Columbia River Fishing: All You Need to Know
May 27, 2021 | 9 minute read
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Looking to experience some of the finest angling action the Pacific Northwest has to offer? There’s no better place to cast a line than in the region’s longest waterway. We’re talking about heading out on a Columbia River fishing adventure, of course!

A view of the Columbia River on a sunny day with mountains in the foreground and background

Starting in British Columbia’s Rocky Mountains, this world-class fishery flows for over 1,200 miles through the states of Washington and Oregon before finally emptying out into the Pacific Ocean. Bustling with some of North America’s most iconic game fish, it boasts multiple Salmon runs, excellent Steelhead fishing, the chance to battle prehistoric beasts, and plenty of tasty table fare.

The final cherry on top of the cake is the stunning scenery that surrounds the Columbia River. We’re talking wild forests, majestic mountains, and cascading waterfalls. If you’re looking for breathtaking beauty, you’ll find it in abundance. Before you head out on your fishing adventure, however, you probably want to know a little more about the fish you can catch here – and how you can catch ’em. Let’s dive in…

What can I catch in the Columbia River?

As we mentioned, the Columbia River holds some pretty prestigious fish species. Not only that, but it holds a huge number of each of them! No matter whether you want to battle potential trophy species, get some good eatin’ fish, or chase reel-spinners, there’s plenty on offer.

Salmon

We couldn’t start off our list with any other species! Fishing the Columbia River is pretty synonymous with Salmon-chasing action. Centuries ago, natives living along the riverbanks thrived off of these fish. They still play a big part in keeping the region’s population well-fed. With Chinook, Coho, and Sockeye varieties all on offer, it’s easy to see why this species has remained such an integral part of the river’s fishing scene.

A man holds a large Chinook Salmon on board a charter with the river and greenery in the background

Each Salmon has its own unique quirks, meaning that these fish are exciting to target for different reasons. The mighty Chinook, also known as “King Salmon,” is a serious hard-fighter. So much so, it’s often likened to a freight train hitting your line! The Coho is smaller in stature but provides excellent angling action pound-for-pound, often making acrobatic leaps out of the water. The Sockeye, by comparison, is known for being the tastiest out of all the Salmon varieties.

The Columbia River sees a total of five annual Salmon runs. Three are reserved for Chinook, whereas Coho and Sockeye see one run each, so your chances of a Salmon encounter are pretty high year-round. Spring Chinook enter the river in March, followed by huge summer Chinook a few months later. These species are often known as “June Hogs,” thanks to their impressive size.

A man holds a large spring Chinook Salmon on a sunny day with the river behind him

Late summer and early fall are considered to be the river’s peak Salmon fishing season. Chinook, Coho, and Sockeye enter these waters in their droves in August and stick around until October. No matter when you visit the river for some Salmon chasing, you’ll likely be sticking to that tried-and-true technique of trolling with spinners and roe clusters – with some local tweaks, of course!

Steelhead

Next up on our list is the “Silver Bullet,” beloved by anglers for the challenge it provides. Also known as Rainbow Trout, this fish makes its way into the Columbia River every summer and winter. In addition to these two runs, the Columbia River also boasts a population of hatchery Steelhead. This means you’ll have ample opportunity to cast a line for ’em during most of the calendar year.

Two men stand on a boat on a river holding a Steelhead

This fish can be pretty elusive, which makes hooking one all the more rewarding. If you’re new to Steelhead fishing on the Columbia River, try out a favored local technique as you get to grips with this fish. Tie a weighted jig or bait below a floating bobber and drift it into the current. From there, it’s a waiting game until your target decides to bite! You’ll also be able to drift fish, spin, and even fly fish for this species, depending on your skill level.

Steelhead can be found all throughout the Columbia River, with a large number concentrated in the lower stretch. Peak season takes place here between May and August. The lower river’s many tributaries, such as the Cowlitz, Lewis, and Kalama see impressive amounts of Steelies during this time. Plan your trip either early in the morning or late in the evening, when this fish is most active as it tries to hide from the sun!

Sturgeon

The third fish on our list is a prehistoric monster that, for anglers in the know, really needs no introduction. The Columbia River is one of the few places in the US where large and in charge White Sturgeon can be found in strong numbers. Visit at the right time, usually around May, and not only will you get the chance to engage in battle – you’ll be able to catch and keep your very own ancient beast.

A man and a woman stand on a charter boat holding a Sturgeon with the river behind them

Its meat may be delicious but, even if you’re not fishing for keeper Sturgeon, you won’t be missing out. The battle itself is what makes encountering this fish so special! In the Columbia River, Sturgeon can grow up to 12 feet in length, weighing hundreds of pounds. No matter whether you encounter a huge beast or a fish on the smaller side, you’ll be treated to an astonishing fight that usually involves leaps out of the water and plenty of thrashing around.

This fish is a bottom feeder, and is especially drawn to live bait – the smellier, the better. Sardines, herring, lamprey, and any fish with a strong odor will work wonders. When it comes to targeting Sturgeon, the technique itself is pretty easy. Simply anchor up and drop your line down. The tough part starts when your fish chooses to bite – get ready to flex those arm muscles!

And More!

