Columbia River Salmon Fishing: An Ultimate Guide
Aug 25, 2021 | 8 minute read
Reading Time: 8 minutes

The Columbia River is the largest waterway in the Pacific Northwest, but that’s not the only thing that’s brag-worthy about it. It’s also home to some world-famous fish. And top of the list? Salmon, of course! Chasing this species on a Columbia River Salmon fishing adventure has achieved legendary status among anglers. It’s no surprise that visitors flock from all over North America to experience it.

Two male anglers and one female angler stand aboard a charter boat on the Columbia River holding a Chinook Salmon

As well as boasting 1,000+ miles of water, the Columbia River is home to multiple varieties of this species and sees a whopping five Salmon runs each year. This means that you have ample opportunity to target these fish – and plenty of water to cast a line in. Before you grab your rods and reels and head out to this fishing mecca, you probably have a few questions. Which Salmon, exactly, are on offer here? And how can you go about catching ’em?

Don’t worry – we’ve covered all of this and more below, so you’ll be fully prepared to head out on the Salmon fishing adventure of your dreams. Without further ado, let’s dive in…

What Salmon can I target on the Columbia River?

Chinook Salmon

We had to start off our list with Salmon royalty! Also known as “Kings,” Chinook are definitely the cream of the crop when it comes to the Columbia River’s fishing scene. These waters are graced by three Chinook runs each year and boast some of the biggest and tastiest variations in the world.

Chinook Salmon season generally kicks off in March, when the spring run enters the river. These fish usually average between 15–25 pounds, and while they may not be the biggest specimens around, they’re often considered the best for eating! A visit during this time is a must if you want to potentially take home something tasty for the table.

An angler holding a Chinook Salmon on a fishing charter in Oregon

The season continues through summer, with the second run of Kings entering these waters in June. They reach huge sizes, usually between 40–50 pounds, and are known as “June Hogs” because of this. Their size means that the action they put up on the end of a line is even more noticeable, so get ready for some hard fighting!

The final run takes place in the fall, usually beginning in August. Returning Chinook make their way from the ocean into the Columbia River. These specimens are the perfect combination of big (usually 25–50 pounds) and delicious. No matter when you visit, the most popular way to fish for Chinook is by trolling the river, although some local anglers prefer to bounce roe clusters off the bottom of the riverbed.

Coho Salmon

This species of Salmon may not grow as big as Chinook, but they put up an incredible fight pound-for-pound. Coho are beloved by anglers along the Columbia River for their acrobatic leaps – so much so that their numbers have declined over time. That doesn’t mean you can’t target them, though, although we’d recommend catching and releasing your fish.

Unlike Chinook, the Columbia River sees only one run of Coho Salmon, occurring during the fall. They make their way from the ocean along the river, and can be found in especially large numbers around the Bonneville Dam. During this time of year, they’re at their biggest and toughest, which means trolling is a popular technique. It allows you to get a handle on your opponent but still experience rod-bending action!

Two men hold two Coho Salmon on a charter boat with the water behind them

That’s not the only way to fish for Coho, though. Using light tackle is also a favored way to reel ’em in. It really allows you to feel the action these fish cause at the end of a line. They’re especially attracted to live or cut herring and sardines, no matter whether you’re trolling or spinning.

And More…

When it comes to Salmon fishing along the Columbia River, it’s fair to say that Chinook and Coho are the species that everyone’s talking about. But that doesn’t mean they’re the only Salmon on offer here! This waterway sees a smaller run of Sockeye during the summer months, and they’re especially plentiful in the Upper Columbia River. They usually grow up to 25 inches, but what they lack in size they make up for in taste.

Columbia River Salmon Fishing Techniques

Before we delve into techniques, it’s important to know that you can target the Columbia River’s impressive Salmon population either from a boat or on foot. One thing to be aware of, though, is this river’s sheer size. Hop on a local fishing charter, and you’ll be able to cover more ground than if you’re setting up your rod on the riverbank. You can also ask your guide to try out some of the techniques below that may seem a little trickier.

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

Trolling

This is by far the most commonly used technique when it comes to chasing Salmon here. It’s easy to see why, too. Trolling allows you to drop multiple lines and cover a larger span of water, which means you’ll get to potentially entice more fish into biting. You’ll need to step aboard a vessel to troll, but it’s well worth it.

One of the most effective ways to lure your target fish into biting is by trolling herring. Some anglers prefer to use the whole bait fish, combining it with a bait clip that has a fin. This allows your bait to move under the water. Other anglers implement cut herring, which spins well in the water and attracts the attention of Salmon. Combine this with a plug to give the appearance of an injured bait fish. If you’re into artificials, you can also troll with spinners.

