Cowlitz River Spring Chinook Fishing From a Boat

The information below covers some basics of river boat salmon fishing, but is targeted for the individual sport fisherpersons. Here most likely the boat operator would also like to fish, so with one or possibly two passengers sharing the expenses, he may well be pretty occupied just running the motor. Therefore it is likely that one of the passengers may have to somewhat tend the boat operators rod, possibly checking the let out/contact with the bottom etc. and even netting a fish under certain conditions while the operator is maintaining boat position

If you are on a guided trip, the guide is the captain and fish program manager. He may have his own distinct variations of the methods listed below. Listen to him, he makes his living by being informed and tuned to slight changes that produce fish.

Spring Chinook can also be taken from the bank, but fishable water on public land is considerable restricted.

The Fish : The majority of the Spring Chinook found here are pretty much hatchery fish, ranging from 8# to 20# with a few “Jacks” which are immature males under 24″ that get the urge to return to the river a year earlier than their brothers. Spring Chinook salmon are considered by many to be the best eating of all salmon.

Water Flow : This time of the year, you can see Tacoma Power dumping water depending on the amount of rain/snow melt. The river running high at 11,000 CFPS will create different holding water than the flow at 8,000 CFPS. So what you experienced last week may be totally different this week. You will have to learn to read the water and fish accordingly as water levels can vary 2′. To find this CLICK HERE for a web link for a 5 day history. Or a link to Cowlitz River / Tacoma Power Cowlitz . Or these website relating to river flows CLICK HERE & fish returning to the hatchery CLICK HERE.

Boats : Here you will see so many different boats on the water that it would be impossible to describe. However there will be basically 2 different types, (1) a drift boat and (2) a jet drive boat. In the upper river, (above the mouth of the Toutle) it would be nearly impossible to consistently navigate with a prop driven motor, unless you have navigated a specific area in a jet enough times to know the area at different flows, as the water flow changes so often that you never know what it will be because of what is being released from the dams.

The drift boat will have a curved double ended flat bottom type rowboat. It has a bottom that is pulled upward on both ends and is usually rowed with the rower looking downstream. They float very high in the water, are very easily maneuvered with little effort using oars, even to being rowed against the current to maintain position or if back trolling. The stern is also pointed as seen in the LH photo below so to combat any rough water being taken aboard when the boat slides thru a slot.

These will normally be put in upriver, drifted down to a takeout. However there is a version that has provisions for mounting a small (approx 10hp) outboard that is used then to propel the boat back upstream, IF the water is not that shallow or violent. Otherwise you would have to make provisions to have another vehicle at the take-out or hire a person to move your vehicle and trailer to the take-out.


Driftboat A common river  jet boat setup


The jet boat has the ability to navigate skinny water because of no prop hanging down below the hull and it could be either inboard or outboard jet powered. Size of these boats will range from 15′ to 22′. They can be an open smaller boat for sport fishers to longer open ones which are normally used by guides, or can have a windshield and convertible top which is more of a family type combo boat. The inboard powered are generally the larger versions over 20′ in length and normally found on larger rivers like the Columbia.

You will usually see a 6 to 10hp “kicker” or trolling motor in addition to the main propulsion motor. These smaller motors are what is used for the back trolling or back bouncing mentioned below. It is very important to be able to lift one of these up if you happen to be sliding down near or over a tail-out where the water shallows out above a riffle. Here comes into play the need for electric power tilt units on these trolling motors. Many fishermen will also use a electric trolling motor when the need arises for slightly less power in slower water or hover fishing.

In the opinion of many, a outboard jet that is tiller controlled, places the operator in the rear steering the motor in more control as he is at the rear of the boat and in total control at all times as compared to having to control the boat from a steering wheel at the front/mid section of the boat. When I say control, remember that this is a river that is fast flowing in most places and a slight mistake can be disastrous. If you are fishing off the rear of the boat using the trolling motor to back bounce and have to jump up to run forward to start the main motor if a rock or shallow water is coming up fast, this takes time. It can also make for lost or broken gear or worse, a flipped over swamped boat.



Headed into the net A nice 17# Cowlitz Springer



Methods : On the Cowlitz River, as in many other rivers there are a few primary methods used to fish for Spring Chinook from a boat. They are: (1) Back trolling (2) Back bouncing; (3) A newcomer would be Hover fishing (4) And of course anchor fishing. There is not much concentrated bank fishing for Springers other than below the Barrier dam to the boat launch facility there probably because of limited bank access.

