When the deck is stacked in your favor and you play your hand just right, the fishing game will often go just the way you like.
That is especially true when Bob Rees guides the way across the Columbia River.
I recently stepped aboard Ree’s big boat - joined by father–son team of Kyle and Bob McDougal, who were enjoying an Oregon vacation from their distant New Mexico home.
We teamed up to troll for salmon where the river flows it’s widest: near Astoria where it is more than 5 miles from shore to shore.
We motored just upriver from fabled fishing waterscape nicknamed “Buoy 10.”
Each August, ocean fresh salmon schools move thru the river with each incoming tide.
The salmon are fast on the tail fins of small baitfish like anchovies and herring.
Rees noted that it is estuary angling at its finest:
“Especially this year with nearly 800,000 kings forecast to pass through the Lower Columbia River. They will provide some excellent opportunities for salmon anglers in this area.”
Rees added that anglers should not let the morning's calm flat water with barely a breath of wind fool them. Buoy 10 can be a dangerous place because conditions can change in a heartbeat.
“If the tide and the wind are going the same way, you’re generally in a safe period to fish,” noted the longtime fishing guide. “But when the tide and the wind go in different directions – outgoing tide with a northwest wind – and create a bucking of the river. That can really cause dangerous situations and the bottom line is that you should have your life jackets on you or nearby.”
In Ree’s boat there was another solid reason my confidence was high – I was sitting directly across from special guest, Buzz Ramsey, who had accepted Ree’s invitation to fish the morning tide.
When you fish with a legend you know you’re in good hands. Ramsey has been a popular figure in NW angling circles for as far back as anyone can remember. His reputation has been based on this simple fact: he flat out catches fish. Always has too.
Twenty minutes into our adventure, he confirmed that his long-standing reputation was solid and in hand when his fishing rod doubled over and then throbbed from a hard charging salmon.
A big King had gobbled down his bait.
He smiled and I gasped – it was amazing to watch a master at work!
“Wow,” he said – Fish on, Fish on! That didn’t take long, huh?”
It certainly did not – nor did it take long for Rees with net in hand – to swoop up the gleaming silver-bellied Chinook. It was a 23-pound beauty caught on a plug cut herring bait with a “Fish Flash” five feet in front of the bait.
“I love the fish flash,” noted the longtime pro. “It’s such an easy pulling flasher that spins in the water without any drag to it. They’ve really become a staple in this lower river fishery too. It picks up the light and reflects off to the side – sends out a horizontal beam of light that attracts the salmon. Silver, chartreuse and the new two-tone combinations of chartreuse and red have become popular choices.”
“Ah, chinook salmon – gotta love ‘em – my first one of the year too,” said Ramsey with a beaming smile. “McOmie, you must be good luck!”
Ramsey’s ear-to-ear grin has been locked into my memory bank for decades. I had seen it so many times before.
After all, Buzz Ramsey grew up fishing right in front of our eyes – on Oregon rivers and lakes, estuaries and the ocean.
His genuine enthusiasm and passion for the outdoors and especially for fishing allowed him to cast and catch his way into the Freshwater Angling Hall of Fame in 1995.
He has gained the respect and admiration of the most hard nosed, no nonsense fishermen.
These days he works for Yakima Bait Company where he helps design, refine and innovate lures and tackle that help anglers catch more fish. He called a day like this: “Research!”
Oh, to be so lucky!
“Still love to catch 'em,” admitted Ramsey. “When that salmon was biting on that rod, it was as exciting as the first time so many years back. Yep, I still get excited.”
He pointed to the boatload of spinners in his Buoy 10 tackle box (he admitted that he never leaves home without them) and said that while spinners dropped out of favor many years ago, they’re back “in” again.
A clear sign of a simple angler axiom: “What’s often old is new again.”
“You fish these on a five-foot leader- just like your bait. These are 'Bob Toman' designed spinners and have really taken off in this fishery. Toman, (a longtime fishing guide and another NW fishing legend in his own right,) actually developed these blades and they are a little thicker than most with a powder coated finish that hold up better in salt water – the latest thing is to have a squid on it – squid spinners – and have been a popular lure.”
I asked about the spinner’s advantage over traditional herring bait.
“More vibration is the big deal with a spinner,” noted Ramsey. “As that blade revolves around the shaft it puts out a big vibration and you can catch more than one fish on them. Plus, they’re likely less expensive than bait in the long run!”
Ramsey rigged up a “Toman Cascade;” a classic looking red and white spinner blade with a pink squid skirt.
“It really calls the fish in,” noted the accomplished angler with a wry smile.
Ramsey advises anglers to try different colors when they fish the lower river and to let the fish “tell you what they like.”
Lighting never strikes twice – unless Buzz Ramsey’s in your boat – his rod soon snapped down and surged toward the back of the boat.
“Fish, fish, fish” he cried. “And I have to hand this one off, so here Bob, you better takes this. Take it back by the motor. Ho, ho – that’s on that gorgeous Toman spinner!”
Oh, it certainly was Buzz – and it hadn't take long for a 20-pound King salmon to chomp it down either.
Bob McDougal was all business as he firmly held Ramsey’s fishing rod. There was hardly a smile to show for all of his recreation fun as he wrestled with the King. The fish showed silvery flashes just under the surface.
Rees grabbed the net once again and slid it under the beautiful fish.
“Wow,” gasped McDougal. “That’s amazing!”
Ramsey was particularly proud of the fish because it was the first salmon he had hooked on a new spinner that he had a hand in casting to the public.
It seems research has its own rewards when the other guy catches the fish.
I asked McDougal what he thought when Ramsey handed off the rod?
“Oh Lord, don’t let me screw up!” he said with a nervous laugh. Then in a quick afterthought, he shot out: “I think that is awesome!”
Oh, it was that Bob – and so much more – it was a successful day on the water not only measured by the size of the catch, but the quality of the character we were lucky enough to join; a fisherman who has become a livning legend.
“Being outdoors is the real reward of my work,” noted Ramsey. He brushed his arm across the water with it’s many bobbing boats as he added, “It’s the anticipation we all come for - the hunt, the choices we make to try and catch something so elusive. And then the challenge of it all, the fun that comes with landing the fish. These are the good ol' days – there’s no doubt about it.”
For more information on purchasing an Oregon Angling License and locating an Oregon Fishing Guide.
When you head for the water, be sure to tune in to 1610AM at the boat launch. The station provides the latest bar, weather and safety information from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Oregon State Marine Board. Updates are given every three hours.