The fall Chinook salmon fishing in the last free flowing stretch of the Columbia River in the state of Washington gets underway about the last week or two of September for Upriver Brights that spawn in that area. This area is basically from the White Bluffs all the way up to Priest Rapids dam. It is considered by some as being the homestead to the healthiest run of native Columbia River salmon still available to sport fisherpersons.
Watch the dam fish count from McNary dam, which is the one just downriver from this fishing location. When the total reaches 5000 Chinook, things will start being GOOD, at 7000 to 9000, you had better be there if you intend to fish this. Allow 10 days from the daily count to when the fish will move upriver into this area. Check the number over Priest Rapids dam, usually there will be few, this means the numbers of fish will be between the 2 dams (this fishing area). The fish here will tend to vary in size from 20# to 40#.
One question is often asked, if these fish are called Upriver Brights, then why are most of them a darker fish. The most commonly accepted theory is that the water temperature can vary from 65 to 72 degrees if there has been no rain for sometime during the summer months. With the water this warm as compared to the ocean temperatures 400 miles away of 56-58 degrees this time of the year, that this is what affects their coloration.
Most of these fish are still in a very good condition, just a darker skin color.
Main Targeted Area : The most common area fished will normally be above the Vernita Bridge. There is usually a Vernita Village here where fishermen seem to congregate for a month or so each fall.
One of the most popular spots is a hole or slot in the river called the Hog Hole, which is just above the bridge which is a deep slot that runs a couple of hundred yards right down the middle of the river. Even in early September there will be fish holding here. Another is the King Hole, which is about 1 1/2 miles above the bridge. Above that will be the China Bar Drift, and the Midway Drift.
|Vernita Bridge being the 2 white/blue squares near each other downriver|
Launching & Boat Types : The lowest ramp in this section of the river is a good launch at the old ferry site near the old town of White Bluffs.
Launching and reloading is possible if you use the unimproved launching area of gravel bar on the north side of the river about 1/2 mile above the Vernita Bridge. Here launching will be on river gravel bar type launches where a 4 wheel drive vehicle is HIGHLY recommended. These area will very often have boulders on them that you will have to navigate around.
Both of these can be fished with prop boats IF you are careful.
The photo below shows the information posted at the entrance to the boat launch camping area. You will note that a Discovery Pass is required here.
|Looking downriver toward the Vernita bridge from the unimproved boat launch after everyone has left for the season|
Again a prop boat can be used in most of the river, it may not be ideal, but if you stay in the middle or not real close to the bank, you can navigate. You will probably need hip boots to load your prop boat back on the trailer.
Fisherpersons are reminded with possible increased water outflow from the upstream dam, to be ever watchful because of changing depths because when they start dumping water thru the humongous turbines at the dam, the river can come up incredibly fast, so do not park your vehicle close to the waters edge. Below the dam the river heights can raise 5′ plus when this happens. And when they dump a lot of water it also really effects the bite.
We will break this area into 2 sections, the section below the Vernita bridge and the area above the bridge as another.
Type of Fishing : Fishing here will normally be back trolling which is the simplest and safest method here. This is basically positioning your boat in a trolling position heading upriver, but trolling slow enough where you are drifting down river at about a slow walking speed, using a dropper weight or a Jet-Diver. Using the Jet-Diver gives you the advantage of being able to keep the bait very near the bottom even in some of the faster slots without hanging up (IF YOU ARE VERY AWARE OF WHAT’S GOING ON). Others simply use a 4 to 6 oz. cannonball sinker and back-troll.
Here the fish may not be hugging the bottom, but suspended, so using your sonar will be a must.
You will run upriver of where you intend on fishing, getting in position and back trolling down river. The water depth will normally be 18′-25′ on the edges, (other than the launching beaches) with maybe 35′-40′ in the center. Most fish will be picked up in the bottom 5′ in the shallower water and 10′ off the bottom the deeper sections. They seem to suspend in this water depth. If you drag the bottom you run the chance of picking up an oversize sturgeon.
Some fishermen even prefer to run downriggers, using 8# balls with herring on for bait, so to each his own, if it works.
Later in the run timing when the jacks (immature males) start showing, a good method is to back-bounce egg roe. It seems that the jacks really hit eggs and there are days that the adults will want them also.
The word here is to fish, “Deep, Slow, and Early”.
Bait : Most common will be Kwikfish with a sardine wrap in a chrome/chartreuse color. The sardine is used as it is the oiliest of the baits, which sets up a scent trail. The added weight also slows the action of the lure down somewhat. Each time you wrap a new sardine onto the lure, you should check the action in the water, and may have to adjust the eye to allow the lure to follow true.
Other bait as cut-plug herring, egg roe, large spinners, large Spi-N-Glos, spoons, diving plugs, big FlatFish can all be used effectively here. Or recently Brad’s Super Cut Plugs stuffed with tuna or sardine parts. Also not discount adding a large Spi-N-Glo in combination to a herring. At times when one won’t pull fish, try another bait.
|Here a combo spinner, cheater & eggs did the trick on one of the early brighter fish taken here.|
These fish seem to hit a lure not in that they are hungry as in feeding in the ocean, but as a river situation in that they seem to strike in defense of their territory. With this being the case, placing the lure in front of them at the right depth is critical.
Off Limits Near the Dam : Below the Priest Rapids dam on the West shore is a hatchery, there are boundaries that you are not allowed to fish inside of. Also you are supposed to stay away from the base of the dam by 600′. This is for your protection if they open the gates.
You may think you are getting away by sneaking in close and not being caught, but the WDFW does sit up on the bluffs with a spotting scope, will read boat numbers, then the next week send you a citation in the mail.
Below the Bridge : There is also fishing below the bridge. About 3 1/2 miles below the bridge is the B/C hole. Another 4 miles downriver you will encounter the first Hanford Reactor. The #1 Reactor is the one most upriver, with the #2 next downriver.
Downriver another couple of miles below #2 you will encounter a couple of shallow gravel bars that a prop boat can navigate IF you are very careful. The lower one has a deep slot only about 25′ wide.
Then downriver around the bend and past Locke Island there is White Bluffs hole with a concrete launch from the east side at the site of the old ferry landing. There is a big hole right off this launch that can well be productive in September.
Fishing can be productive in a goodly section of this lower area since it is the most downstream section and you won’t have a lot of company as the prop boats won’t usually be there.
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