Bass, Walleye, Catfish, Trout, Salmon, and Steelhead are the fish species you can find in the Columbia River Gorge. The following is a description of each major fishery and includes when, where and how to make your fishing adventure a successful one.
Trout and Warmwater Fish
The early summer Trout action is excellent on many lowland lakes located near the Columbia River, which are stocked annually with thousands of hungry Trout. The most popular lakes on the Washington side of the big river, from west to east, include Kidney Lake (located near Old Bonneville and north of Highway 14), Ash Lake (the small lake located just east of the Bridge of the Gods), Tunnel Lake (just east of “no-trout” Drano Lake), Northwestern Reservoir, Rowland, Spearfish (north of The Dalles), and Horsethief. Some, like Rowland Lake, are planted with a mixture of 9 to 11 inch hatchery planters along with a generous supply of what the state calls “trophy trout”, which can reach 20 inches or more.
In Oregon, try Taylor Lake, which is located at the west end of The Dalles and visible from I-84. Located in the Hood River valley are Lawrence Lake, Lost Lake and Kingsley Lake (also known as Green Point Reservoir). These lakes too are stocked with catchable trout.
If you’re a bank-bound angler interested in a limit of Trout, try casting and plunking (still fishing) Berkley PowerBait. Besides rod, reel and line, you will need a jar of moldable PowerBait (now available in a high potency “Gulp!” Trout Bait formula), a few one quarter-ounce oval-egg sinkers, size 10 swivels, three or four-pound test leader and size 16 treble hooks.
To rig, thread your main line through one of your oval-egg sinkers (which should remain free sliding on your line) and tie to a barrel-swivel. Then attach a few feet of leader and your small treble hook. The idea of the free-sliding sinker is to allow the Trout to swim off with your bait (make sure to leave some slack in you line so they can do this) and swallow it before you set the hook.
Lastly, form a ball of PowerBait or Gulp! Trout Bait around your hook and cast the works out into the lake. The idea is to make your PowerBait dough-ball large enough, about the size of a dime, to float your small treble hook above the bottom so cruising trout can find it.
If you have a boat, try slow trolling a Berkley Power Nymph or 3-inch Berkley Trout Worm, both are molded plastic shapes (scent filled plastic) containing the same scent as the PowerBait dough. You can find success trolling your nymph or worm imitation by threading it on a size 6 or 8 single hook (your worm should be rigged to run straight) and add one size 5 split shot 20 to 30 inches up your line, which will enable your worm to get down a few feet into the water column.
This same outfit can produce dramatic success when cast and retrieved. The key to success here is to work the power nymph or worm slowly back to you and twitch it a few times on the way by lifting and lowering your rod tip. Keep in mind that 3 or 4 pound test mono works best for this method, as its use allows for longer casts and a more natural presentation.
The Trout action on the lowland lakes mentioned will remain productive through early June or until the water temperatures warm enough to put the Trout off the bite. If your wellbeing requires more Trout action, try switching your focus to one of the high-mountain lakes, which remain cold through summer, or cool running rivers like the Deschutes.
Warm water species like Bass, Catfish, Bluegill and Crappie are available all summer in most lowland lakes, ponds and the Columbia River itself. Unlike Trout, these fish turn on as water temperatures warm. The same Trout Worm outfit mentioned above will produce as will other critter-looking shapes having the Powerbait or Gulp! fish-attracting scent. Oregon’s John Day River is the regional favorite for Smallmouth Bass and Catfish, especially in the flat-water section located just upstream from where the John Day River enters the Columbia.
Record size Walleye are available in the Columbia. One of the most productive places to try your luck is just downstream from the John Day Dam. If you have a boat, try trolling deep-diving minnow imitations or spinner harnesses tipped with a PowerBait or a Gulp! worm near bottom in 12 to 15 feet of water. Jigging with half ounce jigs or blade-baits will produce fat Walleye too.
Biologists are expecting over 300,000 summer-run Steelhead to ascend the Columbia River before fall. The majority of these fish were produced in hatcheries and released for sport and tribal harvest. Some of the native fish are in low abundance, but surplus hatchery fish await you and can be identified from the native spawners by their missing adipose fin. (This is the small back fin located between the dorsal and tail fin.) Remember; all native Steelheads caught must be released unharmed.
Columbia River Summer Steelheads are divided into three basic groups, each arriving at different times. The first group, known as the “Skamania” strain, start returning to local rivers during May and June. You will find these acrobatic fish in the lower Hood, White Salmon, and Klickitat Rivers. Be aware that the season on the Klickitat River doesn't open until June 1.
