I’m not saying one is better than the other, but two recent fishing trips gave me the opportunity to compare and contrast Chinook angling near Portland and Seattle.
For instance, the former required a groggy 1:30 a.m. wakeup and three-hour drive down I-5 to a ramp on the Willamette, but only a five-minute boat ride to the fishing grounds and maybe – maybe – 20 minutes before we had our first king aboard. A second bit shortly afterwards.
As for the latter, I was able to sleep a couple extra hours and it took only 30 minutes to reach the dock and another half hour for us to run around Possession Bar to the fishing grounds, but three hours to drum up our first Chinook, though we also got a pair of bonus resident coho, including one on a crazy surface hookup – hello, suicide silver!
We’ll call it a draw.
PART 1: LOWER-LOWER WILLAMETTE RIVER
EARLIER THIS YEAR Trey Carskadon was telling me about his strategy for spring Chinook fishing. The Portland-based ad man, former guide and big-steelhead catcher‘s notions were totally alien to my concept of springer fishing. Something about the salmon stock’s name just makes me want to slap them on the cover of a late winter issue and start clicking obsessively on the Fish Passage Center’s daily counts.
OMG, 2 over the dam yesterday – it’s lit!!
But rather than get all crazy and fish hard in March and April and be utterly burned out by May – when the salmon actually show up – Trey for the past 10 years or so has relaxed, breathed through his nose and only dipped his toe (well, sled) into the lower-lower Willamette when April comes to a close, not really hitting his fishing stride there till well into June either. He invited me down from Seattle to check it out.
Trey was filling me in about all of this as we emailed about news from his day job – he does PR for the O’Loughlin sportsmen’s shows in Puyallup, Portland and Central Oregon – and as I hit him up for the names of reputable Willamette springer guides for one of my Seattle-area sources.
My source was like me, except even more set in their ways: No, no, no, no, no, you fish springers in spring, none of this May malarkey or June gibberish, and anyway, you gotta fish up by the falls.
In late April, Trey emailed that he was just starting to untangle his king gear and that he’d be back in touch when it started to get good.
And that was the last I heard from him. I assumed the worst – not that he’d died, or that Portland and the lower Willamette had caved in, but that the fish had never arrived and my May springer cover and our inside article on the fishery had jinxed the whole damn thing.
Not again, ARGH!!!
Then literally out of the blue in late June Trey emailed, said he’d ended up waiting until that month to begin fishing the lower Willamette, that he’d been catching kings every time out and asked if I’d be up for some post-Fourth fireworks.
July springers?!? In Portland? Rip City or Boot City?
I was still a bit skeptical, but I also bit – and hard. That’s because I suspected Trey wasn’t about to burn me with a wild goose chase and risk future blog headlines like “Sportsmen’s Show Scandal!” and lurid tales of Frankenfish in the kiddie trout pond.
(“Sources claim that after handling their catch the two young anglers sprouted horns and then a nearby vendor selling firestarter tools tried to use one to make the sign of the cross and things went decidedly South from there …”)
Also, it’s well known that springers just “last” far longer in rivers than their summer and fall cousins, especially tules, not spawning until August and September.
SO THE SECOND FRIDAY OF THIS MONTH found me racing down the interstate at o’dark hundred for a 5:30 a.m. rendezvous at the Cathedral Park ramp by the St. Johns Bridge with Trey and one of the O’Loughlin brothers, Terry.
After I stepped onto the boat and threw a lifejacket on, we motored past the head of the Multnomah Slough and came to a stop maybe a half mile above the Columbia River and about 30 to 40 boats.
There we rigged up with 10-plus-ounce cannonball weights on free sliders on the main line ahead of a super-stout 3-foot snubber, chrome Pro-Troll with agitator fin and 3-foot leader to size 3.5 VIP spinners in several flavors, including Mexican hat, as well as a hoochie spinner. We doused the lures with a foul garlic concoction from Northwest Bait & Scent, then set out the back two rods at 25 feet on the linecounter reels and the front two at 20.
