Sep 032019

With much trepidation and apprehension, the 2019 fall salmon fishing season on this part of the Columbia River is under way. All year there had been dire predictions of low returning fish counts and that has proven to be the case so far. Steelhead fishing is history. The returning coho run is supposed to be better than last year, which was a salmon fishing disaster. Chinook salmon numbers are worse than last year. The daily fish limit is one; hatchery Chinook or Coho.

The peak of the salmon run here is about the first week in September. This peak is very predictable and varies little from year to year. Usually, we start salmon fishing on the Columbia River after Labor Day weekend. Summer is over and the fair weather visitors begin to head home. This year, knowing the salmon run would be poor and fishing season liable to be cancelled at any time, we hit the river a few days before the Labor Day weekend.

We fish at a spot that is mostly local fishermen. It’s not a “brand name” spot, which is fine with the locals. If you know what you are doing, it is a good spot for salmon and Steelhead fishing. The fishing techniques you need to use to be successful are a bit different than standard Columbia River salmon fishing, so fishermen not familiar with the spot may not do so well. Normally at this time of year, there are a fair amount of salmon fishing boats out fishing. This season, there have been hardly any. On a calm day on the Columbia River at any known salmon fishing spot, there will be boats, but not so far this season.

A relatively few salmon fishing boats on the Columbia River for the 2019 salmon fishing season

This fishing spot is not too popular with kayak fishermen because it is either a long, sometimes windy, paddle across the Columbia River, or a sketchy hike down a crumbling cliff with all your gear. In the dark. Hauling the kayak up the cliff after a long day of fishing is no picnic either. If you look at your fishing kayak as an “investment”, this is not the fishing spot for you.

A rocky kayak launch at the base of a steep cliff

If you are a regular reader of this kayak fishing blog, you know we like to be on the water well before the crack of dawn. This is especially true for salmon fishing, except that fishing for salmon may not start until one hour before sunrise. This time of year, it’s about 5:20AM, still dark. By 6:30AM, it’s already starting to get light. One hour before sunrise, the lines go in the river.

I fished three consecutive days. The first day, I hooked a nice fish, but it jumped a few times and ran under the kayak. In the dark. I got it next to the kayak and the hooks pulled out before I could get the landing net deployed and I lost it. I fished for another six hours and did not get another bite. The second day, just after I put my line in the water, I got a strike and landed this small coho salmon. It was a native fish, easily unhooked from the barbless hooks and released unharmed.

Small native coho salmon caught and released unharmed by kayak fisherman Ron Barbish

At least I caught one; the 2019 Salmon Fishing season would not be a skunk! That’s the way salmon fishing, and a lot of other big game fishing is like; you don’t catch anything until you do. Sometimes you get them and sometimes you do not.

Back to fishing in the pre-dawn darkness when I had another solid strike and hookup. I could tell this fish was bigger than the coho salmon I had just caught and released. When there is no light, the Columbia River is like a black hole. I was fighting the fish mostly by feel. The only time I could see anything was if the fish jumped or splashed on the surface. After a nice battle in the dark, the fish was next to the kayak. Getting a landing net under a struggling salmon is tough enough, try doing it in pitch blackness!

Pre dawn salmon fishing on the Columbia River with

Got the fish in the net and had a look; it was a hatchery Chinook salmon, probably a male. The first keeper of the 2019 salmon fishing season. After nothing the day before, I had caught two salmon, one released, essentially limiting out before 6:00AM this morning. That’s salmon fishing for you.

First Chinook salmon of the 2019 fall salmon run caught by kayak fisherman Ron Barbish

Encouraged by the previous day’s success, I was eager to go the final day of our salmon fishing mission. I fished from about 5:20AM until noon without a single bite. Not only did I not have any luck, with about twenty boats fishing for salmon, I did not see a single fish caught. Even when the fishing is bad, as it very well can be, it’s unusual to not see any fish caught.

That is not the direction salmon fishermen are hoping for. Perhaps it has just been a bad few days or a slow start to the salmon run, but after the last few years of rapidly declining returning salmon numbers, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the Columbia River salmon fishery. It seems almost a sure thing that the salmon fishing season on the Columbia River will be closed sooner rather than later. We will try to fish every day, weather permitting, because who knows how much longer there is going to be any salmon fishing at all?

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