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  • Fishing the Columbia Gorge

  • by
  • John Sowinski


  • Here in the Pacific Northwest, we've got just about everything and a little bit extra that we may or may not need to make for an interesting angling outing. A hundred years ago the primary "game fishes" were all salmonids, the beautiful leaping trout and salmon so dear to sport and commercial fishers. As late as the early 1960s, one could fish with reasonable expectation of catching a bright Columbia River chinook salmon January through December. The same could be said for steelhead in rivers like the Washougal and East Lewis. Now, the Snake River dam building frenzy of the 1950s and '60s have put the kibosh on those famous summer chinook runs, and the "June Hogs" are but a federally listed gleam in the eye of the old time angler who now has the Bonneville Power Administration, Corps of Engineers and the Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife to thank for a bounty fishery on squaw fish (now "Northern Bigmouth Pike Minnow") to divert his attention from this tragic loss. Correspondingly, the hatchery manipulation and "management" of local steelhead stocks has nearly neutralized the diversity of our wild steelhead stocks. Thankfully, our wild steelhead are a tough and adaptable lot, and they have tough and adaptable folks who are willing to take up their cause.

  • End of sermon.

  • There are other options locally for Columbia River flyflingers, and while they often go unnoticed by a lot of anglers, there is a small corps of dedicated folks who pursue a number of non-native species in the big river and its associated back waters. Our mission for this CSF fishout is to track down and capture (on the fly) some of these alien invaders.

  • Shad: Shad from New York's Hudson River were introduced into California's Sacramento River on June 27, 1871. Those juveniles migrated out to sea, and though California was their adopted home, by 1876 or 1877 they were showing up in the Columbia River. To hasten their establishment in the Columbia system, further plants were made in the Willamette and Snake as well as the main stem Columbia in the 1880s. Today, Columbia system shad returns often number in the millions with often a hundred thousand fish or more passing Bonneville dam in a single summer day.

  • As flyfishers we have the chance to target these fish in several locations below Bonneville and some up river dams as well as locations where they congregate, such as the head of Lady Island near Camas. My somewhat limited success has been focused below Bonneville Dam. I started by fishing with someone else who knew shad and had a spinning rod with light line and a pocket full of "shad dart" lures. Once the spin fisher was catching fish, I tried to approximate the successful presentation by matching depth and speed with a little fly tied to resemble a shad dart. (Size 10, red wool body, short white calf tail). It must be remembered that shad are just big minnows; if you want to tie some size 48 plankton flies, hey, go for it, but something that looks like the "dart" works for me. I use a 5 weight, type 3 sink tip on a sturdy 6 weight rod and under the right conditions have held my own against the spin fishers landing dozens of fish in a couple of hours. Several evenings I've even caught them on a floating line, but I would not recommend this strategy if you really want to catch them. Shad are eaten by some, and there is no need to practice catch and release. The "Catch and Keep 22" is that they are just big minnows and bony as hell. I have a friend whose family stews the fillets and then avoids the bones by eating around them with chop sticks. They love them. Unfortunately, one must practice eating with chop sticks from about age 3 to 30 to be successful.

  • Bass: So after a successful morning (hopefully) of hauling in shad, we can advance upstream to pursue non-native bass of the Large and Smallmouth (SMB) variety. It's worth noting that Mr. Joseph Paquet of Portland landed the first documented Largemouth Bass (LMB) from the Columbia system in July 1898 whilst angling for trout in the now flooded "Cascades" just upstream from the present location of Bonneville dam. Largemouth Bass were introduced into the Columbia and Willamette systems in the 1880s and '90s, while Smallmouth were planted in California as early as 1874 and likely planted throughout the Northwest as enthusiastically as brother Bigmouth. For better (or just as often worse) anglers have tendency to plant their favorite fish with disregard to the indigenous species. A fair example is the illegal plant of bass in Crane Prairie much to the detriment of the trout fishery. While it hasn't turned out to be a total disaster, mostly due to the lake's cool temperatures, a while back, Oregon fish bios found an adult Alligator Gar floating dead from another attempted illegal plant. What's next, piranhas?

  • The section of the Columbia I fish for both LMB and SMB is between Tunnel Lake (at tunnel #1) east to Chamberlain Lake near Lyle. I've caught most of my SMB in the river itself, while most of my LMB have come from the ponds created when the Bonneville pool was flooded and the highway and railroad straightened the river's curves. I use a 8-1/2 foot, 7 weight Sage glass rod with a WF floating line. An 8 or 9 foot leader tapered to 8 or 10 lbs. test is about right (you likely have one on your steelhead rod). I have had some luck with small (#6 - #4 woolly buggers in white, black and yellow, especially for SMB. My biggest LMB was 19 or 20 inches and slurped in a # 2 deer hair mouse. Go figure. Rob Allen has had recent success for SMB fishing the bank from his float tube with hard body poppers, and we hope to access his bountiful knowledge for other strategies as well. Local fish bio and author Joe Warren is the recognized expert on flyfishing for bass in the Columbia, and I recommend you read his books and magazine articles prior to our foray with spiny ray destiny.

  • Carp: Oh, boy. Carp were introduced throughout the Pacific Northwest and California all through the 1880s with the first recognized (and unfortunate) planting in May of 1881 caused by the flooding Sandy River washing out some riverside ponds full of carp raised for fun and profit. Our federal fish managers also saw fit to plant them up and down the basin as well. We will be seeing big carp just about every place we go in the gorge, as they will be spawning in just about any quiet back water. I have taken them incidentally time to time but have not established any sort of successful technique or pattern for hooking these brutish aliens. They are big and a hoot to hook, and we're looking for member input and suggestions

  • Those are just some of the fish we hope to catch. Blue Gill, Yellow Perch, Crappies, Walleye and other sunfishes may be encountered as well. CSFers can plan on a day of fishing or camp out with the club at an as yet undecided location (the Klickitat River and Spearfish Lake have been suggested) and make a weekend adventure out of it. I hope to be back home about the middle of June and interested club members can call me then.

  • Reference: "The Coming of the Pond Fishes,"1946, by Ben Hur Lampman

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