With Trey and Terry’s two-rod endorsements, we also ran a plug straight out the back.
It seemed like I hadn’t even had a chance to take a rejuvenating glug of my coffee before the back left rod went off and the fight was on. In short order I had a bright king in the net at the side of the boat and after Trey checked that it didn’t have an adipose fin, he whacked it and we snapped a few pics. Metadata on my phone’s image says it was just a hair past 6 a.m.
Thirty minutes later we had a second beside the sled – an absolutely gorgeous, larger, much harder-fighting Chinook – but it turned out to be wild and Trey carefully released it.
Ummm, what in the hell just happened, I found myself wondering. Springer fishing is not this fast in my experience.
But Trey knew: He’s dialed the program in over the last decade and had caught two just a few days before with another of the O’Loughlin brothers and Central Oregon outdoor writer Brook Snavely.
While the bite slowed down after that and the fleet broke away from just the Sauvie Island side of the channel in search of biters, it was still really interesting to experience this relatively unknown late-season fishery Trey had been telling me about. ODFW didn’t bother sampling it after June 7 this year, but agency catch stats show effort peaked in mid-April and again in mid-May before tailing off sharply by early June, despite keeper rates being twice as good, .2 Chinook per angler versus .08 and .09 for those two earlier periods.
Everyone seemed to be running the same flashers and spinners, and most worked from Kelley Point upstream to the mouth of Columbia Slough and the grain terminal, with a few venturing away from the fleet up towards the head of the slough.
Trey watched the Garmin finder religiously and it showed salmon suspended at 25 to 30 feet and our gear just above them. Early on some weeds caused problems, but as the tide switched to outgoing, they seemed to flush out and we rarely had to clean lines afterwards. With the Pro-Trolls and our speed, the rod tips pulsated regularly up and down 4 to 5 inches or so.
It’s a first-light bite, Trey maintains, and on the water we heard of a guy who had caught one at 4:45 a.m. and later got his second. In his invite Trey had also mentioned we’d be off the water by 9:30, which appealed to me as I was on deadline for the August issue of Northwest Sportsman and I needed to get some work done back home, but that’s also because after that time of day he says he’s found it’s not worth it to continue, perhaps due to strong overhead sunlight.
Surface water temperatures at the mouth of the Willamette were on the warmer side, in the upper 60s, but still cooler than upstream and maybe a degree or so below the mainstem Columbia, but that’s my speculation based on the gauge at Dodson well into the western Columbia Gorge, I couldn’t say for sure. When I wondered aloud if a similar bite could be found at the mouth of the Multnomah Channel, by St. Helens, there was a suggestion there might be.
AS WE TROLLED AROUND IN SEARCHof another biter, we also talked about one of Trey’s longterm projects – going clear back to before the first Bush administration of the late 1980s – advocating for the removal of the four dams on the lower Snake River dams.
Earlier this year the issue got serious traction as conservative Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson floated a dramatic breaching plan supportive of salmon, steelhead and myriad river communities and industries, and supported by many Northwest tribes and the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, but not so much by Washington politicians of either stripe or environmentalists either, despite sharply increasing risks of extinction for many fish runs that must transit the quartet of too-warm reservoirs in the Evergreen State’s southeast corner to reach cooler, more productive, mostly habitat-intact headwaters in the Snake Basin. In a blistering example of the problem, this summer’s heatwave plus low snowpack led Idaho to truck endangered sockeye from Lower Granite Dam to a hatchery.
(NSIA’s Liz Hamilton had a brilliant statement in a Seattle Timesletter to the editor last week: “The world is backward when we must put fish in trucks on the freeway to protect grain in barges on a short section of the Snake River.”)
