Fishery managers rigidly scrutinize the chinook and coho numbers. They must - many wild salmon populations are endangered or threatened. Hatchery efforts have helped, providing some harvest while protecting wild fish. But habitat issues plague wild salmon and have escalated into a volatile, long-term western war between those who would continue damming the Columbia for agriculture, electricity and development and those who champion salmon recovery.
Because of annual battles over water use and the naturally fluctuating ocean conditions for young fish, salmon populations vary greatly from year to year. In 2009, as my husband and I plied the river with Martin, the region was seeing an abundance of coho and chinook - on a scale not seen for a decade. The 2010 fall outlook generally predicts fewer coho but better numbers of chinook.
At the Buoy
By early afternoon, the tide had dropped, and we chased the cooler water west toward the mouth of the river. Columbia tides range from six to nine feet - the more tide, the better the fishing. As the water recedes, boats normally spaced out through the estuary begin to converge at Buoy 10.
Waiting for the tide to turn, we picked up two more coho fishing the deeper water. These fish don't fight long, but they fight furiously, speeding around the boat, even leaping at times, tangling anglers and their lines.
Out by Buoy 10, we could see an approaching rip that signaled the long-awaited cold-water rush. Hundreds of boats jockeyed toward the aquatic starting line. They queued up between Buoy 10 and the shore of Cape Disappointment State Park to the north.
Martin idled his skiff into position, bow pointed toward the Pacific, lines trailing behind with the incoming current. Somewhere beneath us, below the roiling surface, schools of salmon coursed into the river.
With baits positioned 25, 35 and 55 feet behind the boat and using divers/planers to dig for depth, Martin covered the 65foot water column and watched the fish finder.
A few boats hooked up nearby and dropped away from the pack. But the hoped-for flurry of feeding fish passed as the chilled-water wedge pushed upriver. Martin peeled off and ran east. He replaced the divers with the weighted rigs we'd used that morning.
Three more hits completed our afternoon for a total tally of 11 strikes: Four fish came into the boat, five were released and two pulled the hooks. Hits came periodically through the day, providing ample action. But our second day of fishing would produce the rapid-fire hookups this fishery boasts.