The other runs of Steelhead, known as “A” and “B” run fish, travel to tributaries farther up the Columbia, starting with Oregon’s Deschutes River. The “A” run fish (average 4-to-10 pounds) start passing the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam the first week of July, while the “B” run (average 8-to-16 pounds) begin migrating through the Columbia Gorge during September.
In August, when the Columbia’s water temperature warms past the comfort level for Steelheads, finding cool water will be a major priority for these fish. Many (sometimes nearly all) of the upriver-bound fish will be found holding where the colder tributaries enter the big river, many will stay in or at the mouths of tributary streams until the big river cools in late September, at which time they will resume their upstream journey.
Expect to find hungry Steelheads holding in or off the mouths of Herman Creek (near Cascade Locks), Wind, Drano Lake, White Salmon, Klickitat, Deschutes and John Day rivers. Trolling plugs is a popular method for boaters in, or near, tributary mouths. If you try the Deschutes mouth, keep in mind that you cannot fish from a floating devise upstream of the freeway bridge. You can launch at either Heritage Landing (located on the west side of the river just inside its mouth; doing this requires you to obtain a Deschutes Boaters Pass) or at the Celilo Park ramp, which is located three miles west of the Deschutes mouth and not far from the freeway exit with the same name.
Most popular trolling lures for Steelhead include small sized Bagley or Brad's Wiggler style lure. Troll these plugs fifty-to-seventy feet behind your boat from 1 to 2 mph. Upstream trolling is the most effective where the Deschutes enters the Columbia. You can also try slow trolling medium sized Flatfish lures. Some anglers add a split shot (or two) a few feet up the line. And, you can greatly add to your success by tipping these lures with a 3-inch PowerBait Trout Worm.
For daily conditions at the John Day or Deschutes mouth call Jim at Dinty's Market 541-739-2236.
Tributary Steelhead Action
Does a whitewater trip in a powerboat excite you? If so, book a guided trip up the Deschutes River, where you can get away from the beaten path and toss lure or fly for native Trout or Steelhead. The Deschutes is Oregon’s number one Steelhead producer, offering action from July through October. There is no road access along the lower 25 miles, so you must either walk, mountain bike or boat in. If you are interested in a fly-fishing trip on this famed river call Travis Duddles, Gorge Fly Shop, 541-386-6977.
If you desire a quiet float boat trip down a scenic Northwest river for Trout, Steelhead, or Salmon think about booking a drift trip on the Klickitat River. Best time for Steelhead is June through October, September for Chinook Salmon. The Klickitat is a glacier fed stream, which can muddy during hot weather time periods. When the weather cools and the river first turns from brown to green is when the fishing turns on for anglers visiting this free-flowing tributary.
Columbia River Salmon Season Opens August 1st
The last big run of native salmon, known as “up river bright” Fall Chinook, migrate through this section of the Columbia during August and September. Biologists expect this year’s return come in near the 10-year average of 250,000 salmon. Not surprisingly, these fish are bound for and will eventually spawn in the last free-flowing section of the Columbia River known as the “Hanford Reach.”
Like Summer Steelheads, returning Chinooks hold off tributary mouths for a cool water breather from the warm Columbia. Boaters find success using several techniques. One popular method is to forward troll large Flatfish/Kwikfish style plugs near bottom. To rig for this, attach a five-foot leader and eighteen-inch weight dropper line off a salmon-size spreader. You can improve your success by adding a Gulp! Steelhead Worm to the trailing hook - just thread one hook point into the head of your Gulp! worm so it extends straight behind your salmon-size plug.
According to biologists, the number of Coho Salmon expected to pass Bonneville Dam could number near 40,000 this year. Those that pass Bonneville Dam will be heading mostly to Drano Lake and the Klickitat River. September and October is when they’ll be the most numerous. If you have a boat or access to one, try trolling medium-size plugs tipped with a 3" Berkley scent-filled Trout Worm.
These fisheries include just a few of the main attractions. If your fishing adventure does not include a guide, review local regulations carefully. Remember an angling license is required for all over 14 years of age. If your trip includes Salmon or Steelhead you will need the appropriate tag, regardless of age.
Also, if you visit a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife access site you will need a “Vehicle Use Permit” placed on the dashboard of your vehicle. The permit is available free to anyone who buys an annual Washington fishing or hunting license.