Advocates say the four dams are “the biggest current source of direct mortality” on the Snake’s listed stocks and removing them will “double and sometimes triple the smolt-to-adult returns in the river, double, sometimes triple the number of hatchery and wild spring Chinook and B-run steelhead back to the basin if we can build this comprehensive solution. And it will also benefit other stocks that migrate through the hydropower system corridor.”
I don’t see Trey giving up on it anytime soon, but he also wondered who among the younger generation of anglers would take on the torch for fish and fisheries. It’s a good question, and one I’ve mulled as well. I see a lot of social-media-savvy fishers building audiences, myriad pissed-off ones flailing away, but few who might be effective in the way Trey’s thinking. There is one, however, who is on the right trajectory, talks the talks across multiple communities, and knows how policy change is actually achieved, and I passed their name along.
The fishing trip was also a great opportunity to learn about the interesting history of the O’Loughlin family’s fishing and hunting shows (now in the fourth generation) and how they came to be, something I’ve always been curious about.
Terry told me about how his promoter grandfather and a World War II-era cattle baron joined forces and soon enough they were flooding a Portland building and installing docks inside it for a boat show (300,000 gallons of water somehow disappeared, he said, despite doors being welded shut, but otherwise it worked out). Holding a popular 1960s’ trio to a contract to sing at one event was a harbinger of modern-day hassles of trying to bring in grizzlies, as lawyers and insurers increasingly weigh risks over reward, he added.
TREY MIGHT HAVE ACTUALLY GIVEN us a few extra minutes to talk shop according to the time stamp on my photo of the US Navy oiler Yukon that steamed past us a bit after 9:30, but in the big ship’s wake he had us pull ’em up and we headed the short distance back to Cathedral Park. Soon zipping back north on I-5 (and spotting the naval ship just off Kalama by then), I was able to actually get some work done that afternoon.
At first, I was suspicious whether my fish was a true springer – perhaps an Upper Columbia hatchery summer king dip-in instead? – but then again ODFW counts the stock at Willamette Falls through July. While it appears the heatwave put a damper on passage in late June and early July, it did pick up again in the days before, during and after my trip. And salmon caught on the Willamette below the falls this month are filed as spring kings under the agency’s catch stats.
I think my answer came when I filleted the Chinook. Not that I’m anything approaching an expert, but I’ve cut a few springers in my day, kids, and the meat, its color and relative amount of fat told me that it was one.
So did the taste when baked for 20-25 minutes at 350 degrees with some butter, sea salt, rosemary, thinly sliced red onion on one fillet, shaved red onion on the other, and lemon.
Out. Of. This. World.
One final thought on the trip. Afterwards I pawed through back issues of my magazine and reread Buzz Ramsey’s May column on the lower Willamette Chinook fishery. The advice the salmon legend gathered from local guides (and issue cover boy) Terry Mulkey, Jack Glass and Dave Eng proved absolutely spot on.
Give that guy a Pulitzer!
PART 2: SOUTHERN MARINE AREA 9
IF MY WILLAMETTE TRIP was the product of months and months of planning, last Saturday’s run out to the south end of Whidbey Island for Puget Sound hatchery kings (and coho) came about in a relative flash.
George: Wanna fish out of Everett this weekend with me and Karsten on the derby boat?
Andy: Lemme see about rearranging my schedule!
Or something like that – full disclosure, some negotiations with the Missus were needed and let’s just say that I got the better end of that deal, plus the trip had better odds than my original idea of paddling my kayak up to the Point Wells oil docks and jigging for kings.
George would be George Harris, president/CEO of the Northwest Marine Trade Association, and Karsten is Karsten McIntosh, the organization’s communications director. NMTA puts on one of the region’s other must-attend winter events, the Seattle Boat Show, which will be held in-person again February 4-12, 2022.
They also operate the Northwest Fishing Derby Series which, sadly, is set to sail into the “Hall of Fame” after September’s Everett Coho Derby. Running out in the last ever grand prize boat, a sticker-covered KingFisher 2025 Escape HT and part of a trailer, Shoxs seats, Raymarine electronics and Scotty downrigger package worth $75,000, was a chance to, umm, make sure it’s working properly for whoever wins it at that evening’s raffle, and fly the derby flag.