Back trolling, Back bouncing and Hover fishing are all pretty much one method with some alterations depending on the water flow, depth and bottom conditions. The real difference in each in method is what is used to get your bait down to near the bottom, yet not get it snagged on the bottom. Usually the sinker/diver is attached to the mainline on a slider. Some of the techniques covered here will also work work well from an anchored boat where the current is sufficient enough to produce the required action on the baits or lures.

Back Troll : Back trolling and back bouncing essentially use pretty much the same technique. Unlike forward trolling in slack water or estuaries, it is commonly done in faster paced coastal and some inland tributary rivers.

Back trolling usually uses a diver where you want your lure to be close to, but not on the bottom. This is governed by the amount of line let out and the amount of water flow. The rods are normally set in a rod holder.



Back Trolling setup


To rig up for back trolling is quite simple and the diagram shown above should clarify any questions you have. A three way swivel is attached at the end of your main line, or a slider to the diver on the mainline. Off of this three-way swivel you have a 6″ to 12″ dropper that leads to your diver. Off of the rear swivel eye, attach a 4′-6′ leader that has your lure/bait attached. If you are going to fish a spinner or prawn unit, a bead chain is needed on the leader to reduce line twist, (yes just a prawn/egg bait will spin). The key to making back trolling or back bouncing effective, is to work your boat into the current at a speed that brings you down stream very slowly, and hopefully in the fish traveling lane. Using this method, you can do a slide from side to side movement, covering about all of the fishable water. Here’s a LINK to a Luhr Jensen article on back trolling. Luhr Jensen tries to push their Jet Diver, but Hot-n-Tot or Mudbug plugs with the hooks removed will also work well in slower waters. If you intend to use the Jet Diver, size #20 would be about right for the water depth encountered here unless the flow is higher which may require a #30.

Here you would let out the amount of line you think needed, approx 50′ and set the rod in the rod holder then wait for the take-down. If you have more than 2 persons aboard, normally have the front line out 10′ shorter than the rear fisherpersons, or the front rods being 10′ or 11 feet long. However you need to constantly watch for a hang-up. For these types of fishing you need to be consistent with how much line you are letting out, especially if there are more than one person in the boat to help prevent line tangles. There are a couple of methods to achieve this. One is to count the number of times your level-wind moves back and forth across the reel. This will also demand that all reels are the same make, size and loaded with the same amount of line. Or you could use a line-counter reel. The other is to have everybody on the boat let out at the same time and have the fisherperson in the front of the boat let out less line, and since you are using a floating jet diver, which will float downstream away from the boat until it gets tension then dives, you can see where they are before they dive.

If you are having problems with the lure hanging on the bottom, then in the middle of the leader attach a partial (1 1/2″) of a small 5/8″ Dink Float or large Cheater to give the lure just enough buoyancy to lift it up a few inches. You might want to paint this a dull black color so as not to attract the fish into striking it.

When you get a bite, let the fish eat it until they have it in their mouth and turn to go away, then the rod tip will go down and stay down, usually you do not need to set the hook, just remove the rod from the holder, lift it and begin reeling in. If you do it too soon, the chances of hooking this fish are slim.

Back Bouncing : The back bounce is similar to the back troll but a bit more complex in the execution. This setup is essentially the same, except a lead cannonball from 3 to 16oz is substituted for the diver, the different size weights are used depending on depth and water flow so you are maintaining contact with the bottom. When working your way down river, you may change weight sizes numerous times depending on the water depth or the amount of flow, so that you still maintain contact with the bottom.

Another exception here is you do not set the rod in the holder, you hold onto it. And since you may need to let out more line as you drift in order to maintain close to bottom contact, it works best to use a level-wind reel that uses a thumb brake otherwise you need to thumb the line on the spool. Also most of these fishermen use about 50# spectra braid type mainline as to better feel any slight takedown. The leader would normally be 25# mono.

Depending on the river section you plan on fishing, most fishermen will start the day by launching in the upper launch and work their way downriver. They may then work their way back upriver and make another pass or two in water that they may have had a bite in earlier.

Once your boat is set up above the intended drift, bow upstream, the fisherman and rod facing down stream, lower your gear to the bottom and “walk” your gear down by slightly lifting the rod tip and letting it back down. This is where the thumb brake reel shines as you have more control when letting the line out. This walking accomplishes 2 things in that it allows you to feel the bottom and if the current or depth changes, you can adjust you line either in or out. If you can not feel the bottom when you drop the rod, let out more line if the current or depth changes. If you do not feel the bottom, reel in as you may be hung in a rock. You need to recognize a possible hang up before the boat drifts too far below the hang up or you may not get it back and break the line.



