A record run of salmon is forecast to swim up the Columbia River and Grant shows us how catching big fish takes a back seat to common sense, boating safety and being ready for the unexpected.
One of the surest signs of Oregon's transition from summer to fall is the uptick in salmon fishing opportunities along the coast.
Lots of folks are excited this summer to get outdoors as more than 1.5 million Chinook salmon are forecast to swim up the Columbia River.
It was the last thing we expected at first light on the Columbia River as a steady stream of brilliant flashes lit up the morning sky.
Grant's Getaways: Catching salmon KGW
Our boatload of anglers had motored ten miles upriver from Astoria to fish for salmon on an eerily dark August morning.
A morning that felt more night than day as strike after strike arced across the river --- followed by explosive thunder overhead.
Each lightning strike moved closer each minute!
"If that gets any closer guys, we're heading back to Astoria," said longtime fishing guide, John Krauthoefer.
Safety and common sense are critical to anglers on the broad-shouldered Columbia River.
Foolish anglers rarely get a second chance!
Suddenly, a series of lightning bolts rained down across the river.
"Ok everybody, reel in," yelled Krauthoefer. "This is nothing to mess with…we're out of here."
And so we left – quickly!
"My first thought is, 'We're in an aluminum boat,'" said our guide. "I have five graphite fishing rods out – all of which conduct electricity. Man oh man, that lightning was impressive and it was getting closer – so bright and hot – I've never seen it during the day like that."
We traveled downriver to the famous "Buoy 10" salmon fishing grounds on the Columbia River bar and discovered another surprise!
We had traded in bolts of fire for thick, ice-cold fog.
Daylight revealed that a dense fog bank had taken over the lower river. If we wished to pass through it, we had better be prepared.
"My GPS (Global Positioning System) tells me that there's a green buoy right there – and if you peer into the fog, you can see we're just coming up on it," the guide said.
I wondered aloud about the fishermen who didn't have GPS on their boats.
He quickly and firmly noted, "Stay on the dock until the fog clears. You're much safer – it's not worth a fish to risk your life – it really isn't."
We slowly trolled and kept eye on the boat's GPS screen, which showed our position in relation to the shipping channel and the surrounding shorelines.
This part of the Columbia River is a busy stretch for inbound and outbound ships.
We certainly did not want to get caught in the middle of it on a busy morning of ship traffic.
We could barely see 100 yards!
Krauthoefer motored the boat away from the shipping channel as a 700-foot-long freighter quietly glided by.
"These ships, barges and the tugs - even a commercial fishing boat - can't maneuver real fast. One freighter takes them a mile to so you have to give way to these ships – that's the rule of law!"
Here's another rule: you don't catch fish unless your bait's in the water!
As the fog lifted, fishing partner Paul Spitzer hooked a dandy!
"Hey, hey, first fish of the day," he yelled.
John slid the net under the 13-pound Chinook salmon, smiled and said, "We earned this one!"
That much was certain as the tide turned to flood and we watched many other anglers earn their catches, too!
No surprise! A record run of salmon is forecast this year: More than a 1.5 million Chinook are expected across the Columbia River bar – plus, 1 million Coho salmon run will peak in September.
Krauthoefer said there are a variety of baits and lures that anglers use to catch Coho – he prefers a plug-cut herring on a diver-flasher rig that's put out 30 feet behind the boat.
Not all of the salmon that anglers catch from the Columbia River are hatchery fish. Many are wild fish that must be released back into the river.
John said there's a "right way" to do that.
"First, don't ever bring them in the boat and don't ever lift them out of the water. Don't just dump them out of your net either. If you can, try to get hold of them by the tail and let them swim out of your hand. If you just dump them out, they often die because they're so tired from the fight, so let the fish rest in your hand and then open your hand so they swim right off."
As the fog evaporated with the warmer morning, the flooding tide built and hundreds of anglers converged at the famous river marker called "Buoy 10."
But boat wakes, a strong push of current and a rising wind meant that it was a bit like fishing in washing machine – and you want to definitely avoid the spin cycle.
"People get what I call 'Salmonitis,' explained Krauthoefer. "That is, they'll get a fish on and they lose total track of what's going on around them. You really need to be aware of where your boat is at in relation to other people. Don't assume that the other guy is going to steer out of your way."
"There's another fish," he yelled as Paul's son (and my nephew) Mike Spitzer watched his fishing rod throb down and then back up and then down once more. Then it stayed down.
He quickly wrestled it from the rod hold and then held on for dear life as the line screamed out of the bait casting reel.
"What have you got there, Mike?" asked the grinning Krauthoefer – knowing full well that the fish was a huge Chinook salmon.
After a moment, we saw the chrome-sided fish gleam under the surface, just ten yards from the boat.
"Oh, isn't that a beauty? That's a king – and it's big."
The fish ran and Mike reeled in moments full of heart pounding action.
After fifteen minutes, John dipped the large net under the salmon.
That is a beautiful fish," said our guide. "Isn't that that something special; just look at the way the hits the sides of that salmon."
It was a gorgeous 25-lb bright Chinook – bound for the Columbia River's upper stretches – hundreds of miles from the estuary.
Mike and his brother in law, Ryan Payne, had come to Oregon this season to fish for salmon – neither would return home disappointed.
"This is something I look forward to each year," noted Spitzer. "I love the chance to spend a day on the water. Not much better than a day on the boat and a lot of fish."
As the flood tide rose, the fish bite became more frequent and we soon had plenty of fish all around.
It was a day to remember – one that began on a dance with danger and provided lasting memories and valuable lessons of exciting times in the Oregon outdoors.
Not just in the Columbia River either! Fall salmon fishing is forecast better than ever along the Oregon coast in estuaries like Nehalem bay, Tillamook Bay and as far south as coos bay where seasons are just getting started.
For more information on purchasing an Oregon fishing license and locating an Oregon fishing guide.
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