After fishing aboard it, you betcha I’ll be entering my local contests later this summer!
I MET GEORGE AND KARSTEN by Bayside Marine’s boat lift at 5 a.m. and after waving and/or chatting with a few fellow salmon anglers, we blasted off in hopes we could repeat their quick luck off Scatchet Head and Pilot Point the previous morning on Marine Area 9’s mark-selective Chinook opener.
I love running around Possession Bar as the world wakes up, the Cascades, Mt. Rainier and Olympics forming a bowl around Puget Sound, bait jumping along the sides of the bar, rip currents snaking this way and that, and while on this morning clouds hid many of the mountains, not so with the fleet. A fair amount of the region’s salmon fishing world was already out working the Horseshoe, west side of the bar and other hot spots at low slack.
Quotas and weekend days will do that to a fishery.
We started off Scatchet Head and our initial tactic was to target suspended kings with flashers and an Ace Hi Fly on one rod and a spoon on the other, if I recall correctly, but the latter didn’t last long in favor of two of the flashy skirted lures. We ran them 15 to 20 feet out before pinning lines in the downrigger clip and sending the setups down to 60, 70, 80 feet.
From time to time Karsten also ran a Tomic Plug behind a large cannonball straight out the back. We heard an entertaining story about how that setup didn’t agree with one of his fishing partners and later in our day, after a crazy moment of action, it was hung up for the rest of the trip.
Nearly all of the fleet was trolling into or with the incoming tide, but there was a mooching boat or two mixed in and drifting with the current. Here and there anglers dipped nets to land fish, and while we saw plenty of bait balls and salmon arcs on the fishfinder, the only things initially biting for us were shakers and small blackmouth until a nice resident hatchery coho splashed into the bleed bucket around 8 a.m.
The action slowed afterwards and it began to feel like all the fish were now Somewhere Else. As we debated whether to run over to the Kitsap Peninsula side of lower Admiralty Inlet or other options, one of us, probably sharp-eyed Karsten, had noticed a well-known salmon sharpie peel his big old 30-foot blue-and-white Cutwater out of the trolling lanes and make a long run up towards Maxwelton, a tiny community on the southwest shore of Whidbey.
We knew that that skipper, Ryley Fee, and a buddy had limited fast the day before, so it was likely he was sticking to the same waters to try and get the three gents aboard his boat today into kings, so we stumbled out of the bar’s west side, ran north and dropped lines into 100-plus-foot water.
Shortly afterwards our bleed bucket got significantly bleedier with the addition of a nice hatchery king. It bit a chartreuse-headed and green spatterback-bodied Ace Hi Fly, and after the earlier shakers and undersized Chinook, resident coho, a wild coho (which have to be released in Area 9) and some snagged dogfish, it was awesome to bring the target species aboard. I’ve done enough king angling here to know it’s anything but guaranteed you’ll catch one – at least with my luck anyway!
THE FISH WAS ALSO A PHYSICAL 8- TO 10-POUND REAFFIRMATION of what Harris and NMTA advocate for – hatchery salmon seasons for the masses. As we fished Harris expressed disappointment with where Washington fisheries have gone in recent years. He recounted angling earlier this month for Chinook in the San Juans with a 93-year-old diehard, a season that lasted all of seven days before WDFW shut it down as the state quota was met, and then some.
Seven days. That’s all the Chinook opportunity there will be in the islands until next summer, in all likelihood. Somehow writing that specific number on a Facebook post announcing the rule change earlier this month really brought it all home to me.
Just four seasons ago, 2017-18, there were seven months of king fishing from the southern banks to the border, Haro Strait to Rosario Strait – July 1 through September 30 and January 1 through April 30, albeit with a softer-than-a-quota guideline in effect during the winter blackmouth fishery. In the 2014 season there were eight months. In 2018 six and a half.
