 feet of water. In deeper water, stagger your depths, running baits at 18 to 36 feet on the linecounter reels. The channel is famous for its first-light bite, and it can occur at The Head of the Channel, Coon Island or Santosh. There is almost always another flurry of activity at tide changes, but if there is a large push of fish moving upriver, count on fishing to be consistent all day.

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THE WIND RIVER is always a consistent producer for boat anglers willing to brave Columbia Gorge winds and unpredictable weather. Usually by the third week of April, the terminal fishery off the mouth of the Washington tributary is in full swing, but pay attention to Bonneville fish counts and see if there is a reason to start your season early. Once there is seven consecutive days of at least 1,000 spring Chinook over the dam, fishing really turns on here. Pay special attention to spikes in the count too. When an especially large push of fish moves through, expect fishing to pick up 11 miles upstream at the Wind a day or two later.

The Wind used to be primarily a plug fishery. Anglers used to troll and cast orange Magnum Wiggle Warts with inconsistent results; some days were great, some were not. When the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife moved the southern boundary of the fishery further into the Columbia due to silting at the mouth of the Wind, anglers trolling herring or prawns started out fishing those still dragging plugs. While there are still plenty of fish caught on plugs, many more are caught on bait.
As you might expect, the biggest challenge fishing the Wind is boat control and handling. It’s not uncommon to have 25-mph sustained winds creating 2- to 3-foot whitecaps. Deploying sea socks and staying vigilant on the trolling motor can usually keep the boat trolling at the proper speed and right direction.

Plug-cut green-label herring trolled behind a triangular flasher, just like anglers use below the dam, is probably the
number one producer of Wind River springers. Running a slightly longer lead dropper at 24 inches will ensure that your herring stays above the plentiful woody debris that covers the bottom near the fishery’s southern boundary buoy markers. The second most productive bait has to be a prawn spinner. Swap out the herring for a whole prawn with a No. 3-, 4- or 5-sized Cascade blade. Chartreuse blades with red highlights are usually top producers, followed by rainbow patterns and bronze/brass blades.

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DRANO LAKE IS known for seeing some of the first springers above Bonneville, and not having a boat fishery above Beacon Rock the last few seasons has improved catch rates inside the drowned mouth of the Little White Salmon River. But just when Drano boaters thought they had everything dialed in last year, fishing slowed dramatically in the early and peak season. While the run came in above forecast, the spring Chinook were either being intercepted before the lake or the fish were not responding to familiar baits.

The lake can be broken down into two completely different fisheries: the main-lake troll and that merrygo-round in The Toilet Bowl. The former has been a consistent producer for anglers running Mag Lips, cutplug herring, prawn spinners, and Pro-Troll flashers with Super Baits. When trolling bait, make sure to stagger your depths to find biting Chinook. With plugs, flatline them 75 feet behind the boat, making sure to add a fresh sardine or tuna wrap every 45 minutes.

While The Toilet Bowl may be one of the trickiest places to fish in the Northwest, it can be very entertaining and productive. Nerves of steel, patience, a low-idling trolling motor, excellent boat-handling skills and a good disposition are needed for fishing this unique area. When spring Chinook are pushing into the lake in force, it’s not uncommon to see multiple doubles on every pass. But when they’re not, anglers can get a little frustrated and grumpy.

Prawn spinners fished directly below the boat are the most common bait, with plug-cut herring a distant second. No. 4
and 5 Cascade or Bear Valley blades are the most productive blades, since they will still rotate at slow speeds. Be aware that, new this year, launch permits for Wind and Drano are no longer available at the ramps. You can pick them up at Bridgemart west of Bingen and the 76 station in Stevenson, both of which are open 24/7, the Home Valley Store or Wind River Market, which open daily around daybreak, and Skamania County’s Hegewald Center and annex buildings Monday through Thursday.

THIS ONE’S IFFIERsomewhat because there’s a quota on how many upriver-bound springers we can catch before the run update, but at press time in March, the Lower Columbia was slated to be open through April 9. More
often than not in recent years, extra days of fishing have been granted in the year’s fourth month, so assuming that scenario plays out this spring, what should you do? Take some vacation or sick days and capitalize on some of the best springer fishing of the year, that’s what!

By mid-April, water conditions have usually stabilized, weather can be pretty darn pleasant and the peak of the run is usually pushing right through the heart of our favorite waters. It’s tough to beat the success of trolled herring for
Columbia springers, no matter whether you’re fishing the 1st, 9th or 19th of April. The later season runs this month,
the higher your success will be, which should make trolling your first choice. On the flip side, fellow anglers will be increasingly dialing in the fishery, so while the tactics don’t change, you will need to bring your A game to the river.

Baits will need to be swapped more frequently, lead will need to be ticking bottom consistently and your herring better have a good roll. While most anglers head to waters they know best, spring Chinook fishing should be equally good from
Bonneville to Cathlamet. Finding water that’s a little less crowded may give you an advantage in securing your share of Omega-3. Just downstream of the Beacon Rock deadline to Dalton Point, anglers have found a spot to spread out and fish some productive trolling water. Be wary of strong east winds, and very cautious of westerlies above 20 mph – combined with strong current, west winds create tall swells and wind waves here. Plug-cut herring and prawn spinners were very productive in this
stretch last year.

Moving just downriver a couple miles is another popular troll fishery centering around Rooster Rock. The run starts close to the Washington shore at Lawton Creek and along the wide sand flats along Reed Island. Halfway down the island, most anglers jump to the Oregon side of the channel and start the second part of the troll at the Corbett offramp. This multi-mile run will give you lots of water to spread out and is close to boat ramps at Rooster Rock State Park and Washougal.

As the Columbia warms with spring weather, plugs get more and more effective. By the time an extension rolls around, hoglines have become pretty established in productive areas. Look for pile dikes, wing dams and bottom contours that funnel fish to your wiggling plugs. Pay special attention to Sandy Island off Kalama to Government Island by Troutdale. Bank fishing doesn’t get the love boat fishing does, but some of the best springer real estate can only be accessed by shore anglers. One of the best spots is on the Washington shore, the famous Oak Tree Hole.

It starts at the top of Ives Island and stretches down the inside channel. Warrendale, on the Oregon shore, comes in second for Bonneville productivity. It’s the long rocky beach just upriver from The Fishery. Either bank can produce obscene numbers
just before dam counts spike, so be prepared for crowds and match your tackle and weight with those you’re sharing the bank with to avoid tangles and conflicts. Well downriver, Warrior Rock and Sand Island both support boat-in plunking fisheries. The sandy beach directly below the Warrior Rock Lighthouse is a very productive location to plunk out of a boat.

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NO MATTER WHICH spot you hit, fish it whole-heartedly and without regrets. Don’t get discouraged by fishing buddies sending text after text of fish caught from locales you decided not to fish. Instead, breathe in that fresh spring air and take a moment to ponder the difference between the water of an April shower running up your
sleeves and the bitter-cold winter rain that snuck down your back. Put the last of your seasonal affective disorder to rest,
welcome allergy season and longer, warmer, fishier days. No matter where you chase springers this month, you’ll find more rewards than just fish when spending a weekend on the water. NS