Back Bouncing or anchor setup


As you let the line out, as soon as you make contact with the bottom wait 4-5 seconds, lift your rod tip to about the 10 o’clock position. When you reach the 10 o’clock, release your thumb from the spool and release line until you make contact with the bottom again. Repeat this process of “walking” your lure/weight until the line reaches about a 45-degree down angle off the back of the boat. Now keep you thumb tightly on the brake or engage your drag. By lifting the rod to 10 o’clock every few seconds, you should now be able to bounce through the drift while slowly allowing the boat to slide downstream. This periodic lifting also gives your bait more action with varying and pulsating movements.

If you aren’t feeling your lead make contact with the bottom on the bounce, you may need to let more line out while bouncing or change the weight of the sinker if the depth is getting deeper. Also if the bottom is getting shallow, you may have to reel in line to maintain your bounce. If you can not feel contact with the bottom, you may be hung up, reel in and try to lift the sinker out of the rocks. If it is stuck DO NOT pull the line tight and try to pull it loose by rod power, but get the rod tip close, grab the mainline and pull it loose by hand. You may break off the dropper and the sinker, but should recover the leader and bait.

When bouncing you may need to experiment with the length of dropper from the swivel to your lead to find the traveling depth of the fish. Once you find the traveling depth and lane, hopefully your offering will be in fish’s faces as they move upriver and you slide downriver. A good bait presented using this method is hard for Springers to resist.

The lure can be Kwik-Fish, spinners, eggs, prawn, or even cut plug herring or a Brad’s Super Cut plug.

When you get a bite using this method, you will be raising the rod tip about a foot off the bottom, if the bottom pulls back, set the hook. You may be setting the hook on nothing, or a rock but often it will be a fish.

Hover Fishing : In hover fishing, it uses basically the same sinker system as back bouncing but the boat is maintained in position over fish that are congregated in a deeper hole that usually has less current. Sinkers may vary in weight from 3 to 10 oz. here. You may many times see electric trolling motors used as the means of maintaining or very slowly moving down/thru the hole. The electric trolling motor may be the secret in that if you use an outboard, spooking the fish is a definite probability.

This hole could be anywhere from 10′ to 50′ deep. The bottom will usually change so you need to watch the depth-finder and if the bottom depth increases or decreases, you need to make changes to the amount of line let out to compensate. You normally want the lure within a couple of feet off the bottom. Fish will move up slightly to take the lure, BUT they will not normally move deeper to do so. Also you want the lure to be fishing and not hung up.

Here you hold onto the rod with the rod tip within a foot of the water. The bite will many times be like that of a trout, let them eat it and when the rod tip goes down, lift up and start reeling with no real dramatic setting of the hook.


Here a Springer is on, but is resisting Another Springer on it’s way to the fish-box.


Anchor Fishing : Fishing at anchor utilizes the same setup as a back bouncing rig, however you anchor over a fish traveling lane. You bounce out your offering to about a 60-degree down angle and let the fish come to you. Here you would use a rod holder. This is where Luhr Jensen’s Kwikfish shine. Since half the battle of anchor fishing is choosing where to anchor. You normally look for inside bends of the river with gravel bars that gently slope. Fish in anywhere from 8′ to 20′ of water depending on the location and current flow. At anchor, again a dropper length experimentation my prove beneficial, until you find where the fish are and what’s working.

When fishing a Kwik-Fish place your rod in a readily accessible rod holder with the drag set slightly looser than you normally would. Placing the clicker on helps in letting you know when you have a bite if you’re not paying attention. When your fish takes the lure you want to put your thumb on the spool, take the rod out of the holder, slightly drop the rod tip and wait until he has taken it down 2 or 3 times and then lift up and sting him. Others say to leave it in the rod holder, let the fish take the lure and run with it before setting the hook. Either way this will take a lot of patience, but will increase your hooking percentage considerably. There are not many that have the patience to fish a Kwikfish with a rod in his or her hand. 99.9% who attempt this, set the hook at the way too early. For this reason back bouncing a Kwikfish requires nerves of steel and isn’t for the feint of heart, if you want to try it, go ahead.

You could also use eggs if the current was slow enough to not get any action on the Kwikfish. This would normally be in an area where you would be at the head of a hole or just above deeper slack water.