A man sits on a charter boat holding a Walleye with the river behind him

The three species we highlighted above make up the majority of the Columbia River’s fishing scene. But they’re not all you can target here, though. The Bonneville Dam area is known for its excellent Sturgeon and Salmon fishing action, but it also boasts Smallmouth Bass, Walleye, and Channel Catfish. Perfect if you’re looking to hook into something tasty! Elsewhere in the river, you’ll be able to target Shad and even more Walleye.

How can I fish the Columbia River?

Local anglers tend to stick to pretty traditional techniques when it comes to getting their fish on. We’ve covered some of the most popular ways to fish the Columbia River below.

On a Boat

Because of its majestic size, the most popular way to explore the Columbia River is on a boat. Hop aboard a vessel with a local charter guide, and you’ll be able to navigate your way to the hotspots and follow your target fish. Your guide will come armed with plenty of knowledge, as well as top fishing gear. Even better, you’ll find charters dotted all along the banks of the river, especially around bigger cities such as Portland or Astoria.

Charter boats docked in a marina along the Columbia River with mountains in the background

Depending on who you fish with, the type of boat you’ll be casting a line from may differ. Drift boats are common here as they allow you to cruise down the river with the current. Because of this, they’re the perfect choice for some fly fishing action. If you’re going to be trolling these waters, you’ll likely step foot on a sportfishing vessel that’s capable of higher speeds. That way, you can chase Salmon and Steelhead to your heart’s content!

On Foot

If you want to get back to the basics of freshwater fishing, what could be better than setting up your gear along the banks of this waterway? Yep, you don’t need a vessel to explore the Columbia River’s excellent angling opportunities. There’s a number of places you can fish from on foot, with the many dams being especially popular hotspots, as well as local parks. The set-up is pretty simple, too – local anglers usually rely on a surf road paired with a bobber.

A man sits on the rocky banks of the Columbia River on a sunny day casting a line into the water

One thing to be aware of when bank fishing is that you’ll likely need to move around a bit to follow your target fish. If you’re a newer angler, this can be frustrating! Hopping aboard a charter means you can lean on your guide’s expert knowledge about this area and fish patterns. More experience under your belt? Then you’ll get a real thrill out of switching up your spots, especially when your target catch finally bites.

Where can I fish the Columbia River?

A view of the Columbia River coursing through Bonneville Dam
Bonneville Dam
  • Portland, OR: One of Oregon’s most popular cities, Portland doesn’t just boast excellent on-land entertainment. Perfectly positioned along the banks of the Columbia River, it’s also a fantastic place to cast your line for Salmon and Steelhead! Visit during March for spring Chinook, or take advantage of its summer and winter Steelhead runs.
  • Bonneville Dam: Located just 40 miles east of Portland, this famous fishery deserves a mention of its own. It’s famous throughout the Pacific Northwest due to its excellent Salmon and Steelhead fishing opportunities, but that’s not all. Jumbo-sized White Sturgeon inhabit these waters, as well as Walleye and Smallmouth Bass. It’s an excellent spot to cast a line from on foot, thanks to nature parks such as Washington’s Beacon Rock.
  • Astoria, OR: Anglers flock to this city to explore the world-famous Buoy 10 fishery. Located at the meeting point of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, this area allows visitors to target huge streams of fish as they pass through. Target Chinook early in the season and Coho late in the season, which usually runs between March and September.
  • John Day Dam: Located around an hour east of Portland, this dam boasts huge numbers of Walleye. The season starts in late February and runs until July, with plenty of charter guides making their way to this stretch of the river during these months. If you’d rather go it alone, the dam is also an excellent bank fishing hotspot.
  • Willamette River: This major tributary is well worth a visit for you Sturgeon hunters. Head to the area below St. Johns Bridge, towards the river mouth. You’ll find plenty of these prehistoric beasts lurking around the docks and the grain barges. Portland Harbor, located at the mouth of the Willamette, offers unbeatable Sturgeon action from December–March.

Anything else I need to know?

A photo of a hand-painted shop sign reading "Bait and Tackle Fishing License"

As the Columbia River spans both Oregon and Washington, you’ll need to purchase a license from the state you’ll be fishing in. If you’re fishing in Oregon, you can read our handy guide to getting a license here. Basically, any angler aged 12 or above needs a license to fish here, as well as a Columbia River Basin Endorsement.

Fishing from Washington? If you’re over the age of 15, you’ll need to purchase a valid license. Although Washington doesn’t have an equivalent of Oregon’s Columbia River Basin Endorsement, your license will come with a catch record card. You must record any fish you catch on it, have it with you at all times, and return it after your trip.

Some sections of the Columbia River are subject to strict fishing regulations, so make sure you keep up to date with any new rules the ODFW implements. Salmon, Steelhead, and Sturgeon all have open and closed seasons. You can find out more about them from your guide or the ODFW website.

Columbia River Fishing: The Best of the Pacific Northwest!

The Columbia River has been woven into the fabric of the Pacific Northwest’s culture for centuries. Along with its tributaries, it provides food, water, and even electricity to this region’s many inhabitants. On top of that, it also offers up some of North America’s most fantastic fishing opportunities.

A view of the Columbia River at sunset with mountains and trees

Whether you want to chase Salmon, battle prehistoric monsters, or outsmart your very own Steelhead, it’s all on offer in this beautiful corner of the world. Grab your rods and reels and get ready to explore the “River of the West!”

Have you ever been on a Columbia River fishing trip? What did you catch? Any tips or tricks to share? Let us know in the comments below!

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