Target cool waters for hot Upper Columbia salmon
With the summer Chinook and sockeye salmon forecasts up somewhat from last year, here’s how to fish from Beverly to Brewster.
Originally published by Northwest Sportsman Magazine
North-central Washington has evolved into one of the more popular summer salmon fishing destinations in the Evergreen State and for several positive reasons.
Unlike salmon fisheries west of the Cascade Mountains, the Upper Columbia River has a diverse landscape where triple-digit temperatures aren’t uncommon, along with plenty of sunshine. But what sets it apart from the rest is a summer Chinook and sockeye fishery that takes centerstage beginning July 1.
“The preseason summer Chinook and sockeye forecasts are a little better than what actually returned in 2021,” says Chad Jackson, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s regional fish program manager in Ephrata. “Hopefully summer Chinook follow suit with spring Chinook and return much stronger this year.”
The 2022 preseason forecast for Upper Columbia summer Chinook is 57,500 adults to the Columbia River mouth, but in-season counts at Bonneville Dam showed 79,929 had been counted as of July 4. This is compared to the 2021 return of 56,800 adults (78,800 was last year’s forecast). If accurate, this projection would represent the 15th highest return since 1980 and be 83 percent of the average return observed over the past decade.
A good number are projected to be large-sized summer Chinook, including 34,200 4-year-old age-class fish; 22,900 5-year-olds; and 400 6-year-olds.
“We’ll monitor the returns so we know what we’re working with, but it would take a big drop in the numbers for us to make any in-season emergency measures,” Jackson says.
According to a fact sheet from Washington and Oregon salmon managers, the Upper Columbia summer Chinook run size remained at low levels throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with average returns of 19,243 and 15,090 fish, respectively.
Improved ocean conditions and substantial changes in the hydrosystem enhanced downriver passage, leading the average run size to climb to 59,805 adults during the first decade of the 2000s, which was about three times greater than the average run size of the 1980s and four times greater than the 1990s.
The average run in the 2010s was 71,995 adults, which was 120 percent of the previous decade. Supplementation programs and improved natural habitat have played a significant role in the increased abundance trends observed since 1999. Since 2002, hatchery-produced fish have been mass-marked with a clipped adipose fin. Natural-spawning populations also contribute significantly to the run and the stock is managed as a composite population.
Summer Chinook migrating above Priest Rapids Dam aren’t listed under the Endangered Species Act.
“The summer Chinook fishery has its ups and downs, and during the first week of the season, anglers’ catch is pretty good,” Jackson says. “When all the willing biters are skimmed off, fishing slows until a new batch of fresh fish come in and it gets good again. Last year anglers harvested around 5,000 summer Chinook and it was a decent season.”
The sockeye fishery in this part of the Columbia River also draws a lot of attention, and the 2022 preseason forecast is for 198,700 adults (153,309 was 2021’s actual return) but was recently upgraded to 426,000 adults. Through July 4, the preliminary total sockeye count at Bonneville Dam is 506,050 fish, the highest count to date in the last 10 years. The yearly historical record at Bonneville Dam was 614,179 in 2014 and the 10-year average is 230,416.
Anglers along the upper river will be focused on a 2022 preseason forecast of 175,700 to the Okanogan River (105,493 in 2021) that is the bread and butter for summer fisheries, especially from Priest Rapids Dam up to Brewster. The return of Okanogan-origin fish is expected to be approximately 70 percent of the recent 10-year average. With the much stronger 2022 sockeye run, WDFW fishery managers have increased the daily catch limit to four sockeye from Priest Rapids Dam upstream to Brewster.
The total sockeye quota this year on the Columbia River above Pasco is a little less than 13,500 fish, which is a little better than 2021 (7,000).
“We should get a little longer season, since we have more wiggle room than last year (which ended in mid-July), and much of that depends on angler success and how well the run comes in,” Jackson says.
The shrubsteppe landscape and wildlife surrounding the Upper Columbia are unlike anywhere else in Washington, as salmon make the marathon 500-plus-mile migration from the Pacific Ocean to north-central Washington. There are few other places remaining where you can catch salmon while mule deer and bighorn sheep roam the sage-covered hills above the river.
The most popular and productive places to catch summer Chinook are the tailrace of Wanapum Dam, the “bubbles” around the mouths of the Entiat and Chelan Rivers, Wells Dam tailrace, and the Brewster Pool up to the city of Bridgeport. Each of these three sections of the Upper Columbia provide a totally different vibe, from the swift-moving tailrace below Rocky Reach and Wells Dams (outflows depend on when water is released at each dam) to the rather gentle Beebe Bridge stretch, where cold water flushes in from Lake Chelan.
