The Spring Chinook, King of Kings
Caption: A particularly fine spring chinook, the kind that swim in and out of my dreams. Courtesy of Jay Nicholas.
Spring chinook light a fire in me like no other fish in freshwater. When I think about the reasons, I can’t pin it down to one attribute. It’s the whole package–strength, speed, cunning, beauty, girth, stamina. It’s also the time of year, when days are suddenly long, rain is warm, rivers smell sweet, swallows skim the water, ospreys dive, and eagles ambush. Nature’s palate of green becomes impossibly vivid and varied, and the once skeletal river banks are hidden under the shade of alder and cottonwood.
Fly fishing for spring chinook is a singular challenge. While these brutes are the occasional by catch of steelheaders, springers are extremely difficult to target and hook with consistency. I have still never landed a springer on a swung fly, and the two I am certain of hooking tore me to shreds and left me with a stubby leader. Only one of my clients ever landed a spring chinook on a swung fly in ten years of guiding. He actually landed two in one morning, a twenty-pounder and a ten-pounder (the late Don Wysham, a gentleman and a great angler). I still devote time to the chase every season, and I know that one day lightning will strike.
Stripping flies has been much more productive in my experience. But that’s not saying much. Last year I didn’t hook a single springer on the fly, devoting several days to the effort. But there was one season when everything came together. I lost count of the fish we brought to hand. That season was highlighted by several days that I will never forget. One such day Frank Amato and I stood in the bow of my drift boat watching fresh salmon circling in a pool. We hooked several fish, bringing three or four to the boat, but lost every one before we could bring them to hand. We watched them chase and grab our flies, but every fish beat us, either by wrapping around an underwater tree limb, diving into a log jam, wrapping around the anchor rope, or wearing a hole in their lip and slipping away. The last fish of the day was a monster, probably 25 or more pounds, super chrome. It put up an astonishing fight. Near the end of the battle, the fish went to the bottom of the river, clearly visible to us, and started smacking its jaw against the bottom of the river. The motion resembled that of a spawning female, but instead of the tail flapping against the gravel, this fish used its head. It was a brilliant tactic, and a few moments later as the net was lowered for the scoop, my hook straightened and came free.
Caption: Scott Plemmons was rewarded for his persistence with this beast, just a couple of miles from reach of tide.
Portland was quite a hub for springer fishing. I had the lower Willamette, the Clackamas and Sandy, all just minutes away. In the upper Willamette Valley, opportunities for chasing spring chinook are still quite good. The Willamette and McKenzie both offer reasonable opportunities, and I look forward to checking them out. But my quest for ocean-fresh fish is pulling me toward the Umpqua. What a river! I have never seen a river with such grandeur, variety and character. A little surfing on the world-wide-web quickly revealed that the Umpqua is famous for jumbo-sized springers. A gear popped loose in my brain when I read about the FIFTY-POUNDERS! That’s more than my little pea brain can handle, and I can already imagine the conversations with my new boss about how I can’t take a sick day every time it rains.
The Umpqua has seen fairly modest runs of spring chinook for the past few years, but in big years it is capable of producing over 30,000 fish. The 2008 run is expected to be relatively small, and as a result, angling pressure will be lighter than average. Most anglers fish on anchor from a boat, or plunk close to the bank. Less boat traffic should mean that fish are more relaxed, and more likely to suspend off the bottom. It should also mean that they are more susceptible to a swung fly.
So, last weekend my friend and fellow chinook junkie Jeff Mishler decided to try our luck. We plied the river from Elkton to Scottsburg, looking for the best places to swing a fly to moving chinook. The hot, sunny weather didn’t seem to work in our favor, and the other anglers we spoke to had similarly poor luck. But we did find a few spots that had all the right qualities–inside bend, relatively shallow, slow swinging, sexy-grab-a-licious! We also found out that, despite her demure appearance, the Umpqua has some big ass rapids. The hairiest ones have big logs sticking up in the middle of them, as if to say “over here, little human, over here!”
After two full days on the water, I hooked two bright kings on the fly, one about four inches, and the other pushing six inches. They were strong for their size, though somewhat out-matched by my thirteen-foot Burkheimer spey rod. I thought about swallowing the small one whole, but as the thought came to me, the fish slipped away. They are SO smart! Or maybe I’m just that…duh, never mind.
Sadly, our best fish is also our most imperiled. In most watersheds in the lower forty-eight, spring chinook are barely holding on. They are the most susceptible to human-caused changes, both as juveniles and adults. One prominent biologist recently told me he is afraid that conditions in many coastal rivers no longer allow for the survival of wild spring chinook. Water is sucked out of these rivers during the dry summer months, at their headwaters for municipal supplies, and out of the flood plains by irrigators. Riparian zones have been severely altered, particularly in the flood plain, leading to hazardous warming of what water is left. And then there’s pollution. It’s not a pretty picture.
Historically the Columbia River hosted the largest mass of spring chinook anywhere on the planet. Among the Columbia’s tributaries, the Willamette was the jewel. But today only two Willamette tributaries have viable wild runs, and the numbers are paltry. In the early 1800s the Willamette springer run was estimated at between 200,000 and 400,000 fish. Today the wild runs on the Clackamas and McKenzie are fewer than 10,000. Fisheries agencies still manage all of the Willamette’s tribs for spring chinook, directed by the Endangered Species Act to “prevent their extinction.” But aside from the Clack and McKenzie, the remnant populations in Willamette tribs are supported purely by hatchery programs.
On Oregon’s northern coast, my favorite place to chase springers, most fish are of hatchery origin. Ironically, they are reared and released by the very hatcheries I have always railed against. I admit my own ridiculous hypocrisy spending so many hours, days, weeks on a fishery maintained by hatcheries I oppose. I’m an addict. My biologist friend consoles me by saying that our coastal rivers may no longer be capable of sustaining wild fish. So are hatchery springers better than no springers? I guess so. But it may be a bit early to write off wild spring chinook. Every year I see a few wild ones, and they are often the best and brightest fish of the season. Locals “complain” about catching “damn” natives. So our rivers are at least capable of sustaining a few fish, if not the great runs of the past.
Eugene’s local chapter of Trout Unlimited is directly engaged in efforts to restore habitat wild salmonids, including endangered spring chinook, in the upper Willamette basin. If you would like to be a part of the solution, come to a meeting and see what’s going on. Visit the chapter blog for more info.
The Wild Salmon Center is proving to be the strongest voice for wild salmonids in the Pacific Northwest. To learn more and to contribute, visit their website.