Columbia River Bonanza

Two million salmon cruising the tidewaters of the Columbia River in August and September of 2014? Fish, fresh out of the ocean, and they are biters. They are coming off a feeding frenzy that has taken place in the ocean over the past few months.

These runs come on the heels of other species that have already passed through the area migrating upriver.

Huge Runs
Spring chinook, fondly referred to as Springers, begin their travels in February. In 2014, 188,081 passed over the Bonneville Dam headed upstream. This does not include the thousands that turned off for lower rivers such as the Willamette in Oregon and the Cowlitz and Lewis of Washington.

A day's limit of Buoy 10 coho.
A day’s limit of Buoy 10 coho.

Next came the American Shad, that scrappy little fighter that provides anglers with countless hours of fun. The number that passed over the Bonneville Dam in 2014 was 2,603,231!

Sockeye salmon came next. The sockeye run continues to build after a near collapse a few years back. The number of sockeye salmon that passed over the dam in 2014 was 614,147! Anglers on upper tributaries in Washington experienced great fish numbers.

Mixed in with the sockeye is the first of the summer steelhead run. Summer steelhead are headed for the far reaches of the tributaries. The number of summer steel head that passed over the Bonneville Dam in 2014 was 201,183!

Hot Spot
On August 1, the “main event” begins on the lower river. Fish and Wildlife officials have predicted 1.8 million chinook, and more than 900,000 coho will move into the tidewater area around Astoria, Ore., during this time. Sounds like a slam dunk for success, but you better do some research first!

Author (right) and Devon Pearsall with a Buoy 10 beauty.
Author (right) and Devon Pearsall with a Buoy 10 beauty.

This is the fabled Buoy 10 fishery. It is famous for catches of big, ocean fresh fish. It’s regularly cursed for huge crowds, too, and boaters wait for hours to launch boats. As observers have frequently said, “Looks like you could walk from one boat to another.” Locals have even labeled it “Zooey 10.”

Be Cautious
This is a huge body of water, four miles wide in places. It is a major shipping channel. Home to a thriving commercial fishing industry. Hidden sandbars, high winds, fog, powerful currents, and strong tides can present dangerous challenges to unsuspecting boaters.

Success is Tide Driven
“Tides are everything,” longtime guide Terry Mulkey explains. “They dictate how the fish migrate and therefore where we should fish to intercept them.”

Understanding the influence of the tides will tell anglers when, where and how to fish for these salmon. Incoming tides push fish upriver. Fish will be hooked in an area, minutes later they will be hooked farther upstream. Anglers learn to follow them.

The same thing happens on the outgoing tide. These fish will move back and forth waiting to charge off upriver when their time clock says it’s time.

Two Tides, Two Methods
Incoming (flood)
“I want to be at the lower end of the fishery at the first of the flood,” Devon Pearsall, of Great White Hooker Fishing, explains. “Fish won’t be in that area very long. They come in waves and move upriver pretty fast. Bite stops, reel in and move up.”

A limit of Buoy 10 chinook.
A limit of Buoy 10 chinook.

Boaters head into the incoming tide and use motors to hover in an area as the tide pushes them upstream. Fish will typically be more suspended and not on the bottom. Mulkey refers to this as the “Zone.”

“You need to find the zone where they are suspended,” he said. “I prefer setting rods at different depths until I find where they are biting.”

Savvy anglers follow the bite upriver. Salmon tend to move up to the Astoria bridge area where anglers experience success as fish wait around for the tide to turn and head back out.

Outgoing (ebb)
“When that tide starts back out, I put on enough lead to fish right on the bottom,” Donald Koskela of Pastime Fishing Adventures adds. “I’ll troll with the tide. If I get into fish, or see fish caught, I’ll run back up and come through the area again.”

Boaters troll with the current and fish near the bottom.

“On the ebb I usually find them within two feet of the bottom. I use electronics then set rods at different depths until I find biters,” Pearsall explains. “If I see several fish caught, I reel in and run back upriver and fish the area again.”

This is basically the system followed by successful anglers’ tide-after-tide.

Millions of fish return to the Columbia River annually. This is truly a bonanza for anglers.

Gearing Up
Get the best quality rods you can afford. They should be a minimum of 8-½ feet long and strong enough to handle heavy divers or lead and battle powerful fish in heavy current.

Use a level wind, baitcasting reel capable of at least 200 yards of 50- to 65-pound-test line and tough enough to handle heavy weights and fish.

Terminal Tackle
To get terminal gear into the strike zone — and keep it there — divers or heavy lead sinkers work best. Divers work best for staying at a desired depth. Cannon ball sinkers, from a dropper, work best for bouncing along the bottom. Use assorted lead weights up to 2 pounds.

  • Assorted flashers and spinners. (Salmon fishing legend Buzz Ramsey says, “You can’t put too much flash in front of chinook salmon.”)
  • Quality barbless hooks and mooching rigs.
  • Plug cut herring is by far the most productive bait.
  • Quality electronics.
Flashing, cannon ball and plug cut
Flashing, cannon ball and plug cut

Water and weather conditions can change and become dangerous quickly. When the tide turns, the current is powerful. A strong wind chop can add to the challenge.

The complexities of figuring out how to fish Buoy 10 can be a challenge. More than 200 licensed guides work the fishery. Many have spent years learning the when, where and how-to’s of the river. Shortcut the learning process. Hire one for a trip. They can be a fountain of information. One group that wanted to fish the area on their own, pooled their money to buy one trip. They drew straws. The winner hired a guide, even recorded important waypoints on his GPS.

When hiring a guide, always check references, and make sure he/she is licensed.

For a list of river guides in Oregon contact the Oregon State Marine Board,

For more information, contact: Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife.

Terry Mulkey Guide Service, 503-803-1896

Donald Koskela, Pastime Fishing Adventures, 503-767-2792.

Devon Pearsall, Great White Hooker Fishing, 503-564-7534,

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