A quest for sockeye salmon seven dams up the big river

By Gary Lewis

Sunlight seeped into the consciousness of the dark over the hills of the Columbia Basin. I thought back to the night before. We had checked into the Marriott in Wenatchee, received a visitor basket full of apples and applets and cotlets and other goodness. Off the highway into the lap of luxury.

And then I called our guide for the morrow, Brad Wagner. “I’ll be by to pick you up at 2:30,” he said.

“Excuse me? Did you say 2:30 in the morning?”

He said 2:30. That meant we had to set the alarm for 2:00 and NOT hit the Snooze button.

Dawn’s first rays reflected off the hilltops; trailer lights shimmered underwater. There were dozens of boats out there already, like opening day on a trout lake. Hope is epidemic.

Before us, the moonlight danced on glassy water. We were on the lake early because the temperature was expected to hit 103 here on the surface of Lake Pateros, seven dams up the Columbia.

Dave Vedder and Gary Lewis admire a sockeye taken on the Columbia.

Dave Vedder and Gary Lewis admire a sockeye taken on the Columbia.

We were here because Dave Vedder, that sage of all things salmonid, had sniffed out a fishery he said I needed to partake of. With us, we had Danny Cook, a steelhead guide from Seattle, 15-year-old Tommy Brown from Bend and Sam Pyke from Sisters.

We clipped lines to downrigger cables and dropped baits into dark water. I never thought I’d fish for sockeye on the Columbia, but the last couple of years of returns had caught my attention.

Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife opens the season above Wells Dam when 60,000 sockeye climb the ladder into the Brewster Pool. It didn’t happen often for many years, but in 2008, managers counted over 213,000 fish. Upper Columbia sockeye runs have been strong ever since, which causes one to ask, how did this happen?

CRsalmon 092One reason is that water managers and fisheries managers in Canada are working together now to make sure that out-migrating juveniles get the water they need when they need it. A large hatchery program at Canada’s Skaha Lake, run by the Okanogan Tribal Nations Alliance, releases hundreds of thousands of juvenile sockeye each year. And last, the fish that return to Lake Osoyoos in Washington have found restored spawning habitat.

Biologists point to favorable ocean conditions as another reason for the increase in fish numbers; and there is little commercial harvest of these smaller Pacific salmon because Snake River sockeye are on the endangered list.

Salmon on the Run
Sockeye were made for rivers fed by large, inland lakes. In the Columbia system, Skaha and Osoyoos offer some of the best spawning habitat. Columbia sockeye also return to the Snake River to spawn in Idaho’s Alturas, Pettit, Redfish, Stanley and Yellowbelly lakes, a journey of some 900 miles and an elevation gain of 6,500 feet up from the salt.

Sockeye fry spend from one to three years in the freshwater before they out-migrate to the Pacific. Once in saltwater, sockeye stay for one to four years before returning to their home rivers and lakes.

The silver rockets blast up the Columbia from Astoria and cross seven dams before they stop at the mouth of the Okanogan where they meet a flotilla of fishermen.
Our baits were Mack’s Lure’s Cha Cha Sockeye Squidders to which Brad hooked a prawn cured in Pautzke’s purple Fire cure.

On the boat we also had rods rigged for kings because there were a pile of big summer fish in the river.

CRsalmon 003We started with the sockeye gear because the bluebacks were the priority and they are nothing if not finicky. Like their landlocked kokanee cousins, they are plankton eaters. There is no good reason they should bite the lures we tempt them with, and a lot of times they don’t.

Around us, the fish were active, both sockeyes and kings broke the water with their tails or leaped clear to crash back to the surface.

It took 20 minutes to get the first grab. I lost that one, but it wasn’t long before we had another chance, and soon, our first nickel-bright sockeye in the boat.

This salmon fishing bore little resemblance to the river fishing anywhere else. With the downriggers in the slow water, it was more like a calm day on Crescent Lake or Odell. Except the sockeye were bigger than most kokanee. These fish run 18 to 26 inches. And then there are the Chinook, which can go 40 pounds or more.

It seemed like everyone was hitting sockeye. Upstream, Indian fishermen carefully drew their net around their harvest then selected out the fish they couldn’t keep and released them. We fished close and caught a couple they had missed.

After we had a bunch of sockeye in the box, we rigged the big rods. Brad dipped into the bait cooler and pulled out cut plug herring, dyed in two colors, green apple and grape.

Tommy Brown (15), of Bend, boated this bright hatchery chinook while fishing the upper Columbia, 525 miles up from the ocean.

Tommy Brown (15), of Bend, boated this bright hatchery chinook while fishing the upper Columbia, 525 miles up from the ocean.

For chinook, Brad uses bigger flashers. We dropped the downriggers down to 15 feet and cut a zigzag pattern through the field of boats. It was less than 20 minutes before Tommy set the barbless hook and the rod stayed buried. It is hard to imagine that, 525 miles up from the ocean, a chinook could be so bright, but this one threw a flash like a king at Astoria.

Dave Vedder, Brad Wagner and Danny Cook have caught a lot of salmon. This time, the light was reflected in a younger pair of eyes. These moments are brief, but they can be so bright.

Gary’s latest book, A Bear Hunter’s Guide to the Universe, is available as an e-book on Kindle and Nook or in print at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com