Where has it all gone and why and are the runs bouncing back from this reduced fishing and do we know if southern resident orcas are benefitting? I saw news the other day that J Pod – “the most ‘resident’ of the three pods,” per a Center for Whale Research biologist – hadn’t been seen in inland waters for 100 days, since an early April appearance, L since February and K only once since the second month as well.
Harris feels WDFW isn’t inclined to advocate for mark-selective fisheries these days and he has been raising the alarms about that beginning with a late 2017 memo on NMTA letterhead to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission about the then-pending Puget Sound Chinook Management Plan that helped jolt the citizen panel awake to the danger and was the final straw for them with former director Jim Unsworth.
Instead, he’s putting a lot of stock in Fish Northwest these days. The Anacortes-based fishing organization earlier this year filed a federal lawsuit against WDFW (since dismissed from the case) and NMFS over alleged salmon season setting violations. Fish Northwest claims that out of that it essentially got NMFS to confirm that single-year federal fishing permits are indeed available to WDFW.
(NMFS couldn’t comment on that statement to me, per a spokesman; a WDFW spokesman forwarded me a “fact sheet” – since repurposed onto the agency’s website – that said joint fishery plans with the tribes, the status quo, “provide the clearest, most sensible, and best option for co-managed fisheries,” indicative that the agency wouldn’t be taking a stand-alone path as it “works with tribal co-managers to secure long-term ESA coverage for Puget Sound fisheries.”)
And Fish Northwest maintains that Stillaguamish hatchery king issues are being used as a “lever” against sport Chinook seasons by the comanagers to reduce seasons, and that without its own permit and dependent on the tribal federal nexus to achieving ESA coverage, WDFW is getting forced into a bad deal.
The reductions impacted winter blackmouth fisheries in the San Juans, east Strait and North Sound and that in turn killed five fishing derbies, putting a huge hole in the start of Harris’s series. Given smaller quotas, some organizers also reconsidered holding their events because of the potential impact for sport anglers as a whole.
So now, after a 17-year run that saw an expansion from six to 20 derbies by early last year, as well as the participation of 100,000 rabid salmon anglers, the Northwest Fishing Derby Series is going to be retired this fall. (To be clear, many of the individual derbies are expected to continue on their own, there just won’t be an overarching prize.) Those who participated in 2020’s pre-Covid derbies and those who buy tickets for late July’s Lake Coeur d’Alene Big One Fishing Derby, August’s Brewster, South King County, Gig Harbor and Salmon for Soldiers Derbies, and September’s Edmonds and Everett Coho Derbies will all have a chance to win the boat we fished on and I think the left side downrigger rod position is fishier than the right but I could be wrong.
All that said, I’m skeptical that WDFW is turning its back on sport hatchery salmon seasons – it’s gotta be one of their single biggest money makers on the fishing license sales side – but I can also see Harris’s and Fish Northwest’s very serious concerns. It can look like it, given the real results of negotiations we’re seeing, but I think state fishery managers and biologists are fighting for them. The agency is also now getting a lot more money from the federal and state government to rear more hatchery Chinook these days, mainly for orcas but with benefits for sport anglers, though some of that funding is under threat from, of $!%#@! course, a Wild Fish Conservancy lawsuit.
I also feel for the Stillaguamish Tribe, who unlike this peripatetic angler roaring up and down I-5 in search of kings, is constrained to fishing only their river for Chinook when it comes to culturally important tribal purposes. During a WDFW-NWIFC live broadcast this spring, the tribe’s chair allowed that Lummi and Muckleshoot fishermen may not be too pleased with him either, a rare glance at intertribal frictions. Ultimately we need more fish and that strongly requires much, much, much more real focus on habitat in that particularly disrupted watershed to create more space for salmon to rear and return and spawn, building on the existing state-tribal partnership, and I also think flexibility on conservation hatchery production is needed.