Bobber Fishing : Bobber fishing will be a casting situation and usually requiring a spinning outfit. The mainline is usually a brighter colored monofilament like lime green or yellow so it is visible to the fisherperson. Some use about 40′ of 50# braid as a lower section that is tied onto the standard mono by a barrel knot. This braid is also waxed to make it float. On this braid a 8mm plastic bead, then a 1/2″ dia. bright colored (chartreuse) corky, then a 4″ Styrofoam bobber. Under the bobber is a 1 to 2 oz. egg or kidney sinker. You want it heavy enough to cast well and yet have the bobber to be able to support the weight while still floating high enough in the water to be able to detect a light bite. The weight will depend somewhat on the river flow. To the sinker is a 4′ leader to your bait, either a gob of eggs, shrimp, or even possibly a cut plugged herring. On this line above the bobber, you tie a bobber stop using a short section of rubber band tied with a double overhand knot and pulled tight with the tails trimmed a bit, but yet enough to pull on if need be when re-tightening. This will give you an adjustable stopper for the bobber, that you can easily adjust up or down depending on the water depth you will be fishing and yet cast thru the rod’s guides.

The secret is after you cast, feed your line out as required so no resistance is on the bobber, if the water happens to be a pool that the surface water is not flowing straight, is that it will move the bobber around and likely have enough of your main line not laying in a more or less straight line to your rod tip. Not good if a fish pulls the bobber down and you can have up to 8′ of loose line laying on, or worse under the water. You need to mend the now floating line. This is done by giving the rod a rolling flip, which will flip the floating mainline so it is closer to being straighter to the bobber without moving the bobber. You may even have to let out some line. It may take a few times to get the depth of the bobber stop set so it is not dragging the bottom and to get the mending technique down. This mending may need to be done often enough to maintain this more or less straight line to the bobber so that when you have a takedown, that you can set the hook before the fish spits the bait out as compared to having a lot of floating line on the water that you can not recover in time.


Salmon bobber fishing setup


Bank Fishing : Bank fishing can be either the conventional casting roe or shrimp as viewed on this Bank Fishing Article, or by using a bobber as explained above.

Gear : Here, like most fishing, you will find differences of opinion in mainline types. Many experienced fisherpersons here prefer the newer braided lines (Power Pro or Tuff Line) simply because you can feel the bottom better. A better bite detection is another good reason. A 40# to 50# mainline would probably be about right for all around usage. However others prefer 20# monofilament mainline and the same weight leaders. Just depends on where you are fishing, the number of other fishermen in close proximity and personal preference.

Leaders would normally be monofilament of 20-25# or if you are in possible snag infested waters then go up to 40# as these Chinook do not appear to be leader shy.

The new style sickle hooks are being used more because the landed ratio to hook ups is increased considerably. These hooks have a Vee bend instead of the regular rounded bend. When the hook is embedded in the fish’s mouth, it does not tend to slide off nearly as much.


Sickle hook with a Octopus type eye


Rods could to be about 8 1/2′ or 9′, even up to 10′ 6″ with a good power body but a flexible but powerful tip for setting the hook. You do not want a really soft rod here. A good medium heavy steelhead rod will work just fine. The benefit of the lighter tipped rod (especially in hover fishing) is that with the lighter tipped rod, the fish does not feel the rod, until it is hooked.

Reels need not be as large a capacity as normally used on the ocean, because you will be fishing from a boat that is under immediate control of an operator and you will be able to chase a fish ASAP if need be. So you do not need a reel that holds 300 yards plus of line. The Ambassadeur 5000, or the Shimano TD 100 works just just fine. The Shimano Tekota TEC300LC or the more economical Okuma Magda Pro MA15DX line counter reels also work great.

The important thing is that it has a GOOD drag system. Now here comes two areas of thought on setting the drag. A guide who sees many different “inexperienced fisherpersons” will set the drag heavier than the experienced salmon fisherperson because they have learned the hard way and need to not loose a hooked fish. For the more experienced fisher, you may set the drag a bit lighter (more like a steelheader would). Then if you need more tension to set the hook, just thumb the spool at that time. But resist the urge to tighten the drag if the fish is not coming in readily, (UNLESS you see it heading for snags, etc.) If so, then it is recommended you to apply some slight thumb pressure to the spool instead of changing the drag.

The sinker is usually snapped onto a 6″-10″ slightly lighter weight mono (than the mainline) dropper that slides on the mainline thru a small barrel swivel. This sliding weight along with a light tipped rod allows the fish to take the bait without detecting much resistance.

Lures : Normally you will be fishing with egg cluster, shrimp bait, or a combo of the two. As mentioned above Kwikfish is one well known and used lure in the local rivers for Springers. Kwikfish is what most Columbia River Springer fisherpersons use, and since these are the same fish, there would appear to be no reason not to use them here also. Sardine wrapped Kwikfish is the standard, but a substitute for a Sardine wrap on your Kwikfish, I have found that simply use a good Sardine or Anchovy scent. However you want to thoroughly clean the lures with Lemon Joy before putting them away. This also applies to using the actual Sardine wrap.