While these fisheries are very popular, tasty Chinook and feisty sockeye can be in one location one day, only to move 15 miles upstream the following day. Water levels and flow also affect how the fish bite from day to day.
One of the more popular locations along the Upper Columbia is near Beebe Bridge, better known to anglers as Chelan Falls, which is a shallow-water fishery with the bottom being around 25 to 50 feet. It is often covered with milfoil that can foul up gear, so checking it often is one key to catching more fish. After all, these salmon don’t want a salad for breakfast.
To fish Chelan Falls, launch at Chelan County’s Beebe Bridge Park boat ramp or just across the river at Chelan Falls Park. Both have excellent camping and/or RV sites, day-use facilities, picnic shelters and many other amenities.
The early morning period, before the sun has even climbed over the arid hillsides covered with wildflowers and sagebrush, is without a doubt the best time to be on the water. In most cases the very bright summer sun seems to shut off the bite by 8 a.m. and turns into a heatwave by midmorning, although you can catch salmon all day long. You’ll even find some action for a few hours prior to sunset.
The journey to the fishing grounds takes a few minutes and is easy to identify by the mass of boats trolling in a tight, shallow-water area where the Chelan River dumps into the Columbia mainstem.
One of the keys to deciding where you’ll fish for summer kings or sockeye is to examine the dam fish counts. This will give you a snapshot of how many fish are in a certain area, where they’re migrating or staging, and if you want to target Chinook or sockeye.
You can track fish migration to the upper basin at the Columbia River Fish Passage Center website.
What to use
The preferred choice of fishing gear for these summer kings is an 8- to 12-ounce sliding cannonball drop sinker to a bead-chain swivel attached to a Pro-Troll Flasher. On the terminal end is a tandem-hook leader 18 to 30 inches long and a size 3.5 spinner, or a Brad’s Super Bait Original stuffed with NW Bait & Scent or Pro-Cure anchovy or shrimp brine in a mashed-up canned tuna concoction.
Other anglers will troll a Mag Lip 4.5 plug and a whole or cut-plug herring soaked in a colored, store-bought brine, or an artificial version like a Brad’s Mini Cut-Plug or Yakima Bait Company SpinFish.
Downriggers are an option but in my opinion not necessary and can be burdensome, since milfoil can foul up your wire cables, gear, lure and/or bait.
Once you get your lines in the water, try trolling in a zigzag pattern parallel to Chelan Falls Road near Powerhouse Park up to the Chelan Falls Boathouse. Always be aware of your surroundings since it’s likely you’ll be playing bumper boats when the bite is on. Once you arrive just below Beebe Bridge, turn around and troll downriver back toward Chelan Falls Park. There are deep-water holes in the middle of the river where salmon hunker down before making their next move upstream.
When chasing sockeye, try a chrome flasher trailed with a small, size 12 or 14 pink Spin-N-Glo with two red 1/0 hooks tipped with a coonstripe shrimp cured in a prawn or shrimp scent or a Mack’s Sockeye Rig. Like many places where you fish for sockeye, it is a must to shorten the leaders down to 9 or 10 inches and troll as slowly as possible.
The Upper Columbia above Priest Rapids Dam to Brewster has a six-salmon daily limit (up to two may be adult hatchery Chinook and no more than four sockeye: release wild adult Chinook and coho).
Other salmon fishing options
Chelan Falls isn’t the only shining star. About 18 miles upstream is the Brewster Pool, where you’ll find sockeye and Chinook in late summer.
In this section of the Upper Columbia the water temperature warms up rapidly, creating a thermal barrier at the Okanogan River mouth, and fish will stack up and not go anywhere. The peak timing of the Chinook and sockeye runs coincides with the Brewster King Salmon Derby, this year August 5–7.
Another good salmon fishing location is around Wells Dam, but use caution, as the dam spews out water, creating turbulent sections, and levels can rise and drop quickly. Most anglers fish from the west side near the outlet and intake for a hatchery, and the eastern shoreline tends to be where the sockeye hang out before moving upstream. Bank anglers fish the Chelan County, or west, side.
Lake Wenatchee sockeye
The Lake Wenatchee sockeye are expected to meet the escapement goal of 23,000 (the original forecast was 19,700 down from 41,219 actual return in 2021 and 56,111 in 2020) and could possibly open a late-summer fishery in the lake.
Anglers should keep tabs on the Tumwater Dam fish counts to see if a late-July or early-August fishery might be in the cards. -MY
(Editor’s note: Mark Yuasa is a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife communications manager and longtime local fishing and outdoor writer. You can find it published in the July issue of Northwest Sportsman Magazine.)