We met our host in the dark as he prepped his 21-foot aluminum Willie Asaltor for the short run to salmon. The cold Columbia River smelled of brine and organic matter like many northern Pacific-fed regions. The scent triggers pleasant memories punctuated by feisty silver fish and great company.
Jim Martin, director of the Berkley Conservation Institute - a conservation division of tackle giant Pure Fishing - cranked his Yamaha 150 HPDI and motored out of the West Mooring Basin in Astoria, Oregon. The late August morning felt refreshingly cool; I was comfortable with several layers of thin clothing and light foulweather gear.
Ten minutes later, Martin shut down the main outboard and began idling along with his 8 hp Yamaha kicker. He lowered three weighted mooching rigs, propped the rods in Scotty holders and followed the contour of a shallow ledge that dropped from seven to 13 feet.
A high tide at 4:30 a.m. meant we'd fish the first of the outgoing. Chilly, 54-degree ocean water still lingered well inside the estuary. A pink sunrise silhouetted the coastal mountains; I watched the colors change as the starboard rod bent and a chunky coho salmon brightened our day. Martin showed us where the coho's adipose fin - the tiny fin atop the fish's back toward the tail - had been removed, marking it as hatchery-reared and legal to keep.
For a short time - against a backdrop of green peaks and gathering clouds - we fished in relative solitude and racked up four coho: the calm before the afternoon storm at Buoy 10.
Each summer, Pacific Northwest anglers anxiously await the opening of the coho and chinook salmon fisheries in the renowned Columbia, a particularly mighty river that drains a basin covering seven western states and one Canadian province. The Columbia delineates much of the Washington/Oregon border; in 1805, it became the Pacific terminus for the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The river's mouth, marked by the aforementioned Buoy 10, features a treacherous bar that humbles the best captains yet calls to more than a million ocean-run salmon throughout the region. Chinook, or king, salmon pulse into the river at different times from spring through fall. Coho, or silver, salmon make their final fatal spawning migration en masse in the late summer/early fall.
Harvest rules change each year. In August 2009, we were allowed to keep two salmon a day - either two hatchery coho or one hatchery coho and one wild or fin-clipped chinook. From Sept. 1 through Dec. 31, the bag remained at two, but all chinook and wild coho had to be released.
Each spring, fishery managers open a separate chinook-only season in the Columbia. But most of that action takes place upriver rather than in the estuary - designated as the Buoy 10 Management Zone - the scene of the summer/fall frenzy.
In fall "there's a large number of chinook and coho entering the river," says Martin, who served as Oregon's chief of fisheries before joining Berkley. "They begin shutting down their feeding mechanisms as they reach the warm (66degree) river water and switch over to metabolized oils and fats. The fish know that, so they try to top their tanks off and go into a major feeding frenzy as they enter the river. This is the last cold water they'll encounter before they shut down and go upriver."