When purchasing a Kwikfish and selecting the color for Springers, a couple of proven colors are lime green/yellow/chrome or the “Pirate” in red/blue/purple shown in the header photo.


K-15 Kwikfish with belly triple hook replaced
with Siwash & swivels added
Eggs with a added floater



Good cured salmon roe (eggs) is hard to beat if you have any. Prawn/shrimp can also be a winner, or even a combo of eggs and shrimp. A spinner/prawn setup is also used by some.

Some fishermen even use a cut-plug herring. Dyed cut plug herring can be effective here. The preferred dye color is blue. And with this in mind, the new Brads Super Plug, which simulates a cut-plug herring but has the capability of adding scent inside it is sure to become a winner here.

Scent : Sure, most times, any scent will be of a benefit. If nothing else to mask human bad smells. The pros wear latex gloves.

Find the Right Bait : It goes without saying to use different baits on each rod until you find what works. Then change over to that bait on all rods and work that section of the river until you are sure there is no more fish there. If you are pretty sure they are still there, but off the bite, be persistent. Sometimes just waiting an hour or so, if the sun is out, may warm the water up even 1 degree can make a big difference.


A beautiful day on the water & great fishing with limits of  14# hatchery Chinook


Location : Starting from the barrier dam boat launch, there is a decent back-trolling drift just below the ramp down to the first riffles that has been nicknames the “Rock Garden”. Many fish are pulled from this stretch along the middle to the north bank. About from the middle to the south bank (inside corner) is faster water more often associated with steelhead. There is another drift or two below that that is worth a try.

Below that you come into the area known as Baker Rock. There is a slight corner with water starting to slow down and from 8′ to 50′. This hole can be productive all the way from the top to a deep slot beside a real shallow shelf above the tail-out. Fish can be caught thru-out this section, even down to above the tail-out.

Below this is some fishable Springer water down to the Blue Creek launch at the trout hatchery. It seems that most Springer fishermen bypass Blue Creek as the water is rather swift and shallow for this type of fishing and is usually more productive for steelhead than salmon.

From the Mission bar upstream a couple of miles there are seams (depending on the river flow) that can be fished effectively.

There will be some fishing from the Mission Bar down to down to the Toledo bridge. In this area you will find new boat launch facilities at the town of Toledo. From there down to the I-5 bridge are other Springer water.

However probably the majority of Springer fishing will be from I-5 boat launch downstream. The river gets deeper here in places which is more conducive to Spring Chinook. These is a new boat launch facility just north of the Castle Rock school off the Westside Highway.

Hire a Guide : Unless you have lots of time and can learn from your mistakes, it will be very beneficial to hire a guide, learn as much as you can. Most guides have no problem with sharing some information. But do not be aggressive and write everything down that he tells you, as he has paid his dues and just because you paid for a trip does not mean he should help you write a book. Plus I challenge most of you to remember exactly the method of hooking up the bait if other than conventional.

There is not a guide worth his salt that will tell every little thing he uses in his bag of tricks. If he can put his clients onto and they catch fish when others come back with a empty fish box, that is how he recruits new customers. He may share information with SOME other guides who also share back with him. But he may also be rather tight lipped to others. When asked how they did, the answer will usually be vague. Some even will pull ashore away from prying eyes to clean the fish, so as to not draw a crowd at the boat launch. I have even known some who will load the boat on the trailer, drive off, only to meet he clients a couple of miles away to give them their fish, again away from prying eyes.

On more than one of the occasions when the photos were taken for this article, my cousin, friends and I were with a very competent young guide, Nic Norbeck from Elite Guide Service .

One of these trips we shared a spot on the river with another lone fisherman and his dog. We both fished the same method in the same location, did exactly the same procedure and followed each other thru that area many times playing ring around the fishing hole, he never got a bite while we pulled 6 Springers, lost one and missed 3 more. There were only 2 things I could see that he did different. One, was that he did not tip his eggs with shrimp tails. The other Nic used a electric trolling motor to maintain the boat’s position, while the other fisherman used a 6hp Mercury kicker whether this made any difference, I am not sure.

He did catch a bullhead late in the day AND Nic said more than likely that the other guy’s egg cure was not conducive to salmon, but more for steelhead since the bullhead AND steelhead seem to like the same milder egg cure.

Here is one for the box Another on it’s way to the box



A nice day on the river



A VERY NICE day on the river


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