A charter boat trolls the Columbia River for Salmon at sunset

When it comes to your rods and reels, opt for a longer rod, usually around 9–10 feet. You also want your rod to be able to withstand a lot of weight, so make sure it can handle weights between 12–20 ounces. Pair this with your stand 30 lb monofilament line, which is able to cope with the bite of a big fish, or a 65 lb braided line if you prefer tougher tackle. Salmon like to travel deep, especially large Chinooks, so make sure you have some 12–16 oz weights handy!

Spinning

“Spinning” has become somewhat of a catch-all term for any fishing technique that involves your basic rod, reel, and a casting motion. This means there’s a variety of ways for you to experience it! A popular technique among Columbia River Salmon anglers is plunking. When using this method, the aim is to cast your line in an area that is on your Salmon of choice’s migratory route and wait it out.

Plunking involves setting up an 8–9′ extra-heavy rod, paired with a 40–60 lb braided line topped off with bait fish. A kwikfish lure wrapped in herring is a popular choice. You’ll need a three-way swivel, which will let you add your lure or bait fish on one side and your weight on the other.

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

This weight can be anywhere between 2–10 lbs. Your 40–60 lb line will be your main “tie” line to the swivel, with a snap link tied to the end of it. You can then add a 12–15 lb dropper line of about 15-20 inches. Add a snap link to the end of this, too, and you’re good to go. If you’d rather use monofilament for your main line, opt for the 25-pound mark.

You can also choose to backbounce. This technique generally takes place from a boat, which allows you to reach deep waters. It involves using a medium-heavy 8–9′ rod, usually a specific model made for backbouncing or “hovering.” Pair this with braided line weighing between 30–50 pounds.

When it comes to the setup, you’ll want to attach a swivel to your main line. Then, attach a 3–5′ leader weighing between 25–60 pounds. Finally, tie a 6–25″ test line weighing around 12 pounds that will function as your dropper line, with a dropper or cannonball-style sinker at the end. You can use whatever bait or lure you prefer, but roe clusters are especially successful. From there, cast your line until you feel your dropper or sinker hit the riverbed!

Where can I go Salmon fishing on the Columbia River?

With Salmon varieties inhabiting the majority of the Columbia River, there isn’t really a bad place to start your angling adventure. However, depending on when you visit, stretches of the river may be closed for fishing, so make sure you check with the Wildlife and Fishery department of your chosen state first. Here are a few of our favorite Salmon-chasing locations to get you started…

A straight-on view of the Bonneville Dam with the mountain in the background and the river in the foreground
Bonneville Dam
  • Buoy 10: Located at the meeting point of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, this fishery is famous for its Salmon fishing opportunities. It’s subject to closed seasons but is generally open for fishing in the fall. August tends to be the best time for large Chinook, whereas Coho are strong through late August–September.
  • Bonneville Dam: If Buoy 10 takes first place when it comes to the Columbia River’s best fishing spots, then Bonneville Dam is a close second. Spring fishing for Chinook is especially popular here, but as with Buoy 10, make sure you’re aware of open and closed seasons in this area.
  • Portland, OR: As well as being one of the most famous cities in the Pacific Northwest, Portland is also where the Columbia and Willamette Rivers meet. What does this mean? You’ll get to enjoy Oregon’s two largest spring Chinook runs in one place! These species tend to be the tastiest ones, too.
  • Hanford Reach: Located in the state of Washington, this free-flowing section of the Columbia River boasts excellent Salmon action. Fall is the most popular time to target Chinook, with the months of September and October being especially plentiful.

Anything else I need to know?

The local rules and regulations, of course. No matter whether you’re exploring the river from Oregon or Washington, you’ll need a fishing license to legally cast a line here.

A vintage red and yellow bait and tackle sign against a brick wall

Oregon takes conservation very seriously, which means any angler age 12 or above needs to purchase a license before fishing here. You’ll also need to purchase a Columbia River Basin Endorsement, usually at an additional cost. You can read more in our handy guide to legally fishing in Oregon.

Getting a license in Washington differs slightly. The age limit is higher, with anglers age 15 and above needing to possess a valid license. Rather than purchasing an additional endorsement, your license will come with a catch record card to track your harvest. You must keep this with you at all times, log any catches, and return it to the Washington Department of Wildlife by the specified deadline.

Columbia River Salmon Fishing: A Truly Legendary Adventure

The Columbia River is pretty synonymous with Salmon fishing. This species has been the bread and butter of this waterway, as well as its many local communities, for centuries. Where better to begin your Salmon chasing adventure than in a locale that has so much history with this fish? It’s time to grab your rods and reels and come experience Salmon fishing the Columbia River way!

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

Have you ever fished along the Columbia River for Salmon? Any tips, tricks, or favorite hotspots to share with us? Let us know in the comments below!

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