MY APOLOGIES FOR TROLLING SO SHARPLY AWAY from the fishing trip reverie we were enjoying and into the snaggy-as-@$%# world of fish politics, but it’s also an issue that I haven’t been able to blog about like I would like to due to deadlines for our four consumer magazines, a family camping trip and computer issues,. From this particular vantage point it stands in stark contrast to things on the Willamette some 207 miles south from where we launched that fine day to fish what opportunity we do have in Central Sound, so let’s get back out there.
After we picked up that king, we ran back up to Maxwelton, spun around, dropped our gear and trolled past Raymarine rep Mike Surdyk. He shouted to us to go in even shallower, fish right on the bottom and use lighter colored Ace Hi Flies. It was around that time that we had the hookup of the day.
Just as I was about to pin a line into the downrigger clip I saw a boil right behind the flasher. Couldn’t have been, could it? I pointed it out to Karsten and suddenly there was a fish on the line, the suicide silver! It was like something you might hear about from the Strait of Juan de Fuca – coho in the propwash – but here we were in southern Admiralty Inlet. Karsten fought the fish and I grabbed the net and soon we had a third salmon aboard.
I love resident coho, a fish jointly produced from WDFW stock and reared in Squaxin Island Tribe netpens in deep South Sound. They don’t have the size of ocean coho, of course, and while they mainly hang out in the shipping lanes, occasionally one will mistakenly come within casting distance of the beach and bite my Buzz Bombs. They cut beautifully, rich red meat that tastes great. Maybe not out-of-this-world Willamette springer-good, but in fairly close orbit when I’m watchful with the oven and don’t overcook it.
But we were after Area 9 kings that day, just like the 443 fellow anglers aboard 188 boats checked at Everett’s 10th Street Ramp, 273 aboard 106 boats at Fort Casey, 89 aboard 39 at Kingston, 40 aboard 18 at Shilshole, 17 aboard six at Don Armeni, 16 aboard six at Cornet Bay and four aboard one that made the long run down from Washington Park on the northwestern tip of Fidalgo Island, at the edge of the San Juans – some 882 fishermen of all kinds on 365 Seasports and Arimas and North Rivers and Alumawelds and whatnot with 266 Chinook and 76 coho.
And those were just the ones WDFW’s creel samplers got to on Saturday, the 17th. No doubt there were contingents out of the private Edmonds, Shilshole, Port of Everett, Kingston, Port Ludlow, Port Hadlock and Port Townsend Marinas, as well as Lagoon Point and any number of other dispersed locations, not to mention the WDFW test boat guys busily catching shakers.
As fishing again slowed for us off the southwest side of Whidbey and our fishing time began to tick away in earnest, we worked our contacts, trying to find a bite. Cutwater captain Ryley texted they’d lost two and had released a large wild king that got past the orcas – and that he’d also dropped off a spare battery with a pair of dead-in-the-water fishermen.
With high tide nearing, we decided to head back over the bar to its east side to see if we couldn’t find another king in the mixer. I’ll never forget an afternoon here fishing the Everett Coho Derby. Every single one of Puget Sound’s seagulls, auklets and whatnot were feeding on massive schools of bait that lit up the fishfinder, and we couldn’t buy a damn bite.
This day Karsten steered, monitored the fishfinder, called out depths and asked for speed checks as George and I worked the downriggers and rods to stay close to the ever-changing bottom. The funky currents over the underwater plateau and boat traffic didn’t make it easy, but George hooked and unfortunately lost one here, if I recall correctly.
And just as with Trey Carskadon the week before, George had an end point in mind. He gave us a two-minute warning (that might have actually ended up being closer to five) and so around 12:30 we pulled our gear, hung the rods in the WhoDat holders, stowed the downrigger balls and ran back to Everett.
Silver scales from that last coho sparkled on my boots the whole way back to port.